We got whipped on the first Sunday afternoon of the April holidays, under the Jacaranda tree in the middle of the estate. All the estate mothers were there, mob justice kiboko. There was my mother who was the leader and gave the fiercest lashes, it was well known. There was Mama Kivuva, she tired quickly and did most of her lashing with her tongue though in truth, everything was always Kivuva’s fault. There was Mama Pipi but she was not well, so she was going to hand over Pipi to Mama Erick to beat but at the last moment, changed her mind and handed him to my mother instead. When Pipi saw that, he started to cry even before he was beaten. And I was trying to tell him that would just make my mother angrier but he was already crying so bad that he couldn’t see my signs through the tears.
How had it started? Well, it was all because of a five hundred grams Kasuku. An empty plastic cooking fat tin of white, red and blue. It had appeared in the toilet a short while after Mohammed, the converted Muslim, moved into the estate. He was unmarried and lived in the small corner house, the one-room. We had all asked about it. Kivuva’s mother told him Mohammed used it to carry water for washing his face; Erick’s mother told him it was for brushing teeth; Pipi’s mother told him that Muslims use water and nothing else; and my mother simply said ‘If I ever find you touching it, you’ll see.’ So I was never going to touch it. I was going to die before touching it. If I was ever tempted to touch it I was going to cut off my hand. But coming round the corner of our house that morning, I found Kivuva and Erick just sitting there by the path leading to the toilet. And the 500 grams Kasuku was upside down in the middle of the path, and there were two sticks stuck in the ground up ahead like goalposts.
And Kivuva said, “I doubt you can kick it through the sticks.”
I was the best at football, and they knew it. So I said “Pah!” and I went for a hard one. Kobo! And they burst out laughing and rolled on the ground. Really, they did. You see, they had filled it up with stones first and then upended it there. So I really crunched my toes on that thing when I kicked it. It was very painful. I sat down a bit waiting for the pain to go and wondering what I would do to them.
When a trick is played on you, you don’t cry. You can beat someone if you catch them really fast but I was in no condition to run just yet. So when Kivuva forgot and came too close, I saw my chance. I was up in a flash and I used my left leg and I kicked the 500 grams Kasuku and it hit him in the face. It was light without the stones but we all knew what it was used for, that tin. So Erick James and I started to laugh as Kivuva wiped his face with his shirt and spat and spat and spat. Then he grabbed the tin quick as a flash and hit Erick James on the back with it and surely, the game was on. We barreled around the estate, behind the houses and between the rows of Mama Kivuva’s kales and if the tin hit you, you were it and you had to hit someone else and my foot was slowing me down but I was still faster than the others.
We were screaming and shouting when we came round Pipi’s house and there he was brushing his teeth, unaware of anything. Erick James didn’t even think, he just covered Pipi’s head with the 500 grams Kasuku and then the three of us stood there dying of laughter. Pipi threw it off his head, then the realization of what it was hit him and he was so angry that he just threw his toothbrush down in the dust, grabbed the tin, and came after Erick James. Kivuva and I let them pass but Pipi was devious, he suddenly whipped around and pushed that tin right into my face so hard I fell over. You bet I got him. We didn’t even notice when we clambered over the big anthill near the corner and came up in front of Mohammed’s house. Even when the door opened we just went on throwing and missing and kicking and laughing and then Mohammed caught Pipi by his left hand, the hand that was holding the tin. And we scattered.
In two minutes flat Kivuva, Erick, and I were in our houses, cleaned up and doing our homework. But you could feel it in your stomach, those murmurations of doom butterflies that loosen your bowels as if you have typhoid. Mama passed me at the table with my ‘Better English’ and looked pleasantly puzzled and then Oyundi came trotting after her. One glance and the sweat beads appeared on my forehead. I looked at her face with forced bravado but women’s intuition is like witchcraft. She was already smiling. Outside, I heard the first sounds of trouble from Kivuva’s house as his mother started as usual with a good verbal blasting. And then I saw the shape of Mama Pipi approaching my mother at the hanging line and quietly swallowed the frog in my throat.
