Read, To Promote World Peace

In my current Caribbean Literature course, my students and I just finished reading V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. I’ve loved this book since I was in high school. In some ways, it was surreal to be using the same copy I read back at home, while teaching at a state university I never knew existed until just a few years ago. The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

Lincoln, Nebraska is not your grandmother’s holiday destination. In the public eye, especially to folks in the North East or the West coast, this is the middle of nowhere. Literally. And there may be some truth to that. Whenever I’m in Kenya, friends and family always ask me where I currently reside. In college, when I said I lived in Pennsylvania, that made sense. Miami was the cause of envy during my stay there for graduate school. I’d often get concerns about how I was EVER able to study while living so close to the beach and all the debauchery that Hollywood portrays about South Florida. None of that happens now that I’ve moved to Lincoln. More often people are just confused about where on the U.S. map they’d locate  Nebraska. For me though, what’s most remarkable is that there’s always something familiar about the unknown.

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The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

We read Naipaul’s Miguel Street but we didn’t simply turn pages. We also listened to Calypso by Harry Belafonte and Calypso Rose. The novel has so many allusions to music it would have been crazy not to. Looking to better understand how humor works in Trinidad, we watched drama by Learie Joseph on YouTube. We engaged with Trinidad and Tobago’s history vis-a-vis Caribbean institutions of slavery, the production of sugar and rum, and foreign occupation. This last one came under many forms: Spanish, Dutch, and French dominion, British colonialism, and even American military installations during WWII. In other words, we approached “reading” from a very expansive point of view. My intent was to make familiar a small island nation in the Caribbean that most students may not have previously heard of. And for those who had, this was more often under familiar narratives of tourism–and the paradise waiting to be discovered in Trinidad–or third world poverty–and the hungry, naked children in need of western charity. Rarely would western media highlight the creativity in the region: poets, musicians, or even Carnival attendees.

It’s easy for me to find commonalities with strangers. As a child, I grew up plugged in to a diverse range of global cultural production. While I physically didn’t leave Kenya until I was 18, for years before that I’d intellectually explored North America, Britain and parts of continental Europe, India, Australia, and South Africa. How did this happen? By reading.

Growing up, whatever disposable income my family had was geared towards funding our education. And even then it was often not enough. Hence, toys were mostly out of the question. I got a bright red tricycle when I was three. Once I out grew that, that was the end of me having a bike at home. I loved wristwatches. To get one, however, I’d often have to bargain with my mother, and the purchase was conditional upon me performing really well at school. Our TV set was a 14″ black and white tube for the longest time. But even though toys and cool electronic gadgets were rare at home, the trappings of middle class respectability that really got me green with envy were BOOKS.

I especially loved detective stories. And Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was absolutely at the top of that list. Following the adventures of four kids and a dog solving crime in the English countryside left me feeling like I’d just travelled with them. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys had the same effect. Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college. I crisscrossed Europe with TinTin’s eponymous protagonist, his pet dog Snowy, and his occasional companions: the Captain and the two professors. Right alongside Asterix and Obelix, two cartoon characters, I fought colonizing 1st century Romans, rooting for the Gauls. Obviously.

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Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college.

Reading such a wide range of stories was great. It was, as I’ve also come to discover, terribly one-sided. Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color. Between the two of them, these authors wrote an America that was white-washed to the extreme! Unintentionally, on their part, that glaring omission actually speaks volumes. It is wholly representative of how the American nation has historically reacted to communities of color. But in some ways The Adventures of Tintin was actually worse. Belgian Cartoonist Georges Remi DID feature Native Americans and even Congolese Africans in his work. But these appearances were soaked in racial stereotypes. “Red Indians” attempted to scalp Tintin, while big-lipped Congolese savages cooked him in a pot.

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Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color.

India featured large in my childhood. There were Asians in Nairobi shops, some of whom were newly-emigrated, but many of whom were third and fourth generation Kenyans. But even more exciting were Bollywood films on national TV every Sunday afternoon. Yes, these movies were sappy, and the characters broke into song every ten minutes. But the storylines were great. Recreations of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, had small boys naming themselves Hanuman and re-creating the struggle to save Sita during lunch break at school. There was much that was strange about this cinema, but there was so much more that we found intriguing and cool. India might have been far away, but it was portrayed to seem much closer. Perceptions of distance shrunk. Home and Away, an Australian TV show broadcast the land Down Under straight into my living room on weekday evenings.

Reading will not singlehandedly stop WWIII. But fiction, music, cinema, poetry and a range of other cultural artifacts are a great way to begin conversations with “strangers.” Reading, widely defined, inspires the imagination. We begin to seek new connections that emphasis curiosity over prejudice, understanding over antagonism. Reading is not an end by itself, but it’s a pretty good first step. White Allies of the BLM movement have been directed to online reading lists. Reading might seem passive and solitary, but regimes that ban literature know this is absolutely not true. Reading can also mobilize communities of resistance. So go on, find a book, song, or film from a place you know absolutely nothing about, and make the strange familiar. Alternatively, dig a little deeper into someone, something, or somewhere you know pretty well, and discover aspects of their existence you’d never imagined. Make the familiar strange.

