It was Wefwafwa who came to tell me that a new teacher had come. And indeed when I took my firewood to the staffroom that morning, I found a shortish man in what I think was a yellow sports apron. If I trust my memory well, I may also add that he was smoking a cigar and moving about the place like he ran it. Mwalimu Pamela was not someone who laughed easily. Neither was Mwalimu Panisi. So when I found all of them being cracked by this new man in yellow colours, I knew things would be rosy. That is how I first saw Mwalimu Evans Mudanya.
That first day alone he had moved around and made friends. He unexpectedly came to class three and I think he found me dancing to a school-made Sukuma bin Ongaro. I didn’t see him enter. All I remember is that the classroom soon went silent and when I turned around, there was the man in yellow:
“Yes Bwana Chief?” That would later become his signature greeting.
Then this weekend happens and we are roaming the streets of the kingly city of Khushianda. Then Yusuf, Allah have mercy on his soul, picks a torn envelope. Inside the envelope is a torn 10-shilling note. We form a thinking committee and think a lot about this note. It is beyond us how someone can drop five shillings (half of ten was five) just like this, eh. Eventually, someone suggests we are hungry. Indeed we are, but then what? A second suggestion comes that we use the half note to buy half a loaf of bread. And in no time, we have folded the thing so well you might think it a twenty.
The first shop we get is on your way to Elubinu. And whose is it other than E. Mudanya’s, Esquire? We find his son of about 8 and we give him the note. With the five bob balance we walk to that bush that used to neighbour Onyango’s hotel and we descend on the loot. That is Sunday.
Monday, new life.
It is assembly time. We have forgotten past and are busy dropping mirrors between the feet of unsuspecting girls. I’m only small, which means that I’m cushioned by the big ones like Angachi for whom I have to daily carry roast maize if this protection is to continue. We are least concerned with the assembly because even if we made it our business, the teachers are using much English and less Swahili and so we will still go without a thing. Then I hear Yusuf’s name. Then mine. Then Wanga. Then Benix. Then Wefwafwa. Now the funny thing with your name is that you always understand it even if the speaker is using Arabic. The mention of those simple syllables pulls your nerves for attention and you take your bar in the court of the universe.
So we are called and we enter the assembly grounds. The environment has changed abruptly. We are in Greece. The only real thing remaining is the short man standing with a cane and the laughing learners. The teacher points at us and asks questions in English. We cannot answer anything and the assembly bursts out in laughter. In the laughing nation is Angoli whom I helped to write his name yesterday. The parade is dismissed and we are directed to the Fort Jesus. (Need I write you a piece on how teachers named their mud-walled offices that also served as kitchen, store, dormitory for the big rats and changing room for the magician who performed to us every first week of the month?)
The moment we reach, we find a parade of discipline teachers. They are colonialists. When you entered this mad walled unit of about 10 by 10, there are conventions you had to adhere to. First, your shirt had to be in. Second, you had to be ready to accept all the accusations by nodding or if you knew some English, saying yes madam. Last, and most important, you had to leave the door wide open so that in case the heat went up, you would always find the path unobstructed. Though your parent would return your remorseful soul at the end, this escape soothed you that at least there was something you would do to stop the brutality of the Babylonians.
They usher us in. The place is filled with firewood and it is dimly lit because last week the magician forgot his sacks that have now blocked the windows. In the other corner are nursery school cups and a number of rat-eaten charts. The remaining space has a small rickety table with a bundle of guava canes tied in a leopard skin. Swear. Round the table are three chairs that serve as the office of Mwalimu Paul, Mwalimu Mudanya and Mwalimu Pongopongole (I don’t remember his real name. Someone out there?). Paul and Pongopongole have been waiting for us. Silence. As we enter, I hear the door bolted. Scanning the area, I see what looks like half a ten-bob note with the head of Kenyatta axed in the middle. Now the only rescue might be that God our teacher talks about.
