Through the Eyes of N'jaya
by Christopher J Calhoun
I was four. Or five. Or six. Wait. Moja, Mbili. No. Moja, Mbili, Tisa. No. I did not learn my age until I found out in school one day.
"Say numba five, N'jaya," Teacha Mary would say.
"Five," I would say.
"Numba five." v"Five."
* * *
"Do you have your bag?"
It is another day of school. The rains have long passed. Mother made sure I was ready for nursery school. With no hair on my head, and no scarf to protect me, I always worried if the other boys would laugh at me. Mother told me not to worry. She was our caretaker. Early in the mornings Father had to walk to the buses where the main road was—our only road. He left well before the sun rose.
"I have right here," I would say, placing the bag over my shoulders.
"Hahah, N'jaya," Brother Bariki would say. He would say that whenever he acknowledged me. He is the eldest child. Mother stayed at home to care for my two younger brothers, Mykie and Mykael, who could barely speak yet. She kept her hair in a bun, a scarf on top of it. Whenever she needed to make a long walk to the market near the fruit stands, or talk to the local women selling socks and clothes with buckets on their heads, the local hairdresser woman would take care of my young brothers. We always called her the "local hairdresser woman." She was the only woman there who had hair down to her back. "Mother, N'jaya does not think well," Brother Bariki said, "Her brains are fried mandazi." I hated when Mother would laugh at this.
"Toka," I would scowl.
"Do not speak those words to your brother." Mother had already been busy scrubbing the dishes with a rag she found in the ditch. She washed every dish in the big blue buckets. When we needed more water, she would fill the water from a water pump in our village, but only with enough to last the week. Then she would scrub her face with the same rag. Then it was our turn. And then we were off to school in our new sandals. Our nursery school gave them to the local families in our village. They promised us toothbrushes too. I did not know what those were. "Pray you are well." Mother would always say with a faint wave as we started down the same path—no matter the seasons, it was always filled with dirt and mud and cracks and old bumpy rocks.
* * *
The little boys would herd the cows and goats and sheeps and chickens with sticks taller than they were. I always feared for them. If they upset the cow, the cow could stomp and crush them on their way to the fields. If they angered the goat, the goat could kick them into the ground. The sheeps could stampede them. The chickens could carry them away with their wings. And their mothers would know nothing about it. The walk was long, and I worried my skirt would get dirty. Brother Bariki told me not to worry. There were better things to worry about.
Brother Bariki would drop me off at my school where the big black gates stood. N-U-R-S-E-R-Y-S-C-H-O-O-L. I had to read the letters out loud every day. In Swahili.
"Nursery school," he would say in English. "Your brain is empty."
"Toka," I would whisper.
And he would.
* * *
I learned English at nursery school. They instructed us that we only speak English there. No Swahili. And if we uttered even a Swahili word out of our mouths, we could expect a few licks (six or seven or twenty if Teacha Elisa were present). There were many of us there. It was always loud, always noisy. We had four classrooms and a little kitchen where Mama would cook our foods, make our chai and wash our dishes. Our classroom was the biggest. I sat between two boys, Ombeni and Omdiyo, and we sat on a wooden bench that now reminds me of a plank. The desks were long, wooden, hardly enough room for our workbooks. And with ten of us sitting in the same row, I could never write anything. Even the number and letter and human body posters taped around the room never helped me. I could not see over the other kids. They were bigger, and they towered over me when they shouted screams and beat each other with their fists and pulled each other's fingers. It was hard to learn in a classroom with fifty others.
Mungu ibariki Afrika. Mother always told me to say that to myself whenever I could not think straight. I whispered it every day to myself in class.
Teacha Mary was my teacher. She wrote numbas down on the chalkboard. I could never see them. Before we had to recite them, the mzungus would come. We called them Teacha Laura and Teacha Collins. They were different than we were. They had longer hair, a brighter hair color, a shinier eye, and they would always smile when they would grade our workbooks. I always received a sticker in mine. Sometimes I was the only one to turn in my homework book in my row. Teacha Collins said she'd "reward" me.
Teacha Elisa was the boss. She had her hair curled into a ponytail, and she never wore a smile on her face. She always carried a ruler. We were always silent around her. There is nothing more I can say about her.
Teacha Mariya and Teacha Lindi were two other teachers. They taught the older kids, so I never got a chance to see them very often.
Teacha Adidra was Muslim. She taught Arabic to four of the other children. Sometimes she brought in her Henna to paint on the other children. It is interesting when I think back to those times when we would fold our hands and close our eyes and pray to Lord Jesus while the mzungus passed out our foods and chai in small cups. Maybe we were praying for something more than just the blessings and nourishments of our food.
* * *
"You do not know what a lorry is," Teacha Mary scowled.
"Laura," I kept saying. "Laura."
"Laura is mzungu. She left our school a month ago. Acha kulala! Wake up, child. Say lorry."
