To be a criminal, you need a sorry background.
My father works as a drunkard and my mother is the local brewery, but Mrs. Thuku caned me for writing that in an English composition test, so now I am afraid of saying that. But it is true. My mother makes chang’aa in huge metal drums in a room she has rented. She banned me from going in there, but I have seen what she puts in the drink. Sometimes, it is battery acid, sometimes it is that liquid that smells like a mortuary, like the way Kuria smelled in the coffin at his funeral. One day, when the police came to take their daily bribe and Mother said she had not made any profits, they took the drums outside and poured everything and I saw panties and socks in there. Mother did not even wail. “I am used to them,” she said. I do not understand why anyone would drink such a thing, but Mother’s rented room is always full of people drinking and making noise and falling into trenches filled with urine and shonde on their way home.
On a good day, Mother makes five hundred shillings, but every evening, Father demands half the money so that he can go spend it on those girls who sit along the corridors in between houses waiting for men. If you give them twenty shillings, they take you to a room. Sometimes they call me, but I know they want to do bad manners so I refuse and they laugh. Mother always refuses to give Father any money, so in the morning they start yelling and throwing bad words at each other about the private parts of their parents. When their voices start rising, just as they are doing now, I know I should leave the house because Father is going to beat Mother and take the money and then throw her on the bed and do bad manners like that other time when Mother begged him not to do it in front of me but Father did not listen.
So I go out of the house and walk past the children playing with that white sponge that women buy and put in their panties, and go look for my friend Tito who lives two rows away. I can hear the smells of omena dancing on my nose and then goes away to blend into the smells of the slum; the smells of the open drains, the smells of chips and mandazi and chapati being cooked by the roadside. The smells of cigarettes and ombitho. The smell of flying toilets. Being a Sunday morning, people are playing a lot of church music and somewhere, I can hear drums from one of those churches that have purple flags and sing in either Luhya or Dholuo. A few seconds later, I am at the entrance of the row of houses where Tito lives.
“Tito! Tito!” I yell. I never knock on their door because his father is a little crazy and once threw a shoe at me and told me to go back to wherever I had come from.
“Joji, ayeiya,” he shouted a greeting and came out.
“Let’s go to the railway,” I said.
“No, let’s go to Highmax first then go to the railway when the train is near. Today is Sunday; they won’t pass at the usual time,” he countered. I agreed, hoping that we wouldn’t miss it. And even if we did, there was always a lot to see along the railway.
Highmax is a movie hall in which Oti charges everyone twenty shillings for a movie and fifty shillings for a live soccer game. The titles of the movies are written in coloured chalk on a blackboard outside: ‘Fast & Furious 7 -Kikuyu Translation’, and sure enough, Vin Diesel will greet Tyrese ‘Uhoro waku?’ as if they had been born and raised in Kirinyaga. When a movie title is followed by ‘DJ Afro’, then we know that the words the actors speak will be drowned out by the voice of DJ Afro translating and saying what he thinks the scene is about. It is like all of us are stupid and he has to explain the movie to us. But people love going to Highmax. It is easier to laugh when other people are laughing. It feels like actors are acting only for you.
A Bruce Lee movie is almost starting when we get in. It is dark and people smell of sweat and smoke and ombitho. It is almost full, so we go and sit on the floor right beneath the television set locked behind a metal grill. It is a DJ Afro movie, so we have to listen to his thinking instead of the words the actors speak, but we don’t mind. They don’t speak a lot in Bruce Lee movies; they just say ‘katchaa!’ and fight until the movie ends. I want to fight like Bruce Lee one day. Nobody would touch me. At school at break time, we play karate. The only rule is you cannot kick someone in the head because that injury cannot be hidden from parents and teachers, and we all know how adults are -you get an injury and they beat you first before treating you. So we shout ‘katchaa’ and do the flying kicks but only kick the shoulders and chest. Sometimes, of course, accidents happen then we say we were playing football.
After the movie ends, we make sure we leave last because we want to see which movies will come soon, but Oti switches off the television set and orders us to leave. We grumble and stand up, then we see him. Surgeon is standing calmly by the door. We hesitate. Surgeon is the most dangerous person we know. He probably knows a lot of karate. When Surgeon speaks, even the men who smoke ombitho and beat up people listen, because Surgeon is the boss around here. When you hear his stories, you will imagine a man as big as a rugby player, but Surgeon is thin, with a head shaved so clean that even a fly would find it difficult to stand on that smoothness. A scar the shape of a fish-bone runs down his left cheek.
