I always have this image of my first day at school. I remember walking with my grandmother to kindergarten, meeting the teacher who was also a family friend. I remember how she was excited to see me. I remember being scared entering a class full of kids with their eyes staring at the new arrival, but they were all scared too. I had started school earlier that the set age because I used to sneak out and follow an older cousin to school so my grandmother decided to send me to school early. I liked school, I have always liked school, learning new things and making new friends. My two friends were Terry and Munene. Terry was a beautiful bright girl and she was cool. Munene, on the other hand was bright, playful and always up to tricks. I never liked his tricks, but we were friends, neighbours at home and bright kids. I guess I liked Terry and Munene because they did not find me queer and if they did, it never made a difference to them. Other kids did, and they called me names and the bullies did and the hurt started.
As a kid my head was too big, my skin tone darker than most of my family members and I had these long legs and could not stand for long time without crossing them. I was comfortable that way. The insults were; you are black as a Luo (a tribe in Kenya), you have long legs like a Maasai. At school the joke was about the size of my head, I was nicknamed ‘Kichwa’ (Shahili word for head). Of course, having an appearance similar to Luo or Maasai or having a big head are not insults par se, but the insult was the context in which they were used and the ridicule that came with them. They were meant to hurt me and to make me feel bad. As to be expected over the years I grew conscious about the way I looked, and my self-image took a dive. I started looking at people I thought were good looking and wished I was them.
Couple that with my queer behavior (interests for girls’ sports, hanging out with Terry, not interest in football or the kicking games boys used to play) and became the target of the bullies. I was told I ran like a girl, still don’t know what that meant. I could not fight for the life of me, I don’t know why fighting was considered a boy ‘thing’ and something to be desired. Then there was this one time when my grandmother bought me a red underwear. Red was taken to be a girls’ colour. Again, let me remind you that I grew up in rural Kenya. So, while we played in the field during break I fell, and my short shorts exposed my red underwear and it so happened that the bullies saw it. That school term was hell; I became the boy wearing a girl’s underpants.
Despite all this, there was one day every school term when I was untouchable, I walked on air. The school closing day! You see, every school closing day our teachers assembled all the kids and gave these plastic plates to kids with the highest grades in each subject and the best overall student. And every closing day I would carry home three or four of those plastic plates. This one day all the bullies would be silent, no one would call me names or try to humiliate or belittle me, no one would kick my ass, and when I got home my grandmother would be very happy. It’s these events that led me to the realisation of the power of intelligence. Slowly, I became aware that I don’t have to be beautiful to be interesting and command respect, intelligence had the same charm also. Over the years this became the remedy I needed for my self-esteem and self-image issues. I can’t change the way I look, but I can just be as interesting and confident with what I have to being to the life’s table, anyone can!