I did not know what a month was. "Uko Laura wapi?" I asked where Laura was in Swahili. Teacha Mary slapped my desk with the ruler. She then grabbed my wrist and flicked the ruler at it. I remember that well because that was the first time she startled me. "You do not pay attention, N'jaya," she said in English. "You must learn or else you will never learn success. You must first learn your words." I remember all of that because that was the first time I heard the word success. "Now say lorry."
* * *
The first time I traded was with the local boy after school who sold sugarcane. He always had the juiciest kinds. Mambo! he would say. Poa! I would respond. Then our Swahili words would fight against each other. We would talk, but we would never listen. We would listen, but we never understood. Probably because we were just children. Since I was only a child, he would offer me a piece for a coin…
That was the same day Teacha Collins walked a few of us home again. She promised us ice cream from the supermarket. We were her favorite. And when she would take us to the store, we got so many stares. Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu! The little kids would bounce around with their wooden sticks and donated toys, and they would laugh. Mzungu! screeched a group of teenagers, skinnier than twigs. They would gawk at us and any mzungu woman. And by the time another group of men barked the same word, I decided that I had enough, so I screamed Swahili curses and hatred and Toka! Una kufa wewe! I did not like to; Mother told me never to say those words. But I was sick of the men treating the women so harshly. I was one of those women. That is when I learned what deliverance was.
* * *
"You cannot go back to school." Mother abruptly spoke those six words out of her mouth (I know it was six because I always thought it was five). I also did not know another six months passed, and that was how old I was. When I heard them, I did not cry. I did not move. I did not say anything. She folded our clothes on the long, stringed clothesline outside. A rooster crowed after I heard those words. "Father is working overtime to support our family. You must work too." The rooster crowed a second time. "You will be herding the other animals with the other boys around the village. You must help bring food to our tables." The rooster crowed a third time. "But what about Brother Bariki?" I finally said. "He will be preparing for exams. He will be entering University soon, and he needs to be ready. You know the rules, N'jaya." Yes, Mother, I know… Boys go to University and not girls… He was only ten years older than me. Or maybe nine. Or maybe eight. And when I think back to that day, I pray and wonder why I was allowed into America and not him. I guess I knew there was a world out there bigger than we could see. And when the rooster crowed a fourth time, I ran away with four of my fingers held high. I smiled. I learned how to count on my own.
* * * I obeyed Mother's wishes. I herded with two boys near my home: Isaja and Elijah. They would leave their homes and herd at 13:00 every morning. They are younger than me. When they left, I went with them. Every morning we passed the nursery school gates on our way to the open fields where we let the cows and goats feast. We would pass the nursery school gates again on our way back when the sun was right in front of us.
I never knew how long the walk would take. It was the same walk, there and back, every day. Each time I passed the schoolyard, the same chant rang inside my mind: Mungu ibariki Afrika. Mungu ibariki Afrika. Herding was never fun, and I knew my brains were wasting knowledge. I needed to return to school.
One cloudy day, we reached the schoolyard. I decided to ditch Isaja and Elijah, and I ran for the black gates and chased Ombeni inside. Melynda, my best friend there (she was in the older class), was the first to smile. I sat where I normally did and waited. Teacha Mary approached me minutes later and wondered why I have not been in school recently. I told her I was not allowed there anymore.
* * *
Mother found out that same evening. She slapped my behind until I could feel the red marks seeping onto my skin. She did not stop until she was sure a teardrop slithered out of my eyes. "N'jaya, you do not see why you cannot go to school," Mother said. "You must know your place in our village. You must support your family." For the first time I realized my tears. I realized my pain. I realized how much I needed school; how much I loved school.
After that, I was sent to my room with no midnight supper. I counted the times her palm slapped against me. Nineteen. Maybe ten. No, thirteen. Wait. Moja, Mbili, Tatu, Nne, Kumi. No. I still could not count to ten.
* * *
"Mother, Brother is sicki." I stayed up through the night that day. I heard the stray dogs howl and the tropical birds screech outside. I was up before the sun was. "He cannot go to school today."
Mother was hardly awake. She blinked once and then again. "Why is he sicki?"
"Malaria," I said.
"Go back to sleep, N'jaya."
"No, I am telling the truth. Brother was bit by a bug and he cannot move. He wanted me to go to his school and collect his books."
"Which bug bit him?"
I thought of the only one I could. I did not know how to pronounce mosquito back then. I knew what malaria was because a mzungu told me what it was. "Ant."
Maybe it was a good thing I did not have hair. Mother would have pulled it all off of my head. But she was too tired, so she walked back to her covers. "Go back to sleep, N'jaya."
* * *
"Mother, Teacha is teaching Arabic," I said one day. "I want to learn too."
Acha! She said. "You are speaking nonsense. Help your neighbors cook mayai."
* * *
"I want to know what my hair looks like."
Hapana, Mother would say, just before it was time for me to herd. "You are fine the way you are."
"I want my hair to look like Teacha Collins," I tell my Mother. Long and golden. Silky and clean. "I have not seen her in a long time. May I go see her today?"
Hapana! And then she would slap my hand. "Never speak of those words. You never want to look like them."
