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.
(I have exceeded my word-count. End.)