Of kind childhood teachers, singing disasters, and other musings  

I switched schools at the tail end of my eight year primary school education. My new school was a 10 minute walk from home, a welcome change from the 30 minute school bus ride we had to endure before. Because the school was initially created for children of the nearby university faculty and staff, the classroom sizes were small, we all knew each other and were all new, so I felt like I belonged. I loved it there, and I especially looked forward to my English classes, taught by the incomparable Mrs. Muya, who had us reading the Moses series, the most memorable being ‘Moses and the school farm’. She asked us to underline ‘new words’, look up their meaning in the dictionary and use them in a sentence. She was a very kind and patient teacher. I also enjoyed my music classes, taught by Mr. Bett, who was in charge of forming the school’s first choir. He patiently arranged us in groups depending on our voices, and I found myself in the ‘alto’ category. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am both vocally challenged and tone deaf. This did not dissuade Mr. Bett.  He needed a certain number of people in the choir, and since the school was so small, we all had to be in the choir.

I found the choir training sessions to be very enjoyable. I love to sing. It is very liberating for me. It is not so liberating for those who have to listen to me sing. Once, while babysitting one of my nephews who was about 3, a song played on the TV, and he liked it so much that he asked me to repeat the song. I performed what I thought was a pretty decent rendition of the song, vocal challenges considered. My nephew gave me a very puzzled look, his head cocked to one side, slowly shook his head, said a definitive ‘si hiyo’, and walked away. Out of the mouth of babes.

Our Primary school choir participated in the district level music competitions, and I managed to blend in pretty well with my more talented schoolmates. We qualified for the Provincial level competition, meaning we would compete against choirs from all over Rift Valley. This was a very big deal because it included a road trip to Nakuru. I had never been to Nakuru, and I was looking forward to seeing Lake Nakuru and the Flamingos.

When we got to Nakuru, we went to the lake and while we stood on the shores of Lake Nakuru marveling at the beauty of the flamingos, we heard thumping noises off in the distance. The bus driver yelled at us to get into the bus, which we did in record time, and he started to speed away like a, well, bus driver. We turned back to see what the emergency was, and saw a large heard of buffalo running on the shore, passing where we stood just a few minutes prior. They were much larger than I had thought, and I was very grateful to be in the bus, and not under their hooves.

The next morning we had our competition. We were ready, and hoped to qualify for the National competition. We got on stage, started to sing, and everything was going well until we got to the pause in the song. In my nervousness, I continued to sing, so the audience was treated to my, shall we say, ‘unique’ voice. My music teacher looked at me in shock. I had ruined any chance we had of progressing to the National level. I wanted to die. I wanted that stage to open up and swallow me. To their credit, my choirmates recovered from their shock and finished the song. The mood after we left the auditorium was very somber. We knew we had lost. We knew who was responsible. My music teacher was very kind about the whole thing. That was the last time I sang in public. I confine my ‘unique’ voice to the shower now.

My hair chronicles  

I am an only daughter. Growing up, my playmates and friends were my brothers and their friends, who inadvertently tended to be boys. That pretty much meant I was bound to be a tomboy. My mother’s attempts at exposing me to girly things failed miserably, she even bought me this doll I named Dolly (I wasn’t a very creative child). Dolly was a green, plastic doll whose eyes and nose were pierced by my brother. I played with her sometimes, but most of the time I abandoned her and ran off to play with my brothers. So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t heartbroken when she met her tragic end.

Undeterred, my mother got me another doll, this time a pretty rag-doll with woolen hair just like mine. I didn’t bother to name her. She didn’t last either. RIP rag-doll.

I was more interested in playing with homemade wire cars, kicking footballs, climbing trees and basically playing with the boys because that is all I knew. I didn’t understand why I was singled out to wear the pretty dresses my mother made to match hers, in a Mummy-and-me inspired moment, and I certainly did not want to spend hours having my hair braided when my brothers didn’t have to endure that hardship. She managed to trick me into having my ears pierced, which was not a mean feat.

I vividly remember the woman who braided my hair in my childhood years. Her name was Ruth, a tall slender no nonsense woman from Alego. You see, I grew up in Eldoret, and so it was not common to run into someone who was from my dala.  Ruth would sit on her chair, outside her house, and would sternly ask me to sit on the low, wooden stool known as then in my mothertongue. I would sit obediently, and Ruth would produce the dreaded wooden comb, which she assured my mother was the only comb that could ‘draw’ straight lines to ensure my cornrows, or lines as we call them in Kenya, were straight and super neat. Ruth would proceed to part my hair in two sections down the middle, front to back. To achieve the perfect hair part, she would take her gapped, three toothed wooden comb and draw a line from the middle of my nose up my forehead and all the way back to my neck. I imagine the other comb-teeth fell off fighting to comb ‘steel wool’ hair like mine, which seems to suffer from separation anxiety because it clings to every comb I put in it in a ‘I will never let you go’ grip.

I was a very bold little girl, and I once asked her why she had to start drawing the hair part line from my nose, to which she haughtily responded. “hawa watoto wa siku hizi hawana heshima, ling!” (Today’s children are disrespectful, shush!). Seeing as I was sitting in a stool in front of her, firmly pressed between her knees, and with no eyes behind my head to see what she was doing, I decided it would be foolhardy to speak up, what with the sharp wooden comb she was brandishing over my head.

