I Eagerly Anticipated this Next Chapter

I’d waited patiently to hear back from the UWC committee on whether I was in or out. The expected deadline came and went, and still nothing. I waited a couple more days before contacting them. I was eager, but I also did not wish to be bugging them and possibly be a nuisance. By end of April I was ready for the waiting to be over. I wanted to learn one way or the other; should I keep holding my breath or should I give up and move on?

I walked from home to Vet in search of a Simu ya Jamii, public phone booth. This was in 2002 and the two main cell phone companies were battling for market share. Safaricom and Kencell had each rolled out 2G infrastructure to encourage customers to join their network. Kencell had neon pink booths strategically placed at busy supermarkets and bus stops. Safaricom had distributed green handsets that resembled older land lines. These were cheaper when charged by the minute, and were often more readily available.

I walked up to a Safaricom phone booth, essentially a tall stool on which had been attached an umbrella to unsuccessfully keep out the equatorial sun. The operator sat in the shadow jingling coins and chewing gum. I handed her the number to Dr. Ondeko’s office. It was a weekday and Rose picked up.

Hello, this is Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and I wanted to check in about my application.

Hi Ng’ang’a, we’ve been waiting to hear from you! Did you not get our response? You were selected as one of this year’s finalists, and offered a scholarship to UWCSEA.

Oh wow! That’s great, and no I never got the message.

We sent it out weeks ago. We almost thought you’d declined it. You should come by the office as soon as possible so we can start processing your documents for departure.

I was super excited about all this, and couldn’t even fathom the adventure awaiting me. But I’m also extremely cautious in nature and did not want to get all excited about something that would only vanish out of grasp. I wanted to be double-triple sure this was no hoax before allowing myself to revel in the joys of it. I walked back home in a bit of a daze. Showered and changed; I’d decided to head over to the UWC office and ascertain exactly what kind of con these folks were running. Either I had a full ride to Singapore or something fishy was up. I gave my family a random excuse as to why I wanted to head to town, saying I wanted to go check the post office mailbox for  mail.

I went straight to Hurlingham and spoke to Rose and Irene. And for the second time that day, I was thrilled beyond words. They shared with me my offer letter, detailing a full tuition ride, travel expenses to Singapore and back, plus pocket money. I was floored by this. Less than six months earlier I’d been begging Dr. Pragnell to let me into the Aga Khan Academy IB program, and here I now was, getting a weekly stipend to do just that – in addition to the wonderful travel opportunities to be had? This was the jackpot!

Now, I couldn’t wait to give the news to my parents. This was real as real can be! Rose had shared with me an offer letter, with the UWCSEA logo in turquoise. There was no going back. I learnt that the next steps involved filing for a passport ASAP, communicating with UWCSEA about which subjects I wanted to pursue in IB, and eventually booking my ticket to Singapore. In many ways, I could not get over the incredible sadness that my maternal grandma had passed on just a year before this good fortune came to be. It would have been such a pleasure to share it with her; she who had traveled to Israel as a trade unionist in the early sixties. I felt a sense of her pioneering spirit.

In the waning days of a Moi kleptocracy, government services were not offered as inalienable rights to all citizens, but rather as favors to oil the wheels of political cronyism. Nowhere was this more applicable than at Nyayo House, where the immigration department was based. Their passport application process was slow and tedious. A travel document was not yours by virtue of being Kenyan, but the regime’s to hand out like candy to the few deemed worthy. Passport applications took months. You only ventured into this labyrinth of low intellect civil service if you knew someone-who-knew-someone. I knew Rigitha. His wife and my mother were avid farmers, and they’d gotten along at agricultural extension training sessions.

I started to collect my documents. I needed my birth certificate, my national identification card, an application form properly filled in, and KSHS 5000. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that I’d lost my ID. I hadn’t had the damn thing for more than six months, and now, when I needed it like yesterday, it was nowhere to be seen! Father came back from Mombasa where he’d been trading in potatoes to help me figure out this mess. He quickly secured a birth certificate from the Kiambu contacts he knew. We then went to Westlands and luckily a new ID was issued within two weeks. I went back to Nyayo House. I filled in my application, duly including a Kenyan of sound mind who could confirm that I was a law abiding citizen who deserved a passport. Mr. Kamau Mungai, my co-signer, had been a classmate of my maternal grandma, way back then. In fact, it turns out Mzee Kamau was the class prefect. My grandmother had some not-so-fond memories of him tattling on his peers for indiscipline. Decades later, our families had become really close. I’d swing by their house every evening to pick up our supply of milk.

Co-signing a passport application was no child’s play. Legally, if the government ever had to spend money on my repatriation back home, they could come after Mzee Kamau to recover their costs. What? Having submitted the forms, the waiting game began. Two weeks went by, then a month. Still nothing. I went back to Nyayo House and asked to see Rigitha. He made some noise about following things up. I agreed to come back. It was now the second week of July, I was meant to flying to Singapore in mid-August. Time was running out. I made another trip to Immigration. Still nothing. At the end of July, with less than two weeks to go, I’d turned desperate. The UWC committee was getting anxious. They worried I wasn’t doing enough to secure my passport, as though I kept government bureaucrats in my pocket. They recommended I get in touch with a Mr. Mumo. He worked at Nyayo House, so had contacts, but more importantly, his own son was heading to UWC in New Mexico, USA. Surely he’d be sympathetic to my plight. Mumo was unavailable the first time I tried to see him. When we did have a face-to-face, he made non-committal noises. This simply won’t do. Nyayo House was way beyond my parents’ experience. They could not help much. I stopped by Aunty Maggie’s Nation Center office one afternoon having walked away from Nyayo House still empty handed. She was irate. She was like, who’s been working on this document for you? She wanted to see this Rigitha fellow, right there and then. We headed back over to Nyayo House, Rigitha availed himself when we showed up at this office. I forget what excuses he offered, but Maggie was pretty clear the damn passport needed to be issued like last year. I think her haranguing worked. A week later Rigitha sent word to my house that I should go to the office the next day and pick up my brand new, five-year, passport. Not a moment too soon. It was now time to celebrate.

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This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of.

The first party was held at home. My parents pooled together some money for a goat, food, and refreshments – soda, and muratina. Invitations were sent out to my extended family, and the date was set, a Saturday no less, so folks won’t be at work. There’s a history to this. In the 1930s and 1940s, when Kenyan families sent out their young men and women for university studies in Britain, this was often done as a group effort. The entire community would unite and chip in cents and shillings until there was enough cash to cover the student’s airfare, room and board, and a small stipend. But there was also the important psychological preparation that the people endowed onto the students. A sort of blessing that would steel them against homesickness, substance abuse, irresponsible behavior, and failure. The extended family and the neighborhood showed up to send off their daughter or son and to remind them they are not alone. That the child has a people and a home who will always welcome him. And of course, there was always the aunt who’d jokingly be like: and don’t bring back a white spouse. Hahaha, just kidding! No, really! Don’t! And of course the parents would play along and defend their child’s choice in marriage partner, even as they too mulled trepidation at the possibility of an inter-racial marriage.