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Beating the Odds

I loved beating the odds. In the first semester of Form 3 (grade 11), I’d missed an incredible number of classes due to an illness. My right leg had gotten infected with an ulcer, and it got so bad I couldn’t walk to school. I took myself to a subsidized medical clinic attached to a Hindu temple right behind the Nairobi Kenya Bus terminal. The nurse on duty helped me to wash the wound using hydrogen peroxide. The wound oozed and steamed. I nearly fainted from disgust. But this intense wound cleaning session did not help. The ulcer kept on eating into my calf muscles and nerves. I was soon using a walking stick to get around. Not only was the wound smelly and dripping pus, hence very annoying, it was also incredibly painful.

 

I believe this was my body’s way of mourning my Grandma’s death. Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids. As the eldest, it was also her responsibility to educate her younger siblings, and hook them up with permanent employment. #blacktax Somewhere along the way, she’d also started smoking. Fast forward to 2000, and all that nicotine had come back to haunt her, in a big way. The destruction in her lungs started off as a dry cough. She saw a general practitioner who misdiagnosed it as TB. 18 months later, grandma had lost weight – and she was already pretty slim to begin with. Her appetite was gone, and even when she could eat, she’d barely keep any of it down.

It got so bad that Mother moved Grandma to our house, closer to medical specialists in Nairobi. I watched her body betray her, helpless and horrified. This dry-skinned emaciated figure sitting across from me in our living room had no resemblance to the smiling woman who always visited bringing passion fruit and guavas for my sisters and I. When Grandma visited, she took over my room; and it was always such a pleasure. With her in town, my parents and I would spend the evenings seated around a jiko in our kitchen, warming our legs and yarning tales. Those were good times. In her current form, Grandma had no energy to draw up a chair and talk long into the night. Her illness had turned her into a recluse who spent most of her time indoors, lying on my bed.
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Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids.

From bad to worse. By the time Grandma sought help, there was little that could be done except alleviate her pain and wait for the end. My parents got her admitted at a Dagoretti hospital that focused on respiratory health. This was on a Tuesday and she’d been doing pretty well since Sunday. It seemed like there might be hope, after all. False promises. Father says that once Grandma got into the ward and was shown to her bed, she accepted this new development resignedly. Totally makes sense. Grandma was a very private person. When on errands to buy her cigarettes I was always under strict instructions to come right back, and most definitely not to share this info with my rather loud-mouthed cousins. And come to think of it, although she’d spend several days when she visited Ngong, and I’m sure she’d sneak out for a ciggy, I never saw her do it. And she made pretty sure neither did my sisters. For her to then be left at the mercy of government health workers would have been detestable.
Mom and dad went back the next day to check in on her. Turns out her improvement had been anything but; she’d passed on later that night. By the time Mother got back home with the news, a bunch of ladies from the neighborhood had stopped by, just to check in. Before she could break the news to them, Mother had to tell me first. So we’re all seated in the living room, and Mother is asking me to step outside for a minute. I don’t put two and two together, so I’m actually kinda pissed. It’s a hell of a pain to hobble around on my right leg, ulcer and all, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why she’s insisting I go through with this. I limped my way through the kitchen and into the yard, and it’s then that Mother broke the news. Grandma was gone. I could only picture granny fallen on the ground, and struggling to get up. That chronic illness had taken away the matriarch I loved long before, this was simply the last, inevitable, blow. But it was still impossible to let go.
Numbed, I followed Mother back indoors. She relayed the sad news to our neighbors. It was now all about funeral arrangements. We had people drop by in the evenings, but it was not a full-on wake. There was no fire blazing; no night vigil with hymns, plus the occasional drunk. There was a constant river of tea, and an exercise book where funeral donations were carefully noted, but there weren’t any plates of boiled, salted maize and beans passed around at midnight for well-wishers to snack on. All that was reserved for Grandma’s Juja home.
I never made it to the funeral; my leg wound took care of that. It was raining buckets, and I could not even put on a pair of shoes, let alone the requisite pair or rubber gumboots. From what I hear, digging the grave was a disaster. Not even the customary dish of Ugali accompanied with matumbo was enough compensation for the labor required. This was like digging a well in the middle of the ocean. Drilling an oil rig in the Indian Ocean would have been more fun. Grave diggers had to take frequent breaks to bail water out. Even worse, it rained the previous night before the funeral. And it kept on raining even once the funeral procession got to Juja. The extended family still talks about that rain in awe. Shoes were lost in the black cotton soil. 4WD vehicles gave up the ghost in the middle of swamps. The coffin had to be hand carried the last one kilometer to the house. This was a long, wet day.
I sat at home, thinking farewell to Grandma. When everybody got back home from the funeral, life went on as best it could. There was a void, but such is mortality. I moved back into my room. Mother and I went to see Dr. Wanene – this famous GP who back in the early Nineties had treated by great grandmother. He did nothing more than wash the wound with Dettol and dress it with fresh bandages. He advised I do that twice daily. I was unimpressed. This fellow was telling me the exact thing I’d been doing all along! Surprisingly, Dr. Wanene’s touch was magic. The wound turned around; the flesh at the edges regained a healthy pink glow. It was healing. I still limped, but the pus discharge had abated. I could go back to school. A few weeks later, end of semester exams were due. I did them with no expectations; I’d missed almost half the term. When our final grades were released, it was clear I might have missed classes, but I wasn’t just lying on my ass either. It was a nice ending to what had been a tough three months. Although I’d attended the least number of classes, I walked away with the highest scores. Poetic justice. Or simply Grandma smiling down at me to continue her streak of academic prowess?

