This morning as I was heading to work, I saw a very short and tiny boy in a secondary school uniform walking alongside a woman in the dusty streets of Nairobi. I assumed it was a mother and her son heading to some secondary school for Form One admission.
And I pitied that boy.
In terms of size, he looked like your average Standard Six pupil, and the bag strapped on his bag only served to reinforce a metaphor of someone too small for the loads of his age.
I was about the same size when I joined Form One. I was aged 13, a year younger than most of my classmates, and way tinier than the average Form One. That was pain from all aspects.
Dear son, I’m praying that by the time you will be joining secondary school, you will be big enough so that you don’t experience what I went through. Many predict that you will be a big boy (apparently, your feet show it) and I hope their prophecy will come true. You are just one year old as I do this letter. Being a new dad, I know squat about how to tell if a child will grow to be a David or a Goliath by reading how the way feet spread out. But the “experts” have made the prediction and I will go by it.
MORE PAIN THAN ACADEMICS
Anyway, my first two years of secondary school, in a boys’ boarding institution, were more pain than academics.
I remember coming across a group of seniors (as Form Three and Form Four students were called). Their sharp eyes were trained on me as they made the whistle sound that is meant to communicate disbelief. You would think I am one of those brave women who steal 56-inch screens and hide them between their legs under an oversized dress or the infamous “kichwa bila mwili” people who are displayed at agricultural shows.
“Are you sure you are a secondary school student?” one asked, and I nodded sheepishly. They continued shaking their heads in disbelief. The traditional bully questions followed and I think I cried somewhere along the interrogation.
In the dormitory, I earned myself the Kapienga nickname, Sheng for a pinch of bread. It was a name reserved for the tiniest of the tiny.
Being pienga meant being perceived as the lastborn; a pushover; a slave for every other senior student. I lost count of the times a Form Three or Form Four idiot lazing on his bed would hand me a cup larger than the Champions’ League trophy then ask me to fetch him tea as I went for mine.
I would curse under my breath but just oblige. Looking back, I think I should have been a rebel. Even with my tininess, I know a little resistance would have earned some respect from the big boys. It worked for some fellow Lilliputians.
And when it came to queuing for food, where order was not always guaranteed, the push-and-shove was a nightmare for the tiny. Boys at my school really knew how to fight a good fight (and finish the race for the top layer).
Times without number, I — the short law-abiding Form One — would find myself in a queue where the other taller, bulkier students wanted to jump queues, an act called “despising” in school lingo.
Whenever a teacher or a prefect showed up, those despising would press to join, and the ensuing pressure was a source of undue suffering for the short ones. At times people would fall and a stampede would ensure. There is a time the little finger of my right hand was stepped on after I fell on the doorstep of the dining hall when order broke down at a queue and everyone wanted to get in. The finger was stepped on so hard it formed a clot inside. But I’m glad it was not ruined.
CAREERS IN THE MATATU INDUSTRY
I have not understood why some of the despising boys did not find a career in the matatu industry in Nairobi, because that is the only sector that celebrates jumping queues formed by other vehicles and joining the lane forcefully when police show up.
The survival-for-the-fittest mantra also applied at the school canteen. It was hardly manned by a teacher and this is where the fiercest of scrambles used to happen. I cannot start to describe how being short and tiny meant you had to wait for all the powerful to buy their stuff — whether or not they came after you — before you could get a chance to buy yours, often when the bell to signal the end of break time had long rung.
For all the misgivings of being tiny in Form One, there were few benefits. One is that, in a school where school uniform was stolen with abandon, at least no one would fancy my pair of trousers. They were so tiny that they could only fit very few others in the school. It was not strange, therefore, that one day my shirt was stolen but the trousers left intact.
Also, there was a time a strike happened in the school when I was in the third term of my Form One. I had left the school without following due process, which means I was illegally out of school on the night the strike happened. During interrogation, I was put to task and at the end, I was almost sure I would be handed an expulsion. But I would later not be in the list of those banished. Looking back, I think it was my being little that saved me. I’m sure someone at the board told the rest, “Surely, how can a boy this small organise a strike?” I think that saved me.
But that is just a drop in the ocean compared to the bullying a tiny student faced. I was in high school when prefects were allowed to beat up students, and we were prime targets for any arbitrary beatings.
Being tiny is often equal to not being as athletic as the rest. Words cannot describe the torture I went through in the first term in secondary school when, as per the school tradition, all Form One students had to run a certain number of kilometres cross-country and do numerous laps in the field. I cried so many times.
But all that, I reason, was meant to toughen me up. To show me how to chin up; how to stand for myself. Valuable lessons learnt the hard way.
That is why, dear Jijee, I am wishing all the best for the Form One who I saw in the city alongside his mother. It will not be an easy task ahead but I wish him well.
All the best,
This series brings you writings by Peter Mogambi, a Nairobi residentwho became a father in January 2017. By the time his son is old enough to read and comprehend, which is at least 11 years from today, a lot of water will have passed under the bridge. So, he has decided to preserve happenings in black and white so that when the boy can finally comprehend, he will get to follow his father’s feelings.