The goat was done to perfection. My dad, two of his brothers, and several friends took charge of this, as the men in the household often do. There’s that moment when five or six men grab on to a goat as the butcher slits its throat. An open container must be close by to collect the blood. Mutura is a delicious must-have. Can’t barbecue a goat and not prepare blood sausage with stewed, peppered meat and parts of the large intestine. My mother led the women’s effort. Aunty Wanja, my cousin Njeri, and Uncle Maina’s wife variously took charge of making chapati, stew, and mukimo. Had I known, I would have savored the smells much longer. The succulent stews and meats should have been etched in my memory more deeply, given that Kenyan cuisine would be unavailable for most of the next nine months.

Later in the afternoon, once every belly was brimming with good food, someone stood up and asked the gathering to join in prayer. Ours was a Christian home, after all. Baba Seret, a family friend, followed with a short speech about how I’d performed well in school, and that they all expected me to keep up the same level of effort and investment in my studies. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, spoke on behalf of the extended family. My paternal grandma looked on, approvingly. I had my cheap plastic camera with me, and photographed groups of family members: Uncle Kamau looking suave in athletic wear; Mother, one of my sisters, Aunty Wanja, and a bunch of cousins by the outdoor kitchen – my mother decked out in a colorful dress, meaning the cooking was done; grandma seated on a bench, eating, Macho Nne close by on one of our dining room chairs brought outside to accommodate guests.

The younger crowd hang back. It wasn’t until dusk that they took over: setting up a music system, and passing around cups of muratina. The tipsier they got, the louder the whole gathering became. Adults had moved indoors away from the chill. The men had commandeered a 20 liter demi-john of mead and were imbibing, slowly, so as not to get rowdy and possibly be kicked out of the house. My male cousins were now going all out. Waweru pontificated on how the Karugu clan was soon headed to America, where all dreams of financial independence were to be fulfilled. This trip to Singapore was going to be a big deal for me; to understand how crucial it was for my cousins, too, picture this: at 10pm that evening, a contingent of 10 young braves showed up. They’d walked from Gikambura after work, and since they were all macho, felt the need to take their time on the empty roads. They each came armed with a variety of clubs, stabbing knives, and walking sticks. No surprising this squad! Mother had to corral a few of the younger women to get them dinner, warm up uji, as I saw into any roast meat still left over from lunch. Once their hunger pangs were sated, they whispered around about a jug or two of that sweet smelling honey wine. I’d attended a previous post-circumcision ceremony held in my grandma’s hood in Gikambura; I knew these kids partied hard. But my Kangawa crew was strong. Karis represented; swaying to the blaring music, sipping from a metal cup, he shouted something like “Happy new Year” conflating holidays with out of tune merriment. When a few of us laughed, before hushing him, he proceeded to narrate about his injury months before KCSE. He’d broken a leg playing football, and been sent home to recover. Knowing that last minute revision was crucial for the big Form Four exams, I’d shared some of my resources with him. He expressed his gratitude with a lot of panache.

Those who lived close by meandered home in the dead of night. The folks from Gikambura left the next morning, after brunch. We agreed that I’d see them at least once more before flying out. I’d need to go hola at grandpa who hadn’t joined us. I was happy to say goodbye. There was cleaning up to do, but they’d also left me a couple of thousand shillings richer. The collection basket passed around late the previous evening had produced enough cash for a suitcase, a new pair of shoes, and a jacket. An homage to days gone by, when the community united to smooth a student’s relocation abroad. I knew SEA would provide me with school uniform, but my out-of-school wardrobe needed upgrading.

I’d been emailing with school officials, confirming my arrival date, and registering for classes. The principal of Upper School, which did the IB Diploma, seemed nice enough. I had no idea what to expect of her. In addition to choosing my higher and lower level courses, I decided to test the school’s attire regulations. Would dreadlocks be OK? I asked. Di Smart responded with a non-committal “the school had no hard line hair policy.” That was good enough for me.

Party number two. The UWC Kenya National Committee organizes an annual reunion. Students who are embarking on this adventure for the first time get to meet old hands, new graduates, and students in between IB1 and IB2. As expected, good food is a major part of the mix. My parents both attended. We each had to pay KSHS 300 to cover our buffet lunch. Students and parents started arriving at the venue around 1pm. Like in previous years, the event was hosted behind Dr. Ondeko’s office. A few parents mingle, but most are more shy than their boisterous youngsters, who having previously met each other, or perhaps reuniting after an year or more apart, are hugging and holding hands. I could see parents worry as they slowly noticed the prevalence of piercings on boys and weird hair styles on the girls. In addition to a free education, it must have seemed to them that UWC was also going to transform their children into rebellious aliens – a far cry to their former obedient selves. At Rose’s and Irene’s gentle urging, the gathering formed a queue around the table laden with goodies. Plates piled deep, guests sat and dug in.

Self introductions kicked off the more formal part of the ceremony. The UWC committee stepped forward and explained its mission. The members then invited families to know one another. Each student introduced themselves, and where they were studying, as well as the members of their party. Often it was just the parents, but some contingents included an uncle, cousins, or family friends. The lunch was open invite, as long as everyone made their individual contribution. We went round, listening and clapping as each student talked a bit about themselves. My family caused some laughs, especially after I introduced myself as Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and my dad stated his names as Muchiri Ng’ang’a. Dr. Ondeko concluded the event by inviting monetary donations to cater for students’ airfare, incidentals, etc. She extolled future graduates to also do their bit, given that current volunteers gave freely of their time. There was cake, distributed around the group in slices placed delicately on plastic plates. The parents, having warmed up to each other, chatted more freely now. They had shared interests. Situma’s parents and mine had previously ran into each other at Aga Khan. They chatted to catch up. I met Silvia, who was returning for her 2nd and final IB year at UWCSEA. I introduced her to my parents. And I could see a sigh of relief when they were able to put a face to far away Singapore, a destination which none of us had any immediate experience with. The four of us chatted, with Silvia answering my questions about classes, the school, the city. This was going to be my first time attending boarding school – quite unlike most other Kenyan high school students who are shipped off to distant schools for their KCSE education. Mom immediately warmed up to Silvia, exhorting her to keep an eye out for me. This was the last major event; from here on was a matter of counting down days before my first experience flying. I was now more visibly excited about this new adventure. I’d seen folks who had taken on the challenge, and emerged triumphant. For my parents, listening to Silvia’s dreams about attending college in the U.S., on a full ride, helped them see the opportunities that an I.B. diploma could open up for me.

Those last few weeks flew by. Rose and Irene had already set up with a preferred travel agent to book my flight to Singapore. I was to use Emirates, transiting through Dubai, with a short stop over in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Overnight, place names I’d barely heard of before became part of my vocabulary. My most recent experience with air travel had been at Silverbeck Academy, back in kindergarten. Our school organized a day trip to Wilson airport where domestic flights take off to all corners of the country. I’d been photographed inside one of those 12 seater planes. Now, I was packing to take a one-day international flight. I didn’t even want to think about what it meant to transit through an unknown airport, where Arabic would be the major language. I simply assumed that I’d be able to figure it out. Silvia was attending a youth leadership seminar; that meant she wouldn’t be flying to school till much later. And in any case, new students had to arrive several days earlier for orientation. The bottom line was that I was going to be solo. Sink or swim. I’d barely just started travelling by bus alone to Juja and now here I was, with no companion for a 20 hour flight.

