In the seven months that had passed since the year began, there were frequent complaints of tummy ache…
The moment she saw him walking through that door, she knew. Her memory flashed back twenty-five years. Raking back and forth, in space and time, Nyaboke’s mind picked through piles of unearthing memories. Selected incidences of her past shot forward as isolated images, one after another. As from a vintage slide-projector, they reflected on the translucent screen of her now tear-blurred irises. The archive display paused – June 2nd, 2010.
She replayed the memory of the day she first beheld him – she, catching her breath, propped up on that hospital bed; he, eyelids shut, his body pressed against her sweaty bosom. At the sight of that tiny head with its wet mop of shiny, black coils, at the sight of ears just like his father’s, of a nose and mouth just like hers and of the tenderness of a beautiful, new soul, the ache below her waist turned a distant memory. His long eyelashes and neatly shaped eyebrows made her wonder whether God took the time to touch him up especially, for the event of his birth. From the look of his tightly held, miniature fists Nyaboke knew she had a fighter on her hands, but at the same time, his loud yet gentle cries reminded her of her son’s present frailty. New-borns cried not merely to open up their new set of lungs, she reflected; they cried for something deep within them had been awakened. Some truth had been revealed in that brisk, maybe gruelling, sometimes horrendous act of being pulled out into this world. Their first social encounter had offered them an opening chapter to a fundamental life lesson: The unpredictability of the human touch. They had taken their first mental notes on the paradoxes – a squeeze could offer comfort and could also cause distress; a smack could encourage, but equally, silence. As they grew older they would only discover more. If it pleased Time to afford them opportunity, they would realize how both joy and grief lay in the human touch –a pair of hands could take your breath away in a moment of passionate romance yet, take that same breath away in a moment of passionate rage; a hand of reproach could build, and just the same, it could destroy.
As she held the new-born, his father making countless digital recordings of that priceless moment, she silently made her son a vow. Nyaboke promised him and herself, that as far as she could go, as much as was in her power to do, she would protect him. She vowed to preserve what was left of his innocence, to shelter the child from man’s ruthlessness. As the kind, gentle touch of the back of her index finger caressed her young’s cheek, the new mother made a commitment to shield him from the harsh touch of the world he had now become an involuntary constituent of. Nyaboke, his father, the midwives, God, all had played their part in bringing him into this world. They had brought him forth, in the state of dependency he was in. It was their job to help him survive. It was their self-assigned task to aid him in navigating the troubled waters of the sea of life. Of them, Nyaboke felt most culpable. For the incredible joy she beheld, she was most beholden.
It did not take her long to understand what that love she felt for him would translate into. The infant bit at her nipple. She gasped. Pull her breast out of his mouth. Melted by the innocent smile he sent her, she would relent. Faithfully, through sore breasts she fed. The toddler threw tantrums. Toys flew. Utensils broke. His miniature fists drummed against his mother’s chest. She pulled him in, held him closely, until he calmed down. When the curious and creative little boy put himself to the task of fixing her broken, gold-plated wristwatch and ended up losing its parts, she never gave it a second thought. His touch too, she acknowledged, was unpredictable. After all, he too was human, and she was his mother. It was her job to lay it all down for him. However, the moment she laid her eyes on her precious, seven-year-old Sokoro standing at the doorway, she knew all those promises made had, on that afternoon, come to naught. She had failed to protect her baby boy.
Sokoro dropped to the floor the backpack whose straps had been hinged on the boy’s inner elbows. Slowly, he made his way towards his mother, dragging his feet, his shorts hanging low, and his legs slightly wide apart. Tears ran down his cheeks and his mother could see the shame that flooded her boy’s face. Watching him come to her, Nyaboke could tell he wanted nothing more than to bury his face in his mother’s lap, to find comfort in the gentle touch of her hand upon his head. She put down the knife she was using in the kitchen sink and turned around to receive her weeping child in her arms. Nyaboke’s nose perceived, reassuringly, the smell of what her eyes met on the boy’s leg and on the inner hem of his slightly oversized school shorts.
