It would normally have taken a louder call and possibly some shaking but her whispers woke me up. Whispers that cut short a dream I’ll never recall. Tightness from my freshly-plaited, day-old braids and wetness on my cheek from my sleepy drool are the first sensations I remember. She didn’t turn on the light.
“The baby is coming!” she said in another loud whisper.
That was enough to make me jump off the top of a double-decker bed that I usually used a small wooden ladder on the far right end to get on. I was careful not to wake my two-year-old nephew who was fast asleep in the bottom bunk. The rest of our conversation was carried out in the living room.
2.30 a.m. My brother-in-law was standing in the living-room, fully dressed, packed bag in hand. The baby was coming indeed. Could it be a false alarm? My foolish, possibly sleep-induced inquiry was met with an ice-melting side eye. Who was I to question the certainty of a mother? I am not anyone’s mother. All this was unsaid. Rather, said with ‘the look’. She was breathing hard.
“There’s milk and porridge in the fridge… Give him Weetabix or porridge… when he wakes up… He’ll tell you when he’s hungry or thirsty…” Her speech was laboured (no pun), punctuated by short puffs for air.
I was nodding frantically to her many instructions, many of which were probably forgotten as soon as I climbed back on that top bunk. After they left, I locked up, watched my nephew sleep for a few seconds then went back to sleep.
6.00 a.m. Her call woke me up. Baby already birthed. 3.5 kg. It sounded like something ticked off a to-do list, next to clean-out fridge and wash curtains. She was checking on us. Nephew #1 hadn’t been woken up by my phone’s loud ringer, thankfully.
We both slept till 8 a.m. and woke up to his daily morning rituals. Watching some competitive Japanese game-show on Sony Max while riding the tricycle while having porridge while rolling on the floor.
The rest of that day is somewhat a blur. I was a bit tired and sleepy as a result of interrupted sleep but I somehow still managed to feed him while running around, sing along with Barney and Friends, Bob the Builder and other favourite kiddie shows of the nephew, take part in a few games that involved grabbing things and shouting NOOO! (and when I didn’t say it, he would stop the game and tell me “Sema (say) NOOO!” Too cute.), read him stories, get peed on, and give him a bath after his afternoon nap. I may have dozed off once or twice in the midst of all these.
My brother-in-law had to do some running around and be with my sister so press repeat, with a few alterations, for the next day. All the while, I was thinking that I was really nailing the whole motherhood/mothering (which is the right noun?) thing. Ha! I was actually pretty tired by the end of the second day.
When my sister showed up with Nephew #2 on Sunday afternoon, after the oohing and ahhing at the tiny bundle of joy, touching his hair and smelling him (love that baby smell!), I think I took a step back. Wow. Two babies. I only had to run around after the two-year-old for a weekend and got to hand him back to his parents after that. Here they were raising two sons and managing to look cool while doing so.
I was initially visiting them for an overnight stay before my other nephew decided to make his world debut that weekend but ended up spending the entire weekend and going to work on Monday from their home. And here’s the kicker, my supermom sister had an exam on Monday morning after having her son on Saturday that she studied for and made it to (and probably aced too!).
I look forward to being a mother someday, despite the sacrifices and challenges involved. Until then, I am happy to hold (and smell), read stories about penguins and mice and roll on the floor with my nephews.
Mothers, I will repeat this trite statement. You probably hardly ever get the credit you deserve for the immense strength, courage and sacrifice it takes to birth and raise a child from day zero. To men that are present and supportive husbands and fathers, your noble tasks definitely mean a lot to your wives and children.
About two years ago I stumbled upon a well-guarded family secret; one that would change the course of my life forever. Know the destiny-altering kind? Realizing you’re not from earth, have superhuman powers and your parents are not your biological parents? It wasn’t that kind. It also wasn’t really a secret. It was an interesting fact about my childhood that came up in a conversation with the folks.
When I joined Standard One, unlike other kids my age, I could hardly read or write. “UIikuwa unaimba tu (You were just singing),” said daddy dearest.
Apparently, the academic standards of the kindergarten I attended had deteriorated greatly by the time I enrolled. Not sure what we spent our time doing but it seems that we weren’t inclined towards a great many scholarly pursuits. After two years of pre-school, when it was time for this reluctant, singing little girl to join a primary school, I could not join my older sister in the public school she was attending at the time. The unforgiving public school system would probably have had me repeat Pre-Unit. I would have been that kid. That poor soul that has to put up with looks of scorn and pity whenever marked exam papers wer distributed in a class, in order of performance (worst practice ever!).
A private school was the next best option. I sat for an interview. The details are fuzzy but I’m told that I wrote my name and little else on the paper. This may come as a big surprise but I did not pass this interview. This was where she came in.
We only knew her as Teacher Teresa. Large in stature, she had this matronly look to her. She was kind and understanding but also firm and no-nonsense in equal measure. When she peered at you over a pair of spectacles resting on the bridge of her nose, you would want to sit up straight and focus on your carrying and borrowing math problems, that life-changing stuff we were dealing with in Standard One.
