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Friday, 6 November 2020

My Name is Joseph

The wind was swaying the branches outside, rattling the leaves.

Our class teacher had stepped out, leaving us more bored than we cared to mention. Yet too lazy to make noise.

When she came back, a scrawny young boy of my height followed closely behind. He was thin but not in a starved way, more like someone who forgot to eat from a table brimming with food as he contemplated the meaning of life. His uniform was new, and shoes sparkled in the shadows of the well-lit classroom.

“My name is Joseph,” he mumbled. He was articulate, that was certain. He nearly broke into a smile, then thought otherwise. His were high cheekbones on a muscular face. He looked wiser than his age.

The class observed him, gauging where to place him in the social strata.  It was clear he was doing well because a murmur broke out from the back, and together the class said, “Welcome to Nanyuki Primary School, Class 2 B.”

We then receded into our collective shell to observe how he would react.  

 “Joseph comes to us from the city,” said our class teacher, breaking the silence. A second murmur rose, Joseph was going to the very top of the leaderboard. It was confirmed.

The hesitant mood was replaced with laughter.

“Have a seat right here,” added the teacher, placing him a row in front of me.

I could see a hairline at the back of his head. The haircut was hurried. “Probably they left Nairobi in a hurry because his father was being chased by criminals.” I imagined.

Boredom and creativity were mixing in the mid-morning breeze as I fought my eyes from shutting—a near-impossible feat with the teacher speaking in monotone.

“I need to stay awake,” I said a bit too loudly to the consternation of the teacher who was trying to hammer home a concept too foreign for the class.

“You have something to say Edwin?” the teacher asked trying to gain control of a class, that had slipped through her fingers.  

“I would like to welcome Joseph, from the city to our class,” I said. The rest of the class chuckled.

Joseph turned around and looked at me with smiling eyes.

When the class was over, I walked over.

“What’s Up?” I said, trying to be cool, in a way only someone from the village would talk to someone who had lived in the city.

“Hello!” Joseph responded, his eyes still smiling.  

We laughed. We both knew I was trying too hard.

“I am Edwin,” I said. Putting out a hand. And that’s how we became friends.

“Follow me, I want to show you where we chill and play.”

We walked to the back of the class where cider, pine and croton trees offered shade. The boys would sit under the shade and either watch or play marble.

“I can lend you my marble for the day.” I offered—a timid act of benevolence.

“Tomorrow I will show you where you can buy one,” I continued. We all sourced our marble from one hardware shop. It was hard to miss, just a few meters from the school gate. Generations of students from various schools would crowd at the hardware shop every start of the semester. To buy a term’s supply of marbles. The best looking marbles were always pricey and were sold out in record time. 

“PAP!” A loud banging sound echoed across the compound, startling all of us from a lazy siesta. My marble, puny and undistinguished had collided with another and cracked it open to reveal the innards. We all craned our necks closer to see what had just happened. Our jaws dropped.

“No one has ever done that before,” said one boy in bewilderment speaking for the rest of us. 

They all scrambled to pick their marbles from the ground, leaving the obliterated one where it lay. Fear ran through the group as they stared with respect at Joseph. He had this sheepish smile. From then on, he became our secret weapon, the Marble King who could go against boys twice his size and leave their marbles scattered in pieces.  It had taken him a single morning to establish his sovereign seat. I had been crawling up the leaderboard hoping to make to top-ten before I hit my 50s.

Joseph, we soon discovered was an exceptional student too. One week after, we did our continuous assessments, and he was top in class. I at the same time was fighting my own battle, against a class repeater, not to be last. I believe he outshone me then, the class repeater that is. My name ended up holding the whole class heavily at the bottom of the list.

A few days later, I was walking to school, and as I turned the last corner, guess who was standing in front of me?

Two older boys were hovering over Joseph obviously bullying him. Mark and Charles were three years older and always in and around the school, but never in class. 

“Hey, ‘Boy’ from Nairobi. I like your shoes. You should give them to me so I can go with them to Nairobi.” Snarled Mark.  “You should probably also give me that watch. It looks really nice,” said Charles.

“Hey, Charles and Mark,” I called out. Increasing my voice as I got closer. They jumped back startled.  

“Where have you guys been? Coach has been looking for you,” I shouted. Attracting some attention. A stone throw from the school fence.

“You guys are never in school nowadays,” I added loudly. Charles and Mark were taken aback. Their stern faces softened.

