There I was, living my routine life, being a boy as best as I knew how, seeking little, harmless, slightly mischievous adventures of life such as sliding down hills on a bare bottom when, Bam! I was uprooted and replanted in a different, horrible reality.
I don’t know whose idea it was to send me and my elder brother to the boarding school that I will every now and then refer to as “The Zoo”. Was it Mom’s or Dad’s idea? Probably not Dad’s. He is not much of an “upset the status quo” kind of a person.
I would not be surprised if the idea came up as Mom and Dad were having those conversations parents probably have before they drift off to sleep and, in my imagination, it went something like this.
Mom: We have four children, right?
Dad: That I know of.
Mom: (Puzzled pause, eyebrows touching the ceiling) What do you mean, “That I know of?”
Dad: What now? A guy can’t crack a joke with his wife?
Mom: He can, but jokes are supposed to be, you know, FUNNY!
Dad: Alright. Alright. Yes, we have four children. Why the census?
Mom: Well, the first two are really academically emaciated. Right?
Dad: (Cautiously) Is it safe to admit that our children are dense?
Mom: Yeah, only when examinations are used to measure a child’s level of intelligence.
Mom: And the third one is not too bad but is also not so academically blessed. The fourth one has a bit of brain, but it is being wasted in this academic museum that we call a school.
Dad: Yeah. So sad. To have a bright child whose brightness will be wasted at a backwater academic institution. (Turns his back to her. He is done with this conversation.) Well, goodnight.
Mom: Wait. What?
Dad: I thought we were done talking.
Mom: Why would you think that? Lazarus Dimpe! Sometimes I think you are not the smartest man alive.
Dad: What did I do now? I thought we were just analysing our children’s intelligence levels and bathing in misery knowing that none of them will ever amount to anything. As far as I can tell, we have accomplished that and can now rest uneasily.
Mom: Fine! (Turns her back to him also and switches off the lights.) I don’t even know why I ever bother talking to you about anything.
I imagine that it is after such a conversation that they shipped my elder brother, Mensa, and me to The Zoo.
Oh, by the way my name is Safari. I am “the fourth one” with “a bit of brain” and, on the day this flattering assessment was probably made, I was eight years old.
On the day life as I knew it changes forever, our dad drives us to The Zoo. It is a Sunday, the eleventh of January in 1998, and I keep thinking this is a really bad joke and someone will, at some point, shout ‘Gotcha!’ then we will all troop home and have a good laugh about it all.
So, we are ferried to The Zoo in dad’s chariot – he owns this really old Toyota Hilux, registration number KUH 525 pickup truck that I love as much as any eight-year-old can love an old Toyota Hilux pickup truck. It is painted yellow and it has this huge black iron guard at the fender that makes it look like a monster. I must have taken a million pictures while seated on the bonnet, stepping on the guard and doing peace signs, my fingers proudly held up, a smile or a tough guy look in place depending on how I was feeling at the moment. You can tell that I mostly feel like Rambo in every one of those pictures.
I realized I truly loved KUH 525 when, one day, dad placed my elder brother, Mensa, and me at the back of the pickup without the cover on and drove down the highway between Kenol and Thika at 120 kilometres per hour. Back then, that speed could safely be described as the speed of bats out of hell. I was exhilarated. Mensa was terrified. He whined. I whistled. He whinnied about how windy it was back there. I ‘Woo hooed!’ and hooted and raised my arms to feel the strong gusts of wind press me against the back of the driver’s cabin. He believed we would crash and all die. I felt as if I could fly. It was the best ride of my life.
Now here I am, seated at the front of my beloved Toyota Hilux, registration number KUH 525 pickup truck, sandwiched between mom and dad, heading to The Zoo. The only emotions I feel are anger and hate. I hate this ride.
As if being shipped off to boarding school in your tender years is not enough trauma from one ride, dad is also using the ride to try and teach mom how to drive and, either she is not getting it fast enough, or he is being super-impatient with her.
Dad says, “Before you engage a gear, you have to press the clutch.”
Somehow, Mom mixes up those instructions. The car stalls.
Dad, speaking through his teeth with the controlled fury of a volcano consciously holding back its eruption, goes, “I told you. Press the clutch. You can’t forget the clutch!”
Mom does it right this time and drives for about a kilometre or so. Then we get to an incline and she has to change gears from number four. (KUH 525 has four gears. Every other manual car I have ever been in has five, but KUH 525 is special. It has four.) She changes to gear number three because gear number four doesn’t like hills.