“Come here,” he says to us. His voice is a cold calm. It is a voice that tells you he will do you harm if you do not listen, so there is no need to shout. We approach him. “Has any of you smoked ombitho before?” We shake our heads no. “Speak to me.”
“No,” we chorus.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a roll and a matchbox and gives it to Tito.
“Light it for me,” Surgeon says.
Tito puts it into his mouth and strikes a match and inhales a little.
“Pull it again,” Surgeon says and Tito pulls. His eyes are wide. Surgeon takes the roll and hands it to me, then stares into my eyes. I take two puffs. My head is light. I feel a ding! ding! ding! in my ears. I can’t describe it properly because I don’t know what I am hearing. I feel dizzy.
“If anyone bothers you, you tell me, okay?” says Surgeon. We nod. He points towards the door and we walk out, leaving Oti behind.
Surgeon is there to collect his ‘tax’. Every business pays a protection fee to him. If he says you will not do business that day, then you will not. Everyone fears him. They call him Surgeon because he stabs and removes the stomachs of people who annoy him.
“Did you see that? Did you see that?” Tito says excitedly. ”That was Surgeon, man!”
“Relax,” I say. I don’t want anyone to know that I have just smoked ombitho. “You can’t tell anyone about what we’ve just done. My father will kill me.”
“Mine too,” Tito says. “But how do you feel?’
“I feel like I am walking on air.”
“I feel like there’s an ambulance in my head.”
“Did you hear what he said? If anyone disturbs us, we go to him. Noma sana, eh? We are Surgeon’s boys now.”
“Let’s go to the railway,” Tito says. We usually pretend we are going to see the train, but really, we just want to see our classmate Gloria helping her mother sell cabbages. Gloria is really pretty. We walk with our chests pushed out, feeling like Bruce Lee in our school shorts and bathroom slippers.
The railway line cuts right across the middle of Kibera. There are all kinds of traders selling all kinds of things on stands made of cardboard boxes. We always start with the ones selling Casio watches which have alarms that beep every hour. Some watches make the sound of a crowing rooster, and those are the ones we say we will buy if we ever pick up a wallet that has money. What Tito does not know is that I want to buy that watch before he does, so on sometimes I take a shilling or two from Mother’s purse when she is bathing and slide it in a hole I have made in the middle of her mattress. So far, I have thirteen shillings.
After the watch traders chase us away because they know we are not buying (they will see us one day), we walk along the railway line, looking at second-hand shoes and shirts and women buying used bras and panties. They put them on over their blouses and adjust their breasts and admire themselves, then they mostly walk away without buying anything. A few traders sit quietly, playing a looped audio saying; ‘Rat poison, flea poison, cockroach medicine. Use it once and you’ll never see them again’. There are a lot of people around, eating roasted maize, coming out of posho mills with white hair and sacks of milled maize on their backs. Women like Gloria’s mother sell vegetables sit a little further away from the railway line, with good reason.
We hear the trembling of the railway long before we see the train. Most times, we usually put an ear on the railway like we have seen them do in karate movies when they want to hear how far the enemies are, but today we are lucky to be on time. The cargo train is here on its way to I don’t know where, and the scramble happens. In a flash, all the cardboard box traders collect their things and rush back to where the women selling vegetables sit. The train hoots and thunders past, blowing anything light out of its path. We love the sound of it, the sight of its metal wheels moving perfectly together like the afande when they are marching in front of the President, the loudness of its horn and the proud looks of the train’s workers, as if they own the train, as if they will never step out and touch this our Kibera with their feet. We always say we will board the passenger train one day, but we don’t know where we would go once we reached Nairobi town. A train is not like a matatu that will come back to Kibera as soon as it arrived in town.
After the train leaves, we watch the traders take back their positions quickly, as if the train was just a slight wind passing by. It is amazing how fast they can set up their stands and resume calling out: ‘Everything fifty bob! Everything fifty bob! Trying is free’. We have come all this way for nothing because Gloria is not with her mother today, so we hurry home because it is lunch time and if we are absent, no one will leave food for us. “You should have eaten wherever you were. You think this is a hotel you will just walk in and find food whenever you want?” Mother asked the first time I was late for lunch.
