When men come for men, the boys hide. And often when boys hide they continue hiding for the rest of their lives for war is a dark cloud that never shifts. Dramatic novels talk of the wailing of drums of war. The trumpets and hard men on horses. However, this wasn’t a novel. It was life. He recalls it starting with whispers in his village of Semikaro, Tana River. Suddenly there were too many whispers. Something was afoot. The men started gathering in tight circles under the shades of the wide trees by the roadside, outside shops, searching into each other’s eyes, their brows getting deeper and deeper, enough to hide pennies. He noticed that his mother took longer and longer to come back from the market and when she got back he would see her with other women, gathered at the fork of the roast that led to their house, engaged in an intimate discussion that seemed more worrisome than anything else. Late in the night he’d hear the deep murmur of their parents talking and one time he pressed his ear against the door and heard her say, “you have to send them away.” They were ten children – they are still ten children. He’s the sixth born.
In school at Semikaro Primary School he struggled with reading and writing. You wouldn’t call him a great student. He’d stare outside the window, thinking about football and of girls. Sometimes he’d look at the clouds take the shape of faces of strangers he saw in his dreams. His reverie would be cut in the knees by his class teacher calling him loudly by his two names, ‘Ibrahim Wayu Omar, do you want to stay in class or would you like to leave and find whatever you are looking at outside?” School was laborious, like climbing a tree with a goat strapped on your back. He didn’t look forward to it. He couldn’t get simple maths. Could barely write a sentence after writing his name. However, his best part of school was the bell; when it rang, especially at the end of the day. It was the sweet sound of freedom. It meant football. It’s in the playground where he would hear the rumours from his friends. “The Ormas are coming for us.” They would say. “There is already fighting in other villages.” The Ormas were their neighbours. They lived together but then they didn’t. There was always an invisible distance between them, an unspoken pact that seemed to say, ‘we might live close to each other but we are not one people.” But war? Come on. That was stretching it a tad. It felt like a myth.
But the rumours got louder and louder, rumours of war and retribution. He was only 12 years old but already he could grasp that the mood in the village was that of tension and anxiety. He was old enough to detect a different angst amongst the men and soon he could see men discreetly “arming” themselves. Men sharpened their pangas outside their houses at dusk, their words sounding sharper than their weapons. The dusty roads into the villages started getting emptier earlier than usual in the evenings. Men walked in pairs. Women peeked from the shadows of their windows. Even the birds on trees looked invested in this new atmosphere. One night he stepped out to take a leak and he saw shadows and a voice in darkness said, ‘go back to bed, Ibrahim.” Sentries. They never had sentries before.
At school more and more of his classmates stayed away, his classroom suddenly feeling emptier and louder with their absence but also the presence of foreboding. He drifted out of the classroom through the window more but the teacher no longer called his name out in full. One day day he recalls going to buy flour at the shopping centre to find a gaggle of angry men talking about a man who was killed. A teacher. Nobody killed teachers. What did you have to gain from killing a teacher? They cut off his legs, the men said, and they threw his body into the brown and sinister Tana River to be eaten by crocodiles. He was never found. Of course there was anger.
A few days after this incident, as they sat all together as a family on the floor of the living room, a yellow-glowing lantern hanging from the rafters, his father said, “you are all leaving tomorrow to visit your uncle.” It was coming. So off they went, away from the village, just before war and death descended. The ethnic clashes of 2012 in Tana River started and it lasted for what seemed like ages.
“When we came back to the village we couldn’t recognise it,” Ibrahim remembers. He’s tall and brawny and he has a toothache. It was like coming to a village that didn’t belong to us. It really broke my heart.”
That was eight years ago. He was only 12 years old, already a child witnessing what men can do to other men.
Slowly the village picked up the pieces. There were peace and reconciliation meetings that adults attended with a lot of cynicism. Some semblance of fragile peace soon ensued. “We didn’t understand this hatred that had just transpired.” Ibrahim says. They carried this confusion back to classrooms when schools finally opened and didn’t know where to place it. Some students managed to get back into the rhythm of learning while others couldn’t move forward. Ibrahim, already not a great student, deteriorated even further. School didn’t offer any opening to a frontier that his parents and teachers professed. Also, he was processing the trauma that his neighbourhood had undergone. Nothing felt the same around him anymore. It all felt desperate, like living in someone else’s reality.
Meanwhile in his school a program called Accelerated Learning Approach was underway, an initiative of People’s Action for Learning [PAL] network and Regional Education Initiative [RELI]. They call it Foundation Literacy and Numeracy, which advocates for reading and writing as a core value for every student, especially children from the impoverished regions of Sub Saharan Africa. Kids like Ibrahim were suffering from a different kind of poverty called Learning Poverty. Only problem was that this program was only for children in grade three to five. Ibrahim was in grade eight yet he couldn’t read or write well. He was scoring 98 marks out of 500 in his exams.
One day the headteacher asked if Ibrahim could join the program and the teachers looked at each other. “How?” One asked. “He’s in class eight. He is much older. How would he even fit? The headteacher said, ‘he will find his space if you let him in.” So Ibrahim was let into the program.
“I was the tallest and biggest in class. It was awkward and discouraging at the beginning,” Ibrahim confesses. “But my teachers never let me give up. The program was very intense but slowly I started learning how to read words, then sentences and then paragraphs.”
The technique called Teaching at the right Level [TaRl] they used was pioneered by an Indian NGO that helped slow learners catch up by practising maths or reading. Over 50% of Grade 2 children in Kenya cannot perform two-digit subtraction in 2017 according to a World Bank Report. If you can’t read or do simple maths, your chances of surviving in the market is greatly hampered.
Ibrahim sat for his KCPE exams in a few months and scored 234 out of 500 works. It boosted his confidence. Suddenly he had a shot at life. He joined Buyani Secondary School where he is in Form Two. He’s 20 years old. He’s still the oldest in his class of mostly kids five years his junior. He’s taller than them. He’s bigger than them. His voice is deeper than then. He is stronger on the football pitch and often faster. “But at least nobody makes fun of me because of my inability to read or do simple maths.” He says. He still dreams. He dreams of being a great footballer. He still looks out for strange faces in the cloud but not in class this time.
When you ask him what he wished happened to his life to get better he takes a beat and thinks about it. “I don’t want to experience another fighting in my village,” he says. “ It takes everybody back.”