Warp and Weft

/ 3-minute read.

There was this day I got a zero in Home Science. ZERO! Really, Mrs. Mungai? Form 2, 14 years old, my first and only zero ever. You need to hear this.

This was the practical exam. Mrs. Mungai had taught us how to make two sets of decorative stitches around the hem of an apron. On this day, we were to complete the patterns and hand in the aprons for end of term grading.

We are at the Home Science lab. All the students are stitching quietly. Cream yarn on orange cloth. I love the contrast. Mrs. Mungai is pacing around invigilating. I don’t like teachers pacing around me while my head is working. They drink my blood.

I know this because any time we stood around my mother with restless energy, she would tell us- You’re drinking my blood! Sit down or go out and play! I could feel my blood drain every time Mrs. Mungai came hovering over my shoulder.

When I started stitching, my head went rogue, all by itself. It said out loud to me- These stitch patterns are boring, si you just invent your own, kwani?

This was a dangerous dare, like pulling off a heist when security was at maximum. We went to school in the times when you never colored outside the box. Oh, you dare! But my head wasn’t shutting up.

Mrs. Mungai had taught us well about stitching. She had given us a memorable lesson on the basic structure of cloth, about the warp and weft that intertwined over and under, over and under, over and under; one headed lengthwise, the other widthwise.

Or maybe it’s the way she said warp and weft with her whole mouth that made me never forget that lesson.

If these thread structures were racing across space, they would be extending away from each other infinitely, yet forever interwoven. Upon this warp and weft you could make any pattern you imagined. It fascinated me. It was like breaking a code.

Years later, I would read about Gandhi’s spinning-wheel revolution that had Indians weaving their own cloth straight from their own harvested cotton. It freed them from British exploitation. Gandhi had also led the Salt revolution which brought them head-on with the violent might of British military.

Can you imagine, a whole Empire with its guns and gunpowder shaken to the core by the idea of an unarmed people making their own salt. Oh, the power of teaching a people Home Science!

That’s the subject where environment, economics, nutrition, art and science meet at the family home. It teaches you that a home can become self-reliant, healthy, safe and fun. Home Science is inherently revolutionary.

At the age of 14, we only got taught the mildest version of it for exams. Saddest part was, it was a subject so mischaracterized it was never offered in boys’ schools. It’s a daunting task to unravel the psychosis of our education system.

Before you vicious traditionalists come at me with the “natural” role of women, I’ll remind you that in many African communities, including mine, roof-building was women’s work.

The science of it was passed down generations of mothers – from acquisition of material to construction – so that the roof of a thatched hut could last 50 years without leaking. I’m lucky to have once experience this incredible women’s work, thanks to my mother. Let’s make education about HOW to learn ALL we can learn.

Well, Gandhi’s spinning wheel made it to the center of the Indian flag. If Mrs. Mungai had been revolutionary, her patterns across the apron’s warp and weft might have made it to something.

But she wasn’t revolutionary. She was an obedient teacher, and she did not entertain my errant mind when I decided to stitch my own brand new pattern that she never taught us.

Knowing how that orange cloth was structured gave me the understanding to manipulate it and invent a whole new world upon it. My stitch patterns were beautiful I tell you. But they were the wrong ones. So I got a zero.


I did meet Mrs. Mungai eleven years later when I went to collect my transcript for admission to graduate studies. She had become the Headmistress then, and she still remembered me. She called out my name with her whole mouth and hugged me like a long-lost daughter. I was sufficiently silenced by her motherly warmth, a fitting emotional bribe that ensured I never mentioned that zero.

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