Voice of an African Child

There are countable things in this wretched life that give me joy. This is not, however, to say that I am a stuck-up or what others would refer to as uptight. No sir, I am a guy who enjoys a lot of things. For instance, I love the smell of soil when the clouds sweat over the earth. I love the smile of girls with crooked canines in a way you would not understand. I love the orgasmic feeling that comes with itching my ankle. However, there are only two things that give me pure unadulterated joy in life; baby videos and literature. We will discuss babies another time.

The first time having my work recognized can be traced back to 2010 when I was in upper primary school. A focused young lad then, I participated in a Taifa Leo competition and emerged 19th nationally in an essay contest. My small butt could not sit down to contain the excitement. I was a boy from an unknown village school in the depth of Kisii County’s Bondonya village right at the bottom of the great Sameta Hill. I did not expect to have my work ranked right next to kids who were studying in expensive private schools with libraries as big as my whole primary school. My Swahili teacher then, Mr. Ken, was a stern man whose smile was as rare as his compliments. Delivering the news to the whole school during an assembly, he moved his lips a bit to show a faint smile. He slowly stroked his chin while holding the “Taifa Leo” page in his left hand. “This boy has tried, and so should more of you,” he said, and knowing that was the best he had ever complimented anyone, I was happy.

In my final year of primary school, I read. No, I do not mean reading for the national exams. I mean, I read everything and anything I could lay my eyes on. It was a significant boost that I was the library captain-well, it was not a categorized library since it was the size of a Githurai single room, but it served its purpose. I squeezed myself in there with autobiographies of Kibaki, stories of Charles Mangua, and the severe writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I fell in love with the narratives of Africans and amazed by the description of places I had not been to. I wanted Chinua Achebe to write me letters about Abuja in a way Afrosinema could not show me. I wanted John Kiriamiti to tell me how it felt like waking up in hiding and what it did to his identity when he was a hunted man. So I consumed more literature as I wandered into worlds far away from the confines of my village hills.

Sameta Boys Primary’s library could not have fitted more than 100 novels and storybooks and still hold curriculum textbooks. I read everything though. I went through every single story that was in a paper in that tiny room; flipping pages and pages of fiction and non-fiction and memoirs and plays and poems. At the beginning of the second term of my final year, I had nothing more to read, and the school could not buy more. I felt incomplete and lacking and went back to read school work I had already exhausted revising. My only wish at the point was to get admitted to a high school with enough facilities for my literature yearning. I desired National schools where great writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o went to study. But surely, It felt like the world of fiction had deluded me to thinking I could beat all the odds from my tiny village public school and get admitted to such schools. How could it happen while the best teaching talent was tutoring kids in Nairobi, and I was sharing textbooks in a desk of three in Sameta. But because life is funny that way, I did get admitted. Yes, to Ngugi’s alma matter.

I arrived at The Alliance High School with everything they wanted plus one additional thing- the Taifa Leo page where my name had appeared. It reminded me of the most exceptional point in my writing to that point. Bush, as it is popularly called, has two separate libraries: the junior library for the first two forms and the Senior for form three and four. When I stepped into both libraries, I was greeted by shelves and shelves of books, old and new. I closed my eyes and took in the smell of ages, books that had made a home on those grounds since 1926 when the school started. These were books written by, for, and about great men. I ran my fingers on the slightly dusty old wood that made the shelves and felt a bit of electricity on my fingertips. That had to be the juice of great literature coming into contact with my village-boy skin.

Stay with me. Before joining high school, I used to watch a lot of Afrocinema or DJ Afro movies anytime I came across a TV set. Stop judging and focus on my story first. Haya. This one time, I watched a Naija movie involving clashes between two gangs. I cannot remember what both called themselves, but the one that stuck with me was the “Black Scorpions.” They were ruthless, effective and no one knew their members, but their work got recognition in whatever town of Nigeria they were operating in. “All hail the black scorpions!” I chanted with them as the movie progressed since the name sounded cool to me. When I joined the Writers and Journalism club in high school, I decided to go anonymous. I was “The Black Scorpion.”