“Mmmh, mmmh,” the boy’s voice quivered as he tried to explain amidst the tears that threatened to choke him. “Mwalimu…wa… kha-huh…” his voice caught, as he attempted to restrain the outburst in his trembling chest. He managed to say, “Teacher Bernice.” before breaking down with his face in his mother’s lap, and his arms around her hips.
“I’m so sorry, baba. I’m so, very sorry,” Nyaboke tried to apologize. How could she have missed it? How could she have missed all of it? The signs were all there.
In the seven months that had passed since the year began, there were frequent complaints of tummy ache, in the mornings on school days. Nyaboke put two and two together and from that math, concluded nothing more than juvenile cunning – a boy’s well-crafted plot to stay home with his toys. There were hysterical outbursts when she almost made him late for school. These too, she dismissed, even taking pride at her own interpretation of them – she was raising a responsible young man. With her arm around his shoulder and a comforting palm on his head, she remembered his most recent panic. After a well-spent weekend at his cousins’, Sokoro remembered he had a bean-bag to make for his art and crafts class. He also needed to have gathered up some used food packages.
“They are for the class duka. We are going to learn how to buy and sell,” Sokoro explained to his mother.
“I understand,” responded Nyaboke, “but there is nothing in the kitchen that is empty. I already threw out what was used up. Just tell Teacher that you will bring next time.”
At this the boy threw himself on the sofa. He let himself slide dramatically onto the carpet. He began weeping and voicing unintelligible complaints. Nyaboke and his father sent him to bed crying, inconsolable, even by his mother’s promise that she would at least have the bean-bag ready for him by morning. Now, all these no longer seemed as dismissible to Nyaboke as they had been before. Now, she remembered her own excuses, how she had feigned headaches every Tuesday morning, how she threw a fit on Sunday evenings when she remembered her hair had not been braided for school.
From the crevices of her mind, Nyaboke drew out a motion picture of her six-year-old self – Lang’ata Nairobi, 1992. Young Nyaboke races, frantically, downhill after a1987 Fiat Croma. She is crying and yelling, “Mum! Nitachapwa!” She was too young, at the time, to walk herself to school, and Consolata, the family’s maid, had recently quit her job. Since her school did not have a school bus, it was up to Nyaboke’s parents to drop her off. Mama and Baba had done so faithfully since the week began. The only problem was that for the entire week, young Nyaboke had been late for school. She grew more nervous with each extra cup of tea Baba poured himself, each additional banana he peeled. Nonetheless, when he had finished going through the highlights in the morning paper, had sipped the last of his tea, had stood up and put his coat on and fastened his tie, had gone around the car and checked the tyres, and had finally sat behind the wheel, Mama was still in the bathroom. That week, Baba honked every other minute then asked Nyaboke to go fetch her mother. It was their daily routine, she witnessed. With Consolata gone, she was afforded the chance of watching her parents’ morning rituals. KBC Radio’s English Service played rhythm and blues before the 8am news reading, and these tunes soon became young Nyaboke’s ticking clock. On that day, twenty-five years before, her mother stood in front of the mirror, combing her hair then carefully applying cosmetics on her face. As Mama graciously dabbed compact powder and Mariah Carey sang, “I don’t wanna cry” on the radio, the knot in the pit of Nyaboke’s stomach grew tighter. She too, did not want to cry.
School began at half past seven and all who had not made it through the school gate before then faced corporal punishment. On most days young Nyaboke was at school well before the bell rang. Consolata was diligent, except for the days they caught up with Nickson and his family’s maid headed the same way. Then, it became more talking, less walking. On those days, she and Nickson danced to the rhythm of the switch. Sometimes when the two were late and in the company of older children, they followed them as they snuck in through the fence at the back of the school, ran across the school’s playing field, crept past the administration block and dashed into their various classrooms. She had felt enough pain to know she did not desire to be touched again. She had told her parents about the beatings, and for the three days they had taken her late to school, they took it upon themselves to explain to her teachers the reason for her lateness. By so doing, they ensured she was excused from punishment. They walked her past the teacher on duty who lurked near the gate, waiting for unsuspecting late arrivals. They walked her past the head-teacher’s office and past any other figure of authority monitoring the school’s corridors. Both parents walked her all the way to her classroom and spoke to her class teacher, and it worked. For three days of late-coming, young Nyaboke had escaped the switch.