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I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us.

I flew out on a Sunday. All morning we’d been packing up. Mother prepared lunch; we were expecting a number of guests who were to accompany us to the airport. Shaka, one of my dad’s buddies from his days in Mombasa, came with a few friends. They’d been tasked with providing a van large enough to take everyone to the airport. Baba Seret came too, with Seret – a former Ngong Hills Academy classmate – her sister, and a cousin. We had lunch: chapati with beef stew. The idea was that I should tuck in proper, who knew what ghastly airline food I was to encounter before landing in Singapore. We were done with lunch around 1pm. My flight was departing at 7pm, but we’d allowed ourselves about 2 hours to make it to JKIA. Weekend traffic was usually pretty light in Nairobi, but we preferred to err on the safe side. Plus, we were all just excited. Travelling “abroad for further studies” was a big deal in the 90s. India, South Africa, The United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia had all been pretty popular destinations since the late 80s. No one had any idea which direction Singapore lay, but all that mattered was that you had to fly there.

Shaka had taken the BulBul route to our house, no idea why. That meant they’d had to park about 15 minutes away by foot.  The Vet route would have gotten them right to our driveway. At 2pm we gathered for prayers, Siameto taking charge to beseech God for journey mercies. We locked up the house, and I shouldered my sports jacket and a backpack. We headed out. Mother roped my suitcase and placed it on her back, wedging the rope on her palms so it rested on her shoulders. We took the steep path uphill to Uncle Robert’s. Good thing this was in August, the sludge that usually ran down the slope in rainy months had now turned into a fine dust. At the top of the hill, we stomped our shoes hard and ran them through the grass, trying to shake off the finely ground red powder. Siameto took a photo of Mama Carol saying goodbye to me. She took my right hand in hers and stared back at the camera. Her and her husband had been my godparents at my first confirmation into the Anglican Church of Kenya. They’d not reneged on their duties even after my family moved to the Catholic church. My religious godparents had always wished me well at school, taking time to send me the customary success cards that exam candidates hang on strings across the ceilings: a simple ruse to ward exam jitters. Once we were all loaded into the van, we waved off to the few neighbors who’d walked here with us. Mama Carol’s house was just 200m away, so she could walk there. Kahiri went back down the slope, letting my parents know they’d see him when they got back from the airport. This was truly it for me; I was on the first step of a journey into the unknown.

With no traffic on Ngong Road, this was going to be a quick trip. Karen, Bomas, and the Nairobi Animal Orphanage flew by. We’d gone past Wilson Airport, with its small twin engine planes. I wasn’t even interested. I was here for the real deal! Past Nyayo Stadium we turned right onto Mombasa Road, with luck, Embakasi and Mlolongo would both be pretty free of traffic and we’d be at the JKIA international departures in 20 minutes. Thinking back, I don’t remember unloading from the van, walking into the terminal, and checking in my luggage. My passport and ticket were both in order, so that all went hassle free. Then came that awkward moment when half my entourage wants to head back home, and the other half wanted to enjoy the outing to the max: hang around till they perceived that MY particular flight had taken off. In the midst of indecision, Siameto kept documenting this gathering. I have photos of me and my family, with Mama Mungais grand daughter, Siku, as our adpted sibling. Then there’s me with just the men, Shaka looking out from behind Baba Kareithi. Uncle Maina is standing next to my dad. In a third, I’m with Seret, her sister, her cousin, and my younger sisters. By now, I too was firmly in the leave camp. There was too much chaos swirling around, and within, me; not only was this my first time flying, and travelling abroad – hence super exciting – I was also going to be away from my family for almost nine months. That was a first, and I was battling the emotions that I’d avoided by attending high school as a day scholar instead of boarding. Aunty Maggie had managed to join us, accompanied by a friend. I’m photographed between the two of them. This was, I remember, moments after Maggie had thrust a couple of thousand shilling notes into my hand. Always generous, bless her heart. This cash was going to be a nice addition to my travel incidentals. I’m frowning in that photo. My facial expression fully capturing the swirl of emotions I was miserably trying to ride over.

Eventually, they all had to head back. Last goodbyes, hugs, and waves. I passed through airport security one last time, and headed to my gate. Worrying about my family was a new feeling. Although my dad would spend 2 months at a time at the coast, I’d always been at home. Not this time. Now I had to think about their security. It was barely 4 years since we’d had a burglary attempt at home. On its own the incident was not unusual. Security had gotten really bad in Kangawa; there were homes where thieves broke into monthly. Thugs returned to Kasale’s and Mama Leken’s to pick up whatever new electronics they’d purchased to replace the items stolen last month. It really was a joke as far as public safety, and the robbers had the calm demeanor of professionals. Might they make a return to our house? We’d been able to repel them and raised enough noise that neighbors joined our defense. Mwalimu Nzova rang out his security alarm. Flashlights could be seen up and down the neighborhood. Father banged on a window grill they’d been attempting to cut through with a hoe, farm implement turned into dangerous weapon. Thankfully the men on the outside did not try to breach our kitchen door. They’d concentrated their efforts on a living room window, judging that it was furthest from the bedrooms and so would least likely arouse us. Unluckily for them, Mother is a light sleeper. I dreaded calling home from Singapore only to learn that the next attack had been successful. Thugs could be rabid, and with three women in the house, I shuddered to imagine the havoc such violence could wreck on our home.

I watched my fellow passengers closely. I wanted to pick up on their suave looks as they navigated currency exchange, located their departure gates, sat, and snacked while waiting. I was all jelly, and partly envied these strangers their confidence. It really looked to me like they’d been born doing international air travel. I was anxious that they could see right through my Aga Khan Academy façade to the little boy inside me, who’d often been sent home from school for unpaid tuition. We finally got our call to board. I remembered not to forget my backpack, and entered the belly of the plane. As apprehensive as I was, I also couldn’t help smiling. This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of. Locating my window seat with the help of a flight attendant, I still felt a bit of an impostor. This was an event I’d have expected for my much wealthier cousins, not for me. Settling into my seat, I’d truly been charmed to get the choice of window or aisle seat when checking in – not wanting to miss a single second of this voyage – it truly sunk in just how lucky I’d been. For the next decade, I’d always fly on the window seat, craning my neck every which way to catch sight of the clouds, the cities below, or perhaps a mountain or river. I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us. Take off was sensational. Soon, as we soared into the air above JKIA, I was now the one off to send a letter; the one to go off and inform my father about the tattered state of my school uniform. I smiled, reflecting on this childhood play song. Certainly, worry was one of the emotions I felt, but largely I eagerly anticipated this next chapter. Now that I’d just tasted the pleasures of foreign travel, I had no intention to stop until I’d gotten to know the whole wide world, as well as I knew the footpaths of Kangawa.

