Gone in November
It was going to be a good year. The new Form One class joined Bara Girls' High School in late January and after the usual stumbling around rules about how to walk, when to talk and when to sleep and the heartbreaking discovery there was no Visiting Day, my outgoing Form Four class assembled outside the Bara Girls' school hall and sang them a modified version of "Gone Till November." "We will be gone in November, we will be gone in November! We will be gone in November." The last of the KCSE exam papers was already scheduled for the twenty-first of November. It was true that after that my whole class would be done with high school forever.
Dama and Chela led the singing while the rest of us, three classes each with over thirty students, kicked up the red dust around us. We danced with our pullovers rolled into thick belts fastened at the hips to exaggerate our movements as we gyrated, sinking to the ground, until we were down to squatting and moving as if we were in a live dancehall music concert, and the drum beats were coming from something better than our plastic upside-down laundry buckets and empty Fanta bottles. I danced next to Violet and Nduku.
As most of us had expected, Dama had been a good prefect. She'd even got in trouble for not dishing out as many punishments as the other prefects. Chela had made it to Form Four without being expelled despite numerous punishments including two suspensions. Nduku was still Nduku forever and ever annoyed about everything—the prefects, the teachers and the food—but to be honest, I didn't really mind it here. Violet would have been more like Chela if she did not go home so often and get exempted from everything worth rebelling against. When everyone was suffering from homesickness, she had the opposite feeling. There was no name for it. Even that one time the whole class had to be punished for secretly roasting maize from the school farm, we all spent afternoon scrubbing every floor in the school while Violet got a light duty—dusting books in the library. She borrowed my exercise books to copy my notes whenever she came back from home from another check-up. I had to help her catch up with maths, but I didn't mind.
I liked the quiet calm and the way that everything in our school was organized around us. It was not like home. I always knew what to expect and even when the teachers tried to shock us with surprise tests I was never shaken. I looked forward to Mass, and to seeing the old Sisters always occupying the front row benches at the school chapel and sending out prayers for all the things that I forgot to pray about every morning, despite my effort to always update my weekly prayer list. But there were times when even I felt choked by all these buildings hidden behind high concrete walls and that big black gate marked BGHS for the school's initials. There was nowhere to go away to. We had small buildings that told the story of how BGHS had grown over the years. My mother had been here when it was just four classrooms, one for each form. Now for every small building there was a newer bigger taller building. Just like there was a Fast Matron and a Slow Matron, we had a small hall and a big hall, a junior lab and a senior lab—no one had considered giving them more distinct names. Sitting up school at the staircase outside my second floor dormitory I got a view of everything that happened down school. From here, I counted buildings and students and trees. On weekends we all scattered and spread out on lessos, lazily eating and chatting on all the corners and the grass lawns. But the staircase was my preferred spot.
During breaks from class, I sat with Violet and together we worked on her maths homework. She needed my brains. Violet was always in-between about her sickness, sometimes she would talk and talk and talk about everything there was to say about having lupus, and other times if you asked her anything she would say, "This is something private and only my next of kin are allowed to know." She said it in such formal words that sounded like something her doctor had told her to memorize that we all just knew there was no use asking. She could have just said, "None of your business." On these days, I pretended that I didn't know.
We danced. In that moment, most of the Form Ones didn't know that things were going to get much harder for them. Like us, they would soon be plotting escapes from school and sending home letters filled with lament. Some of them would be lucky enough to leave while the rest would find themselves fighting for the limited spaces in Drama Club with guaranteed outings or Environment Club just because there was the slim chance of going somewhere on Environment Day. We had survived.
* * *
It was the year when all of a sudden all the things that I did not care for mattered, and everything I did care for was not that important. At the end of second term, the people who had finally settled into being club chairladies, team captains or prefects like Dama, would have to relinquish all those privileges and come back to being ordinary students for the sake of the final exam. Mr. Gesami said that we had to avoid the risk of getting injured or needlessly distracted instead of focusing on the exam. In other words, no choir, no sports, no drama; just books for us. Lucky me, I had never had ambitions. I had joined the mathematics club and stayed in it from Form One to Form Four. We did our homework during club meetings and did not have any members determined enough to fight for outings. The contents of our Leaving Certificates were Mrs. Kamau's new obsession. "Young ladies," she'd say at the daily assembly, "you have to be rounded. Out there, there are many who have missed good opportunities because they were not all-rounded." Being all-rounded meant playing a sport, getting stars for good behavior and never ever failing an exam. She liked to remind us about the girl who missed the Oxford scholarship and had to go to Japan instead. I had worked out that draughts was also a sport, and after I finished high school and anyone out there asked me about it I was going to say that I played draughts. I was all-rounded.