Not that it is a meal worth looking forward to. On some days, it is just a boiled mixture of maize and beans, on others, it is ugali and a few sliced sukuma wiki with a lot of soup. But I cannot miss that meal because sometimes, it is the only meal until the next day. Sometimes when Mother is in a really good mood or when she has her friends over for their merry-go-round club where they all give a certain amount of money to the host, she buys meat. I never leave the house on that day, because there is no way I can miss eating that meat. It will be just two or three pieces, but I save them for last because I want the taste of meat to stay on my tongue for as long as possible. I do not even drink water afterwards.
Today, however, it is just githeri, boiled maize and beans. Both Father and Mother are still in the house and there is no sign that they were fighting in the morning. I get in just as Mother starts serving and sit quietly. She looks at me.
“Eat quickly and wash your uniform, tomorrow is Monday,” she says.
I don’t answer. I have to tell her something about school, but I must eat first, because Mother might beat me up and deny me food as punishment, Father is lying on the long seat, listening to the ‘Dunia Wiki Hii’ on KBC Kiswahili Service. When he is not drunk, he is a quiet man. When he drinks, he smiles at everything, as if he is having a conversation with them without any words. But he cannot go a whole day without drinking. Maybe Mother gave him some chang’aa in the morning. I eat quickly.
“Joji, you are in Class what now?” Father asks. He never remembers. Next week he will also ask.
“Class Six,” I reply.
“Good…good. Have you done your homework?”
“Yes,” I say, then take a deep breath. “Mrs. Thuku told me to go with a parent tomorrow.”
“Joji you and your big head, what have you done now?” Mother shouted. I know I am going to be beaten.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Oh, so Mrs. Thuku wants to see us to thank us for having a child who did nothing? What have you done?”
“Boy, you’d better tell me now, because if I go to that school and find out you have done something, I will kill you. Do you hear? I will kill you and hang you on a tree, silly boy. What have you done?”
“I…I wrote a composition,” I whispered.
“Speak up. You wrote what?”
“George Ouma, are you playing with me? Do you think I have time to ask you questions? Am I a policeman?”
Now I know I am in trouble. Mother never calls me by my full name unless she is really angry. Her hands will soon start shaking and some veins will appear on the sides of her head.
“I wrote that you are a brewery and that Father works as a drunk,” I say quietly. There is silence for a moment. Then, just when I begin to think they have not heard me, Mother throws her plate -which still has some githeri- straight at my head. She does not miss. My feet are hot. I am sweating. Father is just sitting there like nothing has happened. Mother is saying something under her breath and I know this is the day I shall die. She grabs me and starts slapping and pinching and hitting my head with her fists.
“Who buys the food in this house, eh? Who buys the uniform, eh? Am I a brewery or am I your mother, eh? Do you think I am your age-mate, eh? Eh?” she yells. She is hitting me and hitting me and hitting me. “I should have given birth to a banana and eaten it instead of you. Stupid!”
Mother is breathing heavily. I want to run out of the house, but that will only anger her more, and besides, I would have to return at night, anyway. I fold myself in the small space between Father’s seat and the bed. Mother tells Father that he should go to school with me tomorrow. Father says I am Mother’s son. Mother says Father should fix his son. Father says he is not going to handle such matters, that he has important things to do. Oh, like what, Mother asks, visiting your twenty-shilling whores? Father says if Mother does not shut up there will be trouble. Mother says Father should learn some responsibility. Father says he will not go with me to school. Mother says she will not go with me to school.
When there has been enough silence, I crawl out of my space and very quietly find my two school shirts and take a bar soap and half a bucket of water and go outside to wash them. A few neighbours look at me with pity because they have heard my screams, but there is nothing they can do because when a mother beats the child that she herself gave birth to, no one can interfere. When I finish washing, I turn the bucket upside down and climb on it so that I reach the hanging lines to hang my school shirts, then I go and pick my Science book and sit outside with it to read for two reasons: leaving the clothes there without you watching them might get them stolen, and I want my parents to see that I am a good boy who loves school.
