Recently, I bumped into a high school mate on Tom Mboya Avenue, in the heart Nairobi. Moha (not his real name) displayed an open admiration for what he called, my enthralling tale. Both of us were at the restaurant for lunch. I am a fish-ugali guy. He is something else. Pilau and fried chicken. Our conversation went something like this.
‘I am a banker, just down the street. I live in Umoja with my wife and kids.’
‘I am enthralling to those who are patient,’ I said in way of playful self-description, ‘I live outside the city.’
Then he pulled a trigger of questions.
‘You dropped out of university but somehow you’ve managed to remain afloat?’
I didn’t remain afloat, I wanted to say. But I didn’t want to disappoint my friend either. So I nodded and threw a smile while buying time.
‘I drowned,’ I said later, ‘how I am still breathing is purely God’s magic.’
With hesitation, I talked about wives and kids, about buying plots of land and investing in M-Akiba. And then as I was trailing off with boredom, he jumped back to the subject of my writing. Alerted, I followed his lips as he mentioned how he loved writing but never really got around to doing it. I pitied him, of course.
At the end, having cancelled an appointment with a journalist friend from one of the leading dailies, we walked along the street, talking about nothing in particular.
‘My niece wants to drop out of college,’ Moha said in sudden panic, ‘she has tattoos and piercings all over her body. Her mother is scared like shit. She has no idea how to handle the situation.’
I was utterly surprised at Moha’s utterances. How I was supposed to intervene and yet I am no specialist in such matters? But somehow, I felt I owed it to Moha and his niece to write down and share my story, here. If anything can be gleaned from it, well and great. If it is a waste of time, then it’s still ok. We read to pass time, don’t we?
The one thing I recall from my childhood is an old bookshelf my father kept in the living room of our small house. The books were arranged in categories; children books, adult novels, college textbooks, Weekly Review Magazines, Reader’s Digest magazines, old Kenyan newspapers and anything else made of paper that my father brought home, including school exam files.
The moments I most cherished were the days I sat with my father for long hours rearranging the bookshelf and discarding unwanted paper. I sat at my father’s feet sorting out books and papers, dusting and rearranging them. This bookshelf provided my first reading materials.
‘Books are treasures,’ my father liked to say.
I was thirteen when I joined form one in February of 2002. The school I had been invited to join, Bungoma High School, is situated at the heart of Bungoma town. The month was dry: abrupt dry wind, fierce midday sun, cracked soil, mirage from the tarmac and butterflies on the roadside bushes.
I had heard horrifying tales of form one students being ‘monolized’. It filled me with a dreadful foreboding. I anticipated nothing but a deep dark pit peopled with venomous creatures. These form ones, only new to their places, were verbally abused, physically harassed and even, if the worst came to pass, molested.
The new uniform felt crisp on my small body. Grey trousers, white short-sleeved shirt, an orange-navy blue tie and a green sweater with double white stripes at the wrists and waist. The school motto: Be The Light. I stepped out in shiny black shoes newly acquired from Bata. It felt unreal. Finally, I was joining high School.
‘What do you want to become?’ my father asked.
I looked at him, read the solemnity in his expectant eyes and quickly realized that my father had hope, too much hope in fact. I didn’t want to think so much about it. I promised myself to do my best.
‘I want to be a surgeon,’ I blurted, ‘like Ben Carson.’
‘A neurosurgeon,’ my father corrected, a smile decorating his moustache-shielded lips, ‘that’s very good of you.’
‘Or a lawyer,’ I added.
The smile on my father’s face was broad.
‘You must be meticulous with your work. You must read a lot of books. You should love and respect your teachers.’
‘Yes, father,’ I said, ‘I will be meticulous and I will read many books.
I accompanied my father to the bank. I sat down in the waiting section of the banking hall and admired the smoothness and polished-nature of the tiled floor, the cool air and the well-dressed men and women who worked there. A young beautiful lady walked over to me, smiled at me, held my hand and asked me which school I was joining.
‘Bungoma high school,’ I said proudly.
‘That’s very nice,’ she said, ‘Bungoma High school is a great school.’
Just then my father appeared and the young beautiful lady moved toward an elderly client on his walking stick. As I walked out of the bank with my father, I kept throwing my eyes back to catch a last glance of the young beautiful lady. I had not wanted to get away from the bank so soon. Did the young beautiful woman have a son like me? I wondered. Suddenly, irrationally, I felt jealous of this ‘son’. She had been so tender with me.
