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.

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.

Sun & Sand

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We’d packed our bags the night before. After a few last minute instructions to Njoro on what to do while we were away for ten days, we embarked on our journey. Destination: Mombasa!

Leaving home that December morning, we were dressed to kill. My sisters, as usual, were in matching dresses. The yellow and brown flower designs on their dresses multiply disappeared into sharply ironed pleats. The twins’ attire was rounded off tastefully with pale green sweaters, machine-knitted by my mom, and white stockings sheltered in the pair of black shoes they’d each received last Christmas.  I was in what I’d termed my “Bermuda” shorts – fashioned to look like a fabric mosaic that comprised of different shades of brown. I also had on a t-shirt, and a heavy cardigan that was made from metallic green and charcoal black yarn. The rest of our small wardrobes had been packed into school bags. Anything that was too big was placed in a large travel bag that had expandable double bottoms. The purple and light blue suitcase was full, its four roller wheels barely more than a few centimeters off the ground as I half-wheeled half-pushed it through the living room.

Traveling by road from Nairobi to Mombasa is a patriotic duty. This ordeal needs to be at the very top of a 50-things-Kenyans-must-do-before-they-die list. It all starts on River Road, a busy commercial street in Nairobi’s less sophisticated district. You’re free to reserve your seat a day or two in advance, but this in no way guarantees the timely departure of your bus. The coach, often with bold, glittering graffiti on its side, will start the journey when the crew ascertain there are enough passengers on board. Mash Poa, Coast Bus, and Tawafiq are some of the big brand names that ply the Nairobi-Mombasa route. These are 50-seater coaches that have become increasingly fancier over the years. Now, many of the bus lines entice passengers with in-door plumbing, free bottled water and Wi-Fi access. Back when my family and I made the trip, none of those trappings existed.

Departing from the River Road terminal does not necessarily mean starting the journey. We still had to weave through Nairobi’s mid-morning gridlock. You swing by St Peter’s Xavier, heading up Haile Selassie towards Uhuru Highway. A left at the round about takes you through Industrial Area, with the Railway museum to your left, and the Railway Golf Course on your right. Before getting into Inda, as the city’s historic manufacturing district is affectionately known, you’ll see a cemetery commemorating Commonwealth soldiers who died during the first and second world wars. Once you pass Nyayo National Stadium you’re now on Mombasa Road; between you and salty breezes of that Indian Ocean port lay about 500 kilometers of open road. Sit back and enjoy the ride. If you’re lucky, perhaps travelling on a weekend or a public holiday, you should leave bumper-to-bumper traffic behind you even before you get to South B estates. However, if the gods have not decided in your favor, prepare to crawl through Embakasi, all the way past Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Beyond this point you’re scot free.

Your Somali conductor will visibly relax, probably pull out a bottle of Sprite, pop a hole on the bottle top, and take a swig. All these while expertly stripping the bark off a miraa twig using his front teeth, and instructing the driver not to stop for any of those asshole traffic cops who station themselves somewhere before Kitengela.

When you departed from Nairobi at half past ten, your stomach still contained the remnants of last night’s dinner: ugali and sukuma wiki. On top of that, you’d added a cup of Ketepa and 3 slices of bread  -spread with jam and margarine, of course. All that, plus the adrenaline rush from embarking on a cross-country voyage, was adequate sustenance. But now, 30 kilometers from Nairobi, on the outskirts of Machakos town, hunger pangs have welcomed themselves into your Mombasa experience. The novelty of trees, vehicles, pedestrians, and cattle flashing by on the other side of your window is no longer as exhilarating. The only visions you can presently subscribe to involve all that cake, mandazi, chocolate, and biscuits that you spotted behind display counters at various eateries on Tom Mboya St. The drops of condensation that were forming on the outside of yoghurt packs, the Delamare’s Farm logo brilliantly displayed, have returned to haunt you. Their very absence enables them to claw that much deeper into your imagination. What you wouldn’t give for a cool soda, chased with some fresh, warm doughnuts! Unfortunately, it won’t be until Mtito Andei, a good 200 KMS from Nairobi CBD, that the bus driver will pull over. Often, they’ll stop at a restaurant where they’ve pre-arranged to receive discounts, or even free meals, for every bus load of hungry passengers they deliver at the restaurant’s door.

