It is still fresh in my head when I greeted a white man who had visited our school as “thank you madam.” He didn’t answer, and the way he looked at me I doubted if that was an appropriate greeting. It’s not that Mr. Chelungusi didn’t do his work. He did it. In fact he covered the English syllabus in term one. He exhausted all types of compositions. He touched all areas in grammar. That was what he told us.
I failed in Mathematics too. Not that Mr. Wasio never came to class for Mathematics lessons. In fact I wondered why his subject was timetabled every day. Some teachers could miss school for various reasons – mostly, sickness – but Mr. Wasio never fell sick. The only time I thought he was unwell was the time I entered the staffroom and found him coughing. He was taking tea with a piece of roast maize. I think a mannerless maize grain mistook the windpipe for the oesophagus. And he didn’t go to hospital.
Now Maths and its mysteries. One day my mum asked me to help my younger sister solving some problem. The first sum was zero plus zero. I told her the answer was eight. My younger sister, Nanjala, and I never agreed on that until we called our mother in. She just laughed. “Is that how your teachers cheat you?”
Anyway, how can you conclude that zero plus zero is zero? How is that possible? When you add a zero on another zero, one thing will carry another on its head, and hence my correct answer eight. That is how I argued and made my answer relevant.
I also liked Mr. Namunguba’s teaching methodology and mannerism. He was our Kiswahili teacher. He could abuse you if you wrote a poor insha or dozed off during his Kiswahili lectures. Are lectures the same as lessons? I don’t know. He taught. But I still failed in Kiswahili.
Now this is the story. It wasn’t my fault to register low marks in KCPE exams. A witch and the madman were the reasons behind my dismal performance. Our home was 5km away from school. If you could wait until the sun opened its eyes, Mr. Masaba would beat you up till you farted. He was ever on duty. I never understood why. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest staff member. His colleagues were aging on an hourly basis. He had completed his high school course just the other year, which meant he was still energetic. He was a good caner I must say. Therefore to avoid injuries on your behinds, you just had to rise as early as 4.30am.
But then, the morning dew was always cold, and we never wore shoes. Mostly because we did not have. And, even if you had, your schoolmates would laugh at you. I remember the day Kalulu came to school in shoes. I think he wanted to overcome the cold grass on the ground. Opicho could not help himself laughing. Mr. Chelungusi would say he laughed hysterically.
“Kalulu you are wearing shoes?” Opicho asked as his shoulders moved synchronically with the laughter. “So what do you want us to say? That you come from town?”
However, the morning dew wasn’t a big threat. The real threat was beyond that – a witch and the madman. There was this witch on fashion. He used to hang on thickly leafed trees which neighboured Sifumbukho’s farm with his head down like a bat. That is why we changed his name from Wabunulu to Wambuto – the bat. Any woman who coming from the milling shop as late as 6.30pm would have her family sleeping on empty stomachs. Wabunulu would take her maize flour and disappear behind the bush.
One Thursday, Mr. Masaba and Mr. Namunguba sent a warning to everybody about late-coming. They were both on duty. Everybody knew what it meant by those two saying, “Just come late if you want.” I asked mother to wake me up at 4 a.m. the following day. She pleasurably did that. I washed my feet as usual (bathing day was strictly on Saturdays – the day we went to church). Now the task before me was a breath taking one. There was only one route that could take me to school. And this route hosted the two terrifying human beings.
I started for school at exactly 4.20am. I came close to Wabunulu’s work-place, the tree, and became wise. I tiptoed stealthily, and after successfully passing, anybody with a good bicycle could not catch up with my speed. In fact Mr. Wasio, my Maths teacher, would never calculate the speed I had moved at.
Now, after two kilometres, I came close to where Mayende the madman slept. It was by the fence near the slaughter house at Chebukaka market.
This man used to walk with snakes in his pocket. That was one of the most threatening things about him. I wondered why those snakes never bit him. The wisdom I used at Wabunulu’s place flashed in my mind. I smiled and decided to tiptoe quietly. I did not make two steps.
I stood stopped after the first step. The urine from my bladder forgot that I had already washed my feet back at home. I shook.
Mayende was standing right before me. He was holding a snake in his right hand. Though the snake looked dead, I was not convinced. And a snake is always a snake, dead or alive.
He started toward me without uttering a word. That’s when I rediscovered my athletic skills. I made that 180° turn and took off. A bit of exaggeration perhaps but I think my knees hit the chin while the heels knocked the back of my head.
That was the first week of term two, and I stayed home till exam day.