Friday November 28th, 1997. 17:00h. Biafra-Thika.
Sudi is seven years old. At the moment, he is seated at the doorstep to the single room where he stays over the weekends with his older brother Jonte (10 years old) and their father who just clocked 31. He has his nose dipped deep into “Matilda”, a book he appears to enjoy immensely.
Sudi and Jonte couldn’t be more different. While Sudi is the silent type that will read anything from the newspaper that the butcher used to wrap the meat to a 500 page Tom Clancy novel, Jonte is the wild type that won’t sit down for a second.
Before their parents separated, their mother used to scold Jonte all the time. Something about how he has teeth on his ass that bite him every time he has to sit down. When the parents separated, they made the arrangement that Jonte would live with his father permanently in Biafra and Sudi would stay with his mother upcountry. So Sudi is largely an upcountry boy who spends his weekends in Thika and Jonte is a ghetto child who is fast growing into a ghetto ruffian.
Jonte, who has just come home from school, joins him at the doorstep
Jonte: Good to see you again brother. How’s mom?
Sudi: (Not looking up) Just a minute.
Jonte drops his school bag on the floor and sits beside his brother, waiting patiently for him to finish that page so that they can have a conversation.
Jonte: You know dad won’t be home till around 9 tonight, right?
Sudi: Yeah I know.
Jonte: Then why do you come so early just to chill at the door?
Sudi: Well, dad won’t give us the keys to the house. And mom says I have to come early so I come early. Besides, I enjoy reading my books as I wait.
Jonte: Why don’t you join me and my friends? You might enjoy playing with us.
Sudi: (Closes the book) You are not going to leave me in peace, are you?
Jonte: No. (Smiles) I am your big brother. I don’t think I am supposed to leave you in peace.
Sudi: Your friends are too rough.
Jonte: We’ll make a deal. Live my life for the weekend. Let’s play together with my friends, let’s hang out more just you and me and allow me to get your mind of these books of yours. Just for a weekend. If you don’t like it, then I’ll let you be. Forever. I will never ask you to hang out with me again. (Sudi seems reluctant) Please?
And Sudi reluctantly agrees. And the young brothers live their bags at the door and join Jonte’s friends in Biafra where they are playing their usual loud and wild games. Their favorite game; it is the flip. This is where they make a makeshift runway of about fifteen feet, after which lies a huge tyre and on the other side of the tyre lies a heap of grass.
The idea is; you run on the runway, pick up speed (picture a taxing airplane), then jump onto the tyre at maximum speed with both feet, and it in turn catapults you back in the air (picture an action reaction thing) during which you do a flip or two in the air before landing on the heap of grass on your feet. It is fun. If you can do it.
And most boys can. Sudi can’t. First of all, it takes a pep-talk and a whole lot of cajoling to get him to even attempt. And when he falls on his ass on the heap of grass, the boys laugh at him. And Jonte, who is bigger than most of them, beats them around in a bid to protect his brother.
Biafra is a low income housing project in the outskirts of Thika town and it is built largely on the side of a hill. At the bottom of this hill lies Chania River on the other side of which lies a railway track. At 18:00h every evening, a train rumbles past Biafra without fail.
Jonte and his friends have this culture where every evening at 17:50h, they run downhill through Biafra, run across the tiny makeshift bridge across Chania River and cross the railway track just before the train rumbles past. The thrill is making it across the tracks as the train approaches and being missed by it by a whisker. That life and death thrill, that’s what keeps this culture alive.
And today, Sudi will go along for the ride. He can run at the same speed as the rest of the boys, but Jonte stays close just to be sure he’s OK. And he is among the first boys to reach the bridge below and along with the rest; he crosses the tracks a few seconds before the noisily hooting train rumbles past. But as he crosses, he can’t help but wonder what will happen one day if God forbid, one boy’s foot gets caught in the tracks.
But he does appreciate the thrill. It is the single reason why he decides with finality to ride out the weekend with Jonte and friends. He feels like he has just passed on to another dimension. He feels like he is Thiga from the storybook “The Adventures of Thiga” and this new life is a big giant which he has to fight to death.
At 19:00h, Jonte sends him home so he and the rest of the boys can go watch porn at a video show hall in the neighborhood. Normal movies cost the boys 5 shillings. Porn goes for 10 shillings. And the video show attendant doesn’t care that he is ushering kids into a whole new creepy world. Ten bob is ten bob, whether it is handed to him by a ten year old boy or a sixty year old creep. But Jonte, doesn’t think it is correct to introduce his brother to such. Not even when his friends ask him to allow Sudi to tag along.
So Sudi goes back to the doorstep where he sits and gets back to Matilda, her father and Ms. Trunchbull. Only now he has to struggle to read because the only light available is that streaming into the compound from a far off street light. It is during this act of struggling to read that a neighbor comes home from work.
