Excerpts from the book Made in Kenya by Fesal Nanji..a reflective, funny look of a fourth generation Indian-Kenyan
Before my first day at the former Prince of Wales High School, now boringly named Nairobi School, we were mailed orientation instructions. We were told where to report, the correct way to wear our uniforms and polish our shoes, and to keep our stockings up at all times by using tight elastic garters that impeded blood flow to the calves. The instructions also noted to which of the six“houses” we would forever be duty and honor bound. These houses were named after famous British folk who had done some kind of great service to the Queen or King of England. My own house, Clive, was named after Baron Robert Clive the rampaging General who played a large hand in keeping India under British Control in the 18th Century. The other houses were Scott, Grigg, Hawke, Nicholson, and Rhodes.
This notion of “houses” demanded strict loyalty and subservience to the older boys in the house. I assumed that this type of discipline was in keeping with British military tradition and necessary in case Kenya got attacked by the nefarious Somalis from up North.
Even before we got our books, all entering first formers were herded in groups to the store room. There we were asked to which “house” we belonged.
Each of us replied dutifully and were then given two sports jerseys in “house” colors. Clive House was signified by a pristine white, Scott boys got a dark purple, Hawke a light blue and so on.
The very first year of school was a reprieve of some kind. Most of us first formers were nothing more than small boys and many still with baby fat and scant pubic hair. To help get acclimatized to the school’s far and wide ranging set of rules, and to develop a loyalty for our eventual senior house we were first nursed at a junior house. We still had to maintain loyalty to our senior house, but we weren’t’ required to represent it in intra-mural sports. Moreover there weren’t any senior boys harassing us into becoming sport machines. But that all changed when we hit the second form.
On the first day of making it to the “senior houses” we newly-minted second formers were assembled like cows heading to the abattoir. In explicit terms we were instructed to wear our house jerseys whenever we represented the house for any sporting activity. Failure to do so meant an instant hour of “Working Party,” a form of chain gang, where one was forced to cut grass, sweep floors or clean toilets. I had plenty of incentive not to screw up, since I had never cleaned a toilet or mowed a lawn. (At home we were spoiled little Indian boys, pampered by servants, mothers and sisters).
We found out the range of sporting events at the senior houses was wide and rotated by semester. Rugby, soccer and field hockey were the compulsory sports for our three term academic year, but cricket, cross-country, swimming, tennis, and marksmanship were optional. (Yes, we even had a rifle range to practice just in case the Somalis were stupid enough to attack). At the end of the first week of this move to the senior house, all boys were told to assemble for a “weigh-in”. Rugby teams for intra-mural activity we were informed would be based on weight. This made sense since weight was a proxy for strength and size. Since rugby is a menacing, ligament-shredding, and bone-breaking sport normally played by big oafs, I hoped I would be placed in the “lightest” category or Junior Colts. As one of the skinniest boys in school I didn’t want to get killed on the pitch. As luck would have it I was placed in Junior Colts and I thanked God profusely that day for not being a bigger boy.
Our first match was against arch rival Scott House. Scott House was down the cloister from us, and facing the school’s immaculate quadrangle. Scott and my house, Clive, had the best physical setting in school; neither could claim an edge there.
The whistle blew and the match began. My coke-bottle spectacles were off my face (one didn’t play rugby with glasses on) and I couldn’t see a thing. Slimily, I claimed the left wing or tail end of the formation, the place reserved for the fastest on the team. It was where I thought one would be least likely to be hammered. The ball headed toward our side of the pitch. We were now to advance the ball to our opponent’s goal posts for a try. This mean a quick succession of passing, until the fastest guy (apparently, yours truly) got the ball whereupon he would run like the wind for three points.
The ball eventually came my way after a set of precision passes by my team upfront. But from the haze formed by my lack of vision, all I saw was an opposing thundering herd of angry wildebeest ready to crush me into mango pulp. This was no game! This was slaughter. I threw the back the ball to a teammate as if it were a hot potato, in effect stalling our drive. The place exploded with laughter. Everyone saw how terrified I was, and so my rugby career had come to a quick end. It was not that I was no use to the team. It was far worse than that. My silliness actually allowed the opposing team –Scott House – to score first. Faced with the specter of such a woeful teammate, the coach (a senior boy at Clive) excused me. I never played rugby again and still have all my front teeth to attest for that.
