Dreams of Order, Visions of Chaos

An SF Childhood in Kenya

shuttlepatch1988
FEELING FOR WHAT IS NOT

SF came to me as a child through tele­vi­sion. It was utter­ly unlike any­thing else. It was entire­ly of a piece with the won­der­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing expe­ri­ence of being a small child. I like lists. Let’s start with, in rough­ly chrono­log­i­cal order, some of the more out­stand­ing SF and SF-nal shows/feature films from my late child­hood and ear­ly ado­les­cence:

  • Thun­der­birds 2086 (Kagaku Kyu­jo Tai Tekunoboi­ja)
  • Star Trek (as seen in black & white on a 13” Sanyo with Formi­ca sid­ing)
  • War­riors of the Waste­land (which I was able to come back to years lat­er in its orig­i­nal, hatch­et-free bril­liance as Nau­si­caa)
  • Saber Rid­er and the Star Sher­iffs
  • Ulysses
  • Macross/Robotech
  • Jayce and the Wheeled War­riors
  • Cen­tu­ri­ons
  • M.A.S.K
  • DROIDS
  • Mys­te­ri­ous Cities of Gold

I loved the peace­keep­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly Saber Rid­er, Cen­tu­ri­ons, M.A.S.K—for the style, panache and gad­getry. I was less inter­est­ed in what they were doing (i.e. sav­ing the world) than in how they were doing it. Part of that fas­ci­na­tion came from watch­ing the dis­tinc­tion between the human body and machin­ery become so rad­i­cal­ly, so won­der­ful­ly com­pli­cat­ed. You could wear a machine, yes, but you could also be a machine. Or you were now some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent, nei­ther human nor machine, and that was qual­i­ta­tive­ly as impor­tant as either cat­e­go­ry. These ideas are now so thor­ough­ly axiomat­ic to any dis­cus­sion of the rela­tion­ship between humans and machines that any treat­ment of them in a mode oth­er than as always-already-ubiq­ui­tous seems passé. But in my young life there was so much more to my rela­tion­ship with every bit of tech­nol­o­gy, portable or not, wear­able or not. As far as intel­lec­tu­al begin­nings go, that is a sig­nif­i­cant one, whether or not you plan on writ­ing SF.

Loss. It’s every­where in these shows. In one after anoth­er there is the quest for some­thing that is miss­ing — as in the case of Ulysses (“the way back to Earth has been wiped from my mem­o­ry,” says the ship’s AI) or Jayce, where it is the lost patri­arch and his grasp of a means to defeat the galac­tic men­ace that has turned his fam­i­ly and friends into refugees. In Saber Rid­er and Cen­tu­ri­ons, it’s the quest for peace. Straight­for­ward enough, on the face of it, but what’s lost is not peace as such but rather a soci­etal cer­tain­ty that advanced weapon­ry deployed to great suc­cess sim­ply can’t revive. There’s also the more nuanced search in DROIDS for a place in a soci­ety where the rela­tion­ships between par­tial­ly sen­tient machines and humans is that of mas­ter and slave. There is unease, des­per­a­tion, anger, sad­ness — some­thing is bro­ken and has to be fixed, but what is that, exact­ly?

The per­va­sive unease worked into the sto­ry­lines and char­ac­ters of these shows affect­ed me. At the end of every episode of DROIDS, after hav­ing had yet anoth­er adven­ture with a cast of swash­buck­ling, inge­nious heroes (who oth­er­wise couldn’t have done with­out them), C3PO and R2D2 would say their good­byes — in one poignant episode, slip­ping into an escape pod to drift in deep space — await­ing their next adven­ture. But to me, it seemed that there was no such promise, no end to their eter­nal drift, per­haps because I only watched of a hand­ful of these shows in their entire­ty.

