What do you call a horde of naked teenage boys in a communal shower? Whatever it is called, it was shocking for me. To shower in a cubicle without curtains or doors, the older boys brazen in their nudity, even unaware of it all, hollering with the bravado of youth. We – the newcomers, the first formers – stood with towels wrapped around our scrawny torsos, eyes averted, finding places to look, places that didn’t have penises.
Boarding school was a shock. I went to a very old high school (established in 1906) with very old traditions. There was structure and order. The institution demanded many things from you, key among them being perseverance, then the ability to withstand adversity without moaning, to be stoic, to suffer with grace because your discomfort was not any greater than their mission; academic eminence. Set under the very jaws of a hill, it was constantly cold and wet. The food was terrible and not nearly enough and I was always hungry because I was only 14, a growing boy. Your life was suddenly controlled by bells; a bell to jump off your bed, a bell to run to the classroom, a bell to leave the classroom, a bell for meals, a bell to stop eating and dash back to the classroom, a bell to go for games, a bell to run back for the commencement of night preps, a bell to go sleep, a bell to jump off your bed. It felt like you were always rushing to or coming from somewhere. To oversee this order were a motley of handpicked students, a club of the distinguished who wielded more power than teachers. They ate first, and better, food. They slept in cubicles with doors. They had younger boys at their beck and call, to do their bidding; wash their clothes, send for food. High school was the very gulag of adolescence.
And this is how I started off my teenage years; in a place I likened to a penitentiary where you were sent off to endure, overcome and take form.
I had imagined being a teenager was about being free, suddenly I was in another prison. I felt abandoned and alone. I’m absentminded, careless and forgetful. I often lose my socks, sweaters and shower basin. I hated structure, to mean I hated Form One. I wrote letters to my mom, moaning about food and the brutalising life. Basically all my letters home were a cry for help; I’m hungry, I will starve to death, get me out of here. She wrote back occasionally reminding me about sacrifice, hers and the need for me to do the same. In many words, that education was the key to a good life. I wondered if there was another key, another door, to this good life. Hell, I would gladly access it through a window.
Meanwhile, the dark storm of adolescence had gathered over me. Whereas in primary school I was a bit chunky, I was suddenly bony from lack of food, but also from growing. My knee bones were suddenly protruding out of my skin. My elbows suddenly sharpened like something you’d use in place of a bayonet. I was self-conscious about my frame and wiriness, I saw myself as a caricature, a quasimodo. I was socially awkward. I hated group work, the very idea of being a part of something.
My mind was suddenly boiling with self-defeating negative thoughts and insecurities. I hated any form of attention. I preferred to sit at the back of class, in the shadow of other boys. I barely raised my hand or voice. I avoided those who raised their voices and heads above the parapet. During game time, I’d walk to the large football pitch and sit alone and I’d look over the hills and wonder what my mother was doing, if she was back from school, if she was standing over the gas cooker making tea for visitors while her first son was starving to death. I rubbed the round bone on my shoulder, it felt like touching a wet pebble collected from the sea.
During the school holidays I ate as much as I could, as if preparing for hibernation. There were no private radio stations, so music was purely from KBC or a musical tape with musical videos that you played from a VHS player. Nobody did drugs in my neighbourhood, so most of my peers got swallowed by music. In 1992 Kriss Kross had their famous song, Jump. Dr Dre just released “Nothing but a G thang.” You had Michael Jackson and TLC and Arrested Development, all great but nothing was sticking as it should. There was no music that seemed to translate what I was going through as a (starving and emaciated) 14 year old who was going through teenage. Maybe it’s at this point that I slowly realised that I was getting drawn towards the more sombre songs that reflected the turmoil I was experiencing. Songs that bled from the veins and it’s not until the next year that I discovered the girl who knew what the hell was going on with me.
Toni Braxton. No doubt.
What can I say about Toni that I haven’t said here before? Not to sound like a broken drum but Toni is a zeitgeist for me. She represented a longing that had not yet been processed fully, something that didn’t have a language. She dictated love for me, but even more telling, she dictated lust because when you are 15 and your testosterone is pouring out of your ears you need a poster child for that.
Toni’s husky voice filled every crevice in me that yawned with questions. It didn’t help that she was also devastatingly beautiful. She wore her hair short, something of a bob. In her music videos, when she looked at the screen with her midnight eyes, I was sure she was seeing me. She was full of mystery and was lascivious, saucy and feisty. But these are adjectives that I only picked later to assign to her, before that the only fitting adjective I could use was an open mouth.
Love Should Have Brought You Home was released in 1992 but I didn’t listen to it until 1993. In the song she’s complaining to some fellow for not coming back home and I wondered, what bonehead would not go back home to Toni? Where on earth would you rather be than with Toni? Was he out shooting pool? This guy who is playing with her heart. It seems inconceivable that anybody would not want Toni’s love. I would not only take Toni’s love, I’d carry it on my back and never put it down, like a sin.
