I have always been that kid who only shows promise but is never the best at anything. If I knew how to switch off that neon sign on my forehead that screams PROMISE, I would. This is as true of me today as it was in 1997. Teachers often prodded me to put in just a little more effort. They said if I cared even just a little bit more, I would top my class. But I was lazy. Still am. I only sat down to read five days before exams and somehow managed to retain enough information to put me hapo top 10 or top 20. I think this is what they mistook for intelligence. Or promise. Position One was something I remember aspiring to, an impossibility that I knew I could never attain but also an impossibility that motivated me enough to land somewhere okay. The whole thing about aiming for the sky and landing on the clouds.
Now, let me introduce you to the woman who raised me.
Mother Karua had (still has) this ability to shape-shift from an angel to a barracuda at the drop of a hat. It happens so naturally that I wonder why she is not one of the Avengers yet. She switches personalities faster than Peter Munya can say NASA TIBIM!! One moment, she is pakoing you – Ajoji Dibo, wuod nyako, mand kwach, tond meli, chogo min ohero – and then the next minute she is storming all over you with anything in her vicinity, calling you names Donald Trump cannot call immigrants even when drunk.
Yet it is her anger that we were all scared shitless of. We still are – we can never be adults in her eyes, and there is little to no reason to doubt her ability to still whoop our asses. That is why we call her Karua, after one of Kenya’s meanest female politicians, and the nickname was just appropriate enough to stick and her to resent. And there was nothing that brought out the goddess of war in my mother more than a dismal performance in school. Yaani, you can literally do anything else and get away with it (murder, treason, drug peddling, violence) but the moment you came home with a bad grade, you knew what was waiting for you: sticks of freshly pruned olando, or if you had really tanked, BOKA RAO!!!
Oh yeah. Dropping from your last term’s position was also counted as failure.
I went to M. M Shah Primary School in Kisumu. I joined in 2000 as an above-average Class Four pupil, transferring from the now defunct St. Andrews Primary School; an academy (as we Kisumu people called ‘private schools’) that did not grade students with numbers. Instead, they used colours. Red for those who passed really well. Blue for middle students. And green for the ones who needed to ‘pull their socks’. Then money became tight back home and we had to transfer to a public school. I was taken to Class Four Robin.
One year later, we were in Class 5 Robin. There was this one girl called Christine. I cannot remember her voice because she barely ever spoke. She was quiet, but she was also (book)smart. I would not say she was my competition, just that we were equally adjusted academically. During one of the terms – must be second term – our class teacher mixed up our marks. I do not understand how because Christine and George do not even rhyme. However that confusion happened, sijui. What I know is that when the results were drawn up and pinned, Christine was number 4 and I was number 9. This was, what, two days to closing day?
Yo! I flipped. Not out of anger but out of worry, because the previous term I had been number 5 and there was no way I was going justify to my mother how I dropped 4 positions. I begged my class teacher to give me my due. Begged her to change my position (I did not mind a tie) or even just write a note in my report book to show my mother that there was a mistake but she refused. I even showed her Form 34B – my marked papers as evidence but she said it was too late and that position 9 was not a bad position. Yeah, right. Tell that to Nyalkada.
Listen. Mother Karua does not care what your individual marks are. Those are details and she is not a witch to waste time cavorting with the devil. Even if I had been position 5 with 300 marks the previous term and then became number 9 with 450 marks in the next, there would still be hell to pay. She did not ati interrogate my performance to see how I performed in the singular subjects. No. That is what my father did. I remember once being number 12 – after scoring 12% in Math and 98% in English. Karua only cared that I had not dropped, while William simply asked me, “My son, imagine if you scored 25% only. What number would you be?”
William did not need to explain anything more. His point was already home.
But this time round, I knew I had done nothing wrong. This time I had been denied my rightful position, and was not about to let the stinging tongues of olando lick me for nothing. The moment she asked me for my report card, I handed it over to her plus my exam papers and explained the teacher’s mistake. Even with that evidence before her, she behaved like Uhuru after the Maraga Decision – she accepted the ruling but was still not happy. No matter, I was safe that term.
