Twelve Years a Prisoner

I am at a coffee house waiting for Joj. Joj is supposed to bring me details of a job we are supposed to be ripping in 25k each in the first week and then something close to that in another week next month. I don’t know what it is. I can’t guess. Joj is that guy who will come with any idea and it will work. If you want your water fixed he will do it. If you want your company audited he will come. If you want an abortion Joj will be there with a knife and stethoscope. If you want to fix your in-law he will do it at a lower cost. My Somali neighbour still thanks me because when her seven-year-old was disturbing her, it was smart Joj who threatened he would eat his ears and the boy has never been naughty again.

He called me this morning immediately I arrived at Patel’s and said to meet him here. If the deal is good, and if it does well, Patel will have to look for another African because me no goin back no mo-or voteva ze reezin. Okay. I may only go back there because of that girl who remains at the garage when the old Indian goes for a rotti.

When you ascend the trail of Ronald Ngala and the Nairobi flow eventually pours you to Tom Mboya, there is Interfina House on your left just before you start business with the street. On the ground floor of that block is a cafe that people like us can meet once in a while and have a coffee without worrying about bills (will check the name for you). The guys next to my table are talking about a school burning. As I pay attention to their talk, I realise one of them has a sister who torched a school dormitory last week and things are not rosy. The girl is still in. But the other thing is that the brother is so worked up by the situation he swears to do something bad to the smaller citizen.

FOUR

His sister, apparently, colluded with other girls and razed down the dormitory because the school had denied them chance to watch tv. Hehe. T and V like sherrioushly? But times have changed. Times are hard.

In my time, T and V was nowhere on our minds. There were only three things and you had to know them right from the onset: books, teachers, and more books. You asking the school to give you time to watch, how did you even begin? Whom would you face?

There was this man whose face never revealed emotion. He had the posture of a giant. A bulky man. Like Man Man. When he spoke he rumbled. When he commanded he ordered. He would stand at the corner where the path from the dormitories joined the upper block next to the laboratory, and everyone would scamper to whatever hole he was expected to scamper to. He was strict as strict. His magic would follow you even in the middle of the night when you hid under the blankets. When you opened your boxes to lick the sugar you never wanted the older boys to notice. How do I even describe this man? That man was called Crispus Muganda, the Principal of St Peter’s Mumias Boys High School.

We called him Freshian. Or simply Fresha.

Fresha, we learnt, was different from his predecessor. Older boys told us in hushed voices how they had coordinated a strike during Zebu’s era. To date I have never figured out how a senior provincial school principal would accept to be called the name of a cow; but that was it – boys had had many riots during Zebu’s era. They told us how they had climbed the trees naked to avoid being spotted by marauding policemen who had been poured in that night, and whose wrath only everyone knew so well. They sometimes told us how they used to slaughter a teacher’s hen or goat whenever lights went off, and how they would roast the bird in the latrines near the water reservoir on the nether side of the school. The big picture they painted of Zebu was a big docile man who was terrorised at will.

Not Muganda.

Not Crispus Muganda.

For Muganda was Crispus. And Crispus was Fresha. Fresha’s command on the compound was felt everywhere you went and you had to first check if a mosquito belonged to the teachers before you smashed it off your face. If you gained appetite for any madness, you would have to satisfy it from elsewhere and elsewhen.

“My boys,” he would rumble. “I can assure you….”

And then he would go on to assure us how he would catch us in the middle of a crime, or how education was our way out of trouble. Muganda was a man who never ended his speeches without assuring us something. Like assuring us we were boys and not girls. Or that the sun rose from the east. But something funny was that no matter what he said, it always looked new and fresh like his name, and it drove us forward. He would stand at the heart of the assembly, behind the then refurbished library, flagged to the left by his able deputy Wanjawa ‘Nyuki’ (professor of Swahili and military punishment), and to the right by the boarding master Makhatsa Botsa (renowned owner of a rickety Toyota nobody aspired to have), and the man would talk. He gave us talks on girls and food and everything, but especially books. And every time we left the assembly we would be more ready to learn and have our demons against the school self exorcised.

But one day it failed.

Teachers were on strike and most schools had closed shop. For three consecutive days we had tried to break away but the man stood his ground, assuring us and assuring us more. So that morning we woke up to pounding drums and bells. Actually they were not drums, drums. It was our metal boxes being kicked and whacked in the most wild manner those sides of the Sahara. 