Toni held the door open to Baby Face, Jodeci, Tevin Campbell, Color Me Badd, Johnny Gill, Marie Carey, Shai, Jagged Edge, Silk, After 7, Brandy, Monica…
Fifteen came with the ideology of romance which meant girls, or the idea of girls because girls were unattainable creatures. Girls were like a faraway land you only saw through very strong binoculars. The tragedy of 15, is love is often unrequited.
High school meant that you had school functions that brought you in contact with girls. The girls would come over on some odd weekend. That was always something to look forward to. Boys prepared for it weeks before the D-day. The idea of girls in the school compound was alien, like wearing a bikini to church. You could feel the energy the morning of their arrival. Like the string of a plucked guitar, the school vibrated with teenage yearning and expectations.
There were boys who were adept at talking to girls. I wasn’t one of them. I was awkward and shy and so I was fascinated by how one would walk up to a girl and talk to her for more than 30 seconds without fainting. I was even agog when I saw the girl laugh. Laugh! What did one have to say to a girl to make her laugh? Apart from ‘hi’ (which I also struggled with) I had no clue how to talk to a girl. I would come up with an opening line, a gambit, and after willing myself, I would eventually pluck courage and drag my legs towards her but when she turned to my ‘hi’ I’d suddenly be so breathless, so dizzy, and I’d turn into a pathetic puddle at her feet. And girls in that era didn’t make it easy; they never smiled. Their mothers had warned them that smiling at boys made you pregnant.
Obviously because I was socially awkward, I sought even more refuge in music, mostly songs of pain; heartbreak songs, songs of men who had taken a blow to the heart, of redemption. They seemed to have more texture.
At that time, of course, unless you lived underwater, you had to have listened to one of the biggest jams of that period, End of The Road, by Boyz II Men. They were four cool, mellow and unrushed men who seemed to have understood what the transition from boys to men entailed. They had the blueprint.
They didn’t just sing these sad songs like End of The Road, they crooned and serenaded and screeched at the girl, wondering why she had played with their minds when they thought it was forever, how could she love you and leave you? How did it come here for goodbye when they can’t sleep at night and would rather be dead? It was unnatural, they lamented. They said all this while wearing dreadful blazers and oversized checked shirts that were all the rage then and sometimes ties that looked like sea animals washed out to shore. They leaned on walking canes because they couldn’t just stand on their own two feet from the heartbreak they were reeling under . It was evident that Wanya Morris evoked the most emotion, singing from somewhere in his heart that was fractured and raw. Shawn Stockman was my favourite because like me he was skinny and I knew subliminally that he understood what being hungry was like.And then there was Mike, with a voice that sounded like rolling thunder over a landscape thirsty for love. In his deep baritone voice he tells the girl that she might have run off with “that other fella” but he still loves her even though he is in so much pain baby, “’Cause you just won’t come back to me, will you? (You and I) Just come back to me,” he begs in his deep voice. Of course now most would cringe at this and call it simping but then these fellows were telling us that it was okay to surrender to love, to lean into the pain of losing and be vulnerable while wearing a tie. I loved them.
Finally, I had found guys who were holding up a mirror to my teenage angst.
When their second album “Boyz II Men II” came out, of course I bought the tape. Of course they were still screeching about love. It had the famous song, I’ll Make Love to You where one moment they instruct the girl to pour the wine and light some candles because there was gonna be some all-night lovemaking. But then something must have gone wrong because in the same album they are on “Bended Knee” and they are wondering how such a perfect thing could go wrong and they are begging her to come back or else they will never walk again. They will do everything on their knees if she doesn’t come back; make guacamole, cut the lawn, go to the ATM, check the post office for mail.
I was now in Form Three and I was used to the hunger of school and the desperate rigmarole of boarding life. I wrote Toni letters from addresses I’d find on the sleeves of tapes and actually posted them. Maybe they landed in record labels and were tossed out with old pizza. Maybe Toni received them and chuckled and said, awww. Over the holidays I was also listening to Notorious BIG, Bone Thugs n Harmony, Warren G, Dr Dre and all these roughnecks so as to balance out all the sappiness of all the R&B we were consuming. In fact, I don’t know who was not listening to Snoop’s album Doggy Style. I suspect Gin and Juice was written for the scared 16-year-olds like me who knew they would never get any “freaks in the living’ room”who “ain’t leavin’ ‘till six in the morning.”
School dragged on and I spent a lot of time daydreaming and getting washed down the torrent of adolescence. I was still very much living in my head, still enjoyed my silence, still distracted by fantasies, still looked out the window achingly during chemistry lessons. I built extravagant real estate in the air, mostly castles. I was mostly a loner. I was more comfortable being obscure or walking behind shadows. The terms introvert and extroverts were alien; you were either weird or normal. I couldn’t focus in class, my mind was restless. My heart yearned for things my mouth couldn’t pronounce.