My expe­ri­ence of DROIDS—and of a num­ber of the ani­mat­ed series I’ve list­ed above — was medi­at­ed through VHS record­ings of a BBC children’s show that my par­ents would let me pick out on our week­end sojourns to that now-ancient repos­i­to­ry once known as a video rental. The nature of the selec­tions — part of a kids’ show here, a straight tap­ing there — and the need for recy­cling tapes, meant that some tapes had half an episode, or a few min­utes’ worth — before the in media res entry of anoth­er show, pre­vi­ous­ly taped, or sta­t­ic. The com­plete sto­ry of the DROIDS had to be pieced togeth­er, with Stew­art Copeland’s evoca­tive scor­ing (par­tic­u­lar­ly the plain­tive theme that closed out every episode) echo­ing in my ears.

Jayce and the Wheeled War­riors and The Mys­te­ri­ous Cities of Gold deal with absent fathers. My father’s work as a jour­nal­ist took him to far-flung and dan­ger­ous locales and so this marked both shows as being of espe­cial inter­est. Again, there was a link between human desires and the machin­ery we cre­ate to real­ize these. In Jayce, the ship Jayce and his fel­low questors trav­el in and the bat­tlewag­ons they oper­ate are both his father’s lega­cy and the only way he can stay alive. They are also the mech­a­nism by which he’s going to find his miss­ing father. I was already a teenag­er when I came to Jayce, and the incip­i­ent mes­sage that find­ing your own way as a man in the world also means com­ing to terms with your father hit hard.

THE ASTRONAUT

I met the astro­naut in 1989 at the for­mer U.S. Embassy in down­town Nairo­bi (it is now a small memo­r­i­al park ded­i­cat­ed to those who died in the bomb­ing of the embassy on August 7, 1998 by Al-Qae­da). I was sev­en years old. The astronaut’s name was George Nel­son and, although he nev­er walked on the moon, he was the vet­er­an of three space flights. I still have the 1988 Space Shut­tle mis­sion patch he gave me (Lounge, Hilmers, Nel­son, Hauck, Cov­ey), though I have mis­placed the auto­graphed por­trait.

We met in a large white-walled room with black and white pho­tographs. There was a small dio­ra­ma of the Sea of Tran­quil­i­ty with a lunar land­ing mod­ule and, of course, the Amer­i­can flag and astro­naut. There may have been a rover too. This was the 20th anniver­sary of the Apol­lo 11 mis­sion (“One small step for a man, on giant leap for mankind”). I didn’t know that at the time, but appar­ent­ly I knew every­thing else, because the man behind the exhibition/anniversary fete kept ask­ing my father how I knew so much. It is a sto­ry my father relates with offhand­ed pride. For a long time I remem­bered that he had tak­en me out of school just so I could go to this event, but the sim­ple fact is that the date of the anniver­sary makes this unlike­ly. School’s out in July, which is usu­al for this part of the south­ern hemi­sphere, and on the 21st of that month I would have been at home and bored out of my skull.

One evening years lat­er my father brought home a press pack­et by Rock­well Inter­na­tion­al on the Space Shut­tle. It was so detailed that for a long while I enter­tained the notion it was sim­ply cribbed from the actu­al flight man­u­al. I spent so much time try­ing to read what felt to me like the most splen­did piece of lit­er­a­ture ever—tech­ni­cal or oth­er­wise — that it seemed I might climb into a space shut­tle and oper­ate it.

STRIKE

The Shrike. It’s like the Shrike.”

I looked at Lar­ry, grin­ning as dap­pled mid-after­noon light from amongst the trees in the yard fell aslant on one side of his light brown face, expect­ing him to tell me what that…thing was (it sound­ed like a com­bi­na­tion of ‘spike’ and ‘shriek’).

But he wouldn’t.

Lar­ry sat behind me, by the bank of win­dows of class 4C on the sec­ond floor of the upperclassmen’s wing. Broad-mind­ed, easy­go­ing, he got along with a lot of peo­ple. He loved the word shrike, and would repeat the word in sud­den fits book­end­ed by cryp­tic looks and a chuck­le.

