Getting old this quickly is scaring. One day you will sleep a teenager and wake up a married man with a wife and grey hair. That is the day you will understand. You will visit the book of your teenage and childhood dreams and you will find those when-I-grow-up lines still written in bold ink. Growing up will be the only thing that shall have been achieved and you will find yourself staring the ceiling and trying to recount where the rain might have started beating you. You will open the window to look out for any traces of your youth. You won’t find any. It will be gone and the only sign you will find in those hazy clouds will be the reminder that life has happened and now the ship is coming to take you to the other world where you belong.
I don’t know if I’ll die today or tomorrow but as long as I be, I could find myself among the emerging old men. I have seen life and death. I have crossed borders and learnt how to say Ni hao and merci bocou (spelling is yours). I have seen droughts and survived equatorial floods and storms. The respect that I have, I have earned it myself. Sometimes a woman fights for me and sometimes a tax collector greets me. In short, I am an accomplished man with history to his back. Yet I don’t know one thing.
I can’t suspend myself in water like they do. I don’t know. I must admit it gets to jealousy hormones whenever I see kids doing it around town. Sometimes I feel like plucking a stick and beating the shit out their asses because, hey, how could they master such good things at their age when I still don’t know even its fraction? Sexy. I think Apollo and Amadiora were swimmers. Put on enough bikinis at the shore until people came with sorghum and incense and burnt offerings to worship them.
There are many people whom I have seen learn swimming. There is this neighbor we came to the city almost the same time. He came from the part of Kenya they call arid. There, water is strictly for drinking, cooking and paying dowry. But when he came he began attending swimming lessons and now his other name is Big Fish. I, who comes from the rainy part, am still here.
Many swimming offers I turned down.
When people went to swim, I refused because a swimming pool affair would involve us undressing and exposing a flaw we wanted to get rid of. The swimming pools I see in movies always have girls and to add on that, Nairobi girls have 80cc giggling engines especially when they see a mark the size of a fish below a man’s knee. The next day you might just see them come to the pool with a fishing line because they want to take the fish to their cat at home. And when you come in your swimming suit they get out of the water, group together and start taking selfies near your knee as they giggle. So I always gathered an excuse to keep the swimming invitations at bay until they deleted me from their swimming circles.
The when and how I don’t know swimming began long ago at Musenda. The teachers were sometimes good and they would cane you less than ten strokes on a good Tuesday. However, the norm was that they became wild and ruthless especially when parents started rewarding the most disciplinarian ones among them by the roadsides and at the market. What Inzoberi and Issa Matala did to me one fateful Friday is a story for this day.
We had refused to enter the new classroom because it posed a number of threats. First, it was far from the latrines and so what would happen the day our stomachs forgot civility? And it was obvious that learning from a more decent room would naturally raise the bar on us. We would be expected to miss on noise makers’ charts. We would be expected to bathe everyday and clip our nails as an example to others. We would be expected to score more than 15% in Maths tests and when visitors visited, we’d be the likeliest class to be presented. Imagine. But the most dangerous threat was that we would be required to speak in English.
We’d be required to greet each other in English. Borrow a red pen in English. Write our English exams in English. And when the stomach became not your friend, seek leave in English. You see the mischief? Take yourself back to class-six, try out these things and see if you won’t support Trump.
It was only in class-five I had came to know that speaking in English was not just speaking through the nose and laughing a mean laugh. Otherwise I had always blocked my nose with fingers and said Ing’ombe-ya-Panyako-itsia-mulusumu in the most perfect English accent that compelled most of my classmates to rely on me to translate the John Rambo movies. So this was coming just a few months after discovering the difficulty with the language. Not a soul would wish to travel that torturous road again.
So at break-time, Angachi came to ask what I thought of the arrangement. Two or three more members joined us. We held a closed-door consultation conference under the tree at the assembly grounds and after a minute of serious deliberation, I was sent to the class prefect.
“Go and tell that teacher of yours we are not learning from this class. We are going back.”
“I will even escort you to him if you don’t mind.”
At the same time, the others had taken the news to the rest of the class and intimidated the creatures that had already occupied our rightful place such that before break was over, we had all gone back to our old classroom.