Despite the veto on too much activity, this was the year we did not have to look for outings. Outings came looking for us. We had academic symposiums to attend in different high schools and the luckiest students were the ones doing the less popular subjects like Agriculture, German and Music. They didn't need to fight for space in the small school van. Whenever I went to the chapel on my own all I ever prayed for was for God to help me pass exams and to get a scholarship to fly out to university in Canada, the US, Japan, South Africa, or even Russia, anywhere, just not here. I was really focused but not too ambitious. I was not like those girls who received glossy prospectuses from big abroad universities that promised them scholarships for being poor but clever.
Weeks before the July mock exam, the teachers went on strike. The Bara Girls' teachers did not strike but all the teachers in other schools in the newspapers did. Every day Angeline, having read the same newspapers that we did, updated us on schools that had closed.
"Just imagine Mboni Girls' have gone home!" she squealed.
"And Namanga Girls', oh no!" she moaned.
"Even Kibos Boys' is closed!" she cried. She often mentioned schools that we didn't know but that strain in her voice made us all feel personally afflicted by these closures. Nduku, Angeline and Triza were in the camp that wanted to go home. They even secretly referred to the teachers as traitors. I'm sure Violet and I were the only ones praying that school did not close but we acted neutral like the majority. Every morning I prayed, "God please protect our teachers, please protect our school, please help us to stay focused in the face of these trials and to do well in exams."
As the strike progressed, all our teachers, even Mrs. Keya, got scared of going against the teachers' union. The newspapers had pictures of teachers breaking into schools and beating other teachers. Our teachers snuck into school daily, sometimes using a back entrance away from the big conspicuous gate, but they gradually stopped teaching us. They hid in the staffroom and called the class representatives to give us tests and endless revision exercises to discuss on our own in class. We were instructed to keep the class curtains closed. We stopped ringing the bell because they didn't want outsiders to hear it and wonder why we had not already been sent home. We spoke in low tones. The two bell ringers were appointed to tell us, "It is break time, it is lunchtime, it is end of prep time." just incase we did not read the wall clocks in our classrooms. And just when we thought our teachers were going to officially join the strike, it was already time for the midterm break and we were all going home anyway. We packed our bags, equally doubtful and hopeful about the scheduled return at the end of the five-day break.
At home, the television news clips showed angry striking teachers all over the country singing daily, "Solidarity forever and the union makes us strong!" Every day they sang, and every day I studied less and less. I was losing focus but then on Sunday, the last day of our midterm break, some teachers went to the State House and they sang a different song for the president and promised to go back to work. We returned to school on Monday, counting days to the mock exam. Violet did not return. She was sick again; she was going to miss the mock exam. Her closest friends Mary and Susan came to me with a prayer request.
"Kish, please pray for Violet," Mary said.
"Please pray, I think it is getting worse." Susan said.
My classmates used to come to me with different prayer requests just because I was the only one who had never skipped mass. They had seen me act the part for so long and I couldn't admit to anyone that I was down to just praying about my exam results. I prayed for Violet just once. She had been sick last year and the year before but came back and still made top twenty. When the mock exam started, the teachers outside our school were once again threatening to go back on strike. We ended up doing our papers dressed in home clothes instead of uniform. Except for the lab exams supervised by Mr. Nyamu, the lab assistant, we timed ourselves and collected our own exam papers and then dropped them off at the staffroom. School closed at the end of July. We had one week at home before returning as day scholars for the holiday tuition.
At home, my cousin Esther was getting married. Everyone in the family had a task do for the wedding and was still expected to arrive dressed up and with a gift on the actual wedding day. My designated task was to spend Friday night at Aunty Joy's house with all my age mates and stay up all night peeling and slicing onions, sorting buckets of rice and doing other things to make sure that the food would be ready the next day. Mum handed me a tightly folded bill before sending me off. "While you are in town," Mum said, "get something for Esther."
I was in a shop on Biashara Street looking at cutlery and crockery, unable to decide what would make a good wedding gift. I didn't know Esther very well. A loud bang set off the car alarms outside. The glasses on display shook as if it was an earth tremor, and I stepped back afraid that I would be accused of breaking something. While stepping back I tripped and fell, noticing that the whole shop and the people around me were shaking too. The shaking stopped and we laughed off our embarrassment, nothing was broken as far as we could see. I wasn't thinking to remember it as a big event. It wasn't scary then. Some people went outside to see what was happening, but I quickly selected matching tea mugs for the couple and I paid for them, got out of the shop to walk to the bus stop and catch a matatu to Aunty Joy's Kinoo home.
