Nderitu woke up at 8am on Saturday morning and forced himself out of bed. Given the chance, he would have stayed in bed much longer but that would only come at a cost. Missing breakfast was not a punishable offence but he needed the energy for the chores that awaited the boys.
Mathari Orphanage had boys of all ages ranging between 3 years to 16; a few rough-looking types and a handful of the ordinary kind. All the boys lived in a boarding school environment and answered to specific guidelines that governed their lives. Breakfast was at 8, lunch at 12.30pm and dinner at 6. Lights-out was at 9pm without fail and all doors were locked from inside after a head count by the matron.
There were approximately fifty boys at Mathari Orphanage living under a white director’s rule, counselors and matrons. The quality of life offered was convenient for orphaned boys and the food was actually an improvement on what the villages offered. There was bread for breakfast and scrambled eggs on a daily basis. The cooks were natives who had attended chef classes. They were always nice and sympathetic to the boys’ plight.
The buildings in the orphanage stood old, with wooden walls and metal sheet rooftops. Immediately after entering the gate was an old office building hosting the director, his secretary and a dispensary for the boys. To the right was the director’s house right past a huge elevated water tank that supplied all the buildings. Past the office was a playground followed by several dormitories where the boys slept. According to the director who was from Norway, revenue from donations would soon forge way for more permanent structures. In the meantime, the boys should be grateful because God was still able to provide them with food, clothing, shelter and education.
At the age of almost twelve, Nderitu was a strong lad, ready to take up his responsibilities in a man’s world. Every Saturday morning after breakfast, and on days when there was no school, the boys worked in the gardens planting, weeding and tilling the soil. The gardens were located behind the houses, rich with maize, cabbages, spinach, carrots and onions amongst other food products. The coffee plantation ran all the way down to the river where the boys ventured once in a while to swim. It was by the river where sparse trees could be found, a prelude to the Aberdares forest a distant away.
Working in the gardens was more than just a chore. The boys had a chance to discover themselves; know their strength and identify their weaknesses. While boys shoveled manure into wheelbarrows, others picked up trash scattered around the houses. Some boys finished their allocated jobs faster than others, and acquired bragging rights as a result of it. Boys who needed help to finish their duties were frowned down upon.
Every once in a while, the director would pass by with his small dog and monitor progress like a prison warden. His real name was Mr. Christopher although everybody including the workers referred to him as ‘The Director’. Mr. Christopher told the boys that it was the Kikuyu culture for boys to work in the gardens while girls helped their mothers doing house chores. The boys feared the director because he liked to pull ears, and so they avoided him and tried to stay out of trouble.
Like the time Nderitu woke up late and missed breakfast. Someone told Mr. Christopher and Nderitu spent two good days hiding and making sure that their paths didn’t cross. But one day, Nderitu absent-mindedly walked out of the granary only to meet face to face with the white man. First, he smelled the white man’s perfume, but before he could turn and run, the director’s brown dog appeared and started barking at his feet.
“John Nderitu?” the Director said with a frown, looking at the young boy over his reading glasses. “What did you do?”
“Nothing sir.” Nderitu’s legs shook and his palms sweated. The small dog was still barking around him and he was afraid it would bite him. There were almost fifty boys in the orphanage and it was amazing how the director knew every face and name.
“Yes. You did something,” the Director said, his face quickly changing from white to pink. Movement. His right hand grabbed at the small boy’s ears and pulled hard.
It hurt and Nderitu’s ears had never felt so hot.
“I want you to empty all the trash bins in the orphanage as your punishment,” the Director said as he released the boy. “And you can start with mine.”
Nderitu turned and took off running, the dog barking after him. His ears would smell like expensive perfume for the next few hours and the other boys would laugh at him.
The day was Tuesday, the time 5pm when Nderitu arrived at Mr. Christopher's house. The house stood alone by the fence with a concrete floor and wooden walls. Of all its magnificent beauty, it was the grass and bed of flowers that made the home look beautiful. Nderitu walked up to the front door and was about to ring the bell when he remembered that the trash bin was in the back yard next to the kitchen. There was no fence around the house, but the green grass circled the home and outlined the boundaries. Nderitu hesitated before stepping on the well-trimmed grass. He marveled as the sprinklers came on in a rotation motion. He watched them for a minute and noticed the soccer ball and toys on the grass.
“Hi!” A tiny voice suddenly called forcing him to whirl.
It was a small white boy, almost the same age as he. He was smiling and wore beach shorts with no shirt on. The skin on his chest was white in a distractive kind of way.
“Hello,” Nderitu greeted. “I’m sorry to bother you. The Director told me to come and empty your trash."
“It’s over here,” the boy said with a pointing finger. “My name is Alex. Who are you?”
Nderitu stopped walking and faced the boy. The boy’s English was different, not British; a strange accent. “My name is John Nderitu.”
