I remember being 13 years old, in Class Seven and in boarding school for the first time. I remember retiring at night to my metal bed in Mississippi Dorm and laughing with my cube mates till House Mother stalked in, annoyed and yelling, with a kitambaa tied around her head. I remember Emma, the lovely, lively girl I shared the double-decker with; I had the upper bed and she took the lower. I remember walking into her class sometimes- she was a Class Eight- and she would look up and say, “Decker mate!” Every time. And I would smile and feel shy because then her classmates would look at me and I wasn’t sure whether I liked the attention or not. I remember Emma commenting that my lotion- Vaseline Aloe Vera- smelled like bananas, and how I didn’t really resent her for it but tried to never lotion myself when she was in the cube. I remember that she was the first person I heard use the word octogenarian, and that she was referring to how I looked with a new set of pajamas that were stiff and wide and a lazy shade of pink.
When I think of that year, the first memory that comes to mind is of my English Lessons. Followed by ‘chapo’ which they used to serve us on Saturday night, and then this guy named Patrick, who made that a memorable year in his own quiet way. But those are stories for another day (Ahem, Patrick, I will be in touch with you shortly). I loved those English lessons, even when they were double lessons in the afternoon. Because Mr. Muchami was very nice to me and was the only teacher whose knowledge of the English language did not seem questionable to my arrogant, over-praised 13-year-old mind. And being told about subject-verb agreement and conjugation was my heart’s delight. English was the subject of the day on Wednesdays. We wore tracksuits on Wednesdays- so much more comfortable and self-esteem-preserving than the somewhat shapeless blue dresses with white collars and the red socks we wore on other days. And we had chapo for lunch on Wednesdays. To this day, Wednesday is a good day for me. Which is more than I can say for Tuesdays, which I loathe possibly even more than Mondays because we did Mathematics on Tuesdays from 5:30 in the morning to 10 in the night, and my teacher was a hard, hard man who hit your knuckles with a ruler when you got a question wrong and ferociously slapped the boys when they came to class at 5:32 am, panting, untidy and still sleepy after waking up at 5:25 and running all the way from their dorms on the other side of the school. But again, story for another day.
You remember how it was when you were 13 and searching, right? It was new, it was confusing, and you were mighty proud of the fact that you could now be called a teenager. You had crushes on your classmates, your body was changing, you were now wearing ‘boob tops’ and the boys in class would spend all their time lovingly stroking the two and a half hairs sprouting on their chins. There were always stories of which boy liked which girl and you never thought about your future except when fantasizing about getting married to aforementioned crushes. And teachers kept trying to hold these guidance and counseling sessions where they would separate the boys and the girls, and would tell you about how boys will get you pregnant and how HIV is real, and how to put on a pad (all this for the girls, obviously) and how your future husbands were in university so don’t bother with these your classmates, whose wives, by the way, were in kindergarten. They couldn’t say that our husbands were in high school because our school had a high school section and they had just told us that those high school boys were from the devil and we should never ever talk to them, nay, make eye contact with them, because, as earlier mentioned, HIV is real.
Is there anybody who actually got any real guidance from those sessions? Stuff that you follow to date and have incorporated into your value system? Anyody?
I didn’t. And I remember wishing I had somebody older to talk to, to talk to me as though I were a certified human individual who could understand a bit about what life was about. I remember trying to talk to Mr. Muchami and feeling that while he helped a bit, there were things I could not tell him, there were things he could not possibly understand. How was I going to start telling a 30-something year old man that I felt that I didn’t have any female friends and I wasn’t sure why?
So instead I told him about school and asked how to improve my compositions and mentioned once in a while how the expectations everybody had of me academically sometimes got overwhelming. There were two young female teachers in my life at that time, with whom real life was a possible and frequent subject of discussion, but I wasn’t allowed much time with them. Some of my other teachers saw it as a waste of time- I should have been studying, spending my time on academic pursuits, and nothing else. “You can talk to them after KCPE,” they said. Of all my memories of that year, being ‘happy’ or ‘at peace’ isn’t one of them. I couldn’t help it; there was too much shut away, too many questions I had to try and answer for myself.