Teacher Teresa decided that this timid, tiny almost 6-year-old kid could join 1 North with the rest. She knew I had failed the test and was aware of my challenges yet, without asking my parents for anything in return, coached me privately till I caught up with the rest.
Among the memories of my early academic years, Teacher Teresa really stands out. I feel that I, to a large extent, owe part of who I am today to her selfless act those many years ago. You can imagine how excited I was to find out that she is the headmistress of a school near where I live. A couple of days ago when I had the day off, I called her. I got her contacts from my parents, who have kept in touch with her over the years.
“Of course I remember you!” she said after my long ‘you may not remember me but…’ introduction. I was smiling from ear-to-ear over the phone. It was past midday when I made my way to the school.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Obare,” I said to a young teacher walking hand-in-hand with a little girl.
“First office on the right when you enter the building,” she said.
There was a small plaque written ‘Headmistress’ on the door frame. I approached the entrance to her open office cautiously. I felt like a student as I stood there, a small gift for her in hand. She was on the phone but flashed me a huge grin and gestured for me to come in.
She looked almost like I remembered her when she taught me in 1 North. She also had this stately look to her; that refined quality acquired only from years of sharpening life experiences. That look that seems to say, ‘been there, done that, sold the t-shirt on OLX’. It seemed like a lifetime ago when I last saw her.
“I taught her in Standard One,” she said to a teacher seated across her scribbling in a large notebook.
I smiled. We both started saying how long it had been since we last saw each other. It’s not really enough to say ‘I’ve been well’ when someone you last saw when you were six asks how you’ve been, is it? When the teacher left, I took her seat across Teacher Teresa and regaled her with a classic look-how-well-I-turned-out story. Twenty years condensed into five minutes.
She left the school when I was in Standard Three and has been at this one since then. Turns out I wasn’t the only problem child she took in. She’s helped many children over the years. Now that she holds an administrative position at the school, she doesn’t get to be in the classroom as much as she’d like. She misses teaching. She stands in for teachers at her school from time to time and also moderates exams. The school has, in recent times, at the request of parents who wanted their children to stay on after pre-school, started a primary school that goes up to Standard Three. Her heart for the little ones won’t relent.
I dedicate this post to all the Teacher Teresas out there. To you who could have very easily given up or said NO because of the insurmountable task ahead. To you who struggled and went out of your way to better someone’s life. I celebrate you.
I dug for it intently. There was no shovel involved. I was neither exerting myself nor bent over next to a mound of earth. There were no drops of sweat to wipe off my brow and no dirt under my fingernails. I was in bed leaning against a pillow, laptop on lap, phone in hand. It was a dig synonymous with the times. A digital dig? Possibly.
I sat for an obscene amount of time, head bent in cell phone prayer, stalking scrolling through an Instagram feed. Oh how I scrolled. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled some more. I’ll know it when I see it, I kept saying. My long-suffering thumb bore the brunt of my obsessive search. Rats! I couldn’t find it even after scrolling down to the first ever post.
I resumed my work. I looked for it twice more, unsuccessfully. The day was almost over when I finally found it. What helped me know where to look was remembering the period I first saw it and why it appealed to me so much. It was an excerpt from Khaya Dlanga’s journal when he was 20.
“I believe this to be true for anyone who wants to achieve anything in life: never accept reality as an end. If we only ever face reality as an end; if we only ever face and accept our current difficulties, our reality, then we are doomed. It is imperative that I live inside my head, a world that is not realistic. By that I mean believing in a truth that isn’t yet. But a truth that nonetheless which I will create in the future.One must face reality and the facts, but even more important is pointing out the reality that WILL BE to yourself. When someone says, ‘Face reality,’ they are telling you to forget your dream and what you know you want to do with every single fiber of your being, they are telling you to forget that you know you can do it even though it’s damn hard at the time. I choose to answer in the following manner, ‘Yes, I will, but I choose to face, to create the future reality that I want, not the one you want me to.’ And refuse to subject myself to the narrow present reality.”
Rather deep for a 20-year-old ey? I certainly was not brimming with this kind of wisdom at 20. I digress. Khaya Dlanga is easily one of the most interesting people I follow on Instagram. He’s a senior executive at Coca-Cola South Africa. Never met him. That’s about all I know about the man. He mentioned, when he posted this excerpt from his journal, that when he wrote it he was “going through an intensely difficult period (including being homeless for a few months).” The tough times, he said, lasted a few years.
What helped me remember where to look for the quote was that when I first saw it (about five months ago), I was struggling with several uncertainties. Also, the World Cup had recently come to an end (and my team lost, sigh) which meant that it had to be sometime around the end of July. For most of last year and more so towards my graduation in August, I had been wondering whether my choice for a master’s degree was a prudent decision. Please refer to my previous post for context. What would I do with this seemingly obscure qualification once I graduated? Where would I work in this area of study that was so poorly understood even by those in the mental health field in Kenya? I was also pretty broke, with zero savings and paying for a huge part of my school fees with a loan from my parents. Would I even find work that I could make a decent living from?