The neighbor’s name is Lucy. Lucy is a primary school science teacher on teaching practice. She is still in her very early 20s. She enters the plot and finds the young Sudi squinting in the dark to catch a sentence and a sense of pride and excitement rushes through her. She finds genuine allure in a boy who loves reading.
Lucy: (Stands in front of Sudi) Hi Sudi
Sudi: (Not looking up) Hi teacher Lucy
Lucy: You can just call me Lucy. Where is your brother?
Sudi: He went to Fiesta (Fiesta is the name of the video show hall)
Lucy: And your dad isn’t back yet?
Sudi: He’ll be here in two hours or so.
Lucy: Well, maybe you can come read your book at my house. There is more light there.
And Sudi thinks that that is a good idea. It’ll be lighter there. It’ll be warmer there and who knows, maybe there’ll even be tea. And so he follows Lucy into her house.
And at first she allows him to read, but then she starts talking more and more. And the subject of conversation is science and the more she talks, the more she appears to narrow it down to the reproductive system.
And always thirsting for knowledge, Sudi listens more keenly with every passing second. Eventually, Lucy pulls out a book with diagrams of the reproductive systems – both male and female and Sudi eats it all up. Finally she asks if he wants to see pictures which are more real. And of course he says yes. And she fetches her Playboy Magazines. And the pictures therein give him a weird tingling sensation. And she asks if he wants to see the real thing.
And now he is scared. He is shaking. He is terrified. And he is excited. He receives the same thrill he received earlier when he was running across the railway track seconds before the train passed. So he doesn’t take his eyes off her when she starts peeling off her dress. And when she asks him to stand up, he stands up. When she unbuttons his shorts and explains that she only wants to show him a more real organ other than that which is drawn shoddily on the academic books, he believes her. And when her warm hands touch him, he believes that it is all for the sake of science. And it is all for the sake of science when she shows him the female side of things and how they work. So far, languages are his favorite subjects at school, but if science is this interesting, he just might change his mind.
At 21:00h, she allows him to dress and wait for his father at their doorstep. After all, these are his hours. And as Sudi waits, another neighbor swings by. He is about Sudi’s father’s age and there is always a stick of bhang on him. It is either always behind his ear or tucked in his socks, or crumpled in his pockets, or just hanging idly on his lips. His name is Sam and his idol is KBC radio presenter Jeff Mwangemi; he of the KBC radio reggae show.
Sam: (Standing in front of Sudi) Has you brother and his cronies left the porn shop yet?
Sudi: What’s a porn shop?
Sam: (Rolls his eyes) It is a shop where people watch porn.
Sudi: OK. What’s porn?
Sam: It is… how old are you?
Sudi: Seven. How old are you?
Sam: Old enough to know about porn. You on the other hand, are too young for that stuff. Tell you what, why don’t you come to my place and wait for your dad there? I’m sure he is almost home now but it’s Friday so he’ll be bringing a whore along
Sudi: What’s a whore?
Sam: You know what; don’t ask me anymore questions. Just come to my place and we could listen to Jeff Mwangemi together.
Sudi: But the reggae show is in the morning, right?
Sam: What did I say about questions? And to answer that one; I have recorded his shows on cassettes. You coming or not?
Sudi: Do you like science? I think teacher Lucy is a great science teacher.
Sam: (He pulls a joint of weed from behind his ear, lights up and asks nonchalantly) Yeah? How do you figure?
Sudi: Well, she took my clothes off and showed me how the reproductive systems work.
Sam: (Freezes. Moves real close to Sudi) She what??
Sudi: (Innocently) Yeah. It was quite interesting too. I think I like science.
And Sam asks him to move over on the doorstep so he can sit beside him. And he smokes the rest of his joint in silence. He appears to be deep in thought.
Finally at around 21:30h, Jonte comes home and Sam offers him a joint. He turns it down. Apparently the last time he smoked it, he didn’t like what it made him feel.
21:45h, the children’s father gets home. And true to form, he has a scantily dressed lady in tow. And he drops a careless hello. He is drunk. He is horny and he has a joint on his lips just like Sam. He asks Sam if the kids can sleep at his place for the night and Sam pulls him aside. He mumbles something in his ear and the father comes alive with fury.
The Father: She what????
And he storms off towards Lucy’s house. And he bangs on the door so hard and so repeatedly that it swings off its hinges. And all the neighbors are out of their houses now to see what the noise is all about. And he enters her house and lays the devil’s beating on her. It takes the strength of several brutal men to yank him away from her. Away from committing murder that night.
At 23:00h, The Father jumps in bed with his lady for the night. It is a single room that is divided in two by a bed sheet. The boys sleep on the floor on one side and the father explores his lady’s treasure on the other side. The moaning keeps them all awake for a long time. At some point in the night the lady informs him that she likes Sudi. The little one living with “your haggard wife” upcountry. And he gets all defensive and kicks her out at around 02:00h claiming that “she is the mother of my children you sick cunt fucking whore!!!”
