The bus roared down the dirt road and winded around remote country. I watched the small huts streak by, the goats and cows grazing in the grass. Not every Kikuyu had lost land to the British. A few were living their lives in fear but unscathed. They operated small farms and mostly grew crops for food.
Inside the bus, the Sisters sat quietly, the excitement on their faces the only betrayal of how self-conscious they felt going into the outside world. They were dressed in the white habits and looked very angelic. It was the image they wanted to portray if they were to reach people with the gospel of Christ.
Beside me, Wairimu pointed at a half-naked boy riding a donkey and we both giggled. Someone cleared her throat and without looking we knew it was Sister Margaret. It was a warning and in my head I heard her voice saying, ‘Wangechi, if I hear one more word from you…’
We were going to see our brother and could hardly wait. It had been a long time and I couldn't conjure the sound of his laughter in my head. It bothered me because I could still hear my father whistling and singing after drinking his mauratina brew.
Half an hour later, the bus drove through the gate of Mathari Boys Orphanage and came to an abrupt stop in front of the office. Wairimu and I half-rose from our seats and searched outside for our brother, but the only person we saw was a white man in reading glasses holding a small boy’s hand.
The Sister’s started filing out of the bus and we followed them. Outside, each of the Sisters shook the white man’s hand with a lot of respect. That’s how I knew he was important. He wore the position of power very well. That, and the smile that didn’t reach his eyes. This man did not laugh much I could tell.
“My name is Mr. Christopher and am the Director of this orphanage. What’s your name little girl?”
His big hand swallowed mine. “Grace Wangechi,” I said in a trembling voice.
“It is nice to meet you Grace. Say hello to my son Alex.”
Alex smiled at me and I thought he looked beautiful. I wanted to say something nice but I didn't trust my English and so I smiled back. Wairimu introduced herself and we moved along.
Mr. Christopher gave us a small tour of the orphanage mostly concentrating on the young boys below the age of ten. There were a few of them living in a small facility with tiny rooms. The Sisters mingled with them, carrying some on their laps and playing peek-a-boo with others. I watched as Sister Elizabeth picked up a small boy above her head. She brought him down to her laps and the boy squealed in delight. "Again, again! Do it again!"
Another three-year-old boy tried to do a cartwheel and a Sister caught him before he fell. The room was filled with the sound of giggling and laughing.
Afterwards, we gathered the boys around, handed out soccer shorts and candy to each, and they loved it. The children were very happy, and we got a lot of hugs. Soon it was time for Mass and none of the Sisters wanted to go.
“Girls?” Sister Elizabeth called. “You must stay very close. The Mass will be held in the mess, where the boys eat their meals. All the Sisters will be busy ushering, singing and helping with the service. You will seat near me so I can keep an eye on you. Do you understand?”
“Yes Sister,” I said.
“Yes Sister,” Wairimu added.
“Good.” Sister Elizabeth looked pleased. “Remember to smile please. These boys have been through a lot and most of them have lost their parents. We will dedicate them to God and pray that they become the future leaders of this great country.”
I wanted to remind Sister Elizabeth that our brother was here, but I didn’t. Something I couldn’t explain made me stop. Our brother had always told us what to do after the death of our father. And now being here at the orphanage, it was as though I could feel his presence, and it gave me peace.
Nderitu sat inside the mess very tense as the Sisters filed in led by a Father and an altar boy. The Father wore a purple robe while the Sisters were dressed in white. It wasn’t why Nderitu was tense though. The reason was the two girls sitting in the front row of the hall. His two sisters, Wairimu and Wangechi.
He had seen them walk in before the Sisters and had wanted to run over and hug them. But he hadn’t because Mr. Christopher had appeared behind the Sisters. It had been months since he had last seen his sisters and it felt surreal at the moment. The last time he had seen them had been with Mrs. Susan and he had not known where they had been taken. It made sense now to see them amongst the Sisters.