Oyundi had fetched the guava lashes. We called her Oyundi because she was always ‘sesesese’ like the bird. Running to the mothers to say, “Oh, the boys climbed the Zambarawe and did not give me any berries,” and we would be beaten for climbing the old rotten tree. Or “Oh, the boys have gone to play with Ngige’s dogs and they would not let me go with them” and when we got back we would be welcomed with kiboko. And the worst thing about Oyundi is that she really knew how to pick the good lashes. She went for the flexible ones that wrapped around your buttock but didn’t break so that squirming was more dangerous than staying still and taking it proper. If you squirmed too much sometimes the guava wrapped around your thigh and caught your thing a good one then you stopped pretending to cry and cried proper. But if that happened, the mothers
knew. They would just add a few light ones but without real intent so that you don’t start to think they are merciful and then they would wait until you stopped crying and bribe you with GoodyGoody.
In a flash of wisdom, I stood up and went towards my mother knowing full well that first was better than last but she read me like a book. She pushed me aside and started with Pipi as Mama Kivuva and Mama Erick each grabbed their respective delinquents and kiboko commenced. I wanted to run but Mohammed was standing near the only available escape space and he looked fit and furious. Pipi was screaming like a police nainai and Kivuva and Erick’s mothers were determined not to be outdone by my mother in public. The crowd bayed for blood, with Mama Pipi playing a horribly one sided referee for the gladiatorial sport. It was strange spectating a beating, usually I was in the thick of things. I had almost forgotten that I was next when I noticed something strange. Even though my mother was thrashing Pipi quite well, her eyes were on me the whole time. Our eyes met, what a mistake. She unceremoniously dumped Pipi and lunged over his writhing body for me. I met her with a wail and then Kacha! Kacha!
She held you with her left hand and whipped you with her right. And she had this habit of talking as she whipped you.
“I told you…”
Kacha! Kacha! Kacha!
I tried to hold still but by this time we knew all of each other’s tricks. She varied the angle of each blow a little, now hitting the left cheek, now the right, now both, now upper thigh, now lower back. I grabbed the stick, I got a left hand slap. Ears ringing, I let go of the stick and tried to run before she grabbed me again, left hand slap takedown. On the ground I was defenceless.
I rolled up into a ball. Kacha! Kick. Kacha! Kick. Kacha! I straightened up like a rod. Kacha! Kick. Kacha! Kick. Kacha! I jumped up, she tucked the stick into her left armpit and met me head on. Until about the age of twelve, the average human child can comfortably be lifted by their earlobes and shaken like a milk urn. While my eyeballs were still rattling about in my eye sockets, she tossed me up. Hangtime, three seconds. I landed on my feet, turned to run, my ears burning like fire. Kacha! Right shoulder blade. Kacha! Right shoulder blade exact same spot, a particular skill of hers. I twisted, trying to rub the spot. Kacha! Kacha! Kacha! I rolled over and presented my face and tender underbelly, a last resort. These she would never hit. Instead she grabbed an ankle and lifted. Kacha! Left buttock and lower back. Kacha! Kick. Kacha! Kick. Kacha!
I tried to crawl away on my hands but she hung onto my leg. Kacha! Kacha! Kacha! Wheelbarrow whipping. The crowd had long fallen silent, entranced. The other mothers had long since forgotten their attempts at competition and now cradled their still whimpering sons as if to protect them from the sight. I gave up, collapsed onto the ground, felt the lash coming down one more time, braced myself, and then something landed on my back.
Oyundi’s voice. “Enough mama, enough!”
And then she started crying as though she had been the one receiving the thrashing and not me. This too happened quite often.
“Stand up!” Mama ordered.