It was a quarter to eight o’clock, when Mama and Baba finally dropped Nyaboke at school. As she began making her way towards the school gate, she noticed no other footsteps sounding alongside hers. She turned to see her parents’ car gliding down the tarmac, her father gaining speed on their way off. Mama and Baba had promised, but with only fifteen minutes left before they too were late for work, they had sped off as soon as young Nyaboke stepped out and slammed the car door shut! Jolted, Nyaboke took off, running after the car, crying and screaming, “Mum! Nitachapwa! I’ll get caned, if you don’t come with me!” Luckily, her father saw her via the side mirror and stopped. Holding the hands of both parents on either side, face drenched in snot and tears, Nyaboke led them past Teacher Okello on duty at the gate, past the head-teacher’s office, past Teacher Judith monitoring the corridors, and into the standard one classroom. Teacher Maria spared her. Unfortunately, subsequent years brought with them other reasons for punishment.
Two years later, on a Monday morning, she would be kneeling on the cold, hard concrete of the assembly grounds with her arms raised in the air, next to Achieng’. Two hours after the rest of the school had resumed their day’s classes, the two would still be paying their dues. Their mistake: their hair braided into two cornrows, instead of four or more. Taking turns to stretch and gain temporary relief for their burning limbs, they remained on high alert. As the recess bell rang at half past ten the head-teacher summoned them. Outside her office she stood with a wooden, thirty-centimetre ruler. Nyaboke and Achieng’ flogged at their calves. Their attempts at reaching down to sooth their skin met with extra lashes to their knuckles.
Silently, Nyaboke led Sokoro to the bathroom and turned on the switch to the electric shower head. She helped him out of his soiled shorts and underwear. The boy’s face still hang low, his heavy weeping now reduced to quick, short breaths and sighs. More than two decades later, the same terrors that had torn at her being were scarring her offspring. Though fully imaginable, it still appalled her, the amount of fear and apprehension her son must have faced to have defecated on himself. What could he have possibly done to warrant such punishment? Who was this Teacher Bernice? What kind of a person was she? What kind of woman did that to a child? The dry faeces made her wonder just how long her son had had to sit in his own mess, how uncomfortable it must have been for him in school through the hours that followed the incident.
Jamhuri Nairobi, 1998. Twelve-year-old Nyaboke and her classmates are beginning to find school more overwhelming. Standard-six mathematics seems to them like A-level calculus. Their maths teacher, Mr Ababu, is determined to make every one of them an A-student, and his motivation strategy: to whip the best out of his students. The boys in the class have taken to wearing beneath their school shorts two other pairs. Some place notebooks in their underpants to cushion their buttocks from the lashes of Ababu’s switch. With his hand raised above his head, the free end of the switch touches his lower back. Ababu swings it. The boy remains calm. Ababu is suspicious. He swings at him again; harder this time. Hears the pages rustle. He pauses. The boy’s eyes give away. Ababu pulls out the notebook. With his left hand he tightly grips the boy’s shorts at the waistband. With the other, he swings. The boy jumping, crying, shielding his buttocks with his palms, Ababu whipping the boy’s hands off, swinging and swinging, and swinging and swinging. Until the stream runs down the boy’s limbs, until their noses catch wind. First, they are stifled giggles. Then it is an outburst. A roar, that erupts from the hollows of their numbing consciences. The girls in the class now overlooking the pain on their own stinging backs, the boys forgetting, that they have had to sit on their palms to ease their discomfort or cushion their wooden seats with their school sweaters. At that moment, Katana is the clown who cannot take a beating.