The room was packed with all fifty boys and somehow they had managed to stay quiet. Maybe it had something to do with the Sisters or the frequent glances the director cast in the boys’ direction. The front of the mess had been set up with long tables covered with white pristine clothes to act as an altar. Mass started with prayers led by the Father. The Sisters responded and a few boys who had been brought up Catholic helped with the responses. There was music and dancing in moderation. The mood lightened and the boys seemed to enjoy themselves.
“Brethren,” the Father said, clasping his hands in front of his chest. “Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”
A brief pause for silence followed before the congregation started reciting together.
“I confess to the Almighty God
And to you, my brothers and sisters
That I have greatly sinned,
In my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”
And striking their breast.
“Through my fault, through my fault,
Through my most grievous fault;
Therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
All the Angels and Saints,
And you my brothers and sisters,
To pray for me to the Lord our God.”
The Father made a sad face. “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”
To the very front left, Nderitu watched the director and his son Alex. It was the first time he had seen them together in public and the image of Mr. Christopher as a father was hard to grasp. A part of Nderitu knew that his friendship with Alex was doomed by the divide enforced by his father and race, and ultimately Alex would become the 'remember him' boy.
“We are blessed today to have this fellowship with our Mathari Boys’ family,” the Father said. “May this service be a blessing to all, and may God’s spirit come down and bless his children.”
When the people stood up again, Nderitu made his way down the pew and hurried to the front. By the time the people were sitting, he had arrived at his destination and was gasping for breath.
All the Sisters sat together in the front rows of the church and it was mostly because of the singing. We sat amongst them in the same pew as Sister Elizabeth and joined them in the familiar songs.
At one point, I looked up from my hymn book and saw a shadow beside me. I looked again and gasped in disbelief. “Nderitu?”
“Yes. Hi Wangechi. I didn’t expect to see you guys here.”
We hugged quickly and tears poured down my face. Conscious of where we were, I released him and watched him reach across and hug Wairimu. They held tight for a brief moment before he rushed back beside me. I looked up and saw Sister Elizabeth watching with a frown. I could tell by her eyes that she remembered now that my brother lived in this orphanage.
“You may be seated,” the Father said and we all obeyed.
It was unbelievable to have Nderitu with us after so long. So much had changed and we had lived in a convent for many months. Life as we had known it in the village had ceased to exist and seeking God had become our new life. I glanced at him again. He was wearing brown pants and a shirt tucked in. I thought he looked like a man and I liked that.
“I was so worried,” Nderitu whispered. “I didn’t know where they took you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We always knew where you were and were excited when they told us we were coming here.”
Wairimu could only smile and make sentimental faces at Nderitu since she was too far. I raised my eyes again and saw Sister Elizabeth place a finger to her lips.
“I want to go home,” I suddenly said turning to my brother. The moment was impulsive and the words poured out of me. I had not planned for this but all along I had known. I loved the Sisters and the religious lifestyle, but I missed the freedom of the outside world. I missed the laughter of the old men and the cursing of the old women. I missed the gossip of teenagers and rolling in the dirt.
Nderitu looked into my eyes and saw it too; the security of being at home that we all longed for. He looked at Wairimu and she too nodded in agreement. We all wanted to go home, and feel like a family again.
“Ok,” Nderitu said, taking charge like expected. “Meet me outside the gate after the service. We can’t go back to our father’s home, but I think I know where they took our little sister Wanjiru. We can go there. It’s not far from where we grew up.”
Wairimu and I beamed with joy. The thought of going home and seeing Wanjiru again pumped adrenaline through my veins and I couldn’t wait. The first thing I would do would be to climb up a plum tree and eat my heart out, and then I would go to the river for a swim and then… The list was endless.
The congregation stood up and I watched Nderitu sneak away. I wanted to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.
“The mystery of faith,” the Father said and the church replied.
“We proclaim your death, O Lord,
And profess your resurrection
Until you come again.”
Nderitu did not make it back to his original seat. As he was walking down the side aisle, a hand grabbed his and pulled him inside the pew. It was Kamandu. Nderitu looked up startled and then quickly recovered. He started clapping his hands and pretended to join the congregation in song and dance.
Kamandu leaned over and whispered into his ears. “It’s happening tonight,” he said. “Tonight, we become men! Samuel 17:46.”