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Heading Out to Singapore

Mrs. Myra Mutsune was my second high school Biology teacher. Our first had had to leave midway through Form 2, and Mutsune took over. Mutsune was tough; she pushed us in the way she expected KCSE to kick our butts. She was also strict on discipline. Her and Nabil had a big run in. it was caused by the same reason she was always extra tough on Bajaber, she didn’t think either  applied themselves diligently enough to their studies. From her vantage point, Bajaber was a bad influence on other students, being older, skilled on the pitch, and hence a role model. Nabil, to Mutsune’s chagrin, fell for this, and would sometimes act the goof instead of strapping in and getting shit done. And if there was one thing Mutsune could not abide, it was wasting time.

We got along, thankfully. Biology ended up being one of my favorite subjects. And I especially enjoyed ecology. Ecology was not only easy, it was also a cool narrative, bordering on human geography, about the environment. It made sense given how I saw the world, and I loved seeing ferns and the different kinds of plants while walking on trails in Kangawa. Post-KCSE, and having scored a strong A in Biology, Mutsune became a natural ally in my quest for the next adventure. She brainstormed with me on my approach to Dr. Pragnell and how I was to solicit his help in gaining admission into Aga Khan’s I.B. program. She consoled me after my petition proved quite unsuccessful. And then suggested an alternative. Turns out her son and daughter had both completed their KCSE education in Kenya, before attending a prestigious institution called the United World College. Mutsune’s kids had then gone on to attend university in the U.S. I liked the idea. As long as someone else was paying for tuition, I was down! She shared the same opportunity with Situma and Salim, and even offered to help us compose our application cover letters. Over three days, I commuted back and forth to school, sharing drafts with her and revising based on her comments. When Situma and Salim were in at the same time, we’d sit in a room and work on the letters. She read our final drafts and approved. It was time to send these babies out into the world, and find out if they could truly hold water. Sink or swim.

Peter, Staal and Shaka

The UWC application was always advertised in one of Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation. Their Monday edition is titled Blackboard, and it has a wide variety of news related to the education sector. Soon after KCSE results are released by the Kenyan Ministry of Education, the UWC group would place a one-paragraph ad inviting applicants to submit material for review. I went to Nairobi’s General Post Office, GPO, and mailed my envelope. I crossed my fingers, and let it go. Let happen what may, I whispered.

In Kenya the post office does not deliver mail to your door step. Instead, you rent a mailbox at your nearest post office, and check mail as often as you can. Our box rental was at the GPO station. It had originally been my grandmother’s, so occasionally mother would pick up my uncle’s mail and drop it off at his Kariobangi South residence. Hence, there was no way for me to know that UWC had responded to my application. I had to go check the mailbox. My first trip back about a week after mailing the documents turned up nothing. This was on a Saturday, and I’d planned to see Lorraine later in town anyway, so the one hour bus ride to town was not a total waste. About 10 days later, I went back to check our family mailbox and found an envelope from the United World College Kenya National Committee. Turns out I’d been invited for an interview. I went straight to school and shared the news with Mutsune. She was super pleased. We chatted about what the interview was all about. The UWC folks wanted to learn more about me as a leader, how I meant to take advantage of global opportunities, and how I intended to contribute to Kenyan society. I started preparing answers for those questions. Mutsune added it was also important that I discuss explicitly how I would represent Kenya on a global stage. What parts of Kenyan culture was I comfortable sharing with people from all over the world? This all seemed exciting. And also a little daunting. Finally, she added, I should make sure to speak up and project confidence.

The interview was scheduled for a Saturday, from 8am till late in the evening. And I couldn’t wait to go prove my chops. A couple of months before this I’d just read about the mental practice of visualizing success. Every day, in the week leading up to the interview, I spent 5 to 10 minutes meditating my plan of attack. I imagined myself well-spoken, standing tall, and confident. I reminded myself to enunciate properly and not to speak too fast, as I tend to do when I’m nervous. I reflected on my tendency to adopt a poker face when frazzled, and how I should be more emotive at certain moments. I’d sit on a one-person settee, prop my legs up on the coffee table, and lean back. This position was especially comfortable when the lights were out. Then I could just close my eyes, facing the ceiling, and imagine the winning personality I was going to unleash on the selection committee. Saturday morning, I was ready. Even though I expected tea, snacks, and lunch, I started off with a sizeable breakfast. A growling stomach was the last kind of distraction I’d want on such a nerve-wracking day.

Route 111 matatus don’t go into Hurlingham, not unless they’re maneuvering their way out of traffic. This meant I had to alight at Uchumi Ngong Hyper and take a matatu #46. About 15 minutes later, I got off at Rose Avenue, anxious not to miss my stop. I was early. I had time to scope the dusty street as I looked for the gate with a sign saying Dr. Musimbi Ondeko, Chiropractor. I had no idea what chiropractors did, but it sounded exotic enough to be associated with the global-oriented UWC movement. I said “vipi boss!” to the guard, before asking for directions. “Ofisi ya Dr. Ondeko ni gani?” He indicated with his left hand at a two-story building. A placard at the main entrance indicated that I should head to the first floor. I knocked on a varnished door, twisted the handle, and walked in.

Behind the front desk sat 2 ladies, whom I’d later come to know as Irene and Rose. I introduced myself, and was immediately directed to the back of the building, where the other applicants had gathered. Looking out the back window behind Irene, I saw that a large tent had been laid out. Plastic chairs were arranged in rows and a few male and female students were seated. I politely excused myself and walked to the back. The area was covered with grass, not exactly a lawn, but more like a private backyard. In addition to the students, I noted several adults. In a few moments, just as I was chatting to the kids around me, one of the older ladies introduced herself as Dr. Musimbi Ondeko. The interview began with Ondeko and several former UWC graduates sharing with us some of their experiences. We heard from Walter, Shiro Mwangi, Watene, Obulutsa, and Osire. They’d finished high school in Kenya before attending UWC schools in the U.S., Italy, Canada, Wales, and Norway. After their undergraduate education, they’d returned to the country and currently worked in finance, journalism, and the healthcare fields. Their journeys back home were crucial in fulfilling the UWC mission: that UWC graduates would be at the forefront of positive and sustainable social change in their communities. This was the model against which our candidacy was to be judged. The day’s schedule started off with some group activities; later on after lunch there were to be one-on-one interviews with 3 members of the national committee. Situma and Salim were seated next to me, and when we were divvied up into teams, they each went to a different group.

I knew I was being watched. I took care to not only participate fully, but also to involve others. Our first task was a typical team building activity: interlock hands and untangle the entire team without breaking contact, while racing the other three teams. We might have been shy while eyeing each other, initially sizing up the competition, but with hands twisted we all of a sudden got very close and personal. We were literally in each other’s space. We laughed uneasily as we grasped fingers tighter, smelling each other’s body odor. Nervous adolescent smiles masked the hormonal rhythms awakened by such close proximity to gorgeous members of the opposite sex. By 11am, with Nairobi’s sun already beating down on us, sweat trickled down our back as we maneuvered limbs — stepping over legs and wriggling underneath arms. My team didn’t win, but we did come a close second. I knew the polite thing to do was to honestly congratulate the winners, as well as pat my team members on the back. The budding leader in me was being let loose.

