MTS Voices: A Story About Resilience by Jonathan Kibera

MTS Voices
Highlighting the diversity of experiences that make up our community.


MTS parent, Jonathan Kibera, reflects on his early years growing up in Africa before his family moved to America. 

 

Resilience
 

We sat by the shade of an old Jacaranda tree, Samson and I. Laid out before us on earth the color of ochre, we admired our morning haul: lengths of wire glinting in a December East African sun. Having cut it from unsuspecting neighbors’ fences, we would now use this wire to build cars. An older boy in the neighborhood would build the suspension. He would need to be paid in marbles.

   “Yours are straighter. Can I have some?” I asked.

   “Of course” Samson replied, the hint of a smile at his lips. But then I already knew he would say yes.

   “How is Gideon?” I remembered his twin had an earache earlier in the week. While I could walk right into the hospital on campus, Samson and Gideon were not professors’ kids. His mother would have to take a bus into Nairobi and stand in line at the national hospital. Children though we were, those starkly different realities were accepted without judgment.

   “Gideon, he is dead” said Samson, scratching the earth. He looked up with a small, if plaintive, smile. Moments ago we had been floating on an easy, limitless Saturday morning. Well, I had been. Now Gideon’s shadow made the air tight between us. We sat in silence a long while. That is the way things were.

Why did Samson give me his wire that morning? Why was he just as happy to give me any of his treasures as he was to keep them for himself? I didn’t think much about it back then, but I do now.

I had an idyllic childhood in the middle of Africa, on a university campus nestled right up against the Equator. Daybreak in those December holidays brimmed with the promise of all-day adventure. We played football barefoot in the dirt, though we knew who had shoes to put on afterwards. Lunch was simply at the closest friend’s house. Day did not ease gently into dusk at the Equator. Nightfall descended quickly, and with it mothers’ calls for dinner echoed down one street after another. Afterwards, some of us tumbled right back out into the night, chasing shadows under the yellow glare of sodium street lamps. Others receded into the shanties after dark. Tides of discontent swirled around us, but an ocean of calm was all I knew. Sometimes though, things happened. At the start of the Eighties, an attempted coup brought a veil of curfew down at sunset. Soldiers with long guns stalked the roof of our bungalow every night. By the end of the decade, professors began disappearing into the clutches of a paranoid regime. That is the way things were.

It was a chilly June morning one school day when I knew my own time had come. Kamau and I stood in front of Mr. Gitau’s desk. There was nary a whisper from the class behind us as we shifted uncomfortably under Mr. Gitau’s bloodshot gaze. His hands, the size of papayas, were palms-down on the desk in front of him. This was important.

   “Kibera, atiiii… even you?” he slurred, slouching back heavily into his chair.

   “I just forgot my notebook. It’s at home. Please, can I run and get it?” Hope.

Silence.

When you don’t expect it, fear grips you by the middle. But when you know it’s coming, it closes in slowly from the edges, flames curling a corner of parchment before it suddenly crumbles into ash. Mr. Gitau, eyes half-lidded, glanced slowly from Kamau and back to me. That moment was a second, a minute and an hour. And then, a clap of thunder after which all sound seemed to disappear. Slowly it dawned on me that I was still standing. Poor Kamau had been slapped into next week, but my fear just as quickly dissipated into euphoria.

I glided back to my desk, my smiling classmates shaking their heads in wonder. It is clear now that we had an alcoholic with quick hands for a third grade math teacher. But then, this is what happened when you forgot your homework. It could have been worse: the fourth grade teacher used a timing belt. That is the way things were.

 

Eleven years old now, seated high in the branches of a moonlit acacia tree. My best friend and I had made a solemn admission to each other earlier this year: we liked girls. Well, one girl in particular. She would pass under this very tree on her way home in a few minutes. Her best friend told us, and this is why we are here.

   “You have to do it. Just say it. She will say yes!” He is giddy. What does he know?

   “You told her?”

   “Yes. And she will say yes. But you have to ask.”

I watched her dancing in the school courtyard earlier today, a group of girls rolling their hips to a lilting national song. It was unbearable. And so, tonight. Footsteps, here she comes. She sees us and stops. My throat tightens, I can’t hear much above the thundering in my chest.

   “Hi! That thing that Duncan asked you…?” That’s it. That is all I have. I can scarcely believe that this moment is slipping away like water through my fingers.

   “Yes. The answer is yes.” She smiles. And then she is gone.

I race home, triumphant in the glow of an entirely new feeling. I’m not sure how I will sleep tonight, I want it to be tomorrow already. I sneak in through my bedroom window, but the light in the kitchen is on. Tiptoeing cautiously down the hallway, I find my mother sitting at the kitchen table. She takes off her glasses, a large manila envelope and sheaf of papers in hand. She looks relieved, shoulders down, a wide smile easing across her face.

   “Mum? What is it?” She is happy. Does she already know?

   “Jonathan, we are going to America!”

From triumph to despair in under ten minutes. That is the way things were.

 

The ground unfolding in front of me back then seemed as sure as it was endless. Looking back now, I see precipices falling away behind and all around that African child. My family spanned two cultures, black and brown. Born into an old world, I came of age in a new one, a path lit by confidence, but secured by good fortune. The range of human experiences I saw first-hand in those early years shapes my outlook today. How fragile was life under that Equatorial sun, how fickle was Fate. And yet no one I remember ever stopped to ask “why me?” What was, was. What happened, happened. That is the way things were. Resignation? No, resilience. Growing up confronted with starkly varied realities, we understood simply that life owes you nothing at all.

Memories of halcyon days long past are drifting by more often of late. It is my children now, chasing shadows at nightfall as their mother calls for dinner. In their eyes, every now and then, I see the faint reflection of two small boys playing under an eternal December sun. Time is suspended under that old Jacaranda tree. One of those boys found himself facing a life beyond his years. He met it with grace. Would we?
 

Jonathan Kibera
May 2021

 

 

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