I have been wearing a marvin for so long, I cannot even remember the days when I did not need to wear it. But people, when they see me around campus for the first time, they think it is a kind of fashion statement. I wear it with jeans, official pants, shorts, sandals, sportswear…everything. Maybe it is a fashion statement, but which one exactly? Definitely not one about trends and style. Or even one to try and hide the creases on the upper side of my face (at least not intentionally). If there has to be statement being made by me wearing these marvins, then it has to be about that thing that happened around two decades ago and some change. It is just that most people do not ask. Thankfully. If they were to ask, I would have to tell them everything from the beginning. I would have to tell them about Sagana.
Every year in June, people celebrate Father’s Day; they dig up pictures of their old men from back in the day and talk about how great they are (or were) on Facebook. I do not. Not because I think it is tacky, but because I never really met the man. He passed on when I was still the size of a cushion. Everything I know about the man was that there was nobody who didn’t know him. Anywhere there was fun, he was never too far off. The other two siblings say that he loved me a lot – always bringing me something – but then these affectations are more lore than memory.
My mother, though, is the one I remember. A slender woman with the softest skin you will ever see. Always seated on a stool behind a cherehani, pumping the wheel, stitching fabric, cutting it, and generally making a mess of the whole damn place. When she was not tailoring, she was at Oasis Church of God in Sagana. Sometimes I wonder how such a religious woman ended up marrying the man I was told my father was. It is one of the biggest ironies of my existence – and I guess, love.
I did not get a lot of time with her, either. When I was in Class 4, she fell sick. The bug in her body made her eyes wet all the time, and after a while, she started going blind. By the time she was being admitted to Karatina Hospital, it was just a matter of time. Death took her away on swift wheels, soon after. I do not know what killed her. I have never bothered to ask. I have never really wanted to know, because now what’s the point? It is not something I wanted to remember her by – because that slot is already taken by the marvin on my head. It is a reminder of what happened to us when I was in nursery school.
Someone had lost someone, and so my mother decided to go cry with them for a night macakaya. She made supper, put me to bed, but then as she left, she also left a paraffin lamp on. I think when I was turning in my sleep, I must have knocked the ngwatīra with my leg or something. All I know is that a burning sensation woke me up, and when I opened my eyes, my bed was on fire and it was now climbing up the mosquito net.
Here is the thing you need to understand about houses in Sagana at that time. Many of them were made of stone and wood. They made the foundation with stone, but then the walls and ceilings were all wood. Then they were owned by mothers like mine – the ones who decorated the insides of their living rooms with pictures, plastic potted plants, curtains and newspaper cuttings and everything that was not the floor was covered by woven vitambaas. A most beautiful and cozy home in Sagana by all Sagana standards in the 90s. But when that home was licked by tongues of fire, the most beautiful home in Sagana became the most beautiful stove in Sagana.
You have to remember, though, that I was in nursery school then. Meaning, I was not a minute older than 5. I jumped out of bed and ran for the door. It was locked. From outside. By my mother when she was going to the macakaya. I yelled, and screamed, and banged on the door with my hands until it did not hurt anymore. And when I realized I was not going to get out of this, I retreated into a corner furthest away from the fire as possible and sat there. Crying.
I watched as the yellow flames crawled to the walls, eating up the curtains and newspapers. Wood fell into the fire in crackles, and as it did, hundreds of small sparkles jumped into the air. I do not remember thinking I was going to die. I just remember being so scared of the heat and the smoke.
The last thing I remember is not being able to breathe.
Of course I did not die because, I mean, dead men tell no tales. But what happened next are things I heard about in stories – just like my father. People had gathered around – some trying to put out the fire with water, others watching with their hands covering their mouths in shock. They say that when news got to my mother that her house was burning, she ran all the way back, screaming “Kuna mtoto hapo ndani! Mwana wakwa niarahia ma!!!” and then passed out right there in front of her house. The stories tell of a certain Baba Mutembei who wrapped himself in wet blankets and charged into the burning house. When he got to me, he picked me up and threw me out of the window, but by then the smoke and fire had become too much for him. He also fell and had to be rescued as well.
Surprisingly, Baba Mutembei got much more severe burns than I did. His hands, legs and significant real estate on his face got burned.
