There are some people, a few, who walk up to me and say, ‘’You speak really nice English!’’ Not sheng; English.
“Not really,’’ I reply. “I probably write tolerable English, but kwa ground vitu ni very different.’’
If it is someone who is close enough, they’ll tell me, “Learn to take a compliment, Idiot!’’
And I say, “Thank you!’’
Ahorn insists I’m always saying thank you for being called an idiot, which proves that I’m really an effing idiot. We laugh.
But it is not that I cannot take a compliment. Rather, my good written English and tolerable spoken English are actually problems. Rather, they came as a way of running away from problems.
Let me explain.
You see, at the turn of the century, The Man Beater decided to send me to Mukibi’s Educational Institute for the Sons of African Gentlemen. We called it so because of the problems that faced us while we were there. The authorities, on the other hand, used to call it St. Thomas Moore. In my years there, I never saw anything saintly about the facility. But that is not what this story is about.
This story is about the culture shock that I got when I landed at Gíserorí. For starters, I was coming from St. Mary’s, a place where the language we spoke was Ki-Embu spoken in an English accent. We never for once spoke Swahili or its hippier version- sheng.
The only sheng we knew was what we overheard from girls of Sacred Heart-who would never come to within one kilometre of ourselves- and from the Lyrical Tongue Twister E-Sir when he said ‘Ukiachilia mahewa/maze DJ unatubeba/ A-Uuuuwiii….’
So you can imagine how much of a shock I got into when I landed at Gíserorí and was thrown in the mix with guys from boarding schools like Kamuthatha, Kigumo Boarding, and Plainsview Academy. Heck, my desk mate was from Moi Forces or some school of the sort. Ngai!
There was really not much difference between us who were from day schools and those who came from Kianjokoma Boarding and Kubukubu. Those ones would call a motorcycle ‘piki’ and feel jolly proud of it. Kina Lewis Kadema of Karigiri Boarding were even worse.
I, tragically, found myself in the same dormitory cube with people from Nairobi. Kina Buvick Bundi and Mathenge and Patrick Kisalu were from the very city-ish parts of the city. Roby, besides coming from Nairobi, also came from a rich family. The lesser being in that cube was Morris Munyoroku, but even he came from Dallas Estate, Embu. And he had schooled at Lions School, Embu.
The doormats of that cube were Patrick Magochi and me, but I was a few rungs lower. Pato’s sister was at Sacred Heart, so she probably taught him a word of sheng here and another one there over the holidays. And well, she was at Sacred Heart.
So that left me totally alone. In those early days, I never spoke to anyone. What would I say? How would I say it? I remained silent. Which was a wise decision, because I learned a lot in those silent moments. Also, Nicholas Muriithi says that the Good Book says if a fool remains silent, he might be thought wise.
Múembu, an anonymous character in Embu mythology, once said, ‘Njamba yúragíra werú yaúmenya.’ That loosely translates to ‘A warrior gets lost in the wilderness once he has mastered it.’ Paradoxical, I know, but very apt.
Again, let me explain.
In my silent days, I learned a lot of sheng. I learned that a teacher could be called ‘odijo’ and that could even be tweaked to ‘odissa.’ I learned that food was ‘dishi’ or ‘dema.’ I learned that the best piece of bread was called ‘crust.’ That was especially fulfilling because it was the same thing we had called it at St. Mary’s. So we were not that far from civilisation after all!
And that very thought is what gave me false confidence and made me get lost in the wilderness the moment I thought I had figured it out.
So, one evening, I came back to my cube and failed to spot my shoes. They were a dear pair of front-box shoes, the first pair of my shoes I had a hand in selecting. They turned out to be fake anyway. Given the amount of change of ownership that was going on at St. Thomas, the first instinct was that they had been stolen.
So without much thinking, I cried out in despair, “Wasee nani amechukua jums zangu?”
No answer. So I repeated, even louder this time “Jums zangu zimeenda wasee!”
This caught the attention of one Roby so he came to find out why I was distressed.
“Nini mbaya mono?” He asked.
“Nimeacha jums zangu hapa na saa hii haziko!” I moaned.
In no time flat, Roby was on the floor laughing. I could not understand what was so funny.
“Ati umeibiwa nini?’’
Roby was a dramatic character, and his immediate reaction was to gather a crowd to hear my story. He brought together about seven form-threes to hear my ordeal.
But I am not a fool. His insistence on repeating the question made me sense that I was saying something wrong. So when he brought his cronies, I rephrased my statement.
“Mono ati umesema umeibiwa nini?”
“Hapana, sema vile ulikuwa umeniambia.”
“Niliacha viatu zangu hapa na saa hii haziko.”
“Ulikuwa unaziitaje mbeleni?”
By then, Roby’s crew was growing impatient and failing to see what was amusing him. So Roby took the liberty to inform them that my preferred sheng word for shoes was ‘jums.’
They laughed alright, but it was a joke retold, and a lot of its jokey-ness was lost.
I later learned that the sheng word for shoes was actually ‘njumu,’ and that it did not change to ‘njums’ in the plural. One njumu, two njumu, a pair of njumu, a box of njumu, a container of njumu.
But I also learned something else. Sheng was not the language for me. So I stayed away from it and concentrated in Njiru Kavící’s English class and learned to pronounce ‘Tintinnabulations.’ I never knew what it meant though, but here we are today and I can write a thousand words with a comfortable flow.
And I still don’t speak sheng. Anga Mbogi, aga wekenjeng, na rieng. No! not me!
Roby tried to make the nickname ‘Jums’ stick, but I am a clever person. I also called him ‘Jums’ and everyone thought it was a private joke between us. He was angry and beat me up, but I took that one with pride. After all, he did help me find my stolen ‘Jums.’
So, Yaliyo Ndwele.
That’s #Timbitii, #IRestMyPen