During school holidays, when most of the kids return to Pokot to spend time with neighbours and relatives, a few children who have nobody to go to, stay at the center. It was during one of these holidays that I became extra fond of 4 little boys.
One is Ben. Ben is in grade one, he must be about 6 years old. He has a deep raspy voice, a cross look that breaks into a wide generous smile and then further into a full body laugh when he is really happy. Ben loves ugali. He has a healthy little belly and a muscular body. Ben is very athletic. He runs everywhere; when he turns a corner he tilts his head, leaning his body into the curve so as not to lose any speed. Whenever the boys came by to see me, Ben was the first to dart into my room, stand tall, and proclaim : It’s Ben. One day I was moving dirt around in the wheel barrow and Ben took hold of it and gave his friend rides around the field. Ben loved running with the wheel barrow threatening to tip the thing, and the friends loved the ride. Maybe this generosity is what I loved about him.
One day, there were a bunch of kids in my room, drawing and looking at books. My roommate came in to do online work, so she said, it’s time to go, I have to change. Ben having a much better solution for all concerned, retorted with authority “you change in the shower”. While this may sound like impertinence, it was a reasonable suggestion in the best interest of the majority, and it was proposed with such conviction by a very little boy who was in the middle of a very important drawing that the director could only laugh and reply: “you change in the shower”. No you change in the shower, he insisted. There was more silly negotiation and lots of laughing.
Another boy who stayed back during the holidays was Michael. Michael was a small wiry fellow who often looked away. When his smile, normally reserved, got the better of him, the corners of his mouth pushed up against his little cheeks which in turn pushed up his pensive eyes into a reluctantly happy look. He traveled with the rest of them but seemed to move more cautiously. He didn’t come to the front but he was always present; and didn’t hesitate to speak up if he was forgotten. He liked picture books. He chattered to himself for ages looking at Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. I asked an older girl what he was saying. She translated: “He says”, she paused and giggled, “that he will catch him and eat him.” Each little boy was assigned to an older girl who looked after his clothes so Micheal’s belongings were in a suitcase in the big girl’s dorm. One day I was in the dorm, turning off the laptop or something and Michael came in. He was purposeful as usual and happy. By now we were buddies so he ignored me and went about his business. He pulled out his suitcase, moved some clothes aside and then inserted a bowl of beans, placed a dish on top, and then clothes on top of the dish. Then he carefully closed the suitcase and slid it back under the girls bed. Then he glanced my way, gave me a big smile and ran out to play with his friends. He had too much Gidery (bean soup with maize). So he decided to store the surplus with all his possessions, in a suitcase full of clothes. I couldn’t scold him. Saving for a rainy day is excellent practice.
Then there was Albert. Albert’s run was more like a dance. He was as fast as the others, but his arms and legs seemed to swing around more. He looked side to side, and his chin was up and forward as if he had something to say – actually he often was yelling something to the others as he ran. One time I bought new flip flops for Moses – don’t know what I was thinking, normally I only bought 100 things or none. Anyway, I gave Moses the flip flops and Albert said “and me?” showing me his broken footwear. I said, sorry Albert, I only got this one pair. Then the tears came. He was rubbing his eyes with tight fists pressing hard to stop the flow, but it was uncontrollable. I tried to console him, hugging him, and rubbing his arm, and reassuring him that I would get him a pair tomorrow (I am not a trained educator, as you can see!) but there was no stopping the tears. Then Moses gave him his pair “this for you. I take tomorrow”. Albert sniffled, regained composure and left with the new flipflops, a little ashamed of his emotions, but relieved to have something decent on his feet.
Moses came back the next day to claim the new shoes I had promised. Moses was also a little first grader but seemed so mature. He was also serious but not like Michael. Michael was looking out for himself; Moses seemed to be watching out for the whole world. Moses liked to spend time with the guards at the gate. If treats were being handed out, he took a portion to the guards. “For my friends,” he explained. Moses was good in school, last term he placed 7th in a class of 60.
The four little boys liked to play in the shamba (cultivated field). They wandered around with sticks, like land owners surveying their property. They chased the cows and tapped the calves to make them run faster. Once I was cleaning out a building and came across a box of discarded plumbing supplies; brass valves, and various lengths of unused plastic piping and elbow joints. When I showed it to the boys, it was like Christmas in the suburbs! I placed items equitably in the 8 little outstretched hands and the boys scurried off to a spot behind the dining hall where nobody would steal their treasures. Then they ran to the dorm, got a wash basin and empty water bottles, filled them at the cows drinking trough and were plumbing for hours proudly demonstrating their aqueducts and other contraptions whenever I walked by.
I don’t know why I became so attached. They are just ordinary little boys, but each one is so special.