Having gotten to know each other, we were now tasked with performing a skit. Each team was assigned a topic, and they had 30min to create a script, rehearse, and perform in front of everyone else. The idea was that each performance should be both entertaining and educational. Our assigned topic was corruption — a national ill that Kenyans love to rile against in public, whilst indulging behind closed doors. Our basic scenario was a doting dad rushing to his daughter’s high school visiting day — that Saturday every semester when parents could visit their kids and shower them with love and fast food. Unfortunately, the father rans into traffic cops who flag him for a broken headlight. After discovering that the fellow’s license has expired, they handcuff him ready for  remand. His wife pleads with them and offers KSHS 10,000 so they can get on with their journey. In our imagined Kenya, the lady was swiftly reprimanded for attempting to bribe officers of the law. She, too, was arrested under bribery charges and read her rights. Although we’d come up with lines, we forgot half of them due to stage fright and simply improvised a lot. Dan, this one kid on our team, volunteered early on to the be the Constable. He had no lines but a lot of gruff noises and physical exertion. He manhandled the beleaguered father into an imaginary police jeep. Earning applause from the audience and the judges. We were quite pleased with our thespian skills.

By the time every other team had presented their performance, it was lunch time. There was a caterer at hand who set up plastic plates, complete with white forks and spoons on a table. We were invited to help ourselves to pots of pilau rice, chicken stew, and salad. To fully quench the equator sun, warm soda and water was also offered. Whether out of politeness or perhaps because it gave them another chance to watch us in action, the selection committee asked that we get our food before them. It was only when we were all seated chewing and salving our hunger that they too served themselves. The committee members distributed themselves amongst the different groups, and we were all soon engaged in discussions about life post-KCSE.

Bellies full, tongues loosened, too. We laughed while listening to mishaps from UWC life: rooming with a white kid who was seeing a black person for the first time; learning to eat using a fork and knife; dealing with homesickness. It all sounded plenty tough, but I remained unfazed. If that was the price for seeing a new part of the world, and exercising my adventurous spirit, so be it. I was down. The committee retreated indoors, setting themselves up in three rooms where they were to field face-to-face interviews. Given the personalities on display, we could already predict which panels would be tough. Ondeko clearly had a big personality. She could come across as intimidating. I was not eager to spur with her. Watene and Walter both looked like goof balls. But that was not necessarily a good thing. I felt anxious that if I could not match their sense of humor, I’d immediately be relegated to the bottom of the pile. It might have been a fun day hanging out and role playing, but at stake was someone’s future. This was clearly demonstrated when we had to fill in our preferences. To me this was akin to asking a starving man what he’d like to order for an eight course meal. Nothing? Everything? Don’t care as long as it’s edible? There were 27 applicants, vying for 7 spots. The odds were not terrible, but clinching a scholarship certainly wasn’t going to be a walk in Kangawa forest, either. To help us fill out the preference forms, we were informed that some UWCs offered full scholarships, including airfare to school and back, while others did not. There was no point in me dreaming about attending schools in the U.S. or Wales. My family was in no position to pay for an international flight, let alone pay tuition in foreign currency. Canada and Singapore were known to offer full rides. Clearly those were the spots I should gravitate towards. I certainly must have heard of Singapore before that Saturday, but not in any context that I can remember. I had no idea whether Singaporeans ate with their nose and walked on their hands. But after seeing a school magazine highlighting a Kenyan scholar who’d been a star basketball player, I decided this would be my first choice school. I not only figured that most of my peers would shy away from such an exotic location, I also had a sense that the west could wait — that eventually I’d get to see Canada, the United States, and Europe. Chances to study and live in Asia, however, I intuitively knew would be few and far between. I marked the United World College of South East Asia as my first choice destination, handed in my form, and walked into my group interview.

I’d been on adrenaline all day, and as often happens I was about to crash. The lunch break helped to revive me a bit, but I knew I’d have to perk up some more. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my limbs so as to rev my engine. I wanted to hit the ground running once those questions began flying at me. I walked into the office, and Rose indicated which door I should open to go face the proverbial music. I entered to find the panel reviewing my application material. At least Musimbi and Shiru were; Walter and Watene were yarning about something. They ushered me in with a big karibu, gesturing to a seat directly in front of them. I sat down hoping they won’t ask me questions based on the cover letter; it had a fair number of embellishments. Maintaining eye contact was something I’d repeatedly imprinted on my brain. That, plus firm handshakes, were key features of making a good first impression. Or so I’d read.

The interview panel sported smiles on their faces. I took that to be a good sign. I adjusted my body posture to demonstrate attention and enthusiasm. I nodded as Musimbi posed the first question. She was interested in my involvement at school. The UWC program was all about grooming future leaders; this was an easy shot for me. I put down the water bottle from which I’d just sipped and began rattling out the different ways I’d practiced my leadership skills at Aga Khan. There was my St. John’s Ambulance Cadet experience. I’d emcee’d a one-day interschool literature and drama festival. I’d written an essay about global issues that received a commendation from the Commonwealth Essay Competition. And of course I’d participated in the school’s community service initiatives. This was another important segment in one’s candidacy: the ability to articulate how a UWC education would enable a student to return to Kenya, share their skills, and contribute to social justice.

They nodded satisfaction. And Watene pounced next. He was interested in how I’d represent Kenyan culture while abroad. What artifacts could I call upon in showcasing Kenya’s beauty and diversity to people who’d perhaps never heard of the country before? I’d spent four years in high school engaged in debates about African literature. It wasn’t a large leap to elaborate on how oral storytelling and the songs of Kenyan communities could be used to showcase Kenyan culture. Watene pressed further; could I give an example? I paused for a bit, before launching into song. I knew “Kanyoni ka Nja” from stories Wainaina would tell me. I sang a few of the opening lines and Watene roared back in laughter. He was pleased.

Clearly, they’d set themselves up to ask one questions each, so I turned to either Walter or Shiru, expectantly. Walter sat up in his chair, he was gonna go next. He asked me about my career plans and how those would enable me to create positive change back home. I thought back to the glossy college brochures that Aga Khan Academy stocked in its library. Colorful magazines with well-dressed and attentive students at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, University College London, Sheffields, etc. I’d soaked this in and decided my dream was to pursue either genetic or chemical engineering. I went with chemical engineering to answer Walter’s question, expounding on how an undergraduate degree in ChemE would help me work in recycling. I argued that given Nairobi’s fast population growth, what the city, and other urban areas on the continent needed, was serious effort in waste management. Not only would proper waste disposal reduce risk of diseases, it would also offer raw materials for a home-grown manufacturing industry. They all nodded in agreement. My fantasy sounded convincing enough.

It was now left to Shiru to pose the last question. Instead, she took the opportunity to thank me for attending the interview, as well as explaining how the next steps of the selection would go. Obviously, the committee would have to complete the rest of the panel interviews that afternoon, after which they were to reconvene the week after for final deliberation. I asked about how long before I should expect to hear back: 2-3 weeks. We shook hands all around, I went out back and chatted with Ruth and Salim for a bit, then walked out the gate to catch my ride home. I was anxious about getting a positive response, but there was little else I could do at this juncture but wait.

Now I Could Face My Family with Pride.