“Hey Edwin, please tell coach we will be coming,” said Mark, as they beat a hasty retreat.

Joseph stood there, petrified.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Who are those, and why did they stop me?” He asked.

“They are well-known school bullies,” I said.

“Their medicine is Mr Kariuki, the School P.E teacher. He had been known to chase them in public and give them a thrashing once in a while. He even knows where they live. And any time they do anything undignified, he visits their homes. None of them like such visits.” I said.

“There was this time Mr Kariuki chased the two across the school field after finding them napping under a tree during class. Come to think of it, I had not seen them in a class ever since.”

From that day, Joseph and I spent more time together. We would walk across the expansive school sports field, and talk about this and that. Mostly about what we were watching on television. The cartoons and wrestling matches that stayed with us for days on end. 

Joseph had a keen mind that fascinated me. His ability to remember the most atomic details was mind-boggling.

“Do you remember the Undertaker standing in the middle of the ring? The guy with the brown wrestling shoes and black laces, yellow bandana jumped from the corner turnbuckle thinking he would pulverize him, only to land on a waiting hand. And then be slammed on the floor, before being placed in the black and white coffin, with silver handles.”

I could, but not to that level of vivid detail, if I ever did, I would miss out on the action in the ring.  Joseph took memory to a whole new level. 

“The teacher has three bags. In the last three weeks, she has brought all of them to class repeatedly. Her best one is the green one with a silver buckle.”

“Really!” I inquired stymied. Trying to unsuccessfully remember any of the teacher’s bags.

“She also carries a small picture of her young child,” he added.

I raised my hands exasperated.

“Will you give it up. Is there anything you don’t notice?” I asked.

“Is the child a boy or a girl,” I asked a few meters later.

“It is likely a girl.”  

“How do you know?”

“Because I heard her, one day, say Sally while looking at the picture. We were buried in our books doing an assignment she had just given us.”

“How do you notice these things?”

“I just notice them.”

“Let me ask you, Edwin, how did you know how to talk to those bullies?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“It’s the same way those bullies thought they could bully a thin, gawky boy.”

“Cheee! You have words, bro.” I said, slapping his head playfully as we kept walking.

You two look so alike,” said Cindy. Looking at us laughing hysterically at each other’s jokes. I took it as a compliment. I doubt Cindy meant it that way.

Joseph was withdrawn and loved his own company. A bookworm, with few friends. I was his exact opposite.

Joseph lived right in the middle of town in a high rise apartment block. We had to take several flights of stairs to their penthouse. It was so different from what I was used to with beautiful portraits, leather reclining seats, and colour television.

“This is why your stories are so vivid with colour,” I said as we watched a television show.  How could Joseph live in such luxury in a house far smaller than mine? Why was their house so far from the ground?

He must have read my mind. “My father is a senior manager at Mountex.” A textile factory near my home. The old man was an intellectual. A family portrait had Joseph standing beside his father, and two older siblings. Joseph’s mother was breathtakingly beautiful. The old man had turtle rimmed spectacles and wore a bell-bottom suit. He had impeccable style, and fierce features to boot.

The two older siblings were in university. Medicine and Architecture were their courses, Joseph informed me proudly. I had never met his father, but I could see the father in the son. 

“My siblings were born a long time ago, and dad and mom decided to have me, to keep them company.” He smiled sheepishly. Joseph had mountains of toys and flashy clothes I never owned.

“You guys are rich. “ I blurted out. Feeling the clasp of jealousy creeping up my throat.

Joseph looked at me, keenly.

“Actually we are not. I had rich friends. But they were depressed and boring to be around. As long as you have what you need, you shouldn’t crave for what others have.”

I didn’t get what he was saying, I wanted toys and nice stylish clothes. When toys were bought in our house, they would be quickly destroyed. As for stylish clothes, they were foreign and unknown to us.    

“Let us watch some cartoon I recorded,” Joseph directed, showing me a video recorder, and slotting in a tape. The first time I had witnessed such a feat.

 “You mean you can actually record a programme and see it later.”

“Yes! I normally record cartoons, and I have a small collection.” He took me through his collection, with my mouth ajar, as he explained. 

Joseph and I were inseparable for the two semesters he was in the school.

One day, he told me they were leaving for the United Kingdom. I remember feeling so jealous and depressed at the same time. We had grown inseparable—two friends who spoke candidly and finished each other’s sentences.

It was the last I heard of Joseph.

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