I found all this a bit crazy, but then again I wasn’t one to talk: with my rep­u­ta­tion for silence and an appar­ent book­ish­ness not reflect­ed in my grades, I was only one more odd­ball in a class of eccentrics.

This went on for about a month. In between, we took mock exam­i­na­tions meant to pre­pare us for those we would lat­er take to obtain the Kenya Cer­tifi­cate of Sec­ondary Edu­ca­tion (KCSE). I for­got about the Shrike; Lar­ry hadn’t men­tioned it in a while. I was already work­ing on what would become my first nov­el, along­side half-heart­ed attempts at study. So when, weeks lat­er, Lar­ry showed me a copy of Fall of Hype­r­i­on by Dan Sim­mons, I was sur­prised. It was a Ban­tam paper­back. The front cov­er was miss­ing, as were the first three-dozen or so pages. What remained was enough to excite me. The sce­nario was not unfa­mil­iar: a galac­tic order in vio­lent col­lapse, with assort­ed indi­vid­u­als of an unusu­al and inter­est­ing bent try­ing to sur­vive the unprece­dent­ed.

It’s no sur­prise that this ven­er­a­ble SF trope would appeal to a teenag­er.

I’m also cer­tain that being wit­ness to the last years of the Moi dic­ta­tor­ship made Fall of Hype­r­i­on res­o­nant in a way it may not have oth­er­wise (see foot­note 1). One after­noon, rough­ly six­ty of my school­mates marched defi­ant­ly down the main south­ern high­way out of the city, which is about eight feet from the school’s wire-and-bram­ble fence. I was in class, as most of us were, doing prep. A stu­dent broke into the room. Sev­er­al of us got up to see what was hap­pen­ing. We crossed a play­ing field and exit­ed through the school’s rear gates. I saw a col­umn of school­boys stomp­ing down the black­top, their shout­ed chants echo­ing in the after­noon air. They beat their chests, per­haps because they were sour about all the beat­ings they got in school. Cars sped up the stretch of road — the last sec­tion of a curved kilo­me­ter-long incline — and braked abrupt­ly behind them.

I returned to class, sat down in a daze. The room was half-emp­ty. Some class­mates were still at the gate watch­ing the protest, try­ing to appear ambiva­lent. Some class­mates had tak­en their bags with them and then gone home. If you weren’t par­tic­i­pat­ing, you didn’t want to be seen tak­ing too active an inter­est in the protest. The talk was excit­ed, tense, among those of us remain­ing. How­ev­er, it soon gave way to the sta­ples of teenage boy ban­ter: girls, soc­cer, rap, girls. Still, the con­ver­sa­tion was pitched high­er than nor­mal, and not a few of those present were hang­ing around to avoid — or mere­ly post­pone — a beat­ing.

I lived ten min­utes’ walk from the school. The agi­ta­tion was one I sym­pa­thized with but did not under­stand. Mobs do not impress me. But the next day at morn­ing parade, our head­mas­ter, a small and ner­vous man, intro­duced the area police OCS (Offi­cer Com­mand­ing Sta­tion). He stood on the lit­tle wood­en plat­form that staff and vis­it­ing speak­ers used when address­ing stu­dents. He told us not to do any­thing like that again. Though clear­ly put out, he was also polite and con­cil­ia­to­ry. He was try­ing, I real­ized, not to antag­o­nize us. Him, a cop—and a senior one at that! Some­thing was hap­pen­ing—had hap­pened. There was no going back, not if senior police offi­cers talked to high school stu­dents rather than call­ing down the riot squad — which, because it hap­pened so often against any­one who dared to speak up, is what we’d expect­ed.

Nonethe­less, the gen­er­al response from the rest of the soci­ety to our stu­dent action was some­thing along the lines of ‘shut up and take your exams.’

And there I was read­ing Fall of Hype­r­i­on.