I got up gingerly, dizzy from the exertion. When I got on my feet, the crowd murmured in appreciation. As though they had expected me to be unable to get up. Oyundi held my hand.
“Take him to the bathroom!” she ordered Oyundi.
It was not painful yet. For now my buttocks felt as though they were missing entirely. In a few minutes, it would be like I was sitting on the crown of Jesus and when the water touched it, I would bite my lips until I tasted iron. But those experiences were better handled inside, leave the crowd in adoration. So I let Oyundi lead me to the house. Behind me, I could hear Mama apologizing to Mohammed for my behavior. The crowd was dispersing. Satisfied. Entertained.
And that is how we started the April holidays of my class six year with a bang.
We talked about interesting things when we just sat together. Places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do. Our enemies; the mothers, Mohammed, and Oyundi. The mothers and Oyundi we could not avoid but Mohammed we had been making a point of not greeting. We’d fall silent when he walked past us playing in the compound and look at each other when he greeted us, not answering. We planned games, then played them, then talked about playing them. Our talking-place was a pile of rocks just beyond the estate fence. A big house was supposed to go up there soon but it had been standing unfinished for two years. Well, it was a great playground.
We were talking about Ngige’s dogs when Oyundi came to join us there one day.
“That Eish is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen,” said Erick.
“I saw bigger ones in Nairobi,” Pipi replied.
Pipi was always talking about Nairobi ever since he’d gone to visit his uncle there. Everything was bigger, better, faster, flashier, better tasting in Nairobi. It got me a little because our own trip to Nairobi had been cancelled when Oyundi fell sick just before Mama was to take us. Also, Pipi had seen TV in Nairobi, and he couldn’t stop talking about it.
“They are named after wrestlers of WWF. Eish is Hulk Hogan, then there is Stonecold Steve-Austin, and a woman wrestler called Chyna.”
“Do they live in Nairobi?” Kivuva asked.
“No, they live in America. But you can see them on TV in Nairobi.”
“Hogan…” I repeated absent-mindedly.
You see the dog indeed was called Hogan but he walked so softly he was always surprising people. And he was also big and black so when he appeared suddenly at a stranger’s side, people would shout “Eish!” in surprise and soon, he started thinking it was his name.
Oyundi had come to the bottom of the pile of rocks and stood there looking up at us, but only Kivuva and Erick could see her. Pipi and I were facing the other side. She squatted and began to make drawings in the dirt.
“Oyundi, go away,” Erick said.
“Oyundi, go and play with girls,” said Pipi.
“There are no girls in the estate,” she replied, not looking up from her drawings in the dirt.
It was true. Oyundi was the only girl her age in the estate. All the others were either older or far too young to play with her. However, she followed us around even in school where there were hundreds of girls to play with. I knew, though the others didn’t, that Oyundi just really liked following me around. But I could not be seen running around with a girl all the time, even my sister. So I let the others say mean things to her sometimes. In the evening when she complained to Mama, I’d say, “Tell her to stop following us around all the time.” Mama would ignore us mostly, then she would say “You are supposed to take care of your little sister,” and Oyundi would look at me with triumph, and hope. But I would turn away.
Kivuva and Erick were still taunting Oyundi.
“Stop drawing girly things near our pile of rocks,” Kivuva said. Oyundi didn’t reply.
“Go and play bebligan somewhere far away,” said Erick. Oyundi did not reply.
Quick as a flash, Kivuva ran down the pile of rocks and rubbed away Oyundi’s drawing with his foot and then clambered back up before she could throw something at him. They laughed, Erick and Kivuva, looking down upon Oyundi from the pile.
“Leave me alone,” she cried, and she started drawing again.
The second time, Erick ran down and broke the stick she was drawing with as he stamped on her drawings. She got him with a fist on the back but he ran up the pile and again they laughed. Pipi was getting interested now, he turned around so I also had to.
We all looked down upon Oyundi from the pile of rocks. She fetched another stick, sat on a low rock facing away from us, and began to draw again.
