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Friday, 10 July 2020

Diving into Likii River

The holiday season was upon us. Finally, the habitual waking up early, being in class, and feeling retarded was past us, at least for a month. In its place, we young ones could rule our day, play until we ached, and enjoy being young, free and wild.  

Instead of walking two kilometres to school, to a class, I disliked and classmates I didn’t fancy. Now I could wake up when I wanted, eat what I wanted and do what I wanted.

Well. Not really, but the thought crossed my mind. Breakfast was three slices of bread and creamy milk; from the abundant milk brought to us from a farm, my enterprising father owned and was run by a nomad-at least that what my class texts told me. All the same, I enjoyed being at the farm with its strange smell of dung, unwashed bodies, cattle suited to an arid region, and the Samburu Kraal, which seemed like an odd place for people to dwell.

Back to breakfast. At that young age, it was the most important meal of the day, because, after it, the next meal adrenaline would allow me was dinner. So I had to stake my claim to the best portions of the 21 piece sliced bread, and that was the crust. This was no easy fight with a younger sister, who knew how to wrestle and claim her stake. So with time, we had a meeting and agreed. On alternate days the crust would be mine. There was no way I could eat more because there were 7 people in that house. And my mother’s wrath was legendary, I dared not raise it.

I tried during this period to wake later than usual, but all I did after 6 am, was toss and turn, and daydream about all the things I was going to do, so naturally, I would be first to watch as tea was made and bread set on the dining table. My younger sister would be joined to my hip when she was not running circles around our house help.

Our existence was comfortable. We were middle class. At least by town standards. Father bought an excellent plot, rectangular in shape. Fenced in with a wooden fence, and layered with cypress trees. The compound was cemented all round, with a small garden at the back, where we planted tomatoes, carrot, and kale and reared chicken.   

Beyond our wooden fence, was another compound occupied by a bungalow structure full of one-bedroom rentals, with a shared toilet and bathing area. Across the road were a bar, butchery, and a cinema hall. The people who worked at the bar lived in the rentals beside our house. It was common for me to see a dumpsite outside that was filled with condoms, beer bottles and the rarely aborted baby in a plastic bag.

We grew independent. Rolling in small groups of friendly neighbors, who today, are lost in my memory, shadows from my young past.

The first event in our long list of activities to start our holidays, was the visit to Likii River. Days before the holidays began, we would talk about it like it was a trip to another realm or country. We had to get our swim clothes on. This was unfortunate since most of us didn’t know how to swim, and had a minimal selection of clothes. It was the 80s, and frugal was the most used word in our homes. We had a few outfits that were used until they lost their original color, and got a tear. It was only when we looked odd in underfitting clothes when our parents would buy a new pair. Most likely during Christmas. Come to think of it, those clothes were really hardy.

“Edu! Let us get going,” Martin would call me between the cracks of our fence.

“I will be out in a few,” I would shout back. Making sure my younger sister was nowhere in sight.

My mother, a nurse, was at work. My father only appeared once every week for a day or two. And would be back on the road. This was a game of cat and mouse between me and the latest house help. Since many never stayed for long.

As soon as I was able to operate the noisy mechanism of our gate, our iron gate, with padlock and a heavy latch. I could breathe freedom. Outside stood a group of seven kids, all looking unkempt mischievous and wild. I fit right in. I remember earlier insisting on wearing one of two shorts I owned. A creamy white short, and a yellow beach shirt, this was my swimsuit. I owned my first swimsuit when I was an adult, by the way. Owning a swimsuit wasn’t something we considered necessary. There were simply more important things to do with money, like buying food.

We picked more of us along the way and felt the soundtrack, “Bad” by Michael Jackson playing in my mind. By the time we crossed the road to the more modest part of our estate, we had numbered a dozen or more.

We went past a field, a common ground for preachers to do crusades, and marketers to set up loudspeakers and gyrate to music as people gathered to win and get freebies. Crossed the shopping center with a row of attached single floor buildings with a long corridor at the front.

Back then, the shop owners did little to advertise except the signage at the front, telling you whether it was a butchery, a grocer, or a bar. It was up to you to come in or buy elsewhere. And there was no elsewhere. A semblance of a supermarket was owned by Mr. Wambugu. We loved to go there and see what new delicacy had arrived from Nairobi, the capital.

So past the shopping center. Past the leafy part of the estate. Past a former nursery school, I attended for a year, where all I remembered doing was rolling tires, and chanting the letters of the alphabets repeatedly to a point it induced trauma.

Then across a bushy terrain, which was deserted save for a few people. Then suddenly, we appeared on the side of a winding Likii river. The water was clear, smooth stones in the bottom. A bridge went past the river. We never dared cross it. It was taboo to our small minds to go into the thicket past the bridge. We had seen horror movies, and we were no fools.

The first act was to agree on the best way to get into the frigid waters. Some took off their clothes and dove in butt naked, most of us, had our swimming suits on and dove, just as we had come. We played Tarzan on twigs, played Zorro sliding down an elevation, and get into the water in ungodly angles. No idea was sacred or stupid, we played all manner of games, until the cold became unbearable, and we knew the evening was upon us.

The mood would suddenly shift moanful. And no one outside the group would understand why, a dozen kids would leave the river, downcast, covered in water and mud, and walk sullenly back to their homes.

When I got home, the answer would be waiting.

“Edwin!”

“Yes, Mama,”

“Where were you?”

“Out playing,”

“Where were you?”

“Eeh! I was outside.”

“Where exactly?”    

I would look to the ground and avoid eye contact.

“You want to tell me you were playing outside and swimming in a puddle of mud?”

Silence.

“Ok! I need you to take off the clothes because they are dirty.”

I would do that.

“Since you were five, this has been three years, I have consistently told you not to go swimming in that river, and you never hear me. Do you know it crosses by the hospital?”

“But, you never tell me why, Mommy?”

“Enough! Follow me, young man.”

She would take me to her bedroom and cane me properly. Spare the rod spare the child was her motto.

Yet this once, I was unlucky to have been caught. Typically as soon as I knew Mom was onto me, I would be out of the house, running for dear life, with her hot in pursuit. We would do a couple of rounds in the compound before she grew wiser and waited for me at a corner. She would tackle me to the ground. Then we would commence a dance, her with a cane, me avoiding every stroke, with a measured miss. My characteristic wail was, “Daddy, come save me!” Seeking a father who was miles away working as a government accountant.  

After the dance, we would eventually make up, with her making me a meal. Along the way, my desire for adventure became muted. Curtailed with time, and new interests that tethered me to the house. Thus began my days of introverted behavior, but then again, that’s a story for another day.

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