It was clear to me — clear as the hard gleam of the Tree of Pain — that sci­ence fic­tion dealt with upheaval and its machin­ery in the most rad­i­cal sense. More than that, sci­ence fic­tion is a vision of social work­ings, tech­nol­o­gy, and of the observed and manip­u­lat­able uni­verse, ren­dered with the vivid­ness and com­plex­i­ty of this tur­bu­lent real­i­ty, but with the cru­cial dif­fer­ence of being coher­ent. No oth­er lit­er­a­ture I’d encoun­tered offered me that. It was no answer, but a way to think about what was hap­pen­ing — call it a tool, one for mak­ing oth­er tools, among them a sense of the polit­i­cal. Many peo­ple will argue that this is what sto­ries in gen­er­al do — I agree, but sci­ence fic­tion was my route to this insight, insti­gat­ed by the books I read and the con­text of the envi­ron­ment in which I did so. And because books lead you to oth­er books, Fall of Hype­r­i­on and the two remain­ing vol­umes of the Hype­r­i­on Can­tos led me to Keats and the Eng­lish Roman­tic poets (though not to Chaucer, strange­ly enough).

After Fall of Hype­r­i­on, I read Endymion and Rise of Endymion (our book­shop did not have Hype­r­i­on in stock). These were rich and insight­ful elab­o­ra­tions of the sto­ry, with some tru­ly impres­sive writ­ing.

Sev­er­al years lat­er, I tried read­ing Hype­r­i­on. I couldn’t. A vivid pic­ture of life before the Fall, before far­cast­ing became a tech­nol­o­gy indis­tin­guish­able from mag­ic, did not appeal to some­one whose read­ing jour­ney had start­ed in those dire days of the col­lapse and end­ed in the hard-earned real­iza­tion of a new order. The myth­i­cal past may have been whole and mighty, but its even­tu­al and rapid ruin appeared to gain­say any of the cer­tain­ties you’d expect from con­trol­lable worm­holes, Tur­ing AIs, and torchship fleets. The future was what mat­tered most, fol­lowed by the present, then maybe a lit­tle of the past, in that order.

FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE

One day I over­heard my neigh­bors Kim (short for Kimani) and Charles hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. Kim and Charles got on famous­ly, to my cha­grin, since before Charles had arrived about four years before, Kim and I had been neigh­bors for at least twice as long. They were stand­ing out­side the gate to my par­ents’ house. I, who wasn’t allowed to leave, tip­toed over and held the black bars, look­ing at them through the spaces and lis­ten­ing to their excit­ed talk of The Chron­i­cles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Don­ald­son. Kim had read the first book of that mon­u­men­tal saga, and was relat­ing his impres­sions to Charles, who’d also read it. It was fair­ly com­mon to do this as much with what you read as what you watched, so that dis­cus­sions about a book or movie were often re-tellings. Your lis­ten­ers either approved of these as com­ple­men­tary to the orig­i­nal or treat­ed these as so much bird­shit on their col­lec­tive­ly owned Mer­ceala­go. If you were good at these re-tellings, you were pop­u­lar. Kim was very good. The down­side was that, if you hadn’t read any of what was being talked about, all you end­ed up with were vivid but entire­ly sub­jec­tive ver­sions of what you’d missed out on (2).

Sev­er­al months lat­er, Charles moved out of the neigh­bor­hood. I wasn’t hap­py, but I got to hang out with Kim more than I used to. When he told me about a new series he was read­ing by the same author of the Chron­i­cles of Thomas Covenant, it was around the same time he was read­ing it. I made sure he brought it over as soon as he was done. Which is how I got to read For­bid­den Knowl­edge, the sec­ond nov­el in The Gap Cycle. I don’t remem­ber Kim men­tion­ing the first book The Real Sto­ry, though he might have. Maybe he’d had it for a lit­tle while and didn’t any­more; maybe he had only been able to get the sec­ond vol­ume. The vagaries of get­ting hold of a title were such that I wasn’t too both­ered. Kim held out the book through the space between the bars and I took it. He was fussy about lend­ing. “Take care of it prop­er­ly,” he said. I promised I would. I ran upstairs to my room, flopped onto my bed, and start­ed read­ing.