A Flurry of Activity, both Academic and Romantic

My last year in high school was a flurry of activity, both academic and romantic. At home, I was making eyes at Eunice and Mercy. Eunice was in college; and being a young professional woman, she was attractive to a lot of guys. Tony and his younger brother were both jostling to ask her out. My only real chance was in the evenings when I went to pick up milk from a local farmer. If I was lucky, I’d have timed my journey at just about the same time Eunice was heading back home. She spent her days at the Nairobi Institute of Business Studies, studying Information Technology. As a kid in high school, she was a role model. And easy on the eyes.

The trick was practicing my Casanova moves on Eunice, without prematurely ending my chances with Mercy. A tough juggling act given that the two women lived on opposite sides of the same street. I was bad at this. Tony, older than me and thus with several more years of flirting experience, beat me at my own game. I didn’t know this then, and it’s not until recently that Tony confessed, but he’d managed to have his cake and eat it, too. He’d spend his afternoons making out with Mercy, only to switch allegiances in the evening – and profess his undying Love for Eunice. He kept the whole act up and running for 3 months. When Eunice came home early one afternoon, and discovered that her and Mercy had actually been sharing details about the same sweetheart, the two dupes combined forces and dumped the T-Man simultaneously.

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The two dupes combined forces and dumped the T-Man simultaneously.

I didn’t have much time for mourning. I was once again in love, and this time it was for real! The lady had an alluring name: Sonia. And her beauty was everything you could imagine someone with such a moniker would possess. And more. She was Indian; so she came with standard issue copper skin, and long flowing black hair. She was a little more bronze than her Indian friends, as though she was racially mixed. I desperately hoped that she was. I figured that if her dad was Kenyan, meaning black, perhaps I had more of a shot. I never found out. I preferred to dream about the subject of my crush from a distance. I did chat with her once or twice, but I was too nervous not to say the wrong thing.

I changed tactics. I decided to approach Sonia through a third party, her friend Lucille. Lucille was gorgeous in her own way, and, thinking back, very personable. She could clearly see that I was smitten, and she did not begrudge me information about my intended. Lucille gave me tips on where Sonia hang out over the weekends, Sarit Center, a new mall that had just come up in Nairobi’s wealthy Westlands. Lucille also suggested ice cream and movies as a possible first date activity. And my heart was willing, but my wallet was weak. Sarit was the kind of place you drove to. Sure, there was public transport available, but it was totally not the same totally. I let my family’s financial background limit my imagination of what I could or could not achieve, and who I could or could not be friends with. Perhaps rashly so. Sonia was a hot cake. Boys were scrambling to woo her. We joked that an angel such as herself never had bowel movements; and if she did, it was only to eject perfect baked chocolate truffles.

There wasn’t much time to mop about Sonia. Our end of year Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams were fast approaching. These were scheduled for mid-October through early November. By June, we’d worked our way through the entire syllabus in most of our classes: Social Ethics, English and Swahili literature, Chemistry, and Maths. We still had a chunk of work to do in Physics. Partly because we’d had to switch teachers in 10th grade. But we soldiered on. In July, we sat for a big exam that mimicked what we’d encountered in our finals. I did well. On our last day of classes, as we embarked on our August school holidays, I went home feeling accomplished. As usual, at 4pm, I went to the bus stop and waited for a number 11 matatu. These plied the Odeon-Highridge/Parklands route. I tried to not be too bothered by the fact that my peers were chauffeured home daily. I’d gotten used to their privilege. And for once, I may have been using public transport, but I was doing so with an impressive array of grades in my back pocket. Boo yeah!

A Series of Unfortunate Crushes

In third grade, Teacher Emily’s class, I sat next to a girl called Virginia. She was so birdlike, I couldn’t help but have a crush on her. She was kinda shy, but also talkative around friends. She expressed herself in little flighty movements. Not quite a damsel in distress, but enough to awaken the knight-in-shining armor within me. Even if just for a minute. Naturally, as a third grader, I sought Virginia’s attention by playing a prank on her. Around this time, canvas book bags were the in thing. These sacks were pretty barebones, but sturdy as hell. They could serve you from Mt. Everest and back, no problem. They were also made in Kenya, so they came in cheap. The downside was that the were no where as colorful as the plastic stuff just beginning to arrive from China. Dull, durable canvas spelt poor, while the fancy but shoddily manufactured imported items signaled money. Virginia’s rucksack was so identical to mine, it wasn’t until you’d used the sucker for a while and stained it that you could differentiate the two items. So, one evening I had the bright idea of swopping her bag with mine. I did the switcheroo just before the end of class, as we came back from Physical Ed in our dusty soccer pitch. Virginia never noticed the difference. Not till she went to pull out her math textbooks for that evening’s homework did she realize what had happened. The next morning I arrived at school earlier than usual, having sufficiently practiced my fake indignation at being pranked. As soon as Teacher Emily walked into the room, I went up to her and explained what had happened. Virginia hadn’t arrived yet, so I got to control the narrative from the start. I explained at length how I believed we’d been pranked by some of the naughty boys, no names mentioned – wink-wink hint-hint – just before the entire class went for PE the previous afternoon. I was generally out of trouble, so Tr. Emily had every reason to accept my version of the events. It was indeed very sad, she agreed, that silly boys had played this prank on us. She excused the fact that neither Virginia nor I had obviously had the chance to complete our homework assignments. I went to my assigned desk and sat down. Although I’d already deposited Virginia’s ruck sack on her chair, I still held onto its perfume scent. I felt that much closer to her for having interacted with her books and her pencil set the night before. That girly smell lingered on my fingers. Virginia finally got to class, and we swopped back our bags. She too expressed her astonishment to Tr. Emily. Unfortunately my prank never truly got us any closer. I never asked Virginia out, and in the end she transferred to another school.

