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Last Man gets piggybacked to school

By Makau Kitata

After the April rains, I resumed my second term of school in Class 1. The rivers were dry and the sand cracking under my bare feet felt refreshing.  I’d cross the riverbed and step on the pebbly road to school.

During the morning assembly, we sang the National Anthem and scouts led us to recite the Loyalty Pledge to the president and government of Kenya. We stood stiff and looked up at the sky as the flag went up, hardly breathing.

There was a class monitor, a sort of marshal who was tasked with identifying playful kids and noisemakers. I was on that list every day. I wondered why such a duty was the reward for learning to write other people’s names. 

“Do I pull the earlobes or use the cane on this thing?” Mrs Maingi, our teacher, used to say as she whacked me.

My six-year-old brain told me that school was a place of horror where children were not allowed to play or talk.

My dad had gifted me with a coin as an incentive to go to school before he left for the city. He had promised more goodies if I made a good grade.

“Keep that and go to school,” he said.

It felt good in my pocket, and I vowed to keep it no matter what. But when the preacher came to do school devotional prayer on Friday that week, he towered over us as we sat and threatened us with hell.

“Children, obey your teachers and parents,” he bellowed.  “Like good sheep, heed the calling to school and give to God,” he rumbled.

When they brought the offertory box, I looked up and dropped in the shilling like all my classmates, fearing hellfire. I thought of the life it would lead amongst those torturers and prayed for its safety.

That weekend I went to the river. The April floods had exposed a vein of clay on the sandbanks. It felt smooth and supple between my fingers. I rolled it into balls and twisted it into ropes and it didn’t break. I started moulding figures with it, starting with the headmaster, the priest, and the scouts. Then I smothered and crushed them into a big ball. I then moulded my classmates and placed them in a row like the school parade. But they all fell.

The following Monday, during the English lesson, teacher asked if there was anyone with a question. I shot out my hand with excitement and asked,

“How come clay toys won’t stand when you place them on the ground?”

“Last Man, where did that come from?” she returned.

My classmates giggled and looked at me. I felt alone in a class full of children. Before the teacher could speak, I asked another question.

“But unlike the clay dolls, how come we don’t fall when we stand?”

“I can see your stay in the river has made you mad,” concluded the teacher, dismissing us for home.

That afternoon, I lost interest in school. One week was enough. I wasn’t taking another.

I went to the river to make my dolls. I created moulds of my classmates in the parade and put them closer with their shoulders touching – and they stood. I moulded them in play, with their hands holding, and they remained standing. 

Every day, I would leave home but did not get to school. I would sneak to the river and create clay assemblies, scout parades, and children at play, holding hands. In time I had my whole school by the riverside. It was my enchanted little place.

Mother used to talk to Mrs Maingi across our fence as she walked home from school.

“He leaves home for school every morning,” I overheard Mother say to the teacher. “And he returns home in the afternoon with mud on his clothes.”

“Well, he never comes to school,” teacher replied.

I knew I was being observed. But I did not care. They didn’t ask me, and I didn’t know what to say if they did.

I had not noticed my mother’s approach as I played with my clay schoolmates by the riverbank.  I screamed and made to run. But she grabbed me. Lifting me with one hand, she swung me to her back and carried me to school. Much as I kicked and pulled, there was no getting out of my mother’s back.

On entering school, I felt powerless. I didn’t want to dismount from Mama’s back. She walked straight to the class and delivered me to the teacher, like one delivering an offering.

“Mwalimu, help me with this thing,” she said.

“Maybe he needs another year before school,” Mrs Maingi said.

“No. He stays here,” aid my mother, decisively freeing herself of my menace.

All the kids laughed at me as teacher received me in her arms and took me to my desk. Mama left with tears in her eyes. I wiped my nose and took my seat.

Since that day, I never ran away from school. I learned to work through homework and dash back to the river before going home. My classmates thought I got keen in class to avoid the shame of a no-show arrest. But they were wrong. I stayed in school because Mama had piggybacked me and offered me as a sacrifice.  It made me immune to the threats of hellfire from the preacher, the caning from my teacher, and the taunting of classmates.

Dr. Kitata teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.

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