I don’t know what time you are reading this but right at this moment, as I bang this, there is a fresh-faced Form one sitting on his new unfamiliar bed sipping strong tea, his uniform still rigor-mortised from the muhindi shop. His metallic box smells of paint. He reeks of fresh idealism. He finds himself in boarding school; blinking wildly at the surrealism of it all, a boy in a black hole. At some point a Fourth former will sit on his box to test its strength, and his marauding mates will howl like a pack of predators if it caves in.
If your life in Form One was anything like mine, you can easily imagine this boy feeling a sense of dread at the life that lies ahead. I remember wondering how I would wash my clothes, having been accustomed to the maid at home doing my bidding. I wondered what would happen if I ran out of sugar; would I die? What about soap? And tissue? I had a key, hanging from a hook on my pants, the key to the box that entombed all of my worldly possessions.
High school in Form one was a sea of peculiar and unnerving scenes. I remember going to the ablution to shower in those cubicles without doors and seeing boys walking around naked! Naked! Their dings and dongs swinging about like black pendulums. Everybody seemed extremely comfortable in their nudity.
Adjusting to life run by a clock was even harder; you woke up at 5am, you had breakfast at 7, you went for break at 10, lunch at 1, tea at 4, dinner at 7.15, and lights went off at 10pm. And the next day was exactly the same. And the next. And the next. My life seemed to be about trotting from one place to the other. A life that was ultimately controlled by bells. And prefects. And meals. And books. Nobody cared that you were only getting settled into puberty, that you hadn’t quite got a handle on having hair on your pubis or how strange your voice now sounded and to top this all off, you now had the task of growing up quickly. On your own.
It wasn’t all bad though. I remember those beautiful Saturdays when a school bus would pull up outside the main administration block and there, looking out the windows were girls. Real girls with breasts and all! It was like aliens had landed. The whole school gawked at this bus like it was carrying relief food. Hundreds of eyes would stared at this bus hungrily, curiously, longingly and sometimes fearfully.
They were probably girls in drama, debate, agricultural club or whatever. That didn’t matter, what mattered was that girls were in our compound! They had clean white shirts and white socks pulled up over lovely legs and sweaters clinging to their breasts. My God. Do you know how exhilarating that was? You showered with boys, you dressed before boys, you ate with boys, you went to bed with boys (not in that way….), you washed your clothes with boys, you played football with boys, you chatted to boys, you studied with boys and then all of a sudden there was a bus-full of girls in your space. Girls!
The sound of their giggles wafted out of the bus windows, and soon, they were climbing out in single file and gathering in a group as they waited for someone from our school to receive them, maybe a prefect, or an assistant head-boy, or head of a club, wearing a crisp white shirt, spit shined shoes and a blazer with yellow golden stripes running across its sleeve. This boy together with other lucky boys would walk the girls around school, showing them our German room, and Geography room, our library, our chapel, and Dining Hall, and the girls would studiously stick their heads inside these rooms and see where great men were manufactured. Men from Maseno School.
Maseno was so egotistical that they refused to acknowledge the “high” in high school. Like the “high” was beneath them. You either simply called it Maseno, or you called it Maseno School. Never Maseno High School.
Fifteen was an interesting age. You thought you knew shit, but then the universe laughingly smacked you down every so often (and sometimes in a rude way) to remind you that you didn’t. During those precious days that girls visited, I pondered at great depth on how one could talk to a girl and not say the wrong thing or worse still, run out of things to say. If you ran out of things to tell a girl, what would you do then? How would you fill that gaping silence? I’d see some boys who were so at ease around girls, I’d be flummoxed. These boys would would walk around the school compound talking to a girl and making them giggle furiously and I wondered to myself, “What could he possibly be telling her!?” What could you possibly tell a girl to get her to giggle constantly like that? And how are you able to think of something to say when you are in such close proximity to her breasts? Because at 15, half of your brain is occupied with questions of what a girl’s breasts feels like. All of your brain, actually. ‘Is it as warm as Mills and Boon says it is?’