The next year, in fourth grade, I met Asya Changu. Asya had one big thing going for her: she was smart and would often kick my ass in math quizzes. Virginia, while super cute, was not the sharpest blade in the set. So I always had some misgivings about asking her out, dating her, getting married, raising a family, rising in our respective career fields, and just generally being an all-round awesome power couple. Plus, Asya was from the coast; she had that lilting Swahili accent that lulls you into affirming your own emasculation.

“Ewe Kaka, naomba kukukata!”

“Buddy, may I castrate you?”

To which, under the assault of coconut-scented hair oil, long curly eyelashes, henna-ed and manicured long, slim fingers, you’d dreamily nod yes.

“Take me now; I’m all yours! If this is what it takes to enter the inner sanctum of your harem, do it!”

Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places. Of course the problem with meeting the angel of your dreams in real life, is that you’re still mortal. And she is too heavenly. It’s impossible to approach her and make a proposition, in the highly likely event she rejects you, and yet impossible to look away. Instead of getting to know Asya closer, I spent most of my time that school year dreaming about our offspring: these brood of infants who’d be so smart, they’d probably have PhDs by the time they were eighteen. I should have dreamt less, and acted more. In less than three semesters, Asya had transferred to another school; her family had moved and she was no longer my classmate. Bah! I knew this was too good to be true.

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Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places.

Where Asya was ethereal, Peninah, my grade five crush, was only too real in the flesh. Hers was not to conquer the heights of intellect, but rather the baser nature in all pubescent boys. She was curvy and on the cusp of womanhood. She was ripening in a way only fully captured by the Swahili word, Kubhaleghe. It means both a human, and hence utterly expected, physical transition, but one that also unfolds in ways that whet desire and drip with sin. Peninah was baleghe-ing to the full extent of her hormones, and we boys could not have enough of her. To baleghe is not a thing you speak of in polite company; heavens no! You save such titillating details for the whispered exchanges between confidants, preferably in the shadows. We were drawn to Peninah likes bees to honey. Hers was a heady concoction that hit us right below the gut, and we could never have too much. You offered to do Peninah’s homework, or else the rest of your sorry earthly existence was wholly futile. You stood so Peninah could seat, otherwise you deserved to be struck by lighting – after drowning. You stayed alert for the whiff of her perfume, just a hint, to confirm you were still within the realm of the living and had not descended into Hades due to longing and a broken heart.

With Peninah around, you couldn’t think long term. This was neither the time to pen bucket lists, nor to ponder on your future career. How could you, faced with a budding chest, and swinging hips? There was no time for tomorrow. It was all about the present: this smile, this touch, this wink, possibly even this hug; after which you could die in peace. Where Juliet, my arch academic rival, pretended to let me win, Peninah took no prisoners and suffered no fools. She was slaying our adolescent minds long before the concept existed. I envied whoever she spoke to. And I hated any boy who seemed close to her. And while I may not have cried myself to sleep missing her, Peninah’s face was the last thing I saw every night, and the first thing I saw every morning. This went on for three weeks, an eternity for a boy such as myself, who measured time in terms of romantic fantasies. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my heart was smitten by someone else.

Or rather, I should say, two new girls: Irene and Caroline. They were sisters. Irene, the younger one, was in my class. Her sister was a grade above us. I never could fully decide on which one of them to invest my emotional energy. Caroline, being in class eight, was clearly way above my pay grade, but a boy can hope! She was a bad girl before Angelina Jolie. She had this Je n’ai sais quoi elegance about her. She was sometimes rowdy, laughing out loud, messing with the boys. She broke the rules. Her hair was braided in fascinating ways. When we read about Delilah and Jezebel in Christian Religious Education, I empathized with Samson. Against such charms, the sucker had no chance. Whatsoever.  And neither did I. Caroline was only too aware of her looks; she was gorgeous and totally in your face about it. There was to be none of that shy, cute, femininity for this queen. She owned this joint, and did not care who was watching. And the boys loved it. They flocked to her like moths to fire. And I watched as they crashed and burned. We kids in the lower grade gossiped about who was interested in her, who got dissed, and who hang on.

Irene was in the same class as I was. Sometimes we even sat together. Talk about bliss. As a boy, when you get to sit next to your crush it’s butterflies 24/7. You don’t wanna gawk, because then you’re just weird, but you can’t simply play aloof. You want to subtly let her know that you’re interested, but not in a creepy way. Aargh! So many emotions. What a juggling act. You watch her during break to see who she hangs out with. How she comfortably laughs, and teases, with Hilda, her best friend. They whisper to each other. You know it has something to do with using feminine products. They seem embarrassed, but also grown up. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and their bodies are maturing. You’ve learnt about this in Home Science, but it’s an entirely different thing to consider it from the perspective of someone you know. You want to reach out and say it’s OK. How do you step into this circle they’ve created for themselves? This intimacy where they share love letters, delivered through third parties, from forlorn boys in school? Irene has this neon green toy, a slinky. You watch her play with it. She sometimes leaves it on her wrist like a bangle. You envy that cheap Chinese toy; it has felt the kind of physical contact you’d die to experience.

