The Girl Before


He wasn’t the most assertive person growing up. He was timid and frail. Perhaps it was as a consequence of how he was raised. Like most of us in Africa, he had a strong mother; one who instilled discipline by trepidation. She had an iron fist grip on the family. She was the alarm clock dictating what time people slept and when they woke up. Her word was law. When she gave instructions, they were followed without query or a hint of displeasure. A murmur while she was speaking was considered a sign of disrespect punishable by a thorough beating.

He remembers numerous times when she would threaten to kill one of them. She was their mother and if she bore them then she could do with them as she pleased. It wasn’t odd. Back then; the children’s services ministry had nothing much to do-mothers did their job and did it well. If you ever got into trouble and got arrested you’d plead with the police not to call your mother. Your mother was worse than the flying squad or the dreaded special branch of the infamous torture chambers at Nyayo house.

His father, like many fathers of his time, was not a man of many words. He went about his business discreetly. He left early for work and returned late in the night when everyone had retired to bed. Whenever he was around, everyone would vacate the living room. The kids would be hunched up in their bedroom beating stories in whispers ensuring that his peace was not disturbed. Their mother would either be in the kitchen conjuring something for him or busy with this or the other house chore. His father never really got to deal with disciplinary issues, he was too busy making sure that they were clothed, fed and sheltered to find time to deal with child folly. Yes, indiscipline was folly and the only way to drive it out was the cane. It wasn’t used sparingly either. Dad was the source of everything and they knew that. You only talked to him when you needed school fees, a new pair of shoes or some other basic need. He provided and that was good enough. So, yes, maybe it was the way he was raised.

Or maybe it was just his way of adapting to things. You had to find your place in that kind of system. No one really taught you what to do you just figured it out. The first-born got certain privileges. She was the de facto third parent; sometimes she played the role of a co-parent. You had to be in her good books because that earned you favors and special treatment.

He was dark of complexion, a tad skinny and slightly above the average height. Because of this physique, he was very easy to miss. His entrance and exit would easily go unnoticed most times. In most family gatherings, he would walk in, sit at a corner and quietly follow the proceedings. He would barely say anything-not that he was expected to say a thing anyway.

He was a last born in a family of six: four boys and two girls. You would expect that he would be your typical spoilt last born, but that wasn’t the case. He was habitually the forgotten sheep in the flock. There are times the family would sit together at dinner time, feed and clear the table without anyone noticing that the last born was missing. And he got used to it. He didn’t expect anyone to remember him. In fact, he made it a habit to avoid gatherings. He spent most of his time in sequestration, tucked away in the corner somewhere away from people’s prying eyes. He learnt that the world could do without him and he had no qualms with it. There are times the father would finish introducing his children only to be reminded that the last born was in the bedroom. It didn’t bother him much, no.

He never raised his hand in class to answer a question and never volunteered to try out the example on the chalkboard before the class. He would have to be forced out of his comfort zone to do things, which in those days meant a teacher coercing him into answering a question or demanding that he do this or the other. It is not that he was not intelligent. Far from it, he was a bright kid. He always posted impressive grades. His name would always be found in the second half of the top ten in class. But he went about his business in silence. He never bothered to celebrate that he had done better this term than the other. He never made a fuss of it, and to be fair, no one else did. He learnt that the way to do things is to get on with your business and ignore everyone else. He was never late for school. He never needed an alarm clock and neither did he need the sound of the agitated shrill voice of his mother piercing through the door of his bedroom to wake him up like the rest of his siblings. He just knew what time he needed to be in school and woke up early enough to make it there before the bell for morning preps rang.

He learnt early on in life that he wasn’t the fastest kid in the world. He was slow, both in contemplating issues and in physical maneuver. He wasn’t slow in a stupid manner, no, he just took his time to think through a matter before commenting on it. In class, he made up for it by reading ahead of the teacher. Not that he loved to read, no, he just needed to have an answer in case the teacher decided to pick on him to answer a question. He also learnt to leave home early if he needed to get somewhere in good time. He could never run to save his life so he never put himself in a position where his life hinged on his running. They’d have to kill him if that ever happened.

He loved football. Scratch that, he lived for football. He was so obsessed with it that when his team lost, and they rarely did, he would completely lose his appetite and mourn the loss for days. He saw himself playing in the EPL, but deep down, he knew that it was an insufferable dream to achieve. He was too slow for football. This coupled with a huge limp that he carried since his early years meant that playing professional football was only ever going to be a dream. So he decided that if he wasn’t going to play for his club in the UK, then he was going to become a coach. He didn’t need to run to be a coach; he just needed to have the brains to tell others where and how fast to run. So whenever it was time to play, he would be the small boy on the touchline deciding which boy plays what position. He read the game so well that they ended up nicknaming him after one of the best coaches to have ever coached in Africa.

He loved it. It meant that he could, again, remain in the shadows, behind the scenes and away from everyone’s glare. It also meant that he would be the one calling the shots. He would be the one deciding which boy played where and at what time. He had the monopoly of deciding whom to substitute at what minute without having to explain it to anyone. He was the coach after all. He loved power, the kind that is exerted behind the scenes. He learnt, back then, that you didn’t need to talk much if you had the power to make and enforce decisions. He knew that the most powerful people don’t make the most noise. He loved that space and he owned it.

He wasn’t the most physically endowed kid. He didn’t do much of manual labor thanks to his frail stature and his last born status. He knew that if life depended on how hard a person could work, manually, he wouldn’t survive, and so he decided that he would use his brains well. He knew that money was an essential part of living but he also appreciated the fact that there were other ways of accessing money other than manual labor. He decided early on that as long as he could make money, he could pay for anything that required manual labor.