In addition, I was working (and still working) with individuals who have literally had the rug pulled out from under them in the most brutal of ways – refugees. After experiencing the tragedies of war, here they were, impoverished and living with a great deal of uncertainty in a land that is growing increasingly hostile towards them. How difficult it must be for them to look beyond their reality! I was struggling to look beyond their reality.
Khaya’s (I think we should be on a first name basis by now) quote speaks of a quality I greatly admire – a stubborn resolve to keep on despite the odds. It speaks of hope. It also speaks of something so dear to me; something I feel I cannot live without. Something without which, it is impossible to please God biblically speaking (Hebrews 11:6) – faith. Never accept reality as an end. My reality is quite different now. I will refer you to my previous post yet again for context. I should stop here before I get on a pulpit and break into song. My intention was to share a quote that I have returned to again and again and why it moved me. I’d love to hear yours.
I’m trying to write about where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing and why I’ve not been writing. Trying because writing is much like working out. It needs to be carried on frequently and with a certain kind of intensity, else your brain grows lethargic and your fingers stiffen at the touch of a keyboard. As I write this I’m picturing my pot-bellied brain in an ill-fitting t-shirt and visible muffin top, lounging on a sofa with a packet of crisps, watching episode after episode of a third-rate sitcom.
After a long hiatus from writing, when you finally settle down to write, instead of getting down to business, you overprepare. You minimize your Firefox webpage that has about 47 tabs open, switchback to your blank MS Word page that has been open for a few hours, set your font type to Calibri, size 12, rub your palms together and crack your fingers. You fidget in your seat trying to find a comfortable position. This position ceases to be comfortable after two minutes and fidgeting becomes your position for a while. You type your first sentence slowly. Your process is interrupted by ridding yourself of a hangnail, long stares out the window, videos of an adorable two-year old boy singing Beatles songs with his dad, bathroom breaks and frequent poses because formation of pithy and articulate sentences gets difficult.
I’ve been… not writing, evidently. But that’s not really an accurate description of what I’ve been doing, is it? I’ve been doing “other” things. This is not helping either.
I’ve mentioned my interest in psychology and mental health here severally. Should be in my ‘About’ section and also casually mentioned or referred to in some of my posts. Well, it’s not casual anymore. Things got pretty serious. We’re thinking of a future together. Kids. Maybe a dog. Or parrot.
We got serious when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. I haven’t always been a writer. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that there’s another significant part of my life away from writing. I should probably give a little background of my history with psychology. When I was considering what career to pursue before I joined an undergraduate program, psychology was my main interest. I had to forfeit it when my parents insisted that I go for a program that they felt would guarantee me a job. So I went for a communications degree with a focus on print journalism. I was a tad unhappy about not pursuing psychology but since I love writing I wasn’t too badly off. About a year later, I was privileged to get a chance to pursue both communication and psychology concurrently. My alma mater allowed students to take on two majors. I graduated with a bachelor of arts in both four years later.
Back then, I hardly ever told people I was doing both. I would say either depending on who was asking and how well the person knew me. It felt like a double life to some extent in a rather interesting way. I had to do two separate internships for both programs; one at a newspaper and the other at a mental health department of a hospital. All the while I hoped I’d find a way to marry the two in future.
I remember asking a prominent media personality who visited our school to give a career talk while in my second year what career options existed for people with interests like mine. Could I practice as a psychologist and still work in the media? No, he said. He had never heard of anything like that. I had to choose one. He said something to this effect.
When I graduated, I found myself straddled between two career paths. I had two CVs. Still do. One for my writing and print journalism-related stuff. The other for psychology and mental health-related stuff. I applied for jobs in both fields. I’d take whichever came first, I told myself. I was however secretly hoping my psychology degree would get me into the NGO world where I thought I would make lots of money.
After graduating in June 2010, I spent the rest of the year contributing for different publications, blogging, and learning Spanish. I found a full-time job in December at a local family and lifestyle magazine where I went on to work for four years.Not quite the short background that I’d hoped for ey.
I love writing. I’ve stated that many times. But I did grow weary of doing only that, probably because my other passion was not being fed. This, among other things, led to me pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. It’s basically a specialized area of psychology concerned with the alleviation of psychological distress. (If interested in what this area of study entails, this might be helpful.)
My program required a whole year of internships during my final year and at some point I had to stop working full-time to fulfill this requirement. I struggled with this. It meant giving up a huge part of my salary and working only as a contributor in the midst of (unpaid) internships, classes and research papers. It got a little crazy and I was pretty busy and broke for most of this year. (Thank you to all my good friends who, either knowingly or unknowingly, insisted on paying for coffee or meals during our dates! :D)
My final semester of internship was at an international non-profit dedicated to healing survivors of torture and violent conflict through therapy and physiotherapy. I enjoyed my time there. There was a vacancy that I qualified for that I went on to apply and interview for. I was not successful. When I graduated in August, I did not have much figured out with regard to what direction my career would take from that point on. I thought I’d go back to my old job at the magazine, renegotiate my salary and terms as I figured out my next move.