The hungry horde of Mombasa-bound travelers gets off the bus. Limbs are cramped, and need shaking before they can return to life. Eyes half closed. The sun is blindingly bright, after 3 hours inside the bus. The more adventurous among us, eager to get on with the serious business of  consuming a Mombasa holiday, don sunglasses. Gone are the heavy Nairobi sweaters and jackets, to be replaced by t-shirts and shorts and sandals. Where is the sand? We trudge into the restaurant. Already salivating at the aromas of grilled chicken, lamb biryani, mutton pilau, mandazi, deep-fried Farmers’ Choice Sausage, and greasy chips doused in tomato sauce. You can see eyes darting between the cold drinks in the CoCa-Cola refrigerator and the display counter with steaming food where a server beckons. Decisions, decisions. Lost in choice, passengers don’t even notice time slipping away. In another 5 minutes, the driver will be impatiently honking and revving the engine. He and his crew are pros at this; they can polish off a solid meal in under 15 minutes, and still find time to squeeze in their 1pm ablutions and prayers. The driver’s assistant begins to corral passengers back onto the bus, take-away meals hastily packed, and with several folks foregoing their change. The restaurant, however, ensures no one leaves without clearing their check.

Back on the road again, the bus is now a cornucopia of competing flavors. Every dish smells better than the last. Indigestion. Flatulence. As we approach Voi, our fellow passengers are gliding in and out of an afternoon nap. The view outside the window now is blurry. It’s difficult to distinguish reality from dreamland. Are those Acacia trees by the roadside or just in my mind? And is that one-street-town over-populated on market day, teeming with goats, cattle, and fresh fruit, no more than a figment of my imagination? Maungu. Maji ya Chumvi. Mazeras. We’re finally in Mikindani, passing Chamgamwe and the oil refinery. This is Makupa. An elderly lady with her 4 kids is the first to ditch the couch, eager to get home. Her luggage is deposited beside her on the dusty sidewalk. 3 assorted suitcases, bursting at the seams. The eldest kid is holding onto a red-feathered jogoo, Christmas dinner. The conductor hurtles back into the bus just as the driver swings onto the tarmac, engulfing the family in a cloud of thick smoke and ashy dust.  Finally, the two tusks monument, just as I’ve always seen them on the back of the KSHS 50 note. The bus pulls into a makeshift shed. We’re here: Kongowea. This is the end of the road, and the beginning of my Mombasa adventure. There’s dad and his friend, Shaka, waving at us. Five hundred kilometers later, the family is reunited again.

That first night, we had dinner in town. All of us arranged around a wooden dining table. Made from roughly cut timber, the table slanted to the left. The polyester covering, which had been nailed to the top, barely improved this piece’s overall appeal. Not a big deal. Clientele at the “Mombasa Raha Restaurant” did not walk in for the décor and ambiance. Like many others, we too were after the chapatis rolled around fried eggs, flushed down with mugs of hot spicy chai. The scent of tangawizi blended with conversation as my parents shared news and caught up on what been happening since they last saw each other. These were, after all, the days before mobile telephony and short messages only came via snail mail. The rest of dinner involved grilled chicken, fried rice, and soda. More tea for the adults.

By now it was late in the evening. The land-bound breeze coming in from across the Indian Ocean engulfed us warmly. Our up-country noses wrinkled at the brine in the air. We’d also catch whiffs of fresh fish, coconut-laced cuisine, and raw sewage. In time, once my dad’s employees had shut down their taxi operation for the day, we drove to Bombolulu. We were going to visit one of my mom’s cousin and her two kids for a few days before re-joining dad after Shaka’s family got into town.

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Song & Dance

ndege wathie ũtũme marũa,

wĩre baba ũke naihenya,

unibomu yakwa nĩ  thiru,

ĩthireire haha mũkũnyũ,

kamũcũrũge! Kanyita ngũkũ! gaikia mũkũnyũ! ĩtikaganu!

