Picture a 17yr old boy living with his grandfather in Majengo slums in Kitui. Now picture this boy shuffling to a dark hot and seedy cyber in a corner of this hovel to write me an email a few days after he’s suspended from school. He says he’s spending his “food money” in the cyber to write that email.
He starts by saying that he’s “literally” my biggest fan, but on the second sentence he changes his mind and says that he doesn’t think “I’m all that,” and he isn’t writing to shower me with praises, a privilege he will hold back until I write a book because apparently that’s the true mark of a prolific writer.
I read this email in Nairobi at 2am, in the dead of the night, my sleep long displaced. The boy continues to say that since he was suspended from school everyone has been telling him he’s a “fuck up and will always be a fuck up in life.” (Strong language for a teenager). But he isn’t paying attention to those naysayers, he assures me. He wants to do something with his life. He says he’s always been “good with the pen,” the best in his class, so good he would charge other students to write love letters for them. Here is this piece I wrote, he writes to me, would you please have a look at it and tell me what you think?
He writes, “I know you write for many publications, and you are busy, but come on, you were 17 once, weren’t you? Plus aren’t you the same people always complaining about the book intolerance about the ‘xaxa xema’ generation? [the boy has a point] So bring the criticism, Biko, the good and the ugly, it doesn’t matter.” Then here is the bit that made me smile in the dark, he: in his garish style he signs off the email: “Name’s Joe by the way, but all my imaginary friends call me Shady. Dark Shady.”
Attached in the email was this piece titled “In My Dying Breath,” an uncannily well-written piece about an African despot defending his record. The prose was too good for a 17yr old, let alone a truant one who just got suspended from school. Someone is having me on, I thought.
So I write back and ask him if he’s watched “Meet Joe Black” because he mentioned he’s a darker than most and he’s called Joe. He hadn’t. (Of course, it’s like asking him if he’s listened to A Few Good Men). I told him his writing was mature for his age that he should dig his heels in. Then I told him to stick his truant ass in school and finish because he won’t amount to much as a high school dropout who can write.
He wrote back the next morning (Hopefully not with his “food money.”) He said he didn’t imagine I would bother writing back because I come across as a prick. (Only on a good day, Joe). To prove he was 17 he sent me a picture of himself; a pouty picture of a teenage boy, a blue SOX baseball cap cocked perilously on his head, a scarf slung across his neck, spectacles and some ice-hockey jersey. He called it “swag” and asked me if I knew what that meant (I didn’t). I figure for a 17yr old I look like a fossil. That was a week ago.
We started emailing. I asked why he was suspended (skipping church service), and why he was living with his grandfather (“I never knew my dad. I’m the last born of four brothers [all who have not amounted to much, so the bar is pretty low], all of us with different fathers. My mom abandoned me when I was in class three. Only mom would have four kids out of wedlock and not bother to introduce them to their fathers,”). He said he was quite good with writing erotica (I didn’t ask to see a sample) and that added that his love life was “as fucked up as high school can be.” (Forgot to tell you, he’s a potty mouth, this boy).
We kept exchanging emails. I was fascinated by his turn of phrase and his very fledgling skill. He wrote these emails that made me smile. Emails full of false teenage bravado, like he had this life all figured out. He also sent me a few pieces to have a look at. A few really stood out. Some were overwritten and needed a strong drink to read. But I remember thinking that I wasn’t writing like this boy at 17yrs, leave alone think like he does.
Although his domestic situation was hopeless I liked the way he treated it as a boot camp, something he had to do to get to the next level. He seemed brave and determined.
But there is only so much room for bravery in a 17yr old. At the end of it all, a 17yr old is a 17yr old. Reading his emails it occurred to me that he was reaching out through this deceptive bravado, this ghetto gung-ho pose. He’s on thin ice. Thankfully, he knows it. And he’s asking for help. He’s scared, like Holden in Catcher in the Rye. He wants someone to help him stay up amidst everything that is crumbling and malfunctioning all around him. He wants someone to assure him that he can do it. Someone to tell him that he can write because the way he sees it, all factors considered, that’s his only ticket out of that hole.
I hope this helps, Joey boy.
Gang, meet Joe Black. Real name Joe Munuve.
First off, am black. Not the race thing. Am black as in pitch dark. I’m talking Samuel Wanjiru black here. Janet Jepkosgey. Am talking about coal black. The reason I’m blabbing on about my colour and most likely boring you in the process is because it is what made me who I am today. It helped me form about the largest part of my character.