I don’t have to continue with this story. But just for mention, I swore never to move close to half a note in a manner likely to suggest things.
Another moment I remember with Mudanya. It is in the afternoon. I’ve come home at the lunch break and as usual, I pass our house because there is not even bad food in the house. I head to the cane plantation and I take what Caesar can use today. Then as I use the route the passes near the stream, I see some mangoes and I tell myself miracles don’t happen twice. Soon I’m in the branches. Then I say no need to go back for the afternoon lessons. But fate being what it is, Mudanya will pass under this very tree on his way from lunch. He is never a person who looks up easily. Today he will look. He will see me fainting in the branches. Hey Bwana Chief, he will call me. Bwana Chief get down. And we shall walk to the Fort Jesus. A number of screams and I’ll be unable to use the desk for two weeks.
The stories about Mudanya were many. Whenever he was mentioned, even the villagers of our city panicked. It was a time when teachers were still teachers. They were among the big five of society: chief, police, msumbichi, hunger and teacher. Even Doctor Emirundu would not fit in this bracket of respect. And yet Mudanya was not just a teacher. It was rumoured he practised karate though no one knew where, how or when. And on it others added that he didn’t smoke just tobacco. Then he had a TV and his Bill and Annette spoke flawless Swahili. Now where could someone get all these genes in one body if not heaven? On reverence, not even Our White Man of Musenda who came a year after his departure could reach him.
Yet he lived a simple life. He always smiled when he met you on the way. One day I abruptly bump into him at the market and there being no room to hide, I run to greet him and help carry his luggage. You know what he does? He tells me to walk with him to his house. I find the kids watching Cartoon Network. I’m welcomed to sit in the chair. Yes, a sofa! Then Mwalimu Rose serves us tea (with milk). If Chief-Chief would have claimed prophet-hood at that hour, I’d have been his first disciple.
But he didn’t claim prophet-hood. He will never claim it because he has gone to be in the higher world. He won’t be given the airtime to come see the making of his hands.
The last time I saw him walking was somewhere in 1997. Nineteen years walking yet I had no time to go say thank you for teaching me G.H.C so well. Now I will join other hypocrites who wait till someone is gone and start to eulogise. We shall make a thousand verses of praise and add rhyme and alliteration and irony but all will not enter the six feet the village of Mbale has prepared. Chief-Chief is gone while we still owed him a thank-you and a smile.
**Someone be kind enough and insert Remmy Ongala’s Kifo song here.
Sometimes the logic of losing a teacher beats me. A teacher should not die. But if he must die, let his death be different. People drop their last sigh and stop to breath. They kick and gulp and lose the heat. They have a mouth they can no longer use. Then those around them begin to wail and roam the home in great loss. Then the children feel the fall of the central pole.
A teacher should not go that way. A teacher should be raised to glory in broad daylight. He should soar up as an eagle as we all watch and cheer him on. We should see the heavens split open and how he is shown his golden house with rivers of honey and milk and loosely hanging grapevines and apple trees gracing his new home.
Teachers are irreplaceable even in death. Nobody can give the names of their deities since childhood but we always start from Mwalimu Everline Mumbo, Mwalimu Pitris, Mwalimu Elleni, to the end of the endless list. When a teacher is gone it is not just them that are gone but also the small worlds they created in the lives of their learners. Gone is the wisdom and the knowledge. The love. The care. The parent. The hope. The model.
Gone is the warmth. The laughter. The joy. The friendship. The world.
We should all have a day for celebrating teachers into glory.
That is the reason the rocky town of Mbale will not be as usual this weekend. He will be the first to rise up into those blues as we watch. And we shall all look up and shout upon The Owner of the Skies:
Look at him with mercy. He is Mwalimu Mudanya of Musenda, the school next to the Baptist Church of your appointed city of Khushianda. Give him milk and honey and laughter and a roof over him. For us that remain, comfort us and guide us to accept and find his good deeds our ship of voyage.