The man who came to dinner
Our village was located in the middle of Nairobi in a middle class neighborhood. This was a village like no other because most of the kids had either lost one or both parents. We were orphans from all around the country, from the forty tribes of Kenya, all living together as a family… the only family we knew.
I was from the Meru tribe and my tribe was famous for having hot tempers. I have to admit that at the age of fourteen, I wasn’t the nicest boy on the block and I had pretty much beaten up every kid of my age or any boy who looked at my favorite small sister the wrong way. I was the baddest of the baddest. I wore my title like a crown and dared other kids to provoke my wrath. None did… except one.
His name was Otondi and he was from the Luo tribe. Luo natives are big in size and we always joked that they were born inside a gym and not in a hospital. Otondi’s case was strange because he was brought to the orphanage at the age of fourteen after his parents were taken away by disease. Most children in the village were usually brought in at an earlier age and most of us didn’t have memories of our past lives. But Otondi did.
He found me on the swings a few days later and told me to move. I refused and he pushed me to the ground with one hand. Steaming with anger, I jumped to my feet and turned to face him. He narrowed his eyes at me and dared me to make a move. I hesitated when I saw his balled up fist. The other kids held their breath and waited in anticipation. I didn’t want to be embarrassed and so I walked away.
Word spread around like a forest fire; my years of reign in the village were over. The rumor was distorted from one ear to the other … did you hear? … Mugo fled from the new boy… took off running like a little girl. The words were like nails to my coffin and I felt dejected. I walked with a bounce no more and the countenance on my face reflected a champion no longer. Otondi now patrolled the streets that I used to rule.
I always wondered why our village was surrounded by an electric fence. Was it to keep us in, or shield us from the outside world? I was curious. An electric fence in Africa?
One day, my sister and I walked through the soccer field and into the forest that defined the edge of the orphanage. We stood in the middle of the trees and stared at the electric fence, which sat at approximately six feet from the ground.
“No Mugo,” my sister said.
“I have to find out what’s on the other side Chebutso,” I said stubbornly. “They never allow us to leave the village.” The new boy had wounded my pride and I was beyond rational thinking.
We followed the electric fence down to a point where it made a ninety-degree corner and here I stepped on the wooded four by four beams anchored into the ground and vaulted over. I landed on the other side and a strange sense of freedom engulfed me.
I turned to my small sister. “Come on Chebutso, you can do it too!” She was only a year younger than I.
I held my breath and watched as Chebutso shakily climbed over the fence. For a moment, I thought she was going to be electrocuted but then she made it over and stood next to me trembling like a leaf.
“Let’s go back Mugo, we will get in trouble with the director.” Her voice shook with fear and I chose to ignore it.
I was in too deep. I led her through the shrubs and across the Nairobi River. We walked through a prairie and found ourselves in a lovely middle class neighborhood. The houses here were new town homes: white walls and red brick roofs. They looked gorgeous and children rode expensive bikes on the smoothly cemented sidewalks, under a gorgeous African sun.
Chebutso and I hid in the bushes, mesmerized as a man and woman walked out and hugged their kid. Then they all gave each other a group hug and walked hand in hand into the house. I didn’t need to look at my sister to know what she was thinking. So this is what a real family looks like? We envied them for what they had. They were living our dream… the dream of every orphan… a normal family, real parents and siblings… a BMW bicycle idling on the front lawn.
My sister Chebutso was from the Maasai tribe, and I was from Meru. My other brothers and sisters were from other tribes from all over the country. Every house in the village had approximately ten kids living under a guardian mother and we loved each other as a family. It was the only family we knew. We were unlike any other families around the world.
Chebutso and I jumped back over the fence and ran all the way home before our absence was noticed. Our hearts pounded with excitement at what we had just witnessed and we knew that we would talk about this incident for many days after.
That evening, we sat around the big table and mum told us that we were having a guest for dinner. She had made chapati our favorite dish with bean stew. All twelve eyes around the table widened with excitement when the man walked in. It wasn’t everyday that we received a visitor in the village. The security was tight and very few ‘outsiders’ were allowed through the main gate.
The man was of a medium built, disheveled face, old clothes and a limp of a walk. He opened his mouth to greet us and a slur of words poured out. He was drunk and I wondered why my mum was tolerating him.