The week after my graduation, on the day I was to meet my boss, I got a call from the non-profit. They had another vacancy for the same job I had interviewed for and they were asking if I was still interested. Yes! So my salary and terms renegotiation meeting turned out to be a resignation meeting. I accepted the job and since then, I’ve been involved in mental health trauma care with different refugee groups living in Nairobi. It has been an exciting, scary and lesson-filled three months. I enjoy my work and I am immensely grateful to God for this remarkable journey I’m on.
What happens to my writing? I’m still working that out. I still love writing and sometimes I get anxious at the thought of that part of my life wasting away. I’d like to blog now more than ever. There are so many unwritten stories in me! I’m also trying my hand in fiction. I may have a short work of adolescent fiction published sometime soon, which is another angle of writing that I’m excited to venture in.
I’m still sort of making it up as I go and still have many questions about my life’s purpose and what the future holds. Though I have a few vague ideas, I’m still not quite sure where all of this is headed but I’m learning to be ok with some of life’s uncertainties and enjoy the season I’m in. That’s where I am.
“Na chali (And a boyfriend)?” This was my brother’s very worthwhile contribution to a list my mother was making on the first day of this year. She called it ‘family resolutions.’ We all gave contributions of what we thought the Gicovi family should, would or could do in 2014. The list eventually included everyone’s individual resolutions, starting with the youngest, my then 19 year-old brother, followed by me. I had 10 things written on my list when my brother carefully noted that I had left out a very important one. My mother agreed, and they both looked at me in askance. Why didn’t I want a boyfriend added to the things I wanted in 2014? I laughed and rolled my eyes and said something like, “OK! Throw it in there with the rest.” And my mother did, writing something very respectful like “the husband God intended” or something. Far from throwing it in there like I had said. After that, our conversation digressed to other non-dating related resolutions that I cannot remember. Does this happen to you guys when you make family resolutions? You don’t make family resolutions? What kind of life is that?
The next day, one of those hot, sweltering afternoons synonymous with January weather in Nairobi, I was interviewing someone for an article I was writing (for work). Now, I usually give my interviewees a chance to ask a few questions, usually about me, after we’re done. I do a lot of profiles and get a great deal of information out of people for my interviews so it’s only fair to give them a brief chance to “interview” me as well. So I have just concluded an interview with this stern, grandfatherly, very accomplished 70-something year-old guy, and I tell him about myself and what I do, blah blah blah, I love writing, blah blah blah, the importance of telling people’s stories… This is part of my (very sincere but may not seem like it because I say it too many times!) usual speech, but I digress. He asks how old I am. 25. He nods then goes on to ask, “Do you have a friend?” Friend? Who says friend? For the purposes of clarity and for the sake of people born after 1990, he meant boyfriend. “No. I do not have a friend.” He wants to close the interview with a prayer, and asks if I’d like him to pray for my “friend”. I agree (again, very sincerely) but also try not to look amused.
A few days later, I had a male friend applauding the fact that I am pursuing a master’s degree then pointing my left hand and saying all that remained was someone putting a ring on it. These three events took place in the first week of January. Since then, I have had different people ask me when they are coming to eat pilau (loosely translates to the ingesting of copious amounts of a spicy Swahili rice dish commonly served at weddings and other celebrations).
When my older sister, two years older, got married, three years ago, I did get the usual (for a slightly younger sibling I suppose), “You’re next” and “Yako ni lini? (When is yours?)” comments from a few relatives and friends, but I had just turned 23. I had graduated the previous year, and was a few months into my first job. These comments were not serious, playful even. Fast forward to present day. 26 year-old female, four years into her first job and nearly completing a master’s degree. When will she get married? Is she dating? No boyfriend? Oh.
I chuckle at these concerns. I never thought I’d get here. It always feels like someone else, and not me, who’s being talked about. I often wonder about this supposed course our lives are supposed to follow. These unwritten rules that we strive to abide by. Maybe I need to state at this point that I am not of the feminist movement. Neither am I jaded nor the fierce miss independent type (I like free food :D). Relationships, healthy ones, are wonderful, and marriage is a beautiful thing and I hope to be married, with the proverbial 2.5 kids at some point. Nonetheless, I am wary of the “don’t wait too long” “don’t be choosy” or “you’ll intimidate a man if you’re too learned (yes, there are people saying this in 2014!)” advice. I really doubt that anyone needs to be reminded that time is running out. We have Facebook for that. 😀 On a serious note though, I feel we need to respect the fact that everyone’s life takes a different course. There’s no written life script that we should all follow.
I also wonder about other matters in relation to this. How did marriage become an end-goal? Study hard, find a job, get married and settle down then life’s complete, right? Also, have we so romanticized the idea of finding a life partner and crafting the perfect wedding that we forget about the ‘ever after’? Do other significant life accomplishments seem to matter less to us if we are not married at a certain age? And how did we come to abnormalize(sic) the unmarried single of particular age? Surely something must be wrong with her/him. Really? Maybe we need a rewiring of sorts on this subject.
