Fiction from Lutivini Majanja

Boot print on packed dirt.

Photo: PublicDomainPictures

Boots on the ground

When Morgan Mugula’s father returned from his peacekeeping in Croatia, he brought him combat boots. Avunjas. All cool people own avunjas, which they lace up to their shins and stomp in everywhere. Morgan strode into school with his brand new avunjas, shy and dull as always, but bouncing because everyone was staring at Morgan and his shiny black avunjas for once.

Morgan is neither a chop nor a blot; he is somewhere in the safe middle. Morgan doesn’t get in trouble. Morgan who plays football or chobo mob or whatever other games boys in his class are playing at breaktime. Morgan whose school uniform is always ironed, not like Karim, the class ruffian. Karim’s shorts are tight and too short. His parents keep promising to buy him a new pair, and people tease him for coming to school in hot pants. Teachers don’t say anything because they know Karim’s parents won’t buy new shorts just yet. Anonymous well-wishers pay Karim’s and quiet-Juliet’s school fees.

After that first day with brand new avunjas, Morgan rarely wears them. But everyone knows Morgan owns avunjas and they can never get avunjas like his because their fathers didn’t go to Croatia like Morgan’s father. Morgan’s desk mate is Fidelis, whose father is the pastor of a church which the President likes to visit on Sundays when everyone sees the President in the news singing Praise the Lord, praise the Lord let the people rejoice, and then Fidelis’ father preaches. When Fidelis’ father comes to school on Parents’ Day they all stare at him because it is as if he has come out of the TV but without his flowing robe which they think he wears every day, and he is somebody who greets the President. They ask Fidelis if she has ever met the President, and she says yes. They respect her because she is so humble as a pastor’s daughter.

Morgan and Fidelis get along sharing rulers, pencils, and textbooks. Morgan brings Fidelis a pretty writing pad with pink flowers all around the edges of each leaf. It’s the type his big sister buys when going to boarding school every beginning of term. Morgan never writes to Fidelis—not his thing—but Fidelis admires Morgan’s neat handwriting and it doesn’t matter that he’s not a chop. She is kind of a chop but not in all subjects, she’s a teacher’s pet but no tell-a-teach. It’s because she’s a pastor’s daughter, and see how humble she is.

Tania’s been wearing shorts under her dress since standard five—it’s two years since—because boys will stand next to girls at assembly and throw mirrors under their feet so that they can spy on them. Tania is afraid of being spied on even in class. Tania knows that her desk mate Davies is the type to try and spy on her but she hasn’t caught him red-handed yet. Tania wants a new desk mate. She’s always annoyed with Davies who is so untidy. Davies often turns behind to talk to Ben who is his best friend. They are noisemakers.

Morgan goes home with all the military children who are picked up by a green lorry or Land Rovers driven by soldiers in jungle uniforms, green berets and avunjas. Their vehicles have special number plates. The military children are the ones who say to each other: our driver has come, and the driver will take us there. They risk playing far away from the home-time benches where all students are supposed to wait for their transport home because their drivers will never leave them. Other schoolmates are collected in that embarrassing Mbukinya bus. They’re mocked for entering or alighting from that bus—it’s so shady. Even schoolmates who walk long distances home laugh at Mbukinya-bus riders. It’s jealous laughter. The walkers are regularly getting punished for being latecomers. Nobody knows that Salome’s father is an important government man until the day a sleek Mercedes marked with government license plates arrives to pick her from school. Children run to the gate thinking it’s the president but it is just Salome’s father’s driver. Salome is Karim’s desk mate, what a contrast! Davies, Tania and Karim ride matatus but in different directions—a relief for Tania. Karim doesn’t always have bus fare but Mr Gicheru pays Karim’s fare whenever they meet at the bus stop. They don’t live too far from each other. Karim hates this. Other times Karim rides home with a standard four boy whose father who knows Karim’s family.

Fidelis walks home with Wakonyo who is her best friend because they’ve always walked home together. They live close to school. They aren’t alike. Wakonyo doesn’t like her name because ever since she was in nursery school people have teased her for it. There’s even a teacher who said it’s a funny name. Wakonyo was reputed to be rowdy but she’s settled down now, the teachers say so. They praise her. Some classmates whisper that Wakonyo has been darwa-d, and others like Fidelis don’t even know what dara-ing is. Anyway nobody will talk about dara-ing near Fidelis, the pastor’s daughter. Wakonyo got saved and wishes to be baptized with a normal Christian name like many of her classmates. She wants a Bible name like Hadassah which is better than Esther, and anyway there is an Esther in her class. Even if she gets a name like Deborah she’d like it to have a different spelling like Devorah so it is unique but still a normal name. Wakonyo goes by Koni these days. It’s a clever twist derived from the name that is on all her records, the name her teachers call her, the only name her parents gave her, when all her peers have at least two of their own names, which she doesn’t like. Wakonyo.

