On Tuesday I was going home and sat down to wait for a matatu of more economic leanings when a friend of mine said my name in shock. I stood up and we began talking, turns out we knew each other for a year ten years ago when I was in form one at Maseno School. We reminded ourselves of times there. The familiar names. The rigid customs. The strict discipline. Nostalgia hadn’t washed away enough of the grime to make our memories rose-tinted and awry.
Maseno was a hard place. Every day at exactly 4.50 am a ding would ring out over the school grounds. Ting! It would say. Fading away in the predawn into echo before another ting! would ring out. It travelled unaided through the air, moving in ripples ever outward reaching the furthest corners of the school before it rebounded on itself and another ting was heard.
By the third one everyone was almost awake. Not really awake though that was not a time for young men to be alive and we were far from it. We would shake the sleep off our eyes, weary, bleary in the eerie atmosphere of people pulling on their school uniforms, shaking out their pyjamas. It was something that you could become very efficient in given time. Soon you didn’t really need to be there to change clothes a part of you was trained to give the rest some more time asleep as it took over motor functions while the almighty ting rang forth.
When this was done you spilled onto the pavements and began to run. There was an inane rule concerning running as long as a bell had been rung. You had to run everywhere and at 5 in the morning you could see these wraithlike figures running away from their dreams towards their toil. Shirt hanging out and being tucked in, tie being hastily made on the go, curses muttered under the breath too scared to come out and face the cold full-fledged.
Every other school in Kenya called these 5 am study time dawn preps for reasons requiring no elaboration. In Maseno they had a different name. knock! The ting of the bell gave readier association to the activity than the breaking of the sun; it was that loud, it was that jarring, it was that ubiquitous. And knock was a hard time. You sat and batted away sleep trying to read, but what can you read in first form. And sleep was never too far behind always ready to creep up on you and take you to a land of warmth and wonder. If death creeps that shadowy among its victims there really is nothing much to fear.
Breakfast would eventually roll around and we were one of the few schools in Kenya that actually gave you bread to eat. A loaf quartered by a fellow student and a cup of scalding tea. I never imagined thinking this about my school mates but we were nimble, how else to explain the lack of second degree burns from that tea in those plastic cups.
I felt like we were always running. A life controlled by bells. You never needed a watch in school a bell would ring for every conceivable occasion. The one for assembly sounded just like knock and if you heard this bell it did not matter where you were or what you were doing you dropped it and began running to the assembly ground. The number of assemblies on Saturday always shook you out of any planned weekend revelry. It took you away from sleep and washing, it took you away from conversations and games, and it took you away from letters and plotting. It plucked you out of whatever plans you had made for yourself and gave you new ones. Even during those functions when we actually saw girls your smiling, bumbling, shy attempts to act nonchalant would be interrupted by that bell. And even if you had finally got it. If the conversation was finally flowing and smiles and laughter were surrounding all of you would hear that bell and go stiff in expectation of the run. You would smile apologetically or excuse yourself gruffly depending on personality and begin to run. Cursing everyone under your breath, cursing the bell ringer, cursing the prefect who called this assembly on what you were sure was an idea he struck on after reading the story of David and Bathsheba. You cursed yourself and your weakness. Your dependency on this bell. The whole pavlovian existence you had been reduced to. This bell was shit.
It was rang using a metal rod clanging against sheets of iron hanging rustic and rusted under a tree near the dormitories. Once the rod disappeared and rumours flew around that someone had thrown it in the toilet. That was a fate it deserved and for one day we weren’t ruled by the bell. They found a replacement but we had some extra minutes of sleep, the pitch and timbre of the sound was different as well announcing a breeze of change around the school. I remember the toilets in Maseno and for those of you who are of a weak disposition please skip the next chapter because if there was ever anything deserving of graphic description it was them.
They were arranged near the fence of the school. A set of pit latrines one after another. Dominoes just waiting for an effect. You entered and it was dark. The hole stood as unknowable as Pakistan waiting for your drone strikes. Am not sure what other people did but I soon found a way of half standing half squatting just above the hole hovering there until some of the shit had been squeezed out. I never completely evacuated myself because the muscles in my legs would begin squeezing, contracting, seizing. My nose would be affected by the putrid smell of the place and the effort that comes from both holding your breath and pushing, pushing, pushing away. In a few months you learned to strip before you got into the toilet. It served the dual purpose of preserving your clothes from the smell and hanging a do not disturb sign outside the toilet. I used to go during knock preps at around 630 because I hated those preps and I have always been a fan of metaphor. Without fail as the term drew to an end the effect would start. The dominoes would begin falling and the toilets would start to fill up. What announced the arrival first? The boarding up of the toilets or the much more subtle but at the same time less tactful pool of green you would see as soon as you entered a latrine. Am not sure. They seemed to go hand in hand. I would enter a latrine and close enough to touch was murk and sludge and all this green shit. Why was it green? I asked myself over and over. This is not a healthy colour. Your drone strikes would become more careful. You didn’t squeeze them out anymore you let them slide down the chute. You let them gently plop since if they didn’t the splash would be writ large all over you. This latrine would be boarded and the next and the next until we had 3 working latrines and days and days without bowel movements. People saving it for home.
It was to that that the knock rod was thrown (I hope, talking about it even back then was an invitation for punishments unimaginable.)
The inspections were shit. I hated those things. The prefects would disturb beautiful slumber to rummage through your belongings. Looking for drugs? Contraband? Or simply a white shirt without the school badge on it. I had two of these and like the good boy i used to be I went and reported the situation, said I wouldn’t wear them and stowed them away. My bunkmate needed a shirt one day and I gave him my white shirt to wear. He returned it dirty and it was sitting in my bag when I came into my very first espionagic interaction. Someone somewhere told a prefect and I had an inspection, a personal inspection. My shirt was confiscated. Towards the end of one of the terms I had another private inspection. My housemates began looking at me in wonder. Surely if they suspect something there must be something to suspect. There is a dangerous allure to being thought of as bad. There is a seductive quality to being looked at as dangerous. And I felt it then. It’s possible to feel it now, to feel it forever. “Bad boy” has never and will never be an insult.
The diet was the same week in week out. And I can almost remember what we ate when. It was all bad is a simple truth but the quantities were delicious. You had to be dressed up to go to the dining hall. There was a long line to get to the front and here there was an opportunity for inspection. Was your tie straight, was your shirt tucked, were your shoes shined, was your hair combed. Were you a pretty and perfect picture of a growing school boy? I was not. Neatness was not for me. I cannot touch it. It avoids all of me especially then it took a different turn to the one I went down always and forever. So I got suede shoes somewhere and when I was asked why they weren’t polished I would just say “they’re suede.” This is not a reason for unpolished shoes. This not a reason for anything it just came out naturally and they bought it a lot of the time.
Of course a lot of the time I had punishments. I would grab a slasher and cut down grass in all different areas of the school. Soon I knew just how to hold it. My technique improved and my golf swing would send things everywhere. Slashing here, slashing there.
Towards the end of the term I had an excess of sugar and milk powder as well as cocoa and I would mix all these things together to make a chocolatey paste whose taste said more than anything else that I was going home.
It’s strange I can look back on all these things and more. Remember them as if it’s happening right now but I haven’t had the curse of nostalgia rained down on me yet. It was school. But I can’t say it was good. There were great times to be had but a great time was not had. At the same time it put together so much of the person I eventually became that not having gone would have lost me too much for me to begrudge that decision.