Look at that mane. That metaphor of youth. Of invincibility. Of bottomless faith in his capacity to thrive in this moment – even this unstable moment curtailed by a flu. You may not know it but this hair carries with it a history. Ideally, it’s his father’s hair. They come from a family of men with good hair. That’s his father, the suited chap on his left. He’s got no hair anymore but he’s successful. You can tell a successful man, not by the cut of their suit – because now more and more thieves are cleaning up well – but by how he herds a conversation, how he turns it into an orchestra, like a conductor.
His father – like every Alliance old boy – talks about Alliance like it’s an old flame, like theirs is unrequited love. It’s both tragic and beautiful to witness – like looking at a naked female body through a parabola. From his father we will know that his Alliance school number was 32/20. And many other things. He’s a financial service consultant. What does that mean? Who knows? But from his suit it looks like he has dusted his 10,000 hours. It looks like success. This ex-Alliance’s father was a colonial judge and his grandfather was an army sergeant, serving with the British. They were all men of hair, which made them heirs of good hair. I’m only telling you about this man so that you understand his son.
This boy is called Ryan Mbai. He’s 17-years old. Which means he’s at the very edge of adulthood, of manhood, a strange place to be because you still carry baggage of being a boy but with the weight of impending manhood. He’s an outlier, this boy. One of those boys who are good at everything; gaming, academics, sports, people. He has led other boys. He has a weird sense of self awareness that we only stumble upon when we are older. He does community work. Can you believe that? Community work? He’s fluent. His hair is fluent.
He’s just finished his A-levels at Brookhouse where he scored straight As and won the Beacon Scholar which will see him get admitted into Bristol University on full scholarship. I’d never heard of the Beacon Scholar. The first time I was told about it I asked, “is that a culinary scholarship?” because I heard “bacon” not “Beacon.” You don’t want to take a call when you are hungry. This year they picked only six in East Africa and Zambia. Competitive as hell. You have to be all rounded. You have to be like this boy. Good head of hair might help.
I want to touch it but it would be inappropriate to touch people’s hair just because. His mother – also smart – maybe even smarter than her husband because she waits for you to discover her smartness, sits there quietly, proudly, looking at her son with eyes that only a mother can look at her son going to Bristol on full scholarship. That’s a long sentence, but we shall forge on, shalln’t we?
Ryan doesn’t want to be here, though. Neither does his hair. He’s 17- years old, I’m sure there are a million places he’d rather be. Maybe gaming. Maybe with his friends. Maybe on a football pitch. He wants to be doing what 17-year old boys do, not be here to hear us talk about him in the third person. What he innocent might not quite fathom is the tangent his life has taken. He will fully appreciate it in a few years. For now, he’s only living this moment where you can wear your great ambition on your head.
“He used to wear his hair like that when he was younger,” his mom says referring to her husband. She says it with the kind of tone that only a mother can use; celebratory but also managing to pepper it with just the right type of cynicism.
“When I was growing up,” I tell him, “ you would never dare to wear your hair like that in our home. My mother would hang you on the tree outside. It was for riffraffs, vagabonds – people who were not serious about school and, by extension, about life.”
He offers a faint grin, like I’m telling him about dinosaurs. You can’t blame him; we are living in their time, their moment, their reality. We are guests. What is also evident for sure is that if you look at this boy through the prism of his hair you will not see him. His hair is a mirage, a distraction, like how some animals have bright colours to distract their predators. It will mislead you.
They picked him for this award because he’s smart, yes, but then again the world is full of very smart people. They picked him because he has leadership qualities. And he plays sports. “He’s holistic,” his father says looking up from his phone.
“Where did his smarts come from?” I ask the parents, a question that pits them against each other.
“He will say it came from his family.” His mom says with a grin, knowing that her husband will fall for the trap. And he does. “Of course, like a father like son.” They laugh. If you just joined us, he’s ex-Alliance, school number, 32/20. Write that down. He was always a good kid, they tell me, a quiet boy. He never nagged. He worked hard. He remained focused. He was different. “He showed leadership skills from when he was so young.” His mother adds. He has appeared in the newspapers three times, making Brookhouse proud, making his parents proud. You should see how they look at him when they speak; with unabashed pride.
I dig for a parental secret, a diet, that made this boy this way. There seems to be none. This was meant to happen. This was written. I’m here because somehow, this is deja vu. I feel like I have sat with Ryan before. I realise what this meeting means. I have a feeling that one day – ten, fifteen years – I will be watching TV- semi retired in a small house by a lake, writing, drinking whisky, fishing, watering flowers, and I will look at that screen and wonder where I have seen that young man from Kitui before. This young man that the world will be celebrating for whatever it is he plans to do. It will nag me. Eventually in the middle of the night it will come to me. The Brookhouse boy with the good hair!
“I met him when he was a boy.” I will whisper in darkness. “I met that Brookhouse boy when his bones were a boy’s bones. Oh shit.”
Then when I’m just about to go back to sleep I will wonder what happened to his hair.