“It’s nice to meet you John. I’m glad my father sent you here. I never get to see anybody and am not allowed to go out and play. My dad says it’s not safe.”
Nderitu felt sorry for the boy and understood why he had never met him. Alex was the Director’s son. He had seen the mum a few times because the Director’s wife ran the village dispensary. But he had never imagined the existence of a son.
“Where do you go to school?” Nderitu asked.
“Far from here. A car picks me up every morning and drops me off late in the afternoon. It’s a private school and most of my classmates are international children; sons
and daughters of government officials and other expatriates."
It sounded like another world to Nderitu and he looked intrigued. “Were you born in this country? In Kenya?”
“Yes,” the boy said with a proud face. “I was born in Kenya but my dad says that I will eventually go to school in Norway where my relatives are.”
“You have to take a plane?”
“Yes, and fly across the ocean.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. Nderitu liked the boy and wished he could stay and talk some more. “I hope I will see you again soon. I can practice my english with you.”
“I hope so too John. Maybe we can be friends.”
“Yes. But don’t tell your father because he will not approve.” Nderitu managed a wink.
“I swear I won’t.” Alex looked pleased to have made a friend. “Do you want help with the trash?”
Nderitu walked over to the bin and pulled out the black trash bag that was full. “No thanks. I can do it.” He swung the bag on his back and turned to leave.
“See you Alex.”
“See you John.”
The bag of trash wasn’t very heavy. Nderitu walked around the house to the front. When he looked back, Alex was still following him with his eyes. They waved at each other one last time before Nderitu hurried towards the damping place.
Other than the hard labour and a sergeant of a director, life at Mathari Orphanage was okay. The food was good and once, every three months, boys were allowed to grab new clothes from the pile sitting in the office behind a door labelled ‘Donations’. There was no pocket money but boys were allowed to pack snacks for lunch at school. These lunches included amongst fruits, sweet potatoes and different kinds of edible roots. Most boys missed their villages, but they did not run away because of a guaranteed life at Mathari Orphanage. Every boy had the same dream that one day their parents would find them and take them to a magical home where they would have real brothers and sisters, and a beautiful house. But those were just dreams because most of the parents were dead.
So was life at Mathari Orphanage. The world around Nderitu had changed and he was forced to change with it. Most afternoons when there was no school, the younger boys played on the swings while the older ones kicked a soccer ball around. Nderitu for some reason enjoyed the company of the older boys and they encouraged him to join in. One boy though wasn’t too kin on playing with a boy so much younger. His name was Gikandi, and he had a mean streak about him. One day, Nderitu tackled him from behind as he was dribbling the ball and Gikandi fell down face first. The fifteen year old rose with an open palm and tried to slap Nderitu, but the younger boy saw it coming and ducked. Gikandi missed and someone laughed. This made Gikandi angrier but before he could lounge for Nderitu, a burly boy named Kamandu stepped in between them.
“Easy there Gikandi, he’s just a kid,” Kamandu said trying hard not to laugh. Gikandi had just been embarrassed by a smaller boy and was eager to even out the scores.
“That was a foul!” Gikandi yelled. “He could have hurt me badly.”
“But he didn’t,” Kamandu said. “So we play on, and you get the ball.” Kamandu was the oldest boy in the orphanage at the age of sixteen and nobody picked a fight with him for fear of being humiliated.
Giving Gikandi the ball calmed things down a little. His, was the behavior of a wounded man, and a sportsman who took the game to heart too much. In the end, it was mostly supposed to be about having fun.
Gikandi took the ball and mumbled a final insult. “I don’t even know why we are playing with a kehee!”
Nderitu heard the words and felt his blood go cold. A kehee was an uncircumcised boy and it was the worst insult a boy could get in the Kikuyu tribe. Nderitu moved so fast that Gikandi never had a chance to react. He lowered his head and rushed the older boy. A flash of panic crossed Gikandi’s eyes as he realized what was happening. The soccer ball fell from his hands and Gikandi was just beginning to clench a fist when Nderitu’s head rammed into his crotch. The older boy staggered backwards… stunned by impact, the wind knocked out of his lungs.
“I’m not a kehee!” Nderitu shouted, eyes bloodshot like an animal.
The silence that followed was one where the boys stared, frozen in the moment as though waiting for something to happen. Gikandi’s knees buckled and his hand searched around as though to grasp something for support. But there was nothing and so he dropped on one knee and raised pained eyes. “I will kill you for this!” But he could not move due to the pain.
“You shouldn’t have called him that,” Kamandu said in a voice full of authority. “He is one of the few kids in the orphanage circumcised at birth. He’s a man. It’s disrespectful to call him anything less.”
The support from Kamandu and the glimmer of admiration in the eyes of the other boys gave Nderitu a much needed courage. He puffed out his chest and glared at a much shriveled Gikandi. The boys would tell and retell this story for many days ahead.
Lights out at the orphanage was at 9pm and the boys whispered in their beds late into the night. The topics ranged from the day’s events to girls, whom the boys met on their way to school.