The thought occurred to me that if one of us were to roll a rock from the top, it would hit her on the back where she sat. Somehow I could feel that all of us were thinking the same thought, even Pipi. I looked at Kivuva, a silent warning. The rocks were loose, it could happen easily.
‘Oyundi, go home. We don‟t want to play with you,” I told her.
“Leave me alone, this is not your pile of rocks,” she retorted.
Pipi started to climb down slowly, trying to make no noise. He was almost upon her when she saw his shadow and turned. He jumped and landed in the middle of her drawing and she pounced on him with blows. He tried to run but she didn’t let him. She landed blow after blow on his face and back and soon, we realized that they were not playing anymore. Oyundi was seriously beating up Pipi and Pipi had never been much of a fighter. Kivuva and Erick urged Pipi on, yelling instructions.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Oyundi was holding her own against Pipi, she fought the way mama usually thrashed me. Blow after blow after blow, all well aimed. In the end size won, Pipi managed to get a foot behind her and pushed. She fell on her back. If she cried I was going to be in hot soup. Pipi took the chance to run and climb back up the pile of stones. He was breathing heavily and Kivuva and Erick were laughing like mad.
Oyundi got up, she was not crying. The girl was tough, perhaps like me. I had never seen her fight before. I was smiling, but not for the same reason as the others.She dusted herself off, sat on the same rock, and began to draw in the dust again. This time for sure, nobody was going down there. She had made her point. Pipi had recovered, he started up the song. “Oyundi please go and dig.”
Erick, Kivuva, and Pipi chanted the answer together, “Oyundi says her foot is hurt.”
“Oyundi please go and weed the farm.”
This time I joined in, “Oyundi says her head is aching.”
“Oyundi please go and harvest.”
And we sang, “Oyundi says her elbow hurts.”
“Oyundi please come and eat.”
And loudly all together we shouted, “Oyundi runs sesesesese!”
She got up from the rock and turned to look at me, standing on top of the rock with the others and there was something in her eyes that made me sad. I looked away but I didn’t stop singing. Wasn’t she always telling on us, getting us in trouble, and interfering with our games? Why did she always get the best lashes when we were to be beaten, why not ones that broke quickly? It was all of us against Oyundi and the mothers in the struggle to have fun-filled April days and the enemy was not to be shown mercy.
“Oyundi please come and eat.”
“Oyundi runs sesesesese!”
She turned and walked away, her head hanging sadly. I wanted to follow, but I stayed and sang with the others. Erick created a new line for the song, “Oyundi please go and fetch the lashes.”
We answered, laughing at her retreating back, “Oyundi runs sesesesese!”
She whipped around and made an ugly face at us and then she ran away, homeward. We stayed, triumphant, on the pile of rocks, singing the Oyundi song and laughing out loud.
I was happy and yet I was not happy.
A short while later, I left the others on the rock and followed her home. I wanted to see if she had come home to cry. I wanted to be friendly because I had been mean when I was with the others. In the house, I found her reading a story book. She had not been crying.
“Which one is that?” I asked.
“Stop bothering me.”
I pretended not to be interested, then I leaned over and snatched it. It was one of mine.
She shouted at me and pummelled me and then she tried to snatch the book away. I held her hands and begged her to stop but she cried and she cried and she cried. Real tears. She lay on the old sofa and she cried into the cushion, heaving huge sobs, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go and beat up Erick and Kivuva because they started it all but that was not it. She was crying because of me, because of what I had done.
I touched her shoulder gently. She threw my arm off and said between sobs, “Don’t touch me. You don’t want me around you.” And the words stung me deep and tears came to my eyes just like that.
“You can have the book,” I ventured, putting it beside her.
She threw it away, the pages fluttering violently as it sailed across the room. When it hit the window, almost shattering it, I started. This was more than I could deal with so I started to cry for real.