“My name is Mugo and I am 14 years old,” I introduced myself. “I like to sing and read books.”
“My name is Chebutso and I am 13 years old. I like to read books and make hair.”
One by one we introduced ourselves and halfway through the ten kids, the man stifled a yawn. I looked at his hazy eyes and noticed that he was struggling to stay awake. Finally, my mum saved the day for him and allowed him to leave.
“Goobye Mr. Kipkemo, come back and visit us again!” We all intoned as the man beat a hurried retreat.
Strange, I thought.
“Children, I have something to tell you after dinner,” mum announced. We cleaned the table and attended to our kitchen duties and finally when everything was sparkling clean, we joined a pensive mum in the living room. The only TV in the orphanage was the one sitting in the village hall.
Mum looked into my sister’s eyes. “Chebutso, that was your real father who was here.” She dropped the bomb. The silence that followed was deafening. One could hear a pin drop from miles away. Mum continued. “Chebutso, tomorrow your father is coming to take you back to your real family.” Mum wiped down a single tear.
I didn’t understand her words, so I asked. “To visit?”
“No Mugo, for good. Chebutso will not be coming back?”
“What?” I yelled. “That’s not fair. Why now after thirteen years? Where has the dad been all these years? Chebutso is my sister, she can’t go! You can’t let her go mum!” The tears streaked down my face. I turned and looked at my sister and she only stared back at me with shocked eyes.
“I’m sorry Mugo,” my mum said. “Chebutso’s dad showed up with court papers. There is nothing we can do.”
I felt my world crumbling around me. I was in a dark tunnel with no exit. This was a nightmare that I needed to wake up from.
The lights in the orphanage went out at 9pm. At 10pm that night, I lay in my bed and listened to Mum’s thudding footsteps as she stomped around the house making her rounds. I heard the door to my bedroom creak open and the light flicker on. I knew that she was counting us. Another flickering noise, and she was gone.
At 10.30pm, I heard another softer sound pudding on the floor and without looking I knew it was my sister. She didn’t bother to turn on the lights, as we knew our way around the house blindfolded: the position of every furniture, wardrobes, toys and clothes on the floor.
“Mugo,” my sister whispered. “I can’t sleep.”
“Jump in Chebutso,” I said as I moved over. The bed sheets rustled as we made ourselves comfortable.
“I’m scared Mugo. I’m scared of tomorrow.” She hadn’t said much since the visitor had left. “I don’t want to go.”
I felt my emotions stir. This situation was beyond my realm of problems. Fighting other boys I could handle, but this …
“Maybe your family is rich,” I said as the image of her drunken dad flashed through my mind. It was highly unlikely. “Maybe, you will have your own room and a bicycle in the front lawn.”
“Will I see you again Mugo?” Chebutso asked with a sob and I knew that she was crying.
“Yes Chebutso. I will come and see you. I promise.”
I reached out and took her hand, and finally next to each other, we fell asleep, our dreams marred with melancholy: our faces defined by streaks of dried up tears.
The following day at exactly 2pm, Chebutso’s dad showed up at the village’s gate driving an old Volkswagen, which we loaded with her clothes and personal effects. More children from other houses showed up to see Chebutso off and there was a lot of crying. I didn’t cry until she boarded the brown van and ran to the back window. The van began to glide away and I ran after it waving and crying. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and placed the small of her palm against the glass, and I knew that her heart was just as broken as mine. The van drove through the black gates and I stood there and listened as the sound of the engine vanished in the distance. Reality kicked in; my sister was gone! I turned and walked back to the other children tears streaming down my face.
Laughter. I looked up suddenly. It was Otondi the new big kid … laughing. I didn’t know whether he was laughing at me or something else, but it ticked me that anybody could be happy at a time like this … it stirred me to belligerency, and the other kids parted way as I launched for him. Big mistake for me. Otondi’s reflexes were sharp. Boy was he fast! A fist landed on my jaw just as I reached him. I froze midair and waited for the pain, but before it kicked in, adrenaline pushed me forward and my hands went around his waist and we both flew through the air, landing with I on top. I punched him blindly and he reached out feebly to protect his face. I saw blood on my fist and I punched again. He screamed in pain.
