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.