“I’m sorry,” I said with a breaking voice.
“You are not sorry,” she countered, and I could tell she really thought so.
I decided it then, tears streaming down my eyes. Oyundi would play with us or I wouldn’t play with the others myself.
I got out of the house and climbed the jacaranda. Later, the others came in from the pile and knocked on our door to look for me. Oyundi didn’t open and I didn’t get down from the tree. They headed off somewhere and left us to our thoughts.
Oyundi didn’t tell on me that night.
Two days later, I was home with Oyundi. Mama was away at work and I had finished my homework and chores and was bored. Since I couldn’t see the others anywhere near the estate, I decided to go and look for them. I would go to Ngige’s first to see if they were there playing with the dogs. Ngige’s bitch had whelped and there were puppies there with white paws like socks. When I reached the gate I heard someone running after me and I turned to find Oyundi there.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“I’m going with you.”
And I knew she was going to be difficult. So I pretended to give up my plans and sat by the gate on a flat rock. She sat down too, on the opposite side of the road, facing me. I waited a bit, until she was relaxed, and then got up and took off at my highest speed.
She had no chance. By the first turn near the small grove of trees by the stream, I couldn’t even see her. I didn’t slow down though. I ran the rest of the way. When I got there, I couldn’t see anyone and Eish was just lying there on the grass dozing, and he wagged his tail when he saw me. I went to the back where the puppies were rolling about in the dirt next to their mother and started playing with them.
Some girls must have been playing in the river, screaming. Maybe that was where Kivuva and Erick had gone. Kivuva had lately started sneaking up on girls bathing at the stream, watching them. Sometimes Erick went with him. I’d never dare, Mama would kill me for sure.
The bitch stood up from the dirt, her ears pricked up and a low growl emanating from her throat. Was she turning sudhe? But Eish was barking at something too. Then I heard the screams again, louder this time, nearer. And then Stonecold burst out of some bushes at the back of the kennel and ran off to the front and the bitch let off a noisy round of barking and pulled against her chain. I ran after Stonecold and rounded the corner to find Eish running circles around Oyundi in the grass near the carpentry stand. He was barking mostly in play, but Stonecold was closing in dangerously, his teeth all out and his lips gathered at the top of his snout in ugly folds. I don’t remember thinking about what I was doing and I was still deathly scared of Stonecold but I picked one of Ngige’s planks of wood and let off a lusty yell and then ran right for him swinging like a madman. If he hadn’t ducked I would have bashed his skull in but at the last minute he jumped to the side and the plank slammed on the ground kicking up dirt. I stared him right in the face and shouted “Swaini!!” Like Ngige always did and that seemed to do it. He turned tail and ran off, he didn’t even snarl. And Eish crawled to me with his tail between his legs and his ears flat on his head and I knew he was afraid of me. It made me feel strong. I went to Oyundi who was still standing near the carpentry stand and she was terrified, her eyes were wet with fear. She burst towards me and held me and started crying and I told her “Baas toto. Bas.” And it was the first time I had held her like that, and I felt her scared body heaving as she cried. At that moment I could have gone and strangled that Stonecold to death for scaring her. She stopped though, wiping her face with determination. We stood there for a while, at a loss for words.
“Do you want to see the puppies?” I asked.
She nodded. So I took her by the hand and led her to the back. The bitch would normally have pretended to attack but she must have somehow known that I was the one who scared Stonecold away. Perhaps he told her when he ran past because she just wagged her tail and let Oyundi pet the puppies. And I made her lie on her back and held Oyundi’s hand and rubbed it on the teats, which were full of milk. She was giggling like a child. It made me happy to hear her laugh after being scared just now, and knowing that I had saved her. And then Eish came too and started licking my hands. And Oyundi was not afraid.
We left when Ngige came, and he raised an eyebrow when he saw my sister coming out from behind his house. Oyundi, never one to disappoint, walked right up to him and asked, “How much is a puppy?”