Nyaboke pictured her son, like Katana, seated at his desk all day, afraid to stand up from his seat, unable to find the courage to walk to the boys’ restroom and clean himself up. Afraid that self-display will only dispose him, afraid to table himself as the subject matter of audible whispers and unconcealed mockery. He sits there, hoping to fade away. Even in his sitting at his desk, he remains uncomfortable in his soiled clothes, and in the knowledge that those around him do not forget. His foul stench is a consistent reminder. He begins his walk home after most of the pupils have left, his school sweater tied around his waist, the straps of his school bag pulled to let it hang loosely, to let it hide his lowly hanging shorts. He leaves for home in the hope that the streets too will be deserted.
“Take your bath, baba. Don’t cry anymore. Tomorrow your daddy and I will go to your school. Mmh? Don’t cry.” Sokoro nodded and used his forearm to wipe the tears from his face. “When you finish come down and have some uji, mmh? Tamu! With Blue band, milk, sugar…” Nyaboke added, bending her head and torso to seek her son’s face, grinning widely, hoping to spark the boy to a little cheer. She put his soiled school uniform in a bucket, let cold water run into it, then covered the bucket with its lid and left the bathroom.
Sokoro’s father arrived home late that evening. The boy had already gone to bed. After clearing his plate of ugali, sukuma wiki and fried goat meat at the dining table, the man went to the living room. Hesat on the sofa,and began watching what was left of the prime time news. Nyaboke cleared the table and joined her husband. A commercial came on just before the sports segment, and Nyaboke seized the opportunity.
“Baba Sokoro, tegerera please, do you know what they did to Sokoro in school kero?” She began, shifting in the sofa then sitting with her back straight. “He-ee!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands. “He came back from school, said Teacher Bernice, sijui Teacher Who? beat him.” She clicked her tongue. Spreading her fingers and waving them over her lower body, she added, “The teacher beat him mpakaakajichafua!”
“Gaki!” Sokoro’s father responded in alarm, removing the wooden toothpick pinned between his lips. His gaze shifted from the television to his wife on the other end of the three-seater sofa. “But…” he began, fishing with his tongue what the toothpick had sourced out before leaving his mouth. “Isn’t…eh? This beating wasn’t it illegalized? In fact, that was in 2001.This is serious! Did he say why the teacher beat him?”
“No, but does it even matter? What possible reason is there to beat up a child until he soils himself?”
“Yes… but what I’m trying to say is that it’s good to find out from Sokoro first. We need to find out, from him, exactly what happened.”
“I just want to know why they would cane a child like that – my child!” Nyaboke insisted. “We must go there tomorrow!” she added, crossing her arms over her ample bosom. “They must tell me why they touched my son!”
“Okay. I have to be at work tomorrow, but call me after you see the head teacher. From his response we will know how to move forward with the situation”
Up the stairs, the next day, Sokoro’s mother made her way to the school’s staff room. She had spent the entire night gnawing over her guilt, and the only thing that gave her a little bit of relief, was the fact that she had a name. She had someone onto whom she could project that anger. There was someone to fight, someone to make pay. She had failed to prevent from happening what had indeed happened. There was no possible way to undo the deed, but thankfully, there was one to appease the hurting. Sokoro was scarred and that was that. He could heal and she would give anything to ensure he did, but still, healing was a process. Getting over the shame took time. The inside could still remain sore long after the outside had healed. Touch was not easily forgotten. Touch, both body and soul remembered. There were no guarantees, even if this were not to happen again. God forbid it happened again! But what if there was retribution? Maybe then…just maybe then, there would be some guarantee, for Sokoro, for her.
“Good morning! I’m looking for Teacher Bernice,” she inquired, barely into the room, her face peering in through the half open door.
“Good morning! Teacher Bernice is not in today,” replied a voice from a woman seated leisurely at a desk next to the window, sipping tea with one hand and holding a slice of buttered bread in the other.
