Getting into St. Patrick’s High School was an exceptionally happy occasion for me. St. Patrick’s was not my first choice, not even my second, or my third – it was not in my mind at all. My first choice school had not accepted me; and the only school that invited me was too remotely located, much to my parent’s dislike. As a result of this, I waited at home continuing my responsibility of herding my family’s three hybrid-grade cows whilst my father ran up-and-down our district, meeting and begging administrators of renowned schools to admit his son. As January came to a close, reporting deadlines for many schools also passed. Still, I wasn’t in school. I was slowly starting to panic, but I held on to the belief that God was putting together a perfect plan for me. One week passed without word from any school. Two weeks passed.
Sometime in the third week, my father made a breakthrough, and got me admitted to St. Patrick’s High School. He assured me that it was a good school, although my opinion on the matter was largely inconsequential. The important thing was that he believed it was good enough for me. So, the following Monday, he put me in a van he rented in haste and drove me some 300 kilometers away to my new school. I was very happy to finally be in school.
My first week in St. Patrick’s passed without much action, except for frequent reminders that I was new in school, which came in the form of harassment by third and fourth-year students. Otherwise, I quickly acclimated to my new school, making no close friends in the one month that I had stayed there. Instead, I spent almost all of that month catching up to class work. At the end of the term I did well and out of more than one hundred students I was ranked fourteenth. My father was very proud. I was just happy to have been in school. The April holidays passed all too quickly for me.
In the second term, I resolved to improve, and perhaps get to know my roommates a little better. It was around this time that I began to get acquainted with Eric, who slept on the upper level of the bunk-bed we shared. Eric was tall, big and athletic. Although he and I came from the same district, he was from the city, and unlike me he had no rural upbringing. As such, I considered him urban and trendy; a wise-guy who knew more Sheng than I did. Eric was in the school’s track-and-field team as the school’s rising star at the hammer throw, the discuss-disc throw, and the javelin throw. Every evening after classes, Eric would quickly change into his sports gear – an old frayed vest, a stinky skin-tight pair of black training shorts, a pair of worn-out Reebok sneakers, and a black bandanna. Thus dressed, he looked completely out of phase with me in my school uniform which comprised a blue shirt tucked in a gray pair of trousers, and polished black shoes. Without saying a word to anyone, he would slip out behind the bed sheet we used as a curtain to our doorless room, into the hallway of our dormitory, Chumo House, and outside into the field for practice. This was his daily routine.
Usually, I stayed on in our room, having enrolled in no extra-curricular activity in the school at the time. My other four roommates often stayed outside after classes chatting away, or playing cards. I did not know them well, and felt out of place in their company. I never felt the need to put any effort to improve our relationship. I was fine with the situation as it were. However, all of this were about to change very dramatically a short time later.
One event that forever changed my relationship with my roommates occurred on a Sunday. Sunday was not particularly a favorite of many students because of the day’s schedule. Typically, Sunday started with a mandatory church service for students early in the morning before breakfast. This requirement was strictly enforced by a teacher and prefects on duty for the week, who went door-to-door to kick out students who tried to sleep in. Then, breakfast time came, and with it more drama. Third and fourth-year students, and some second-years, commanded priority access into the dining hall because Sunday was “bread-day”. Often, timid first-year students like me, stayed at the end of the line, eventually finding ourselves without bread. On luckier days we would scramble for the last piece of bread. In addition to my run-ins with teachers for oversleeping on Sunday, and for missing bread, my Sundays were bound to be hairier than all other days of the week.
The struggle for food at mealtime on Sundays continued at lunch. As usual, I wasn’t the first at the table. Much of the boiled maize-and-beans meal was gone, leaving only isolated grains and broken bits of plastic plates in the serving pan. Relief came after lunch, when a matinée was scheduled between one o’clock and four o’clock. I enjoyed this daytime entertainment very much, as it not only offered an opportunity to watch American action heroes, but it also was an exciting opportunity for me to listen to native English speakers talk. I tried as much as I could to stay close to the TV, while staying a safe distance from a boisterous group of students who never seemed to think that the rest of us needed their incoherent commentary of the movie.
Another reprieve from Sunday’s challenging experiences was dinner time, which was far more civilized than all other meal times because the school mandated the presence of a teacher at dinner. The teacher typically stood near one of the five doors into the dining hall. As a result, the area around that door was more peaceful than the rest of the hall. Some teachers preferred to walk around the eating area to ensure more homogeneous peace in the dining hall; nonetheless, chaos sprung up from one end of the hall as soon as the teacher was at the other end. It was a comedic event for some but for me it signaled trouble. I remember once, when out of mischief a student sent a lump of ugali flying in the direction of the teacher when he turned to look the other way. The projectile path was off, and the piece of ugali missed the teacher, but instead it landed on the back of my neck, splattered on impact and messed my school shirt. My friends and I later joked at the event, claiming that the naughty student had purposely targeted me, rather than the teacher.
