You stand out in the cold. You have on a brown pair of pants, a white shirt, a soft blue sweater and a scarf. Old clothes; clothes that fit on your frame perfectly; familiarity in a strange land. You tremble with a shiver that threatens to escalate, so you hold your hands behind you and clasp your hands in a knot. Then you look up, to the hundred of eyes questioning you. You, however, don’t hold their gaze with answers instead you look further behind them to the rusty buildings that stand weakly staring at you; classes.
It is your first day; your first parade. As the deputy principal introduces the new Geography teacher you force your drooping shoulders up a bit higher, look at the girls standing across you and think this is a big joke.
It is only the other day that you were in uniform, a petite girl, wide-eyed, strong willed, with the world in your palms. But the world has slipped through your fingers, scarred your heart, and left you in small sad pieces. Now you are back in Mugumo High teaching Geography. You are supposed to be doing a book tour across different time zones. You stifle a sigh and force a thin smile.
If you thought you can’t do this as soon as you enter the staffroom you know for sure you have to leave immediately. It is almost bare. It is ill lit. It is dirty. It has a faint smoky smell. It is sad. A few chairs and tables line the walls, leaving a huge empty space at the centre staring at you. You pick the table closest to the door. You are out of here.
Soon a few people walk in. You look at them and wonder ‘If these are the teachers, then who are you?’ You pick out your trusted notebook, the only one you brought along, and on a clean page you write ‘Day one: What is this place?’
‘It is the Place of Rejects’ says a honey-soft voice from your right.
‘Shit!’ you cry out and shut your notebook with a start. You then turn right to the voice. There she is.
‘Erika, the mathematics teacher’ she says with a smile. That voice.
‘Are you sure you are not the resident singer?’ Her eyes drop she looks away from you in silence.
‘You have the dreamy eyes of a writer’ that voice comes back to you. You tense then open your notebook and scribble: Mathematics teacher with the voice of a music star: psychic?
Erika. There’s always that one person who will take your hand when you are new in a place. You become fast friends. You gather she’s been around here for some time. It’s in her walk; the way her feet kiss the ground, the short sprints, the way she opens doors, the way she carries her stack of old textbooks, the way she speaks to the students, the way she speaks to the other teachers; the familiarity, the sureness. You wonder if this is what you will become.
No, you brush that thought away, you are leaving now.
Only you don’t. The only place you go to is Erika’s house which is just outside the school compound. She invites you for tea. At this point you are dying for a cappuccino. You don’t drink tea but you smile and say tea would be great.
She sits you on the tiny bed with a mattress so thin you can feel the wooden bars below. As she fixes the tea she tells you stories about the school. Stories that she punctuates with ‘It is a Place of Rejects; if you have a brain you should leave now’ your heart sinks deeper and deeper. You have questions; actually you only have one. What is Erika doing here?
She will later on introduce you to the people you need to know. The guy you need to know to get milk that’s not washed with running water for your tea, the guy who will spare you some ugali for dinner from the school kitchen, the guy who will leave the gate to the vegetable garden loose so you can get some sukuma for the ugali, the bodaboda guy who will come pick you up when you need to go to town and bring you back even when you are flat broke-and you will be broke Erika assures you, the guy who will ensure you are not stuck with weekend duties of watching over the students, the students who will give you hell and the students who will expect hell from you.
You enter into the classroom and the same eyes from parade look up to you. This time there are no questions in them but there’s something else. You look at them and wonder if they know, but only for a fleeting moment. You introduce yourself and ask them to introduce themselves. They call out names proudly, the pride of unquestionable ownership.
As the twenty names fill the class, you look at their owners and wonder who they are. You wonder at what brought them here, where they came from, what broken place, what names they answer to at home, what stories they tell each other during breaks, what kind of books they read, which boys they send perfumed letters to, which places they visit during school holidays, if they want to run away from this school. Surely they must want to. You wonder if they stay up late cramming Mathematical formulas and solving chemical equations aiming for that corner office in uptown Nairobi or even New York. Do they have the world in their palms?
Stop! You are Geography teacher now. So you give your first lesson and illustrate how far Mugumo High is from Nairobi or even New York. However Mugumo town is just nearby so in the evening you and Erika walk leisurely to buy some groceries.
You can see it up there from the staffroom window. A walking distance from school, but sometimes you will be too worn out to walk so you will need the bodaboda guy Erika reminds you. It is not really a town. What you see is one big stretch of a road and small buildings shouldering each other on each side of the road. These are old tired buildings where men and women gather every morning to raise the town with their voices and their tools of trade.
You walk along this road with Erika. She is saying something. You are not listening. Your mind is walking; walking up ahead the road out of here. That’s when you bump into someone.
You’d like to say that at that very moment time stands still, but those are the kind of clichés that got you here in the first place so you don’t. You take a step back and look at him. Then you close your eyes, open them, close them again, and open them. You are not in a dream. He stands before you. Tall, broad shoulders, a tease of a beard, hair falls down in rugged dreadlocks to his neck, a fitting soft blue t-shirt, pair of jeans, powder brown loafers.
You look up to his eyes. They are smiling. You know him. You know him because you made him. He resides in your unpublished book that sits at the back of your closet.
You’ll be staying after all.
Image Credit: Kenya High School by Callalou Photography