On evenings when I leave Patel’s early enough, I spend my time on the mattress basking in the dark and musing over the sins I’ve committed under the sun. Some of them amuse me and I laugh. Some remind me that I am stupid and I really feel it. I am that sentimental that something I did in 1927 still haunts me and makes me ashamed even when alone and in the confines of this thing whose rent I pay myself.
Maybe that is how I should live. It looks like the perfect life cycle of a poor man. Do good, regret the good all your life, die, get forgotten, reincarnate as a dog, get beaten up for bones you didn’t steal, get knocked down by a truck, die….
Why don’t we all renew our hearts and go back to our childhoods full of hope and life? I can’t take it that I have lived more than half the lifespan of an African prole yet there’s nothing to show. Each beautiful sunrise is a cold reminder that I’ve moved closer to my six-feet-deep by a day. I want back those days of innocence and peace and good things. Days when parents told us we would grow up to be good policemen or teachers.
“It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to. We have killed our past and are busy killing our future.” – Betrayal in the City.
So on the mattress I stretch out Patel’s insults and think about the little lies school drummed into us.
Papa, you are getting nuts.
No. This is how men struggle through their midlife crises.
Regretting over your schooling?
One day you will come of my age and you will know.
Anyone who doesn’t have a story about his school did not go to school. Simple as that. I’ve been to such routine wars as job interviews and woman-hunting and I’ve had to repeat again and again the blah-blahs of our little shrine of knowledge because interviewers and women never get tired of asking, and I never quench the hunger to tell.
If I’ve ever told you about our school then I should have told you about the classes already. For those joining us today, we studied in classrooms whose walls nature had reduced to pillars – tatters of concrete standing in solitude of cold and human neglect. If we used the doors to enter them then it was only a matter of honour, because every wall had other holes eaten into it and someone would rather get into class through these holes than through the door. Sometimes it was difficult differentiating between the door, the window and the holes because there was no real difference between them other than the names we branded them. For the classrooms with leaking roofs, it was almost impossible to tell whether where you stood was inside or outside – there was no clear demarcation to spell out such trivialities. That is why it was normal that when a teacher taught, some of us would get in and out of class without him noticing. We would easily sneak out of Maths lessons and slide into another classroom where Mwalimu Dickson Inzoberi the Music teacher did not so much condemn noise or sleep. Sometimes we strolled to the river. Other times we just got out for the sake of getting out. That was when education was still education and not these things we see today. That was when Mukambi Primary School was Musenda, the epitome of civilisation and the only school we still know.
At Musenda, the biggest obsession teachers had with us was to make us little Englishmen and women. And they succeeded somewhat. We put on things that resembled blue shirts and khaki shorts and made an English sentence before every solar eclipse. Our native languages were criminal and as little English-things we stayed committed to following the law of the land. The rules were simple. You speak the illegal language, a language policeman near you hands you a pig’s bone, you tie it round your neck, and in the evening he hands you over to the language military officers (read teachers) because your matter is so grave it can’t be addressed by the Interior Ministry. The bone was called a disk, and was harvested from the ugliest parts of a pig’s anatomy.
Now in the evening when the prefect called you out, you would call the other idiot you handed the disk to, and so on until you got to the last man. This happened everyday at the school assembly grounds just when the bell for going home was about to go. It was a strategic enterprise so that while it caused double pain to us – the graphic pain of excruciating lashes landing on our buttocks and the trauma of leaving the school late – it also served as a good example to the rest that the future was not so bright if you committed crimes against the mighty Queen of England.
Perhaps why not take these teachers to the police, someone will ask. Haha, someone else will laugh. Those days, a teacher, a chief, a doctor and a policeman all stood on the same pedestal of success and authority. Worse still, a teacher who never beat up children was an incompetent, lazy fraud who immediately lost his standing in society. His name would first be on the hushed tongues of women going to the river, then at barazas of elders, and one day while he stood in class massaging the stupidity of children, parents would move in unannounced baying for his blood. Yes, teachers had authority and success; but the power was with the people.
Whenever matters reached here, the godforsaken teacher would be transferred to a distant school (where gossip had not yet taken his name) or would decide to impeach himself from the profession and hang his boots due to the career-threatening piece of shame.
But with everyone sticking to their lane, stupidity remained our main economic activity and teachers found work to do. If you were stupid you were safe. You only needed to fail in the exams, speak poor Lunjeresa (convoluted Luhya spoken in the nose to sound like English), answer class questions wrongly and the teacher would happily hold a holocaust when time was ripe. Those who contravened this led miserable lives. For example when visitors came to Musenda it was they who were picked out to speak at the school assembly. In English. For rejecting stupidity they were forced to attend school functions in shoes and clean uniform. Who did that! We would look on and sympathise with them as they shifted heat from foot to foot. Being stupid could be bad; being foolish was worst.
Enter Mwalimu Amani.
Mwalimu Amani Mwimali ibn Kassim, as he preferred he be called, was a rogue character with whom every soul clashed. Looking back at our ineptitude, I still don’t see how we crowned him the Duke of Eshiakhulo. Maybe it came from one of the teachers. Or from a character in the books we read with him. Being the small English we were, it was not very impossible to conjure up the title from the texts we read. Amani was strict and the mirror version of a black Englishman.