Me: *clears throat* Well, in the last eight months I have ridden a wild ostrich and also jumped off a 60-metre tower with nothing but a rope attached to my ankles. I have pictures. I think this shows that I am willing to take risks and will take your company to the next level.
(At this point, the lights dim, neon lights start flashing about, Justin Timberlake and a bunch of dancers waltz into the room, and I join them to do some really smooth moves to a JT song; then this loaded multinational corporation hires me instantly as a highly paid… erm something.) 😀
While the silly scenario I just described may not happen to me in this lifetime, I really have taken those two risks I was telling my imaginary interview panel about. Apart from being the fastest birds on land, ostriches are both tasty and fun to ride. Riding the bird at the Ostrich Farm in Kajiado was a moderately exciting venture. Doubt it was a wild ostrich though, otherwise I would not be here writing about it. Anyhow, nothing I have done in my 25 years of existence on planet Earth comes close to bungee jumping.
Bungee jumping is an activity that involves jumping from a tall structure while connected to a large elastic cord (Wikipedia). Doesn’t this definition sound a bit cuckoo? It was worse explaining it to my mother. The activity is nothing short of crazy. Nevertheless, I have been dreaming of doing it ever since I found out about it. About a week before I did it, I was checking out a few facts about it and was amused to find out that the very first bungee jumpers in 1979 were arrested shortly after they jumped. It was an illegal undertaking then, but I digress (as I’m prone to doing every so often).
It was almost midday when a bunch of excited youths made their way to Bungeewalla at the Savage Wilderness Camp, Sagana in Nyeri county. The journey was largely uneventful. The 14-seater mini-van was filled with snacking, laughter, and cheerful banter. Past the Embu/Meru junction towards Nyeri, we branched into a dirt road and drove about 1.5 km to the Savage Wilderness Camp.
Once off the van, we waited briefly near an area where inflatable rafts, life jackets and other whitewater rafting paraphernalia were stored, as one of us narrated his experience with whitewater rafting. It sounded rather interesting, and a few of us expressed interest in it. Whitewater rafting has been on my bucket list, alongside bungee jumping and other extreme activities, for some time now.
In a little while, Simon, our guide, told us to get started with our first order of business – peeing. After this, we proceeded to the location where the jump takes place. Everyone gathered at a small plot adjacent to the River Tana. Andreas, owner of Bungeewalla Ltd, was going over the safety procedures and rules of the jump by the time I got there (from my first order of business). He is, without a doubt, one of the biggest goofs I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. “Once you get to the cage,” he said sternly, “I will not answer any questions about life.” We were laughing half the time he spoke. I suppose this serves him well in his job. Maybe someone needs to lighten the mood before you put mind over matter to consciously jump off a 60-metre tower.
Before any of us could go about jumping, we had to be weighed, then sign some sort of release form confirming that we were not on drugs, pregnant and hadn’t had any neck or back injuries or surgery et cetera, that exempts Bungeewalla from any responsibility in the event of a mishap. Very clever Bungeewalla. *wink*
I was curious about how many times Andreas had bungee jumped, having run this operation for more than two decades. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Are you kidding? Do you know how dangerous this is?” We all laughed at his response as he went up the 60-metre tower, which has 178 steps (Andreas apparently counted them).
The first duo to do the jump was harnessed and started the long climb, one with a significant head start before the other, as we all watched. The first lady couldn’t bring herself to jump and ended up climbing back down about 20 minutes later, even after much coaxing from the group. It’s easy to call her “chicken”, but having done the jump, I think I sufficiently understand her refusal to follow through. On the other hand, the first gentleman jumped off the tower, seemingly without a care in the world. He made it look so easy. I felt excited as I watched him bounce around following his jump. I couldn’t wait my turn!
The group cheered everyone who went up the bungee tower for the jump with such zeal. I loved the team spirit. I was the fourth individual to scale the tower. I was fastened with chest and leg harnesses and clipped onto an ascender. These would ensure that I was supported while I climbed. I enthusiastically began my climb amid cheers of ‘Go Ednaaa!” Up, up, up I went. I felt (and hoped that I also looked) like Spiderman going up that tower. Ten steps later, I was panting like a gazelle that had just outrun a lion. I realized that the pace I had taken going up those steps was akin to sprinting at the start of a marathon. It was also a stark reminder of my unfitness. After a few more steps, my chest was burning up and my legs were nearly buckling from how much I was exerting myself. I started climbing slower, stopping every now and then to catch my breath.
The climb seemed to take an eternity. It reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. The guy ahead of me was already in the jump cage getting ready to jump when I was about halfway up the tower. I stopped to observe him as he jumped, also taking in the great view of the landscape.
Andreas helped me into the jump cage when I finally got there. Being the second female to do the jump, I had to reassure him severally that I wasn’t going to back out. I was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to. Not after coming this far! (And paying Ksh 4,500! :D)
After attaching the elastic bungee rope to both my ankles and explaining a few more safety measures, Andreas pointed to a little gate that, he explained, would be opened once I was ready for the jump. Still excited and oblivious of the magnitude of what I was about to do, I asked him to open it then stood at the edge of the cage.
