Three days later, the compound was empty again. Fresh shoots of grass peeped through the churned soil of the backyard. Most people had left. Only my mother’s sisters remained. They were leaving that day, having put everything back in order. “Be strong,” they told my dad as they hugged me goodbye. My father nodded and thanked them.
Then it was just the two of us, standing hand-in-hand at the door, watching their multi-coloured kitenge dresses disappear down the road. Then reality hit like a sledgehammer and I felt like crying. But something told me, even back then, that I had to be strong. Not so much for myself as for my father. So I dug my face into his trouser leg until I couldn’t breathe.
One week after my aunts left, we packed up and returned to Awasi, where we lived. We left the house in the village in the care of its usual occupant, the young uncle who drove us on the day we brought the bodies. He was then in form three.
We spent much of the drive in silence. I looked out the windows at the trees and electricity poles racing tirelessly backwards, at herdsmen watching their cows drink from roadside pools. We got to Awasi in the sombre grey of dusk. The emptiness of the house, and of our lives, felt even more definite, as if to remind us that even the steady march of time would never fill it.
Our home in Awasi was a four-roomed unit at the end of a three-unit red brick row house. A wide plastered veranda ran the entire length of the front of the building. When it rained, we kids would slide on our bellies on it. All we needed was a little soap to make it slipperier. Of course there were scratches and bumps and sicknesses and beatings, but only age can overcome the thrill of sliding stark naked in the rain, screaming at the top of your lungs.
A lawn of tough grass extended from the veranda. It turned a dull brown in the dry season, exposing patches of cracked black earth. A barbed wire fence went around the plot. It was quite close behind the house. From the kitchen window with the fancy grill-work, one could reach out and touch the barbed wire.
The narrow space between the fence and the rear walls was a thriving play area. I remember playing kalongolongo there. We would make miniature houses, mould little clay children, and cut fake chapat out of succulent leaves using Coke bottle tops.
A full day could be rendered within thirty minutes, complete with the throaty morning cockcrow and the Kikuyu malimali seller calling hoarsely at seven in the evening while a red bottle-top sun descended into a hole in the ground.
Awasi was a sleepy hamlet on the highway connecting Kisumu to Nairobi. Although it had some natives, most of the people there were tenant workmen who lived in its row houses with their families during their work terms and took off to their villages during the holidays.
Sugarcane fields, with neat rows of plants in various stages of growth, stretched out on the plains around the town into the horizon. The thick sugary scent of burning harvests was seldom absent from the humid air. For us children, the farms had a dark charm about them, reinforced by adults to keep us from venturing too close.
There were rumours of abducted children being slaughtered for magic inside them by jokachinja, and of little girls being raped and left for dead. There was also the other story claiming the farms were guarded by ng’ielo, the biggest pythons, which would sometimes tire of waiting inside and pluck at unsuspecting passers-by for their evening meal.
But none of these stories diminished the sweetness of the sugarcane roots we pulled out after a field had been cleared, nor of the sticks we drew out of tractor trailers headed for the factory while dirty and rough obanda, sugarcane cutters, perched on the trailers like vultures on a carcass, brandished their sharp machetes and pelted us with obscene insults, which we could only repeat shyly outside adult earshot.
When I turned six, I moved from the nursery school to Awasi Primary. My father took me there in the Beetle throughout the first year, then he stopped. Every morning after that, I would put on my cyan shirt and navy-blue pair of shorts, which extended little lower than my underwear, and walk to school by myself, until I was joined by my best friend, Onyi.
My path went around the compound of the Catholic parish (in which the nursery school was situated), across the highway, past the grassy field where policemen goose-stepped during national holidays, and along a straight rocky road. The scariest part was crossing the highway, with its big speeding lorries, but I got used to it fast enough.
The school gate was an opening in the fence on the left side of the rocky road. The fence itself was a neat, carefully tended line of dark green sisal plants. They were so closely grown, a chicken could not pass through the gap between any two.
A wide hundred-metre-long gravel driveway started at the opening in the fence. It was flanked on both sides by rows of old jacaranda trees, on which a million purple flowers bloomed every year. Each morning at the start of the dry season, a velvety purple carpet ushered us into school. Walking on the flowers was one of the finer experiences of school life. Sweeping them off the gravel a few minutes later, a cane-equipped teacher handy by, was one of the worst.