What I remem­ber most from For­bid­den Knowl­edge is the mix of excite­ment, dread and moral ver­ti­go appro­pri­ate to a book of that title. Pre­vi­ous­ly, my idea of for­bid­den knowl­edge had been more or less sex­u­al in nature. The tan­gle of intrigue, vio­lence, sex­u­al­i­ty, and all-around bad behav­ior in Donaldson’s book was a dif­fer­ent beast. Ini­tial­ly, only some of the char­ac­ters in the book seemed bad. Then it turned out they were all bad, even if, a few chap­ters ear­li­er, their behav­ior had been salu­tary, or at least not depraved. The delib­er­ate rever­sal of these roles (delib­er­ate on the author’s part) was dev­as­tat­ing. I wasn’t sure I want­ed to go on.

But I couldn’t stop.

I cleared For­bid­den Knowl­edge in under a week.

After that, it was, “when will you give me the next one?” I learned there were four more — a spec­tac­u­lar dis­cov­ery. Of those, I bor­rowed two from Kim. The third, I got on my own. I would also have bought The Real Sto­ry, the first vol­ume in the series, except that would have meant post­pon­ing the Got­ter­dammerung wait­ing for me in the last vol­ume. I bought On This Day All Gods Die from the same book­shop my father used to buy Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics and Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can. It’s in that book­shop I learned SF is always shelved in the same place: at the back.

In one of his lat­er note­books Camus has this gloss on a line from Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov: one must first love life before lov­ing its mean­ing. Sure­ly love, if it is love at all, means fac­ing — and endur­ing — much that appears unen­durable. My ado­les­cence, while requir­ing endurance, was such that I would not have dealt open­ly with this truth. But through the char­ac­ters in The Gap Cycle I expe­ri­enced how one could per­se­vere and over­come feel­ings of fear and revul­sion.

Fin­ish­ing The Gap Cycle was like hav­ing being away on a long trip and return­ing, being so unsure that my famil­iar exis­tence still exist­ed that it was a shock to redis­cov­er it. Out­ward­ly I lived the same life, but I was dif­fer­ent. This feel­ing of being both some­one else and myself, as expe­ri­enced through read­ing is no longer as intense as it used to be. Yet that’s what brings me back to books again and again — the sure­ty that one of these vol­umes will glam­our the world beyond it — make the famil­iar extra­or­di­nary, ren­der­ing it more focused, more intense, more real. Gide’s injunc­tion at the begin­ning of The Fruits of the Earth to aban­don the book once fin­ished and to seize life, seemed, when I encoun­tered it, redun­dant. You can’t do any­thing but ven­ture out after read­ing a great book — you’re burst­ing to do it.

Cer­tain­ly, I was.

And what goes along with this yearn­ing, what appears with­in the sen­sa­tions of the end­less sur­feit of expe­ri­ence and of being-there-ness, is the desire to observe, inter­ro­gate, explain, to stuff the unstuffa­ble into words, to say that “this means, and that”.

Why?

Pos­si­bly for the same rea­son invoked by Rilke in answer to the demand, “O tell us, poet, what you do.”

THE VOYAGE OUT

If this were a longer piece, I would insert anoth­er anec­dote here, longer than any of the ones above. It would be an attempt to describe what hap­pened when knowl­edge gained shaped the desire not nec­es­sar­i­ly for more knowl­edge but for a par­tic­u­lar kind of knowl­edge, a cer­tain type of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, a spe­cif­ic vari­ety of sto­ry that, while it might be about star­ships and galac­tic civ­i­liza­tions, pro­duced the same res­o­nances between sto­ries and lived expe­ri­ence which made my ear­ly sci­ence-fic­tion­al read­ing so rich­ly sat­is­fy­ing.