* * *
"Mother, I cannot go herding today. I do not feel well." So much time passed. My hair never grew, my brains never grew, and I still could not return to school. Mungu ibariki Afrika. I needed to do something.
Mother patted my brains. "You are fine, N'jaya."
"I am not fine."
Mother stood. "You are fine."
"I am not fine."
Mother started walking away. She turned again and said: "You are fine."
"I AM NOT FINE." I needed to get to school somehow. Today was my only chance. I knew Mother would go to the market today because the "local hairdresser woman" said it was Winn-is-day and I did not know when it would be Winn-is-day again. I did not know when I would get the chance again.
* * *
That next week the "local hairdresser woman" came over early and shouted the words "Have a good Winn-is-day." She would be taking care of Mykie and Mykael. I knew that was my only chance.
I ditched the herd again and talked with my friend Melynda. I told her that I wanted to go to school without Mother knowing. She was tired of school. She learned her alphabet and numbers and addition and subtraction ages ago. She did not mind herding. Melynda agreed to herd for me while I went to school. In the mornings I would herd with Isaja and Elijah until we reached the schoolyard. Melynda would wait for me outside, and then we would switch places; she would herd, and I would go to school.
Sometimes it worked out perfectly: the three of them returned when school was over. Other times I waited for the sun to reach over my eyes, and the three of them would return sooner. Melynda would come to the doors to let me know it was time to bring the animals home. We switched turns sneaking the animals inside the home when Mother was out at the market picking potatoes and corns and star fruits and any foods without flies or mosquitoes on them.
I do not remember how long I kept this going. It must have been a long time, because Mother was not happy when she found out I had been lying this entire time. One of the neighborhood boys must have told Melynda's mama, and Melynda's mama must have told the Obonos who then told my father's friend, who then told my father, who then told my mother.
I knew that because the neighborhood boy, Melynda, Melynda's mama, the Obonos, my father's friend, my father, and my mother all stood outside of our home. But so did Teacha Collins. And Teacha Mary. And Teacha Elisa. And Teacha Adidra (she also taught me how to read, write and count in Arabic).
"Child, I cannot believe you have been sneaking behind my back just to go to school. And you have been getting Melynda to do your work for you for over six months!" Mother screamed.
"I am disgraceful." I had been a big disgrace to my family. I tried so hard to learn my way, but I did not learn enough. All this time I was thinking about myself and how I wanted hair and how I tried on wigs from trashcans (until I learned they were not wigs at all) and how all I wanted was a life like Brother Bariki instead of a life of my own. I did not give Mother the support she needed.
"N'jaya, you are not disgraceful. You are a bright young girl," said Teacha Elisa.
"Smart, too," Teacha Mary said, with a smile.
"So smart that our very own Teacha Collins decided to sponsor you to boarding school!" Father said.
I did not know what that meant. I had no reaction. But Mother did. She fell to the floor on her bare knees, her scarf covering her hairless head, and she had a dress with red roses that day. I remember her placing her hands in the air with tears in her eyes, her voice wailing. Melynda's mama joined her. "Mungu, asante. Mungu, asante. Mungu, asante. Mungu ibariki Afrika!" This felt longer than six months.
"Haya. Okay, stop," Teacha Elisa urged. "Teacha Collins has seen your growth, N'jaya. You know how to add and subtract up to 100. You will go far. Very very far."
"Yes." That is what you say when you do not know what is happening.
"N'jaya, you get to go to school!" Teacha Collins smiled. "You get to see me every day!" That is when I learned how to pronounce her name: Teacha Kathleen. I turned to Mother. She had a smile on her face. That was the first time she smiled so big. And it was the first time she kissed me on my forehead twenty-three times (I counted), wrapped her hands around my torn dress and squeezed me until I gasped for hair. I felt her tears slide down the side of my arm. They were warm.
* * *
From that point on, my life flashed forward. I went to boarding school for apparently eleven years. Time went by very quickly. I did not see Teacha Collins again ever since leaving, but I knew she was doing fine. My old Teachas were soon replaced, and hen those Teachas were replaced. I was seventeen when I applied to University for science and engineering. I applied for one here, and one in America. I forget the names of them both.
I had been accepted into the University in America six months later. All of a sudden, I would be on a propeller plane to a world I have never seen, but one that was always familiar to us here. A world Mother once dreamed of. A world that would soon come true for all of us.
* * *
I boarded the plane after I took one final look at my family. They all smiled with their scarves and their jackets and their hair grown out of their heads. I grew braids for the first time. Long hair took a long time to grow.
I looked at my pamphlet one final time. Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science. Wherever that was, that was where I was going.
All my things and I took off into the high skies where the clouds rested. I inhaled and exhaled. I thought of my Mother, and my Father, and my Brothers, and Melynda, and Ombeni, and Teacha Collins, and the Obonos, and the boy who would sell me sugarcane, and the "local hairdresser woman" who never revealed her name, and my Teachas, and all the other people who helped me, N'jaya, board this plane—everyone who helped me so that my eyes could see these high skies, and soon, a brand new world.
I only wondered one thing—how far I would be going.