The reality of how far down I was about to jump hit me so strongly; I had to take a small step back. I was 60 metres above the ground! 60 metres! The Tana River shone menacingly in the sun. A few kayakers rowed past. The 15 kg elastic bungee cord attached to my feet felt heavy and tugged me downward as if sensing my fear. My feet wouldn’t budge. I was suddenly very afraid of what was about to take place. How was I going to fall? What if the rope tangled up? Would it hurt? What if I didn’t enjoy it? I couldn’t possibly jump! I wrestled with my thoughts. Twice, I leaned over as if to jump as the group below did an excited countdown, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Go Ednaaa!” I retreated into the cage both times. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” I said repeatedly as I tried to gather enough courage to jump.
Ten minutes later, I let go and jumped off the cage, frightened out of my wits. One of us would say afterwards that this jump goes against our very instinct for survival. Certainly so. Down, down, down I went. My eyes were wide open. I didn’t want to miss a thing. The river below came at me rapidly as I fell, then I felt a strong tug as the elastic bungee rope (having reached its elastic limit) kicked in, and I bounced back into the air, defying gravity for a few seconds, and then free falling again. I took everything in silently for the first few minutes, caught up in some sort of pleasant shock and overwhelmed by a giant rush, mixed with anxiety, anticipation and other interesting emotions I cannot adequately describe.
I remember doing a few involuntary somersaults in the air. I enjoyed it more with every passing second, even managing a couple of “Woohoos!” and “Yeeaaahs!” I also spread out my arms and did the Superman thing (I know, I know. Second superhero reference :D) as the water and greenery below zoomed past and our group, now gathered at the riverbank, cheered me on. It was amazing.
In retrospect, I see why one needs an empty bladder before bungee jumping. There is an absolute lack of control that accompanies the jump. In fact, this activity is rather difficult for anyone who has control freak tendencies, much like me.
The bounce dies down after about six to seven minutes and you’re left slowly swinging back and forth like a spider from its web. One of the attendants rowed in a kayak to the spot where I was hanging, less than a metre away from the river. Andreas, who had control of the rope from above, lowered me further down and the kayaking attendant handed me the rope that was used reel me to the riverbank. After being reeled in, I was placed on a small leather mattress on the raised stone surface at the riverbank where I lay with a big grin on my face as the attendants loosened and removed my harnesses, while several people from our group gathered around me, asking how the jump felt.
I was still a bit buzzed for some time following my jump. I was talking animatedly, my body was shaking a little, and I really wanted to do it again. Adrenaline is quite something. I suppose I, to some extent, understand why some people get into extreme sports, dangerous as they can be.
So I have finally ticked bungee jumping off my bucket list, even though I have every intention of doing it again and again, hopefully from an even higher height. Yeah! Also, whitewater rafting, skydiving and deep sea diving, here I come!
It is with great shame (well, not really. Maybe just a moderate amount of shame :D) that I present the third and final instalment of the ‘Let’s go to prison’ series that I did at the end of last year. Ideally, this should have been posted here shortly after the first two but due to many, honestly, avoidable circumstances that prevailed upon me, it wasn’t. Should you wish to refresh your memory, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Better late than never, right? Enjoy.
Within no time, I was busy sandpapering the walls with a large group that included prisoners and wardens, after which we commenced painting. I really enjoyed painting. Peter Marangi would have wept with pride had he seen me.
I have to admit that all this time I was hoping for a photo opportunity with an inmate. Or some sort of interaction where I’d casually ask, “So, what are you in for?” Then when he responded with whatever crime he was in for, I’d nod nonchalantly and say, “Cool, cool.” I know, I know. Pretty lame. 😀 I did, however, get both of my wishes a few hours later when someone mentioned how hungry they were. We all must’ve been. We had been working for some time, in the hot sun, sandpapering the outer walls of the hall. *Morris, one of the inmates, happened to be standing nearby and we jokingly asked him what they had prepared for us for lunch. “Msije mkadanganyika. Chakula cha huku hamwezani nacho. (Don’t be fooled. You cannot handle the food here),” he said, loosely referring to the warden’s earlier ‘buffet’ statement. At this point we all got curious about their meals. It was the usual ugali and sukumawiki (kales) with a few pieces of meat, among other meals like githeri. I wondered how bad the food actually was. Soon enough the moment I’d been waiting for came. I asked what he was in for.
*Morris is from Tanzania. He is in for drug trafficking. He was arrested in Kenya en route from Brazil, for heroin possession. He explained to us how theywould swallow 13 gram sachets of heroin, to later pass them out in their stool before selling them. “Eeeeeww!!” Those were my thoughts on that. *Morris is serving a nine year sentence. He’s already done eight years in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, and currently has a year to go in the medium security prison. He gets out in December 2012.