So in February 2002 the Education Ministry finally released our Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination results. This is the worst time ever. You’ve been out of school for almost three months, you’re used to sleeping in and going to bed late. As a high school graduate, you’re now accustomed to a certain amount of freedom. It’s OK for you to date more openly, but certainly not wantonly. You’re an adult now, and don’t have to account for your every move to your parents. Perhaps you’ve even acquired a national ID. You can go drinking. Or you could go to jail. Then the exams are out and it all comes rushing back: you’re still a student. You still have a whole future to worry about: college, getting a job, finding a partner, getting married, making babies, looking after your aging parents. #adultingishard

I spruced up the morning after the results were announced. This was nerve-wracking work, the least I could do was look good. I called the school’s front desk to inquire about my exam grades. I’m dialing at one those simu ya jamii public phone booths. It’s hard to hear from my end; I’m beside a busy street and there’s all kinds of matatu, and market-related chaos happening around me. So I’m having to shout. Then I also want a modicum of privacy. Some space from the prying eyes of the proprietor who’s eyeing me with that ka-I-know-you-failed-so-stop-pretending-otherwise look. Argh!

As children, Kenyan society grooms us for a never ending rat race. Everything is a fucking contest. Getting into a public vehicle has winners (those who can shove and nudge their way onto a seat) and losers (suckers who believe pregnant women, kids, and the aged should board first). Your class 8 national exams have winners (hoisted onto teachers’ shoulders and celebrated with song and dance) and losers (folks who get shunted into bush schools with no indoor plumbing). KCSE is the biggest contest of all. Top male and female performers are interviewed live on national TV, their proud parents looking on, and making hand gestures that suggest they have a direct line to God – else, how do you explain His generosity in the form of a child who has avoided drug abuse (if a boy) or teenage pregnancy (if a girl) and has gone on to best her entire cohort of peers. Nationally! The singing, the jubilation is well deserved. The Kenyan educational system demands lots of smarts to survive, leave alone to thrive. And yet, the celebrations, if not prepared for you, leave you feeling like a good-for-nothing shit. Hence the drunk father will return home that evening and say “Ona! Wale wengine wanapita mtihani na wewe uko hapa ni Tv tu!” Others have succeeded where you failed! Occupied as you are with the TV! It is then that kids all of a sudden belong entirely to the mother. “Hawa watoto wako ni wajinga kama wewe!” Your kids are just as stupid as you. It must run in the family!

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Now I could face my family with pride. I’d done my part; the ball was now squarely back in my parents’ side of the pitch.

I was not top-national-performer-hoisted-onto-shoulders material. But I still pulled my weight. I had a track record of success but you never know with these things. It ain’t over until it’s over. When I finally got through to the school receptionist and explained why I was calling, I had to hold my breath and cross my fingers. Silly superstition that wouldn’t have changed exam grades assigned almost a week prior. Emotions trump logic. I twisted my fingers and squeezed my sphincter tighter as she repeated my name, “Peter, right?”

Yes, I said.

Oh, you scored an A-.

Phew, I could breathe now! That was a good score; now I could face my family with pride. I’d done my part; the ball was now squarely back in my parents’ side of the pitch: mother’s turn to do her thing and get me into college. I could now move on to other important matters, like figuring out whom I’d bested in which subjects, and who might have bested me. Did I mention Kenyan society revolves around competition?

I could now more calmly take the matatu to Aga Khan. I reflected on the fact that top performers at school every year had their names placed on a placard, right as you walked into the main administration block. How often had I strolled by  and looked up at surnames such as Manji, Patel, and Singh? Our school was attended by majority Ismaili families, and the accolades won reflected that bias. Kids who’d made their way to top universities in the U.K. and the United States had space on the placards with Harvard, Leeds, LSE, Oxford, and Cambridge next to their names.

I got to school and walked to the Bursar’s office to pick up my exam slip. I was pleased to see that my name was already up on the placard. But I was disturbed that three other names had found their way there, too. Argh! How could this be. I went to review my compatriots grades, publicly displayed in a locked glass cabinet in one of the student hallways. Nothing like a Federal Educational Records Privacy Act in play here. In Kenya, your educational highs and lows are publicly displayed for all to witness. I think that works fine when you do well. But I would hate for my failures to be aired in public. Perhaps that’s part of why cheating in national exams has been such a perennial challenge. Conversely, if your low academic grades were always hang out to dry in front of crowds, you either developed anxiety and possibly depression – both of which, though underdiagnosed, are quite common – or you develop such a thick skin you are pretty much set for success the rest of your life. Looking back, it’s often those who didn’t do well in school who take risks and build empires. I remember my dad speaking to one of his schoolmates from high school and they remarked on how those who got C and D grades now employ those who earned As and Bs in school.

There was a good reason why multiple names were at the top of the 2001 KCSE placard. The national examination council had recently change how it calculated a student’s mean grade. While the mean grade had previously been calculated using 8 grades, they had reduced that to 7. And was this important? Yes, very! Your KCSE mean grade determines whether you can go to a 4-year college or not. At the time, there were only enough university spots in public universities for about 30% of those who completed their KCSE exams. The rest were asked to fend for themselves. Medicine was only offered to students who had an A. The rest of you were shunted into Bachelor’s of Commerce courses around the country. I ended up with an invite to study B.Sc. In Biological Sciences at campus in Njoro. I never showed up. But I still sought supremacy. We’d sat for 8 different subject exams, with the government using 7 for the mean grade, they simply dropped your lowest score. I calculated my mean grade and found that even if calculated across all 8 I still ended up with an A-. My competitors did not. Now, I was happy. Clearly I’d still bested them, despite government interference. This is why I advocate for small government. The administration should stay the fuck out of my pocket book, and my grade book.

I went back home. It was time to start planning the next move: getting into the International Baccalaureate program at Aga Khan Academy. Over my fours years at Aga Khan, I’d been relentlessly told about the merits of the IB. It was meant to be a curriculum that was much more responsive to the demands of a 21st century economy than the KCSE. The IB was supposedly a better training ground for innovation and creativity than the KCSE, which focused on rote learning and memorization. The IB was a global system, it had the word “international” in its title, for God’s sake. This was an education for the elites, for those going places! And I wanted in. But between me and my ambitions lay an insurmountable tuition bill. Since KCSE only gave you access to national opportunities, while the IB turned the world into your oyster, it came with a much cheaper sticker price. If I could never have footed the KCSE bill, there was no way in hell I’d pull off paying out of pocket for the IB. I needed a benefactor. So I went to see the White Man.

His name was Dr. John Pragnell. He was British, as they often are, and in a previous life he was a Chemical Engineering PhD. He’d taught high schools rather than going into higher education, and that’s how he’d made his way into the Aga Khan Group of Schools. He was Head of School for Aga Khan Academy, Nairobi. The jewel in the Aga Khan network. I had faith he would quickly and effortlessly sought out the minor bump on my desire for an IB diploma.