Of course at 15 you didn’t even know if you are a “boob guy” or an “ass guy.” You were just a 15-year old boy with a breaking voice, bony elbows, long torso and haunted eyes. And you were unsure of many things, unsure of who you were and what you wanted and where you fit in the grand scheme of life. But what you were absolutely dead sure of was that you needed food. I was constantly hungry in high school. I honestly don’t remember having a full stomach. I was a confused, conflicted and hungry teenager plagued by the mystery of breasts. And ass. My life seemed to revolve around the Dining Hall bell, waiting for it to go off. We called it “Timing” in Maseno.
The Letter Boys would bring letters to us after the 5.45pm assembly. Cell Phones hadn’t been invented yet. The internet must have been a year old. Very few people in Kenya had an email address and if they did it was Yahoo or Hotmail. By a show of hands who still has a Hotmail address? If yes, you should join a support group. You need help.
All communication was in the form of letters. We waited for those letters like they were tickets onto Noah’s Ark. There were guys who received many letters and there were guys who received one lone letter a term. Others received nothing. You would come from your dose of cold water (read: shower) at the ablution, as we called it, and find a letter on your bed. Sometimes it was from your mom, a long letter that started with “Dear Son,” and launched into a spiel about how education was the “key” to a good life, and about hard work and prayer and the sacrifices she was making to keep you in school and how you needed to remember to avoid bad company (read, smoking weed and fornicating with Maseno University students across the fence) and how you should spend the 500bob she had enclosed wisely until they find more money to send.
Then she would sign off “Your Loving Mom,” and I would sit there missing her so much and trying not to cry. I’d bring the envelope to my nose and try to smell her knowing that she had touched it less than a week ago. Gosh, I was crazy about that woman. Then I’d go and buy quarter loaf from Oyier’s tuck-shop. 500 bob lasted a long time in 1992! With 500 bob you could start a small family in the neighbouring Mabungo Hills and have kids and send one of them to nursery and have money left over to get a haircut.
My biggest fear in high school was disappointing my mom. My worst nightmare was having to go home with a suspension letter and wait for her to come back from school (she was a primary school teacher) and see the look of deep disappointment as she reads the letter. She would probably not say anything immediately but later sit me down after dinner, when everybody else had gone to sleep, and in the sinking silence of the living room ask me just one excruciatingly heartbreaking question: Am I not doing enough for you, Biko? For that reason, I never got into any significant (ahem) trouble in the duration of high school.
Sometimes the Letter Boy would hand you a letter from a girl from Mukumu Girls. Or Lwak Girls. Or Kisumu girls (Oh, those ones were baaaaad). A letter you had waited ages for and you had given up on because you figured the boy from Form 3-B had made a better impression on her than you had. You would read that letter sitting on the lower bunk, your spoon on your plate, waiting for the dinner bell to go off. You would eat the words up, quickly skimming through the boring parts about the games master or the adventures in the school farm, looking for the part where she said she liked you and that you were cool. That was the dark age when kids wrote words in full because they didn’t have much else to do.
The girls wrote on flowery stationary and sprayed it with some perfume and asked you to listen to the lyrics of some song by Jodeci or KC and Jojo. The girls then, and I’m talking about the early 90’s, had normal names like Flora or Susan or Agnes but when they signed off their letters they would have funky-fied their name to Flo’ “Da Brat” Wafula or Brenda “Slim Rage” Waceke. (From Lady of Rage) and such.
The day you received a letter from Belyndah “Left Eye” Kirimi, you would do nothing during evening preps but read that letter again and reply to it with a flourish of your own because back then you were judged by the strength of your letter, not by how many times you poked a girl on Facebook. Nobody seduced using memes. And when you sat down to write a letter you had only one take because there was no backspace key. Your handwriting sold you or sold you down a river. Letters started with something cheesy like, “Hello, my lovely Belyndah “Left Eye”, I hope this missive full of love that has flown over many mountains and rivers finds you as beautiful as I remember you the last time I saw you when I came for CU two months ago…” (You always made your way into a CU trip and you weren’t even saved).