I have a lot of hair on my head. I also do not have a small head. I also have my mother’s forehead, which is really a small space above my eyebrows.  Like clockwork, halfway across the braiding, Ruth would sigh dramatically and say, almost to herself, “to wich nyathini duong’ ka then”. For those who are not speakers of the international language also known as DhoLuo, I had just had my head likened to the long wooden stool I was sitting on. I took this insult calmly, because as a child, my head was unusually large for my body. In fact, all of my childhood nicknames revolved around the size of my head.

My mother tells me that when I was born, visitors who saw me always remarked that she gave birth to a baby and a half, the half being my head and the sheer amount of hair on it. It took years for my head: body proportion to normalize. But I digress. Once Ruth was done braiding my “then” head, she took the can of Dax oil my mother had provided, and proceeded to slather an insane amount on my scalp until it was shining in the afternoon sun. Seeing as I have said non-existent forehead, some of the Dax would end up on my face, and I would go home with my head and face shining like a brand new coin.  Apparently Dax helps grow hair, although my hair must have been the exception, because it remained short and thick. When Ruth was done, she would warn me not to ‘play in the grass’ because she may have found a blackjack weed or two in my hair when undoing my lines. That advice went in one ear and out the other. As soon as I got home and saw my brothers and their friends playing, I ran to join them, completely ignoring the little girls playing girly games.

My hair troubles came to an abrupt halt one morning. The day before we were to return to school, my mother asked me to have my braids removed by my aunt, who was visiting for the week. Now, I had single braids on my head. It had taken almost an entire day for Ruth to put them in, and after she was done braiding, Ruth had calmly informed my mother that next time she would charge me ‘full price’ because my 9 year old head was not the size of a child’s head! Honestly. I know I had a big head, but was that really necessary? Anyway, fast forward many weeks later, it was time to get the braids removed because the school did not allow single braids, only simple lines. So, when my mother told me that I would be spending the last day of my holiday sitting and having my hair undone, it was not in line with how I had planned to spend my day, and so I waited for her to go to work and I snuck out to play with my friends. When my mother came back that evening and saw I hadn’t had the braids taken out she was quite upset. My aunt, who is my mother’s younger sister and like a second mother to me (she will tell anyone how she babysat me as a baby, and it wasn’t easy, because I was a very challenging baby who drank milk nonstop, slept during the day and kept everyone up at night) decided that she had heard AND had enough of my hair shenanigans. She calmly took a pair of scissors and chopped off the braids to almost scalp level. She then proceeded to wash and comb my hair. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of my hair misery.

My Dani- The truth extractor

My Grandmother Christina, or Dani in DhoLuo, is one of my favorite people in the world. She is actually my late paternal grandmother’s younger sister (a mouthful, I know 🙂 Because I was named Asin after my late grandmother, my Dani Christina refers to me as her sister. And odd as it may seem, that is the nature of our relationship. She is more of a sister than a grandmother. We talk on the phone at least twice a month. I get my loud laugh from her. We laugh at the same things, our phone calls are very uplifting for me. We share a bond that has grown deeper over the years, and now, in her early 90s, with recurring geriatric ailments, I am aware that my time with her is limited, and treasure it even more.

She is very perceptive, and will state her opinion in that brutally honest way the elderly tend to have. She will not hesitate to give me a stern talking to when I am out of line. I know it comes from a place of love.

On one of my visits to Kisumu, my Dani and I were spending a leisurely afternoon just catching up, when she suddenly sat up.

“Nyaminwa,” my sister, she said in DhoLuo,  “is it true that in the United States they find Luos and make them wash toilets and live in wooden sheds?” she asked in a mixture of DhoLuo and Oswahili, that bastardization of the Kiswahili language for which my people, the Luo, are infamous.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the question, I was laughing so hard, my stomach hurt. And as it always is with us, when I laugh, she starts to laugh too, and soon we were both wiping tears from our eyes from laughing so hard. I eventually composed myself enough to ask her the source of this spurious information.

She informed me that her next door neighbor had two sons who had suddenly reappeared in dala proper after a decade away in America, having never come back to visit family, attend weddings and had even missed some funerals, to the consternation of their relatives. The two men, had upon their return from the United States become very taciturn whenever the subject of Obamaland came up. My Dani has an uncanny ability to extract information from even the most recalcitrant person. And so, one morning, she finally got one of the men to talk. He told her that he was better off living in the village than going back to the United States.  They made him wash toilets and he had to live in a wooden house. My grandmother asked him why he was specifically chosen for this unpleasant task, his response? Because he is Luo!

I did my best to disabuse my Dani of her neighbor’s claims. Yes, there are janitors in the United States. No, they are not Luo. No, ‘they’ don’t make Luos do any particular job. I am, and know many Luos who hold professional jobs in the United States, (this is not a ‘we has money’ moment).

She was very amused, and could not believe she had given him the time of day. Upon her return to dala, she had another chat with the sketchy young man from America, and he finally confessed to being a deportee who had overstayed his visa.

That’s my Dani, the truth extractor.