We were in class, contemplating our existence as six-year-olds when our class teacher, Mr Gitembo, walked in. Behind him was a radiant young woman wearing a dark green dress, and carrying a sizable box. Our class teacher had a bigger box accompanied with a toothy grin.
"Good morning, class?" inquired the lady.
“Good Morning, Mrs...”
She had a calming voice, like the auntie who you visited to eat cake and sweets.
She had our attention and Mr Gitembo’s too.
"My name is Ms Claire. I work with the library near the school, and I have brought you gifts."
She opened the boxes and brought our games and storybooks, then urged us to come closer. We ran to the front and picked a book, or sat down to play a game. Up till then, my reading was a clumsy attempt. Trying to understand my elder sister's magazines, father's newspapers, and Jehovah Witness literature left in a drawer to gather dust for years. These made no sense to me. But as I opened the books Ms Claire brought, I felt a strange comfort. The pictures were coloured, the words simple to follow, and I read one book after the other loudly.
"Edwin kindly read quietly," hissed Mr Gitembo restraining himself, smiling and infuriated at the same time.
Did I hear him? Of course not. Neither did the rest of the class. We had fun with 'Auntie Claire'. She was our new best friend. We were lucky; she stayed until our lunch bell rang. We flocked out of the class, leaving her and the teacher collecting the books, and chatting away like old friends. I wondered why Mr. Gitembo became the tyrant he was in class, when alone with us.
It was Friday, father came with his regular collection of newspapers and quietly sat on his favourite mahogany-coloured chair. He seemed frozen in time, saying little as he read his paper. I took one and sat beside him, close enough to let him know I was there, silent though, to give him his privacy. I then shifted my attention to the paper. The English was foreign and felt like a confidential report from the 1970s with difficult words redacted with a marker pen. I could only get 10% of what I was staring at, but alas, I was neither going to make noise nor stop copying my father. I struggled on. Over the years, I got better.
For now, our routine stuck.
Father would arrive on Friday. I was the butler, picking his briefcase from the government Land Rover, and taking it to his bedroom. The papers occupied a large portion of the case. I always started with the comic strip and tried to comprehend politics of the day.
On Sunday morning, I would walk up the road, to the newspaper vendors and buy a copy of Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard. These were the best issues because they had stories suited for us kids. Sundays were select for me, because of the kids' section with comic strips. Back then, one had to savour a newspaper. Reread a comic strip over and over again, thinking about the colour, the pose and detail of it all. Today no one has that time. We have too much content to consume and little time. As a child, we had pint-size content and too much time.
I wanted more, and never imagined anything more until Auntie Claire came to our class. Suddenly the books we used to study in class became bland and tasteless. As my class drew to a close on Monday, the pictures in my coursebook of Mr and Mrs Kamau became painfully dull. I had read the book, many times, from cover to cover trying to understand why Mr. Kamau did so little in the space of a whole book.
"Martin! You know we can visit the library, where Ms Claire works?" I said, aiming to get some excitement from my desk mate. He ignored me.
"Paul! They have toys and games in the Library that Ms Claire works in." I said, turning to my left and creating a spontaneous lie. I knew it would only serve me until we reached the library's door. To my right, Martin turned wide-eyed and said, "We should go then!"
That is how I got eight kids to accompany me to the library on Monday afternoon. I spun a lie into a fantastical story. Telling some there would be toys, and others there was cake to eat, and the more decent I just confirmed we would find storybooks.
I had never been to the library before, so I needed a crowd to scout it out with me. Our school didn't have a library, the concept was still alien to all of us. Yet Ms Claire had invited us to visit her at the library. I was too shy to do it alone.
At exactly 12:45 pm, 10 minutes after leaving our classroom, a small group of six-year-old kids walked into the compound of the government library. Huge trees were swaying to the motion of the wind, and a small garden stood beside the main building entrance, with large double doors. We shuffled in noisily and found ourselves in a room with pin-drop silence, with shelves as high as the ceiling, and a maze of them winding away. There were several 'NO TALKING ALLOWED' signs. We stood there, unsure of where to go.
"There she is," said one of us pointing to a desk on the side with Ms Claire seated with a big smile having noticed us in our uniform. We walked over, excitedly calling out her name, to the "SSHHH!" in the room.
"Welcome kids," she whispered, drawing us to her desk. She had a small compartment structure on her table with tiny shelves where she kept cards and was stamping books.
I couldn't help myself.
"What are you doing Auntie Claire," I asked sheepishly. It tugged at her heart, being called Auntie. "I am giving books to borrowers and stamping the date when they are to come back." I nodded. Most of what she said flew over my head.
“I am so happy you came today. Now all the books in this library can be borrowed. You can take a book, and go with it home, and bring it back in a week, to borrow another. I will take your name and give you a library card that you need to keep well. Is that okay?"
“Yes, Auntie Claire,” we all said in unison.
“Remember to tell your mommies at home you need to bring a library book and they will remind you."
"Now, I want you to go round, find a book that you want to read and bring it to me," Then she placed a finger on her mouth, "Shh. Remember to be quiet as you walk around."
She let us loose in the library. My mouth was wide open, as I walked around, touching and smelling books. Finally, I arrived at the brightly coloured children’s section. I believe I got lost there. Hours seemed like minutes. As I pulled out books and comics from the shelves and looked at pictures. A smile broke across my face. At a certain point, I was alone. All the other kids had left. I didn't want to leave, but I had to as my hands went across the pages of a large ‘Puss in Boots’ storybook. I picked it up and took it to Ms Claire. My head and torso were hidden behind the book.
I waited patiently as she attended to a person, and then shyly placed the book on her table.
“OH! Excellent choice, Edwin. It has so many lovely pictures, and a beautiful story to read. You will love it,” she said in her nurturing voice. I shuffled my feet looking at the ground. Then looked at her as she went on to open the first page, take out a card, and place it on a holder with my name. She stamped a piece of paper attached to the book.
“Here you go! Remember to tell Mommy to remind you to bring the book next week, and you can borrow many more.” She said, looking at me with a smile.
I stretched out, picked the book, smiled back, said thank you, and ran out of the building.
I remember holding that book close to my chest and walking home, happy that I would have something interesting to read. I believe I read it 10 times over the next few days. Turning and voicing the words, and imagining being a character in the story.
At night I dreamed of the world drawn in the book.
I shared the story with my younger sister and even allowed her to turn the pages carefully. I didn't want to spoil the book. At the back of my mind, the librarian's words came to me. "Bring back the book, and you can borrow many other,"
And so after a week, I got over my shyness and went back to the library alone. Ms Claire became a good friend of mine. The library turned into a place of solace I spent my afternoons. As inanimate books came alive with authors narrating stories, in a quiet place where the wind blew, and trees swayed.