Avid Reader

Last Saturday, my pre-teen daughter scooped the Avid Reader award in her class. It got me nostalgic about my younger days. Man! Did I read? I must have read every single book and scrap of paper I could lay my hands on. Nothing escaped my prawling eyes. If it was legible and not in the greek alphabet, I read it. Never mind the time or place. I read while eating. I read when holding the baby. I read when walking. I read when sleeping…well, almost. I read in the toilet – the newspaper cuttings had one last chance to serve their pre-destined purpose before being softened for other use and thrown into the sewer never to be seen again. My mother knew better than to send me to fetch something near books. Ten minutes later, she would still be waiting as I travelled to wherever the first page of whichever book that I laid my hands on took me.

I do not remember when I started reading newpapers. Maybe as a five or six year old. My father who was the only one who bought newsapers worked away from home and only came around on weekends. Mother had enough on her hands taking care of five, six or seven children to be bothered with newspapers. However, the Saturday or Sunday newspaper Father brought home was mine for the rest of the week. I devoured every page. Trying to understand the meaning of some news too complex for my mind. Like when the first President, Jome Kenyatta died. Thanks to a lack of television sets, the adults huddled around the one copy of newspaper available for information. When they were done, I picked it up, trying to piece together who and what they were brooding about. That particular time is still etched in my memory because I knew more about the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) than the man himself. You see, I was privileged to have accompanied my father to Tin Tin restaurant on the KICC grounds where an uncle worked. And we had taken a most-prized photo (not the kind where you touch the top of KICC) but one near the fountain with the old man in the background. In my mind, I could not reconcile the death of that magnificient building that I had not too long ago traversed its grounds!

On regular days, the newspaper leisure page was my favorite and there began my addiction with Andy Capp (cannot believe Daily Nation has been running that strip for this long!) and crossword puzzles that continued right through my adulthood, or at least upto motherhood. But the most hilarious experience must have been reading a blood-stained newspaper that had been used to wrap meat! Deputy President’s infamous remark that newspapers are only good for wrapping meat had some truth, after all! I wonder whether that still happens…

Anyway, our butcher back then had no qualms wrapping meat in newspapers. I remember him so clearly now. He was as famous as he was short. Wanjahi (may his soul rest in internal peace), for that was his name, was the sole distributor of meat in my locale for as long as I can remember. He was a master of his trade and the way he weighed the meat was a lesson in science. The weighing scale was of course the traditional type that came with separate weights. You put the desired weight on one side and the meat on the other. Now, Wanjahi did not not need to cut the meat twice trying to make the scale balance. No sir! He knew precisely the size that would match your preferred weight of meat. One chop and voila! The scale would agree with him. Never mind that more bones than you bargained for would find their way into your meat if you zubaad for just a bit! But I digress…

Once home, the chore of removing the pits of paper stuck on the meat began. One by one. Sometimes I was lucky to salvage the pieces of newspaper before Mother threw the whole lot into the fire, or the big black cat ran away with a big piece to find its luck. Other times, Wanjahi would have been generous in wrapping the meat in extra pages of Taifa Leo or Kenya Times, which meant more bloodstain-free pages. When all the newspaper evidence had been done away with, the task of cutting the meat began. My sister or I would hold the meat as Mother cut it into smaller pieces (no chopping board business here!) Woe unto me if I was holding the meat and reading the newspapers from the side. I would get distracted but a whack on the wrist (with the blade of the knife) would bring me back to the present! That would work for a while before my eyes were lured yet again to the newspaper. And again and again. And the whack would work each time. Again and again!