At 03:00h, the cops take him away for questioning. At 05:00h, the cops take Lucy away for questioning. At 06:00h, the Father comes back home bearing some interesting news. Lucy committed suicide while in police custody. “May her horny soul rest in fiery peace and may God curse her and her descendants forever. Amen.” He does the sign of the cross and collapses on the bed for a brief shuteye before heading out to working again a couple of hours later.
Saturday November 29th 1997. 09:00h
Jonte is a man on a mission. He needs some money to fund his evening night out with his friends. He needs to somehow come across twenty shillings by the end of the day or he’ll miss out on a porn filled evening.
So he gets his little brother off the house. He owns a tyre inside which he pours water, inserts two sticks from both sides and rides it into Thika town with his brother hurrying beside him. First plan is to walk as furthest possible while looking for money on the ground. People don’t walk around dropping money, but accidents happen. It is the occurrence of such accidents that Jonte is counting on.
Sudi thinks that that is a dumb idea but he tags along anyway. It might after all, be fun. Besides, he promised.
In town there is a place where people sell movie video tapes and Sudi, just like his brother and every other boy they know, is into Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jean Claude van Damme, Sylvester Stallone (whom they just call “Rambo”) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (whom they just call “Commando”). Oh, and there is always Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal.
And as Sudi stands in front of hundreds of action movie video tapes, he pictures himself as an adult showing up at the movie stall with a duffel bag, buys all the tapes and takes them home with him because by then he will have the money for it. For now, he’ll just help his brother look for money on the ground. To go to the porn shop.
Sudi: (Suddenly) What’s porn?
Jonte: I don’t know.
Sudi: You’re lying.
The guy selling movies overhears the conversation and to create a picture of what porn is, he bites his lower lip, folds his hand into a fist and does a back and forth movement with it.
Sudi: (Lost) I don’t know what that means. (And Jonte pulls him away as he protests) Fine then if you don’t want to tell me. I will tell dad that you went to a porn shop. Then at least tell me what a whore is.
Jonte: I don’t know.
10:00h. They have been searching for money for an hour without success. As they pass by a supermarket in town, a total stranger stops them. First thing he asks is if they want to make some money. And of course the boys can’t emphasize enough just how much they could use a few coins.
So the stranger explains that he has just done some shopping in the supermarket and if Jonte could go inside and bring his cart out and if Sudi could watch his Toyota Hilux parked beside the shop; that would be amazing. And the boys fall to task.
As Sudi waits for his brother and the stranger to leave the supermarket, another person unlocks the Toyota Hilux’s door, gets behind the wheel and starts driving away. Sudi’s first thought is that somebody is stealing a car. But then he starts wondering why someone would contract the guard services of a boy. That doesn’t make any sense to him. So he decides to enter the supermarket to look for his brother. He doesn’t find him. Panicking, he decides to run back home to see if Jonte went back there and if not, he hopes that Jonte will be smart enough to think to look for him back at home.
And he reads as he waits but he is not relaxed. What if that stranger stole his brother? What would he tell his father? And his mother? Oh, she would kill him.
Another neighbor approaches him at around 13:00h. Apparently, she locked her keys inside the house but there is some space between the grills at the window where he could fit through. Would he be kind enough to squeeze through, enter her house and retrieve the keys? He is only too eager to help. But the space proves too small even for him. In pain, he informs her that he can’t fit but she keeps pushing him and when he refuses completely, she starts insulting him. Calling him a coward. Comparing him to a chicken which won’t stop squawking.
Hurt, he gives it another shot against his instincts. And the lady lifts him up to the window then squeezes him really hard through the bars until he manages to fit through. He lands on a couch inside the house and fetches her keys from the table. He hands them over to her through the window and she unlocks the house from outside.
But instead of thanking him, she continues insulting him. Asking him what was so hard about that. She then proceeds to nickname him “Muchunu” which is Kikuyu for one of those chickens without any feathers on the neck. And he hates her. And he hates this place. And suddenly, he hates everything about his life. So he storms out of her house and runs over to a corner in the wall against which he curls himself into a tiny ball and cries his heart out. When his brother storms into the plot in the company of his friends, they find him crying and their first instinct is to mimic him and laugh at him. This time, Jonte doesn’t stop them. Instead, he walks over to his brother and prods him with his foot.
Jonte: (Impatient) What is it now?
Sudi: (Amidst his sniveling) It is that woman who lives in room 8. She called me a “Muchunu” (And his crying escalates and so does the boys’ laughter)
Jonte: And so you decided instead of doing something about it you would come here and cry?
