In my childhood, many things happened. We would spend the weekends swimming and waiting to be caned in the evening. We would roam villages ‘stealing’ guavas and occasionally a banana and a nut. Then we grew up a bit, and the boys no longer walked with the girls, and we would go to the nearby stream to hide in banana plantations and steal peeps at women bathing and washing their underthings. We stood at strategic corners at the shopping centre and waited for girls; and when they passed by, everyone claimed to own them amongst ourselves. And we would sometimes fight over whose girl a girl was, and the girl in question would remain ignorant of this ‘love’. I doubt they even knew we existed.
So how does Mbukinya come in?
This is how Mbukinya comes in: When I mention the name, everyone of my age and beyond goes back to the image of that one and only bus. And really, Mbukinya was a bus! It existed at a time people travelled on foot or by bicycle. It ferried humanity to and from the city, which meant that only people of stature – who had life and people in the city – used it. It used to pass through our village at every 7.10am and 4.56pm, to and from the city respectively. You would always know it was Mbukinya from the hooting it entertained the children with. It would be another time to lose chicken and yams and goats to the city, or time to receive home those niceties as biscuits, glucose packets and cousins who fascinated you by their inability to speak the local language. It became part of our routine, and at school, if the bell delayed, the hooting of Mbukinya was legitimate a signal for teachers and learners to call it a day.
And Mbukinya would stir the whole market place! Everything would come to a standstill till it passed past the D.O’s offices to the world unknown. I remember a policeman hoisting a flag and who after blowing the whistle for ‘alert’ forgot his task and turned to look at Mbukinya. That day he was transferred or sacked or something.
The bus had a picture of a beautiful woman, drawn with curves and curvatures to the best of my memory. She had a beautiful diamond necklace and a sparkling bracelet on each of her hands. She had a vest dress, which means that her breasts were adequately exposed because she was in a horizontal position like she was flying. In her right hand was a yellow flame resembling a flag. But the woman was unusual because on her lower side she did not have legs. The fin looked so powerful and whenever I asked my mother, she would tell me that the women living far away in the islands of Nyanza looked like that. Together, it was this woman’s picture that gave the bus its beautiful feminine feeling and adoration….
Okay. Let me leave this boring story of mermaids. I have another one. Better.
I first saw her at our school assembly. I was in class three. It was definitely a Friday since the teacher was using Swahili – this I can remember so well because the senior students appeared to be getting the teacher and laughing along. Then the teacher must have said something about cleanliness, and he beckoned this new girl to come forward.
I remember seeing her walk bashfully, in her blue school uniform and the best airs, to the teacher. She was a new girl at school. On her blue dress she had a black pullover that matched her shoes. The white socks climbed from her shoes to the knees; they matched her white collar and the belt strap that, for school girls, lingered from somewhere over the stomach. She was slender and had eye glasses (eye glasses!). She even had shoes! Even if I would have understood Swahili at that age, I don’t think I could have heard anything the teacher said from then onwards.
The following weekend, as we waited for girls at our corner of the market, this girl came. She was walking with her mother, I guess from church. They looked expensive. Her mother also had shoes! The girl today was putting on a different pair, and there is something provoking her church dress did with the area around her chest. I was young, but who says a boy in class three already watching Rambo II and American Ninja does not know what breasts are?
I turned to my company and said, with all pride and confidence, “That is my girl.”
Perhaps they had not heard well, or they had not seen her, or they were just playing jealous. So I repeated.
“That one walking with her mother. She is my girlfriend.”
The guys laughed. All of them. But when they saw me calm and serious, they became interested.
“But isn’t that the girl Mwalimu was praising at the school assembly? She is in class seven!”
“She is my girl. She has told me that I am good,” I said.
“But look, this girl has shoes!”
“And she speaks Swahili. How did you convince her?”
When asked about her name, I thought of the most beautiful name an angel like her could have. I thought of the most sophisticated name. A name that insinuated class, cleanliness, having glasses, having shoes, having a mother with shoes – beauty. A name that could match what the teacher had said (if anyone heard).
“Mbukinya. Her name is Mbukinya.”