Only that the next day when I wake up to go to school, both my parents are asleep. I know better than to wake Father up because sometimes he wakes up kicking the air and punching and even Mother usually leaves him to wake on his own, and if she has to wake him up, she stands a safe distance away and throws slippers and spoons and shoes at Father until he opens his eyes. I also cannot wake Mother up because I do not want to remind her the reason she beat me up yesterday. So I just put on my uniform and take ten shillings from Mother’s purse to buy kaimati at break time.
School is up there near the road and people who wear office shirts go that way to board buses while the rest head towards the railway line to catch the morning train to town. There are many, many people, many children going to school with big school bags filled with books because we are so many in school that they have stopped giving us our own desks and we all have to share, so leaving book in school means someone else might take them. I think our pink and green uniform is better than those other schools which have brown and blue or yellow and red uniforms.
Today I am not late, but I still run to class when I get to school because Mrs. Muunda is on duty and she does not laugh with people. If she finds you walking as if you are going to watch a movie at Highmax, she pinches the inside of your thighs near your dudu, where your skin is very soft. Class is always noisy because some people are talking about how they watched wrestling and others are talking about how they ate chips and I am talking about how I went to Highmax and saw Bruce Lee.
Mrs. Thuku, our class teacher, walks in and calls the register. She gets to my name and I say “Present, madam” and then she looks at me and continues calling out names and I think she has forgotten about the composition then after she has finished, she says:
“George, I asked you to come with a parent today, where are they?”
I have no answer, so I put on a very good face and look at my desk and hope that God will touch her heart.
“I asked you a question, George!”
The class is dead silent. Everyone has heard the stories of how Mrs. Thuku once beat up her husband until he slept in the hospital, and if she could beat up a man like that, what could she do to us?
“They are coming,” I lie.
“No, go home and come with them. You are much older than these others, why can’t you follow instructions? Get out of my class.”
I rise slowly, feeling all of the fourteen years of my life, and take my bag but Mrs. Thuku commands me to leave it behind so that she is sure I am coming back.
It is strange to be out of school on a weekday yet I am not sick. On the road, I walk very slowly because I need to think of a way to tell my parents that they need to come to school with me without getting beaten again. By the time I get near the house, I still have not come up with anything clever, so I just go to Highmax and give Oti ten shillings and say I will stay half the movie. He asks why I am not in school and I say I have been chased away and there is also trouble at home. He pockets my money. I watch that movie and the next one, then Oti says he has to chase me out because he is not a donor like the U.N. and I have to pay. I stand up and hang around the door, then he says if I want to make money, I should go peel potatoes and earn twenty shillings and some chips. That sounds good to me, so he takes me to the chips place three shops away and tells the person there to give me work.
That is what I do that day and the day after that and for many days after that. I just wake up in the morning and put on my uniform and go to Highmax and stay there until Oti chases me away and I go and chop potatoes. The problem comes when, at the end of the term, I have no report form to take home because I have not been going to school. The bad thing is that it is the teachers who keep them until they have recorded our results and then they give them to us to take to our parents for signatures.
When Mother asks for it, I say the teacher lost mine. She does not say anything. She just goes about her business as usual and disappears for a while, so I go to look for Tito to chat. When I get back home in the evening, Mother has a long walking stick and a murderous look in her eyes.
“Where have you been going?” she asks very quietly, and I know I am dead. “Where have you been going every day?”
“To school, Ma,” I say. I do not see the walking stick fly through the air. I only feel its pain and I know I have been hit.
“Did I give birth to a street boy? Are you now a thief? I will kill you today! I will kill you today!” Mother now shouts and she is raining sticks all over me and I start screaming until neighbours come and pull her off me. “You must go and apologize to your teacher, you hear me? Stupid thing!”
The next morning, I go to school. Mrs. Thuku says she does not want to see me and refers me to the headmaster. The headmaster says there is no room in is school for bad pupils and suspends me and says since I missed that term’s exams, I would have to repeat the year because it was only the first term. I do not want to repeat the year. He says I either shape up or ship out.
I leave school and tell Mother that I have to repeat the whole year. She says I will just wait until next year because no school will accept me after such a case and no recommendation letter.
“Go and have a conference with yourself and talk about your life. The next time you open your mouth to talk to me, I want to hear the solutions you have decided on,” she said.
This is the last day Mother talks to me properly.
This is the last day I go to school.