It’s in Form Three that I suffered a minor heartbreak (the big one was coming later at 20). A girl called Flora simply stopped writing back to me. I should have known, with a name like that, it was bound to happen. (Flora if you are reading this, I hope you get a boil in your right armpit.) How this would work is that the Letter Boy would bring in letters after the evening assembly and boys would be seated on their beds after showering and waiting for dinner, reading their letters from home or from girls. Back then, girls had enough time to perfume their letters. So you’d read it about nineteen thousand times and smell it twice as many times and during night preps you’d place it between a biology book and refer to it frequently. By the end of the night preps you’d have memorised it better than the Periodic Table.
I waited for Flora’s letter in vain for weeks and each week the disappointment would leave me with sharp wounds in my heart. In the end, it felt like someone had driven a TukTuk through my heart. Because love is hopeful, I’d write her more letters thinking that perhaps her letters got lost on the way to me. I wrote three unreplied letters before it occurred to me that she had ghosted me. Flora was the inventor of Ghosting.
Of course I found solace in Boy II Men, especially in the song ‘Doing just fine.’ And although in the song the girl is apologetic and wants to come back, Flora didn’t want to come back. Although the song says they are doing just fine without the girl in their life, I wasn’t. I was doing anything but fine. I was dying. In fact, make those two boils, Flora. To get over that massive bump in my sensibilities I spent a lot of time listening to that album (Boyz II Men II) which happens to be my all time favourite Boyz II Men album.
It’s a very melancholic album even when they are talking about wanting to make love to a woman like in the song 50 Candles, a most underrated song. I loved Fallin’ so much because it gave me hope. I don’t know how “U know” ended up in that beautiful album, it felt like a song you listened to when spray painting a car. My brother was crazy about the acapella “yesterday.” The vocals, when you listen to it now in headphones, grab your fist in its big melodious hands. I just didn’t listen to Boyz II Men, I absorbed them into my bloodstream. They fed my liver and heart and kidneys.
Finally, high school is coming to an end. It’s unbelievable that we are getting released from the gulag. There is an awareness that one chapter is ending and a new phase is about to begin. You aren’t quite a man, yet, but you see yourself as one. The rules in school are more lax on your lot because you have bigger things to worry about, the final exams. So you can stroll to class, you can stay up after lights out to study, your shirt might remain untucked occasionally and no hammer will befall you.
Four years have literally flown over your head, OK, they haven’t but in the heady moment of optimism of adulthood it sure feels like it. You hate to admit it but it’s not been too bad after all. Actually you enjoyed the experience. You’ve made some great friendships. You made it to the school football team. You discovered that you rather like the thought of being an artist, someone who draws. You have spoken to and dated a few girls and you didn’t faint. You lost your virginity, tossed it in a river and wished it well.
Boyz II Men has a collaboration with LL Cool J, Hey Lover, which is the soundtrack of the moment because it represents the confidence with which you want to embrace the new world. In the song, LL Cool J, for the unacquainted, talks about taking someone’s girl because she stands at the bus stop waiting for him, something LL would never let her do. Your man must think it’s safe for you to travel this way, he says. He’s a real man, we know because he tells her, not her man that drinks too much and smokes too many blunts. He wants to hold her in his arms and ease her fears because this is more than a crush. Boyz II men provide the crooning background choir of this braggadocio. LL Cool J licks his lips a hell lot. There was a boisterousness to the songs of 1995, people wanting to freak other people or take their girls or such like things.
Towards the end of 1995, we all carried our metal boxes and left the gates of Maseno for the last time. In January of 1996, I remember feeling elated but also feeling weirdly nostalgic that I would never go back to school. Of course I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I was just happy to be listening to very sorrowful songs. I was still listening to Boyz II Men who had seen me safely to the shores of adulthood. In 1997 they released an album, this time I was mature and already in college and my roommate, a guy called Charles Njihia happened to be very big on RnB and we would stay up listening to Jeff Mwangemi on Metro FM. Charles loved Motownphilly. I still love Doing Just Fine, and when they come to perform next month, I will perhaps still sing it like I was back in high school and was cussing Flora.
I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in dog years at a swimming pool bar in Diani. It was 7 pm and the pool had just been closed. It was raining in thin beautiful curtains. I leaned against the bar with a towel draped around my shoulder like I had just been fished out of a capsized ship…with a mojito in hand. A guest at the bar was playing rhumba music from his phone. The lady she was with said loudly, Biko? It was slowly darkening so I went for a closer look and lo behold it was her, Cynthia. We worked in the same building once upon a time. She told me, “Read about your mom. I’m Sorry.” I don’t remember what I said. She said she was turning 40 today and that she had outlived her mother who had died at only 36. I gasped. We touched drinks and toasted to whatever time we have left on this earth. Happy 40th Birthday, Cynthia Agwa.
Stanbic Bank isn’t just bringing Boyz II Men, they are bringing teenage and all its beauty and anguish.