The Prayerboy

Mohamed. Little boy back in class 4. All of 9 or ten years old. We were in the same class. He was a fast-talking little brat with a filthy mouth and loved to pick on quiet kids who didn’t know how to defend themselves. He would call them names for fun in Swahili. K***mako, macho kama gololi! Aaahahahaha!m*****f*****, eyes like marbles! His cynical laughter cracked like a monkey that just snatched ripe fruit off of a baby’s hand. He didn’t care how you felt.

Mohamed also had the voice of an angel, vocals powerful as ocean waves. We all knew that because he used to do the evening prayers at the township mosque. Sometimes I’d be sent to the market after school and every time I heard that piercing cry coming over the speakers – Allaaaahu akbar… I’d stop and listen.

It was pure, beautiful, spellbinding.

Mohamed and I walked the same path home from school. Only he stopped at Majengo where he lived and I went on towards the outskirts of the high school where we lived. I dreaded passing through that Majengo neighborhood with its dense population and constant funerals. It seemed to me there was always mourning, people chanting with that hollow look in their eyes. There was a sadness to life there. Most of all, I dreaded the times when Mohamed and I ended up walking that path from school at the same time.

One day he caught up with me and I crossed the road to get away from him and move quickly ahead. He crossed the street after me, picked up a coconut shell from the ground and threw it directly at me. It hit me smack dab at the back of my head. What I remember the most is how loud he laughed. That crackling monkey laughter again. I don’t know how a kid could hold that much bile in him.

Something in me hated bullies and would fight back with everything I had. I remember fighting Kasingili, a skinny little firecracker in class two. You see I was the kind of kid who never talked. I was such a quiet kid the other kids thought I was mute. So Kasingili would keep prodding me with her wiry finger to see if I could produce a sound. She laughed gleefully every time I brushed off those wiry tentacles.

One day we were out on recess when those pokey fingers came at me again and all hell broke loose. I came at her with my legs and fists like a little cyclone. She, all bone and no flesh, had spanners for shins. I got a good whacking from them as she kicked in every direction, but she got a fistful of my balled-up knuckles as well. We became friends quickly and I still stayed mute. Two classes later in a different school, here was another bully. I turned around to face Mohamed and he crossed the street again, scurrying off to find another kid to bully.

The assault lingered on in my mind because I wasn’t able to smack him back. I had no diplomatic skills at that age, so a smack down was the only option I knew. Whether I won or not didn’t matter. As long as I could fight back, incidents of bullying or being treated unfairly held no power over me. It was that coconut shell finding its target at the back of my head that lingered on far too long. Or maybe it’s because I could not reconcile Mohamed the mean bully and Mohamed the boy with the voice of an angel who entranced me with a touch of God at a very young age every time he recited the evening prayer.

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