He never really paid attention to the teacher during class time. He had a terrible attention span. He would be in class, staring at the teacher but be completely absent. He would occasionally be shocked into reality by the calling of his name by an agitated teacher. For most of the time, he would be pretending to take note while in reality, he would be doodling. He loved to doodle, drawing useless caricatures on his notebooks. That is the other reason why he would always read ahead of the teacher.

There was him and then there was Noni, the girl who sat in the desk before his in class. Noni was the smartest kid in their school. She had always led in the exams. She had never relinquished her position to anyone. The class had made peace with it. One time the exams officer made a terrible mistake and omitted Noni’s marks for one subject. That meant that the number two was now the top pupil. When this development was announced during assembly time, Noni was inconsolable. She went into weeping, refusing to eat or even go out to play with the rest. It was only after the head teacher had detected the error and informed Noni that she was still top of the class that she brightened up and managed a smile.

She was a strong girl both mentally and physically. She was competitive, always challenging anybody to a contest. She could beat you in class and mercilessly crush you in the track field. She refused to lose or be seeing as a weaker person. She answered all questions and rarely ever get any wrong. She pushed the boundaries, demanding better of herself, not withstanding that she was a girl. She had an impeccable self-belief and a positive attitude. Noni also had a smooth tongue-she could get herself out of any kind of a quagmire. If she ever got into trouble, and she rarely did, she would weave her way out of it effortlessly. She’d always said that she wanted to be a lawyer and there was no indication that she would fail at her attempt.

But Noni was also a beautiful girl. She was the girl that every boy wanted in school but who few had the nerve to approach her. She was intimidating to most of them. So even though she was a very sociable person, she mostly cut a lone figure. There’s something about a strong woman that keeps the male folk away, it hasn’t started today either. Noni didn’t mind that she was ostracized for her strength; she was a keen with it. She owned it, embraced it and took it in her stride.

Like everyone else, he held Noni in very high esteem, even feared her. He never thought that she ever noticed him, there wasn’t much to notice or so he thought. But he thought wrong. She did notice him. In fact, she liked him. She liked the boy who sat behind her, the one who no one noticed, the one who didn’t want to be noticed and the one who lived for the shadows. Yes, she did, she liked him.

So they were in class this one time. It was one of those afternoons when the sun and her kids had come out to show off. The heat was sweltering. The Math teacher had taught for a few minutes and asked the pupils to try out a few examples from their textbooks. The teacher, an avid smoker, had taken the opportunity to go out for a smoke. Noni as usual, had completed the exercise in record time and was now idle. He, in his slow but sure manner, was still busy trying to figure out where “X” was when he felt as though someone was staring at him. He raised his head to look up only for his eyes to meet Noni’s. She was holding up a mirror before her busy checking him out. He was shook. He quickly ducked, fixing his eyes firmly on his book.

He was dumfounded. She couldn’t have been looking at him, he thought. Maybe she was just admiring herself. Maybe he wasn’t meant to be part of the shot. So he raised his head again, hoping that his eyes wouldn’t meet hers again, but no, there she was, still staring at him, this time with a cheesy smile on her face. It was no mistake, she was checking him out. He turned away again resisting the urge to maintain eye contact. He stuck to the business at hand and went on to look for “X” a letter which was now becoming gallingly difficult to find.

But Noni was determined; she wasn’t going to give up on this chase that easy, she persisted. She was a go-getter and woe unto to you if you ever stood in her way, she would bulldoze right past you. She didn’t just keep staring, she did him one better, she dropped her pen right under his feet. She wasn’t smart for nothing; she knew he, being the gentleman he was, would fall for it. And she was right; he fell for it hook, line and sinker. As he bent down to pick up the pen for her she also did the same. Their faces met under the desk. She stared and he stared back. She smiled, he rather confused, couldn’t figure whether to smile or grin. He offered something in between the two. For about five seconds-five seconds that felt like an eternity, they under the desks, engaged in some cat and mouse sort of a challenge. Bewildered, he finally put himself together, picked up the pen and gave it to her. As he did so, his hand tinged on to hers and she held on to it for a split second.

He could swear that his heart stopped for a nanosecond. He was still in this dreamland, experiencing a rare rush of emotions when he heard the Math teacher’s voice say, “I hope you are all done!” It shook him to reality. In a state of confusion he scampered, hastily trying to get out from underneath the desk and hitting his head against it in the process. Thankfully, the teacher didn’t notice the innocuous commotion. So he sat up, composed himself and closely, though a bit distracted followed “the futile search for X”. The Math lesson ended and everyone else went out to play. Still lost in his feelings he remained rooted to his desk. He sat there, still mesmerized at the thought that Noni, the girl that every boy wanted but couldn’t attempt to pursue liked him. His young brain couldn’t process it.

He never asked about that incident. He couldn’t master the courage to ask about it. So they went through school. Noni scored the highest marks in the province. She made it to one of the best girls’ national schools in the country as expected. He managed good enough marks to book himself a slot in one of the provincial schools in the country. They wouldn’t meet again until they were in their third year in high school. He had attended a Christian Union rally in her school. He hadn’t changed much. He was still timid, still in his cocoon. She hadn’t changed either, if anything, she had grown more beautiful and as imposing as ever. They said hi, engaged in a bit of small talk and promised to keep in touch. She tried, he did nothing.

They would meet later on after campus. She, true to her words, had made it to law school. She was now a learned friend. He was working for a multinational as a corporate affairs manager. Life had shaped him into a strong-willed young man. The corporate world had forced him out of his comfort-zone and into a fearless young man.

“Did you guys finally talk about the staring contest under the desk?” I ask. He laughs it off, and says that he had asked her about it.

“What did she say?” I inquire curiously.

“She said we should do coffee.” He says cheekily and walks away.


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