I would also write about the SF I haven’t men­tioned. I would write about Hein­lein, Asi­mov, Clarke and the many, many oth­er nov­el­ists whose books came to me miss­ing cov­ers and pages and with spines too scarred to read the names of their authors.

What I will do is close with a mem­o­ry dat­ing from just after I fin­ished high school:

I am home read­ing the last chap­ter of Blue Mars, by Kim Stan­ley Robin­son. Indoors, it is cool, qui­et. I fin­ish, and sit still for sev­er­al moments. I go out­side, sur­prised to find it is still sun­ny; it feels like years have passed. The sky is incred­i­bly clear, a pale blue which toward the zenith dark­ens to the col­or of watered down ink — yes­ter­day, three pieces of clear poly­thene drift­ed over­head; they rose, sil­ver glints head­ing to space, then dis­ap­peared; and sud­den­ly the sky was not pla­nar but curved, with a vast space below it. Hawks gyre lazi­ly through the hot air, hov­er, swoop down among the hous­es and fields and then shoot up into the blue. School’s out; in the wind­ing street that snakes through the estate and the cul-de-sacs, kids ride bikes, play soc­cer, bas­ket­ball, hide-and-seek, three-sticks. A wind rais­es dust into dev­ils fif­teen, twen­ty feet high that sway over the tar­mac for less than a minute then dis­in­te­grate, con­fus­ing dri­vers and catch­ing the bored atten­tion of the watch­man at the estate gate.

I walk down the street, not head­ed any­where in par­tic­u­lar, think­ing that I have not yet begun to live, afraid I might not know how. But I am so full of life that the melan­choly engen­dered by the idea is ener­giz­ing. Life is not pass­ing me by so much as I am rac­ing past it, so fast that I am out of phase. I am so dense the fleshy con­crete­ness of my body may as well be that of a white dwarf. Yet, I am light, nim­ble. My life is stretched out ahead of me, vast as the sky. Like the 22nd cen­tu­ry crew of the sail­ing-ship Cut­ty Sark in Robinson’s nov­el, I have set out on a jour­ney, look­ing back one last time at the world I leave behind. But I am also one of those watch­ing the ship dis­ap­pear over the hori­zon, fill­ing the space left by its pas­sage with what is to come.

 

Foot­notes

(1) Kenya at the end of the sec­ond mil­len­ni­um was a stew of polit­i­cal and social upheaval. Pic­ture a line taut and quiv­er­ing in ever more rapid oscil­la­tions, each one more ener­getic and tighter, approach­ing the final tremor that will snap the cord, and you have some idea of the mood of the coun­try. Vio­lent crime rose to lev­els not expe­ri­enced before, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the cap­i­tal. Apoc­a­lyp­tic cults sprang up. Witch hunts grew in num­ber and promi­nence. Con­fes­sions by self-pro­fessed dev­il-wor­ship­pers, every­one from house­wives to school kids, ulti­mate­ly result­ed in a nation­al­ly tele­vised vis­it by a gov­ern­ment inves­tiga­tive pan­el to a Freema­son lodge down the road from the President’s res­i­dence. The sad irony of all this was lost on most of us. It was eas­i­er to accept secret con­spir­a­cies oper­at­ing against the nation than to reck­on with those not-so-secret ones active­ly ruin­ing it — and with our par­tic­i­pa­tion, active or oth­er­wise. How­ev­er, in oppo­si­tion to this hys­te­ria and arm-wav­ing was a fresh sense of civic pow­er, which even a sev­en­teen year old could see meant being backed into a cor­ner.

