It is sad truth of our nature that man becomes too easily brutalized by circumstance. And as the saying goes, a man of worth never gets up to unsay what he said yesterday. I met such a man, 20 years ago. The exact date doesn’t matter, but this event took place anyway, on a September night after a day when the wind had blown without pause down the dusty village paths of Nyapiedho Village.
“Burning on top! Returning under! Burning on top! Returning under!
Thundered a thin, wiry fellow called Mr. Nyoka Kaniuma, our guest preacher for that day. You must remember, dear reader, that at that point no one had an idea of what was in store for us.
“What Jehovah will do in this land wears a hat, i have said it. Burning on top! Returning under!”
The mouth that had been a benign little smile drooped and hung grotesquely, soliciting stiffled laughter from the students seated at the back. Somehow, i found myself admiring the man for his lack of modesty. For what is modesty but inverted pride? We all think we are first-class people. Modesty forbids us from saying so ourselves though, presumably, not from wanting to hear it from others.
On that particular night, on the other side of a central aisle the crowd before us pressed solidly up to the foot of the stage- a collection of bodies and heads of shaven skulls and woolly ones, of uniforms blackened by dirt and grease. The faces seemed to have lost all trace of personality. As if some giant eraser had rubbed out their individual traits, the students’ faces had taken on a common mask, the anonymous mask of a crowd. A heavy odour of sweat and of stale smoke rose like a fog, but none seemed to care at all. The church cum dining hall was ventilated by four windows, but on that particular night, these were serving as seats or as resting places for the audience- the poor in spirit.
Now there is something about our ‘Church’ I would love to share with you. The external appearance of this Dining Hall, you see, together with the punchy smell of onions frying in stale cooking-oil floated out from its kitchen to the pricked noses of the starving groundsmen and grass-cutters between eleven and one everyday, helped to popularize the impression that every delicacy sucked out of Kisumu town and loaded off the steamers in the ports of Lake Victoria came to feed the ‘few privileged’ students of Maranda High School.
Perhaps the labourers and locals, in their own way, were right. For the Lake Basin then was a region where every grain of rice and every bean sown announced its sure barrenness by turning dirty yellow the moment it shot out the salty sand. In such a region in those days, an onion was such a luxury. Moreover, the petty labourer was a creature caught in the thickening urban wilderness of landlessness, soaring prices and stupidly low wages. To such a man, for whom the obtaining of a kilo of maize unga and a handful of bitter greens for his large family’s only meal each day was always a miracle, cooking-oil, even if stale, was as undreamt-of as caviare.
But whether the then government leaders were right in using this popular misconception to whip up the envy and fury of the common mwananchi against students, calling them suckers and ungrateful exploiters who ‘feasted sumptuously everyday and wallowed in feather-beds at taxpayer’s expense’, is another matter. Perhaps the government leaders too, after their own fashion, were right. For they only made these accusations after the students’ anti-government strike and demonstrations.
Moreover, it was difficult, at least for an outsider, to find any valid reason why four out of every five debes of cooking-oil were stale; why nine packets of milk out of ten were mouldy; why nineteen potatoes in every twenty were rotten; why there were two pebbles to every grain in a spoon of rice, or why of every two consignments of chicken one was invariably poisoned. Nor could a reason be easily found why half the dishes served at every meal were always burnt or half-cooked, saltless or oversalted; why there were mosquito carcasses in the morning porridge, flies in the top layer or moth hams in the sugar; or why the drinking glasses were practically no longer transparent, because of the muck, and the cups were always coated with two centimeters of grease and the like. Mutwe Kisuli, a young man whose poor self-image and lack of direction had brought him to adulthood with a skewed sense of judgement, had once made a very apt joke about the situation when he observed: ‘Ni kama ndrama, ni kama vindeo mtu yangu. Hii ni criminal, i tell you.’
The beautiful dining hall cum Church, you see, had been designed to accommodate three hundred students. But, in a situation where double that number rushed up every year to the fountain of knowledge at Maranda High School, it was not long before it had become absurdly small for the thousand-and-some-hundred knowledge-seekers there were. So you can imagine, dear reader, how packed up it was that night. Jumbled thoughts careened through my head. I struggled to sort them. My ankle throbbed, and i seemed to drift somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. The air smelt of stale onions, cheap perspiration and smoke. I was seated next to a boy from Form II Green (at least the writings on his sweater said that), whose woolly, tangled mop of hair and wild blood shot eyes could make Lucifer run and never look back.
Other students who couldn’t find space in the crowded hall sat in a crazy fashion outside, half of them half asleep while the other half grumbling and craning their long necks to at least have a glimpse of what Mr. Nyoka Kaniuma was up to.
“Burning on top! Returning under! Burning on top! Returning under! Make way!” The preacher bellowed in an unexpected burst of English, as if quarrelling with the devil himself. This jolted me to wakefulness.
There is a trying moment in every preacher’s life, i believe. And am not making reference to the Biblical temptations. No. I’m talking about that moment of expectation a preacher has after delivering a hot sermon and expects the audience to at least step forward and receive ‘salvation’, and none of them appears. The anticipation. The suspense. The long wait. Waiting for response from one’s audience. Awkward, isn’t it? Reverend Nyoka Kaniuma might have felt the same way on that podium. But unlike other days, on that particular night, his efforts bore fruits. Ripe fruits for that matter.
No sooner had he chanted the last bit of ‘Burning on top! Returning under!’ than the students began rising from their seats, headed to the podium, as if under remote control. On that podium, you see, there was a table. What Reverend Nyoka Kaniuma meant was that students in possession of illegal stuff were to surrender them and place them on top of the table, while those in possession of stolen items were to place those items under the table.
“Burning on top! Returning under! Burning on top! Returning under!”
Needless to say, between you and me, the best that can be said about it is that it was not right. First of all, the manner of doing it. Secondly, the reason why. I will tell you the reason why it should not have been done the way it was done. But, before that, let me apologise for leaving this way. . .