You may be wondering about where all of this is coming from. Why am I telling this story, again? Because I just read about a class 8 kid named Clinton Okech Ojunga from Olodo Secondary School in Homabay, who killed himself for losing position one after sijui how many years. Apparently, Clinton was overcome with frustration after he scored 372 marks in a class test, falling behind his rival who managed 373. This tragedy occurred on the 10th of September– which, in a twisted spin of irony, also moonlights as the World Suicide Prevention Day.
All I could think of after that was: Where exactly did he get the pressure to maintain that number one slot from? Who told him that it was a crime to become anything less? To what extent had he been going just to remain there? Who lied to him that in life you can either be the best or nothing at all? Where did he get the notion that exams are a matter of life and death?
I do not know the answer to these questions, because I am not Clinton Okech Ojunga. But I know the pressure for me to do well came from home and school. Even in M. M Shah there was a session called Panel Beating. We were taken into a room in which teachers invited themselves to take turns whacking the foolishness of failure from us. Maranda was not any better. Lakini none of those was as intense as the fear of disappointing my mother.
Which brings me to 2006. Form 2 First Term. Maranda High School. A lot of things were changing in my life. My father had been dead for a year, and that brought its own complications. We had to move from our home of eight years to another neighborhood on the outskirts of Kisumu, Ukweli. I came back from school and for the first time, while on a matatu from town, instead of branching right at Kondele to head to Migosi, the driver stayed on Kakamega Road and kept going until we were swallowed by the hills of Kanyakwar. It only stopped to spit us out into a village that I hated immediately; no lights, no homes visible for a distance, rough murram roads and more annoying – our house. We were officially poor.
I guess I had no business feeling the way I did. It was a season of firsts, after all. Because for the first and only time in my entire life I was also coming home with a triple digit number on my report form. Why? Two words – drama club. I had tanked a good one to Position 105. Even me that one I knew my fuck up was unforgiveable. I went to bed as soon as I got home, feigning fatigue, trying to postpone the inevitable. Lakini the moment Karua laid eyes on that report form the next day, she saw red. On that early April morning, my wails introduced Kanyakwar to Mother Karua for the first time. It served as a reminder to everyone as to the kind of woman who had just moved into their neighborhood. And to me – to never to forget who the hell I was born to.
Lessons not learnt in tears are soon forgotten. Mother Karua made sure this was an unforgettable one. The following term, I quit all the clubs I was registered in. I never failed any exam again. Matter of fact, the best things about joining university was that, one, there were no panel beating from lecturers, and two, my mother did not get to see any of my transcripts unless I wanted her to.
I do not hate my mother. This is not that kind of story. Actually, Karua inspires love just as much as she inspires resentment. In hindsight, examining my mother’s actions through the lens of adulthood, I can see why she was like that. She was like that because she did not know any better herself.
Peter Adhiambo, father to Mother Karua and seven others passed away when she was in Class Two. After that, Christina Tila did what she had to do to school and feed her children; she brewed chang’aa. Now, if you think that Mother Karua is radioactive, then that is because you have never met who she got that from. School was not something she negotiated with. The same pressure Mother Karua put on us to excel in school is a family heirloom she inherited from her own mother. How she views education is the same way a mother who saw no other way to make it in life other than through school did. And when you look at their family, Karua and Tila’s vindication lie in stark relief – those who took school seriously are doing much better than those who did not.
Given the kind of upbringing she got, were Mother Karua’s beatings so indelicate?
I think not.
My mother did not create the system that places so much credence on passing exams. She did not invent national exams or institutions that discredit every effort made throughout a child’s years of learning and reduces their knowledge to one major event that can either make or break a child’s future. Karua is a victim as much as I am. As much as that kid, Clinton. As much as we all are.
Unfortunately, when these conversations come up, there is always the crowd that comes out to say that this generation of kids is a bunch of snowflakes. That we cannot deal with shit without complaining like they did. As if we are all wired to handle shit the same way. As if they turned out OK (this country is in a mess because that generation DID NOT turn out OK). As if suicide from overwhelming societal pressure is started with us millennials.