The driveway went straight to the administration unit. It was the middle section of a long building that also contained most of the classrooms. A shorter building sat at the extreme right, forming a short L with the main one. It had rooms for the first three classes. The two buildings were separated by a narrow dusty corridor where we would hide to eat mandas at break time.
Both buildings were made of red bricks, like most other houses in the town. No other building material was as easily obtainable. I sometimes went to the place where the bricks were made, from soft earth dug out of pits beside the river three kilometres away from our house.
The men there worked bare-chest, digging the soil, wetting it and kneading it with their feet. Sweat erupted on their skins, glistened under the scorching afternoon sun, and dripped onto the wet soil. They would put the kneaded soil into moulds and leave them to cure for some days. Away to the right, a balanced pile sat waiting to be fired.
They talked the whole time. I would sit against a tree and throw pebbles into the river as I watched them, fascinated that people could exert themselves so hard and still have energy to talk so much. Their humour was brutally caustic, yet very casual. They had a way of saying and doing the roughest things to one another without anyone taking offence.
One day, one of them came from a nature call in a bush holding dead snake by the tail. He tossed it into a water-filled depression in which one of his colleagues stood, wiping his brow and taking a short rest. Naturally, the second man leaped with a yell. His heels hit the rim of the shallow depression and he fell over backwards.
The others burst out laughing. They could see the snake bobbing in the water, very much not alive. The fellow got up, visibly embarrassed, and ran after the offender. He didn’t catch him because the others shielded him (and because he didn’t really want to catch him). In the end, he also started laughing nervously and said he knew where he would catch the other guy. Then he threw the dead snake away and resumed working. Shortly after, a stick was thrown into his wet depression. He didn’t jump.
Every now and then, a lorry came to collect the fired bricks. Then I would watch the men perform a veritable work of art. They would all line up, about three meters apart from one another, and convey the bricks into the lorry by tossing them down the line in one fluid motion. I never once saw any of them miss or drop a brick.
Our school buildings had metal-framed windows with glass panes. It was a major point of pride, since few other schools in the town had such facilities. Most had to make do with unshielded gaps in the walls through which dust and rain and howling winds entered classes, turning learning into a messy affair of coughs and colds and irritated eyes.
To the right of the driveway, in the crook of the L formed by the buildings, there was an esplanade of whitewashed stones set into the ground in concentric semicircles, at the centre of which stood a tall white metal flagpole. It was another pride-worthy fixture, since it was always straight, unlike the crooked wooden poles in the other schools, which had to be replaced often because termites were forever at work.
The esplanade was our assembly ground. Every Monday and Friday morning, we took our places along the lines and gravely sang the national anthem as the flag was raised by scouts. Then the teachers would take over and give us several speeches.
Some were boring to death. Others were so witty they would leave our ribs burning, making the rule that we must stand straight at parade a most ironic torture. Others spoke for so long that we would begin the first lesson late. Yet others used big English words, like cantankerous and nincompoop, evidently to clear any doubts we had about the long way we still had to go in our education.
And then there was good old motherly Mrs Oluoch, the senior teacher. She was huge. She lumbered around like a truck and spoke with a lisp. Her hands always swung outwards because they were too fat to point straight down. To whatever she said at parade, she always appended some hygiene advice. Wash your hands to kill germs. Shave your hair to keep out lice. Boil water before drinking it. Don’t sneeze like a goat.
Parade was never complete without some lashes for naughty or unlucky pupils. Several teachers would take turns at them with singing po sticks. Then the head-teacher would take over and warn the rest of us against the iniquities which had landed the unfortunate pupils in the spot. Finally, he dismissed the parade and we scampered off to our classrooms.
The school sat on three hectares of flat land. The football field stretched left of the driveway, starting just a little in from the gate. Ants always built a mound in front of one of the goalposts during the holidays. When we reopened school, the first pupils to commit infractions would dig it up and extract the queen, a big white fatty blob. It was hard, backbreaking work.