See, when you are pitch dark and don’t live among the luos or lunjes where you are all so black you assemble a political rally, you have it rough. People taunt you left, right, centre. They make fun of you every opportunity. Believe me, there’s no taunt I haven’t endured, no name I haven’t been called. It was all but fun to them but the effect it had on me was enormous. It lowered my esteem to the least of limits. I grew up thinking I was this ugly dude who would amount to nothing. I had a future alright, but it sure as hell wasn’t bright. I didn’t talk to anybody. I drew into myself and held bitter monologues with my God. Like Job of Old Testament, always demanding to know why he had condemned me to this fate.
For lack of friends, it was only natural I would revert to the pen and pour out my sorrows to my journal. And boy, what sorrows they were! Too glad I didn’t drink them, I wrote them away and by writing and reading extensively, I slowly broke out my cocoon. I slowly realized that I wasn’t ugly at all and that besides my looks, I also had many other abilities that none of my tormentors had.
Growing up, I had much to write about. Since I was introvert, I had all the time in the world. My best friend was my journal and I didn’t disappoint him. I got to admit though, growing up in Kitui’s Majengo slum isn’t a cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, I love my hood to death but it’s a dangerous place to grow up. I can see the effects of that in my three elder brothers. One works as a laborer in coast. The other was in rehab the last time I checked. The other is a twenty five year old whom we still live with and has no plans to move out any time soon. He’s routine is simple. Wakes up at ten, gobbles down breakfast he didn’t bother cook or even find out where it came from then go for his rounds. By rounds I mean go to kick it with his mates-a group of louts who spend the whole day chewing miraa, smoking pot and whistling at passing girls.
I can point fingers at many things that could have led to my brothers being what they are but Majengo takes the lion share. It isn’t anywhere to raise a kid. Am quite sure
I only escaped its tentacles coz I was an introvert and didn’t interact with them other cats when I was a kid. Otherwise, I could’ve walked down the very same lane, confirming my granddad’s belief that his daughter’s family was bewitched by a most powerful witch who died with the secret of how to reverse the spell. I know. It’s absurd right? The old man believes it fully. His life’s mission is to make sure that one of us makes it in life and he has his hopes on me. It’s not a very huge responsibility coz even right now am already past all my bros. None of them reached form three, see. I’ve broken the family record.
The fact that I was expelled three weeks ago doesn’t hold much water coz at least I reached somewhere and my grades are super. I really don’t know what’s next for me. I know that I must finish school but on the other hand I know that I could easily drop out and not be accountable to anyone but myself. Most of my friends work hard so as to avoid their parent’s wrath. I envy them. At least they have a drive, albeit a fucked up one, but a motivation nonetheless. They wouldn’t even think dropping out. Not in their wildest dreams. As for me, I’m not that particularly motivated. I just stay in school coz I would be bored to death at home and I also don’t have trouble with my studies but if I was to come home with my bags and tell grandpa that I’ve just quit school he’d just look at me, heave a sigh and welcome me home. Cool, eh? Nop, fucked up is how I’d call it. Ohh…I still haven’t told you how I ended up living with my gran. My mom was a single mum and she lived with her dad who also happens to be a single dad. Dang! Maybe it runs in the family. I’ve never thought of it that way but it is a possibility. So my super mom, bless, had four kids out of wedlock. Four! And they all boys and none of us knows his real dad. I dare not ask coz I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be some miraa chewing good for nothing bleeder. It’s better not knowing. The bliss of ignorance. My brothers aren’t eager to know too. So my mum had these four kids and she was living with her dad who didn’t mind at all and then at some point she decided she’d had enough and ran off. Yap, she packed her bags and away she flew to paradise. Not the Coldplay one. Her own paradise and that’s the City by the sea, Mombasa raha. I don’t really know what kind of work she does there but it’s definitely not a nine five. More of a nocturnal employment. I just hope if it’s in a brothel, she should by now have at least been promoted to the management. It’s been over a decade for chrissakes!
All of these factors have come into play in making me the braggadocios, cocky, unfeeling and uncaring bastard that I am today. I live by the highest mantra of human philosophy. I ‘know thyself’. I don’t blame anyone for my situation, for my broken family, for my fucked up brothers, my despairing granddad, my whoring mum, my dangerous hood and last but not in the least, my pitch black complexion. They aren’t pull factors. They are push ones. They make me realize that I hold the hope of my lineage in my hands.
They make me want to rise above it all and become something, someone and not just anyone. The burden on my shoulders is too heavy and instead of slowing me down, it speeds me up. One day, one time. I’ll be taking my kids to see their uncles and grandma and I’ll tell them of my life story and ask them to learn from it. But, before that time comes, I’ll just sip my Blue moon and dip my quill in ink, ready to lose myself in this other world where I can create all this other characters and situations around me, where I can capture the distorted beauty and the imperfect perfection of my life. Where I can be whoever I want to be. I don’t know where my writing will eventually take me but I’m enjoying the journey nevertheless.