It is time we made decision as to what we would prefer to have. Would you rather have a living child who came second, or one who is dead? Because as we speak there is a Clinton somewhere thinking that that being beaten by one mark is failure. Come in second? Over his dead body. So he walks into his classroom on a Sunday afternoon when nobody is watching. On the blackboard are notes from the last Chemistry class. Mole concept. He picks up a duster from the teacher’s desk and rubs it all off so furiously that by the time he is done his right hand is covered in white. Then he takes a chalk and begins to write.
Now he stands on top of his desk and ties the sisal rope to the roofing wood. He pulls it to test whether he has done a good job with the knot. He tries to smile when he realizes that he has – instead, when edges of his lips begin to curve, the poor child begins to sob uncontrollably. His face damp with water, salt and shame. So he wraps the sisal around his neck, tightens its grip upon his skin, closes his eyes.
The moment he steps off the edge of his desk, one of three things may happen.
Option 1: if he is lucky, he breaks his neck instantly. The axis bone crushes, resulting in spinal cord injury, major blood arteries erupt and he is gone in a snap. Just like a blackout. He is gone even before his brain is given the opportunity to experience the pain.
Option 2: he does not break his neck. The weight of his body pulls him down and the resistance from the rope grips his neck on a chokehold. Blood vessels clog up. No air for the brain. Meaning no communication with the rest of the body, sending nerves into a frenzy. This and the struggle for air makes him quiver like an epileptic having a fit. If the rumors are true, this is when his life flashes before his eyes. Then he is a goner in a matter of seconds, joining about 7,128 Kenyans who reportedly take their own lives every year.
This is the Hangman’s Death. Popularized by criminal justice systems in many parts of the world. In Kenya, capital punishment is a reserve for the most heinous crimes someone can ever commit; robbery with violence, murder and treason and you are supposed to be hung by the neck until you are very dead. (Section 69, Prisons Act, Cap 90)
Another student finds him dangling from the ceiling like a light bulb and runs off to tell the rest. As the watchie cuts him down, the rest of the school is confronted by the writing on the wall.
Congratulations to all my teachers who have been teaching me since I joined this school. It is not my fault to bid you goodbye but because of unavoidable circumstances, it is forcing me to do so. It is useless to live without peace according to my gradual poor performance. To all candidates, best wishes in your exams. We shall meet again.
Option 3: his knot is not very good or the wood cannot bear his weight so it breaks before he can die. Or maybe some teacher is walking around and finds him wriggling on the rope like a butterfly in a hurricane and rescues him. Now he has to be taken to hospital and the doctor is obligated to report the case to the police. At this point, he is told that his life is not really yours. Not absolutely, it isn’t. It belongs to the state. And the state does not take to people trying to take things from it without permission. He has committed a crime.
Attempted Suicide, the charge sheet says. A misdemeanor in the eyes of Section 226 of the Penal Code (Cap 63, Laws of Kenya). Penalty attracted is 2 years in prison. But if the judge is a human being, he will be sent in for psychiatric treatment instead.
Either way, the criminal record is still there and that comes with its own repercussions. But that is not the worst consequence of surviving a suicide attempt. No. The hardest part will be looking at your parents and siblings in the eye and seeing the hurt you caused. The hardest part will be them not understanding why you thought killing yourself was the only option you had left. Your friends will go, because nobody wants to be with a freak. And you will spend so much time cursing yourself for surviving.
At this point, I am left to wonder why people think suicide is a cowardly act. If it was, so many more Kenyans would have done it already. If you think it takes a pansy to take his own life, then why don’t you try it? Why don’t you degrade yourself into believing that the only dignity you deserve is that of a criminal. Take a rope. Put that thing around your neck. Jump. Risk death. Risk prison. Risk humiliation and stigma. Risk blaming yourself for not being able to kill yourself. Risk everything.
Prove to us that you are brave. You know you want to.
Si you are not a snowflake?
Googles brings up one suicide helpline in Kenya. Samaritan Kenya [some Google search results bring it up as Befrienders Kenya]0707 633 692/ 0721 205 541 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Kindly add to this list if you know of any other. And speak to your friends before it is too late. Remind them that they are not alone.