“I know his brother, Magunga, is seeing what Deo is doing and is now challenged to also perform better this term.” That is what Mr. Odipo, the head of Careers Department (and also my mother’s cousin) said when he called out my brother to receive his second badge. He had already received Best in Biology, and now he was being given the Best in Geography badge. It used to happen that way every beginning of the term. The best performers in each class would be given a yellow badge in honour of the subjects they excelled in the previous term. Other than bragging rights and exemption from queueing at the Dining Hall, there were no other benefits of that badge, really. Until the school came up with this new incentive that said bearers of yellow badge would also be given a kwonje every day at during tea break.
Now they had our attention, and envy. Deo jogged up to the platform, wearing a wide smile and his squeaky new uniform that he had picked out specifically for this occasion. The Principal shook his hand with one hand and handed him the badge and he jogged off. Behind me, as we stood at the morning assembly, my classmate nudged me in tease. I knew the poke was in jest. But I also understood its implication. It meant exactly what Mr. Odipo had intended in that statement of his. That I was letting my brother down; letting our family name down. The curse of trailing an overachieving sibling.
But I did not care about that. I was more envious of Deo than I was proud of him. Envious because for the rest of the term, he would be getting a kwonje every day and I won’t.
For those who went to international schools, kwonje is a quarter loaf of bread. Unsliced. Because we didn’t get sliced bread in our school. It was that block of bread cut into four quarters and each retailed at the staggering price of SIX SHILLINGS. That kwonje was the most precious commodity you could ever own in Maranda High School. We could sell our souls to Beelzebub for a quarter loaf of bread. 90% of an average student’s budget for the term revolved around that kwonje.
It is only until I got to university that I would learn ati in other schools, people were being given tea with bread in the morning. It came as a shock, because, to me, it sounded like those people went to high school at Harvard. That was an Ivy League high school. In my school, you were served with unsweetened maizemeal porridge at 6 am, then at 10 am you break for tea. Black tea. Which means, darkened boiled water. The tea leaves were merely food colour, to be honest. The fancy students with special diet (that is, cool kids from Nairobi) only went for hot water so that they can mix with Milo.
Many times, many students would not have a kwonje to take this tea with. Especially late in the term when pocket money has been squandered and you only had your fare left for when the school closes (or in case you are sent home for fees or indiscipline). So you’d sit in a dormitory during tea break and all you heard were soundtracks of students taking tea dry. We called it whistling, because of that high pitched slurping sound you have to make when sipping in hot tea without a kwonje to cushion the heat.
And boy was I tired of whistling!
So when Deo got his two badges, he was entitled to loaf for a whole term. And the annoying thing was that the kwonjes were given per person. Not per badge. Meaning, you could have ten badges and nobody gave a shit – you still got just one kwonje. He was in Form Three and I was in Form Two. I swore to myself that term that come hell or high water, I was going to get a badge the next term.
The following term, however, as we got into Form Three and I had dropped the dead weights called Physics, Agriculture and Geography, I began to shine. My first badge was Best Overall Improved. Then after that, nobody could take that Best in English badge from me. Sometimes I’d get a Best in History too. It wasn’t out of greed, just self-preservation. I knew I was good at both, and in a competitive school like Maranda in which everyone was motivated by hunger, I could not rely just on English. You needed a backup plan, and mine was History.
But this post is not about academic badges. It is about bread and what it meant in a semi desert like Maranda High School, and consequently, in our lives to come. Bread wasn’t just food. It was food, a sign of academic excellence, a source of respect, a form of currency, and when necessary, a cleaning agent. So when you sat in your dorm cubicle at 10am with a kwonje while the rest of your cubemates whistled tunes of hunger pangs, it elevated you. You had to be a rich kid, astute with finances, a chopi, a dining hall prefect, or a businessman. If you want to really understand why the French had a civil war over because of bread on a budget, attend Maranda in the mid-2000s.
I can see some of you Ivy League students wondering how bread could be a medium of exchange. Well, services were bartered for bread. Mine was in letter writing. If you wanted to impress a girl from the neighbouring Nyamonye, Bar Chando, Lwak, Nyamira or even the coveted Ng’iya and Kisumu Girls (coveted because they appeared on ), then I was your guy. But it depends on the service. If you just want the words and then you write it yourself, that would set you back a neat kwonje. If you wanted both my words and my handwriting, that will be two kwonjes. If you wanted words, handwriting and calligraphy drawn on the cover of your envelope, three kwonjes. If you wanted all three plus perfume or glitter sprayed on the letter, then that will take four kwonjes. A full loaf. And she had better be worth it, because to part with all that for someone who won’t even write back, was a regular cause of heartburns.
Other people did other things. You want a new uniform for a school outing, bread. If you wanted to be on a school outing, bread. If you wanted to bribe a dining hall prefect to keep for you top layer on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays…bread…per day. If I owed you money, then I would pay it back with kwonjes until the debt was cleared. And that was one of the most painful ones, because people saw you take bread from the dining hall at 10am and think you are living the shiny life of the privileged, kumbe situation on the ground was different.
A good breeding life, if I may be so bold, for this smoke-and-mirrors social media influencer career that I am on now.
It was not uncommon, by the way, to wipe a plate clean after meals with a kwonje mpaka it shines brighter than an A student’s future. Out of necessity, because there was no water in Maranda, and so we had to improvise. Bread could be anything you wanted it to be – the only limit was in your imagination.
Lakini to say that we fell in love with bread in high school only would be a lie, no? Long before we were taking to boarding school in one of the remotest bowels of Bondo constituency, we had loved bread. And it had loved us back. Back when breakfast was bread slathered with Blue Band and milk tea that has caught tea leaves properly. If you grew up in a family like mine, then once in a while, they threw in eggs too. And on occasion – Christmas and birthdays- sausages were added for good measure. Those were the days your mother would give you a hundred bob to go buy things for breakfast for a family of ten, and you’d come back with change.
Then there would be the scramble and partition of the tough front and back of bread soon after. The Mudguard, we called it. Or more aptly, Chogo (bone), because it was a bone of contention in many families. Followed by the teenage years in which we could down a full loaf of bread with one mug of tea.
That was a long time ago, though, wasn’t it? Our metabolisms are not what it used to be. And bread isn’t either. The bread back then was tough compared to what we have now. When Festive Bread came into the market, bread became softer and tenderer than an infant’s intentions. You put it in your mouth and it dissolves, and you would think that given the way it just disappears in your mouth, it won’t be filling. Until you try getting up after eating four slices and you realize there is a stone in your belly.
And Festive Bread in itself doesn’t change. The way it is made is the same. The taste is consistent. The slices of bread, coherent. It is we who change. We are the ones who evolve (get small small money) and all of a sudden, we are things called peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As in, you watch an American movie once and then the kawaida mkate imepakwa jam that we have been eating since nineteen pat opuk is now a sandwich.
But does it matter what you call it though? Does it matter if you put Blue Band, or Peanut Butter or Jam, or all of them? Who cares if you cut up avocado and add it in there with a pinch of salt? Or if you – and this is my personal favourite – squeeze in a fried egg? So long as when you bite it, you taste a bit of your heritage. Because bread has been that constant in our lives. Like that estate shopkeeper who has watched you grow from candy to condoms, and knows all your stories.
Such that if you retell the narrative of your lives around a breakfast table, there will be bread featuring somewhere in the footnotes of your biography. Whether in its delicious presence or its whistling absence, you will always have bread.