“Too much for you to afford,” Ngige said smiling.
I held her hand all the way home and she didn’t complain. And we didn’t fight over who was going to bathe first, or which chair to sit on during dinner, or who would get the big piece of the soft steamy marrow that Mama blew out of the cavity of the big bone she was eating. Oyundi got it, she always did.
That night before she slept, she hung her head over the edge of the top bed and said, “Thank you for saving me from that dog.”
I thought I needed to say something back, so after a pause I said, “I’ll take you back again, until they know you. Eish and Chyna are nice, but watch out for Stonecold.”
“You can come and play with us from now on,” I said, and I wasn’t lying.
I waited for an answer but nothing came. After a while, I heard her breathing softly in her sleep.
We were outside on the verandah on the last Friday before school opened again and Mama was coming back from Viru Supermarket’s ‘Back to School’ day with shopping. We were excited but tried not to show it. When things were good, we got GoodyGoody. When they were bad, it was a few stones of Patco. Mama was smiling. GoodyGoody.
Oyundi jumped on her, hugging. I took the green polythene bag. It was heavy. I struggled with it, she knew I liked to act strong so she left me behind, huffing and puffing. I found them in the kitchen, Mama emptying a cup of water. She left the last mouthful in the cup because the water in our pot had ‘duro’ at the bottom and poured it into the sink and sighed. I liked Mama most when she was in this mood.
I opened the polythene, Oyundi dove in. It was our job to take the shopping out and then Mama’s job to arrange things in their places. Two kilos of sugar, that one went to the top drawer, the one with the padlock. Two hundred and fifty grams kahawa number one, Mama’s medicine for the night shift at the hospital. That went in the second drawer, beside the Ketepa. She knew we didn’t like that one. A hundred grams Milo, Oyundi’s eyes lit up. When she was little, she had licked a whole tin by herself. One of the few times she ever got kiboko. Mama grabbed it from her hands, we chuckled. That went in the top shelf, beside the sugar.
The next thing Oyundi pulled out sent us all into fits of laughter. Mama set it on the counter and turned it like a sculpture. We laughed and we laughed and we laughed because it was a five hundred grams kasuku, brand new. I felt my body tingling just remembering that kiboko and mama knew, she rubbed my head and said, “When this one is empty you can kick it all you want because it is ours but don’t kick other people’s things.”
“Can I kick it too?” Oyundi asked me.
“If you want,” I said, and I meant it.
Oyundi went back to the shopping bag, squealed loudly in surprise. A stack of brand new exercise books for the new term. We ran to the bedroom to get our pens. While we were printing our names on the front covers of the exercise books, Mama finished emptying the shopping bag. Oyundi’s handwriting was neater than mine. Mama was proud of her and secretly, so was I. Sometimes I showed her books to Pipi, all red ticks and no X’s from page one to the last.
Three days later we opened school, the gang from the estate all walking together. Me at the front, then Erick and Pipi, and Oyundi bringing up the rear. We played soccer, climbed the pile of rocks, and ate zambarawe on the way from school. And we went to play with Eish and Chyna and we laughed and we wished it was April again.
Alexander “Alex” Ikawah is a founding member of Jalada Africa. He writes, makes films, draws, tells stories, and lately has also started making music for a living. Although he is quick to add, “Sometimes not for a living though, but because it has become like breathing.” He lives in Nairobi (Eastlando massive) and is a graduate of Moi University Eldoret with a degree in Creative Arts, Theatre and Film and a minor in Literature. Therefor, film and writing both have been and still are lifelong pursuits for him. Alex’s work has appeared in several short story anthologies and has been shortlisted twice for the Commonwealth Short Story Award: “Fatimah Saleh” (2013) and “April with Oyundi” (2015). His film credits include Heartshot, Sibini, Adwaro Gigega, Atoti and Watu Wote which secured a 2016 Oscar nomination.
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