Wakonyo has stopped watching Mahabharat since she got saved because it is against her Christian beliefs which she takes seriously. She used to like Mahabharat very much, but she’s dedicated her life to Jesus now. The problem is that Wakonyo’s big sister isn’t saved, and Wakonyo’s sister watches Mahabharat, so Wakonyo sees it by mistake sometimes. She does not judge her sister because she knows what it’s like to be judged, she is not Jesus after all! Wakonyo’s parents never go to church. They don’t even feel ashamed.

Fidelis, whose father is a pastor of a church the president likes to visit, gives Morgan pass-it-ons and handmade bookmarks with Bible verses. He keeps the pass-it-ons and bookmarks between the crisp clean pages of his Good News Bible. He only ever read it for the CRE classes. These days, even at CRE, they concentrate on test papers and exam revision encyclopedias more than anything. That’s their only hope for going to good high schools. Morgan has no need to take his Bible out of his desk unless to add new pass-it-ons or bookmarks from Fidelis. Sometimes Morgan and Fidelis just talk about Mahabharat which he watches religiously which Fidelis does not because one can’t watch such things in a pastor’s house. That would be a wrong testimony, Morgan understands.

When Wakonyo and Fidelis walk home, Fidelis talks about Wild Rose which they are both allowed to watch. They both like it when Mr Mbatia brings radio lessons and they get away with reading Pacesetter novels while the radio plays because he never checks their notes. When Fidelis borrows books from the school library she checks the synopsis to see if it is safe to take them home. At home she reads Elizabeth Gail, Grace Livingston Hill novels, and all the Bible story books which are good Christian books which they buy at Keswick and Scripture Union. She reads the books which aren’t safe for home during Mr Mbatia’s radio lessons. Fidelis is also allowed to read English Classics. The books at Wakonyo’s house are arranged in two places. There are books on display, and books that Baba suddenly hid away without explaining. Wakonyo knows where they are. Baba went away for a long time but he came back. When Baba travels, he is always travelling, and when Mama is out with friends, she sneaks into the wardrobe and takes a peek. They don’t make much sense but she keeps going back and reading them. She feels conflicted about it, now that she’s saved, but she won’t stop.

 

On Saturdays when they go to school for remedial classes, almost everyone rides matatus or goes walking.  On Saturday, Salome’s the only who arrives by car but that’s understandable. Salome can be kidnapped for ransom if she’s not careful. School buses and the military cars aren’t available on Saturday. Morgan wears his avunjas to school but takes them off when he reaches the gate because he doesn’t want them to be confiscated. But before getting to school Morgan meets Fidelis at the shopping centre near the school and they walk together with Wakonyo who knows she’s a third wheel but she’s there anyway and they can’t ignore her. It doesn’t bother Fidelis that Morgan isn’t saved, the way it bothers Wakonyo but Wakonyo’s new at being a Christian and Fidelis knows everything about being a Christian. Wakonyo became a Christian from praying with the TV but Fidelis goes to those churches where they sing boring hymns.

Saturday classes are fun because Mr Mbatia—who teaches business, or art, craft and music—likes to discuss football when he doesn’t have new cassettes for radio lessons. Everyone, especially Davies, gets animated. Davies’ entire family like football just as much as Mr Mbatia does, and so Davies says all the right things and even has stories to contribute during Mr Mbatia’s class. The problem is that it’s not useful being a chop in Mr Mbatia’s subjects—Business, Art & Craft, and Music exams are marked out of thirty, instead of a hundred. Anyone can pass those exams without studying, unless they are a blot. Morgan says the good thing about watching Mahabharat is that if he gets stuck in the CRE exams he can look at Hindu students’ HRE multiple choice questions, which everyone knows have the same letter answers as the CRE and the IRE exams because they are all marked by computers. People think Karim has an advantage in CRE because even though the school doesn’t offer Islamic lessons, he can refer to the IRE questions in the final exams. Karim’s never gone to school in a kanzu like Mr Abdul who was their class teacher in Standard Four. Karim’s not a Muslim, he was just named after a famous basketballer. Fidelis envies everyone who watches Mahabharat but she’s a CRE chop anyway this won’t matter for her.

