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.
I don’t hear the rest of the line. I’m pressing on and however curious I get, fact is my job is more important than some talk of a little girl. I am not Kristeva and that guy with red eyes will be eyeing me again to pay for the roof over my bed.
When I reach the bus stage, I look at my shoes and smile. We don’t brush our shoes because they reach the Indian’s shop dirtier. The Indian would even send you away if you posed clean as a beautician. My trousers are brown, so, dust, I don’t care.
There are people in this city whom if the bus touts raise hands with four fingers, they wait for those who will raise three. If touts raise three, they wait for that that will raise two. If they find them raising two, these people stand and wait for thatwho will bang his fists together and call out ten-ten. Those people are us. If we find touts raising one finger, we pause in heavenly silence and wait for that who will raise nothing. Just a hand with no finger. At least there is a less expensive thing round the corner. We know it is impossible to get free rides here but somehow we adhere to our custom of waiting. To live without hope is that first death we resist. And who knows, someone might just kill a cow and the Indian start to mourn and declare it a public holiday on us.
My first days working for an Indian I reported late. That was the time I was still pitching camp with a person and not knowing what landlords and grocers meant. So I woke up with the eastern sun and sensed my goose for the day was cooked. I cut through Outering, Juja Road, Eastleigh’s First Avenue, wound it in Shaurimoyo and reached that Printing Press place panting. The Indian had gone to the inner stores and so a workmate whispered to me how I was already fired. He however gave me a secret. Told me to hold anything cow and come to the Indian pleading. I didn’t get the fly-whisk and the butchery was still closed. But there was a stray horn just a few metres from the gate. When I told Sivarama Krishnan that my lateness was because I had a running stomach and had therefore gone to see the dentist that morning, the horn was playing in my left hand in a manner he could not fail to see. All along he was looking at me with a creased forehead and muttering whatever it is Sivarama Krishnans mutter when a worker reports late with a horn. The end of the story is that (and thanks Matsukhu. God will give you a good wife and children) I wasn’t fired. I retained my job clean and untouched. But a three-day salary was deducted. Even when the horn accidentally fell near his feet he couldn’t change his mind. Merciless atheist! A cow.
He won’t go to heaven.
We stay at the bus stage waiting for a cheaper African bus. An occasional lucky woman on a full bus will look and pity us. Useless pity because we shall reach work at the same time.Ha-ha, reason to smile. Her bus will be stuck in the jam and we shall catch up. Or if she reaches work earlier, the boss will not be in to compliment her or reprimand us. Or we will get a problem before end month and she will be the guest of honour at the fund-raiser where she will share with us the early-reporting loot. So this way or that, we always get even. Time to wait.
We look at the touts calling at the lowest fare and we say we must stop and wait for a free one. We always wait because along the journey of life we realised that even the slow one arrives. Fact. The memories of our futile struggles in class are fully on the wall for all to see.
Exam moments at school were a tempest. We used to read. We used to be present. We yawned and cracked fingers and talked to ourselves and dipped our feet in cold water at midnight. The library was always full and people who missed seats would crowd at the pavement and read seated on the cold floor. No, I’m not making any fiction here. Every year young women and men lean against the library walls and place their equipment of knowledge on the laps in pursuit of greatness. That is the exam moment. That is the time to gauge our best. Some of us emerged the best. Some of us persisted there at the peak to the end. So where did it go? We slept and woke up to the realisation that society does not have a best. Society itself is best and only uses the ego of man to get even better. That is why we end up on cold and rainy mornings as this; not very sure the Banyan will find value in us so he can keep dropping pieces of bread on our tables.
I choose to look at the schooling system in a small parable. There we have wood, fire and we are the moist clay. Some are so good up there they forget the essence of the wood. They sell their wood and take the fire to the local ironsmith. Others engage the fire. They make mounds of themselves and invite the fire. They get baked, not burnt. It doesn’t matter to them if they emerged best or not. But they find themselves of more use in society. They are resilient.
Resilient. I think that is the word; the thing better than best.
So as we wait for the bus with zero fare, we are aware we do not strive to be the best. We simply want to be – to play our part and be. We no longer care the time we arrive in life. If those who have arrived are asked to line up to get free air tickets to Eritrea, we shall be there. If, say, those who arrived are given a chance to ask one thing from the Skies, we shall have that airtime regardless of whether we arrived first or last. Arriving does not have colour for lateness or otherwise. A latecomer is called so because he arrived, just like the rest.