He told us that he had every intention of going back into the drug business. By this time, a small group had formed around him to hear his story. He went on seemingly oblivious of this. He was not at all willing to get back into employment, he explained, a tinge of arrogance in his voice. We were all saddened by this. We tried to convince him that there were other vocations he could pursue and that he didn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Someone told him about Jesus. I could tell that he regarded us a bunch of silly youngsters who knew nothing about life. He intends to go international. Maybe head to China, where he said that some laws are lax or something to that effect. At this point I had completely drifted off and was busy trying to get a photo next to him without seeming too obvious.
Seeing this, everyone suddenly wanted a photo with him. Copy cats! :p He didn’t seem to mind so we clicked away. I was a bit embarrassed by our behaviour but hey, how many chances do you get a photo opportunity with an inmate? There I go again.
A short while later we were done painting and it was time to kick back and be entertained by the inmates and some of the wardens, who were all rather talented. I was impressed, especially by the acrobats and dancers.
Unfortunately, I could not stay till the very end as I had planned to attend #WamathaiOct. As I left, accompanied by a few members of our group, one of whom was dropping me at the matatu stage (it is quite a distance away from the prison), I noticed at the far end of the prison compound where the cells were located, a few inmates who were locked up trying their best to catch a glimpse of the on-going performances their comrades were enjoying. The warden escorting us out told us that they were mentally disturbed and usually not allowed to mix with the rest of the inmates. I felt sad for them.
The elderly Asian inmate I had noticed earlier on walked past us. I asked the warden what he was in for. Multiple bank robberies. This was his third time here. “A good number of the inmates are repeat offenders and keep coming back for the same crimes,” the warden informed us. So much for rehabilitation.
I was free to leave. I could go wherever I pleased. I had freedom of movement! Do we take this freedom for granted? I thought about all this as I left. I could not imagine how great that first step of freedom felt for an inmate who had served a five or 10-year (or longer) sentence. The air must seem fresher; the birds must sing louder; the grass has to be greener for them. Freedom tastes good! I suppose.
“Come again.” I was told severally as I made my way out. I smiled and nodded while thanking the wardens for their hospitality. I’m not sure I’d like to go back.
So we casually moseyed into the prison ready for our one day sentence er, visit. Kamiti Medium Security Prison is for offenders with less than a five year sentence, and also for petty offenders. We were met by one of the senior wardens. He was very warm and hospitable. He advised us to leave our phones, among other valuables, in the car but some of us, read me, needed to generate live tweets from Kamiti Prison (how often do you see that? :D) and take photos for our blogs.
We all had to give our names and ID numbers at a registration desk of sorts before going in. As I spelt out my (often misspelt) last name for one of the lady wardens, I wondered how they (the wardens) felt about their jobs. They didn’t have the easiest jobs in the world yet they were all seemed very pleasant. Nothing like the tyrannical bastards you’d imagine them to be.
An escort was required to move around the prison at all times. Being in the prison vicinity made you a prisoner of sorts. You were not free to wander as you pleased and had to adhere to a set of rules. All males were required to have a visitor’s tag displayed at all times for obvious reasons.
An aged notice board above the registration desk read in big, bold letters, “WAJUE WATORO WENU – KNOW YOUR PRISONERS.” I found it rather confusing. Watoro, plural of mtoro, means escapee or refugee in Swahili. The Swahili word for prisoner is mfungwa or mahabusu (which is specifically used to refer to those awaiting trial. Looked it up :D). So did this statement mean that you should know your escapees or prisoners? I may never know.
We spent our first hour at the prison seated in a tent, with the prisoners seated, some standing, at the far ends of both tents watching our every move, I would imagine. I avoided making eye contact at all costs. A quick glance once every while was all I could afford. There were a few cat calls here and there, which was expected given the huge population of ladies in our midst. Later on, I heard one of the inmates tell his comrade, “Kuwa mfungwa ni vibaya! Wengine hapa hata sijui walizaliwa wapi. Sijui naeza watoa wapi (It sucks to be a prisoner! I don’t know where some of these ladies were born. I don’t know where I can find such),” referring to some ladies painting alongside them, but I digress.
What did the prisoners think of us? Did they enjoy having visitors? Did we seem like a bunch of detached NGOish types? As I looked around, I noticed an elderly Asian inmate with a balding head and graying hair. He really stood out from the rest of the pack. I wondered what he was in for. I wondered what every inmate was in for. A few wardens briefed us on the day’s activities, one of them saying in very many words that prisons were actually ‘not so bad’ nowadays. At one point he mentioned that we should not imagine prisons as hell holes (not in these exact words). And that the inmates were learning a great many skills. In our midst were skilled farmers, carpenters, acrobats, dancers, et cetera. He added that the food there was top notch. “Mtapata buffet huku (You’ll find a buffet here),” he said animatedly. “Pilau, kuku, nyama za kila aina…” (“Pilau, chicken and all kinds of meat…),” he went on while a section of the inmates quietly scoffed at his sarcasm. I cringed at what I considered a misguided attempt at humour. I wondered if any of the inmates found this funny.
