It took me 30 minutes to walk the two kilometer road between home and school. Every morning, for 5 years I walked on the dustiest, and when it rained, muddiest road Rongai had to offer; and yes, we still went to school during El Nino. Most of you might be reading this going, ah, 2 kilometers tu? What a wind bag… but I’ll add that before I transferred to a school in Rongai, I was in a preparatory school. I think that is what people who go for Blankets and Wine call Prep School… Yes? So all my 5 years here were riddled with culture shock and disillusionment; but on some days, something in me would stir, a raw unadulterated force, I think it was the spirit of Rongai, the Rongai-ness within. And on such days, amazing things would happen.
I had gotten to school earlier than most. Jim was the brightest student in our class, well, according to exam results…and they were mostly right. He was also, my best friend, a move I later came to suspect was more strategic than random. I would come early to school all panicky like a doctor in ER, then I’d go straight to where Jim sat and ask for his homework. Of course anyone who was in primary school knows how this story ends.
So one such day, after finishing my homework (don’t give me those eyes… fine!) after copying most of Jim’s homework, (happy now?) I was in the toilets idly staring at the random graffiti, passing time…yes, that was kind of my thing…. I was reading something along the lines of Brian loves Catherine wondering what Brian ever did to anyone to deserve such a cruel fate. Just to put it into perspective, Catherine was the girl who always came to class late, dress all creased, with the distinct smell of urine floating about her.
The yelp was soft, but still loud enough to be heard. It came from behind the toilet, and by Jove the Derrick in me had to investigate. Nestled between the hedge and rusty barbed wire was the cutest puppy; a very debatable statement. Like anyone, I wouldn’t leave it there, I had to take it with me, and to class nonetheless.
My coolness level had escalated from the kid who went to the toilet to read the graffiti to the kid who brought his puppy to class. I was almost a hero. The girls were all head over heels for me (I highly suspect it was the puppy). I told the story of how I rescued the pup to anyone who asked, and watched as the girls’ eyes became bigger in awe and as the boys’ became smaller in envy.
By the time class was starting I had fans. But they were the fake type, like MC Hammer fans, who when the time came to wipe the poop and pee, they all left….
I was rolling in my glory, basking in my fame when the teacher walked in. He was a burly man, still is. He taught English and music. Now he sings with one of those groups that add Africa to their name maybe to sound more authentic.
I hadn’t had much time to come up with a strategy, and so when I saw him I did what the voices in my head told me: I stuffed the puppy in my desk.
The teacher was going on about nouns and grammar and all that jazz while my head was filled with prayers. Please God let the dog not make a sound, please please, I promise never to write in the toilets again. (I’m not the one who framed you Brian, I promise). As the poem Mama by Nkirote Laiboni reads: … but… the gods of small children must have been busy… because the dog did make a sound, and the teacher did hear it. And since everyone in class knew my little secret, none of them could make it to the third yelp. The class was in uproar.
When the teacher, a rock of a man, came towering above me and asked what was going on, I meekly reached into my desk and brought out a scared-to-bits puppy whose eyes matched mine. You should have seen his face when he said, what can I say? Boys will be boys. Take it outside. And as if that was just a normal day at work for him, he continued on nouns and grammar as I walked out of class with a puppy in my hands.
It is in this same classroom glazed with such boyhood experiences that one day my GHC teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I must have been the luckiest person in the planet. I was honored, or at least I should have been. In a class of 30-something kids, I was among doctors, engineers, pilots, architects; it almost felt like a Kids Next Door version of Rotary Club. But there I stood, lost in all this expectation. When my turn came, I didn’t think much. I said I wanted to be a journalist. I could feel the awkward stares, the have you no vision in life looks and the terse cough that would motion the teacher to move on swiftly, move to bigger dreams, dreams that made the class sink under a series of uuuuhhhs and aaaaahhhhs.
Truth be told, I didn’t always want to be a writer. There were times when I wanted to be a war dog, yes, a war dog. Don’t look at me that way, Chip the War Dog was an awesome movie, you too would have wanted to be a war dog. Every season in my childhood was marked by a new career interest. There was that time I wanted to be a pilot.
My dad had just bought my brother and me a model fighter jet…or as we used to call it jetfaita. I would watch curiously as the toy inched its way across the living room, taxing but never taking off. In those moments I would be inside the cockpit, taking instructions, saying “roger” and “over over”. Suddenly I wanted more. I needed to know what drove this thing, how a mound of plastic and screws would move from here to there, and so at that point, I wanted to be an engineer.
Dad woke up one Saturday to find the expensive toy jet in bits and pieces, strewn between my spread legs. The look on his face didn’t match mine. His was a mix of what the heck and I will kill you, I swear I will. Mine started as hey? Would you believe there is no tiny man driving this thing, to uuhm dad, please don’t kill me, think of what mum will do to you for killing me, and what she’ll do to me for making you kill me.
On such occasions, I wanted to be a ninja; how else would I defend myself against my father’s rage? I would take the beating like a man…waiting to become a ninja and avenge my honor.
But even through all these seasons, I was always like a drawing compass. One leg would move, explore, discover; while the other would always be pegged on one thing, the story books my mother bought me.
Our house was like a library store room; so many books and no shelves. I remember sifting through an old box of African Series Writers books, the likes of Ousmane Sembene, Ali Mazrui, Chinua Achebe, Francis Celormey, random books on amnesty, apartheid, Kenyatta, Kimathi, Mau Mau. Then there was the box filled with Daniel Steele, Sydney Sheldon, Mills and Boons; and another full of Readers Digest, Viva, Drum and Parents. My room too had boxes packed with Ladybird Series books, various Bedtime Stories, the Bible Stories collection and many more story books. On most nights I would get lost in faraway kingdoms, fight evil knights, save princesses, drink magic porridge, chase a magic pancake, a gingerbread man, touch a black rose, pet a cat in boots, climb a beanstalk and all the while as my feet hang above me as I lay on my bed, which often would turn into a ship that would sail away in the ocean of my imagination, each time taking me on a new adventure, and to a new destination.
It was almost inevitable, that I too, would eventually have stories of my own. I would get lost in the woods of my imagination, and when I came back I brought with me stories that were at times incredibly ludicrous. I remember describing a man I had seen in church to my father, and likening him to Rastapopoulos, the villain from Tintin. I also remember my dad laughing so hard that day, that I felt the pride fall on me like a warm blanket. And from there on, I knew I had an audience.
And so as I grew up, met new people, had new experiences, and fought new battles; as new interests were found, and new seasons came, and as I grew up, the little boy who brought a stray puppy to class, who swam against the grain, who always wanted to discover, who always had a story at the back of his tongue, and who was fortunate enough to learn how to put those stories down on paper, still remained in me.
I had posted on Twitter a few weeks back that Ras Mengesha was going back to school, not wanting to put the cart before the donkey (an old Rongai saying) I kept it under wraps until things cleared out. And so it’s with great delight that I announce to you guys that I joined the University of Nairobi this semester, doing my Masters of Arts in Literature. I’d like to thank you guys for always coming back, for the comments and feedback and for the encouragement. And in all truth, the decision to take this course is partly and greatly because of you. Let’s keep on guys, embrace the voices in your head, and strive for greatness, no matter what you do.
Oh, and one more thing, thank you mum…. Okay fine, and you too dad.
I felt I needed a more climactic ending so I thought I'd add these: (I fear the Masters will turn me into one of these)
Then, check out my new stop motion animated short film here: