Once upon a time, a council of elders used to meet under a tree to discuss matters affecting the community. At the end of these meetings, the elders who were considered the wisest men in the community would exchange knowledge in the form of proverbs in turns. A scribe would then jot down the proverbs for posterity.
“Hasira ni hasara,” one wise man said during one of their gatherings.
The other elders paused to contemplate the proverb and after it was unanimously accepted as valid, the scribe wrote it down in his book of knowledge.
“Ahadi ni deni,” an elder said.
“Mstahimilivu hula mbivu,” another elder said.
Again, the wise men mused on these proverbs, and after all the elders agreed upon their validity, the scribe jotted them down.
This process went on until they got to the youngest elder who was last in line. He anticipated his turn with great dread because he was a novice when it came to such matters. He didn’t know a thing about proverbs.
But he wasn’t critical of himself because he didn’t want a seat on the council of elders anyway. He was only part of the council of elders because his father who had passed on had a seat on the council and upon his death, he inherited his father’s position. Still, he didn’t want to let his late father down. He had to come up with something.
The other elders eagerly awaited his response. One elder coughed with contempt. The chairperson of the council bored into him as if trying to search his mind for knowledge. But there was none. The young man’s mind was clouded and he couldn’t conjure anything.
Seeing the impasse that was upon them, the chairperson decided to give the young man more time to come up with a proverb. He was to submit a proverb at the next meeting the following day and the meeting was adjourned.
The young man sighed with relief. As much as he didn’t want a seat on the council, he didn’t want to tarnish his father’s legacy either.
At the following meeting, the young man looked forward to the proverb session with great enthusiasm. He was prepared with a proverb that would stun the elders and silence his critics once and for all.
After deliberations on matters affecting the community ended, the proverb session began. As usual, the elders took turns saying proverbs and the scribe wrote them down.
When the young man’s turn finally arrived he beamed, confidently looked at the audience and with much aplomb said, “Kazi ni kazi.”
The ambiguity of the proverb befuddled the elders and threw the meeting into disarray. After lengthy discussions amongst themselves, the elders couldn’t agree on the proverb’s authenticity. So, they decided to put the matter to rest by putting it to the vote.
After voting was done, the chairperson tallied the votes. By just one vote, the young man’s proverb was accepted. The scribe proceeded to write it down in the book of proverbs. The young man had prevailed. His late father would have been proud that his son had honoured his legacy.
But, perhaps, the young man was wrong.
I say this because I’m awfully poor at shelling boiled eggs. In fact, I’m terrible to tell you the truth. Every time I shell a boiled egg during breakfast it’s a disaster.
But I’m not that bad. I once had a girlfriend who was way worse. She was horrible. She would shell the egg so poorly that she’d remain with only the yolk. I’m not kidding. I swear. She was pathetic at shelling eggs. She’d shell an egg and it would end up looking like a car mangled in an accident—a wreck.
And boy didn’t I tease her about it. The good thing is she was light-hearted about it and we would have a good laugh about her incompetence when shelling eggs.
Anyway, have you ever seen those mayai-kachumbari vendors shell eggs. They’re so good at it. They just beat the boiled egg once and shell it with a spoon. I wish I could do that. They do it with such finesse the shelled egg ends up looking like a work of art.
Like if shelled eggs were an actual work of art (maybe they are I don’t know) their eggs would be masterpieces displayed in art galleries alongside the works of Picasso, da Vinci and Michelangelo. My eggs, on the other hand, would be more like nursery school art drawn by a four-year-old.
What I’m saying is maybe work isn’t work.
In 2014 after completing my second year of campus, the university decided to give me a long holiday. A long holiday is an indefinite break given to students in public universities. It can range from between three months to a year. Imagine that. The duration of a long holiday is entirely at the university’s discretion. My long holiday after second year lasted about four months.
With plenty of time to spare, I binge-watched TV shows. I watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad, all eight seasons of 24 and a shitload of other series.
But after a while, it became monotonous—all that TV watching. One Sunday afternoon I became very introspective. My mind became preoccupied with existential thoughts. Questions like what are you doing with your life flooded my brain. So I decided to do something noble and worthwhile with my time—volunteer at a Children’s home.
The next day I woke up early and went to the Children’s home. First, I filled in a detailed indemnity form at the home’s reception, then I underwent a thorough vetting by the receptionist (just to ensure I wasn’t a child trafficker) and once she was done vetting me, the receptionist told me I would start work the following day. My stint at the Children’s home would last a week, she added. That day I went home feeling pretty good about myself. Finally, I was going to do something productive with my time for the greater good.