The waiting game is fine, but as often happens, past a certain length the attraction fizzles out. Through the end of primary school, Irene was permanently at the edge of my awareness when it came to girls. She was a rung higher than Mary W., but not as friendly or approachable.

On the other hand, Mary S. was smart, chatty, perhaps even flirtatious with me. And while outwardly polite, she had a rebellious streak deep within her that startled even Mr. Kariuki, one of the strictest teachers we had at Ngong Hills. Karis was being a faculty member, possibly throwing his weight around – mark you most teachers did that. Well, Mary S. had had enough of that crap. She drew a line, Mr. Kariuki stepped over it, and they almost came to blows. Scandalous! A pupil refusing to submit to a teacher’s corporal punishment? What was the world coming to?

Mary’s partner in crime, Silvia, was this lithe cat. She had long Nilotic limbs, the kind you could imagine pharaohs fighting over. She was languid, easy going. Not to say you could mess with her, but rather that she was long suffering. Yet when cornered, she was a formidable foe. She had a strong personality, in the way quiet people do. They don’t talk much, not because they have nothing to say, but because they’re quite content in themselves and have no need to convince anyone. Nor do they need to justify their lives or their choices. Even clothed in thinning school uniform, Silvia was so graceful. If she even went into modelling, she’d be great – so regal!

Sheila, My Love

Sheila was the bane of my existence. I loved her. Deeply, in that teenage boyish fashion. Sheila’s beauty was a little bit physical; she was short, dark, curvy yet lean. Her hair was always tied in a pony tail, blow dried. She mostly wore pants, denim, with a plaid jumper just a size too big. But this simply added to the allure; it made me imagine what lay underneath. Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be. Her eyes had this way of passing over you that left you feeling both the luckiest man alive, and also the sorriest human anywhere! It was bittersweet. It was a drug that I could not get enough of. And I craved for my daily fix: every weekday evening on my way home from school.

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Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be.

After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half. Right next to the tarmac was a government-sponsored water project which in addition to selling portable water to local households, also had a tree and flower nursery going. You could buy trees every rainy season to fulfill your part in the national drive towards reforestation. The plot next to the tree nursery was empty, offering space for events as varied as evangelical Christian crusades, or open-air film screenings courtesy of the Kenya Film Commission. I only attended these night events once or twice, but I knew the routine well: action flick projected onto a white sheet, powered by a rowdy generator. Once the cowboy, or more recently, Kung Fu picture was over, you could expect the violence to migrate from the screen to the audience. Rotten eggs, moldy and smelly vegetables, and sometimes human feces, would fly in between rivals gangs: boys with grand dreams of thug-dom.

Fittingly, the opposite side of the road housed Embulbul’s bastion of peace: the Catholic Church. It was still under construction, a mabati structure that was a sizeable upgrade from the timber church a few blocks down. The congregation had expanded, enough to afford the architecturally ambitious edifice for which we were forever contributing donations and performing funds drives. There was even a 3-D model displayed at the church’s main entrance. Right next to the fountain containing Holy Water. Our future cathedral promised to be a scenic upgrade in a town where half the homes were still built of mud and wattle.

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After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half.

An avenue branched off to the left towards Wa-Job’s shop. He was our family grocer. He extended us credit, as well as other smaller favors. I could deposit my gumboots in his shop if it had been raining on my way to school in the morning. Two blocks down, on the same side of the street, was the local Masjid, the mosque. The Muslim community was not that large, so their white and green structure would not need an upgrade for another decade or more. I’d branch off the main street and weave in between narrow footpaths, past Peninah’s house, and John Mzungu’s compound. Peninah was cute, but she had nothing on Sheila. Sheila was a bad girl, Peninah was just nice. Mugumo-ini Bar and Restaurant was at the edge of town, just where the nascent municipal council ceded authority, and plots were actually titled. D.O., as the proprietor of Mugumo-ini was called, having been a former District Office, had opened a beer and nyama choma joint. It was frequented by some of our neighbors, at least on those off days when, lacking cash, they needed credit and could not visit the more popular watering holes such as Jamba Square.

Past Mugumo-ini you go down hill, with two local tycoons’ homes on your right: Jimmy’s first, then Kirui’s. Both men made their money from quarrying stones in the area. This was Embulbul’s version of industrial magnates. Opposite Kirui’s house was a large real estate development that had been built in the late 80s. It probably held close to a hundred 1 and 2-bedroom apartments, all single storied. For some reason, however, Kamunya’s private development never took off. Most of the houses were empty, despite the formidable stone wall that fenced the entire estate. This was in contrast to an 8-roomed affair that always had tenants right opposite the main entrance to Kamunya’s property. The wooden structures of this two-rowed apartments were already aging by the late 90s, but that did not detract potential tenants. And right next door lived Sheila, with her mother and elder brother.