After picking what we needed from the Asian-owned supermarket, from the bookshop, from the post office with its lazy yawning staff, we headed to my new school. The school was near the town centre.
‘Choose your friends carefully,’ my father admonished. I thought I saw something in his eyes at that moment. He was uncertain and in his uncertainty he was telling me with that solemn look in his eyes that I was entering a new phase of my life. There would be trials and tribulations. ‘You have to remember where you are coming from. Don’t befriend crooks. They’re plague.’
I thought about his words later, lying face-up on the upper deck of my new bed in the hostel. I had been admitted into the school and my father had left hurriedly and as if he didn’t want to be consumed by the very fire he had urged me into. He had promised to visit. Lying face-up on the bed, I felt a deep loneliness engulfing me. I remembered my mother and felt a wrenching pain at having left home, at having left her. She had hugged me and I thought I saw tears lingering in her face. I had never been far from my mother except for a month I stayed with my maternal uncle’s family in the city. I didn’t realize it when a tear dropped from my eye. I felt hatred for my father for ‘abandoning’ me at the school, from tearing me away from my mother’s side. I hated the older students who walked over to me to ask me my name, where I came from, how many marks I had scored in my KCPE. I hated the dull bleariness of the buildings in the school compound, the rust-coated roofing, the peeling paint on the walls, the thick smoke from the chimneys at the school kitchen, the ugly names of the hostels, the gushing water pipes, the thick stench from the school latrines, the acridness of the small urinal building next to the hostels, the greedy rush of students during mealtimes, the drabness of the meals, the prefects and teachers who assumed absolute power and said and did anything to you with impunity.
I was delighted at the meticulously trimmed flower bushes, at the thick old jacaranda, fig and eucalyptus trees that cast shadows as far as it was wise, at the carefully arranged rows of shelves in the school library, at the lyrical way the teachers spoke, at the elegance of the school principal and the exuberance of the student body. I was also delighted when we were taken around the science labs; physics, chemistry and biology. I had promised my father that I would work meticulously until I became a neurosurgeon, like Ben Carson. Walking around the biology laboratory, I felt a transposition. I was thrilled when I visited the school rugby, soccer, hockey, basketball, handball and volleyball training grounds. These were new games to me. I fancied joining basketball but then I was physically deprived, not like the tall bully NBA stars I had seen on television and magazines. I never liked volleyball and when I saw students running around with hockey sticks and hitting the balls so carelessly, I lost interest. I thought I saw gladiators bathed in mud when I visited the rugby training grounds. I lost interest as well. The indoor games did not attract interest in me. I thought them too lazy.
Ironically, my life was never far from these activities I had snubbed. I was the cheerleader when our teams played rugby, soccer and volleyball against the other schools. Most of the time, we won easily and progressed to the provincial level. I found a temporary home in the Drama club but the repeated recitation and the bullying nature of its leaders repulsed me. I took up minor roles in the rehearsals and my frequent failures to attend all the meetings and rehearsals led to my dismissal. I still went to these meetings and rehearsals but my interest had changed at this point. I was part of the active audience; something in me stirred every time an actor missed his lines or didn’t pronounce the words correctly with accompanying facial and gestures. Many years later after my high school, I would write my first play.
My grades throughout high school were impressive. The only disagreeable thing my father found was my low grades in Math. This, unfortunately, did not worry me at all. At the end of my second year in high school, the school regulations allowed us to pick fewer subjects. I picked eight subjects out of the thirteen I was previously handling. My favourite subjects in the new list included History & Government, English language and Literature, Physics and Biology. I was sad that I would no longer be attending Art & Design classes. I cherished the hours spent molding clay, doing mosaic and collage, 2D and 3D drawing, painting and so forth.
Whenever the schools closed for holidays, I would go back home to help with work around my father’s five-acre farm. My parents wouldn’t afford to hire farmhands. Most of the time a few relatives who came over to stay, helped with the work. My father grew sugarcane, maize, beans and kept cattle, sheep and chicken on the small farm. I worked in the farm with my elder brother in the mornings and sat to study with him in the late afternoons. He was a great help with Math and Chemistry.
My father was a lowly paid civil servant and my mother worked around the farm, selling milk, eggs and surplus crop harvests. In short, we only had enough for our stomachs.