Once, when I was in class three, before the mound was cleared, I fought the toughest boy in my class on top of it. His name was Oti. Oti was rough-faced and rough-mannered. Even on his best days, he had a special facility for being quite unlikeable. His home was very close to the school. His father was an old man who walked with a crooked stick and had two wives. He was the last-born of the youngest wife, and it didn’t serve him well.
Unlike many of my classmates, however, I had never had a serious encounter with Oti. I was mostly a loner, so I stayed on the side-lines of classroom politics. That day, I was squatting just inside the football field, adjusting my socks after practising somersaults. Oti was chewing on a roasted cob of maize, walking with his cronies. I don’t know how they came to the topic, but as they passed, Oti turned and told them I was a motherless orphan.
It was, of course, quite true. But the way he said it kindled a fire at the back of my throat. I think envy also played a part. He had two mothers. I had none. And that was just plain unfair, if anything ever was. Getting away with ridiculing my situation was too much to add to that. So I stood and dared him to repeat he had just said. And he, evidently taking confidence in his reputation and trusty cloud of friends, said it again, adding that twisted-mouth thing kids use to show contempt.
I slapped his maize cob to the ground and rubbed my sole on it. My speed caught him by surprise. Oti was known to have once punched a tooth out of a boy’s mouth and didn’t expect anyone to attack him so carelessly. Furious, he charged at me. His friends stepped aside and watched with smug grins, sure their hero would pound me to a pulp.
We pushed and punched and kicked and scratched. Moving first certainly favoured me, but I am convinced my anger was the deciding factor. Never since have I mustered the kind of ferocity with which I brought Oti to the ground and tore at him that day. Years of bottled grief and pain came pouring out like a vengeful volcano, and found their consolation in his humiliation.
I don’t remember the details of the fight too vividly. It was a long time ago, and time is a sneaky thief of memories. It steals all the flesh and leaves you gnawing on the worst parts. All I remember is that the tussle ended atop the new anthill, with Oti on his back, his hands flailing like the legs of a trapped spider, and me jumping gleefully on his oversized belly.
The buttons of his shirt had come off somewhere along the trail of destruction and pain we had traced across the field. His freckled skin bore broad white lines drawn by my nails. His pointy belly button squished with my every jump. The gasps that escaped him every time I landed had a morosely satisfying sound.
At some point, Oti stopped struggling. His hands lay limp on the sides of the anthill. That’s when I stopped jumping, looked down at his pitiful figure and looked up to see the his terrified cronies standing around with a few other spectating pupils. Then I ran back to class, terrified by how cruel I could be. I had come in contact with something truly evil inside me.
I would spend many waking hours after that wondering how close I had come to killing Oti that day. Would he have died if I had jumped one more time? And, if I had killed him, would I have been arrested and hanged? But the guilt ebbed with time. Moreover, from that day, the deference that had been Oti’s was reassigned to me. I became top dog of my class without ever wanting to.
At the southern end of the school, there was a grove of willows. Their leaves drooped to the ground, forming a green wall around the broad clearing in the middle. No grass could grow in that clearing. Not only because it was starved of sunlight, but because girls also stomped on it skipping ropes and ducking balls and boys pockmarked it with holes for playing marbles.
Sometimes a stray ball from the girls would hit one of the boys and touch off a raucous break-time fight. The shrieking girls always won, of course, because winning a fight against girls wasn’t a thing any boy could be proud of.
The term-closing ceremonies were held in the clearing. The deputy headmaster read out the names of the top pupils in each class, starting with the fifth, and their parents picked up their report forms from the front. I always loved it when he reached my class. By the time he got to the second pupil, smiles, and frowns of derision, were already being directed at my father and me. Because then everyone knew I had topped the class. Again.
There would be speeches too. Advice on how to use time during the holiday, reminders to help at home, warnings to come back with the money to pay for repairs to the staffroom roof or risk being sent back home on the first day. Once, Mrs Oluoch advised us not to put on an item of underwear a second time without first washing it. It was unhealthy, she said, and hardly becoming of future gentlemen.
Then Oti, poor brute, raised his hand to ask a question.
“Madame, what if you have only one?”
It was long before Mrs Oluoch squeezed in a reply between teary chortles.
“Then wash it every night!”
This is the second chapter of a new novel I am writing. Read the other chapters here.
Sign up below to receive new stories as soon as they drop.