Mama Sigidi, as Sheila’s mother, ran a small vegetable stall right at their front gate. The structure was hurriedly knocked together using Eucalyptus poles, poached from Oloolua Forest, gunny sacks, and one piece of mabati to keep away the elements. The mabati mostly failed in its duties. The produce was often sitting in the sun, or had to be shelved away whenever it rained. Sheila ran the stall. As children are expected to. She’d open shop in the evenings, just in time to catch the work crowd hurrying home to prepare supper. Kale was on offer, so too was spinach, tomatoes, onions, sometimes even a few roots of garlic. There were also fruits, depending on what was in season: avocado, bananas, oranges, and plums. Other than plums, the rest could be bought wholesale at Mkulima’s farm –  a big operation on the next ridge.

So get this, Embulbul has a sizeable farmers’ market, where you could find all kinds of fresh produce. In my pubescent infatuation, I would however, walk right past all these offerings, just to go buy a banana, at Sheila’s stall. And if I was feeling particularly wealthy I’d throw in an avocado. The 3-minute interaction I’d have with Sheila was absolutely worth it. That I was also getting a healthy daily serving of fruits was just an added bonus. I’d say hello, my school bag slung on my left shoulder. Looking cool even as my heart fluttered. I’d stretch my arm, snaking it past the small window where customers handed in their cash. I’d point to the banana I wanted her to sell me. Having chosen an avocado that was just ripe, I’d reach for my wallet in right back pocket. If I was lucky our fingers would graze as she accepted the cash. Heaven was finding her in a good mood so that we could chat for a few minutes longer.

The magazines I’d read about girls told me it was quite important to establish what their hobbies were. Sheila’s were reading novels (Danielle Steele), traveling, and swimming. In hindsight, we all had those canned responses. Borne out of strange fantasies to connect with foreign pen pals who would revel us with news about the west, perhaps send us expensive books and electronics at Christmas, or possibly airlift us out of Moi’s austerity-prone autocracy into legal adoption, free tertiary education, and a Green Card. And so we all listed swimming as a hobby. Even though we could not have seen a swimming pool but once, or twice, and even then only on TV.

Often I was unlucky. And the girl of my dreams would be sitting with one of the tenants who rented a room from Mama Sigidi. While I didn’t hold grudges against the lady, given that I didn’t even know her name, I did grow to loathe her. She seemed alive merely to thwart my romantic aspirations. She would impatiently stare at me while Sheila counted out my change, as though I was the intruder. I resented those looks! And I envied her easy familiarity with Sheila, that she lived right next door to the woman I wanted to take out for a date. Since I could not genuinely hate her, I transferred my dislike to her diseased ear lobe. She had a tumor the size of a golf ball growing off the top cartilage in her right ear. It was ripe and shiny, swollen tight. And sometimes I could spot a dribble of pus making its way down past her ear lobe. Probably an ear piercing gone wrong. I never found out, and had no sympathy. The universe, on my behalf, had served her poetic justice for her rude interruptions.

The best part about having teenage infatuations is meeting these people, fifteen years later, and seeing how much or how little they’ve changed. Sheila is still good looking. We’ll walk past each other, like ships in the night, perhaps once every time I’m in Kangawa. Cheers to our younger selves!

 

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Fashionable!

I accumulated my cash slowly. I took to carrying lunch from home. Mother would boil rice for my sisters and I in the evening. Often the dish would be sprinkled with tomatoes, or carrots. Mostly with potatoes, since these were cheaper. Taking lunch to school was tricky business. A dish of plain rice, flavored with leek onions, salt, and a spoonful of oil could not compete against the sumptuous dishes served at the Aga Khan cafeteria. There were all kinds of goodies to be had: half chicken with fries, burgers, meat, chicken, and veggie pies, beef sausages, and pizza. For drinks, you had a choice of smoothies, soda, fruit juice, or chocolate milk. But all these goodies cost money: more cash than my lunch allowance. It wasn’t too difficult acknowledging that this diet would not be for me. I grudgingly accepted my simple bowl of rice. Gradually becoming less and less embarrassed about joining my peers at the cafeteria bandas while they feasted on juicy chicken thighs. I watched my piggy bank grow, even though once in a while I’d indulge in a bottle of Picana mango soda.

Finally, one Monday, after receiving my weekly bus and lunch money it seemed like I had enough cash for my RENKs. I put aside what I’d need for my five-day commute, feeling very rich. But I chose to bid my time. It was better to wait till Friday, or at least Thursday, in case it rained and my bus ticket went up which would have skewed my calculations. School couldn’t end early enough on the Friday afternoon I picked up my boots. All through Social Studies I dreamt about that new shoe smell. I skipped my evening library session that day, and dashed out the gate as soon as we were let out. One matatu later, I was speed walking from Odeon Cinema towards King’s Collection.

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I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church.

Most of these shops are owned by Asian Kenyans, with a black labor force. The black guy watches you for a bit once you enter the store. You’ll probably have to leave your back pack at the entrance with the guard. In his store keeper’s coat, the salesman looks short for his height. The shop is plugged with an aroma of ubani, Indian incense; other exciting spices mingle in the air. But I hadn’t walked in to exercise my olfactory muscles. I made straight for the boots, pointing them out and inhaling deeply as the salesperson placed them on the counter in front of me. This is a big ticket item. The guy doesn’t know whether to begin anticipating a nice commission or to indulge my obviously overpriced dreams. He plays along when I ask to try on the shoes. I sit at a bench, emblazoned with a scale that customers could use to determine their shoe size, and take off my black and dusty school shoes. The fellow comes around from behind his counter; what the hell, his demeanor suggests , it’s a slow afternoon after all, I have a few moments to indulge this kid.

