The bell rings but as per usual, our teacher keeps teaching. Nanyuki High School is not like those schools you see in the movies where the bell rings and students run out of class, leaving the teacher talking to himself like a mad man. He finishes whatever he was saying and then walks out first, then we follow. The idea is to go get changed before hitting the football pitch. Only that as we head out, we notice that everyone is headed towards the opposite direction.
“Go to the parade ground.” The announcement comes in from the school captain and teacher on duty. Nobody knows what is happening. But high school is no place to question anything.
We get to the assembly ground and teachers are lining up behind the principal. This can only be one of two things; either something amazing, or something terrible has just happened. Either way, nobody is hitting the football field today. Usually there is a hierarchy in the way speeches are made. And you can always tell who is more important than who. The senior-most teachers speak last, almost as if the others were curtain-raising for them. But today, none of them speak. No protocol observed.
“…today, we are pleased to announce to you that the school has bought a brand new bus…”
Nobody even bothers to listen to anything else he says after that. The whole place goes wild. We cannot believe it. The older students – the ones in Form 3 and 4 – are the ones who shout and holler the most. While the rest of us are wondering when and how did this happen? They do not seem to care. I guess it is because they are the ones who had to drive into school funkies with a bus so old, when you squint just right, you might think it is slowly ageing into a lorry. A few more years and that thing might completely morph into a tractor. But now we had a new bus? Well damn. We did not care whether it was an Isuzu, Mitsubishi or Scania. All we knew was that now there was no more headswell. Hell, even the girls from the schools around will start seeing us.
We are taken to the shed where it is parked. The driver starts the engine and it revs like music. Not soft music for sleeping or falling in love. Real music. Music for dancing. Music that plays from a speaker and people know exactly where the party is being thrown. The machine angles its way out to reveal itself to us. It is so big you can fit two houses inside. They coloured it blue to match our uniform, but the words NANYUKI HIGH SCHOOL stand and proud in thick bold letters. That evening we are divided into groups and they take us for rides into Nanyuki town. Everyone in the county will hear of this. Especially those boys from Ndururumo and Thome Boys. Oh! How we wish they knew their days in the sun are over. We wave and shout as we ride across the CBD, and nobody has half the mind to tell us to tone it down. What good is there in owning a beast like this and not bragging about it? If we do not blow our own trumpets, who will?
On the ride back to the school I sit down and think about this moment. You could make the argument that it is by luck that I am sitting next to this window, the noise in the bus fading out as the one in my head increases volume. But to credit this moment to chance would be to cut the legs of the woman on whose shoulders I stand on. I was not supposed to end up here.
I am one of those people who started life on a negative. I grew up in Nkando. A village so unremarkable you do not hear about it even when it shouts. When I asked my grandmother what happened to my parents she sat me down one evening by the hearth after supper and told me a story. It is not a long one like this one. She said my mom had me when she was still unmarried and spoke nothing of my father. Then one day a fire started in my great grandmother’s house and burned everything in it. Nobody knows what or who started the fire. Lakini everyone knows what it ate. My mother. I was less than a year old when it happened.
I have seen her though, my mother, in family pictures. In them, sunlight pours from her skin like a fountain and she likes to let her hair wild. But it is confusing to me how I am supposed to feel about someone I last saw even before they learnt how to crawl.
That is how I ended up with my cucu in Nkando. We did not have much, really. Except for two cows that she bred for milk. Everyday we’d wake up before the eye of the sun, her to the farm and me to the hearth to light up a fire to heat breakfast. The trick was to use a piece of plastic. You put it on top of the dry sticks in the middle of the three stones, light it and when it melts, it drips fire onto the sticks. For as long as I could remember that was our morning routine, after which I’d take off to Nkando Primary School.
Here is the thing though. Walking home from school, I’d see a school bus pass by and I would be so jealous of those students riding in them. I so badly wanted to go to a boarding school because they are the one that had school buses. Trying to convince shosh to take me to boarding school like the rest of the kids around was like trying to stop a bullet using a blanket. Never worked. Back then, I used to think she was just being difficult. If only I knew then what I know now.