I first checked in with two of Dr. Pragnell’s direct reports Mr. Mbuthi and Mrs. Mutsune, dean of students and dean of studies, respectively. I figured they could help coach my appeal in a more desirable way than simply “I want to study, and I need the school to pay for it!” Their advice? For me to first schedule time through his secretary. After that, during my sit down with the head, I was encouraged to showcase my leadership qualities and my contributions to the school over the course of 4 years. I rehearsed accordingly, listing down my involvement in the three areas that an IB diploma asks for: Creativity, Action, and Service.

I said hello to the receptionist and explained I had an 11am appointment. She asked me to sit and wait for a few minutes as the head wrapped up a conversation with a parent. Fifteen minutes later, I walked into Dr. Pragnell’s office and found him seated behind his desk. He had a white matching cup and saucer just to the left of his work space: that explained the strong smell of coffee. We shook hands and I took a seat opposite him. I explained that I’d just received my KCSE results a week prior, and he congratulated me on my performance. I then laid out my interest in the IB, and why I believed I could do well, given my involvement in school until then. He listened patiently, and once I was done talking laid out some of the challenges of joining the IB class mid-year. Since the IB school year runs from September to May, joining in February would have meant having about 5 months worth of academic work to catch up on. I nodded before earnestly spelling out that if given the chance I’d work hard and make the transition. Heck, I even believed myself. In the end though, joining late was not the main issue, cash was. The head made it clear he had no discretionary funds to cover full rides to the IB. He had a few scholarships, one offered 50% tuition, while the other covered 75%. I had hoped he would offer to cover the remaining balance. I knew that 25% of a KSHS 200, 000 annual bill was not something my parents could afford. This was clearly the end of the road. When it sank in that Dr. Pragnell was either unable or unwilling to help, I was crestfallen. This felt like a betrayal. I’d kept up my end of the bargain, and done well in my final exams, but I felt that he’d reneged on an unspoken promise: do well and doors will open, regardless of financial ability. On my way out of the office, I swung by Mrs. Mutsune’s office to report that I’d failed. That 10 minute visit would change the entire course of my life.

A Gorgeous Woman in a Movie Theater

Walking across Bul, my old haunts, with Lorraine gave me mucho social capital. This was quite an improvement from the surreptitious caresses I had previously stolen while watching action flicks in a makeshift cinema hall. I was in form 2. This is the age when high schoolers begin to stretch, bend, or wholly ignore the rules. Form 1 is all about survival, and the excitement of finally leaving behind the churlish world of primary school. Often, you’ll be bullied as older and tougher students set you straight on how beneath them you are on the totem pole of high school hierarchies. Monos, the as the sniveling, low-life form ones are called, have two options: cry for help, and be mama’s baby for your entire high school career, or bite your lip, persevere, and look forward to meting out the same punishment to junior boys next year.

Well, Aga Khan Academy had no space for bullies. No government minister, or wealthy business magnate, was paying a fortune in tuition just for their kid to get knuckled every afternoon. Aside from that, my cohort never got a younger breed of monos on whom we could exercise our tyranny. AKA offered three kinds of high school education: the Kenyan national curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, and the British IGCSE. Students studying the KCSE paid the least in tuition. We were the poor distant relatives. No wonder the institution decided to do away with this option. We were the last class to take sit for national KCSE exams in 2001. and we knew better than to try and intimidate our richer compatriots.

That, however, did not stop us from breaking the rules in other ways. My favorite was making an unsanctioned (by my parents, that is) stop at an Indie movie theater. These venues were the height of ingenuity. Kids love TV. Unfortunately, in my version of suburbia, TVs were a luxury – not so much in terms of buying, but in regards to maintaining it. Sure, you could arm yourself with a cheap Chinese-made home theater – aka a 21″ black and white telly – but that didn’t solve the energy challenge. We were not connected to the national power grid. Up until the 2002 Kibaki administration, connection to power was a political largesse reserved for the well-heeled. You prayed that one of your local councilors or Members of Parliament was in the good graces of the Big Man in State House. If not, languish in darkness! You’d use kerosene lamps for the house, and run the TV using a car battery. Bul Bul was a major enough town center, right on Ngong Road, to warrant connection to the electrical grid. An entrepreneur rented space, placed about 10 wooden benches in there, all facing a 32 inch TV that, for security purposes, was always locked in a metal cage. Even when you paid the KSHS 10 admission fee to go watch a movie. This was such a rare treat, the proprietor must have been anxious someone would walk out with the electronic equipment just as the main actor was about to kick ass.

You could watch all kinds of things here. Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches. You may have been born in Kangawa, had no idea where the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was, but you lived, breathed, and bled Manchester United. Or Barcelona. Or Deportivo La Corona, Chelsea, Arsenal, and many more. But these team afiliations were also about glory. I’m yet to find someone who roots for Newcastle Upon Tyne. No space for losers here.

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Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches.

Weekday evenings, from about 5pm, featured action flicks. Think of the big global brands in action films: Rambo, Terminator, Bond, Jean Calude Van Damme, The Rock, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared on the screens multiple times during the week. The movie operator decided to start showing World Wrestling Federation matches on Wednesday nights. These were apparently as big a hit with grown men as they were with school boys. In primary schools, we adopted WWF monikers: The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Papa Shango, Coco-T. if boys wanted to tease you, they snickered Yokozuna each time you walked by. If you’ve ever seen the 400 pound Japanese Sumo wrestler, styling a thong, you’d clearly see why this was not a complement.

I went in mostly for the action. Martial arts, close-quarter hand combat, crime thrillers with epic car chases, those were my staple. I craved the adrenaline. Loved the sweaty smell as strangers squeezed onto an uncomfortable wooden bench, craning their neck each time a new patron walked down the aisles. Since the cinema needed zero light penetration to ensure the best movie experience for its customers, this meant the theater was a claustrophobia-inducing cube. No light in or out. And no air, in or out. It was stuffy as hell. And by the time you exited, as the credits rolled on, you’d re-emerge almost as though from a cave. Blind as a bat.

And then there was the commentary. This is a unique phenomenon I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It’s kinda like having subtitles on your movie, except that they’re provided as live commentary. The same kind of commenting that accompanies sports events, soccer, baseball, football, or basketball. It’s often in Sheng or Gikuyu, and it’s amazingly hilarious to listen to. Since we were mostly watching Hollywood hits, American English was the default language. Which is fine until you’re faced with an audience that has not graduated high school, and whose comfort with accents is minimal. But why should that stop anyone from enjoying a movie. The solution Nairobi designed was to have commentator who, even though his level of English may not be much better, had pre-viewed the movie, and could walk the audience through the plot line. Hollywood action flicks have a fairly copy-paste plot line: good guy enjoying life; bad guy messes up good guy’s life; good guy has to kick some ass; bad guy is taken care of; good guy gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. The End. Commentators helped the audience figure out Good guy and Bad guy. And then they began to add their own sound effects. And, since they provided commentary in local dialects, their storytelling was inevitably colored by local colloquialisms.

“Basiiiii, wapenziiii, watazamaji!” “So noooow, dear audience!” You inevitably smiled when you heard the DJ begin his film commentary. These folks actually have a lot of fun at work. If you get the movie’s dialogue, it’s annoying as hell to have to listen to their often inaccurate voice-overs. But once you give yourself into the experience, it’s actually super funny. The descriptions of the villain and the hero are laced with innuendo, and whatever insults are currently hot on the street. In case you’ve missed the “Word of the Day” during your matatu commute, the DJ makes sure you’re all caught up.