I tried on the size 9s; they were a bit too small. I had no wriggle room at the back of my foot. The attendant suggested I try a size 10. the second pair fit a lot better. With a pair of socks on, they were just snug. I concluded that’s the pair I’d be taking home with me. It was now time to see  if I could squeeze a discount out of the Mhindi. I asked again about the price as I put my school shoes back and stood up. The sales attendant repeated the original sticker price. I’d shopped with my mom often enough to know that the shop would offer me a small discount if I persisted. I looked at the main boss, seating behind the register in a sleeveless cardigan, holding his unshaved face in his left arm. Bored. He dismissively interjected and gave a slightly lower final price, only KSHS 50 discounted. I figured I should take what I got. The shopkeeper suddenly  got a lot more animated when I moved to pull out my wallet. He was glad I hadn’t simply been wasting their time window shopping out my price range.

I handed over the cash. The manager rang up the till, deposited the cash, and handed my receipt to his clerk. The sales attendant looked at the receipt, confirmed that indeed I’d paid for my boots in full, even though he’d witnessed the whole transaction. Bureaucracy! He  then proceeded to pack my boots into their box, carefully extracting the old bunched newspapers which had been used to help keep the shoes in shape. After being deposited in a cardboard box, the shoes were placed in a plastic shopping bag. The big shiny kind that you take with you on your annual trip to the folks upcountry. This is the kind of plastic bag that declares its modernity; it screams of middle class luxury and is content in its ostentatiousness. It calls attention to itself. You cannot face it and not marvel at its holder. I walked out feeling richer than I’d walked in. And isn’t that the marvel of consumerism? You spend your hard-earned money and walk out feeling as though you’ve just made a billion dollar investment.

This was Friday. I couldn’t wait for Sunday mass. I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church. I always went for the 8am service. I liked how efficient it was: one hour, in and out, and you’re salvaged from eternal damnation. It was such a good deal, I usually threw in a Wednesday evening service at half past six on my way home from school. Another great bargain: you got served prayers, worship songs, AND Holy Communion, in under 30 minutes. Sunday eventually, slowly, rolled in. I might have been headed to church, but I was dressed to kill. My pants were tailor-made; the material had a brown sheen to it, like velvet, but not quite. I wore my trousers above the waist at the time. It was a classic mode made endearing to us by Congolese Lingala musicians. I paired it with a white t-shirt, with yellow arm bands. Then I had my boots; I was looking hot.

I got to church on time, and mass went on without a hitch. There was one girl I’d been eyeing for a month or so now. She usually sang with the youth choir, and also served as the liaison between the youth group and the parish administration, including Father Kevin, the in-house priest. It was with much dismay that I realized she’d missed first mass this morning. Perhaps I’d run into her on the way out, I consoled my disappointed self. Once we exited the church, back under a clear blue sky, with the sun already promising another hot equatorial afternoon, I forgot all about Ciku. I was off chasing another skirt; one who lived much closer to my house. I’d spotted Waithera sitting on the other side of the church from me. She was not an early morning kind of person, so this was my one opportunity to chat her up as we walked back home together. This was going to be exciting! I’d almost walked towards her to say hello, when I remembered I had some shopping to do before going home. Argh! My Casanova role was immediately replaced by the butler in me. It was off to the grocer’s for sugar, salt, and flour. If I was quick, I thought, I might yet catch up with Waithera. Needless to say, that walk back to my house was hurried, and fruitless; either the girl was too fast for me, or she took an entirely different route home. What a waste of an entirely handsome outfit!

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Boots Edition

By the time I spent my ill-gotten wealth on the camera, I’d been dreaming about it for several months. On my way from Odeon Cinema, where the passenger vans from Aga Khan/Highridge dropped you off, to the bus station where I’d get onto a 111, there was a photo studio. The first floor had a shop window facing busy Ronald Ngara where you could buy film, flash, and cameras. I chose an MDx610. It came in a crispy blue box, with dark grey corners. The camera itself was made of plastic. There was a shutter button on the top right, and a sliding lever to open the lens cover on the bottom left. This was a big purchase. I knew my mom would ask where I’d gotten the money. I did not want to get into trouble. I was happy committing the crime, but had no intention of doing the time. I spoke with my cousin, Wainaina, to figure out what to do.

Wainaina lived with us at the time. He was the day-to-day manger on our family quarrying operation. He doubled as a laborer while also managing the books. As a result, he always had cash on him. I talked him into agreeing to convince my mother that he’d fronted me the money to buy a camera, and that I’d pay him back with time. Mother did not bring it up with me; if she did follow up with Wainaina, it was behind my back. I began my photography career taking portraits of quarry workers. I knew them through my cousin, and given how notoriously bad they are at repaying debt, it was important to have some sort of relationship that I could lean on when it came time to collect. Each copy was KSHS 25. Men would pose shirtless, holding steel rivets and stone mallets, or with the 30 foot hand-held drill bits used to prepare cliff walls for blasting.

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I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors.

