The days always seemed longer in my younger years. I couldn’t wait to grow up and become someone independent. My days were filled with people telling me what to do and how to do it. The routines were too much for my adventurous soul and yet the values instilled in me during those years are the same ones I carry today. I have learned to take the productive and toss away the lingering effect of the negative.
Growing up in Kenya was very different than what my little sister and brother have experienced in their American experience. Everything from who cooks your daily meals to how the school disciplines its students.
The culture is vibrant and the people are unique. The clothing stands out and grabs attention from the top of the head to the distinctively designed shoe sandals. The traditions are rich and the experiences unrivaled.
This fictional story gives insight into the daily experience of a young girl growing up in Kenya.
The sound of approaching footsteps was enough indication for me to wake up and get ready for school. I hated early mornings but knew that procrastination only resulted in pain. My younger sister slept in the same bed with me and we usually walked to school together. Over the years, we had developed a morning routine that worked for both of us.
Mom would come into our bedroom to wake us up and we would each quickly dress up before heading to the dining room. The house maid would have prepared our tea and bread for breakfast and we would both fight for the best part of the bread.
The reason it was the best part is because it was thick and almost twice as big as a toast of bread. Since we had a butter and jam sandwich every school morning, getting the fat piece meant eating almost three pieces of bread.
This morning was no different, except for the fact that I tried to grab my sister’s bread away from her. She was the first to come to the table but I refused to acknowledge defeat. I was determined to grab the fat piece away from her greedy little fingers. Why did she have to eat the best piece twice in a row?
My mom’s voice cut through the chaos and stopped us in our tracks. My hands were tight around my sister’s and her loud cries were the reason we both were in trouble. Mom grabbed hold of my ear and walked me over to my seat. “sit down” she said, her voice exposing a hint of annoyance. She took the piece of bread we were both fighting for and demanded we finish up eating.
After breakfast we both headed to the bathroom to brush our teeth. My sister’s face wouldn’t stop twitching and her tongue kept sticking out in all these weird directions. Her eyes rolled approximately every two seconds and her attitude simply pestered at me. I stuck out my tongue and crossed my eyes at her. “ne ne nene ne, you didn’t eat your bre-ad.”
“Hey, finish up what you are doing,” mom called out.
We got our school bags and went to my parent’s bedroom. Dad was sound asleep and the radio was playing some music. It was common practice for us to pray with mom before heading out to school. She always prayed long but then everyone knew she was the prayer warrior in the family.
It was days like this that I wished we had a ride to school. There were no school buses for students like on TV movies. We lived thirty to forty minutes away from school depending on whether we walked or ran to school.
This morning required that we run to school. Our neighbor Kat had already gone ahead of us, but her mom said that if we ran, we could catch her.
We started running the moment we reached the gate and started competing. My sister pulled at my school bag but I squirmed out of her reach. If there was one thing I was good at, it was running.
Pretty soon we realized that Kat’s mom had lied. Kat was not anywhere visibly close. We had been running for ten minutes straight and we couldn’t catch her.
We slowed down and decided to walk for a bit. The morning was somewhat quiet and the only sounds audible were of birds chirping, people carrying on conversations and cars zooming on the streets. The path was mostly filled with other students from other schools walking to school in groups or individually.
Our school was one of the highest rated in the region. We usually got higher scores compared to other schools and our students got send into more highly acclaimed universities after passing KCPE (which was the last exam before leaving primary school).
Our uniforms differed only in color from other primary schools. We wore dark blue dresses with white shirts and a maroon sweater. Our hair had to be braided or cut short, but the boys couldn’t have long hair or braids. The shoes had to be black and the socks could not be dirty.
Failure to adhere to the dress code of the school resulted in pain. The thought of punishment jolted me.
“We better run sis. I think Mrs. Pain is on duty this week” I told my sister.
Every student in the entire school was afraid of Mrs. Pain. She was nicknamed after her favorite term just before she beat up a student. She would tell her victims to lie on the table and taste her pain. She would then proceed to beat them up until they cried.
She always found the best bamboo sticks; fresh, supple and painful. The boys got beaten on their butts but the girls were beaten on their hands.
This specific week we tried to make it on time to school. The horrific stories of latecomers being made to walk to their classes on their knees filled us with fear. One student got her hair chopped off in the middle because she didn’t have it braided.
We got to the last street before reaching the school gate and turned. Students ahead of us were running like they had seen something. We started asking around what was going on and realized that Mrs. Pain was a few steps ahead of us.
My sister and I picked up pace, intending to pass the teacher. We joined another group of students who were walking fast but then started running.
Mrs. Pain seemed undeterred by all the commotion around her. She kept walking at a steady pace until she finally got near the school gate. A flood of students rushed in to beat her to the gate and got inside.
