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….
Our classrooms had so many entrances every pupil could get in and out of a lesson without sharing the same route with anyone. Sometimes it was impossible to know which classroom you were in; even the walls that were supposed to separate the rooms had been destroyed by ants, night-runners and a stubborn stray dog that also left its poo on the teacher’s desk often. In fact, I have spent most of my post-primary years finding it funny we always laughed at children from Mwichina Primary. We would always laugh at them whenever we met during the zonal games where the hapless Mwichina and Musango still had to contend with coming last in every game including the walking race.
If you stood at the Baptist Hospital and looked in the direction of the school, you saw pillars of grey and faint blue and black silhouettes in between. As you moved closer, you began to realise that the pillars were no longer pillars but the little walls that ants, for lack of a better joke on generosity, had decided to leave standing. And the blue traces were the uniform that we wore ever since the school had been incepted by Mwalimu Sakaria Omusikoyo Esq those many years before. And the black, the black was of course our faces – and it was said that our class had the darkest black because we were in-laws to water and soap.
But Musenda was a school of peace for so many years that there was the fear that it would be converted into a sisters’ convent. This should not insinuate that there was no violence. There was too much war and violence, and this is what resulted into the great order and organisation the school and its environs enjoyed. Especially during the afternoons when the teachers had been fed and now sat under trees to pass wind and let digestion have a stint with them. There would be much calm in classes where teachers skipped lessons and you would find the prefect (a young African dictator) taking charge of the entire class. Ours was a short boy called Kong’ai and he would order us all to sleep on the floor and those who managed to sit on a desk would spend the peace of the afternoon snoring and feeling good.
One such calm afternoon the tranquil of the school was disturbed by the noise from class-seven. It was Eshikwati the bully and self-declared bell-ringer whom I saw first. The rags or threads that had remained from his shredded and ever unbuttoned shirt flailed right behind him. It was not a big mistake that Eshikwati immediately became the school athletics team captain and served at the district team as a regular for the three years he was in class-seven before finally throwing in the towel on the wisdom from Britain).
After the shirt trailed the entire class. All were running and yelping and so their disturbance was immediately felt in the school. Even Mwalimu Maikol who was teaching us Mathematics had to pause. He rushed to the mud office-cum-school-kitchen he proudly forced us to call Fort Jesus. (It had no link to a fort though, and the only connection it had to Jesus was the part where the son of a Jew was caned.) Mwalimu Olwichi almost knocked Maikol from behind, and when they were in the fort, they locked it from inside and my thinking now is that they spent the entire afternoon peeping through the numerous cracks that decorated their office walls.
So we all stood and looked at the rear of the pupils’ run. In my mind I expected to see a cow in their pursuit. Or a snake. But it was not a snake or cow or even goat that came out. It was a man without a shirt and whose large khaki shorts must have been cut by a rake and stitched on his waist. In his hand was a big cane and one of his legs had a shoe. This man was Kweyu. Kweyu Marinda Isakale of Eshitoto.
For starters, our village has like thirty-six million Kweyus. And though other names like Wanga or Makokha are shared without a fuss, Kweyu was and is still a name whose sharing must be distinguished. We had Kweyu Kuruka John, Kweyu Ketse (Let-More-Beer-Come), Kweyu kwa Tsimoni (The-Big-Eyed), Kweyu Akhayoni (The-Bird), Kweyu Likondi (The-Sheep) and other Kweyus. Kweyu Marinda was however the most famous of them all because nobody even knew why he was named after a woman’s cloth.
Now, I’d always known Kweyu as a harmless friend of the bottle and whose bad deeds came only when someone bought him a bottle and sent him to say things they could not say themselves. We also knew he had planted bhang in the fence of the police station and that sometimes Mwalimu Maikol sent a pupil, sometimes myself, to go bring a consignment that was kept in secrecy. We also knew him as a dancer who danced to everything including a running posho mill engine. But the big thing was that we feared him because he was slightly heavy and never talked more than a word to people, never attended the men’s meetings at the chief’s centre and walked in the middle of the road whenever he went to the great market of Khushianda. But he was not a pugilist.
So holding a stick, this was a new one and I now wanted to see how it would end.
Kweyu ignored the shrieking kids and came directly to our class. By the time he arrived all the children had jumped through the windows or snaked out through the numerous holes that made our walls. For an unknown reason, I didn’t run though. When he was convinced whatever he was seeking was not there, he turned towards the staff room where by now the door was also bolted. But before he reached far he turned around and came for me. Like he was seeing me for the first time.
Where is it, he asked.
What, I answered, trying hard to appear calm.
Kweyu Marinda looked at his feet and repeated the question quietly and more sternly, this time striking the ground with his cane.
And where is that boy of Makokha, he barked, and I immediately felt loads of pity for Eshikwati for crossing Marinda’s road.
But I was also so terrified I didn’t manage another word. He scanned me from head to toe and then spat on the ground. Then he ran towards the back of the school where another uproar was heard. And he disappeared.
He came back three days later. This time he wore a vest and the same shorts. A shoe was also in his left leg. It was an afternoon and the drama almost repeated itself. Only that he went straight to a helpless man who was sitting under the same tree Mwalimu Maikol used when marking our books.
The stranger was waiting for a bicycle to take him away. He had just given us pencils and toy planes in exchange of old shoes and sufurias. That morning I had received a pencil eraser for giving him a sufuria I had stolen at home and hit with a panga to give it a genuinely old and dilapidated look.
Without consent Marinda removed all the contents from the man’s sack. He then rummaged through the mess as we looked from our classrooms and repeated a million times that the man was mad. It took him a few seconds before he found what he was looking for. A shoe. Which he immediately put on and stormed out of the school without uttering another word.
Everybody who knew Kweyu knew him as Kweyu Marinda. But the irregular visitor of Khushianda always had no time to master the name of a man they concluded was mad. So they would ask you if the man with a shoe was still alive where you were coming from.
Kweyu had two shoes. But the red one on his right foot was what gave him his identity. It was an old military boot that had succumbed to the complains of the passing time. It had a big gap at the front such that you always saw all his toes, including the middle one that slightly tilted upwards as in protest against the world order. His small toe had found little room in the shoe, and Kweyu had had to cut a small hole to leave breathing space for the member of his leg.
Yet he loved the shoe like a man loves his best child.
One day it was said that Kweyu had committed suicide by drowning in the Lusumu. A search team of halfhearted people looked for his body for days, and when they were satisfied he was dead, they buried a banana trunk to mark his funeral. The little possessions in his hut were shared among those who thought it wise to share. The shoe was given to Kutute who was not just his age mate but also a close person in the lineage.
Thereafter, Kutute spent three days on the run. For Kweyu Marinda had resurfaced and had forgiven all those who buried him and shared his wealth. Except the one who took his red leather darling.
At last it was rumoured that Kutute sent a boy to go drop the shoe at Marinda’s doorstep. And peace returned.
It has been twelve solid years since I left the village. Last week when I arrived, I found a large crowd surrounding a scene at the market centre. At first I wanted to ignore and walk quickly home. But a second thought took me to the crowd. Then I beheld a grey-haired old man dancing to a song none heard. He had a cream cap on his head and the chest was bare. I looked at his face and could not recollect whom he was. Then I looked at the legs. The right leg. And I knew what loyalty in life is.
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.
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.