I had my share of storybooks to read but not as many as I would have liked. I must have re-read King Solomon’s Mines and Treasure Island enough times because they are the only ones I now remember. That was until I joined high school and I was introduced to the fantasy world of Mills & Boon. Which begs the question, “How did a Catholic, girls only school, run by strict nuns of the Precious Blood order allow such books on its library shelves?” I am not complaining though. A dose of romance to estrogen-filled teenage girls was perhaps the best medicine. I had enough romantic escapades courtesy of Mills & Boon than I care to remember. Wait! I even started writing one myself. I titled it Too Hot to Handle! I only wish I hadn’t been too afraid to be discovered to keep the manuscript…

Anyway, Sister Claire (God rest her soul, too!) was the minder of the hallowed ground that was the library. And, Oh! what a meticulous job she did! She was a no nonsense, sharp-tounged, old Goan lady in her early seventies. Or late sixties. It was hard to tell her age but to a teenager, she seemed really old! She didn’t hesitate calling those of us from the village who had trouble constructing proper English sentence ignorant dimwits! Her house rules were engaved in stone, not to be broken. For one, there was no wearing sweaters while going to the library no matter the weather (maybe so we could not sneak out a book). You had to walk in a single file when it was your class’s turn to the library. No running and no dragging of feet (you walked swiftly but orderly, like a lady!). No conversing. You picked your book, headed to her table where she stamped it and entered the details in the catalogue. All in silence. Her books were to remain in mint condition and if you were unlucky to drop one, you earned a lifetime ban from her library. Sr Claire, a teacher, a counsellor! She taught me to respect books, to embrace them, to view them in awe. But she also planted in me the fear of libraries. That fear is a story for another day.

Today, I am fascinated how my daughter shuts all out when engrossed in a book. Hell could open up its womb and she would fail to notice. The Queen could walk through the door and she wouldn’t as much as give her a glance. The power of a captivating story, read rather than seen or told! Hubby got the children membership in a library where she has exhausted all her age-appropriate books. Time and again, they have had to buy new books when she could not find any to read. According to her, she cannot fall asleep unless she is reading a book and I have to remember to pass by her bedroom each night to remove the book from her face! I understand. I know how powerful a force it can be. The force of a book beckoning you to read it!

I am the proud mother of an avid reader. Proud that the reading culture in me lives on. Proud that I have someone to discuss books with in the house. Proud that when I buy a book, I keep it for my daughter to read when she is old enough. Proud to watch a movie or a play based on a book we have both read. If only her siblings could catch on….


A train station and a marathon

It was seven-thirty in the evening. The biting Uplands chill was creeping up on her but she was feeling hot. She did not understand what those who accompanied her were talking about. She kept looking right then left then right again. Not that she was about to cross a road. Instead, she was searching the faces of the light evening human traffic. The train station was not busy – just a handful of people expecting their kith and kin. A few others waiting to board the Naivasha bound train. It was expected at 8 o’clock and normally would be on time. In fact, the neighbourhood relied on its ‘whistle’ or king’oora to tell the time. That train was her last hope. If her eight year old daughter did not alight from it, she had no idea where to start looking for her.

Yes. Her daughter was missing. And even as she waited for her to alight from a train, she had no idea how she would have got on it in the first place. She had left home earlier in the day without a penny to her name. Well, at least that is what she thought. According to older daughter, her younger sister had insisted on attending the divisional musical festival after they were released from school. She had begged her not to go, reminding her that “Mother had warned us to come home straight from school”. But she was obstinate and she knew not to argue. Being two years older did not seem to make a difference. In the end, she would do what she wanted. So she helped her as only a sister can. There was some five shillings note around which she told her to use in case she needed it. Then they raided the kitchen of whatever could be carried as lunch. Add some pears from the shamba and she was good for the adventure of a lifetime.

Off she went as happy as a kite. She followed other bigger cousins and schoolmates making their way to the Bata Shoe Factory in Limuru town where the festival was being held.  That is a distance of at least 18 kilometres, my dear friends! How would an eight-year old walk to and fro? But that was the least of worries for the determined lass. All she could think of was the display of colour and dance and watching the performances. She loved music. Especially the traditional kind – the kind where you dressed up in traditional attire and carried flywhisks and jingle bells. The year before she had been a soloist and had gone up to divisional level. This year her class did not make it but that did not mean she would not go watch those who had. So here she was, like the prodigal son, taking step after step, away from home.