Ther was also a certain Mwalimu Murunga who carried weapons of mass destruction to class. Every Maths lesson was not about if but when, and how many. If St Peter’s was jail, Maths was war. You saw him and you saw Hitler. Or Sharon. He was a legend of cruelty on the compound. And he was also rude he could never take word from the rest. You know those teachers feared by even the master on duty. That was Mr Murunga, Maths guru, Hitler and other sad names.

At St Peter’s everything was military and we accepted hell as our heaven.
There was this gate man we called Kibishi, obviously because he wore a worn Kibishi Security Guards uniform. Kibishi had the powers to send you back home if he discovered anything illegal about you. If you came to school late, you would go back home. If he found you with torn underwear, you would go back home. Some of us whose homes had bedbugs had to do so much on opening day because if he found that small insect hiding in the collar of your shirt he would call other Kibishis and then they would engage you in a running battle until they made sure you were like five kilometres away from the fence of the school. Our class prefect almost knocked down a motorcyclist at the main junction near St Mary’s as the army of Kibishi Security experts charged behind him.
Those are the powers the school gate man had. Given by the constitution of Fresha, signed, stamped and sealed.

Then there was that huge guy called FB for First Born. Apart from being tall and heavily built, Alvin Munyasia had a horrible face. Muscular jaws, broad forehead, giant nose and very, very small eyes. He always came to wake us up for preps even though he wasn’t a prefect. His policy was one; and we were always reminded of it the same time we would hear again and again the single English sentence he knew.

“Form one, form two, form three, jump outside!”

It wasn’t even English.  He said it in Swahili. His only English sentence we heard was when Fresha on assembly asked him to say why his shirt was hanging and he said, “No, St Mary’s.”

Now when FB came rumbling each morning, we would jump outside through any opening that did not put us in close proximity with the son of Munyasia. If you were the unlucky idiot to walk near him, or to dare not hear his voice early enough, you would learn to behave by how his belt ripped into your flesh and cut your early morning hallucinations and dreams with Lilian.

Alvin only caned me a few times. Like thirty times a month. And that is because every evening I gave him a bribe in margarine, sugar, a new cup or anything he took from my box  because he kept my keys.

The caning I remember well was from two guys. Where are Makale and Odipo by the way? That Saturday I was from the upper block digesting the myths about mitochondria and chromosomes and planning to go in the middle of the football field to fart because of the week’s accumulated gas from beans. I was also whistling I think. If you know Sukuma bin Ongaro then you know that is the time he had redone his Chirani Kuno hit and if you never used the Saturday chance to hum your song, you would blame yourself all the way to the next Saturday. So I passed near the sanitarium, a small cell that served both as a store for painkillers as well as the headquarters of the ministry of health in the school. Sic.

Then Makale called me. Odipo asked why my shirt was dirty. I told them my shirt was not very dirty. Makale held it close to his nose and went to the back of the building to throw up. When he came back, I didn’t see. All I remember is that I was on the ground, crying in my language. But even if I had done it in Greek the guys would not have released me. And I cannot tell if it  was the whips or slaps or kicks that took me down. When I came to, they were still towering above me. I have never run like I did that day.
I nursed the injuries one whole week.

That is the system we went through. Eight years a captive and twelve years in slavery clutching at the feet of our masters, some of whom loved us. We spent whole terms without going home. Most of us were never visited by parents. No big boy growled over the urge to break out to go make children; no small boy brooded for permission to go breastfeed. There were no mobile phones, and we could not use the booth at the gate because we didn’t have the money. Our parents had no phones anyway. It was tough.

But we never burnt a thing. We endured the pangs of our adolescence four more years after the 8-year dictatorial regime in primary school. We never fought because the girls at Butere had refused us. We took it in as men. That’s perhaps why we walk free as wind. We might not drive the biggest cars or draw the fattest cheques. But ours is a life of clear conscience and we never look back at our history with any doubt.

On the day we woke up at 3 in the night, Fresha came to assure us but we refused that joke. We told him without lighting any match that we wanted to go home like St Mary’s. And when he looked right and didn’t find Nyuki; and left and didn’t see Botsa, he told us to go home. Gentlemen.
That guy whose sister brought down a whole dormitory, I can only imagine how it feels.