Suddenly, someone grabbed me and I turned like Muhammed Ali and punched without thinking. It was my mum! I caught her in the face and she reeled backwards and almost fell. I gasped and stared in disbelief. My hands were grabbed and held from behind by a big man and without looking I knew that it was the director of the village. He spun my body and slapped me on the face. His hands covered not only my face but also my ears and I felt the world swimming around me.
“You think you are bad, ha? I’m tired of your nonsense and indiscipline!” the director yelled as he led me away. I couldn’t see where we were going but as soon as I heard the keys shuffling I knew… the black hole next to the office!
The black hole was a tiny storage room without windows, the size of two people. It was originally meant to be a storage facility but the director had turned it into an oubliette, a place of forgetting. The room didn’t have a light switch; it was pitch black.
“You like to beat on women ha?” The director yelled in an angry voice. He left and came back two minutes later with an electric iron box code which he curled around his right hand and held like a whip. I couldn’t see what he was doing but I knew as soon as the code landed on my bare legs. Whoosh! It hurt badly and the fact that I wore shorts didn’t help either. I bit my lips and the code landed on my legs again. Whoosh!
“You like to beat on women?” His voice was rigid and patronizing. The director gasped for air and after the fifth lash, I screamed out “No!” as the pain stitched across my body.
The sound of my pain only seemed to invigorate him and he whipped me harder. “Do you know what they do to men who beat on women?”
“Nooooo!” I screamed, “It was an accident!” I touched my legs and felt the zebra line swellings where the whip had landed. I balled up into the corner like a hedgehog and cried like a little girl. Finally, when he was done and satisfied by my screams, I heard the key turn in the outside lock and then he was gone. Silence… darkness. I held my breath and prayed that he would not come back. My muscles twitched with fear… recognition of my own limitations. Luckily for me, he didn’t return and I cried copiously out of relief. I was but a shadow of my old self. When I woke up, I didn’t know whether it was day or night but I was terribly hungry. My stomach was talking to me and I grumbled in pain. But still, no food came. Then I remembered my sister and the tears came flowing back. I remembered her scared look as we jumped over the electric fence and my assurance to her that she would be okay. Now, with her gone, I wondered who would protect her fragile innocence. I missed her already. I felt like the bottom had dropped from my murky world. Where are you Chebutso?
The door finally opened and I shielded my swollen eyes as light streaked into the room… a flashlight. It was night. An endearing voice.
“Oh, you poor little thing, what have they done to you?”
I jumped to my feet when I heard the refreshing voice. It was a voice that warmed my heart immensely. It was my music teacher Mrs. Britney. She led me out of the dark room and into the light where she inspected my swollen legs and applied antiseptic to my bruises. She wiped the dried blood from my face and gave me a glass of water. She was a white lady from Europe and I looked at her with anticipation… white folks always had candy in their pockets. And boom! There it was! I grabbed the KitKat bar and took a hefty bite into it, pulling out the wrapping through the sides of my mouth. The tremor in my hands was gone.
“Go easy Mugo, you will choke yourself.” Her voice was soft and reassuring. Her yellow dress matched with her blonde hair. She always complained about how hot Africa was.
The time was 10pm at night. I had been locked up for eight hours.
“Don’t worry Mugo,” Mrs. Britney said. “I will talk to the director. This nonsense has to stop!” I believed her. White folks did not beat their children. But African parents lived by one code and one code only… spare the rod and spoil the child.
Mrs. Britney placed her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “I promise you Mugo that this will never happen again.”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am.” She ruffled my hair lovingly.
“We have visitors tomorrow,” she said in a businesslike tone. “They are coming all the way from Europe to hear you sing. Go home now Mugo, eat and get some sleep.” She hugged me and then said. “Nakupenda sana. I love you very much.”
I scampered off through the dark night. I was happy that I would get to sing in front white people. I finished my chocolate before I entered the house. I did not want to share it with anybody else.
The following day, we stood on stage in an ornate hall that was full to capacity: euphoric tourists, donors and philanthropists; for some, an innate calling, for others, a need to do good in the world. Folks stood in the back and in the doorways, anxious for a glimpse of entertainment.
White people. Definition… people with a lot of money!
Mrs. Britney had taught us how to sing and we had spent late nights practicing ‘The Sound of Music’. I led my group in the performance.