What her mother did not know was that she had not walked to Limuru. With other children, they had thronged the same train station where she now hopefully waited and had taken the 12 o’clock train to Limuru. It was jam-packed  with kids going for the festival and the attendant had a difficult time collecting the fares. She had managed to save her five shillings and gotten to Limuru from where she lost track of time and most importantly, her neighbours. She had paid the one bob entrance fee into the hall and gotten carried away by the performances. That is, untill 5 o’clock when the activities seemed to slow down and the hall was getting quieter as the audience filtered away.

She managed to trace some children with the same school uniform as hers and decided those would lead her home. She heard them conversing how they could not wait for the 8 o’clock  train and since they had no money for matatu fare, route 11 would have to do. She had no idea how long a journey it was but it seemed like fun. So, like the children who left Egypt without really comprehending why or what lay ahead, she followed the trekkers. Dusk and fatigue soon conspired and fell on the forlorn group but there was no giving up. By seven, they had covered quite a distance and the crowd of children was getting thinner as each arrived at the path leading home. That is when one of the older children noticed her and started asking police questions (maswali kama ya polisi).

“What is your name?”

“Of who?” (That only comes out right in vernacular – Wa uu?)

“Who are you with?”

“Where do you live?”

Apparently, they were nearing home and did not know of a neighbour like the young girl. Fortunately, they had the wisdom to bring her along and let their parents decide what to do with her. By then it was seven thirty.

The same police questions were repeated by the mama of the house. It turns out the “Of who?” question can be a real saviour. The mention of Mukabi was Njoroge wa Mahinda opened eyes. And doors. And the dinner pot. She was in the midst of her relatives. Her father’s cousins. And they would take her home, which was still about five kilometres away. But first, to matters of the stomach. Dinner was ready, and she was famished! How could she say no? In any case, how would that help her? There were no mobile phones back then and so the sequence of events was to eat then find the way home, whatever time that was. She still did not grasp the gravity of her actions, at least in her mother’s eyes. These people, who she did not even know existed until now, would take her home. Such is the innocence of a child.

An hour later and with a full stomach, jackets and torches in hand, it was back on the road again. Now she was really tired. And sleepy. For once, she wished she had stayed home.

As they approached the train station, they heard people approaching. They were enquiring  from whomever they met whether they had seen a young girl in school uniform.

The eight o’clock train had come and gone. No way was she going home without her daughter. She would report to the police station. Maybe they could help. And as the four or five people that accompanied her headed in that direction, they met the group headed in the opposite direction. With the young girl in their midst. I am not sure I can describe the outpouring of emotions but relief would be an understatement.

That young girl happened to be yours truly. I would never describe myself as a rebellious child but adventure was not a strange word to me back in the day.

Now to the marathon connection.

The last week was training week for the Stanchart Nairobi Marathon that took place yesterday. I had registered for the half marathon but try as I could, I did not feel ready for it right up to the last minute. I had no intention of competing for the prize money but at least I thought I could tackle that distance in three hours tops. But the runner’s manual that came with the marathon kit was not helping. The words ‘stragglers bus’ could not leave me alone. I could see myself being forced off the track to clear way for mid-afternoon traffic. Worse still, being whisked off in an ambulance after fainting in the unforgiving Nairobi sun. I freaked out. Truth be told, I am scared of running. I am pretty sure that any nightmare I have had has been of me running away from something and my legs giving up on me. It is a fear I am determined to conquer and this marathon was going to be the beginning.

So, I remembered the courageous, young girl who could take on the bull by the horns. She may have been foolish, maybe ignorant. Still, she took the first step.  Knowing what she wanted, she did not wait for the perfect situation. She did not wait for others to agree with her. She did not wait to grow older. Instead, she took the first step even when she couldn’t see the whole staircase (trust Martin Luther King, Jr to leave us such quotes). I long to go back to that time. To be that little girl once more. To be carefree. To care less what others think when I am on course to my achieving my dream.

As for the marathon, come back. I promise to tell you how it went.

Dad, what is orgasm?