Teachers and parents should stop the indoctrination of young innocents with such dangerous dogma of best. Whatever you are, wherever, you are the best for the moment. Wanting to be justified through an exam, through the lens and judgement of an employer or shopkeeper, is tragic. Tragic because you commit the crime of first otherising yourself. You’ve lost hope in yourself, including the hope of Being. You don’t trust yourself. Forever you remain subordinate to the judges and like demigods they thrive on telling you that you are not.
The cut story of that little girl with a whole age ahead of her disturbs me. Did she want to be the best model? Best in books? Best cook? Best what? Why? Did she want to be the best flop? The best athlete? Best lazy girl? Best prostitute?
“If I become the best….”
I only saw enough of her backside because I was hurrying past them. She had a neat pony tied with black bands. She must have a jolly good mother who kneads a daughter’s hair before waving bye. She said it in a tone that was firm and too cool for her age. Just enough expectation to break a stone. See, already she is a storyteller, internally best if she decides she is.
She needs to be free and she will discover herself. Like an eagle she needs to soar up the skies of imagination and freedom. She needs to become free like the wind and independent like this passing ambulance.
I love ambulances. Not because they ferry the sick. Some of those who go in ambulances die; some of those whom ambulances leave live. So my love for them is not here. I love them because they chose to be different and daring. Ambulances break rules and nah-body’s gonna do nothin ’bout it. They cross lanes and move to the other side. As you stay there stuck in the traffic, they move very fast just a few metres from your stagnation and jealousy. They take the wrong route. And, they make noise about it and there is still nothing you will do. Such is the ambulance.
The ambulance values its own work. Knows there is a life being saved and is pumped forth by this knowledge of purpose. But on the jammed fleet are also those who are going to the town centre to make life worth living. They are going to the bank to send money home so Mama gets food for the week. They are going to clean the road so the visiting head of state may be pleased. They are going to book the ticket to Asmara to go get four wives and make many children. They are going to add fuel to the wheel of society. These are those who have a bigger and nobler task. Only they don’t know. And because they don’t know their worth, they’ll stay in that queue and wish they were at the peak; the best. They will continue to perish because of lack of knowledge.
The story of that girl haunts me. I don’t know whether to board the bus or go back to Donholm Primary to look for her. Whoever tells her that BEST narrative must be jailed. What shall we tell her when at eighteen she will already have three children, a fourth pregnancy and a dead boyfriend? What shall we explain to her: that she is bewitched; or she has bad luck; or that we are sorry she didn’t become the best? What if she drops out of school, tries a tailoring course in town, drops out again, joins a women choir at the church, loses interest, marries a Ugandan called Masiga, gives birth and names her first-born son Habbakkuk, goes back to school, drops out again, gets ten more girls with Masiga, continues with life, gets old and dies at her matrimonial home in one of the silent villages of Gulu? What shall we say?
I used to think God a sadist. Killing people in Iraq and blinding generations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; killing parents and leaving behind scores of hungry orphans; denying boys their teenage queens; making uncles flop at the elections; Tsunami; El Nino; many, many things. How does one who is not a sadist leave women barren and insist that so-and-so should always fail their high school exams? He should otherwise not allow the fat Arab downtown to fire me in the middle of the month when he knows everything about the bills to my name.
There are many more. Imagine you decide to pluck that splint part of your nail and thus you won’t have sleep for two consecutive nights. Such a small thing, but, son, you won’t get peace today, God says. And in life such small pieces of shit are what keep our happiness or the lack of it. Only a sadist could automate such a programme as this.
A memory happened.
If you visit my childhood you’ll get this man Indumuli. We all called him Ninja. First, his name was too long and we needed talk about him every day. Second, his ways were the ways of a ninja. Not that he dressed like those Ninjutsu Japs. I think it was because he was a loafer with a very mysterious lifestyle. And everyone feared him just the way they’d fear a dozen hands from Okinawa.
I never wondered why Indumuli was homeless. I think it is because we never regarded him as a living person. Even thinking about him was unthought of. Or because I was small. No one pointed out that he dressed in things that somehow resembled, and went for, clothes. People said his weed had no jokes.
Picture this. There is this guy who is always drunk. Smokes marijuana too. He is very hostile to children and very cold on adults. He sits by the road selling plastic bottles and you have never seen him sell one even on credit. You go through your memory and you can’t remember seeing anyone stand by his shop, which is an ant hill by the roadside where he sometimes sleeps deeply in wait for that miracle client.
Every time you come from school at the lunch break, you will keep passing by him in deep sleep under shelter of the sun itself. In the evening when you rush past, he sneers at you with cold red eyes. If you stare at him, his face contorts deeply as a first and second warning that you should find something better before it is found for you.