Walking down to the bus stop I met people running away from town. This was not unusual. This thing happens in town where one person is running and then a mob follows with shouts of "mwizi! mwizi!"—but you can never tell who the real thief is. It is best to just avoid them. The runners increased and more of them had dust and blood stains on their heads and faces and on their clothes and legs. I decided to just hurry up and get out of town. At the bus stop I quickly found a matatu to get me home, but it was a strange time in the day, it was going to be a long wait for it to fill up with passengers and leave. People stared at the sky, pointing at thick black smoke that was rising up and blackening the skyline, "Ngai, hao walimu." Somebody groaned. Some women walked, lifting their skirts to keep them from brushing against their bloodied legs. Men and women walked, limped and ran with shoes in their hands. The crowd was growing. Others ran with handbags, briefcases or newspapers held over their heads. Some of them found their way to our bus stop and the matatu filled up. I sat at the third row and stared as the man beside me held his sickly nursery-school-age daughter whose dress was wet, presumably because she had urinated on herself.
As the matatu made its way out of town, he explained unprompted. "I had come to town with my daughter to see the doctor. We were walking to the clinic on Muindi Mbingu Street when we heard that explosion. She just urinated. I am telling you. " He continued, "She was screaming in a way that made me feel such pain." He shook his head and went on to say, "You know such things traumatize children..." He lifted her onto his lap and rocked her. After that other passengers speculated about what had caused the explosion. We thought it was the teachers. Even though it was not yet noon, the roads were suddenly filled with pedestrians, cars and buses trying to get out of town. Somebody scolded the driver for not having a radio in the matatu. We laughed when another passenger said to him, "Carry your own!"
I got to Aunty Joy's house to find a few relatives already gathered with lists of tasks in readiness for the big wedding feast. "Were you near the bomb?" Aunty Joy asked me. "No, Aunty. I didn't even know what it was until I was in the matatu." I told her about the child. She had the TV and the radio both on full blast, but it was only after we had late lunch that the news started coming in on television. The words AMATEUR VIDEO appeared in the screen alongside images of buildings, the shell of a burnt bus and people running and crying. Instead of the "made-up" real places abroad that we were used to seeing in movies, we were watching places I knew appearing as burning images as Kenyan-accented voices spoke to reporters. We had many relatives in town on wedding related errands. We could only wait for them to return. My older cousins Cosmas and Danson arrived in the evening with a bloodied pickup. Cosmas quickly reassured us that it was just the load he was carrying, several kilos of fresh raw beef, which had made the big mess. Watching them offload the raw meat from the pickup and carrying it to the kitchen, especially the way they struggled with it, reminded me of the bloody faced people running out of town. I hid in the bathroom until I was certain that they had finished.
The house was crowded uncles, aunties, the bridesmaids and the bride talking endlessly about hair, flowers, the church décor and undelivered invitations and unreliable suppliers. We received regular phone calls that came asking about our safety and other people's safety. Nobody knew anything about what was happening, even though we kept the television on, wishing we had more than one to watch the simultaneous (and very similar) slow updates on different channels. My cousins and I peeled onions and garlic, but I escaped to chopping the meat into smaller pieces. We washed dishes continuously but they piled up anyway. Esther rented her own small bedsitter and was getting married just a year after graduating from university. Esther's parents, Dad's cousins, didn't live in Nairobi and this is why Aunty Joy was hosting them. There wasn't enough space for everyone so only the bride could sleep properly, but this is normal. We were all together and I didn't mind.
The wedding was at sports club in Kiambu, the outskirts of Nairobi. We danced. The couple was alive. Esther and her bridesmaids were radiant in the blue and white themed outfits. There were late arrivals and early departures, but this was to be expected. We did hold a moment of silence for the victims of the bombing at the start of the wedding reception party. During the speeches, somebody told us that we should donate blood, but it was all blurred and in the middle of other speeches and our collective obsession with getting more than one piece of the wedding cake. Mum and Dad and my sister Eunice were fine. They were happy and though I had had fun spending time with my cousins, I declined Aunty Joy's invitation to sleepover for an extra day. I wanted to go home.