Gĩkũyũ Children’s Play Song

Thinking back, I ingested a peculiarly diverse range of cultural artifacts during my childhood. The play songs, rhyming teases, songs on radio, TV series, and movies that I consumed as a kid originated from all over the cultural map. There were Gĩkũyũ couplets that are probably older than my grandparents. Childhood jibs in Sheng were more recent, perhaps a few decades old. While the Congolese rhumba that dominated Kenyan airwaves was from the 90s, even more recent were TV series from the UK, the United States, and Australia. Some of the items recycled much older narratives. For instance, the movie series Gods Must be Crazy, filmed in southern Africa, retold prejudice against black peoples instituted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Hanuman, his monkeys, and Sita who showed up on my TV screen on Sunday afternoons were revisions of the ancient Ramayana text.

Gĩkũyũ couplets – from my house to the main road, made of dirt and unpaved, you have two options. One is to weave around quarried lands, up a steep slope of dumped concrete and construction waste, to Barabara ya Najuu: the upper road. The other is to walk downhill, using the now official driveway, previously a stone quarry. Baba Shiro owned the small farm closest to the main road. Between his house and ours, the land had been sold by one of his brothers to a family friend. For almost a decade after we moved from Gĩkambura to Ngong’, this area was uncultivated, and overgrown with bushes. As a result, the half acre plot of land was home to a variety of wild mammals. Squirrels were in the majority, but so too were mongooses. Walking down the path, I’d see a number of bushy tails dash up a tree and then listen in amusement as their owners held a conversation up in the canopies. The mongoose family, however, was not known for speed or beauty. What they lacked in these two criteria they compensated for in cunning and sheer evil. Our mongoose neighbors established their presence by the number of chickens they devoured. Actually, not even devoured, just simply massacred.

Around dusk, or even later in the night, we’d hear our hens complain. Their clacking and crooning would indicate that an intruder had entered their coop. Often, the assailant mongoose would break an egg from one of the hens’ laying nests, and help itself to a meal. The shell and some remnants of the yolk would be visible the next morning. A loud bang on the chicken coop’s tin roofing would send its residents scrambling and the intruder would be forced into a hasty get-away.

More cunningly sometimes, the mongoose would not reveal its presence till the next morning. We’d go into the shed to feed and water the birds only to see a stiff hen on the floor. Closer inspection would reveal that its neck was punctured. This was how the mongoose had attacked it, using an incision wound on its neck to drink up its blood. Much like a vampire. The body would often be cold by the time we discovered it: carrion. At this point there was no choice but to bury the dead hen, or perhaps cut it up and prep it for the family dog. But this was generally discouraged. Feed the pet canine chicken on one too many occasions and the next thing you know, she’ll walk into the coop and grab a meal for herself. After all, why wait until the bloody mongoose had killed it first? Unsurprisingly, the mongoose’s wastefulness – it never feeds on the meat, just the blood – made its way into a children’s rhyme song.

Mr. Airplane please send this letter

Ask my father to return home ASAP

My school uniform is torn

It’s tattered right at the belly button

That mongoose! Stole a chicken! Stuffed it in it’s mouth! How very naughty!

We live on the flight path that commercial planes take on their approach to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson airports. The hum of an airplane engine, fifteen thousand feet above us, would send kids running and shouting. They’d send their voices high up, shouting messages to be communicated to their fathers who were far away, physically or emotionally.

There’s precedence here. A well-known folk tale from Central Kenya narrates the use of a dove to send a message from a wife to her husband. The man, so the story goes, had left behind an expectant wife and travelled far away to practice his trade as a blacksmith. In his absence, an ogre moved in and usurped authority it kept the pregnant woman well-fed so her and her unborn child would grow fat, and make for a sumptuous meal. To avert this disaster, the comely wife befriended a dove and trained it to send a message to her husband. This was a win-win deal. The dove got some of those delicious castor oil seeds; and the wife was saved when her man returned home and slaughtered the cannibal ogre.

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Mr. Airplane, please send this letter.