Field hockey was only slightly better. Although I played some in our flats, hockey at school was a far more serious affair. With the bulk of the teams made of beefy, muscular Africans wielding hockey sticks like machetes, I felt like I was in the thick of a riot without a cause to support. There was constant jostling, tripping and shin-smacking to get to the ball. So I perfected a way to avoid contact at any cost, milling around the periphery of action like Neptune or Pluto orbiting the Sun. This scintillating display of sportsmanship again led me to be excused from the game. So while I was now part of a stable considered the school weaklings, I didn’t have any broken bones.
But house rules meant if you didn’t play on any of the house teams, you had to support them for key matches. Rollcall was taken for those not on the pitch, and an unexcused absence immediately led to a sessions of “working party”.
Noting that I would never be any use on the field, a sixth former and prefect insisted that I serve as resident cheerleader. I was to attend every rugby game played by Clive House’s senior team, and I was to scream on support for my mates on the pitch. If I was in America, I would probably have been forced to put on a skirt, shake pom-poms and do the Texas two-step.
I look back and thank the stars that the odd sort of cheering that occurs in America, of miniskirts, jiggling boobs and swaying hips, hadn’t yet been imported to Kenya.
The constant cheering was a bore but at least I traded certain death for tedious screeching. However one morning at the 8 AMdaily roll call, I was informed that I was to represent the house in an intra-mural cross country meet. What? This most certainly was some kind of mistake for everyone knew I was the slowest guy in the house. Furthermore this was Kenya, which raised the best runners in the world. Our high school had won the national cross country championship for two years running, and I wasn’t going to compete against some slouches. These were bona fide potential Olympic medalists. How would I match up with the school’s fastest runners who imitated gazelles running away from hungry lions?
My meek protests to drop me from the race fell on deaf ears. I was to run or face suspension, an ignominy far worse than working party. So I ran. I began the eight mile trek around the vast school compound at a furious pace. Geez, I was keeping up with the fastest, and I was feeling great. Endorphins were quickly flooding my brain. But by the time we passed the 200 yard mark, I knew that running wasn’t something I could conquer. The pack got ahead of me and there was no way I could run a mile. And doing eight miles across hilly terrain was a downright silly proposition.
Feigning a hamstring pull I stopped, clutched my stick-like thigh with conviction and slunk back for home. The omnipresent prefect with the clipboard checked off my name and so I received full-marks for trying. But the obvious hilarity of my effort, also granted me a full reprieve to avoid any further sporting activity for the house. This was the best news since I arrived at school, since I also inferred that didn’t have to stand and cheer those rugby playing dolts banging their heads and scrambling their brains.
I wasn’t the king of any sport, but I was a cunning little weasel and I desperately needed this trait to survive in the land of giants and strict discipline.
It was my table tennis skills honed in my primary school years that initially saved me from the fate at being labeled as a useless, good for nothing skinny, Mummy’s boy. In the junior house we had an adequate ping-pong table, and since we played “winner stays,” I often held the table for many games in succession. This irked one of the bigger boys, KH, to no end. KH hated to see me win. One day as I was giving someone else a sound thrashing, KH slipped his two hands into my khaki shorts, and pulled them down. He could do this with ease since I had an elastic waistband to hold my shorts rather than buttons and a belt.
Getting caught with my pants down was bad enough, but the worst part was that I didn’t wear underwear and my privates came on full display – the full Monty, as it were. With my boy-manhood exposed, the crowd, which I believed had assembled to see my fine ping pong talent, burst into laughter and jeered. Apparently I was the only boy in school who didn’t wear underwear. This meant I was a clueless moron and had much to learn.
Having my pants pulled down was a nasty bit of work by KH, but it underscored that life would be cruel in high school if I didn’t completely blend in. Inevitably, when I reached home that day (I was a day boy and not a boarder) I asked Mummy to drive immediately to Haria Cash Stores in the City Centre. There I knew I could get khaki shorts with buttons and white underwear with a “Y front.” I had to show everyone else I could tough it out. The unwarranted display of my bum was only the first of many such embarrassing incidents that forced me to leave the safety of sheltered boyhood…