On the first try at KCPE, I got 307 marks. But shosh did not have the money for a secondary school, so I repeated Class 8 in another school – Nanyuki Muslim Primary School – hoping that this time, if I passed, I would at least get a sponsor. The results came back and I had scored 364 marks. Got a calling letter to join Nanyuki High School, but just before shosh and I could start giving up hope about school fees, a guardian angel came in the form of a sponsor. I would get a scholarship – full ride, complete with pocket money of KES. 1500 every term.
It is incredible how things work out, you know? At one moment, you have no money, and the next thing, you have all of it and some. You know what the best part of this was? Nanyuki High School was a boarding school…WITH A SCHOOL BUS!!!! Now it was my turn to be envied.
Yes, the first bus was old, but to me that did not matter. Then today happens and we have a new bus – a 52 seater, with music spilling from its walls, black seats and a split windscreen this huge. When it slows down, it breathes heavily, but in a cool kind of way. Draws in air and then lets it out in loud puffs, almost like it is sneezing. And I cannot help but imagine that there is a kid out there, walking from Nkando Primary School heading back home, praying so desperately to climb onto a bus one day.
Four years run out like they are being chased by the police. It was just the other day I was joining every school club available – scout, journalism, debate club, football, whatever – just so I can get to ride in the new bus to all funkies. The excitement about the newness of the bus dies down, but the bragging rights do not. The throne is not one to be given, it has to be taken, and until some other school around the Mount Kenya region gets a new bus, we keep the bragging rights. A few weeks to KCSE, the principal summons us to a meeting and says that this year, the ministry is tightening its fist. “This year, the exams will not be a joke,” he says, “things are thick.” At first we think it is just one of those things principals say to scare students into studying harder.
Then the results come back. Kwanza that year, unlike how it used to happen before, the results come back before Christmas. I look at them, wondering what happened, but this time there is no chance for repeating like I did for KCPE. Shosh on the other hand, cannot understand my frustration.
“Your marks will get you into university?”
That is everything she needs to hear. She had heard on the radio that this time people had failed a good one, So for her, as long as her grandson is going to university then she and her ancestors are at peace.
Disaster Risk Management and Sustainable Development, the letter from the ministry says. That is the course I am supposed to go do at Cooperative University in Nairobi. And that is when things begin to go left. At first, I apply for HELB and it does not come. The school policy says that a student will be allowed admission only when they have paid at least half the 22k tuition fee and 12k for accommodation. Neither of us has that kind of money – I do have four thousand saved, though. Remember that 1500 I used to be given by the my high school sponsor for pocket money? Sometimes I would use 700 of it and save the rest for a rainy day, and now it was raining frog’s beards.
I do not know how she does it, but shosh comes up with 16k. You never know the resolve of a grandmother until she needs to take her son to school. That brings the total to 20k. I will be allowed into the university as we wait to clear the rest of the fee.
I would later get a message from HELB that I should consider an opportunity that I qualified for. Apparently, I had made clerical mistake when applying for their loan, but because God is the kind of person who smiles when it is raining, I was eligible for the Barclays Bank Scholarship. If I got it, I was to be one of 470 students in the country to get a full ride scholarship inclusive of tuition, accommodation, pocket money and a laptop. Of course I applied. I needed no second invitation. Sometime in between October and November last year, I stepped into the Anniversary Towers elevator and rode up until the people down below looked like ants. I dropped my application at HELB offices and waited.
I have just finished my first year semester, which is another way of saying the Barclays Bank Scholarship came through. I had even stopped thinking about it, then one day I got an email saying that I had been accepted. Next thing I know, KES. 46,000 has been wired to my account. It is the most amount of money I have ever had. I almost went mad just looking at the numbers on my phone. I refreshed it thrice to make sure that this was not a mistake, or worse, a prank. It was real. This was actually happening.
I remember the first thing I did after paying the tuition balance was sending a portion of it to my grandmother. I know it was meant to be for my upkeep, but come on, she is getting too old to be taking milk from Nkando to Nanyuki town everyday. It is not about paying her back, because it is difficult to ever put a price tag on her sacrifice. It is not about the money. It is about the fact that she has shared everything she has ever had with me, without once complaining, and now it is my turn.
This is the beginning of her rest.
As told by Simon Munene Wairimu to Magunga Williams