The tone made Nderitu’s blood go cold. He nodded as though he understood, but everything was happening too quickly and felt fuzzy. First his sisters, and now this. Tonight we become men! What did that even mean? They had taken an oath and the Mau Mau was supposed to come back and get them when the time was right. Was it time? Was the Mau Mau coming tonight?
“Lamb of God,” the Father said. “You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us and grant us peace.”
It wasn’t a perfect Mass and Nderitu hardly focused on what was going on. He thought about the verse Kamandu had given him and wondered what it said. There were no offerings collected from the boys and none of them was baptized to take the sacrament. The Father made due with the situation and blessed the boys by sprinkling holy water on them.
After the preaching, Sister Elizabeth stood up and made the announcements. He promised the boys to return and fellowship with them again; he prayed that they would grow up to be God fearing people.
"I have two little girls with me here today who would love to sing a song for you, and warm your souls." The congregation laughed. It was the way she said it, with a light touch and what looked like a wink.
I followed my sister Wairimu to the front feeling very nervous. There were so many boys in the room and I hadn't seen boys in a while. I feared they were looking at my hair, or shoes, or not liking something about me. We stood in front of the room and waited while Sister Elizabeth moved the microphone closer.
"This song was taught to us by Sister Elizabeth," Wairimu said. "I hope you like it."
We paused and took in a deep breath. One could hear a pin drop in the hall and all eyes focused on us. The sound of music flowed from our mouths and filled the air, and suddenly my nerves eased up. I smiled and sang my heart out, and so did Wairimu. Somewhere in the middle of the song, the Sisters joined in and we filled the room with our beautiful voices.
Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom
Bloom and grow forever
Bless my homeland forever
The mess exploded with murmuring voices and clapping after the song was over. It was a magical moment for me and I saw something different in the boys' eyes afterwards. There was joy in those eyes; a rare sight in a time of war. I was glad I had reached their lives.
"You girls were wonderful!" the Sisters said and shook our hands as we filed out of the mess. We searched for Sister Elizabeth and hugged her for a long time. She had taught us the song and many things about life.
Nderitu walked out, his feelings ambivalent as to what he was supposed to do. He had listened to his sisters singing and his heart had filled with pride; and the words in the song had found a home in his heart. Maybe his sisters belonged in the convent. Running away with them suddenly felt like an enormous undertaking. It was what he wanted, he realized, but maybe it was not what was best for them.
He watched as Wairimu and Wangechi headed towards the office. He saw them hesitate when they thought they were being watched. Everybody was pre-occupied: the director was shaking the Father’s hand, the Sisters were ruffling the boys’ heads and personally blessing them. Nderitu’s heart warmed when he saw the director’s son Alex. He was standing next to his father, staring at boys his age with a lot of curiosity. It was obvious he wasn’t exposed to natives by the strange look in his eyes. Nderitu wanted to go and say hello but he knew that there was no time and the director would not approve of it. He ran towards the office instead and then through the slightly opened gate. Wairimu and Wangechi were hiding behind a bush waiting for him.
Watching our brother Nderitu coming to find us was an exhilarating feeling. It was what I had dreamt of – a window of happiness, reclaiming a sense of control in our lives. Once more we hugged and this time managed a squeal or two. Wairimu was the strong one, and didn’t cry. I was moved to tears several times, and just as often laughter. It was hard to describe the joy we felt, what was in our hearts.
"You sang like angels," Nderitu said hesitantly. "Maybe you belong with the Sisters."
"No," Wairimu said in a firm voice. "The convent was raided by Mau Mau the other night. The Sisters are sending us to Nairobi for our own safety."
That was all that Nderitu needed to hear, a safe haven violated. "You can't go to Nairobi," he said. "I will never be able to find you in that big city."
Nderitu had grown slightly taller with a more masculine physique. The long pants made him look mature and we felt protected. But there was something different about his eyes that was easy to miss, and I suspected he had gone through some rough times in our absence. He looked like a boy carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I wanted to reach out and comfort him but I knew that this wasn’t the time. We needed to be strong and right now we had to move before the Sisters started looking for us.
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...