I can’t help wondering whether I would have turned out different, made some different calls at different points in my life if I had the chance to talk to and develop a relationship with females who were older than me, but not that much older. Would I have a better hold on my emotions? Would I be more independent? Would I believe some of the things that I believe now and would I not have let go of some of the beliefs I used to have? Would I understand better what it means to be a Christian and a feminist? Would I have less trouble communicating with the men in my life? Would I be able to have male friends and have them be nothing but friends and be at ease with them? Would I wear heels more often and put on make-up? Because how much can a 13-year-old figure out for herself and still get right?
My sister is 15 now. And high school isn’t all that different from Class Seven. They just give you more work and are more convinced that you will get pregnant, and that that is the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to you. And she has what I didn’t have- a female that’s enough years ahead that she can shine a bit of light on her path, but not so far ahead that she has lost sight of her. Am I doing a good job? I don’t know. Frankly, I wish she would take fewer selfies, but that’s just me. At least she takes good ones, and I daresay she gets better with every two hundred selfies she takes.
But does she trust me? Will she tell me the first time she gets her heart broken for real, the first time she falls in love, the first time she breaks someone’s heart and feels guilty about it? Will she talk to me when she’s thinking about getting a tattoo or a second or third piercing? Will she be free enough to ask me about birth control, or seek my support when she decides she wants to be a pastor and doesn’t know how to tell our parents that she is dropping out of law school? And yes, I realize that ‘pastor’ may be a long shot for her, but that’s not the point.
Everybody is all about the boy crisis right now. The boy is not doing so well in school; the boy doesn’t have role models in his life. And that’s well and good- the discussion, I mean. But while the girls seem to be doing okay, are they figuring out how to do okay by themselves or are they learning it from other females? Are the girls learning how to be girls from YouTube and Snapchat and Google or from females in their lives? Do the girls have role models and mentors? I needed one, I still do. My sister needs one. My cousins who are dropping out of school and running off with men they barely know need one. Or four.
A girl needs that female figure. Not necessarily a mother figure, though those matter a lot. A female figure who won’t look at them as though they are ‘just children’ who don’t understand and won’t say patronizing things like “You will understand when you’re older.” That woman who will tell them about men, who will tell them while yes, some men are full of crap, some are good, wonderful men who will treat them with honor and respect. That woman who will help them decide whether they will use tampons or pads or panty liners; who will take them to buy their first make up kit. A girl needs that woman to whose house she can go for a sleep over, and watch chick flicks and taste wine for the first time (assuming she is old enough) and talk about that boy in her class who she keeps hoping will notice her but apparently is blind because he can’t see that they are meant to be together. A girl needs that female figure. Somebody to tell her to her face that her boyfriend is not treating her right and that the ni**er has got to go. Somebody who will advise her on which gynecologist to go to when she is ready to get her first pap smear or breast screening. Somebody who will help her weigh her options when she is deciding what career path to take, and help talk to her parents when that career path does not involve doing a mainstream degree course. Somebody who will give her books that will shape her as a woman, tell her what it means to be a woman. Somebody who will tell her about God, and His immeasurable, uncontainable, unconditional love for His girls.
When I heard about girls in my extended family choosing to leave school and follow boys who don’t even have a plan for life, I thought that the education system had failed them. I thought, “These are girls who have been educated; they should know these things.” Then I thought of those guidance and counseling sessions I went through when I was their age and younger, and I knew this: That I will never forget the females who listened to me when I was only 13; I will always have a special place in my heart for females like Catherine Gwada who was years ahead of me in high school and taught me that I can be myself, be beautiful and be full-on fired up for Christ; And, that girls look up to girls first, before they start looking at/to/for boys. The education system didn’t fail them. The girls in their lives (or lack thereof) did. Girls need girls.
When she looks back at the time when she was 13 and searching, a girl needs to see girls holding her hand, holding her up, holding her down.