They kept saying that there were people alive underneath the collapsed buildings. We watched and read news reports about people talking and giving the volunteer rescuers hope that there were even more survivors. And then, just like that, all the unreached survivors died and it was time to go back to school for holiday classes. Everyone was late on that first day back because the bus stops in town had been rearranged to keep us away from the bombsite. Since Triza was my neighbor, we got lost in town together before finally finding our bus. Mrs. Oyoo came in to class and asked us to share our experiences. Angeline was the one with the most real life experiences to share. She told us about her uncle who died near the blast, she told us about another aunt who was recuperating at Kenyatta Hospital, and she told us about her neighbor who was missing. She listed people and people until even I started to think she was making things up. "Triza, why is she faking those stories?" I asked. "Kish, that is a sign of trauma. It is a coping mechanism." Triza replied. Triza was accumulating strange terminologies because her mum was a volunteer counselor for the victims of the bombing. Triza had started to believe that she was also an expert.
In church, we collected sodas and carried them to the families of bombing victims who were crowding outside the mortuary near our church. An unexpected power blackout meant that we could smell the stench of dead bodies from the gate. Our youth leader told us not to go into the mortuary compound. He told us that we would be traumatized. We left the soda bottles at the gate and waited for people to come and collect them and then return the bottles. We were scared of touching the bottles but he told us not to show it because that would add to the stress they had. Some of them were only going to receive a leg or a hand of their relatives if they were lucky. We carried the wooden crates with empty soda bottles away. This was our routine for a week.
Violet didn't come to school. Mrs. Oyoo told us she was getting private tuition at home. We studied hard to make up for all that time that had been wasted with the teachers' strike. KCSE was coming and we would be ready. We dissected and stamped past papers and revision textbooks inside our brains. Simply, it was like I had nine boyfriends named: Mathematics, English, Kiswahili, Geography, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Commerce. All of them wanted me. The holiday classes ended and then I had one more week at home before the whole school reopened, and I would go back this time to live as a boarder for my last time. Violet died that week.
Somewhere, between the striking and the bombing, when we were busy surviving, we had all missed seeing her name among the many death announcements in the newspaper. She had not been in town during the blast. This was the news that we got when we came into the school. Mary and Susan, along with Mrs. Oyoo, had already travelled all the way to Gilgil where Violet was going be buried during our first weekend in school. Even though it was only four hours away, Mrs. Kamau had decided that we couldn't all travel that long distance. She told our class that after the family returned to Nairobi we might go and visit them. I just kept thinking that Violet had never looked like she was about to die. Now she had ended as the girl with "Long illness bravely borne," while the rest of us were set to continue our all-rounded lives out there. Mrs. Kamau explained Violet had died of complications. "Complications" was all that we needed to know. I felt ashamed for all the times I had not prayed for her to get well. The school flag flew half-mast for the people we lost in the August 7 bombing and for an extra week for Violet.
We didn't visit Violet's parents. Mrs. Kamau told us that Violet's parents needed time to grieve. Mary and Susan came back with a copy of a funeral program from the funeral service in Gilgil. We all cried that Saturday night and on Sunday during the special service in school when we prayed for her. We had a few weeks left to the final exams and Mrs. Kamau and all the other teachers told us that the best thing we could do for Violet was to pass our exams and make it to University. Violet's parents sent us a big success card. Angeline stuck it on the class notice board. Some people who didn't know that Violet was dead also sent her cards. We gave them to Mrs. Kamau wondering how these strangers would ever find out about Violet.
Mary and Susan stopped sitting on what had always been their favorite spot behind the Form Three classrooms. "When we sit there, we keep expecting Violet to suddenly appear from home," Mary said. I wanted to say it was also strange to have an empty desk and chair for a desk mate and no chance of somebody else replacing her because it was too late to allow a new student into our class. I stopped studying at the stairs.
September ended and I did not feel ready. I prayed to God to forgive me for not praying hard enough for Violet. I asked him to bless our entire class with good exam results and I prayed for open doors in a university abroad. Out there, anywhere, would be good. At the end of October, the morning of our first exam, Mrs. Kamau and Mrs. Keya gave us sweets to suck on to keep us calm. Mrs. Kamau offered glucose for anyone who needed it, and then we held hands in a tight circle and prayed together. We walked into the exam room that was just as we had arranged it the previous day. Our desks were lined up in rows according to our student index numbers. There was an empty space for Student Index Number 76: Lagat, Violet Chepkurui. Mrs. Oyoo had asked us to move our desks to close that gap but Nduku screamed, "No!" and for once in the four years of her never-ending whining about everything, we had all sided with her. The rest of us, the remaining one hundred and nine of us, were all present for the first of our final exams.
Lutivini Majanja is from Nairobi, Kenya. Her writing has been published in Lawino Magazine, Jalada, Kwani?, McSweeney's, and The Golden Key.
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