A question from a twelve-year old girl. She had heard her sixteen-year old sister and her friend discussing as they searched for the meaning in the dictionary. The word was in a magazine they were reading. The younger girl, not wanting to be shooed out of the room, chose to pretend not to hear the conversation but instead waited for the one person who was sure to give answers. And he soon arrived.

Before, “Dad, how was your day?”, or “Dad, welcome home”, the bombshell was dropped.

Imagine the shock on the poor man. The wife is not yet home to save the situation. What should be his response?

He stutters…

“Where did you get that from?”

“Caroline and Edith were checking the meaning in the dictionary.”

“Caroline? Why? Where did she hear it from?”

“Oh, they were reading a magazine.”

“A magazine! What sort of magazine?”

“I don’t know. But dad, what does the word mean?”

The girl is relentless in her quest for knowledge. And the grilling session only help increase her curiosity. Was it something bad? But Caroline and Edith didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong. I wish mum was here. She always has answers to all her questions. But it would serve Caroline right if she was doing something she shouldn’t. After all, she had refused to help with the Maths homework so she could go through that magazine with Edith. She needed to know….

Her thoughts back to the present, she turned to face her father again. Alas! He was nowhere to be seen. She soon found out why as Edith quickly walked past her carrying her bag. Her father soon followed with the offensive magazine in hand. He put it in his briefcase without a word and sat down. He seemed to be in deep thought. Even when Caroline came downstairs with all her gaily self and offered to make him a cup of tea, he did not respond.

Something was wrong. Again, I wish mum would get home already…

That is the kind of case-study situation we were dealing with in the Adolescence course hubby and I attended this last Saturday. Children nowadays are growing too fast and as parents, we are often caught offguard. Thinking back, I am not sure I knew such a word existed until after high school. Sure, I read enough Mills & Boon in my high school days, but I can’t recall “the feeling you feel” being called by its right name. Imagine for a moment that I had come across the word, my parents, let alone my dad, would have been the last people to seek for answers from. In the absence of Uncle Google, I would have preferred to remain ignorant than seek answers. I mean, who relishes a beating just because of a question?

I like that children nowadays are not afraid to ask questions. In fact, I came across a study that indicated children ask an incredible 400 questions daily! That’s on average. Oh, and the study pointed out that most questions are directed at mothers. I would like to extend that study to, Why mothers?) Anyway, as you struggle with the sometimes annoying but easier questions smaller children, such as:

Why is water wet? or,

Where does the sky end? or,

Why do people get sick? or,

Where did I come from?,

Prepare for the soon-coming day when the bomb will be dropped. And with all the media exposure, the questions can only get complex. The expert parent (I shouldn’t have been too quick to judge about their expertise) explained that if your children are not asking such and other sexuality-related questions, you should be worried. (Ok, I thought it better if they do not ask – it means I get to keep them for myself longer!) He also said you should be as factual as possible – you do not want the child losing confidence in you when they finally learn the truth. In any case, they could be testing you – to see whether you can corroborate what Uncle Google or any other uncle for that matter, said!

It was also pointed out that there are questions better answered by a man and questions better left for mum. Our bomber here is reserved for mum. Reason? Dad has no personal experience. The same way mum would struggle to answer about wet dreams! You can imagine I was depressed at this point! This parenting thing is complicated!

I however, agreed with one thing –  do not face the child while explaining. Keep busy with other stuff. Apparently, our misconceptions (I am sure you already know where mine come from) reflect on our face when we talk about things we are not comfortable about. The child will then ‘read’ that the subject is not comfortable for you and they may fail to ask you the next time!

I hope this helps.


The Mother Factor

My church recently launched a Parents Fellowship whose aim is to help parents mold a Godly character in their children. Hubby and I quickly signed up because, to be honest, we need all the help we can get in raising our three angels. The first one is not even a teenager (I understand this is where the rubber meets the road!) but as she reminds all those who care to listen, she is a pre-teen! Her school also organizes courses to equip parents in this tumultuous journey and we are currently on an Adolescence course. These are welcome additions into our busy lives (who isn’t?) despite the inconveniences of being treated like children ourselves. Can you imagine we must sign an attendance register, which by the way is withdrawn fifteen minutes after class starts. Not to mention, the homework! Which reminds me I have two case studies to read before coming Saturday! Nonetheless, we dutifully attend if only to glean a few useful lessons from other like-minded and often-clueless parents and the experts (if ever there was anything like expert parents!).

