Celebrating East African Writing!
I was only aware of the never ending urge to leave home and the smelling mesh of chaos that had trapped me there like a tethered goat, within a small patch of drying leaves of grass. I wanted to be away from the crowded bedroom and the smell of dump clothes and the sweaty bodies of my brothers as much as our bodies shared warmth at night; away from the chorus of curses from my parents that were meant to be concealed by the dirty curtains that separated our two roomed house; away from the heavy breathing of my youngest asthmatic brother; away from the fear that one day he would get tired of breathing.
I was in my final year at a school where broken desks and seats with peeling blue paint and the mystery of the Air Base gave me more solace than I ever expected to find in my mother’s bosom. Samora, the only friend I had, was unlike my blood brothers in every way, so much that I believed water to be denser than blood. He also had brothers at home and I hoped that I was closer to him than they were. Samora’s father was a lieutenant in the army, an occupation that provided enough temptation for me to make stupid jokes about their family. I’d joke about the lieutenant inspecting a guard of honor made up of his sons in their cotton pajamas, with her mother at the end of the line with a cane ready to punish whoever had wet their bed. Then I would silently imagine him in front of me and my brothers, with all the urine soaked clothes we slept in and the fantasies that we hid at the corners of our minds. Samora was always willing to listen and I never stopped talking even when he did not laugh at my jokes.
At the last cry of the bell I found myself walking Samora back to his home in the Base. I was more excited than he was to go back to his home. The house had nothing special about it. It had the same stone walls and roofing tiles that the other houses had. It was there that I met Samora’s mother, Mrs. Tabitha, and the maternal grace that came with her ample size and courtesy. Maybe instincts made all mothers sensitive to the quiet calls of their lost children, but she took me in like her own child. Nature had given her antennas by which she felt for my dying pulse and tried to revive it with Cadbury’s cocoa and ginger biscuits, and I, like a sulking calf took it all in with a zeal that must have surprised her. I never cared to look but I suppose Samora must have thought me a little mad. I always left before the lieutenant came back home. One day Samora and I had been found admiring a riffle and the beating that followed instilled a fear in me that made me stay as far away from the man as possible. Mrs. Tabitha would send me home, shouting regards to my family and reminders to study hard, all the while smiling, but all I could remember back at home was her affectionate confectionaries and ashy eyes.
I kept going back to the house after school in the pretence of making sure that Samora got home safe and sound. Every time Mrs. Tabitha went into the kitchen and came back carrying a silver kettle and plate, her eyes and face embodying me, making me feel alive. Those eyes bore into me, arousing feelings as alien as the ideas of war that her son and I had entertained as we lay in the field watching war planes. As the giant shadows passed over our bodies we felt an awakening, as if we had been baptized by an imaginary force. I remember those moments especially from a certain afternoon when she clothed me in an oversized soldier’s jacket. I had looked at her with blank eyes waiting for her face to usher me into what it is she expected me to feel. I had never seen her look at Samora that way. I decided to be a patriot in love with his mother country; to be a man. Then she took a long rifle into her hands, admiring it like it was the first time she had seen it. Mrs. Tabitha rubbed its magazine so carefully, as if it were a source of life. At that moment she could have been a florist polishing a ceramic vase for the delicate stems of her flowers. I was not sure whether to feel safe or frightened under her stares.
The change that took place on my way back home must have been the toughest recurring rite of passage that I had to go through. I had to thrust the warmth that was in me from my heart and dump it along the garbage heaps of Mathari Valley, and if the stray dogs did not devour it in their cold nights then I could pick it up on days that Mrs. Tabitha was not at home, embrace it, and use it to rekindle a memory of the warmth of the confines of her huge body, trespassing to an unfamiliar grace. This must have been the same feeling I got when I stood beside a sanctuary staring at the stature of the Virgin Mary at church. Mrs. Tabitha taught me how to feel tangible miracles smooth as her bare skin. She had turned me into something that did not walk on air or land but hopped from one electric pole to the other, tempting the volts that dangled below me.
My youngest brother was always happy to see me; he’d jump on me and narrate the events of his day which were half-remembered stories with broken plots and characters without names, set against imaginary places and using words that he was still learning how to use. There was no time or space for homework after that, not in a mosaic house of settling dirt and rising screams. All this time I was in a sort of trance, already back in the Base gazing at Mrs. Tabitha.