The white folks giddily applauded when it was over and the women had tears in their eyes. They were glad to be in Africa… to finally meet us… to look into our eyes and tell us that we were loved. We didn’t really understand why they were so emotional. They empathized with us and what we had been through. Some of us had been abandoned by our real parents; some of us had lost our parents to disease and accidents. The visitors knew our stories and they cried at the sight of our fragile innocence.
“The children are so beautiful!” they exclaimed after the concert and they walked around and shook our hands. “You have a beautiful voice!” they told me. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a musician ma’am.”
“Just keep singing like that child and you never know. The sky is the limit.”
“Yes ma’am. Ah, thank you ma’am.” White folks smiled a lot. And they smelled really good.
“Ooooh, isn’t he the cutest thing ever!” The visitors told the director.
“He is a very very wonderful boy!” The director said with a deep African accent as he shook their hands. But, you haven’t seen him fight yet! His title revered him and the thought of all the donation money that would flow into the village made his eyes glow.
The visitors left and life went back to normal. The distraction did me some good and took my mind off more precarious thoughts… like burning down the director’s house or killing his dogs.
I thought about my sister and missed her. Would I ever get to see her again?
At 11pm that night, I crept out through the window and climbed down the wall using the plumbing pipes. A pale moon and no stars defined the warm African night. Both feet on the ground, I listened and watched until I saw what I was looking for… the bright beam of a flashlight. The night patrol: one guard and a German shepherd dog … to protect the children.
The director had installed check in clocks for the guard to prevent him from sleeping. These clocks were strategically nailed on trees at ranges of approximately a quarter of a mile. If the guard didn’t check in then his office would know that something was wrong.
I watched as the guard led the big dog into the opposite direction towards the forest and I knew that he was aiming for the clock near the soccer field. I ran in the opposite direction and headed for the director’s office. All I had was ten minutes, and a forlorn quest. It was all I needed. Crowbar in hand, I broke the window and jumped inside the office. The alarms went off immediately and I subconsciously covered my ears and turned on the lights. There was work to be done. I ran into the secretary’s office and rampaged through the drawers looking for something.
“Come on!” I yelled to no one in particular. “Oh God, please let me find it!” My hands moved fast as I threw papers and binders to the floor.
Footsteps outside. A voice through the window. “Hey you, what are you doing? Unafanya nini?”
I didn’t bother to look up. I knew that I had five minutes before the director showed up with the keys. The guard yelled into my deaf ears. There! I saw it just as the keys turned in the door.
Hands grabbed me and I heard the director’s voice yelling. “What in the world are you doing Mugo! Are you out of your mind?”
I closed my eyes and shut his voice out. I shut them all out and all I could hear were their murmuring voices. They sounded so far away and I liked it that way. I was there, but then again, I wasn’t.
“That’s it,” the director said. “Call the cops. You are a bad influence to the other kids and a threat to the society. I have had enough of you.” He turned again and yelled, “call the cops now!”
The word police brought me back to the present and suddenly I was scared. This wasn’t going to end up the way I had imagined. I had pictured myself back in the black hole, but Cops? Cops? Really? I tried to stand up but they pinned me down to the ground aware that I would try to run. I felt like I was playing catch 22.
Catch 22. Definition simplified… a paradoxical situation in which an individual is incapable of avoiding problems.
It took the cops three hours to make a fifteen-mile commute. The director was steaming by the time they arrived. “We couldn’t get a ride,” the policemen apologized. The African police stations were known to be ill equipped and this was not uncommon.
They threw me in the back of a white van and my eyes searched desperately for Mrs. Britney, the white lady. But she wasn’t there. I promise you Mugo that this will never happen again. I love you very much.
“Mrs. Britney, heeeelp! Heeelp!” I yelled at the top of my voice and my cries echoed through the dark night. Mrs. Britney? But Mrs. Britney wasn’t there at a time when I needed her most. The policemen laughed and called me ‘very foolish’.
The van exited the orphanage and I stared through the back window as my village faded behind me. I had a feeling that I would never see my home again, and for the first time ever, I thought about my real mum and wondered why she had abandoned me at the hospital after carrying me for nine months. What crime had I committed? How had I wronged her? It didn’t matter now. I was officially a persona non grata in the world.
To be continued…
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...