Therefore, The Black Scorpion read and wrote. I read Mandela and Mariama Ba and Steve Jobs, initiated into the alternative writing of Binyavanga and the prolific brain of Meja Mwangi. I met the works of Dan Brown and consumed the Da Vinci Code in the cobbled pathways of Bush. The Black Scorpion read and wrote, and the people talked about his weekly publications. He wrote and published in the famous “Bush Fire” school magazine and people asked and wondered who he was. But The Black Scorpion read and wrote anonymously until the final year when he was a prefect on duty. Standing there in front of the dining hall, I announced the prefects on duty and their aliases. “Those are your week’s prefects on duty and I, I am The Black Scorpion.” There was a sudden break of murmurs across the hall as I smiled at the revelation and muttered under my breath, “All hail the Black Scorpion.”

 After high school, I was working in a Cyber Café right when Facebook was still the thing. It is during those free internet and idle periods that I stumbled upon the writings of Bikozulu. I read every single piece he had ever posted since 2010 in the space of fewer than two weeks. I marveled at his description of mundane everyday activities and how he could tell a story out of anything. Later I would read Magunga, and Owaah, and Yvonne Adhiambo, and I fell in love with their creative writing. So during my small commutes to and from work, I posted about my adventures on my Facebook account. It was a blend of funny and new to try and give a fun view of my village life that no one had seen. Then a comment from a high school friend, Jesse, who eventually became my editor, changed everything. “Dude, start a blog!”.

However, work at the Cyber Café had come to an end, and zero access to a computer or fast internet speeds became an obstacle to even starting a blog. I had a small Neon smartphone, the size of my palm, and a burning desire to write. I found the Taifa Leo cut-out from 2010 and smiled at the young boy who wrote from a small library and achieved a fete he could never forget. So I decided to use what I had at the moment and work with it. I typed. I typed 1500 words or more from a small phone without enough storage. So I would type right inside WordPress, and sometimes the site would refresh, making me lose all the progress I had made. It was frustrating, tiring, and a very thankless job. But still, I typed and put out my first story. Then I wrote my second, and third and seventh, and I wrote even some more while hunched over my small Neon phone. There were typos since I didn’t have a laptop or Jesse who would edit for me later. But still, I wrote about my life, my village, the world around me and published some more. I was a happy Black Scorpion who had grown from a Taifa Leo Insha to a creative writer.

Later, I would get a laptop and bang the keys away, pushing stories every week with three other creative friends. We called ourselves the “Voice of an African Child.”People would wait patiently for our work, and we would write—all the four of us. We wrote. We did. Then there were three of us, and we wrote a bit more. I wrote even way more. Then we were two. We pushed our work and even submitted it to BAKE Awards (Bloggers Association of Kenya) to face not even a nomination. But we still wrote.

Eventually, it was just me. I wrote stories of circumcision in Kisii and eating Mutura in Nairobi and travelling to Capetown and Paris and Samburu and Being an MC and Christmas and Chang’aa.

I wrote about Chang’aa. In fact, I wrote about Chang’aa so passionately I won the Igby Prize for Non-fiction Africa awarded by the Kalahari Review. I was 19 at the time and thought there was no way a small village boy from the deepest part of Bondonya, Kisii could win a prize adorning submissions from everywhere in Africa. But I won. I became a rotating judge of the Magazine, which is even crazier. It allowed me to read and review and judge stories by other young African writers and traveled with them. My domain expired, and I could not publish, but still, I was banging keys and pouring words to Bill Gate’s Microsoft Word. My domain got renewed, and I wrote, and stories were shared, and then my domain expired again. My laptop was stolen. Twice. But still, I wrote and sent stories to my friend Ngoiri (God bless her soul), and she published them in her medium.

It’s been a journey of love and struggle and pain and patience and creativity, and writer’s block. Regardless, I am unable to stop what I had started with Taifa Leo and continued in High School as the anonymous Black Scorpion.

But I am no longer the black scorpion. I am the Voice of an African Child.