There were days you were sure you would marry this “Left Eye” girl. Your 16-year old hormones insisted. You would think of her for days after receiving her missive (that was big vocabulary in the 90’s, I will have you know) and you were so sure you were in love, right until another bus pulled up on a lovely Saturday and you would see a girl with such devastating eyes that you quickly forgot Belyndah’s Left (and right) eye. Sometimes you would send letters to two girls from the same school hoping they wouldn’t find out, one in form one and the other in form two. You know, spreading your risk portfolio. But they would always find out and you would hear of a skirmish that happened over your amorous ways and then two letters would arrive asking you to choose who you wanted. Note, not calling you an asshole, but asking who you wanted. Bloody good days, those!
Since it was a National School, I went to school with boys from very wealthy families and boys from very poor families. I don’t know what that did to me. There were boys who had not worn shoes their entire lives. Boys with feet that looked like the roots of a plant that could treat epilepsy. Then there were boys who came with two metal boxes. Two! Boys who had three pairs of shoes. Boys who had powdered milk for chrissake! And never ever ran out of sugar. I remember how some dads showed up in big-ass shiny 4X4s, and I used to pray that my dad doesn’t show up in his Peugeot 404. I feel sad now when I think of it. I hope my kids don’t ever feel embarrassed by my forehead when they get to high school.
I remember the misery that came with the dawn preps, when the gong would go off at 5am and it was freaking cold and we would converge at the urinals between Bowers House, where I slept, and Olang House which had very shadowy characters. There, boys from Amadi, Bowers, Olang and Stansfield Houses would gather under the frozen grey skies and wait for their turn to take a leak in the open urinal. The smell of urea hung in the air like a colony of bats.
I remember Jacob’s well and how during a water shortage you would be forced to wake up at 4am and wait in line with your jerican as the tap trickled with water. Sometimes you would take the water back and hide it under you bed but when you returned someone would have stolen it. Most likely a Prefect or a House Boy. (Bastards.) But we hardly ever fell sick from drinking that water. OK, guys whose dads had big 4x4s did.
I remember the hatred we had for our prefects whom we called cops. When African Americans say “Black lives matter”, well, I know exactly what they are talking about because in high school, we suffered from the tyranny of cops. Cops were a law onto themselves. I don’t know how prefects at Maseno are these days but in our day, cops would make you kneel in the middle of the pavement in the hot sun and you could do nothing about it but stay there and take it. Cops could make you kneel in their cubicle from 10pm to 1am and you couldn’t do shit. Cops had more power than teachers on duty! And cops would beat you up. They – about 12 of them – were known to come for the stubborn ones in the middle of the night like the secret police, frog march you, sleepy and cold, to this Prefects’ room that was behind some brick-wall classrooms hidden by a big cluster of trees and once there, they would place you in the middle of the room and continuously beat you while flashing torches in your face. Before Guantanamo, there was Maseno.
I remember how hard life was. How brutal it could get. How competitive it was. It was like being inside a pressure cooker. It was like we were being boiled and hardened for a bigger task. I always felt like school was very much like when you go to the eggs counter at a hotel for breakfast and you are asked, “How do you want your eggs, sir?” At Maseno, it seemed like all our dads said, “Hard boiled, thank you,” or “Well done, please.” So they boiled us. And they hardened us. And we owe Maseno a lot for who we are now because now we constantly show up, we persevere and we survive. We can survive anywhere and anything. I mean if Jacob’s well didn’t kill us, if the insanely cold dawn preps didn’t kill us, if hunger didn’t kill us, if Jim Agutu didn’t break us, and if that light cateress with a fine ass (when you are 15 and in boarding most ass is fine) who served in the early 90’s didn’t kill us with lust, I think we can survive a lot of things.
We owe these schools we attended something. I don’t know what. But we owe them something. We owe the girls and boys who are walking the paths we walked. There are these guys http://www.myalumnipledge.org/ who want you to give back to your former schools. Anything really. You can pledge a new bus if you can. I know you can. You can pledge clothes lines. Or new soccer balls. Or you can go talk about how you got into IT. Or organised crime. You can go talk about how got through school without a parent. Anything that will help the new form one who is joining high school this week with his metal box and 3kg sugar have better clarity.
If you were to be taken back to the day you joined Form one, and knowing what you know now, what would you advise your 15-year old self? Just one advice.