I am at a coffee house waiting for Joj. Joj is supposed to bring me details of a job we are supposed to be ripping in 25k each in the first week and then something close to that in another week next month. I don’t know what it is. I can’t guess. Joj is that guy who will come with any idea and it will work. If you want your water fixed he will do it. If you want your company audited he will come. If you want an abortion Joj will be there with a knife and stethoscope. If you want to fix your in-law he will do it at a lower cost. My Somali neighbour still thanks me because when her seven-year-old was disturbing her, it was smart Joj who threatened he would eat his ears and the boy has never been naughty again.
He called me this morning immediately I arrived at Patel’s and said to meet him here. If the deal is good, and if it does well, Patel will have to look for another African because me no goin back no mo-or voteva ze reezin. Okay. I may only go back there because of that girl who remains at the garage when the old Indian goes for a rotti.
When you ascend the trail of Ronald Ngala and the Nairobi flow eventually pours you to Tom Mboya, there is Interfina House on your left just before you start business with the street. On the ground floor of that block is a cafe that people like us can meet once in a while and have a coffee without worrying about bills (will check the name for you). The guys next to my table are talking about a school burning. As I pay attention to their talk, I realise one of them has a sister who torched a school dormitory last week and things are not rosy. The girl is still in. But the other thing is that the brother is so worked up by the situation he swears to do something bad to the smaller citizen.
His sister, apparently, colluded with other girls and razed down the dormitory because the school had denied them chance to watch tv. Hehe. T and V like sherrioushly? But times have changed. Times are hard.
In my time, T and V was nowhere on our minds. There were only three things and you had to know them right from the onset: books, teachers, and more books. You asking the school to give you time to watch, how did you even begin? Whom would you face?
There was this man whose face never revealed emotion. He had the posture of a giant. A bulky man. Like Man Man. When he spoke he rumbled. When he commanded he ordered. He would stand at the corner where the path from the dormitories joined the upper block next to the laboratory, and everyone would scamper to whatever hole he was expected to scamper to. He was strict as strict. His magic would follow you even in the middle of the night when you hid under the blankets. When you opened your boxes to lick the sugar you never wanted the older boys to notice. How do I even describe this man? That man was called Crispus Muganda, the Principal of St Peter’s Mumias Boys High School.
We called him Freshian. Or simply Fresha.
Fresha, we learnt, was different from his predecessor. Older boys told us in hushed voices how they had coordinated a strike during Zebu’s era. To date I have never figured out how a senior provincial school principal would accept to be called the name of a cow; but that was it – boys had had many riots during Zebu’s era. They told us how they had climbed the trees naked to avoid being spotted by marauding policemen who had been poured in that night, and whose wrath only everyone knew so well. They sometimes told us how they used to slaughter a teacher’s hen or goat whenever lights went off, and how they would roast the bird in the latrines near the water reservoir on the nether side of the school. The big picture they painted of Zebu was a big docile man who was terrorised at will.
Not Crispus Muganda.
For Muganda was Crispus. And Crispus was Fresha. Fresha’s command on the compound was felt everywhere you went and you had to first check if a mosquito belonged to the teachers before you smashed it off your face. If you gained appetite for any madness, you would have to satisfy it from elsewhere and elsewhen.
“My boys,” he would rumble. “I can assure you….”
And then he would go on to assure us how he would catch us in the middle of a crime, or how education was our way out of trouble. Muganda was a man who never ended his speeches without assuring us something. Like assuring us we were boys and not girls. Or that the sun rose from the east. But something funny was that no matter what he said, it always looked new and fresh like his name, and it drove us forward. He would stand at the heart of the assembly, behind the then refurbished library, flagged to the left by his able deputy Wanjawa ‘Nyuki’ (professor of Swahili and military punishment), and to the right by the boarding master Makhatsa Botsa (renowned owner of a rickety Toyota nobody aspired to have), and the man would talk. He gave us talks on girls and food and everything, but especially books. And every time we left the assembly we would be more ready to learn and have our demons against the school self exorcised.
But one day it failed.
Teachers were on strike and most schools had closed shop. For three consecutive days we had tried to break away but the man stood his ground, assuring us and assuring us more. So that morning we woke up to pounding drums and bells. Actually they were not drums, drums. It was our metal boxes being kicked and whacked in the most wild manner those sides of the Sahara.