I was reflecting on the huge responsibility parents have  in raising their children, when it hit me how lucky I am to have these resources at my disposal. I stopped in my tracks thinking how my parents, particularly my mother, managed to raise all seven of my siblings and I. She was only eighteen when she had her first child. By the time she was thirty, she had birthed seven of them, had two snatched from her hands by the grim reaper, and still kept a straight face. Thirty is significant because that is when I had my first born! (In case you are wondering, I was waiting for the cows to come home and as you all know, they can be stubborn in the midst of so much pasture!). Anyway, back to my mother. In the midst of all the cacophony associated with such a full house, she still managed to go through college earning herself a P2 teacher’s grade and starting what would become her lifetime career – instilling sense not only to her own brood but to all others that crossed her path, literally!

We all have tales to tell about our mothers. Good or bad, mothers made us what we are today. Forget the strange things they all seem to have learnt from a nameless virtual school. I am sure you have seen them circulating on social media:

…wiping dirt from your face with saliva…

…telling you to go on and break all the cups/glasses just because one accidentally fell…

…the third eye that knew your hand was in the sugar jar even when she was not there…

…whipping you then telling you not to cry, or else…

…banning you from talking to so and so’s children just becaused she and so and so disagreed…


Growing up, my mother was not my best friend. Firstly, I thought she was a slave driver. In fact, had I lived in this era of Children’s Rights and being the litigious society we have become, I am pretty sure we might have faced off in a court of law! Or how do you explain a seven-year old babysitting two toddlers and taking charge of the home. Mind you, she expected to find a neat home upon her return, or you faced the music. Secondly, she knew not how to spare the rod and believed the proverbial notion that children only flourish if chastised for any wrongdoing. In fact, she could very well have been Mdzomba’s teacher, the only difference being that she allowed you to choose your own rod, eh, stick. You see, being a teacher’s child was a big deal! According to my mother, the entire village had their eyes on you. Watching and waiting for you to miss a step, and she was not going to let that happen! So we had to be smart; brainwise, in dress and in character. To achieve this, our home was an extension of her classroom, chalk and all – and woe unto those of us who did not keep to the straight and narrow.

Disciplinary action aside, I believe with all my heart that my mother did the best she knew to achieve me. Were it not for her guidance, I shudder to think how I might have turned out. My older sister and I must have bee the reason for her worst nightmares especially during our adolescent years when some nuts came loose. Yet, she continued to give us room and board in her house even when we committed the greatest act of rebellion against her entire being – snubbing church!  You see, for as long as I can remember my mother  has always been a church-going Christian and she brought us up to respect the Sabbath. But hey! There comes a time when personal decisions must be made. And make them we did. And so we conspired to break her heart for at least two years. Years in which her waking thoughts must have been receiving the news that one of us was fooling around with some boy and got herself pregnant – after all, that is what foolish girls did back then!

Anyway, God must have hearkened to her desperate cries and that phase passed without leaving us with permanent scars. And praying she did, still does. My mother’s prayers can stretch to the moon and back. If you are in a hurry, better offer to pray yourself otherwise forget your appointment! And she will mention the physical, emotional, mental, social, financial and spiritual needs of all her children then start all over again with the grandchildren, calling each by name. With a mother interceding like that, wonder not that I am at this place, right here and now.

Now it is my turn – to bring up my own children in what can only be a better manner than my mother’s. I cannot fall short. And that is why I am open to learning about this huge responsibility called Parenting. I read somewhere that kids do not come with an instruction  manual. That may be true, but I am determined to write my own manual, borrowing the best tips from my mother’s style and incorporating the best researched ideas. Of course with help from the One above, the Super-parent. So, help me God!