“She’s not?” another asked the first, with surprise.
“No, I’m the one teaching class 2A today,” the first responded.
Nyaboke’s eyes scanned the room from corner to corner, as though to fish out a hiding Teacher Bernice. They rested back on the lady next to the window.
“Na head-teacher yuko?” Nyaboke asked after the school’s principal.
“Eh, yukokwaofisi” the lady replied.
She went back down the stairs to the ground floor. As she approached the head-teacher’s office her heart beat picked up pace. The air seemed to have become dense. Suddenly she was aware of a grave concern. Something required her immediate attention. There was an urgent problem. What was it? She was alert. Think! There was no time. She was missing something. Something was amiss. She could not think of what.
“Habariyako? Mimi nimzazihapa, nimekujakuonamwalimu,” she greeted the secretary typing at a desk, and let her know she was a parent seeking audience with the school’s head-teacher. The secretary sat behind bulks of printed paper.
“Okay, karibu! But it is break time. So just wait 10 minutes and then you can go in.”
Nyaboke sat on a wooden bench set against the wall, right in front of the head-teacher’s office. She was still tense, the air still dense. She found herself staring at the secretary typing away.
“Busy?” she asked sheepishly, when the secretary raised her head, seemingly wearied by the weight of her gaze.
“Exams,” she said dismissively, and looked back at the computer.
“Aha!” That was it – the smell of the uncoated printing paper! Examinations, results, failure, pain! The triggers lingered. The feelings lingered. From her handbag she drew out a piece of wrapped chocolate éclairs and threw it in her mouth. The caramel softened, her mouth watered, she squeezed, the milk chocolate burst onto the roof of her mouth, her tongue savoured. Her eyes closed, she took in a deep breath.
“You can go in now,” the secretary called.
The headmaster was pouring himself cup of chai from a vacuum flask, when she entered. “Karibu, karibu,” he welcomed, signalling for Nyaboke to take one of the seats before his desk. “Uletewekikombe?” he offered.
“No thank you.” She sat. “Mwalimu I’m here on a matter concerning my son in Class 1B and a teacher called Teacher Bernice.”
“Okay, what is the problem?”
“My son came home yesterday and said Teacher Bernice caned him until he soiled his clothes.”
Sipping his chai slowly, he gave her a knowing look. He leaned back in his chair then asked, “Really? You know these children will say anything to get out of trouble.”
An irritated Nyaboke asked, “Get out of what trouble? I saw my son, with my eyes, when he came home.”
He cleared his throat. “You know discipline is very important. If we do not maintain the level of discipline they will go out of hand.”
“So mwalimu, discipline is beating small children until their bowels give way?”
“That is not what I’m saying. Accidents can happen. Even you if you discipline him at home and that happens, should you then stop disciplining him in the future?”
“He-eeh!” she exclaimed. “You seem to have forgotten that the government passed a law making corporal punishment illegal in Kenyan schools! Now you want to make my little boy suffer humiliation in the name of discipline!” her voice was now loud and with tremor, Nyaboke slowly failing at an attempt to exercise control over seething anger.
His face fell. He reached for a ball-point pen on his desk and began to fiddle with it. After a brief moment, he spoke.
“Mama, I understand why you are angry…”
“I don’t think you do!” She interjected. “If you knew…” she sighed. “How can this happen under your watch?”
Now his eyes rising to meet Nyaboke’s, he explained, “We do our best. No teacher here hates children, I can assure you. We are just trying to build them up. You parents have given us a responsibility.”
“I agree, but that responsibility is to educate the children and not to abuse them.”
“But this thing you people call ‘abuse’, isn’t it how you were all raised?”
“True! But if we who were raised that way are the ones rising up to say there should be another way, then that should tell you something.”
At this, the head teacher sighed and leaned forward. Placing the pen back on the table and laying out his open palms on the desk he asked, “But how then, do we enforce discipline? What is the alternative?”
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