Let men drink when still boys…

MANY, many years ago, roughly 12 months before I triumphed in that epic, first swimming contest, Jararindo and wife CiaMati were blessed with a baby boy. They named him Mwiti. Mwiti grew up in spirit, body and lack –because Jararindo and CiaMati’s was a family of limited resources. And nothing about Mwiti attempted to disguise that fact.

Not the school uniform! The shirt draped all the way to the feet, an ugly, oversize, khaki mother-dress forever a missing a button or two. The breast pocket, with corners darkened by splotches of ink leaked from the previous owner’s pen, nestled below the navel like an apron pocket. And when he tucked in the shirt, as was expected of everyone by the school rules, his behind became a case of butt-enlargement gone catastrophically wrong.

And through the gigantic shirt sleeves, wiry, dark arms with flour-white elbows jutted like straw from a bowl. Most times, the tent of a shirt would be a donation from a soul blessed with the generosity of both heart and build. Other times, however, the anomaly on the confounded wearable was the purposeful handiwork of CiaMati and was intended for the youngling to grow into.

However, Mwiti’s was a body with little ambition for expansion –not that it had much culinary motivation towards that end anyways. By the time the underfed frame nearly caught up, the outfit would be a chessboard of patches in varying shapes, sizes and stitchings.

But it was during cold seasons that the folly of owning a single piece of uniform manifested itself in chilling ways. With the weather uncompromising and school demanding certain hygiene minimums, Mwiti would sometimes arrive in class in garments damp from a wash of the night before. The stinging, acrid odour of wet smoke was evidence of overnight efforts to evict the wetness from the attire over an open fire.

The boy spent most part of such mornings alternating between rubbing his palms against each other and clasping them between thighs frozen into a pattern of tiny dots. It wouldn’t stop the shivering. Sometimes, the trembling would be so violent his two desk mates would protest and the teacher would make them let Mwiti sit in the middle. Yet it was the racket from Mwiti’s cluttering teeth, sometimes audible above the din of the class, that would signal the most distress from the beleaguered body.

And his shorts didn’t help either. Occasionally, the roughness of the wooden desks bore a pair of irregularly shaped holes into the khaki garment. And since underwear was both luxury and a bothersome constraint, the openings gave the impression of a pair of eyes peeking through a hood –unless the massive shirt intervened, of course.

We found it terribly amusing. And since kids are generally jerks, taunting the tears out of the poor critter bequeathed us an oddly satisfying feeling. The following day, the embarrassment would be covered by a pair of patches, not necessarily of the same colour.

Shortly after, however, CiaMati’s coarse tailoring would wear out. Or, the hurried stitches would give in to the punishing rigours of a boy growing up paired with a wooden bench bearing the smoothness of sandpaper. That would chance us another round of obnoxity before a larger patch shut us out once more.

And that wasn’t all. The shine of generously applied petroleum jelly could hardly mask the ashen whiteness of legs unaccustomed to regular water. Neither could it wipe away the stringy cracks that patterned the skin of both legs into an intricate web, the drying effect of over-exposure to direct flame.

Walking on embers…

But when the earth was wet, mud filled the gulleys on the sole of his young feet, hiding them under a coat of brown. Still, Mwiti had to adopt the snappy steps of one walking on hot coal. His tiny walkers, with toes facing the heavens and sprayed out as if afraid of each other, were so heavily infested by jiggers that contact with the ground was a permanent exercise in pain. They were feet that never owned a pair of shoe.

Even the hair on his dome lived in trauma. The strands grew in sisal strings of a starving, golden colour. Patches of perfectly round, chalky-white rings spread throughout this ungraceful garden like islands in an ocean.

By the middle of each term, grains of lice eggs would tip whatever would be left of the strands like a ripe wheat field. Sometimes, the full-grown parasites would be visible crawling down his neck, at which point the teachers would send him home for a shave and a bathe.

Some days, Mwiti would stay behind in class as the rest of us shrieked off to our preferred dining spots around the school compound, lunch boxes clutched protectively under armpits years away from hosting a mane. We assumed Mwiti was too focused on studies. Or we didn’t care at all.

Then one day, I asked why he studied so hard during lunch. He said he didn’t. Most times, he tried to sleep through the hour because he didn’t have food, he confessed before sheepishly revealing how tough catching a wink with a rumbling tummy is.

I must have looked terribly baffled, which I was, as he hurried to explain that there were nights when there was no food left over after supper for him and six siblings to carry to school the following day. Other times, he said, there would be no supper altogether.