As kids we had different narratives about him. But the dominant and most terrifying was that Ninja was a threat to all the menfolk. There was this story that one kid once reported him home over some sin. So when father and son came to confront him, he beat the father up as other villagers looked on and then he forced this father to laugh. So we always feared to cross his line since we couldn’t imagine the fun in laughing when just fresh from a beating.
One day I was rushing to the chief’s centre to untether and drive home Maridadi, our cow. It was going to rain heavily. Now it happened that as I ran, someone on a bicycle almost rode into me and I had to do the sidestep. There was a trench by the side and so to keep balance and still avoid breaking my leg, I leapt far to the side of the road. You can guess whose bottles I rammed into.
You may also guess the terror and the speed I took off in.
The guy had actually not been asleep. The moment he heard the bottles crack, he shot up, first in fear, then in furry. He needed only a fraction of a second to identify the intruder and device a counter attack. With my daily fear of the mystery that he was, I was already some metres away in that fraction of a second. Even as a kid I understood how difficult it would be to be slapped and told to laugh loud. So I only heard some thunder behind me, and soon the market place was to witness a sprint marathon pitting a boy and a seller of bottles.
Perhaps people thought we were running from the rain too. But here was a matter of life and death. I don’t clearly recall how it ended. What I remember is that I was to change my route of going to school for the rest of my primary school studies. I also had to change the route of fetching the cow back from the chief’s camp.
It is now years later and I’m beginning to think deeply about this man. He didn’t die. Nobody knows where he is. The marijuana and brewer’s glass were not a choice he’d make by himself. It was something society assumed. It was something about being alienated from the rest; being made different.
He was sadist because he was lonely. Of course I have not made up this story. There are trusted guys I can take you to and they will narrate it exactly the way I have.
So back to God and being sadist. Got something about the whole affair? He doesn’t hustle at the bus stop for the congested last bus. Before he travels to another point, he is there already; always been there. He only talks to angels – angels who are very foolish, very mean, very dead unless he gives them wisdom, generosity and life. He doesn’t have a friend to confide in. He doesn’t have an equivalent with whom he can consult. He doesn’t call at the local FM station to ask about El Nino or the coupe in Burundi. What a life of (Shakespeare’s) aloneness!
Yet he is not alone. Yet he is not sadist. He simply plays his cards. He makes us only like the locust to the wanton boy. Every time he lets us loose, we call it a miracle. Widows, the sick, the lonely (etc) keep receiving the miracle. Yet their number of miracles do not supersede that of job seekers in a strange jungle.
Have you ever hustled for a job in six sexing months and then received that call on one hot Friday of October? And the guy on the other side clears his throat and asks if you are Mr Were (insert your ugly name)? And you say you are? Then she asks whether you remember applying for a job and attending the interview some two weeks back? And you start to sweat? And then with a grunt voice you say YES? Then she asks may you come over for salary negotiations? Then you praise God and put it on social media for friends and enemies? Have you?
Last Friday I received a call from Egypt. Hey, let’s all have a moment of silence and visualise where we left Egypt on the map. Egypt! Think of the Suez Canal and Aswan High Dam. Up there in the heart of the Sahara and pierced in the chest by the Tropic of Cancer. Egypt where my grandmothers once lived and whipped the asses of Jews. The cradle of civilisation. Think of the pyramids. Now, my call came from that Egypt. An Etisalat number.
She asked me to confirm my name and country. From the heavy accent on the other end, I knew without doubt it was an Egyptian woman, not some con in a maximum security prison. By the way, why do Egyptians fondle with the /r/’s when they talk?
It was the Director of the college. She asked whether I had applied for a teaching post at her facility. I nodded and said yes. Then she asked if it was me she had interviewed on-line. I said yes, yes it was me.
This came as one of those shocks that throw you to the ground. I had been walking along a street in Kayole checking new routes just in case fire broke out or the boys in the hood became interested in my phone. So I halted, moved to the edge of the streets, put the other hand in the pocket and smiled broadly. Every dog has its way of celebration when dung unhappens. In my mind I have already decided the maisonette I’m moving to when I get to Misri.
So the big message comes.
“We hiyarr-bai regret to info-rr-m you that yua-rr application did not go through,” she says. “Please try again next yia-rr.”
Sometimes the world around you has to stop so you choose how to be sad. This was that time. Everything remained still and mute for a decade. Gaining strength, I walked slowly to the nearest police station, didn’t enter, walked further home past the guy who sells ropes and went to bed for sixteen hours. When I finally woke up, I was still asking what the friend above gets when he makes me go through this. Didn’t I promise to fast if I got the job?