Tania sits with her best friend Sharon on Saturdays because teachers don’t mind students exchanging seats on Saturdays. It allows them to see who’s influencing who. Fidelis sits with Wakonyo, and then Karim and Morgan sit together. Most Saturdays they do more mathematics, science and Kiswahili because those are the students’ main areas of weakness. Mrs Odede calls them spoiled Nairobians just because they were hospital-born. Rich people’s babies to Mrs Odede. Salome’s parents make her read Taifa Leo and do crosswords. She’s improved a little. Davies isn’t badly off which is surprising because he’s struggling in all the other subjects. Mumbua, who speaks Kiswahili with a Mombasa accent—where she lived until standard five—is always chosen to do shairi recitals on Parents’ Day, and interschool music festivals. She’s an all-round chop. Mrs Odede reminds them to watch the seven o’clock Kiswahili news as they rush out at the end of her class, the last one this Saturday.

Out of the school they walk in groups, Fidelis and Morgan (in his avunjas) hold hands and then let go when people make kissing sounds. At the shopping centre, the students crowd around two shops, which sell sweets and sodas, and chips. Only Davies and Salome can afford to buy chips. They linger, or malinger or walk fast or slowly, in three different directions, Fidelis saying bye to Morgan because she lives close by. Morgan and others rush home to watch Mahabharat at 2:30pm. He might miss it as he does whenever the wait at the bus stop is longer than expected. When Morgan and Fidelis have gone away, Brenda who sits at the back of the class because she’s the tallest girl says that she saw Morgan and Fidelis dara-ing. Everyone knows that Brenda is a mbenye and shouldn’t be believed. But there’s a chance that Brenda is telling the truth.

At Monday’s school break time—while people talk about Mahabharat, or play football, and the usual people who, like quiet-Juliet, don’t have snacks for break are going around asking nigesh please—Tania tells Wakonyo what she heard about Fidelis and Morgan. Wakonyo says it can’t be true. Wakonyo confronts Brenda because she knows what it’s like to have a story spreading about you when it’s untrue. Brenda says, haki ya Mungu it’s true! Adding, I swear to God and shame the devil, while crossing her heart. At home-time Wakonyo rushes Fidelis out of school. Anyway the military car has already arrived and the uniformed driver is standing at the parking lot telling all the military children to hurry up. A safe distance away, Wakonyo tells Fidelis what Brenda said. Fidelis doesn’t even know what dara-ing is until now. She goes home and cries in her bedroom. She has her own bedroom.

On Tuesday, Fidelis moves her chair as far away as it can be from a desk mate. She refuses to share her stationary and does not talk to him. She can’t avoid sharing the textbooks. From Karim, Morgan learns what Brenda said. Morgan’s face doesn’t show how angry he is. Morgan has a boring face which never shows feelings except that first day when he wore avunjas and everyone was looking at him. Morgan waits for Saturday, when he will wear his avunjas after school. After classes he finds Brenda at the shops and he kicks her with such force that classmates have to step in and hold him back but not before Brenda who is bigger than Morgan has grabbed his tie and clasped it so tight he might choke. Shop attendants march them back to school but only find the watchman. They leave, ensuring that Brenda and Morgan go home separately.

By Monday morning everyone’s taken sides. That’s why when Morgan disembarks from the military vehicle there’s cheering and booing. Fidelis has taken back her pass-it-ons and bookmarks from his neglected Bible. Brenda limps, and nobody will say she is exaggerating. They all think so. Brenda is not only a mbenye, she’s an oboho! She can just flash the WANTED symbol with her two thumbs and index fingers to threaten anyone. In class, Mr Gicheru moves Morgan to sit with Tania while Davies is told to sit with Fidelis. Tania is happy but tries to hide it. Davies will miss sitting in front of Ben. The reputation of Fidelis, whose father is a pastor, has not been soured. Wakonyo thanks God for the peaceful resolution while Morgan sulks. His father’s taken away his avunjas and nobody noticed that he used a move that he’d seen in Mahabharat. He cannot boast about it.
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Lutivini Majanja is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She has writing published in Wigleaf, Down River Road, McSweeney’s, Popula, Best Microfiction and more.

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