Sudi: (Still crying) She… (sniffles) she squeezed me into her house through the window and… and… and (takes a crying break) and she called me… “Muchunu”
When the boys imitate him again, he is engulfed by rage. He shoots up and runs over to them with the sole intention of beating them all but they are all bigger and all rowdier than he is. So one of them stops him and pushes him roughly on the ground.
Jonte: You left me alone man. We are brothers. We are supposed to watch each other’s backs.
Helpless, Sudi backs off and heads off to the commercial bathroom inside the plot just to get away from everyone. He locks himself inside the bathroom, where nobody can see him and he is distracted by a hole in the wall. He tries to peer into it but it is too dark. So he decides instead to put his finger in there.
And that’s how he disturbs a wasp and gets stung on the finger. And realizing that this is the worst day of his life, he storms out of the bathroom crying a whole lot more and Jonte and his friends who had just turned his attention away from him, start laughing again.
Jonte: (Yelling over the laughter) What is wrong with you today?
Sudi: I hate you! I hate every last one of you! I hate this place and I want to go home! I miss my mom!
Jonte: (Furious) Then go! GO!
And he leaves with his friends as Sudi collapses on the floor, regretting the decision to leave his books for this.
Sunday November 30th 1997. Biafra-Thika
Sudi hates Sunday school just as much as his brother does. But if there is one thing that their parents agree on consistently, it is that the boys must go to church on every Sunday, no matter what. So every Sunday, Jonte and Sudi put on their Sunday bests (and that isn’t saying much) and head off to St. Andrew’s ACK Church for some food for the soul.
Only that they never make it there. Their father always gives them 10 shillings each as offering and no. They never leave that money in church. Instead, they use it to catch a movie after church. And no they don’t go to church either. Well they always make it to the church compound but they never actually make it inside the Sunday school.
Jonte’s reason is simple. He hates it there. Sudi’s reason is more thought-out. Most of the kids showing up there are usually dropped off by their parents with huge cars, they talk English and they have brick games. Their clothes are cool and new and expensive and their Reebok shoes twinkle whenever they make contact with the ground. Sudi is simply too intimidated to set foot inside that classroom.
So they always spend their Sunday mornings under the trees in the church compound. And today is no different. Though they are not talking to each other, the brothers sit together under the tree, each immersed in their own thoughts and each eyeing the Sunday school classroom with varying ranges of intimidation, fear and discomfort on their faces. As soon as they see those “rich people’s kids” streaming out of there, they leave the church compound ten shillings richer, each.
And head straight into Fiesta for a couple of action packed movies with huge guns and a very high death count.
At 14:00h, though they are not doing much in way of talking, they head home together for lunch and find their dad waiting for them with his belt in hand. A little bird whispered to him that his children don’t go to church. Well, they go, but they don’t. Not really.
His idea is to whip the thirst for God in them but Sudi screams that it was his idea not to go. He states that he wanted to buy a new storybook so he asked Jonte to stay out of church and share his offering money with him until it would be enough to buy that book.
And his father whips him alone. Asking him if he has ever refused to buy him any story book. And though Sudi cries, a weight inside of him has just been lifted. He feels that if he owed his brother a debt, the beating was the price thereof. And true enough, when they leave the house after lunch, Jonte allows him to play with his friends again.
And he still falls on his ass when he tries to do the flip.
At 17:50h, the boys hear the train hooting from a distance and it is marathon time all over again. Today they decide to do it differently for an even bigger thrill. They would each do a flip on the tyre on their way downhill.
And the boys oblige with the new arrangement. And they are all like little free runners just doing a random run and doing flips in the air. There is a look of quiet understanding between the brothers. This time, Sudi will try real hard to do a complete flip. This is like his official initiation into the group. Should he be successful, the boys will never laugh at him again. He will officially be one of them.
So Jonte asks Sudi to go before him and he will follow closely. Just to make sure everything goes well. And Sudi runs on the runway picking speed really fast. All the boys are on the other side of the tyre just watching. Waiting.
Sudi is at the tyre now and he is booming with confidence. He can do this. He jumps in the air as far as he can, lands on both feet on the tyre and is propelled back in the air and so far, this looks like it is going to be his best flip yet.
And he does a complete flip in the air but instead of landing on his feet, or even ass as he is used to, he does an extra half flip and lands on his head. And instead of landing on the heap of grass, he lands further away on the hard concrete. And to Jonte’s ear, the snap of his younger brother’s neck as it breaks like a twig, is louder than the distant hoot of the train.
He runs over to him, hoping that if he calls his name loud enough, maybe the boy will open his eyes one more time. Maybe he will stand up and go home to his books. But when he grabs him by his collar in a bid to yank him up, his lifeless limbs, dangling uselessly about him is all it takes to hammer in the demise of a boy who just had a weekend to fit in.