Towards the end of my high school, I abandoned the idea of becoming a surgeon. I wanted to study law. I wanted to stand in the courtroom and argue in fluent, legal-jargon English. I wanted to use words like ‘Jurisdiction’, ‘my learned friend,’ ‘exoneration’, ‘my lord’, ‘sentence,’ ‘defendant,’ ‘the accused.’ I admired men and women of the law, their meticulousness when they chose their words, their wit, their intellect and seemingly inexhaustible wisdom.
After high school, I told my father that when KCSE results finally came out, I would go to university to study law. I would be an excellent lawman, I promised him. My father agreed, partly convinced by the high grades I was scoring in my high school exams. I read the few books I laid my hands on, newspapers and magazines. I kept an album of newspaper cuttings, wrote responses and kept them hidden underneath a pile of books. I read novels to enrich my imagination and my expression of the English language. I followed parliamentary debates when I could.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t qualify to go to law school on government sponsorship. I was distressed. I became dreamy and brooded for long hours.
It was at this point, feeling the need to isolate myself, that I immersed myself into reading. I read to distract myself. I read literature by Achebe, Imbuga, Ngugi, Ogot, Sembene and Dickens. There was a further tilt in my thinking and I began to image that there were no intellectual obstacles for me except the ones I would create for myself.
Then out of the blue, courtesy of my dentist uncle, I received a letter in September 2007 that I had won a scholarship to study Bsc. Civil Engineering at Lahore University, Pakistan.
I never went to Pakistan for my scholarship. My father couldn’t afford the air ticket in the time frame given, he informed me. Deep inside though, I knew that my father was uncertain about letting me into a world he didn’t know much about. If his imagination he couldn’t visualize me, a nineteen-year-old in Diaspora, wandering strange streets alone. I knew I had no chance of making him change his conservative stand. I fought dejection and found myself lethargic, discouraged, and hateful. I hated my father because I believed his lack of imagination had stopped me from going to Pakistan.
I joined Kenyatta University in the capital, Nairobi, instead. I was going to pursue an undergraduate course in Education. After four years of meticulous work at the university, after my graduation, I would become a high school teacher. I used a huge chunk of my time to read novels and write short imaginative and biographical stories like this. I attended my lectures halfheartedly, walked out halfway through some of them, missed some of the lectures, and when I sat for exams at the end of the semester, I scored average grades. I went on unperturbed, reading, writing, absconding my official duties.
This point marked the beginning of my downfall. I became detached from everyone and everything around me. I spent a huge chunk of my time with students from the language and literature department. In my second year, I lost all interest in completing my undergraduate course. I turned into an introvert. I carefully avoided my parents. I stayed in the capital with my cousins during my holidays and the thought of going back to my parents didn’t cross my mind. No one knew what the hell was wrong with me. I told lies and disguised my suffering. The books I read and the movies I watched consoled me. The imaginative world gave me an alternative existence. I identified with some of the fictional characters I read and watched. None of my family members had an idea what I was up to. I quashed any suspicion by offering unsolicited explanations.
By this time, the year 2011, three years after leaving home to go to the city for my university education, I still had a vague idea of what I really wanted to do with my life. I began writing plays, short stories, poems and articles. These were poorly done and they felt unworthy of anybody’s time. I longed to create characters of the ilk of Dostoevsky’s. Every time I wrote and read my work, I felt like I was receding from, as opposed to, moving towards refinement and perfection. This depressed me and made me irritable. One day, during one of the rare holidays I spent at my parent’s home, my senior brother found me struggling to light up a pile of printed pages.
‘What are you burning?’ he asked.
‘Some useless papers,’ I answered, ‘the story wasn’t impressive. The language was bland.’
‘Which story?’ he asked, puzzled.
‘The story I was writing,’ I quickly rejoined, ‘reading it felt like listening to badly composed music.’
‘I don’t think burning it will rectify the mistakes therein?’ my brother counseled.
I watched him walk away. I searched for logic in his words and found none. I wanted to stop the matchstick from making contact with the pile of papers if only for his sake but I couldn’t. He had no time for literature and I wondered why he was even bothered with my struggle. I stood watching the burst of weak flame, the thick smoke that made me cough, and the soft ash that remained on the charred grass afterwards. I returned to the house, picked a rim of fresh writing paper from the shelf and began anew. I would write, I told myself, I would keep writing.
