Sungu trudged along the footpath of his only farm to his homestead. He was on his way back from the chief’s compound. His hands were clasped behind his back. He could not stop thinking about the chief’s words: “the last decision lies in your hands…the last decision…is…in…your hands…the last decision…”
As he entered his homestead, his two dogs ran to welcome him. It was midday and the sun overhead played its usual game upon the men and women tending to their farms. A few women would periodically leave the fields and sit below a mango tree, where they would quaff several cups of water to cool their thirsty lungs. His wife emerged from the smoke-filled thatched hut, tightening her leso as she hurried towards him.
“Did you agree to sell the land?”
Sungu lowered his eyes to the ground. As he advanced toward the kitchen hut, he lost control and fell over a pile of firewood. Promptly, his wife pulled the piece of firewood lying beside the kitchen entrance, rubbed her eyes repeatedly, and made to break the wood on her knee. It broke with a loud snap. Sungu did not flinch. Instead, he picked himself up, and retreated into a deep silence, his head drooping, his arms motionless.
“How did it go? Did you agree to sell the land?” she asked again.
Sungu cast her a harsh glance. “Is there anything I can eat nyako?” he said.
“I think there is something.”
“You think?” He made as if to pounce on her, but she sneaked back into the kitchen right on time.
“Porridge and yesterday’s yams.”
“Kelna. I am hungry like one who has not eaten for days.”
“It is the issue to do with the land. It is eating you up. Admit it,” she said, emerging from the kitchen and placing the jug of porridge on the veranda.
“Will you shut up and give me peace for a second nyako. What is it? What do you know anyway?” He continued. “If I transferred the stress in my head into yours, you would run in this village like a mad woman.”
Sungu paused, turned to the porridge and poured it slowly in a large metallic cup. He sipped it, but not before pouring a little on the ground.
“Give me a break, woman. Just give me time,” he said.
He needed ample time to think wisely. To break down the matter into smaller pieces and consider each piece on its own. He continued to stare at the endless horizon and the wreaths of white clouds resting just slightly above it.
“What does a man want in this world?” Sungu thought. “Mr. Miseno has a big house. A government job with a moderate salary, and endless allowances and bribes. All his sons and daughters have gone to the university. And they have big jobs. Nyasaye, what more would a man such as Mr. Miseno desire that he has not seen? Doesn’t he have everything that we peasants – no matter the effort of our toil – shall never see till death! Huge tracts of land. Rental houses. Three P.S.Vs. Large-scale farms in Kitale… everything… he has everything… this man… our chief. But now… yes… now… today… right now… the decision is mine to make. To sell my only remaining piece of land because I cannot raise examination fees for my son who is sitting his form four exams. God is my witness. I have sold all my cows, goats, and sheep because of this son.”
Sungu got so carried away that he did not notice his five children arrive home from school. They fell upon him and mobbed him with requests.
“Baba, baba, see, the teacher wants money for development.”
“Baba, you’ve not paid my examination money. The head teacher told us, ‘Tomorrow if you will not have paid, we will be sent home’.”
“Baba, baba, still the class teacher says you have not cleared the money for building the school toilets and…”
“Everyone, go to the kitchen and find out if food is ready, eat, and then run back to school.”
That afternoon, he decided to pay his childhood friend a visit. The matter had reached that moment where suicide was beckoning him, nudging him, teasing him. He needed to talk to his friend.
At around half past two, Sungu took his Phoenix bicycle from his hut and cycled two miles to his friend’s village. Usually at this time, only a few villagers could be seen along the footpaths; boys grazing livestock in defiance of the sun; girls fetching firewood, and another group on indescribable errands – a consequence of the village grind and ceaseless monotony.
On arrival, Sungu dismounted from the bicycle and pushed it beside him as he entered the homestead. He leaned it against an Umbrella tree in front of the big house.
The faint sound of a moving object outside aroused Odolo from his dreamy siesta and he rose to his feet and made for the door.
“Welcome, Sungu,” Odolo said and offered a hand.
“How did you leave everyone back at home – the wife, and the children?”
“It is survival, I think you know the situation.”
He patted Odolo on the back before settling for a wooden chair near a clay-pot.
“Water, please. The sun outside is really bad.”
After taking two full cups of water, he let it out. “It’s Miseno. I came to tell you about Miseno. I don’t know what to do. The man has been so persistent.”