The results of the pre­vi­ous year’s gen­er­al elec­tion (one that saw both a mass turnout and seri­ous eth­nic vio­lence) placed much of the pop­u­la­tion in the strange posi­tion of being both shocked and unsur­prised. The stakes were high­er, but the results rein­forced the nor­mal state of affairs. There was dis­ap­point­ment, rage. The fourth for­m­ers, who we in the third form were to replace in a few months, went on a ram­page, threat­en­ing to burn down the teacher’s staffroom. What do they have to be angry about? I won­dered. They ter­ror­ized and wield­ed a pow­er over us almost equal to that of teach­ers. Yet here they were claim­ing the unen­vi­able sta­tus of the pow­er­less. I thought it was a put-on.

Then, in the year that fol­lowed, 1998, the same year we were to sit the exams, teach­ers went on a nation­wide strike. Pub­lic expres­sions of dis­sat­is­fac­tion weren’t entire­ly new. In 1992 we’d had Saba Saba (lit­er­al­ly, ‘sev­en sev­en’) or the July 7th Move­ment, which result­ed in the repeal of the con­sti­tu­tion­al sec­tion allow­ing sin­gle-par­ty rule. And since then, on and off, var­i­ous acts and cam­paigns of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence had chipped away at the regime’s hold on pow­er. But the teach­ers’ strike was the sin­gle largest indus­tri­al action in post-inde­pen­dence Kenya.

For me as a teenag­er, the most per­son­al events were the stu­dent march­es that took place in the wake of the teach­ers’ strike. For weeks the evening news fea­tured footage of high-school­ers en masse, chant­i­ng and singing, mani­la paper ban­ners held above their heads as they moved through the streets of Nairo­bi. No one knew what to do with protest­ing chil­dren. The expla­na­tion, prop­a­gat­ed through the news and the osmot­ic myth-mak­ing that insist­ed there were only some things you could men­tion in pub­lic, was that the teach­ers’ irre­spon­si­ble and self­ish action had set a bad exam­ple for impres­sion­able kids. It was also a prime occa­sion to bring out an old chest­nut: the influ­ence of “drug ped­dlers” and oth­er repro­bates among the youth. What made the first expla­na­tion improb­a­ble was that quite a few of the stu­dent protests had noth­ing to do with the teacher strikes. Many were about issues like poor learn­ing con­di­tions, staff mis­con­duct, and the embez­zle­ment of school funds.

A less dubi­ous expla­na­tion for the unrest among stu­dents was that many were about to sit for their KCSE exams and found the idea of a gen­er­al teacher’s strike unthink­able. Who was going to invig­i­late? To mark? Did this mean we’d have to repeat? No one knew, not even the teach­ers, with whom we now enjoyed a reluc­tant cama­raderie as fel­low agi­ta­tors. It was a strange time, full of unlike­ly hap­pen­ings, least of which was the pair­ing of the teach­ers and stu­dents, dif­fer­ent age groups, in com­mon cause.

Along­side our ques­tions were those implic­it ones that our edu­ca­tion could not teach us to for­mu­late: What do exams mean in the con­text of this upheaval? Isn’t there some­thing hap­pen­ing to this coun­try more impor­tant than these tests that we, who are the least pow­er­ful yet most affect­ed, ought to have a say about? Teach­ers’ strikes, ram­pant crime, graft, eth­nic vio­lence, eco­nom­ic dis­tress, and the polit­i­cal uncer­tain­ty that comes with all of this — why shouldn’t the kids have some­thing to say?

(2) In addi­tion to the sub­ject mat­ter, the plea­sure of these tales came from the ten­sion between them and the real sto­ry, which, by the mag­ic of imag­i­na­tion, was no less true than its copies. With­out the expe­ri­ence of the orig­i­nal, enjoy­ment was incom­plete. The advent of satel­lite TV, cell phones, cheap­ly avail­able high-den­si­ty stor­age for­mats, and the Inter­net ren­dered the cus­tom extinct.

 

njihiaCutoutNji­hia Mbitiru works as a screen­writer, cur­rent­ly writ­ing for the show Lies That Bind. He lives in Nairo­bi, Kenya.