Another warden echoed his sentiments about how prisons had indeed become better places. He said something to the effect that in 2000, an open door policy was made to allow relatives and friends to visit their loved ones in prison. Now I tried to find a confirmation of this in The Prisons Act, among other legal documents but didn’t find one. Anyone with the correct information, feel free to let me know and I shall make the necessary changes, if need be, but I digress (as usual). The prisoners seemed to have a relatively good relationship with the wardens. Some seemed almost like friends. It was good, I thought, the improvement of facilities, acquirement of useful skills and better treatment of the inmates (though part of me knows that people who have undergone unspeakable atrocities in the hands of some of these inmates may not agree). I wondered about the rehabilitative function prisons are meant to serve? How effective was that here?
After we were familiarized with our surroundings and introduced to the senior wardens, it was time to get to work. We had a choice of painting the prisoner’s social hall or participating in or cheering on a game of football between the inmates and wardens and later on between the inmates and our group. There were also group counseling sessions held for the prisoners who so desired. I chose to paint. Masks, brushes, sandpaper and paint were distributed among the group that was painting and we soon got to work.
P.s. A month or so after our visit, I watched a feature on prisons on GBS (I was channel flipping and it caught my eye, you know, because I had been to a prison before. Wait, why am I explaining myself? Pfff :p). So this feature was done in Kamiti Meidum Prison and I saw some familiar faces. I saw a few wardens and prisoners I had interacted with and I said, “I know that guy! Him too!” Thankfully, there was no one around to go like o_O. Feel free to give me the look (well virtually) as you read this. I also saw the social hall we painted. The inmates were practising a dance routine (that they performed for us that day) there. “We painted that place!” I said. I felt proud.
I was going to prison. I know it’s weird but I was somehow looking forward to it. A mixture of anticipation, anxiety, and curiosity filled me as that fateful Saturday drew close. Prison. What was it going to be like? I wondered.
I’m innocent! I know a lot going to people going to prison say that but please, believe me! I had not committed any crime. I was headed to Kamiti Medium Security Prison with members of Mizizi, a bible study/life class that I was taking. The class required the students to take part in a social justice activity as part of a lesson on how to share God’s heart by sharing with the less fortunate.We were to help the inmates of Kamiti Medium Security Prison by painting their social hall, interacting and sharing the love of Christ with them.
Prior to the activity, a number of guidelines had been given to us by our facilitators:
1. Do not negotiate with the inmates.
2. Do not make any promises to the inmates.
3. Do not let the inmates use your phone.
4. Wear comfortable clothing.
5. Ladies, wear loose clothing.
I found some of these a tad strange. They sounded a lot like the ‘Do not feed the animals’ rules in zoos. Anyhow I did understand that all these rules were given to us for a reason.
That morning I selected what I considered my loosest pair of old jeans, a pair of rubber shoes, an old t-shirt and pulled my hair back into a simple pony tail. I planned to be as inconspicuous as possible. I met the rest of my group in town and together, we waited for the guys driving us there. Half an hour later, we were on our way to Kamiti.
What did I expect from this visit? Was I going to make a new inmate friend? I had never interacted with an inmate prior to this. Inmate sounds like something your friend would say if you had a great plan for the weekend. “I’m in mate!” Or like a very close buddy. “Yeah, we’re pretty close. He’s one of my inmates.” These were some of my thoughts concerning our visit to the prison.
In between these thoughts, I chastised myself for regarding inmates as a breed of rare species preserved behind bars in a far away location to avoid extinction. I wondered if I was making too much of a big deal out of the visit. These were just ordinary people who made mistakes, took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, or acted out of blind or selfish ambition, maybe greed, right? We’re all guilty of these sins. We’re just lucky to get second, third and fourth chances. Nothing to be scared of. No need to regard them with this mixture of fear and amazement. Some were probably even innocent victims of injustice.
Then my thoughts took another turn. Wait a minute! Some of these individuals had murdered. Some had committed robbery with a lot of violence. Some had raped, pillaged and vandalized. I knew of people who had died painful deaths in the cruel hands of their ilk. Maybe the guy who pointed a gun at my dad was in there. Someone there had stolen my friend’s wallet that contained a significant amount of money and documents of identification that are not easy to come by in this country. Someone there had caused a great deal of mental anguish to someone dear to me. Fear, terror and disgust were not such wrong responses after all. Why was I even headed there? Oh right, there was the forgiveness and second chances thing. Also, learning to share God’s heart and the role I play in social justice. And oh, paint.
I know, I know. I’m a conflicted individual. We were at the prison’s gate in an hour or so. The huge gates opened to a small prison community with a school, shops, make-shift standswith women selling and fruits and vegetables, and the wardens’ houses. All the buildings were old, most dilapidated. “Deplorable!” one of the ladies from our group exclaimed at the terrible condition of the wardens’ tiny houses. Life in the seemingly alienated community went on undisturbed. Most seemed almost oblivious of our presence there. We drove further inside. The prison was located a kilometer or more from the main gate.
P.s. The title Let’s go to prison was inspired by a movie with the same title that I watched and immensely enjoyed a few years ago. Watch it and let me know if you liked it as much as I did 🙂 Here’s the trailer.