There was more than language to be appreciated from these spaces. Did I mention that the space had an air of debauchery? I’m pretty certain they’d air blue movies after a certain hour. Movies Za-Kaende, as they’re known in Sheng, needed a 21+ rating. No Kids allowed. I couldn’t stay out past 9pm on a school night, so I never had the pleasure. I did indulge, however, in flirting with a regular. I never quite figured out why she was often in the audience. She could either have been the proprietor’s daughter, or the DJ’s girlfriend.

But she was more comfortable in this macho theater than I was. And that was sexy to watch. One time I was lucky, her usual spot next to the DJ was occupied. Her only other option: the empty bench beside me. I scooted over in a welcoming gesture. I didn’t dare hope that she’d take me up on my offer. I struggled to hide my excitement when she did! We whispered hello to each other. The best thing about chatting up a gorgeous woman in a movie theater is that you have to get real close. The sound track is booming, and other patrons don’t appreciate being interrupted. No choice but to get inside each other’s personal bubble. Her shoulder brushed up against mine, our fingers were soon dancing, seemingly on their own. They yawned for each other, before filling up with the other’s palm and warmth. Our only acknowledgement for this pleasure: an occasional  smile, barely visible from the light bouncing on our faces from the TV screen upfront. That is one film I’d replay ad infinitum.

 

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.

Herds Boy Tales

One school holiday, after spending all term making puppy eyes at Irene – to no avail – I went to stay with Grandma. It couldn’t be a school holiday without going to Ocha in Juja. Grandma’s was great! First of all there was tons of milk, weather permitting. And for lunch, she’d often make thoroko. These vegetables are great in fiber, which I couldn’t have known back then. But thoroko have such strange texture; they’re really chewy. You could masticate on a mouthful for 5 minutes, and still not have sucked out all that juiciness. As a little boy, chewing on these strange tasting veggies was such a delight. Then there was always the chance of taking grandma’s dog for a hunt, and returning home with a rabbit or a young antelope – both delicious game meats.

In April, during the rainy season, Juja floods. This meant herding grandma’s livestock shod in gumboots or plastic sandals. Turns out you get terrible heat burn when you do that. For an 11-year old boy, the best part about living away from your mother for 3 weeks is that you don’t have to shower every single evening. Hence, all of a sudden, I had more time in the evening to challenge Njoro, my uncle, and grandma’s youngest kid, into farting contests. This being just a few years after the 1st American adventure in Iraq and Kuwait, our flatulence was appropriately named SCUD missiles and RPGs.

Our evening competitions over, we’d go to bed. Or rather I should say, I swam to bed. I was one of those kids who didn’t stop wetting their beds till really late. I mean like 10 or 11-years-old-late. My mother took me to see a sleep specialist. But that didn’t help. And once she quit her job, out went health insurance. I never returned to see the doctor. Instead, I went through a ridiculous number of mattresses, each lasting only slightly longer than the previous one as I doused them nightly with urine. In the middle, where a puddle would form each night, was usually the first spot to wear thin. Then a large tear would appear, eventually making its way to one of the corners, and thus rendering the mattress quite useless. With time, it made more sense that I use the hand-me-down mattresses that either my parents or my sisters had worn thin. That way it wasn’t such a loss to witness the mattress shrink and shrivel a la my nocturnal activities. It did, however, mean that I’d have to make several trips each morning taking out individual bedding pieces to dry in the sun. Usually I’d try and hang them out of sight; that way no neighborhood kids would ask awkward questions.

When I spent the holidays at Grandmas, I’d sleep in the living room, on the couch – my uncle Njoro having had it till up here with my nightly liquid adventures. We tried all kinds of tricks. One night I was banned from drinking tea just before going to bed. That didn’t help. Then I was asked not to drink any water after sundown. The next morning my couch was still soaked. As a list ditch attempt, Njoro woke me up around 3am to pee outside. I staggered out the door, eyes half-closed, tried not to pee on my feet, then stumbled back to bed. I woke up to even more pee than usual; this time not only had I wet the couch and the cushions, the floor was also flooded. Peeing in bed was like a curse! I started to worry that someone with an evil eye had indeed bewitched me, jealous that I was doing so well in school. Grandma and Njoro resigned themselves to the daily stink. And like clockwork, the sun would rise on me and my soggy beddings. December days are usually pretty warm and dry in Juja. That was lucky, because then my cushions would be dry by the evening when I brought them back inside.

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When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals.

Having laid out my beddings and cleaned up, I’d quickly do breakfast – often a plate of whatever was left over from dinner last night – and head out to meet Wa Ngoiri, our herdsman. Folks in the community sent him their livestock daily, and he’d look after them for a fee. When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals. And this is how I met Githu; he and I were assigned as Wa Ngoiri’s helpers. We’d get together first, merge our cattle, and drive them towards the larger herd. The rest of the day was spent sitting, whistling after errant goats, and stoning any village dogs that came too close to the sheep. While our supervisor may not have allowed it, we’d certainly have tried to initiate a bull fight between our largest animal, a light brown steer named Kilonzi, and smaller young males from competing herds. At lunch time, we’d find some shade, and while the animals chewed curd, we’d munch on ugali – soggy from sitting in sukuma wiki stew.

The day Wa Ngoiri “called in sick” Githu and I took charge. There were no cell phones so we didn’t know our lead herdsman won’t be at work till he sent a neighbor’s five-year old boy to my grandma early that morning. Granny explained that we’d have to make sure we keep the cattle in the old sisal plantations; this was the area with the most grass. I was also directed that in the afternoon we slowly make our way to the usual watering dam so the cows and goats could drink. Ever dutiful, I made sure Githu did all that. Finally, at 3pm, when the air is filled with bees shuttling back and forth to their hives, we sat down for lunch. We chose a rocky formation, giving us a good vantage over the resting animals. Today’s menu was cold rice, cooked in a broth of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. This was 5-star dining and Githu wanted in. I was not too happy to share, especially since in return I only got his githeri stew. I took a few spoonfuls of the watery lunch and gave up.

Lunch over, we nestled in the grass to digest our food. Our backs rested against the rock, mimicking the animals when they wanted to scratch an itch. Lazily, we ended up on our backs, staring up at the sky. My hands wondered first, on to his pants, and eventually slid in under the loose elastic waistband. He sported neither undies nor boxers. No surprise there, he was a village boy to the core – after all. He took his penis in his right hand, grinning, and lanced my hand with it. I accepted the challenge, drawing forth my own weapon in preparation for this close quarter duel. Githu sat straddling me, his legs on either side of mine. I lay on my back, gazing through at the clouds when not engaged in the sword play we’d invented. I also kept an eye out for any intruder. Although we couldn’t exactly name whatever we were doing, we’d been socialized well enough to anticipate that adults would not appreciate our nudity. Eventually our curiosity abated; the mutual exploration ended and we got dressed. The sun was sinking in the horizon and it was time to lead the cattle back home.

Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.

Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump  in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.

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Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim.

So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.

That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.

I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.

I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.