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Wednesday, 2 September 2020

A Term at St. Christopher's

Our house had two immaculate toilets—one for the parents, and the other for us sojourners. The parent’s had a sparkling white seat bowl and cistern. I remember being fascinated at just how the cistern worked. Flush, watch, cistern fills, flush watch. The cistern was low enough, and plastic, so I could lift the cover and observe. My five-year-old mind was mesmerized by what I saw.  

The sojourners’ toilet was Spartan and clean. On the ground in the middle was a ceramic white squat toilet, with ‘Vitreous’ written right above where water spurt into the bowl. This was the toilet we kids graduated to from Red Mr Pottie.

As a child, I would look up at the sojourner’s toilet cistern and wonder how it worked. I was told I could commune with it by pulling a long lever which I could get to by tiptoeing. There was a long thin pipe that ran from the toilet cistern down to the toilet bowl. When I pulled the lever water would rush down the tube and into the squat toilet.

Once a nanny told me fish were in the toilet cistern, and I wondered how I could get up there and see them.

“How many times did I have to flush for them to come down?” I wondered.

“Mommy? Where do fish come from?”

“They come from rivers, lakes and oceans,” she responded absentmindedly.

“If we flush our toilets, does all the water go into rivers, lakes and oceans?”

“Yes, it goes there eventually,” she said, concentrating in her knitting.

 “Mmmh, so all fish come from toilet cisterns in all houses in the world, and they go to the rivers, lakes and oceans,” I asked my eyebrows raised.

My mom turned to me, shocked.

“Whoever told you so?”

“Auntie said we have fish in the toilet cistern. And I have been trying to look for them.”

I was frustrated.  

“Son, that’s a lie.” She started clearly annoyed as she turned to my nanny.

“Carol kindly don’t lie to my son about such things again.”

My nanny was mortified and nodded profusely.  

The same day my mother had me graduate to the parents’ toilet to show me what was in the cistern. That definitely was a momentary lapse of judgement. I don’t know what came over her. The next moment I had an opportunity alone, I went to the parents' toilet and locked myself in. 

At first, just gazing into the cistern was fun.  But I grew tired of flushing and decided to undo the float ball and flush lever, thankfully she realized the house was quiet and came knocking. I was promptly demoted back to the sojourner's toilet.

To say I loved spending time in the toilet as a five-year-old would be an understatement. I would carry a newspaper or magazine under my arm and walk into the toilet for an appointment with myself. Reach up and lock the latch. Then spread the newspaper on the clean floor and get lost in the world of letters, pictures and my imagination.


There was a long repeat knock on the door.

 “Edwin, you better get out of the toilet,”

“Yes Mommy”

Five minutes later.

“Edwin you are not fair,”


“Open this door right now!”

I did.

“Surely Edwin, must you always do this,”

I was standing naked, with my school uniform neatly arranged in a pile.  

I looked up innocently.

“Every morning, you wake up early, you take a bath, wear your uniform and are ready on time.  And then a few minutes before the bus comes you remember you need to go to the loo?”

She had an accusing tone.

I knew not to aggravate the situation. 

I could sense her anger, as she threw me into my uniform, and hurried me out of the house towards the bus.

It was apologies from her, and false acceptance from the bus conductor who took my hand and led me into the bus. From the look of things, the conductor was livid. But still kept a smile.

“What were you doing in the house?” inquired the plump short lady. She was sweating from her nose. I tried desperately to avoid looking at her ample nose. I imagined the air around me being sucked out as she heaved me into the bus.  She had my hand clamped in a tight grip, not enough to hurt me, but I knew who was in control.  

 The driver was a tall thin man who smiled easily and spoke frequently.  

“Edwin, why are you always late in the morning,” asked the driver smiling.

I shrugged my shoulders. My mother was unwilling to divulge why her son would suddenly turn up at the bus door, looking like his clothes had been sput out of a donkey’s mouth. The bus was filled with half bored kids, with some taking a nap. The bus conductor ushered me to my seat, as I looked outside, to my mom, and smiled, hoping she would wave, smile or anything. She stood there, struggling to decide whether to remain mad or wave me off with a smile. Eventually, she did both.

I had just transferred to a new school after it became painfully apparent to my parents that the nursery I went to was ill-equipped to educate me. I was struggling to speak English and had acquired a particularly heavy accent to my parent’s vexation.

Little was said, but I found myself getting a new set of uniform and shoes. Both welcome since back then clothes of any kind were bought on special occasions.

It had become a ritual in those days for me to pass through the toilet for a ‘few’ minutes as my nanny waited impatiently before walking to my local nursery school.  This habit stuck as I moved to the new school.

The school was something else. I remember being driven by the bus into this huge leafy, manicured compound, like nothing I had seen up to then.  Kids of all ages were playing everywhere. I shrank back into my seat and felt the palpitations of my small heart.  It was a step up. I was shocked at the grandness of the place, having previously zero grazed in a small compound, forced to battle for tires, and witness dust storms caused by kids. This school had a calmness to even how kids played.

The teachers were also highly invested in what a student was doing.

“Edwin, can you reread the passage,” a teacher insisted, as I lost concentration as I looked outside, trying to listen to the morning birds singing. I needed a break. The kids came from upper-class families with ensuites, coloured television, and travels to Mombasa for holidays. This was 1988 for Christ sake, who were these people. I felt out of my league, with their perfect English, and alien cartoon programmes I had never seen and talk of their parents having multiple cars.

“We have a Mercedes Benz and BMW,” said one. “One for mother, and the other for father,”

“We have four cars,” said another, as I restrained a gasp.

“Two for dad, one for mom and another for my big brother,” he continued.

My parents owned an old Datsun station wagon, and a VW Beetle that brought more grief than joy. These I instinctively didn’t bring up, choosing to be quiet as the other boys jostled for the first position on whose father had more cars.

This was confirmed by the cars that came to pick up kids later. I then realized that we were not well off. As the kids tried to outdo each other. In the afternoon, after sleeping, a bus took us back home, past the quiet, spacious compounds with huge homes, and tall trees. Past a sleepy town into our side of town with bungalows well arranged and occupied by government officials and Mountex employees who worked in a textile mill nearby.      

I was so excited to get back to my dirt, hustle and normal friends. At school, the boys I interacted with were brought in nice cars and had this bourgie look to them. I yearned for the good old days in the dust-filled nursery school. I was used to a raw and an unbecoming culture, and eventually, I got bored.  I was living a lie. And it showed in my face, it showed in my exaggerated attempt to fit in. My mother probably saw this, or maybe the school fees shocked her. But, by the time I was expected to be going to Class One, the narrative had changed.

“We need you to go to a simple school, which you will learn the values of life,” said my mother. Father never voiced any concerns. And so at the end of the year. I found myself starting in a new school, different from St. Christopher’s in all its ways.

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