Mom forgets the all-important clutch. Dad forgets his controlled cool. He shouts, “How did you forget it?” He is furious – arms flying, brow creased, foam forming at the corner of his lips, the whole shebang. “You know what, school is out! We are done doing driving school for today. Get out of my seat!”
Mom, never one to give up without a fight, gives as good as she gets before she leaves the driver’s seat. “Hey, don’t talk to me like that. You are the worst teacher in the whole world, the worst! You have the patience of a raging flood.” As she leaves the driver’s seat, she makes sure to bang the door behind her just to drive a point of angry protest home.
I watch all this with amusement.
We drive the rest of the way to The Zoo in silence. It is a silence which I particularly enjoy. I am a child so I don’t realize that “silence” in this case really means “tension”. Funny me, enjoying the tension in the car. Isn’t the world a lot easier to live in when you are that innocent?
I enjoy it when my parents fight. I know, I know, that makes me a weird kid, but it’s so comical! They don’t actually fight, as in exchange blows. No, never. Most of the times it is just mom accusing dad of doing or not doing this or that, or of messing up in this way or that way. Dad, in turn, always denies everything and never apologizes. Mom employs words in no uncertain terms to make clear her dislike of this ungentlemanly behaviour. Through it all, however, you can tell that they seem to enjoy the verbal spats, and that they care for each other deeply.
On the one day that dad’s dark angel (There is one on everyone’s left shoulder, isn’t there?) misadvised him and he tried to turn the natural order of things, he accused mom of something and, I believe, he regrets it to this day. I don’t even remember what they were fighting about, but it ended with him calling her a dictator. Big mistake. Mom just lost it, “Did you just call me a dictator? Me! A dictator! Like Idi Amin? Fine! Fine! Thank you very much. I am a dictator. I am the dictator. Okay! I’m THE dictator. Thank you very much.” She was mad. Her eyes were popping out of their sockets; her hands were flying all over her body and she looked like she was about to punch somebody. Dad was, of course, terribly uncomfortable with her reaction so he started defending himself, or maybe apologizing, which would have been a first. I will never know because she never let him speak. Every time he even looked like he was about to open his mouth to say something, she would lift her arms up and say, “Ah ah! Ah ah! I am a dictator! Thank you very much. God bless you!” Let us just say, after that, in all matters to do with replies to Mom, the dark angel had to relinquish all decision making to the less dark angel – I don’t think Dad has a white angel. That was one of their most entertaining arguments to young me.
I didn’t see my father for a year after that.
The Zoo is huge. It is a public primary school attached to a Roman Catholic Church boarding facility. It is not run by monks, but there has to be a Father-in-Charge and sometimes a Brother or a Deacon at any given time. I don’t know the ranks. I don’t know who is senior to whom between the Brother and the Deacon, but I know Father is in charge, because, you know, he’s called Father-in-Charge. Oh, and there is another Father who is not in charge. It is all very confusing to an eight-year-old Protestant who somehow finds himself at a Roman Catholic Church service every Sunday morning.
On Day One at The Zoo, children and parents or guardians are allowed the day to eat and drink and gossip and enjoy their last moments together because they won’t meet again for a month. It will be Visiting Day in a month. This is my first day at the Zoo, and it goes by so fast that I think there is time-shifting conspiracy. We are eating one of my favourite meals, mûkimo (It is potatoes with beans and maize and whatever else can be mashed together to make an awesome, well, mashed meal) and chicken, and even though it was cooked with tender loving care and should be mouth-wateringly good, it tastes like sawdust in my mouth.
I hate everything I look at. There is a huge Catholic church in the middle of the compound. I have never been inside a Roman Catholic Church my whole life. I am not looking forward to entering one, not now when it means separation from family and bewilderment in a new environment. It looks majestic, the architecture is just fine. The glass at the windows is all coloured. I learn later that it is called stained glass. There are pictures of baby Jesus and Mary and all these other pictures of iconic Jesus moments in the Bible. It is really beautiful. I hate it all.
All good things end too fast. At 5:00 p.m., my parents drive off and I have to watch them go and leave me here among strangers. A huge potato-like lump forms in my throat. If I were to colour code the feelings in my heart at that moment, I would colour what I feel now, black, a dense, impenetrable black. I don’t cry, though. I can’t cry. I have to show all these other boys and girls that I am a man.