And teachers, the world has changed. You can never be a policeman again like Murunga ran our class. However, sometimes you will need to be a real teacher. When you come to school and find disarray, dirt, ignorance, noise, indiscipline, witchcraft; go to the staffroom and pick your tools. Pick your books, teach and go home. Don’t even look back. Teach and go hooo…? Home.

The Best Narrative

“If I become the best…”

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.

Waiting: the best narrative
Waiting: the best narrative

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?

Resilience. Cultivate it.

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My Neighbourhood (E. Khisa)

 

My neighbourhood is Sichei, a princely village in Bungoma. Bungoma, though it is ten kilometers from Bungoma town. That’s how it goes down anyway. If people 200km from Mombasa can say they come from the city, why not I with my Bungoma? If the ocean besieging Madagascar down there can still be said to be Indian, thousands of miles from India, Indiana and West Indies, what is 10km?

A dusty road runs by my village, which is made use of by the people who go on foot, ride on donkeys, bicycles and motorbikes. The road is, however, uneven and full of ruts, and becomes a disaster management client when the rains fall.

Sichei prides itself in the heritage of mud-walled houses. Most of these have low roofs, a single door and no windows. Usually, these houses have only one room, which serves as a kitchen, bed-room, reception-room, store-room, and nursery.

Some of the houses have a court-yard also, where the cattle are kept. You can say that the lanes are very dirty and that will not be criminal. They are littered with the left-overs from homes of careless wives and even much more careless husbands. They have puddles of dirty water that breeds swarms of undisciplined mosquitoes. So to us, malaria and cholera are kin and kith.

My neighbourhood is inhabited mostly by farmers. These men are models of industry. The village has barbers with none too keen wits and dull razors; carpenters with primitive instruments; cobblers whose shoes are known more for history and durability than beauty; and blacksmiths who make ploughs and sickles. My village has a dispensary where sore eyes are cured, fever is treated, and where the government dumps unused pain-killers from the national hospital.

village
village

The centres of interest, however, include the school, to which most of the boys go; several churches with innocent souls and a mosque where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. The village has a couple of canteens where the villagers buy their salt and soap. It has hotels too where bicycle engineers, barbers and a few travelers stop by to exercise their abdominal rights. It also has the tomb mother to the late VP, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and another for the late great seer of the Bukusu, Omung’osi Walumoli.

The most important men in my village are teachers and a few military men. Most boys in our village are afraid of approaching their daughters because they are harsh. No. This is not unfounded. African men don’t squander their fear just like that.

One day, Msumbichi burst into my simba breathing no breath. I laboured to make him speak and when he did, the news wasn’t good. Apparently, Simiyu was dying. Where? Under the mango tree in the soldier’s home. That was itself danger twofold. He said that they had hidden in the fence of the soldier’s home and were busy whistling at Nastanjia, first born daughter of the military man, when trouble came. Their attention had been so much on her topography that when the father stopped his bicycle behind them, they did not hear. It only downed on them when their hands were tied at the carrier of his bicycle and were dragged to hell itself. I don’t even remember how Msumbichi said he had escaped.

So when we got there, it was just in time to get the soldier giving military drills to Simiyu. The young man was still tied at the carrier of the bicycle. Now the soldier’s work was to peddle round his compound, through the roughest places, and Simiyu was to follow in trail. The soldier stopped only once – when Simiyu’s father came. He got off his bike, moved near the man, beat him up, ripped off his shirt and tied him under the mango tree before coming back to peddle. It was only the pleading of his second wife and mother to Nastanjia, and the preaching of a pastor standing at the gate, that pacified the man. Father and son were later seen running from the soldier’s compound without, as they say, looking back. You’d wonder how Simiyu’s father managed in the bush without a shirt on.

So we all have the right to fear military men.

The Head Master of the school is a worthy man, and the adult school run by him contains pupils from the ages of 20 to 35. Next year, Paulo Simiyu and Ponfenja Msumbichi will graduate to form three. Because they are among the youngest in the school, the head has promised to waive half their school fees if they stop taking alcohol. Let’s wait and see.

Teachers and soldiers aside, the fertility of our land is what motivates and inspires my village mates. Farmers were one time advised by our village elder not to use foreign fertilizer from the shops since it would corrupt the sweetness of their land. I hope they heed. Otherwise the number of shortwires is going to shoot.

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