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….
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.
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.
A bicycle is something I still respect. Go on and grab iPhones, iTunes, iPads and everything else i-, my respect for bicycles remains unwavering.
The other day I was in town running errands for myself when an absurd thing happened. It was at this point where Voi Road pours into Kirinyaga Road. So as I crossed to go take the left side of Kirinyaga Road, this man in a Passat almost made a corpse out of me. I stopped my machine, turned to look at him, and hoped that he’d feel his shame and run away before I fixed him. Or at least, come fall at my feet and apologise profusely before I got the trouble of pacifying angry passers-by who would be on his neck. But the bastard got out of the vehicle and came to confront me. His key words were that I was wrong to use the road instead of the pavement (which isn’t on Kirinyaga Road). When I looked in his face and saw that he meant his words, I so much sympathised with him that I almost called the ambulance to the mental hospital. How could someone in his right senses rate an ‘86 Raleigh bicycle with a plastic car like a Passat! Not even Neelam or the postmodern Hero Jet could beat a 40 year old Raleigh. But foolishness, I realise, has no herb. So I cycled off without a word to him.
When I was growing up, bicycles were symbols of everything good. They were symbols of affluence, symbols of education, symbols of libido, symbols of national unity, symbols of immortality – anything that the schools said was good. Indika earned you respect. Indika earned you a wife. Indika earned you adoration. That is why they were majorly used by the most respected members of our community – teachers.
Teachers were the only people who outdid the local chiefs in being respected. I went to Mukambi Primary School, commonly known to the villagers as Musenda because it was next to the chief’s centre. They should have preferred Mukambi because it was also a chief’s camp for Chief Akaki Kodia, but that was just their choice. So at Muks (which is how we made the name look an equal to Booker Academy) we had these teachers whom we respected to death. If a doctor said you had malaria and a teacher said it was typhoid, the teacher’s word ruled and it would take time before the doctor received any clients. A teacher would tell you to bring to school a piece of firewood on Monday and by Sunday evening a heap would already be deposited outside the school kitchen. If a teacher told you to kneel by the school gate from morning to evening, you knelt. Then before going home you would look for him to say thank you and help carry his bag. And if you saw your teacher on the road, you’d immediately go into hiding. If perhaps you were convinced that he had seen you, you’d run to him, greet him in English and help push his bicycle.
They were Nazis. Pharaohs. Beat us so hard you would come home with zero if you set out to count the number of learners who never farted during punishment. Our fathers would wait by the road and when they saw the strictest teacher, they’d give him a token and plead with the teacher to beat the child even more. Whenever a child complained that Mwalimu So-and-So had caned him, that father would wait for the teacher with a hen tucked under his armpit. The man who took home most hens was one Mwalimu Jairo, whom we all loathed, loved, feared and admired in the same breath.
He donned a neat afro hairstyle, which just took him to another league. Every Sunday he went to the school and sat alone marking our books under a mvule tree. Then he would sample books of those who had done their homework poorly and go with them home to prepare punishment. Word had it that he had employed a Maasai boy whose JD was to go to the forest, cut young guava sticks for canes, rub on them red pepper and salt, warm them by the evening hearth, then package them in a small sisal sack for the school journey the following day. Parents therefore adored this man’s manner and proudly referred to him as Our Whiteman of Musenda.
But he had one weakness.
Ever since he had been transferred to our school sixteen years before, it had always been rumoured that Mwalimu Jairo didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Now that was enough reason to cause stigma among men. An omusumba – bachelor, an omusinde – uncircumcised man, a man who got whipped by his wife, and a man who didn’t know how to ride a bicycle all passed as one and the same. It was taboo for big men and small children to mingle with women in gossip, but where these four were being discussed, everyone was greatly welcome and one could bash as much as they wished if only they kept their voices hushed. And despite the respect they gave Mwalimu, they sat behind closed doors and laughed how a well-educated man with two wives and an afro could not ride an indika yet even girls like Apedneko’s daughter were cycling well.
So when Mwalimu Jairo was seen that Sunday evening on top of a newly bought Black Mamba, it became everyone’s business. Those who saw him mount it said he had been shaking, sweating, and had needed someone to hold the bicycle and push him forward to start the ride. Those of us who played downslope were denied that rare opportunity of seeing a whole deputy head teacher panic on a Black Mamba in fear. But another opportunity awaited us.
As someone began descending the hill, something went amiss. We were playing marbles by the roadside in the far downhill, but we could still see a staggering bicycle even from far. It went from left to right and right to left. At some point, the man gained stability and we thought all was fine. Then we realised the speed was increasing and the left-right thing was now getting out of control. Then we heard the shouting as he approached. And we knew whom it was.
“Help me! Help me! I am the deputy at Musenda Primary! Help me stop! I am the deputy at Musenda! Museendaaaaa! Help! I am the dep…!”
I had never heard a man cry in such distress. Especially when the bicycle flashed past us and I saw how harassed he was; when I saw the furrows of despair on his forehead; when I saw the terror. His head had been thrown forward in concentration, and the arms tightly held onto the handlebars.
I ran in trail, bringing the best out of my feet. My playmates followed. A teacher was not supposed to fall with a bicycle – not a deputy! If a teacher never went to the toilet and never farted, how now? A teacher bathed every day in milk and warm mango juice, not fell. It would be a sin for his skin to touch down disgracefully. So I surged faster, outrunning my friends and hoping to get hold of the carrier first and slow him down to stop. Who knows, he might decide to remember me when caning those who used vernacular, and perhaps subsidise my punishment.
But I was slightly slower to the metal, which led in rage and contempt.
He lost control and hit a rock by the roadside. Then the shouting stopped for some seconds. For three seconds he was in the air, summersaulting and preparing for a landing. We all saw his whole body soar up into the air, fight gravity and rotate above the Black Mamba. We saw the buttocks turn up and head sweep down. We watched with caged breaths and unwilling eyes. Then he landed. A big thud. He gave two painful groans and went silent that for some time we feared him dead.
Then when we overcame our fear and got the courage to move near the injured teacher, our Whiteman of Musenda coughed and unsuccessfully tried to stand up. The dust that had gone in air was enough to blur one’s vision, though that which settled in his afro was more.
We had been so engrossed in the drama of his moving downslope that we had not noticed what had been tied on the bicycle’s carrier. Now tomatoes, sugar, several class-six exercise books and a hen were all strewn on the roadside beside their master. As villagers helped him to his feet and cursed the mad bicycle, I collected the items on the road and tied them in a heap beside the Black Mamba. I unwillingly put my exercise book back in the others for fear that he would realise if it went missing. But I hoped that come the following day, he’d still subsidise my punishment.