My brother, Mensa, has lived in this Zoo for a year already so he knows people. I don’t know where he has gone now– maybe to say hello to his friends. I watch as beloved KUH 525 drives out the gate and disappears – and the blackness around and within my heart thickens to near solidity.
I am seated beside my tin box at the church stairs watching silently as this new life unfolds before me. There must be over three hundred boys and girls in that compound at this moment. They are all dressed in blue uniforms. At The Zoo, pupils (sometimes I will refer to them as the “animals” – bear with me) dress in blue on Sundays and in brown on weekdays and Saturdays. In my opinion, the blue is beautiful; the brown is ugly. I hate that I will be ugly for six days every week.
I don’t see any familiar faces here. The swirling mass of boys and girls keeps communicating effortlessly in English and Swahili. I can’t speak either language. I only know one language: Kikuyu. I realize I am suddenly in a world where English is spoken in English. That scares me somewhat, and the blackness around and within my heart solidifies even more.
I will be starting out at The Zoo as a Standard Four pupil. You must be wondering how I have survived three years as a primary school pupil without a grasp of either English or Swahili. Well, the answer is simple. My former school is Muria Ciene Primary School. That is where I attended Standard One to Three and everything was taught in my mother tongue. We were even taught English in mother tongue and I happened to be really good at it – the English taught in mother tongue, that is. I was fine, I was happy – though I could not have defined ‘happy’ for you if my life depended on it, but I knew I had never before felt this emptiness that wants me to climb into it and simply disappear.
I am seated outside a church – that should bring comfort – it doesn’t. Beside me is a huge blue tin box with my initials carved into it; S.K. I am Safari Keita. All that I am and have are now in this strange place. My world has turned upside down. There is so much to get used to. I have never been to Nairobi my whole life. Now I have to survive living with children from Nairobi, children who speak English in English. And they do it so well, this English-speaking; I assure you it sounds like it is just oozing out their noses. And they are nasty, so I have heard – they can laugh the life out of you if they realise that you can only speak something vaguely related to English. I am so lost. I have never felt more alone in my life. I wonder whether I can get up and run after KUH 525. I sit up and think maybe I should. We will never know, though, whether I would have done that because at that crucial moment, Father Gatimu shows up.
“Habari yako?” (How are you?), he goes.
I stare at him blankly. I see his mouth open. I see his lips move. I know he is talking to me. But he might as well be speaking Mandarin. He tries again. “Habari yako kijana?” (How are you, young man?)
I wish I could answer. I really wish I could. But I can’t. He tries again, IN ENGLISH! “How are you?”
“Really dude! Really!” I think, with eyes narrowed. “If I have not responded to Kiswahili, how do you expect me to have a clue in English?”
Finally, when he probably figures out that I may originate from places where one is taught English in mother tongue, he leans really close to me (I later realize that this is a precautionary measure because speaking Kikuyu at The Zoo is a felony punishable by many strokes of the cane across where the sun shines not) and greets me in vernacular.
“Ûhoro waku?” (How are you?)
Hallelujah moment! I am so excited. Finally! Someone who can speak a language I understand effortlessly! Next thing I know, I am on my feet shaking his hand with both of mine. I feel like I could call the little dude ‘brother’. I refer to him as “little dude” because, though he is clearly an adult, he is little. I am eight years old but he is about my height. And I am one of those short and skinny eight-year olds, so he should thank me for not calling him “littlest dude”. But right now, I love him! He speaks my language! Oh, my goodness, this is amazing!
“Ndî mwega mûno mûno mûno makîria!” (I am great, really, really, really great!) I emphasize the “really” because at this moment, there is no greater, no happier boy this side of the Sahara.
Father Gatimu cautions me to keep it down as we converse in the tongue I am familiar with and advises me to learn the language of the larger community – English. “You had better learn it fast or this will be purgatory for you.”
Maybe it is the conversation with Father Gatimu, or maybe good sense kicks in, but I realise that I am here to stay in this place where my parents have dumped me.
And maybe it is a good thing that we cannot see into the future because Father Gatimu might as well have been prophesying what kind of place The Zoo was going to be for me.
(There are about 225 pages more to this story. If you make your order between 23rd August and 2nd September, you get the book at 800/=. After that, the price will be 900/=. Delivery costs are on you. If you buy in bulk, at least six copies, before September 2nd, the price is 650/= per copy and 750/= per copy after that.
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Happy reading people!)