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Mbili fanana/ moja inanuka/ mavi ya kuku!

Two look-alikes/ one’s smelly-smelly/ chicken shit!

Childhood teasing – we’re 3 siblings in my family. Aside from the other illegitimate children my dad has never disclosed to us. Just kidding! I have two younger sisters, twins. Despite all evidence to the contrary, most people who meet them are convinced the two of them are identical. Actually, they’re just fraternal twins. When they were younger, and my mom invested in the habit of dressing them alike, they DID seem identical. As they’ve grown older however, their personalities have fleshed out in unique ways. They’re two different people.

We’d be walking across the village, the two of them dressed in similar costumes, and out of nowhere you’d hear kids shouting “mbili fanana!” The tune would conclude by suggesting that one of the two look-alikes smells of chicken poop. I never inquired from my sisters what they made of these taunts. In many ways, they weren’t malicious. But in their position, I’d have been horrified of all the additional attention.

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tangu lini doggy kava longi, na under?

When did dogs start wearing trousers and under pants?

Rhumba – sexy, jazzy sounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously Zaire, have received ample play time on Kenyan radio since the late Fifties. Joseph Kabasellah’s “Independence Cha Cha” was as much a hit in Kinshasa as in Nairobi. Stars such as Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Franco, Koffi Olomide, and many others have huge fan clubs across Kenya. In the 1990’s, Congolese “Ndombolo” took over the Kenyan entertainment scene like wild fire. The dance moves were borderline explicit, more often crossing into mature adult content. We loved it! Kanda Bongoman was not just a big time DRC musician with fanatic crowds in Brussels, Nairobi, and Paris, but also the self-given moniker by one of the milk hands in my neighborhood. This guy was as skilled in belting out Bongoman songs as he was in hand milking 7 heads of dairy cattle.

It goes without saying that as kids we did our best to karaoke Ndombolo lyrics. That we could neither speak, nor hear Lingala – the language in which most DRC music is composed – did not stop us. If we couldn’t get the lyrics right, we could at least create a re-mix. We made them up in our own way. The end result may not have stayed faithful to the original meanings, and I’m afraid we may have exercised that whole poetic license just a bit too much. There’s one particular remix that I especially associate with my time at Ngong Hills Academy. The licentious lyrics evoke memories of the terrible latrines we frequented as school boys. Those pits of disease were NEVER kept clean. Part of that certainly had to do with the fact that among a horde of 4 to 14 year olds there will be several who do not aim quite right when making a deposit. They’d then leave a nasty package on the latrine floor. The remnants looked like modern art exhibitions or the final products of a culinary experience involving omelets. Either way, these piles of shit were nothing pleasant to look at. And they stank to high heaven. Such incidents aside, they do not explain why many of the doors were often broken and in unhinged. Privacy was a rare commodity when you had a number 2 in mind. It is from that background that we began questioning fashion choices in dog world: what heralded the trouser-donning canines. Obviously, and memorably, this was done to the tune of the latest Ndonbolo track.

A Tale of Two Number Twos

Let’s call him Bob. Bob is a nice enough name for a guy as amiable as he was. I don’t remember him for anything particularly awesome. He wasn’t one of those smooth fellows in primary school who could sweet talk a mandazi from your lunch box into their hands, and tummy. But I don’t remember him for anything terrible, either. He wasn’t one of a gang of five herds boys who found pleasure terrorizing the nerdy boys we were as we walked home from private school. By virtue of being in a private institution, we were prey for the boys who ran home from neighboring public schools, discarded their uniforms, and took the cattle out to graze. They proved their courage, and self-worth (?) on the backs of our assumed privilege.

No, none of those are why I remember Bob. Bob is committed to the memory of my time in Ngong Hills Academy because of something embarrassing. You and I both know you’ve got similar compromising memories, about acquaintances from the past, so stop giving me THAT look!

One day while at school, Bob had the misfortune of experiencing a tummy ache. It wasn’t the kind of stomach ache that is content to rumble in your belly, occasionally letting out what resembles Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of mustard gas. No, this particular stomach pain was self-confident; self-confident in a way that needed to be announced to the whole school. Unwilling to remain confined in Bob’s abdomen, the upset stomach spilt itself out of his body. In a very messy way. As a very messy number two.