On that fateful Sunday, most of the day’s routine events were coming to a predictable end. The evening classes, fondly referred as The Preps, ended promptly at ten in the evening. I put away my reading materials, closed my locker, and paused briefly to check for pens that may have rolled on the floor when I had dozed off during The Preps. Finding none, I made for the door, and headed to Chumo House. I intended to do some laundry that I had put off earlier in the afternoon so as to watch the 1998 VHS movie, Mercenary 2: Thick and Thin. I grabbed my bucket, detergent and dirty clothes and went behind our dormitory where an underground water tank, the Water Dam, was located. After drawing water from the Water Dam, I started on the shirts, rubbing and wringing quietly in the night. The footpath stretching from the classrooms to the dorms and passing by the Water Dam was somewhat busy, and the constant student traffic provided some security in the dark.
Then, out of the night emerged two familiar faces: the school deputy head prefect, Koinange, and the prefect in charge of the school’s health office, Harry. I looked up briefly at them, the returned my focus to my laundry bucket. They approached me, and inquired casually about my day whilst offering no hints to the painful ordeal they were about to subject me to a little while later.
Then, the conversation shifted quickly. Harry and Koinange asked me to join them in the school’s computer classroom to help them with a case involving Eric. At the time, I was unaware that the request is just a facade to get me to react at the mention of Eric’s case. In my eagerness to help, I hurried to finish my laundry. Hanging out my last piece of laundry on the line, I asked the prefects to go on ahead while I put away my bucket. Unknown to me, however, was the fact that I was already under suspicion for theft, which meant that my request was doomed to rejection. Harry accompanied me to Chumo House, where I left my things. He then escorted me into the computer classroom.
Harry was the de facto muscle-man of all the prefects in the school. Interestingly, he did not come across as intimidating at a first glance; nor was he any more muscular than an average Kenyan teenager. However, growing up in the rural countryside of Marakwet where tribal clashes with neighboring Pokot cattle rustlers were common had taught Harry a thing or two about showing a mean face. Rumors were rife around the school that he had firearms training, and possibly he had engaged in combat. Perhaps it was because of his background that Harry had very visceral reactions to injustices and crime, which served him well when he campaigned for election as a prefect. The prefect position afforded him the opportunity to uphold a moral code that resisted villainy of any kind; no misconduct was too small for Harry. He was the perfect fit for the disciplinary arm of the prefects’ organization.
Harry led me into the computer classroom where a group of prefects were waiting. It occurred to me then, that Eric’s case was something bigger than I had imagined. Eric was there as well, crestfallen. As soon as he saw me, he stood upright from the shelf he was leaning on until then. Fire burned in his eyes, and I could feel intense animosity from his glare. I did not need to be told that he believed I had wronged him, but I still was visibly shaken when he actually accused me of stealing from him his pocket money sum of Ksh800. Everybody in the room stared at me as I froze, unable to respond. I knew what they all thought: I was guilty!
When I finally found the words to say, all I could do was squeeze out a single no. No one believed me, and I could tell it by the doubt on their faces. Again, Koinange asked me where I had Eric’s money. He assured me that there was to be no further mention of the incident if I just turned in the money, or agreed to secretly replace it, so long as I admitted to taking it. In his mind, the case could not have been simpler. I was the obvious criminal because all circumstantial evidence pointed to me as the culprit. First, I had been known to linger in our dorm room alone while my roommates found more useful things to occupy their time after classes. Second, I shared a bunk-bed with Eric, and he kept his trunk full of his belongings on the floor right beside the lower bed on which I slept. I knew he kept his money in the box –it was common practice for students to keep their valuables in these locked aluminum boxes. Without needing more proof, it was apparent that I had the best opportunity to steal Eric’s money. As for my motive, I suppose everybody assumed I needed the cash to counter my terrible luck with food at mealtimes and to bribe my way out of relentless harassment from third and fourth-year students.
