If there is one thing I dreaded about my entire pre-university school experience it was the yearly school report. Every December just before my favorite holiday season I had this hanging over my head. I was anxious for weeks. We were expected to deliver a sealed envelope to our parents. We would hold them up to the light trying to see if we could read our fate. The contents of the report would determine whether you spent your vacation outside playing or indoors reading. Academic excellent was very priced possession in my household as it is in many. I was a mediocre performer so I was never confident about the outcome. My parents constantly assured me that I had the potential to do better, but I often fell short of their expectations. My one saving grace was that I excelled at art so it was not a total disaster. Fortunately my parents did not believe that good grades alone would determine my success in life. Even now as an adult it still surprises me how parental approval can cause me to question if I am really on the right course.
It was my first week in the equivalent of first grade during swim class. We were all decked out in our blue bathing suits or trunks and white swim caps marching in single file towards the pool. I don’t remember if I was excited or not but I remember how inviting the blue water looked in the afternoon sun. Then the coach yelled for everyone to jump in the water. I remember hesitating, oblivious to all the splashing and joyous screams around me. It was just me and the water. I kept running and stopping right at the edge. I was scarred because I did know how deep it was. The coach was yelling for me to get in and the other kids joined in. Finally he came over and just when I thought he was going to help me somehow he shoved me right in. I remembering being underwater unable to breath, screaming and swallowing water as I did. Then crying, my arms flailing as I broke the surface of the water. Then I heard he coach yelling ‘put your feet down, stand’. He keep yelling as he stood a edge of the pool watching me. I thought is he seriously going to watch me drown? When I realized he wasn’t going to get in and help me I followed his instructions and found my footing in the shallow water.
The longer you are on this planet the more you discover about yourself. Moments of introspection cause you to wonder when you started liking or hating certain things. Affinities to somethings even surprise us. I have come to believe that we are built up of layers. Some of these are hidden only to be revealed in the right atmosphere, or maybe a certain age or life event. Often those around us struggle to understand the reason for this change in us. The most important thing we can do is to appreciate our personal journey and embrace the person we are at this moment. Who knows what other layers are yet to be uncovered.
One of my favorite childhood memories was visiting my grandmother who lived about an hour away. She was very hospitable and loved to take care of people. Often we would find her surrounded by snot nosed neighborhood children who came to pick fruit from the many trees that lined her compound. She was always so excited to see us and would almost immediately busy herself in her cozy, smoky kitchen making us chai over a three stone wood fire. She would ask us to watch over the heating mixture of water and fresh milk while she spread generous layers of Blue Band* on extra thick slices of white bread. I still remember the look on her face as we sat around her fire eating bread and sipping hot chai from her chipped tin cups, it was priceless.
Blue Band- margarine
My first experience with sour candy was unpleasant to say the least. A bright colored sugar coated delectable piece was offered to me unaccompanied by a warning. With great expectations I devoured it. As the sweet juices rushed into my mouth I smiled with pleasure. Suddenly an unfamiliar taste set in and slowly mixed in with the sweetness. It become stronger with every chew. Eventually it completely overpowered the sweetness. No longer able to handle the sourness I spat it out.
Few things command your attention like the smell of chapati as it wafts through the air. It is such a powerful one it lures gallivanting children home before the street lights come on. It compels wayward husbands to forgo another beer at the local. It causes meddling neighbors to suddenly run out of sugar. And the watchman at the gate remembers a very urgent message that he forgot to pass on.
Right after primary school I was sent off to a catholic boarding school in a semi-rural part of town. It promised a safe learning environment and ensured academic performance that would guarantee me a place in a good Kenyan university. To get there we drove through dusty streets filled with throngs of people going about their daily living. The thought of being away from home for so long both frightened and excited me. I found a little solace as I recalled the fun stories my cousins had told me about their time in boarding school. I took in a deep breath when we finally stopped at an imposing green metal gate guarded by a watchman. Behind it lay a serene, pristine and sterile compound that seemed unreal; a sharp contrast to the chaos that lay around it. A sense of foreboding came over me as the gate closed behind us in a loud bang. It is in the place that I would question if truly cleanliness lay next to godliness.
I mostly had a religious and conservative upbringing which then went full throttle into a fanatical mode when I was a teenager. To say I was sheltered would be quite accurate. My sisters and I would frequent the local kiosk to buy sweets (candy) where the shop keeper would flirt shamelessly with us underage girls. We giggled as we skipped along home with our little hands tightly wrapped around our treats; blissfully oblivious to the perils that lingered all around us.
It took me a very long time to realize that diets are just a temporary solution. In my many diet adventures I came across the cabbage soup diet. It was nothing exciting until day four. The day you ate only bananas, milk and yogurt. I looked forward to this day when you could eat as many as eight bananas. Later that day as I doubled over in pain my father asked what was wrong. I told him that I had followed the diet to the letter. ‘ You ate all eight bananas?’ he asked in an amused tone.
I have never been a fan of soil. What does that even mean? Well, let me explain. I mostly associated soil with dirt. But soil is dirt you may say. Well not really. What the British call soil, Americans call dirt. What I mean is that I thought of soil as something dirty. From an early age I did appreciate it. Even though I enjoyed the lush, beautiful garden my father planted I never felt inclined to help cultivate it. In primary school they gave us a holiday project to build a mud hut from scratch. I waited until the every last weekend to get it done and hated every moment of it. In what I believe was an act of vengeance it fell apart in the car on the way to school that first morning back. Later in secondary school I quickly picked Home-science over Agriculture to the chagrin of my teacher who felt I was better suited for outdoor activities. I endured her hostile treatment rather than spend my afternoons in the shambas toiling under the hot Kenyan sun. Some many years later I spend late afternoons tending to my little garden, even worrying about how my plants will survive while I am away on vacation. And yes, I do it all while wearing my gardening gloves.