By Syvia Furaha Gaita
In class 2 and 3, I had a best friend called Elizabeth Wanjiku. We were inseparable. We went everywhere together, but that’s because no one else would go with us. Elizabeth Wanjiku was dirty. Her hair was always untidy. It was reddish; now that I’m older, I know it was due to some deficiency. She always had those “kamatanas”…that’s like joint “matutas”; her mom had probably done it at home. She was the oldest of her siblings. I can’t remember how many they were but I recall seeing a small brother coming to our class for lunch so they could share the cold rice in her lunch box. Their uniform was always torn and dirty, old shoes sewn and repaired in all places, dusty from trekking all the way to school from their home, a slum, a few km away. I loved Elizabeth Wanjiku.
She was my friend because I was the class stink. I was unfortunate enough to be in Miss Ngamau’s class- a very classy woman. I could tell that young as I was. I had classmates like Georgina Wangui whose mom was the epitome of fashion, Charles Nderitu whose mom was in London, and Eric Mwangi- his folks were just rich. It followed therefore that Miss Ngamau favored them. Their parents were always bringing her perfume, chocolate and other nice things from their trips abroad. My family on the other hand was going through very tough times financially at the time. We were misplaced in our neighborhood. I can’t be sure but I think Mr.Gaita had lost his job. So as other parents in our neighborhood were buying bikes and roller skates for their kids, we were struggling to pay rent. Kids are observant, and cruel. When it was obvious to everyone in the hood that we were not up to participate with their standards it was common to hear “no more, no less” when my siblings and I wanted to join in a game..In other words, walikataa kutuingisha game.
With all these problems on my 8 year old shoulders, I became very timid. I never wanted to speak up in class. That means I never raised my hand to answer any question, and I never went to ask “Teacher may I please go to the toilet” – all said very fast like one word with hands clasped like in prayer. This in turn meant I would pee on myself. I lived for break time and lunchtime, when Elizabeth Wanjiku and I would go to the farthest end of the field to just talk and run around in our stinking little world; and of course for me and my PE shorts to dry out.
Miss Ngamau, a woman who I have to learn to forgive, didn’t make it easy for me. Instead of talking to me PRIVATELY to find out what the problem was, she opted to announce to the whole class how we should all bathe properly to avoid stinking like Sylvia Wachera. The queen bee Georgina Wangui would go on to tell everyone to “ishana friends” with me because I would make them all stink. Everyone did, apart from Elizabeth Wanjiku. She also sent for my mom and when my mom came, she berated her in front of me for not teaching me how to shower properly-a very sad and humiliating day for the concerned. To this day I believe the situation could have been handled differently. If I had parents like Georgina’s or Charles’, I’m sure she would have thought twice about doing some of the things she did. And she did ALOT.
One day Elizabeth Wanjiku never came to school. She missed the next day, and the next day. Then rumors started flying. Her father had come home drunk and chopped every single one of them into pieces before killing himself. People said he used an axe. At the risk of sounding like Fox News, I think he used a machete. I mean, how could one take an axe and chop his entire family like he was chopping firewood? They also said he started with the wife as she slept, and the children were either too terrified to run away, or, maybe they remained dead asleep and never even realized what was happening till they woke up in heaven. I like the second theory better. An announcement was made in parade (that’s School Assembly) and we all contributed condolence fee for the family. I was dazed. Maybe too young to understand what had really happened but the bottom line was, I was on my own. I didn’t have a stinking partner. My break times and all other free times were spent holed up in the library reading everything including those series of books sensitizing us on HIV and AIDS, the ones with truck drivers and lover boys and all. (Did anyone else ever read those, the covers were mostly in green or blue)
I didn’t realize it then but over the years I have learnt that that was a process that shaped the person I was to become. I have learnt not to let myself get defined by things and situations in my life. I think as human beings the greatest challenge we have is separating the self from the idea of self. If that nice job, great man, powerful car, wonderful wife, is taken away from you, what is left? Who are we really? If we suddenly lose our jobs, will we still be able to be happy for our friends when they get promotions? Will we still meet up with them and talk about other great things going on in our lives or will we hide and refuse to meet up with them because we imagine we have nothing constructive to offer other than our jobs? What if we lose that great girlfriend, or God forbid, husband? Will we stop attending all weddings based on our experience?
Other than learning not to define myself based on my riches – real or imagined – I have also learnt that sometimes it is so hard not to dismiss people based on their appearance or on what we think they don’t have- we think they’re beneath us. But as someone asked me the other day; when a car breaks down in the middle of the road, who, first, gets on the scene? Your other well to do friends, or the mkokoteni and maize-roasting people sitting by the roadside-people that you wouldn’t have hesitated to splash with water under normal circumstances.
Everybody has a story. We are all going through stuff. We would do well to remember that this holiday season. Spread good cheer. Have a kind word for everyone, whether they’re above or beneath you. Find out why someone is stinking of pee, and if you can’t be bothered to find out, then don’t be the one to tell the whole world how they’re stinking. Don’t be Michael Jackson with your nose mask. Chances are, they KNOW they’re stinking pee. They are the ones who peed after all. Remember nothing – whether pee or perfume – lasts forever. It will get better.
Or it could get worse, and then it will be your turn to receive kindness. It will be your turn to pee on yourself, and what will you expect from us? What the world really needs is more Elizabeth Wanjikus, and less Georginas and Ngamaus. And more singing Michael Jacksons- without the nose masks.