I might have had the hardware, but the skills were still lacking. Pressing the shutter release button was easy enough. Making sure the image was properly focused, and that the lighting would not mess up the portrait was a lot harder. To get better, I began diligently perusing the photography books and magazines that our school library stocked. In one part of our library, closest to the entrance, the staff had arranged glossy copies of PC Magazine, Digital Photography, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Time, Economics, and Newsweek. These material was meant to complement our studies and open us to a global stage full of opportunities. It worked to varying degrees amongst the student body, but it certainly gave me a better idea of what I was aiming for in my photography. Alongside portraiture, I began to venture into landscape shots. The 35mm lens, however, was ill-suited for the kind of wide-angled composition I imagined in my head. I’d take images to document the environmental degradation in Oloolua Forest, courtesy of a rampant quarrying industry, and the resulting work came out looking weird. Instead of expansive vistas, my developed pictures would mostly have ghostly-looking bushes with objects out of focus.

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I began to venture into landscape shots.

To make matters worse, I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors. By tradition, they get an advance on Wednesday evening, and their weekly pay is calculated on Saturday afternoon. They are paid by the feet. Say they’ve cut 400 feet of 9×9 stones, 600 feet of 6×9 stones, and 250 feet of 4×9 stones. Each of these will be compensated at  different rates, with 9×9 stones fetching the highest price. As stone masons are wont to do, they let slip from their minds that they got an advance just three days before. When their weekly paycheck is tallied up, and the cash they got on Wednesday deducted, they always walk away with a feeling of being robbed. They were rather impossible fellows to please because if you ever suggested doing away with the mid-week advance ritual they were sure to howl oppression and bloody murder! What all these boils down to is that quarry workers are rather hard to part from their hard-earned cash. It must have to do with the back-breaking work they do all day, crushing rocks, and cutting quarry chips. I was not the only one to suffer this fate. Quarry workers eat 3 meals a day, at work, after breakfast in their own homes, and they fully anticipate a heavy dinner in the evening. Suffice it to say they run up a pretty tab at the lunch shacks they frequent. The understanding is that the ladies who own this establishments advance them credit under expectations of receiving an advance on Wednesday, and for all accounts to be cleared on Saturday. Since the men have to eat every day, these ladies had a better chance of recovering their debts. I only saw these fellows on Saturdays, by which time they’d be in a great big hurry to get home, take a shower, and hit the town for a round of drinks with friends and colleagues. Many of these Saturday night debacles left the fellows quite penniless by Monday morning. If you didn’t get your money on Saturday evening, you might as well forget it till next weekend. I was too often faced with this scenario that I soon came to the conclusion I’d never turn a profit from this kind of photography.

Turns out I was as unsuccessful a photographer as I was a pick-pocket. I still remember the time I got caught. I’d just replaced a wallet I’d hoped to fish some cash from. The thing was empty, so I put it back in the back left pocket, folded the pants as I recalled finding them, and turned to exit from the changing room. And that’s when several form two boys walked in. Fortunately, they found no evidence on me. Unfortunately, that did not stop them. They had very strong suspicions of what I’d been doing, and they simply ran with that. They questioned me, demanding to know whether I’d been stealing from them. I objected. They did not take kindly to my resistance. Georgie began to look unsure, maybe I really was as innocent as I claimed. Moha ignored any doubts. Stano had the most resolve in this gang of three. He wanted answers, yesterday! His open hand connected with the right side of my face. I winced, but did not give them the satisfaction of seeing my tears. They grabbed my collar and threatened even more violence. But I knew I had them; I stood my ground. Eventually they pushed me out of the changing room. I walked out silently vowing revenge.

The next morning, I went straight to the Dean of Students’ office. I knew that Stano and his buddies were often in trouble. However guilty I might have been, I resented being bullied. Combined with the fact that I always came across as a goodie-two-shoes, I knew that in a he-said-they-said contest, the school administration would side with me. The Dean of students was a 50-something Asian lady; I laid out my complaint: three form two boys had bullied me. Aga Khan was a private school, where parents paid a tidy sum to get their students a cushy high school education. Physical violence was not tolerated, not even if it was only directed at the poor scholarship kids. Dean Prajani was mad. Georgie, Moha, and Stano were summoned to her office.  I repeated my complaint. They brought up the whole pick-pocketing thing. But they had no evidence, and a long record of delinquency. I had a nice row of A’s and B’s on my report card. I won. They were pissed! And I could empathize. They had basically caught me red handed, yet they had ended up being reprimanded. All because I came across as a good boy; I never forgot the power of perceptions.

I also learnt my lesson: crime does not pay. I scrimped lunch money for my next purchase. On Tom Mboya street, there was a clothes emporium called the King’s Collection. It sold everything from colored pairs of socks, to pocket handkerchiefs, dress shirts, suits, blankets, and rain jackets. On their display window, they had a dazzling pair of brown boots. I loved those shoes, and the day I purchased them, with cash from my own savings, was so fulfilling! They had a thick rubber sole, black. The label, RENK, was embroidered in yellow letters on the outer side of each shoe. They had laces and a metal buckle. And imitation felt cushion at the top. I desired those boots more than I’d ever wanted anything else. I salivated over them. I stood opposite  the display window and imagined the kinds of adventures such boots would lead me to. I conquered the world wearing those shoes. I beat off school and village bullies while donning those boots. And, of course, I swept gorgeous ladies off their sexy feet and skinny legs in those brown RENKs. It was clear I had to own them and add them to my wardrobe. They were a good KSHS1,500. My lunch allowance was KSHS50 per day. This was going to be one long month!