Love and Half a Side of History

When I was 11-and-a-half I fancied a boy. I remember exactly why. He was the only one with a book bag that had graffiti on it. I did not know then that I was attracted to things creative, but there it was, Boy X and his green canvas backpack.

On it were huge blocks of the letters IBEACO, sketched out in red and completely colored in with blue ink. The longsuffering intensity it must have taken to use ballpoint biro pens in making that book bag mural! I must have been so hopelessly impressed by the owner of that creative force that I experienced my first crush.

It meant nothing to me that Boy X was impressed by the history lesson Mrs. (I forget her name) had taught us – about the British company that had owned a chunk of land they would later call Kenya. The company’s name was Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACo).

Mrs. (I still don’t remember her name), would always say “AibeakoOo” with such authoritative inflection that Boy X took it upon himself to immortalize it on his school bag. She also taught us about Tanzania and Kenya’s struggles for independence. But there was nothing remarkable there because that history came with the word “maumau”. Outside of school, everyone knew that word was synonymous with hairstyles also known as “rasta” only worn by what my Dawida people call “weke mwabangi” (weed smokers).

We were told any wearer of maumau hairstyle or rasta was a wild, idle, no-good-to-society person who will soon lose their mind to useless drugs. They were not to be emulated. The colonial government had decided the Maumau were terrorists, and Kenyan governments decided to keep that label until 2003. It took forty years after independence to officially recognize those who fought for our independence as heroes rather than terrorist.

Now you see why Boy X chose to graffiti IBEACo on his book bag instead of Maumau or Maji Maji, the Tanzania freedom fighters. No city kid in their right colonized little minds would sketch the name of an African rebellion on their book bag. What would their civilized parents say? “Unavuta nini siku hizi, eh?!”

Mrs. (I’ll never remember her name) also liked saying “Tippu Tip”, that Arab guy who I thought was the only person who bought and sold all the slaves ever. The teacher left out the lesson on the Transatlantic slave trade that involved the American and British slavers. The effect was that throughout my life until I got to college the image of the slaver in my mind was an Arab guy dressed like a Mukorino. I can attest that I saw many a high school play on stage that depicted the slaver as this Arab character. I wasn’t the only one with funny heroes and villains in my head.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was our discoverer without whom we would never exist, and Dr. Livingstone was the bringer of our sin-cleanser without whom we would all burn in hell. Susi and Chuma were his famous good slaves for whom we thanked God. These characters loomed large in our minds. The history we were taught caused our little minds to idolize our oppressors.

They would ask us stupid questions in the exams: What did Sir Henry Morton Stanley say to Dr. Livingstone when they met? Answer: Dr. Livingstone I presume. You think educators of a free Kenya might have asked us: What did Field Marshall Muthoni say to the men who had gone to secure Harry Thuku’s release when they retreated out of fear? Answer: Cowards! Give me your trousers and you take my dress!

We were the immediate post-colonial generation that caught the shrapnel of mind capture that got lodged deep in our minds. It has taken us our whole lifetimes to sort out the trauma.

Third term came around, and Mrs. (I surrender the struggle to remember her name) took us on a trip to Parliament buildings in Nairobi for Civics class. We sat on those mheshimiwa seats and I swung my little legs above the ground as she told us that government had three arms. I thought of the ogres in my grandmother’s stories that had three arms and one eye on their forehead that could see everything. Completing my final year of primary schooling in that city school afforded me this rare experiential learning about government.

But I still did not have the first clue how to make friends with city kids who wore wrist watches and stuck out their elbow with sophistication to look at the time. Boy X never got to know that for a whole school term I had a crush on him and his book bag.

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