Ther was also a certain Mwalimu Murunga who carried weapons of mass destruction to class. Every Maths lesson was not about if but when, and how many. If St Peter’s was jail, Maths was war. You saw him and you saw Hitler. Or Sharon. He was a legend of cruelty on the compound. And he was also rude he could never take word from the rest. You know those teachers feared by even the master on duty. That was Mr Murunga, Maths guru, Hitler and other sad names.
At St Peter’s everything was military and we accepted hell as our heaven.
There was this gate man we called Kibishi, obviously because he wore a worn Kibishi Security Guards uniform. Kibishi had the powers to send you back home if he discovered anything illegal about you. If you came to school late, you would go back home. If he found you with torn underwear, you would go back home. Some of us whose homes had bedbugs had to do so much on opening day because if he found that small insect hiding in the collar of your shirt he would call other Kibishis and then they would engage you in a running battle until they made sure you were like five kilometres away from the fence of the school. Our class prefect almost knocked down a motorcyclist at the main junction near St Mary’s as the army of Kibishi Security experts charged behind him.
Those are the powers the school gate man had. Given by the constitution of Fresha, signed, stamped and sealed.
Then there was that huge guy called FB for First Born. Apart from being tall and heavily built, Alvin Munyasia had a horrible face. Muscular jaws, broad forehead, giant nose and very, very small eyes. He always came to wake us up for preps even though he wasn’t a prefect. His policy was one; and we were always reminded of it the same time we would hear again and again the single English sentence he knew.
“Form one, form two, form three, jump outside!”
It wasn’t even English. He said it in Swahili. His only English sentence we heard was when Fresha on assembly asked him to say why his shirt was hanging and he said, “No, St Mary’s.”
Now when FB came rumbling each morning, we would jump outside through any opening that did not put us in close proximity with the son of Munyasia. If you were the unlucky idiot to walk near him, or to dare not hear his voice early enough, you would learn to behave by how his belt ripped into your flesh and cut your early morning hallucinations and dreams with Lilian.
Alvin only caned me a few times. Like thirty times a month. And that is because every evening I gave him a bribe in margarine, sugar, a new cup or anything he took from my box because he kept my keys.
The caning I remember well was from two guys. Where are Makale and Odipo by the way? That Saturday I was from the upper block digesting the myths about mitochondria and chromosomes and planning to go in the middle of the football field to fart because of the week’s accumulated gas from beans. I was also whistling I think. If you know Sukuma bin Ongaro then you know that is the time he had redone his Chirani Kuno hit and if you never used the Saturday chance to hum your song, you would blame yourself all the way to the next Saturday. So I passed near the sanitarium, a small cell that served both as a store for painkillers as well as the headquarters of the ministry of health in the school. Sic.
Then Makale called me. Odipo asked why my shirt was dirty. I told them my shirt was not very dirty. Makale held it close to his nose and went to the back of the building to throw up. When he came back, I didn’t see. All I remember is that I was on the ground, crying in my language. But even if I had done it in Greek the guys would not have released me. And I cannot tell if it was the whips or slaps or kicks that took me down. When I came to, they were still towering above me. I have never run like I did that day.
I nursed the injuries one whole week.
That is the system we went through. Eight years a captive and twelve years in slavery clutching at the feet of our masters, some of whom loved us. We spent whole terms without going home. Most of us were never visited by parents. No big boy growled over the urge to break out to go make children; no small boy brooded for permission to go breastfeed. There were no mobile phones, and we could not use the booth at the gate because we didn’t have the money. Our parents had no phones anyway. It was tough.
But we never burnt a thing. We endured the pangs of our adolescence four more years after the 8-year dictatorial regime in primary school. We never fought because the girls at Butere had refused us. We took it in as men. That’s perhaps why we walk free as wind. We might not drive the biggest cars or draw the fattest cheques. But ours is a life of clear conscience and we never look back at our history with any doubt.
On the day we woke up at 3 in the night, Fresha came to assure us but we refused that joke. We told him without lighting any match that we wanted to go home like St Mary’s. And when he looked right and didn’t find Nyuki; and left and didn’t see Botsa, he told us to go home. Gentlemen.
That guy whose sister brought down a whole dormitory, I can only imagine how it feels.
And teachers, the world has changed. You can never be a policeman again like Murunga ran our class. However, sometimes you will need to be a real teacher. When you come to school and find disarray, dirt, ignorance, noise, indiscipline, witchcraft; go to the staffroom and pick your tools. Pick your books, teach and go home. Don’t even look back. Teach and go hooo…? Home.