The Girl Who Said Today is Today

In one of the high schools I went to – those were the days one graduated from 4 years of secondary school to a 2 years of high school – we were not allowed to speak Swahili. Only English. This school was at the Coast, the land of Swahili peoples. They speak, think, dream, project, imagine and breath in Kiswahili. English is their 9th language.

Why English only? Because the language of academic instruction was English, and the national exams were set in English, so we needed to get used to thinking, speaking and writing in English. Every Sunday the Christian girls held a loud service singing praise to Jesus and getting saved. But to tell you the truth, we needed Ngugi wa Thiong’o to save us from our colonized minds far more than we needed Jesus to save our souls.

If you were heard speaking Swahili, you would be handed a wooden coin we called a disk which you would wear around your neck until you passed it on to the next Swahili-speaking victim. At the end of the day, all those who had touched the disk would be punished. You did not want to be the last one with it because you would be punished the next day too until you passed it on.

So one day… eh? I tell you, I have no idea how it happened. I spoke Swahili. Mimi! As far as the Queen’s language is concerned, I had maringo mingi sana in that particular school. Kwanza I had come from a Nairobi school, so there. Fake us-guys airs.

That disk thing gave me a superiority complex. I enjoyed twisting that Queen’s language in my tongue from daybreak to light-out as if I was being paid per word. Uncommon words that I discovered in literature class while reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, Anand’s Coolie and Shakespeare’s King Lear were retained in my head like a shoal of fish caught in a diction net. When I spoke them, I was simply enjoying my catch of the day. I never feared that disk.

Until this one day, pap! I had neglected to wear my English brain and got in conversation with someone like a free native. I was caught being African. Me! The damn disk was slapped on me. I was marked. I was dirty. My tongue had slipped and spoken Swahili. Scandalous! I was Hester Prynne with her scarlet letter. So I went hunting for a Swahili-speaking criminal to dispose of the disk. It was hard! But no way was I going to bed with this thing.

From the corner of my hunting eyes, I saw these two girls in deep conversation, just the kind of intensity that could not be communicated in a foreign language. I could smell Swahili! When they saw me approach, they went quiet. But one of the girls was just itching to say something to me. She knew me, the queen of diction. Seeing me wearing that disk deserved a fitting comment. She should have just laughed at me and let it go. But nooo!

A snide remark was burning her up but her mind refused to translate it to English. She blurted it out with complete uswahili – a waving of the hand with its middle finger arched forward just so – “Haaa! Today is today, if you say tomorrow you are chitingi!” Pap! I slapped that disk on her right away.

She protested angrily, still struggling to balance between her mind thinking in Swahili and her tongue being forced to speak in English. “Hee! I didi noti!… I didin’ti noti!”

I argued back, “You did, you did! You said chitingi!”

She wasn’t having it. She shouted back, “Aa youuu! Chitingi izi an Englishi word shuwa!”

I wasn’t keeping that disk. I was going to rig this game by any means necessary. I fought back. “No! The word is cheating!”

She was trying to say something you just cannot translate to English: “Leo ni leo, msema kesho ni mwongo.” Direct translation, “Today is today, if you say tomorrow you lie.” Or as the Brits taught us, “you cheat”. She was trying to say that today was my day, and if I ever thought tomorrow would never come for me, well, here it was. I was at last a criminal like all the rest for speaking Kiswahili. She clicked her tongue and took the disk in defeat.

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