My defense argument was too weak or even unacceptable to the prefects, who doubled as judges and jurors. As the highest ranking prefect in the room, Koinange naturally assumed the role of supreme judge and attempted to act more civilized and diplomatic than the rest of the group. He offered me various chances to save face and simply return the cash. However, my biggest problem was that there was no crime to admit to as far as I knew. So, I persisted in resisting my accusers. I had no idea why they thought I would take Eric’s money when I was in good financial health at the time. Indeed, even if I wanted to I was not strong enough to break into Eric’s locked box. As I protested thus, I gasped as I saw Eric’s box wide open in front of me on the floor of the room, with its lid twisted up from its hinges so that it looked like open oyster shells or a bird with wounded wings. It was painfully obvious that someone had forcibly opened the locked box, and that whoever it was had ample time to do so. I pitied Eric more than myself for his misfortune. Meanwhile, Koinange was running out of patience and his diplomacy was not yielding its desired fruit. It seemed that better methods were necessary to solicit a confession from me. In the back of my mind, I did not think the prefects would actually resort to violent measures. I was wrong.
When Koinange stopped reasoning with me, he handed me over to Harry. Where diplomacy had failed, brute force substituted promptly. Harry was swift. His first blow to my right cheek was as unexpected as it were discombobulating. I reeled towards to floor, recovering too late to brace myself for impact. My hands stretched out automatically towards the floor, while my head jerked up to avoid collision with the aging floor tiles. Luckily, one of the prefects – Nixon, as I came to know later – instinctively reached out to catch me, but instead grabbed my yellow Chumo House t-shirt, tearing my left sleeve in the process. I looked up at Harry, and he was looming over me. I knew I was in trouble, but I was too scared to think straight. I was not going to confess to a crime I had no part in at all – that much was resolved. I did not take the cash, my eyes pleaded, but my throat was dry and not a sound came from my lips.
Koinange and the others simply looked on. Eric flinched. I cried. I was very ashamed at my own tears but I couldn’t stop crying. My cheek was hot and raw from the slap. I did not want any more of the pain, but I knew the only way to end it all was for me to admit to the charge of theft. Suddenly in the middle of the beatings, an idea flashed in my mind. I offered to bribe my way out by giving Eric some of my money. However, Koinange wanted me to come clean and not only give back what was Eric’s, but also to acknowledge that I had indeed stolen from Eric. Therefore my proposal was rejected, and I endured grueling interrogations for two additional hours. Harry slapped, kicked, lashed me with his leather belt, and swore at me. Koinange periodically interrupted with conciliatory propositions, encouraging me to own up and put a stop to the pain. Other prefects joined in, abusing and admonishing; in entreating and pressing me to give up my foolish obstinacy. I was guilty and there was no prudence in suffering for a measly Ksh800. A few soft-hearted prefects who could no longer stand the torture, began to believe I was truly innocent, but they did not stand up to Harry, especially as he frenetically lashed his belt back-and-forth, cursing. Eric just looked away, uncertainty slowly crippling his resolve.
I lay on the floor, pain needling throughout my body. Strangely, I began to feel like a martyr. My determination to stick to truth grew stronger with each punch and kick that Harry delivered on my numbing body. I made my mind to uphold my innocence. I was convinced I was right, and they were wrong. I would get my vindication by my sufferance. The more I hurt, the more I felt they sank deeper in disgrace. I loathed every one of the prefects. I despised them for their uncivil conduct. In spite of my miserable state, I stood tall in spirit, proud at myself for holding on to my innocence in the face of cruelty. I no longer responded to anything they asked of me, and I could no longer feel the pain. My mind refused to let in any more suffering, and my body lay limb. I looked at Eric, and he turned away. I pitied him more. Harry began to hesitate and his blows softened. His conviction was failing. I was victorious. I smiled at myself: I am triumphant!
I awoke earlier than usual on Monday morning. Breakfast was served at seven and assembly was at half past seven. I was in no shape to appear publicly, especially not in front of extra-ordinarily curious teachers and students. So I stayed in bed most of the morning, nursing my swollen face. Tim, one of my other roommates, took pity on me and risked punishment to bring me breakfast in bed. That was the first time I realized Tim was perhaps kinder than I imagined him to be. Later I learned that my absence at the school assembly and morning classes was conveniently explained away by Harry as a health-related matter. However, what I did not know until a few days later was that even though I was clearly not in any state to move about, some prefects had been assigned to observe and report on my movements. Apparently, I was not completely out of suspicion. By afternoon, my face had healed well enough to walk outside and lie about my bruises, reporting them as sports-related injuries.
In the evening, just before dinner, Koinange called me. Predictably, he looked greatly relieved to see my face was starting to return to its normal outline, but I was surprised that he expressed regret at the whole affair. He summarily apologized, stumbling over words as he asked spoke to me. Without thinking, I said yes, I forgave them. He asked again, obviously assuming I must have been disoriented by last night’s ordeal. Again, I said yes. Koinange watched in disbelief as I turned away and entered the dining hall. Not knowing what else to do, I walked into the dining hall, smiling.