He placed the cup on a table covered with a pink tablecloth with heart-shaped flower embroidery, and continued, this time his voice almost inaudible – partly a whisper, partly a plea. “He wants nothing but the land. And he has the money, you know that. I don’t know… I just don’t know what will happen, help me.”
“But you told me last week that you won’t sell it.”
“Yes. But that was the case then. My son Tange is not going to sit for his examinations if I don’t pay his examination fee. It is the final exams.”
“I have pleaded with the principal the way any needy parent would. I have begged him to let the boy sit his exams then I will pay later but he has refused. He told me: ‘It is either you pay the examination fee or the boy misses his final exams’.”
Sungu’s face turned pale as he choked on his last words, and his usually distended cheeks deflated like a pin-pricked balloon. Odolo shot sympathetic glances at his friend.
“Every day, it’s Miseno. Everyone complains of this man. Sungu, when will the lion ever let the antelope graze in peace?”
“I bet it’s survival for the fittest.”
“What survival? Miseno and his ilk can go to hell! He should just let us be.”
“He should let us survive with all our misery and pain in peace. After all I don’t beg for food at his homestead.” He added, “Sungu, ngima emaduong’ don’t our people say. Life is the most important thing. If you are healthy, that’s it. Good things shall come.”
“So are you trying to hint that I should sell the land?” asked Sungu, pretending to be surprised.
“Close to that. Because you are in a tough place. The lightest basket helps one escape the rain.”
“After selling it then what?”
“Education brings light in the homestead of those who embrace it, so do our people say. Do you know why Miseno is exploiting us?”
“Wealth and glory, I suppose.”
“Very true. But the main reason is because of his education. He saw the light early, Sungu.” A small pause.
“What about us! Nothing. Say even you and me. No proper education. No skills. Only primitive forms of survival.”
“My point is – sell the land, pay the boy’s examination fee, and let him do the final exams.”
“Back in the day I wanted to be rich like Miseno. I packed my bags and went to Migori in search of gold, but I could not find any gold. So I came back, but not before a courageous friend counselled me: ‘Make the best out of life with what you have’. I have never forgotten those words.”
“Odolo, this is my only land. I have no other land. If I sell it where will I go? Where will l make my livelihood? This is my life.”
“No. I don’t mean that…”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a sacrifice you must make. Education or land. It is for you to choose.”
An unsettling silence fell upon them, like that moment between the confirmation of the death of a loved one and the first wail. Sungu did not erupt into a wail. A man does not wail.
“What do you say?” Odolo asked.
“Mmmmh… my mind is blank. I will not decide now but will go and think about it. Your suggestion makes sense, but I shall see.”
The conversation diverted to the mundane village issues – the many funerals of friends being swept into their early graves by the ‘Special One’ – the harsh weather threatening to wilt their crops – the coming general elections. It was always coming – would it be another crazy apocalypse? Only those in the city could tell. And the dropping market prices of livestock. Both Sungu and Odolo knew things were deteriorating, but one did not admit failure even in the face of overwhelming adversity. Life was constant endurance and survival.
Before five o’clock, Sungu bid his friend goodbye and cycled back to his village. As he cycled, he tried to digest Odolo’s words: “…this is now sacrifice. Education or land. It is for you to choose.” Which was which? How did one choose between education and land? With education, one could find a career and buy land. Still, one could sell land and use the money to fund his education.
He recalled Tange’s school performance. In the first-term, he was third last, second-term; last. And in the just concluded mock exam; again, last – this time tailing the whole form four class. Sungu suffocated with so much disgust that he nearly lost his balance, but acted swiftly and spared himself the disgrace of falling.
Here he was, overburdened with school fees, his head almost splitting into two because of chronic stress, and Tange was not even studying hard. The wife forever nagging. Money for food. Money for the children’s clothes. Money for business. A business that he had not seen record even a single cent in profit. Every time, it was always money for something. And now there was a fork in the road. Was he to sell the land or not?
Sungu reached home after the sun had gone to rest. He talked to nobody and so nobody tried to talk to him that night. Neither did he eat anybody’s food. After a cold bath, he fished out a crumpled hundred shilling note, placed it on the table as he usually did whenever he had something then collapsed into the bed. He was human too and would explain to his wife and children that he was at a crossroads. For those in primary school, like Odolo likes to say, their head teacher can go to hell! After all, primary school was now free. He could take his children to another school. Apart from the nagger who was now expecting his ninth baby, the most critical case was that of the boy.