Everyone agreed at once that she was truly Mbukinya. And for the rest of the evening, other people’s daughters were at peace because we discussed only Mbukinya. I gladly answered questions about her family, her tastes, her secrets and most importantly, her body.
One day I was coming to the market from home. Three-ish, four-ish there. With me were my two close friends who were arguing out how lucky I was to have a girl who not only put on shoes and ‘goggles’ but also topped the class. You should have seen me beam and console them not to worry. I remember telling them that I would talk to her to walk with her sister a next time, a sister whom I said was almost as beautiful. Then Karma, the female dog, struck:
Right in front of us was this jewel, walking alone from the market. In one of her hands was a basket. The other had a white packet. Her milky eyes were in the air erect, piercing through the glasses to my heart, and her confidence would not wane with whom she met. She glowed like a starlet. And gleamed like an ornament. My heart began to palpitate. So fast that I blamed fate. Why hunt me thus and signal me late?
I froze. It was indeed late. She had already reached us. And was passing fast. My eyes made four with hers, large and beautiful, but even in those glasses it was not impossible to see her blank look – one that you give strangers you have never met and who at the same time aren’t your league. Later on I explained to my buddies why I hadn’t talked to her. That our love was at best still clandestine and that she’d not wish people to know because her mother might then know. What about her sister – we’d look into that, pal. And the wet pants – tea.
On another occasion, I remember her entering our class. Being the cleanest, and no doubt the most beautiful, she had been made prefect. That year I was in class four with furious pimples replacing my dimples. I don’t know if she saw me wink at her or not. She just came to where I was sitting on the floor (as a rule, only class seven and eight used desks) and asked me out of the class. Airs. Outside, she took me to the teachers’ latrines and instructed me to clean them. All along I could still smell her vaseline that crept through the reek of the teachers’ dung. When I was through, she asked me when it was I had last taken a bath. She said they were almost cracking the whip on my likes, then commanded me to go back to class. I found my peeps excited and talking about sex. My despair died. That little time I had had with Mbukinya was adequate to sharpen all the cells of admiration. As she instructed, and looked, I had thought other thoughts. As in, how do you remain sane, man?
Mbukinya visited me every night. Even after they relocated from our market place to the world away, she continued visiting. By now I was a senior adolescent and every visit ended the way such visits end with adolescents. Then she began staying long and I began going to school with her. I went with her to the bush, to the market, to the library, to my parents. I loved the way she smiled. God had done something with her teeth. Her chocolate skin radiated and blurred my sight of anything else around. A few months and I no longer walked with the boys and everyone at home thought I was turning antisocially sick.
In high school when I admired the female teacher of Biology, I did so because I thought they could be Mbukinya. I created her from anything, and grew much attachment to these creations. In the art room, I drew her, even when I was to draw a shrivelled old man. I wrote her poems, and wrote poems on her. A Chemistry teacher would later reprimand me for drawing bonding atoms like interlocked lips, mine and hers….
But she had moved and had perhaps never imagined of going back to check on the fire she had lit.
She still visits occasionally. Always finds me at the river. She prefers the other bank. The river is raging wild and I can’t swim like the childhood me. I shout to call her, she looks. When I talk, she looks on as if I don’t speak her language. And then I pause to wait for an answer. I wait for ages. When she eventually parts her lips to talk, to shout back, I don’t hear a word. She curves her palms at the sides of her mouth and attempts again. I gesticulate that I don’t hear a thing. She looks on blankly. Then I begin to cry. I cry like a child. My tears scold their way down my face into the river, further flooding it. I cry and call on her. She looks on, her eyes with glasses, and I don’t see any emotion in those eyes.
Mbukinya, if you are reading this, please give me a call. Do you remember the boy whom you almost slapped for putting a mirror between your legs at the assembly? Thank you. I know you could be married by now (God forbid). I know you could be having other life commitments. I know this and even more, but just give me a call because I can speak Swahili. Or write me a letter. I will tell you about that bus which served as our bell at school. Just communicate in any form. Tell me your real name. Tell me about your studies. About your mother, your dresses, your teddy bear, your shoes. Tell me anything. Assure me that you were, and still are.