I put on my first pair of shoes when I was fifteen. That is something the streets of this city just reminded me today. That is the story for today.
Walking on these streets will remind you many things.
When you enter the city madness, that noise will remind you of Khangoma-khamoja, your freak of a neighbour. You don’t know his real name; you call him Khangoma-khamoja because he plays one loud track the whole night. You don’t understand his language but you are sure it is a dirge. The only music-free nights at your place are Sundays, and that is because the screaming girlfriend visits every time she gets the Saturday off from the salon downtown. So you look at the shouting touts and remember the way Khangoma-khamoja’s chick disturbs the peace of your weekends.
Sometimes you will look at the screens in pubs and remember your unpaid electricity bill. Then tears will well in your cheeks. How do they misuse electricity when you have your colossal arrears with the power company! You promise to also sell your kidney one day. They are so preoccupied with other business they don’t seem to notice that electricity is expensive these sides. You accept and move on, slowly.
Then there is of course this lady in heels who reminds you of the college model. You feel like kneeling if front of her, hold her palm in yours, pick finger-three and thrust it upwards. Because your class and her class are like west and east.
Anyway, today I am walking past this Tom Mboya statue and all of a sudden hawkers are running all over disturbing the peace of the hero. There is tear-gas following them. As usual, we, the innocent citizens, move to the sides and leave them the street to run as they wish. They are like five hundred and each is running with a sack clasped on the chest, another on the back and other goods on the head. Then comes this woman.
She is healthy and fat. She runs so vigorously and wails at the same time, hitting her bare feet on the ground every time she needs the earth to throw her forward. She almost collides into the crowd at Mr Price. She thinks better and re-aligns her projectile into the corridor before Archives. In negotiating the corner, a shoe falls from her head. She slows down, partly turns, does as if to go pick it but when she sees the approaching city council police, she runs off, killing her voice in the Accra Street ahead.
After the police passed, I looked at the deserted shoe. It looked lonely. It sat there in the July cold and nobody dared to look at it like the most expensive item shoes are supposed to be. Not even a street boy picked it up. Impossible. It reminded me of Machanja and my first shoes.
It had been my childhood dream to cruise in shoes. Whenever December came and the children from the city remembered their folks in the Kingdom, we were reminded that shoes just had a magic of their own. The way these kids talked on top of themselves, trousers midway down their buttocks, the way they swerved in imaginary mud, ran through thorns and hit at stones; was just the thing. I believed that with shoes you could do everything the boys did as well as what those guys did in the movies. And so for a long time my dream was to get those hooves, sag trousers, speak Swahili and act a movie with James Bond. Many are days I wore imaginary boots, stuffed papers in my nose, talked ‘English’ with James Bond and arrested imaginary criminals. I kept promising James Bond how our partnership would help finish the gangs.
So one day the local chief makes an impromptu visit to the school. There is a quick assembly. Mwalimu Olwichi only needs to stand by the flag post and raise his hand in all directions and there we are, jumping through windows to go listen to him. By now I am a full-time adolescent and in class seven, which means I can understand some of the English words he says. I am right, even Ngongo later affirms that the chief has announced the expected visit from a mzungu. The immediate challenge is not the expected language phobia as most will expect. We are rather caught in the scary reality that all the pupils are supposed to wear shoes on that day. How again?
Wearing shoes was a great taboo at school. I still remember how new pupils would be alienated from the main population until they learnt better of putting on shoes. So although I told Nyawando of the need for new shoes, and stressed every time I mentioned the chief and the mzungu, I had my fears too.
We went to the shop of Machanja. Now Machanja was another thing. He owned the only Bata shop at Khushianda, one of the very few in the Kingdom. In my entire childhood there is no person I feared and adored in equal measure as this man. As I dreamt of owning even a single torn shoe, this dude had a whole Bata shop with shoes strewn everywhere. I never saw him talk or smile, and he had this reserved serious look in his eyes. After a customer left the shop, he’d take a broom and sweep the veranda. If the customers were more than one, he’d dash into the back room, return with a mop and a bucket of water. People said that even if you waved him greetings from afar, without nearing the shop, he’d take a fly whisk and dust his counters until he was sure he’d gotten rid of your dust.
This is where Mother took me to buy the shoes. Say walking on the moon. Say James Bond in the making. I was to only wait till my brother was at school, sag his trousers and go sit where most girls from the market passed.
It was Nyawando who entered Machanja’s Bata as I waited at a reasonable distance from the veranda. The bargaining was fierce; Nyawando’s bargaining powers are another story I’m thinking of. At a point she came out, stood at the veranda in thought, talked to herself, and then went back into the shop just as Machanja was planning to come out with a broom. Another battle ensued, and I could hear mother argue about the laces being this or that. In the end, I was called to measure my leg, and since it was soiled and deformed from years of freedom, I had to first wear a polythene bag before inserting my left leg. Mother immediately said it was my size even though I felt my toes play in there. But who was I when Machanja himself agreed that I’d grow up in them? There was no need to measure the other leg – it was already late and no one wanted to waste time.
It was not until two days later that I discovered our folly: the two shoes were not of the same size. That was the day Madam Doric visited, and I had had to endure a long day of misery: alienation, low esteem and hot toes.
Most of the pupils had stayed at home for fear of being seen in shoes. Majority of those who came claimed they had injuries on their toe or heel or ankle, and indeed everyone walked around in a limp. It was only the head girl, the chief’s son and I, that had stood at Doric’s parade in shoes. And Mwalimu Hatemaster came for me immediately after the function. Up to then nobody, including myself, had realised the size thing. He beat the shit out of me for intentionally wearing shoes of different sizes to embarrass the school. Even those who had hated on me during the day began to sympathise. That was my first day to put on shoes. And the last in primary school. I never sagged trousers even when city dwellers came home that December.
Today I saw the woman run and leave behind that shoe. Maybe she doesn’t know what shoes are. Maybe she doesn’t know our history with shoes. She perhaps has no idea what shoes should make you feel. Those days, rescuing a shoe was like rescuing twins from a burning house. And shoes were kept in the wooden box that also kept best clothes in the bedroom, not on shoe racks at the main door….
Perhaps this city will remind you of the day you broke your virginity. Depending on where you walk and what you see, you might get the memories of the day your grandfather died or the day your mother caught you stealing chicken soup. Some memories will be good and bring nostalgia. Some will make you ask questions, like why the sex you never met James Bond at Hollywood.
I am personally sorry, James Bond.