On my first day, I reported for work at 9 a.m. sharp. I was received by one of the caregivers who gave me a quick tour of the two storey home, introduced me to the rest of the staff mostly composed of carers—nurses roughly in their 40’s. Then she directed me to the infant’s wing where I was given my first task—feeding babies.
Gang, I honestly don’t know why I decided to volunteer at a Children’s home. I’d have been better off volunteering at a home for the elderly. I’m not very good with children to tell you the truth. That’s because I’ve never really had children in my life. So I’ve never had to babysit. The only kid I’ve ever had to babysit for a while was a cousin of mine when she was around three-years-old. Infants were a whole new ball game for me.
I didn’t feed the first baby I was given for long. No sooner had he started suckling milk from the bottle in my hand, than he began crying. I don’t know what buttons I pressed but he wouldn’t stop crying. Perhaps he didn’t like my face because I honestly don’t know what I did wrong.
My efforts to turn off the waterworks were futile and he continued to wail endlessly. Thankfully, he was eventually whisked away by one of the caregivers and he suddenly stopped crying. Damn crybaby.
One caregiver then handed me another baby. A second chance. Redemption. This one doesn’t cry, the caregiver assured me. I took her word. She was right. The second baby didn’t cry. She was so calm throughout the time I fed her. So it wasn’t my face after all. The other baby was just a darn crybaby.
Anyway, there’s this flirt line I love to tell girls—I could look into your eyes and get lost in them forever. It’s baloney. Half the time I probably don’t mean it. But I totally meant it when I said it to the baby I was feeding (don’t look at me like that with those eyes).
She had the cutest eyes. They were so dreamy and adorable. I think I actually got lost in them. Because at some point as she was suckling milk from the bottle, she began to choke.
I began to freak out. Fortunately, one of the carers nearby sensed something was wrong and came to my aid. Another baby was taken away from me. That was the last straw. I was officially taken off baby duty for the rest of the day.
The next day I requested not to work in the infant’s section. I was done with babies (or they were done with me). So I was handed a slasher by the home’s groundsman and posted to the garden. The groundsman helped me and supervised me for a while but upon realizing I was doing my work fairly well, he deserted his workstation and I was left to slash the grass in the entire compound all by myself.
I hadn’t slashed grass in aeons. That evening I went home with a hand full of blisters. My soft baby like palms were ruined. I regretted my decision to volunteer at the Children’s home when I could have just stayed at home and continued to binge watch TV series. I vowed never to return.
The following day, however, I was back at the Children’s home. But, I reported for work at around midday, and I was assigned to the children with special needs unit.
When I arrived, the children with special needs, all of them in wheelchairs, were having their lunch. There were about ten of them. But I wasn’t allowed to feed them any of them. Not because of my debacle with the infants, but because only experts were allowed to feed them. And as I sat and watched them being fed I understood why.
The caregivers fed them small spoonfuls and most of them would chew the food for ages. And they couldn’t be rushed either because they were susceptible to choking if fed in a hurry, one of the carers told me. I don’t think I’d have had the patience to feed any of those kids.
Watching them being fed made me really sad. It really did. There was this one kid who I guessed was about 10 (I was later told he was 15. Some children with special needs have stunted growth) who kept spitting out his food. Yet the caregiver feeding him continued feeding him with steely determination until he was done. I admired her perseverance and patience.
After they had all eaten, we took the children out of the home for a walk. Nine caregivers and I pushed them on wheelchairs on a tarmac road in a leafy suburb and we set up under a tree that provided shade.
One of the carers who had carried a radio then set it down, put in a tape, turned on the radio and it began blaring Sunday school tunes. So she turned down the volume and we began singing along to the songs.
This excited the children but since they had impeded speech, they couldn’t sing along to the words. However, some nodded vigorously and clapped while others made indecipherable sounds that sounded like grunts.
But there was this one kid who didn’t respond. He just looked at us blankly as if he was watching something on TV unseeingly. He didn’t nod, clap or make a sound. He just stared at us; his mouth agape and his head slightly slumped.
I asked one of the carers what the deal was with him. He didn’t respond to stimuli. His motor skills were fried and he was pretty much a cabbage, she told me.
As I walked back home that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about those kids with special needs. Spending the day with them drained me emotionally. It depressed me.
I couldn’t fathom how the caregivers took care of them day in day out without the work taking a toll on them. In particular, I couldn’t stop thinking about the kid with a blank stare. His empty expression and his even emptier eyes. Eyes as empty as his dreams, hopes, ambitions and aspirations. It saddened me that he would never have any of those things—dreams, hopes, ambitions and aspirations.
The next day I never went to work.