Now this classroom had its magic. It had no windows or door. There were just gaps in the walls at places windows were supposed to have been fixed. There were also two large holes which served as alternative entry and exit: one at the back and the other right next to the chalk board. Sometimes if you came early, you found Poksi the sub-chief’s dog just beginning to take a nap for the day. He preferred the hole next to the chalk board and slept with his ears resting in the semi-concrete floor. The other hole at the back was always a special one. The teacher would turn to write something on the chalkboard and when he turned back, the class would be twice full. Sometimes when it was an afternoon Maths lesson, Mwalimu Dickson Inzoberi would face the blackboard to write 2 2 and when he turned back to thank us for maintaining silence, he would turn back to half an empty classroom. And he’d have to teach facing us or else he risked reducing the remaining Africans even more. Sometimes boys would come to graze at Musenda, change into school uniform and sneak into class, find the teacher boring, then sneak back out to go do better work with their goats. That was the power of the holes in the classroom the Babylonians now wanted us to move from.
So after we have fought for the back row and arranged our desks, and forgotten everything, the class teacher enters. In his hand he wields a cypress cane.
“Where is …” He looks around. You can hear a pin drop and an eye blink. “Where is Saibu?” I breath. Relieved.
Yusuf stands up.
“No. Not you. Where is your brother?” Actually we are not brothers with Yusuf. He calls me Small Father because I am the younger brother to his father. But those were the days teachers of Musenda were teachers of Musenda. If they called your grandmother your sister, it had to be like that or else it would be like that with a whip and a crying face.
So I put my elbows on the desk and look around for support. Angachi doesn’t know me. Olunga is busy reading. Eshikwati’s eyes are on the good teacher. Ambani has just used the hole and I’m sure he is now five kilometres away from the school and still running. I can’t win, so I stand.
The teacher first seizes me by the eye. Then sensing what I am about to do, he strides to me in a second. Mwalimu Inzoberi is now nothing short of mad.
The rest, as they say, is history. I earned myself a scar the size of a billboard just beneath my left knee. Throughout my remaining teenage life I had to guard this mark from any girl who looked like she had a fishing line back home.
* * *
Some people teach their kids to forget their languages. You’ll find them on Sunday afternoons taking the little guy to the dentist. Their car just broke down somewhere because the girl eating biscuits seems scared of Double M even though it is the best bus in the city. She is about five and talks spotless English for her age. Kenglish because of the Kenyan pronunciation her teachers and parents inherited from their teachers who got fascinated by the missionaries’ long noses and forgot about pronunciation.
That could be a problem, but there is another which complicates everything. People who sleep with change after 24th have very mad confidence and they can do any story anywhere and anyhow. Like these guys are talking about a neighbour’s dog. And you don’t know who initiated the topic. In our days, the work of a child in any conversation was to be reprimanded for listening and caned for participating. Or being sent to call another participant. But times have changed and so Tabby (must be a grandmother’s name because which Eastlands middle-class still names their girls Tabitha?) argues that the neighbour’s beagle is cuttier (she says it) than the other one in FLAMES (a movie? A book?). The father says a charged No-Mummy. The girl insists by listing things like Kerry’s shapely ears, the colour, the sexy texture and how he eats. One thing, Double M rides are always silent with the thoughts of lower middle-class patrons disturbed by their loan statuses and reminiscing whether to run away to a hidden village in Madagascar; or commit suicide; or just divorce. So we are all following their embarrassing discussion.
“He is so funny. He eats like our teacher.”
“How does your teacher eat, Tabby?” asks the mother, laughing.
“Anakula….” She smacks her lips while mimicking her biscuits as a bone the canine eats. But the father is too alarmed he almost dies.
“Mummy don’t say anakula. Say He eats.”
“But it means the same,” the little thing protests.
“Remember no Swahili at all. Or we shall not go to the park next week. And no more candies.”
“Okay. He fucking eats….” She repeats the biscuit thing and the parents laugh.
There are other parents who boast at their places of work how their kids cannot pronounce a single native word. They boast you will think there is a trophy for it. It’s their freedom. They find gratification in such. Big men with bellies overflowing their waists and with postgraduate degrees in medicine and a Range Rover in the yard will take their boys to the mall for shopping as celebration that the younger things do not know a single word in their languages. Or that the guy has broken a record of not uttering a Swahili word in the house for two weeks and a day.
As you do that, know one thing – there are people who got ugly skin marks below knees just to emancipate you from captivity. But since we all have opinions on tastes and colours, let’s go about it slowly. God is watching.