When I got out of the hospital a few weeks later, they had me wearing a mask to keep my flesh together. It was a black ninja mask – like the ones in the movies – leaving only spaces for my eyes, nose, and mouth. It came off months later, but there is a patch on my head where – till now – hair does not grow. It is the portion where the flames spent too much time, and turned it into a desert. It is soft, when you touch it, and when I am in either extreme heat or cold, it hurts like you would not believe. Hence the marvin.
Fast forward to 2017, and I am at the University of Eldoret. Mother had long passed away when I was in Class 4, and we had moved in with cūcū. She is the one who took us to school and paid for everything. We were among the first Matiang’i lot of 2016 – the ones whose results came too early; even before Christmas. I had a B- (minus). Which, considering the fact that I went to Mukoi Secondary School (you won’t even find it on Google, but you can try), was not such a bad performance. So cūcū had organized a fundraiser to get me money to go to campus.
I am chilling in my room when a text comes in on my phone. I look at the sender and it says HELB, and I think FINALLY. I had applied for HELB but it was taking too long to check in, so when the text comes in, in my head, I have finally received my money.
It is a text from HELB all right, but it says nothing about me getting my government student loan. All it says is that I am supposed to follow a certain link to get the Barclays Scholarship. Now what the hell is this? Kwanza me these things for scholarship scholarship things, uh-uh. I did not want them. Because you know me I was a mwana wa thagana, and at the time my ushamba was telling me scholarship meant that you were being taken abroad. And we had all heard these stories of people being cheated ati wanapelekwa ulaya kusoma, kumbe they are being taken to work as servants. Halafu that was also the time when there was trending news of how Africans are being enslaved and killed in those countries of cold.
It also did not help that I went to high school when I did. During our time, we did this set book called Damu Nyeusi and in it was a short story about a dude called Fikirini. He also went majuu and the same same things happened to him. So of course, this scholarship thing for Barclays, me I did not want it. All I wanted was HELB.
So there I was in university, running on empty. The little money from cūcū was on its last legs, and HELB was not sending me anything. There was only one person who could help me: Kevin – a fourth year student I met when I came to uni. He had grown to become my mentor. His roommate was the chairperson of CRC – Central Rescue Crusaders; a Christian Union branch, but for believers from central Kenya. And when you visit them, first they must give you the Word. Lazima upewe neno, after which during a break for tea, you can talk.
I showed Kevin the text and told him of my fears, and he laughed first before explaining that this was actually a good thing. That nothing could happen. He is the one who took me to the cyber and helped me apply for that Barclays Scholarship thing. Some lady called Antonina kept calling me asking for details about me, sijui if I had any disability, and me I just told her everything, including the story about the marvin I wear every day. Then the calls stopped coming. And I waited and waited, but even then, the semester ended without that scholarship money coming.
I said to myself, this one is also for throwing.
When the text message came in, I was doing kibarua at a farm. Not cūcū’s farm. Another one. We get paid around 200-300 bob a day to harvest waru. That is my side hustle. This text that came in almost made me lose my job. I felt my phone vibrate, so I got up to open the message, and there it was. Congratulations Vinus Nyawira, you have been awarded KES.44,000… I did even finish the message from Barclays. Ngai! Ati FORTY-FOUR!!! How much is that even? Like, I know how to count, but my poverty could not count that far in monetary terms. As in, what can all that really do? Si now if I wanted, I could even buy this whole farm?
The disbelief made my knees weak, and I found myself on the ground. Forty-four thou…truth of God!!! I rubbed the phone screen on my trousers just to make sure my eyes were not lying to me. Ama maybe they meant to say Four Thousand and they mistakenly added another zero?
When I came back to my wits, the foreman was shouting at me to get up and keep working, otherwise he would reduce my money. I got up and kept digging, laughing at him to myself. Ati this man is threatening me here for 200 bob? Hajui mimi Vinus ata naweza acha hii kazi saa hii. Jeso! Ngiri mìrongo ìnna na inya … ma ya Ngai!
As told to Magunga by Vinus Nyawira.
[Vinus now in 3rd year, studying Education Arts (Kiswahili & Religion), with the hopes of becoming a lecturer someday.[