Now Amani was a jack of all trades, as cliche has it. He taught English, Kiswahili, Music, Maths, Agriculture, Drama, GHC, Science, Eating, Walking, Laughing and everything else that came to his mind. Even Arabic that was not in the syllabus, and which we knew was a reserve of bad people, he taught. The world now knows how we read about the waw-waw women and Mamiwota in Uncle Ben’s Choice at such a tender age, or about Bensali and Kaibori of Bindeh’s Gift, or about Mista Courifer whom we liked to the marrow. Every evening he gave us a story to read and first thing next morning we were to answer questions about the story and write an essay. Those who failed, failed peace. Those who passed got enough time to fear for the day ahead.
On his second day at school, he came and taught us Arabic greetings. We were enthused and looked on with awe. Out of courtesy and good manners, we sang ahlan wa sahlan wa marhaba along with him. When we got tired Angachi my deskmate whispered to me that he (Amani) was short like a maize cob, and we laughed. Then Amani looked at us and stopped teaching. He said there was something wrong in the classroom.
Before we knew it, he was yelling at everyone to stand up. He asked if we had cleaned the classroom that morning. In unison and surprise and laughter we told him classrooms were cleaned on closing days and that we still had six weeks to cleaning day. That was a mistake. He sent for sticks and whipped us all. When he was done he went to the next classroom and whipped them all. He whipped the whole school and would have whipped the cook if he hadn’t introduced himself in time. We spent the rest of that day guessing where the boundaries of our classrooms were and scrubbing every area we thought part of the inside.
One other day the bell rang at an unusual hour. Assembly. Since Maths was our next lesson, I was the first person at the assembly ground. I even helped the bell boy hit the gong harder so that the little sluggards would know time was a precious thing. At the back of my mind I guessed the headmaster, one Mr Joseph Ongwete, wanted to chase us home for school fees, and I was already getting impatient at the prospect of an early lunch. Which was never there anyway.
When everyone was at his right spot, we saw Amani whisper to another teacher who whispered to another and the last two left to go stand behind the pupils.
“Wycliffe Angatia! Wycliffe Angatia where are you?” Amani never greeted people. He always began his speeches straight to the point.
Hearing the head-boy’s name made me start guessing the crime he had committed. Since I hated him, I prayed he be whipped first before the headmaster came to chase us.
Angatia entered the open area of the assembly ground. I remember that day like tomorrow. He was trailed by Kautenzia Masakhwe, the head-girl, and another boy whose name I have forgotten. Each carried a bucket of water. For no clear reason, we all laughed.
When they had dropped off their consignment and taken back their positions within us, Amani started addressing the school again. Since he was speaking in English and there was little hope of grasping what was being said, I started another conversation with Angachi as we waited for our Ongwete to come address us in Kiswahili. Then from nowhere, everyone turned to look at us.
Amani had called my name several times.
I stepped inside. He indicated by hand that I move to where he was. I didn’t know why the rest were laughing. He looked at my neck and switching to Kiswahili, asked what it was I was wearing. I had received the pig’s bone and had caught no-one else breaking English to take it from me.
“You have the disk?” he asked.
I tried to answer in English and failed. Tried again and failed. The third time I gave up. And kept quiet. He took the string from round my neck and put the pig’s jaw down on the grass. Then he instructed me to remove my shirt. Shirt how now, I wondered. I remove this my shirt in front of all these girls, that’s what he wants? With Konzolata looking? No way! But why?
I looked at Amani, not sure whether he wanted to eat my stomach or what.
If he wanted to see me naked, there was no need for drama because my tattered shirt and shorts were open to the eye. And for honour, for a certain girl in that crowd, for the name of my clan, for my family tree, I could not remove my shirt and little as I was, I stood my ground, looking at him with begging but resolute eyes. Then he called upon someone to bring us soap and asked two tall boys to come pin me down.
We battled fiercely. Me against two huge boys who had the home advantage because all the cheering was directed at them and the jeering at me. I knew this was ethnic cleansing. A pogrom. So I fought harder. Finally I lost the war and the shirt. And as I stood bare-chest before eight hundred pupils, Amani ordered that they remove my shorts as well. He even sent for the nursery school madam to come help with the washing.
He told them the school would never tolerate boys who didn’t want to bathe. I looked down. I felt hated because although I could never remember the last day I had bathed, I knew some boys in that crowd whose only contact with water was when rain found them far away from a human dwelling. Yet they had not been picked for washing. Why always me?
“Yes, remove those shorts and you, Kautenzia, bring that bucket to madam here,” spake the Duke.
I have never grasped what happened in the few seconds that followed and how it happened. All I remember is me breaking through the pupils, dodging the teacher manning the outer ring and flying through the holes in our classroom walls. The next thing was a bare-chest boy running for his honour on the village path and the entire school following. With every stride I knew the name of my grandfather, the great Pharaoh of Misri, was at stake and I had to protect it. Till then I had thought Amani was the fastest man; since then I knew my athletics prowess was not to be underestimated.
Very many years later, when I’m listing the top ten people who had the greatest impact on what I do today, Amani appears ten times. He taught me to read and to write. He taught me to study.
It’s been sixteen years since I last saw the Duke of Eshiakhulo.
Those who say say he went to Uganda.
Others say he married a beautiful woman and went to Nairobi.
But I still celebrate him, even if he goes to Botswana or Angola.
I don’t know if I am what he wanted I be. But I am happy he left an impact.
Now I can sleep and forget about Patel and the tasks for tomorrow.