My short life, on the other hand, was one in which meals were to be evaded, always taken under duress. I had an appalling time digesting the option of lack. Did their house girl refuse to cook? But if so, then why wouldn’t his mother cook? I felt terribly sad for my poor classmate. I could think about nothing else the rest of that afternoon…

So I set to ask my mom for an extra dish for Mwiti, but then worried that it might put CiaMati in trouble because my mom was a teacher. I, therefore, resolved to share my meals whenever he didn’t bring with him the smoke-darkened, red dish with a broken handle. Its content would either be the plain githeri named after numbers ‘1,2,3’; or a few slices of nduma; or a boiled cassava. We would mix his meal with my carefully balanced regime then split equally.

Mwiti and I became fast friends. We were the tiniest in the class and were picked last, if at all, in any sporting event. We were sweet, loveable, bright boys, both active members of our respective churches. They are qualities that made us favourites of teachers –and bullies too. In fact, apart from our parents’ divergent fortunes in life, there was not much else to tell us apart.

Not even the cutthroat competition for position one, which we swapped between us at will, could come between our friendship –until high school and teenage happened.

Mwiti was admitted to a Catholic school, a seminary, where the local Church sponsored his learning. And it is well documented that only academia is allowed in between the regime of radicalising teens into moral and ethical robots these institutions are famed for.

And Mwiti thrived in this new environment, a place where food and two pairs of uniform were assured each term. It may have taken a month for the first ever shoe to gain the trust of his feet but Mwiti was happy firming up the stellar discipline our childhood was anchored in.

School loved him, church adored him. He was made class prefect in Form One and school captain by Form Three. He became the model altar-boy. He was a bundle of brains and discipline, topping his class in the first exam and topping it in the final –and the others in between.

His mind was set on a career in priesthood. But when he was admitted for an engineering course at the university, the Fathers at the mission prodded him on. He could still build the heavenly bridges as he constructed the earthly ones, they advised.

At the university, he joined other young faithful in the CA and immersed himself deeper in faith. He, once again thrived, graduated and didn’t take long to land a decent job…

Enter the hooligan…

While Mwiti joined the seminary, I, on the other hand, went to a prominent high school, but whose discipline record fared slightly worse than that of Kamiti residents. I was a boy struggling with teenage and ill-equipped to deal with the temptations in Sodom –Gomorrah notwithstanding. I was so naïve I shut eyes to pray for meals and promptly lost them –until I learnt to pray with my eyes open.

It didn’t long for the merchants of evil, an entrepreneurial sector exclusive to senior students, to recruit a new customer. By Form Two, I was an accomplished drunk, a flourishing smoker of stuff banned by both the school and law of the land.

I also discovered an aspect about girls so interesting it threw all the Biblical doctrines of 13 years into total disarray. So I diverted most of my brainy resources from class work to crafting knee-wobbling ‘missives’, for my own use as well as for my talent-deficient classmates –at a fee.

Other times, I put the cogs of my crafty thinker into the tactical motions of planning and directing strikes. And boy, was I successful. Each unrest was constructed from scratch so that none was identical to the other, a factor that thoroughly confounded security teams and the school administration.

The small matter of academics was suddenly of little concern. Like Mwiti, I thrived in my new environment –but in hooliganism and sin. Of course, I flunked my final exam but somehow stayed sober long enough later to pass a bridging course and join university.

And there, I did some more drinking, smoking and girls –and even less reading. Then on my way to the Third Year, I exhausted my life’s quota of drugs, and quit. It is a journey I may or may not share with you some other day. Magnificently hard, is all I can say it was.

But I cleaned up. And it was in great consternation I discovered a building full of books called a library. I’ve never been a bloke with deep-sated enmity with printed wisdom, so I lost myself amongst the immortalised academicians, making up for the sins of my past. I did pretty well in my final years of study.

It’s ten or so years since. When I go to clubs, because that’s where men make deals, I while away the time on a Red Bull, Monster energy drink or as a last resort, that cheap stuff from TZ that smells like sh@t and tastes worse.

Now the other day, I was meeting my younger brother and his friends at a club in Roysambu. The boys were lost in a drunken debate about who would thrash the other should Luanda Magere and Goliath chance to disagree over some beer at a Nairobi club.

But I was no longer listening. My marvel was focused on a couple showing off some moves near the doorway. I concluded they must be my tribemates, especially the girl, because no other community in Kenya can pull such terrible dance moves with so much confidence.