“Bob amejiendea! Bob went on himself!” This was the statement trending on every student’s lips. The news spread pretty fast across the school. It was not often that a grade 4 boy, having long left the daytime naps of kindergarten, was caught in such a compromising act. A teacher, or perhaps a staff member, helped Bob out of his soiled shorts and into a garment that resembled either an oversized pair of shorts or a Scottish kilt. Just in case anyone had missed the news, all they had to do was take one look at Bob’s new lower half of his school uniform, inquire after it, and they’d soon walk away smiling from ear to ear. I didn’t torment him about it, I must add. But I can imagine that Bob walked away from that day either permanently scarred, or forever trained to ignore public ridicule.

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I was on a bus from Kampala back to Nairobi. Just past the Kenya-Uganda border at Busia, the driver and conductor do what most crews do: picked up a few passengers to occupy any vacant seats, and whose fare meant extra pay. I was seated towards the back. Not the back seat where your head grazes the roof after each pothole, but one of the last two pair of seats immediately in front of it. Two gentlemen boarded the bus, and took up a pair of empty spots on the back row. The Nairobi-bound bus proceeded on. We were all eager to get to the Green City in the Sun.

The two fellows who’d just joined us turned out to be quite jovial. They were chatting between themselves, not particularly loudly, but you could tell they were in a good mood. We kept driving for about 45 minutes when one of the men called out loud for the driver to stop the bus. He said his friend needed to attend to a call of nature. For the last 10 or so minutes, I’d had to open my window at little wider because a mysterious smell had began to make its existence known. It wasn’t quite the smell of feces, but it smelt dangerously close. Perhaps like someone who’d evaded a shower for about a month, during which time he’d gotten buffed on by several babies. It was unpleasant, to say the least.

As the fellow asking for the bus to halt went back and forth with the conductor, who’d responded to this request by saying that the bus was not due for a break for another 4 hrs, at Kericho, a woman let loose a blood curdling scream. “Wuui, mavi! Feces!” All of a sudden the other passengers were now very interested in making sure the driver pulled over the bus immediately. The woman, who happened to be sitting next to the two men, kept shouting and making a ruckus. As soon as the driver pulled over, she jumped up and rushed towards the front of the bus and out the vehicle. The fellow who’d initially made contact with the driver also followed. The rest of us were left engulfed in the nauseating, unmistakable smell of feces. Windows were hurriedly opened but that was not enough.

The culprit looked around, dazed and perhaps embarrassed, perhaps defiant: I went on myself, mta-do? One or two passengers begun to use the words refunds, and alternate bus in their sentences. The tout and driver figured they’d better act fast. They marched to the back seat and asked the fellow to get up and exit the bus. Big mistake.

Turns out these two guys were imbibing the whole time. In their drunken state, one of them had lost control of his stomach and sphincter muscles – blame the rough Busia-Nairobi highway. Unfortunately for us passengers, these were not the polite kind of feces, the kind that calls in advance before showing up, or at least knows not to visit when guests are in your house. No, these were rude kind. The kind that moves from 0 to 100 in about 60 seconds. These were the go-getter, hustler kinda feces. They show up, then proceed to stare you down. These were kind of feces that are close relatives – think first cousin – to liquids such as soup and porridge. Like water, their second cousin twice removed, they always, and I mean ALWAYS, seek the lowest point.

When asked by the driver and conductor to stand up, the man’s excrete vacated the thin space between his behind, his pants, and his seat, and began its downwards safari towards his ankles. By the time he’d shuffled out to the aisle in between seats, they were nonchalantly rolling down his socks, and spilling over his shoes. By the time he got to the door, he was trailing a substance that was disgusting beyond belief. The bus reeked. It took about 20 minutes of cleaning, using soil, leaves, newspapers you name it before the traces were erased. But that, of course, did nothing to abate the smell. That stayed with us, rebelliously hanging on to the end of our journey in Nairobi.