“Who would you rather have sex with,” one boy joked. “A teacher or a banker?”
“I don’t know,” someone said. “Who would you choose?”
“A teacher definitely.”
“Why a teacher and not a banker?”
“Because every time you are about to have sex, a banker will say, ‘Let’s get this over with so we can go to the next meeting’.”
The boys would laugh and then ask. “What would a teacher say?”
“Same thing they say in class, ‘Okay, if we don’t get this right this time, we have to keep trying until we do’.”
All the boys agreed that sex with a teacher was better.
Nderitu shared a room with nine other boys. The spring beds were lined against the walls with gray and brown blankets that screamed badly for a wash. While the boys talked about girls, Nderitu took time to think about his sisters and wonder where they were. Now, more than ever, he realized how happy they had been when their father had been around. It had felt like a home and now living in an orphanage made him miss it a lot. There was so much wreckage in Nderitu’s eyes; so much disappointment and sorrow. He had let them down as an older brother. He tried to wish away the thought in the hope that it would ease some of the pain he felt that was eating his insides. But the bottom line was that his sisters were gone and he had no idea where.
Nderitu took in a deep breath and forced himself to abandon the self-pity that threatened to drag him down. But the pain searing in his mind wouldn’t go away at the thought of his sisters, young and vulnerable. While Wairimu had a strong beauty, Wangechi was sweet, innocent and warm. And then there was baby Wanjiru, tiny and innocent with glowing eyes that wanted to see everything. Nderitu missed them all and wished he could see them again.
Ever since arriving at the orphanage a few months ago, he had thought about Wanjiru being adapted by a new mother. Mrs. Susan had slipped and mentioned her name. Cucu wa Wadobi. The name sounded familiar and Nderitu remembered hearing the name from somewhere. Cucu wa Wadobi had been his mother’s friend and that was probably why she was taking Wanjiru. If this was true then Nderitu had a feeling that he knew where Wanjiru was, and it wasn’t far from his father’s home.
“What do you think about her?” Someone was asking him. “Nderitu? You asleep? You are very quiet.”
“I’m awake.” The lights were out, and the room was a lot more silent as boys started falling asleep. “Who are you talking about?”
“Nyokabi. Skinny girl with a pretty face. We met her going to school a few days ago.”
“She’s alright,” Nderitu said.
“She’s alright? Men, she was hot!”
Nderitu smiled and turned away, ready to get some serious sleep. She remembered Nyokabi very well: her dazzling smile and dancing eyes, the way her hips moved when she walked. But it wasn’t Nyokabi who occupied her sleeping thoughts, it was his sisters whom he missed a lot. Nderitu fell asleep to the sound of whispering and the image of his sisters at play. He relaxed his body and felt himself drifting away. It was why the boys struggled to wake up for school in the morning, nobody really slept at 9pm.
That night, two gunshot reports echoed outside and woke up the whole orphanage. Nderitu sat up and heard the sound of pounding footsteps. One boy ran over and cracked a window open while a few other boys hid under the protection of their blankets.
“What is it?” Nderitu whispered from his bed.
The boy’s reply came shaken. “I ...I can see shadows moving… it...it looks like a man. Oh my gosh, there’s two more carrying rifles!”
At these words, Nderitu threw away his blanket and ran over to join the boy by the window. Two seconds later he exclaimed. “It’s Mau Mau rebels. Whatever you do, don’t open the door! Close the window, quickly!”
The name Mau Mau brought real fear into the room and Nderitu felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle. He stared through the window in disbelief as men in long hair
ran by. He didn’t know it, but his mind was already recording this extraordinary moment in time that he already knew was a historical event.
The boys closed the window and jumped back on their beds shaking. A few covered their heads while others like Nderitu stared at the locked door and willed it to stay closed. It did on this night.
The sound of a war cry pierced the night followed by two more gunshots, and then…silence. Not a creature stirred in the night.
“I think they are gone,” Nderitu whispered. His, was the advantage of a boy who had gone through the ordeal before. He ran over to the window and cracked it open and sure enough all was quiet. A light came on and then another. Shortly after, a man appeared carrying a hurricane lamp. Nderitu ran towards the door.
“Don’t open the door!” a boy cried in a quivering voice.
“It’s okay,” Nderitu said in a calm voice. “The Mau Mau are gone. The director and a few other men are standing outside.
The damage by the Mau Mau rebels was not as bad as the scare. The gardens had been harvested, and cabbages, carrots and onions taken. Potatoes had been dug out of the ground, bundles of raw bananas dropped from branches and fruits plucked from trees. A generator was missing from the barn. The ordeal only worked to explain how organized the Mau Mau was in their fight for independence. They killed when and whom they chose, they raided villages and farms for supplies when they ran out. But from life’s experience, Nderitu felt afraid and wondered what the Mau Mau would take on their next visit.
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...