The following morning together with his son, Tange, they cycled to Hekima High School to once again plead with Mr. Takamani – the principal. Sungu had borrowed one thousand shillings to save face and, demonstrate his seriousness about the boy’s education.
Mr. Takamani refused to budge. “If there is no money – the exact amount, I am sorry, but we cannot let the boy register for his exam, Mr. Sungu.”
“But, Mr. Principal, I am trying. I have tried everywhere. Please let my boy register for his final exams. Then the school can withhold his certificates until I clear the balance.”
“No, Mr. Sungu. We don’t operate a secondary school like some public toilet where you come with baseless suggestions.” For effect, Mr. Takamani rose to full height. He was a burly figure – six feet tall in thick horn-rimmed glasses adorning a black and white stripped cotton shirt matched with a pair of dress trouser that made him resemble a wrestling referee.
“Look. Mr. Sungu. We need the money now. The seriousness of these exams does not allow me, in my capacity as the school principal, to cut corners…”
“But mwalimu…” Sungu tried to cut in.
“I said no.”
“Mwalimu, I am stuck, please help me.” Sungu once again dipped his fingers in the back pocket of his patched SAVCO jeans, tears almost welling down his dejected face but it was too late.
“Mr Sungu, leave my office now! We have so many parents waiting outside or I will call the security.”
Heart-broken and his spirits crushed, Sungu wiped his sweaty face, cast an evil look at the principal now leafing through a newspaper before opening the door into the sun-filled morning, and walked out, son in tow.
Sungu decided it was time to speak up. His wife was in the farm when he got home. After entering the main house, he called Tange.
“Go and call your mother. Run.”
The boy sprinted out of the room into the compound and out of the homestead. Fifteen minutes later, his wife arrived eager to finally discuss with her husband the matter at hand. During her girlhood, her mother had advised her on the importance of dialogue. Whenever there is an issue, always seek out your husband and find out what the matter is. It not only reduces tension in the marriage, but also shows him how much you care.
Before she could settle on the nearest seat, Sungu said, “This is the end. I have no other choice but to sell the land.”
“So finally you’ve agreed.”
“We have no choice.”
“What did the principal say?”
“The exact amount. In fact, he almost called the security guards to escort me out. The corrupt philanderer, I don’t know what I could have done to that fool.”
“I was for the idea that we sell the land. I have found a teacher who will assist Tange with school work in the evenings before he sits for the exams scheduled for next week but one.”
“And where does that money come from woman?”
“From the land. It is not a small amount. And we should encourage the boy. If he is told the family land has been sacrificed for his education, I think he will understand.”
The land was sold on a Thursday – a day full of warm sunshine – crops so promising – the sky so serene that it was impossible to imagine Sungu and Miseno worshipped one God found in that sky.
All the concerned parties convened at the chief’s camp. Sungu was accompanied by two elders, his friend, Odolo, and his wife. On the chief’s side were two lawyers and a surveyor; a son of Miseno’s clan.
Inside the chief’s office, Miseno’s lawyers did not allow the elders to enjoy the spectacle of introducing themselves. Instead, from a brown leather briefcase, one lawyer produced a sheaf of yellow papers and tossed them before Sungu.
“Sign. All of them. I think you know how to sign.”
“How do we sign what we have not read?” Sungu’s wife protested.
Miseno and the surveyor agreed it was a formality for the selling party to at least read the terms and conditions.
“But does it matter? Read or not read, you will sell the land,” the other lawyer said and matched out of the office.
As the wife read through the papers, Miseno drew closer to Sungu and teased him. “I told you earlier that you will finally agree. The deal was not as hard as you had earlier put it. Look, you are raising school fees. I know that little boy, if well taken care of, he will go places.”
His wife asked for a pen and in front of the two elders, his wife, and friend; Sungu signed the papers before handing the title deed to Miseno.
“Where is the money you crook?” Odolo said.
“Bring these nobodys their money,” Miseno said.
Money was brought in a gunny sack and counted.
“It is not enough! This is not the exact amount we agreed on,” Sungu yelled in alarm while letting the gunny sack fall to the ground.
“Look at this fool,” the chief said while scrutinizing Sungu from head to toe like he was seeing him for the first time before declaring, “and that is what you will get. Leave now. All of you. Out! ”
Sungu picked up the gunny sack and together with his vanquished party; filed out of chief’s office in a solemn silence. Before they reached the gate, Odolo broke the silence. “Something must be done. We will have to do something about this man. ” The speaker waited for another voice to lend support. Only that none came as they kept on walking.