Once inside the school, we looked back to see that the teacher had stopped at the gate to ask a student to take her purse and belongings to the staffroom. She seemed to be holding back all the latecomers at the gate’s entrance. We turned back and ran to our classrooms before things turned ugly.
It was moments like this that I hated being so small. A sense of dread would rush over me when I thought of all I was expected to do. Helplessness would almost overwhelm me because I knew that I wasn’t as strong or as smart as everyone thought. But every day I managed to perfectly say my lines and play my part in this grand scheme of life. A tension was a constant friend, never allowing me to freely enjoy my life.
Today was a good day though, and my heart was strangely vibrant. A song escaped my lips and I couldn’t help but dance and twirl around during break time. My friends and I went to check on our kale project to determine if the kales were growing well. We found little holes on the leafy part of the kales and decided to ask for help from our teacher. Agriculture was a required course in primary school and the kale project was a way for us to get hands on experience in the actual planting and taking care of vegetables.
The sound of the bell ringing signaled the end of break and we went back to the classroom.
“Good morning madam. How are you,” the sound of young voices drifted across the large classroom.
“I’m fine, thank you. You may all sit down”
It was customary for us to greet our teachers the moment they walked in.
“Kus, Kus, Kus,” a warning voice would signal the approaching steps of a teacher.
Rushing feet would scatter about and we would hurriedly get back to our assigned seats.
Mrs. Masala was our homeroom teacher and also our English teacher. One hand held her teaching material while the other grasped a bamboo stick, warning us of impending trouble.
“Who has the disk?” she asked.
Everyone looked around, trying to determine who the unfortunate person was. The disk was a thick block of wood that had the inscription “disk” on it. The class monitor was given the disk to pass along to any person who spoke in any other language than English.
A shy hand rose up amongst the third row and all eyes turned to Kevin. He had received the disk for the fourth time this week!
The disk was intended to train us in speaking good English while on school grounds. Any other language was not permissible during regular school hours.
Mrs. Masala motioned for him to come over.
“Who did you receive the disk from,” the petite teacher asked him.
“Paul gave it to me, “Kevin responded, pointing to a tall skinny boy seated in front.
Paul rose up and came forward to reveal the next victim. All the students who had received the unwanted wooden object came forward to receive their punishment.
Mrs. Masala took her bamboo stick and lined up the students in a single straight line. The girls were to be given five strokes on their hands while the boys received the same on their backsides.
Female teachers were mostly harder on the boys. This is because most boys would tough out any beating they got from them. The girls usually cried and rubbed their hands together for relief.
My friend Karyse couldn’t bear it after the fourth stroke. She rubbed her hands vigorously and turned around in a pained little dance. The girls behind her were beginning to cry even before their turn.
“Give me your hands,” the teacher said.
Mrs. Masala impatiently hit her upper arm repeatedly to get her to stretch out her hands.
Karyse rubbed her hands together and slowly stretched her hands for the final stroke. The teacher brought down her stick but Karyse moved her hands quickly away.
“You are wasting my time, you hear. Stop wasting my time.” Mrs. Masala said. “I’m going to give you two more strokes and you better not move those hands again, because I’ll keep adding,”
After the last two strokes, Karyse ran to her seat sobbing. Her throbbing hands were red and swollen from the hits.
The classroom was so quiet; we could hear the sound of a male teacher lecturing in the adjacent room.
Mrs. Masala pulled out her chalk and wrote the words ENGLISH on the black board.
It was mind-boggling how such a tiny teacher could bring an entire class to its knees. Her voice was almost childish and her appearance made one think of a starved magazine model.
“Pull out your assignments and exchange them with your neighbors, “Mrs. Masala said. “And neighbors, check to make sure everyone has completed the assigned work.”
I took out my homework and scanned it over before passing it to the person beside me. Having assigned seats made cheating a bit tough but not impossible.
We would grade each other’s assignment and then turn over our writing books to the teacher at the end of the class period. The teacher would then check if our notes were up-to date and place a tick at the corner of each entry.
“Who did not complete their assignment?” the teacher asked. “Neighbors, check to see if your bench mate has done every question.”
We gazed around the room to see if anyone had failed to do their homework.
It was times like these that I wished I was grown. Being in standard eight was a load of burden to bear. Teachers found countless reasons to punish us in the name of discipline, and the work load kept getting heavier.
To make matters worse, my test scores proved that I wasn’t ready for the KCPE exam. The pressure to perform well was building with every passing day.
After completing the review of the assigned material, Mrs. Masala gave one student the responsibility of writing notes on the blackboard. Usually, the teacher stayed a bit to make sure we were all copying down the notes then she would leave and go to the staff room. I waited until the teacher left then scooted closer to see the blackboard…
(I’m not sure if I’ll continue the story and make it a series. Hope you enjoyed it though. Comments, personal stories and questions are all welcomed below.)