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Blackout gives Last Man and gang free night out

By Makau Kitata

A power blackout is a welcome event in a boy’s boarding school life. If it happens at prep time, the darkness becomes an instant ally to a boy who suddenly is compelled to risk life and limb to get out of jail. The barbed wire becomes meaningless and a watchman had better pretend he heard or saw anything. He is employed to prevent intruders from the outside world, not freedom-seeking inmates who’d anyway turn themselves in before the night is over.

It was Friday and the preps had tired me since Monday. I wanted a reason to sneak out. When the blackout came, we sprinted from class –  as was custom – to cover ourselves under the bedsheets before power was restored. By the time power was restored, the whole school would be deep asleep and snoring. You couldn’t bring anyone back to class after a blackout.

This time it happened before the preps started and lasted long enough for us to imagine a better way of spending a Friday evening rather than just pretending to be asleep under bedsheets.

Looking at the village and the nearby market, it was evident that the blackout was a national event. Someone climbed the roof and checked Machakos town and it was confirmed that the darkness was universal.

“It is now time for a walk,” I told myself as I headed for Mutituni, the local market. I had recently read Alex La Guma’s ‘A Walk in the Night and Other Stories’ and liked the sound of the title.

The barbed wire did not offer much resistance when I pulled it up to crawl out. I saw several other boys at different spots at the fence doing the same. As a rule, you sneaked alone. When I arrived at the hurricane-lamp-lit Wakulima hotel, I couldn’t enter. I sought other down-market hotels where the lighting was dimmer. I arrived at our coffee joint and found the place already packed. The light had been blown out to enable us to enact our market adventures. I only made out Koigi, who we had named after a then dreadlocked Kenyan dissident, famous for defying the vicious networks of President Moi’s dictatorship. Koigi sneaked out every day but could never be trapped. As a rule, no one used the official school name during the sneak-out. No one knew no one else.

Behind this down-market hotel are coffee farms that stretch to the school fence. In these farms are a few homesteads and my uncle’s home is right at the fence.

“If any school authority spots me I’d just dive into the home and say I had gone to visit,” I reasoned.

So, I ordered coffee and mandazi as my friends ordered things for more experienced sneak artists. Soon the room was filled with different aromas and grey clouds. You could see a light go up in a corner to be quickly cupped behind a careful hand.

“There is a guy here with a beard,” said Mwengu, the oldest and biggest of the sneakers.

“Touch them and tell us who it is,” I said.

“Guys, they remind me of the headmaster’s beard, he never trims nor combs them,” he continued.

“Let me have a feel,” I said, as I grabbed the man’s beard. “They sure could be Mr Wambua’s beards.”

“Have you ever touched the leopard’s whiskers?” asked another boy, referring to Mr Wambua, whom we called Kakoyo, a little leopard. Headmaster too didn’t like his official name.

We wouldn’t expect the little leopard to be here. So many boys went to the bearded fella and felt his bristles. There was hearty laughter as we all settled into our drinks after touching the beard.

“Sure, it feels like Kakoyo but I can’t make out the face in the dark,” reported Kajuma.

Then the lights came ON.

 We all stared, unbelieving at the face of Mr Wambua. The man had been sitting amongst us all this long as we enacted our market vices.

An electric tightening of muscles took hold. The room went dead silent as everyone dipped their faces. In a moment like a gun clap at the start of the World Athletics 100-meter championships, the gathering snapped into a stampede. A great cloud of dust rose from the market as chairs flew in all directions. Soon, a world-class race towards the school was underway. The fence would see multiple triple chase clearances.

Mr Wambua could outsprint any boy but he fell as he tried to navigate through chairs and upturned tables. He had to follow along the road which was still cloudy with the dust we had kicked up as we sped.

By the time the headmaster arrived at the school, everyone was tucked silently under bedding, save for hulky Mwengu, who was caught still heaving for breath on an upper-decker bed.

“Climb down and tell me who you were with,” Headmaster ordered.

We spied on him with one eye from under the sheets as he jotted down our names on a piece of paper. Headmaster also went to the school watchman and demanded the names of the criminals. It was a long night of inquest.

Koigi’s plan to simply walk in after the first wave of panicking returnees had settled backfired. Makuthu, the watchman, had finally caught him as he rolled into school late after all of us had returned. As an amnesty deal, Koigi had accepted to write for him the names on condition that he was not revealed in the inquest.

Headmaster appeared on Saturday morning with two lists to read out the names and administer punishment. I was the first.

“Last Man, Kajuma, Museveni, Peter Tosh………,” he read out from Mwengu’s list.

No one was coming out to respond to any name. The names we heard have never been recorded in any birth certificate, church baptism roll, or school register. Then he went to the other list prepared by the watchman. When the headmaster opened the carefully folded paper, he looked at us and started laughing. Koigi had simply drawn sketches of boys, like they do in elementary school, and handed the paper to the unsuspecting watchman.

However, with the help of a few snitch prefects, the headmaster was able to round up a sizable group of prison breakers. Without any positive identity, we simply remained suspects and survived harsher punishment. To come out of the case with some dignity, the headmaster posed sternly.

“Move away the rocks between the school gate and the office block,” he ordered.

“You will plant trees on that space and water them until frogs start croaking.”

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