One moment, the girl would be flailing her arms in a riveting drowning-girl atrocity, the next, she would be plucking mangoes from some tree only she could see while kicking its trunk with the soles of her feet. There was so much violent movement of limbs, but absolutely nil coordination. I was beginning to feel dizzy when my sanity was rescued from the abomination by the clumsy entry of a short, stout fellow in a neat Kaunda suit.

He stood spitting out strands of the doorway curtain he was hanging onto, blinking hard. When the mouth was sufficiently vacant of string, he demanded, from no one, in particular, to be told what country he was in. His voice, which was heavily laced with the hammer-accent of my people, had an ominously familiar ring to it.

I struggled to make out the face. The dim lighting didn’t help. But a flash of orange did as he struck a match to light a cigarette. He missed his face altogether, as he kept swaying like a constipated pole dancer. The light, however, did reveal a shocker. So unexpected was it the liquid energy in my mouth went gushing into my lungs, generally a pretty terrible thing… The drunk in a Kaunda suit was Mwiti, the one and only…

The reunion was as emotional as any other that has the backing of alcohol. It was also as short-lived because the former altar-boy had hardly taken two sips from the Guinness he ordered when he passed out.

In the days to come, I learned that living had shattered into tiny pieces the gourd that held Mwiti’s life in perfect order. He was a living mess. At the moment, he was with his 11th employer in a span of eight years.

Thrice, he was fired for skipping job for a week. He was out drinking. Another time, he emptied the contents of his stomach on company board members during a presentation. Twice, he was fired for physically assaulting colleagues. A few times, he took some random girl he picked from the club back to the office for a romp, where the two would be discovered in the morning.

Despite his volatility, companies scrambled to sign him up. And that’s because the few moments the bugger was not drinking or chasing girls, he was a genius at his trade, thanks to schooling the proper way.

Let them drink…

But he missed out on some critical life lessons. That’s why at the age of thirty-something, Mwiti has started a family four times, and failed four times. The women could not put up with the level of irresponsibility and left with the kids.

At the age of thirty-something, Mwiti is required to provide upkeep for five children he barely sees. He has a salary five times mine, yet appears a similar number of times poorer. He has tried counselling, prayers, even exorcism but nothing seems able to cure his suicidal living. He now thinks he was bewitched by the devil himself.

I think not. Bugger just tasted the other side too late in life. Early youth is the perfect time for boys to test the waters of bad living. Drown in alcohol, blow up what brain cells the cheap liquor leaves with weed, line up girls…generally, do things that could kill you. Survive!

If you haven’t tasted this side of living by the time you get your first job, or hit 25, just stick to the straight line. Sin is amazingly sweet –and pricey. Discovering it when you can afford it, and when at an age you are responsible for just more than yourself, can be devastating.

I would not recommend my variant of teenage and early youth to any boy-child. And that’s because I am extremely lucky to have not just survived it but also left with a body in serviceable condition. I doubt such luck is so generously dished out.

You see, like the iron box knob has several levels of temperature between the cool and hot, so do most people’s indulgence adjustors. Mine, however, is like the ordinary light switch – either on or off. That’s me, I either do or don’t, either in or out, either drunk or not –three bottles then go home has never worked.

Persons like me are called extremists. When I was good, I was very good; a Sunday school teacher, best boy in the Church, top of my classes… When I crossed over, I didn’t leave a strand of hair on the other bank.

The stretch of my life on that other bank is not one I am proud of. Yet, knowing me, had I not endured the hangovers, bruises, fights, horror of waking up next to strange women…, when I did, I would be suffering through them now. I would probably be holding a massive portfolio with some crazy pay like Mwiti. Knowing me, I wouldn’t last long. But it is the devastation that my actions would visit upon my family that’s horrifying.

I speak from experience –and observation –because Mwiti’s is not the only case. I bumped into my high school CU leader at Tea Room some years past and he could barely stand, as he demanded ten bob to buy a Sportsman. A couple of former prefects and captains I have met too, and they were sights that would leave our principal gutted.

But I’ve also met blokes we shared a police cell with and they are doing pretty well for themselves. Of course not all cases follow this pattern. But you’ll be shocked at the rate. Just experiment with a quick audit of the guys you’ve known for long.

So folks, stop telling boys to concentrate solely on books “because they will have all the time to do those things when they finish school and get jobs”. Then, it will be the worst time to “do those things”.

If boy must, let him indulge at the age when the scapegoat of teenage and youth stupidity is on their side. You can monitor and even control the bad behaviour such that the learning experience is more impactful, probably takes a shorter period, but is less lethal.

If they don’t succumb to temptations in their early youth, help them not to when their wallets get stacked. It never ends well. What do you think?

 

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