The road back to the university lecture room proved almost insurmountable. By the time my bad dream came to an end, by the time I discovered what I really wanted to do in life, who I wanted to be, I had already too much damage and loss to deal with. The opportunity I had won at Kenyatta University was no longer tenable. I wanted a new surrounding to begin my life all over again. I was twenty-three by then and life had dealt me smooth blow after smooth blow. Stuff happened at a supersonic speed. People and events swirled around me and hurled themselves forward, distancing themselves from my grasp. Days flew into each other and I lost count of the months and years. I didn’t want to encounter my family and I kept away from them as best as I could. I made new friends and lovers and discarded them as quickly as I did.
I left home for Nakuru in February of the following year. I had found a temporary teaching job. The morning before I left, I went to my father’s house to see him. I had stealthily avoided him for the few weeks I had spent home. He was suspicious but never made a move towards me; the wise old lion. I surrendered myself to him that morning. He dragged himself out of bed and after an hour or so he was dressed up, taking breakfast tea with me.
‘I am going back to the university,’ I blurted, avoiding his lion eyes.
‘It’s good to go back,’ it is all he said in that moment.
‘Yes,’ I agreed. I was shaking. I knew he knew. It annoyed me that he knew but chose to keep quiet. His quiet approach on the matter was both a relief and a source of mental torture. Should I tell him? I wondered. No. No. No. No. No! I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t! I couldn’t! I couldn’t tell him that I had dropped out of university. I left him holding a tea cup. At the doorway, sure that the lion was gazing at his prey, I nearly collapsed. I went over, hugged my mother, and left. I hated myself. I never glanced back. The motorcycle man was waiting for me. He drove me away from the lion’s den and I was glad he did.
I knew the school was unremarkable even before I arrived for work. From the tarmac, I journeyed close to ten kilometers. I inhaled chunks of dust; the sweat on the motorcycle man’s jacket gave a goat smell; the sun hung low, blazing fiercely. The farms on the dusty roadside were bare, goats and cows scattered all over, women, children and donkeys making their way toward the river.
For a moment I felt like Petals of Blood’s Munira. It was as if I was running away from vampires, only to stop and stare into the open mouth of another. The motorcycle man bored me with his chat. I wanted to tell him to shut up. I surprised myself when I began to answer his nonsensical questions. My responses delighted him. He dropped me at the school gate. There was no security man at the gate. I walked through the open gates to the administrator’s office.
The buildings of the private-owned school were drab although only recently built. I pitied myself. The administrator’s office was drab too, with few disheveled books and paper files. I wondered why the old man didn’t just wake up one morning and arrange his office. His speech was slow and deliberate. Deep inside, something told me that I would never like him. He was a lazy egg and the school buildings resembled him.
I met the other teachers. Most were young and ill-qualified. It had not struck the people who lived near the school to build house units for rent. The school and the village was hidden from the outside world, a place shielded by devilish hills that rose all around, making it impossible to listen to news on my Fm Radio.
In the evenings, in a small room the proprietor of the school had proudly shown me, I sat at a wooden table to jot down observations. I began talking to a girl I saw at the market and when she came over to my room, the lovemaking was drab. As if guided by wisdom, she never appeared at my doorway again. There were nights I wished she were there with me though, lying on the bed beside my naked self, pumping with life, saving me from self-isolation.
All this time my mind never deviated from the thought of going back to the university. I wanted to rid myself of the backwater village and its annoyingly sluggish way of life. Home? I didn’t know what that meant. Home was something else, something I hardly remembered. The last time home was true was when I was twelve, before I left my parent’s home to join high school. My home will be at the university, I said to myself.
I engaged with my students. I played football with them, taught them drama, taught them how to pass a rugby ball and took them to inter-school competitions.
I threw money on books and entertainment and clothes. I didn’t care about saving. At night when I went to sleep, the lion didn’t roar in my ears. The roar, at first loud and imposing, had faded and then vanished. The roar had often been tormenting, hinting but not hitting. One day, the Lion just stopped roaring altogether. I imagined I had grown deaf. I didn’t sleep that night. The lion’s roar had become something like a soothing lullaby, a constant a reminder of who I was and where I ought to be. I was lost in the middle of surrounding devilish hills.
It’s amazing how the spirit renews itself like a reptile, how eyes rise to new horizons, enabling us to tread difficult paths, the way we navigate through storms toward discovery and restoration.
I still recall the warmth of my father’s hand as he guided me through the narrow streets of my hometown on my way to my new school. The warmth is emboldened in my palm and I hope that one day I will offer it with utmost love to my children.
Wanjala Njalale has written for The EastAfrican Magazine, Brittle Paper (UK), Aerodrome and most recently Enkare Review. He is also an editor and blogger.