Lessons from the 2010 decade – #3 – Courage
Over the past week, I have been reflecting on the subject of COURAGE and what it really means for the people who dare to speak the truth when its not considered cool. This reflection was sparked by watching Softie the film by Sam Soko featuring Boniface and Njeri Mwangi. It took me back to my primary school days, mid in the 90’s when corporal punishment was a thing.
In class 5, I decided to quit school and go plant tomatoes and french beans. Horticulture was booming at the time, and those that had mastered the art were making a kill out of it. A guy called Kalinae had made a fortune out of selling french beans, better known as Misanzi. But the commercial success of farming Misanzi was not the attraction that I was looking at, it was the offer I made on the table to in order to negotiate my way out of schooling.
Going to plant tomatoes and french beans was my way of rebelling against the idea that we should accept to be beaten like brainless animals in order to get things done, if not to getting things right. I was also very unhappy with bullying at the school, especially where one of my brothers made it impossible for me to play football by calling me Kimosa – the skinny one.
Class 5 is my earliest recollection of Courage – the absence of fear while doing something frightening. I mustered courage to stand up for things I believed in, and to call out injustice. I don’t remember it crossing my mind that this was something I needed for the rest of my life, but I have found my self in situations where courage was the only way to make peace with myself.
Through out schooling, I found the courage to stand up against popular ideologies that perpetrated injustice in the education system. Corporal punishment was top on the list, teachers believed this was the only way to create a better human being. Some did it as a sport, others could be seen coming to school with a bicycle full of canes.
One day, while in class Seven, I got pissed off at the deputy headteacher. My mom had sent my sister and I to drop bananas by a shop on the way to school. We found the shop owner sleeping, and spent a few minutes at the door knocking until he opened and received the goods.
While at it, the deputy head teacher walked ahead of us, and arrived at the school before we could. Then he decided that we were late by virtue of arriving after him, so we needed to be punished. I tried to explain our situation but he couldn’t take any of it – so he grabbed my sister and beat her with vengeance.
I was as tiny as a pea and as skinny as the nickname I was given. This sense of helplessness got me pissed! I mustered the courage to shout back at him, “mwalimu huwezi nichapa vile umechapa sister yangu” – teacher, you cant beat me the way you have beaten my sister. I picked a bunch of stones and was ready to throw them at him but decided to walk out of school and pursue a transfer.
For weeks I refused to go to school till my transfer was granted. I went to study at my aunts place for a year, then renegotiated my way back to the same school a year after – on condition that corporal punishment would be off the table. But other forms of intimidation emerged; enter the tide of psychological torture fuelled by the religious flock.
At class 8, a yet to be priest who was on attachment in our school joined the bandwagon that was telling me all nasty things especially “we all know that you wont amount to much” in order to intimidate me into silence. I boycotted the CRE lessons, PPI and going to church. I scored very well at the national examinations despite self educating myself for half the time, and against all odds. I thought high school would be different, but …….
I was bullied in Form 1. One incident I remember is dancing on a Saturday night at the dining hall. I joined a group of dancers to show my skills. The entertainment captain walked over and slapped me a big one; I fell on the floor. I later realised the group was senior students (Form 4), and that you shouldn’t dance with them because it was a show of disrespect. What nonsense!
Bullying was normalised in the school. The administration knew of its existence and condoned it. The sense of helplessness hit me again, so when I went back home for holidays, I negotiated to be transferred to a different school after only 2 terms at Makueni Boys High School.
In form 3 I left a Geography class because I couldn’t withstand a teacher who bragged to us that for you to counter any of his points, you needed to go to the university and get two degrees. In form 4, I refused to take Agriculture simply because it was considered an easy subject that would boost your overall score, and so the school decided to make it compulsory. I was the only student who took 7 subjects, against the laid down procedures that assumed all students needed a “booster subject”. I could go on and on and on, with the story of rebelling against the system up to this date.
Up until university, I lived under the perpetual fear of being take to an Approved School. Approved School is a term formerly used in the United Kingdom for a residential institution to which young people could be sent by a court, usually for committing offences but sometimes because they were deemed to be beyond parental control. It is similar to a reform school in the United States. I studied in a total of 3 primary schools, and 4 high schools. I was expelled in 1 school. I was part of a strike at some point.
But let me switch to what lessons courage has taught me.
It will be lonely out here. It is very lonely. You will be alone, most of the time. Your family will distance itself from you. You will be excluded from important discussions because of your ability to see through and call out family bull#$%^. You will be labelled the black-sheep, and kids will conveniently be kept away from you because you mislead them to start questioning uncomfortable things that happens to them.
Your employer will often be afraid that you will undo the organisation, so they will always struggle with how to keep you in check. In 2009, I expressed discomfort with my employer about my role in the organization given the amount of work I had put into building blocks for the youth campaign that came to be known as G-Pange.
In summary, he told me that if I was unhappy with the offer of being a project officer working in Kajiado and earning KES 45,000 gross, then the door is always open to leave – and the following day I resigned and left, and found a job that paid me double.
The proponents of status quo within any organisation that you work with will not invite you to their parties. They believe you are the trouble maker that will most likely cost them a job. When job applications are being reviewed, it is highly unlikely that you will to make it to the shortlist.
Working for government is close to impossible if not outright impossible. Government builds power through control and entirely chocking the room for innovation – so if you cannot be controlled, then they frustrate you out of the system. For you to survive the system, you have to become a zombie. Afraid of becoming one, I refused to take up a teaching job with government after graduating as a teacher of English and Literature from Kenyatta University.
Those with power over you will tell you all manner of nasty things to intimidate you into submission. For years, I was told that “I would not amount to anything”, that I “was cursed if I don’t listen to elders”, that “I would never live to become an adult”.
Nasty examples of truants in society are presented to you everyday. These words hurt your soul, they cow you into following order, they make you doubt yourself every day, to a point that you could believe that negative occurrences in your life are an affirmation of those very hurtful words. Sadly, the future is very different from those predictions.
It is unfortunate that we don’t appreciate and build a society full of courageous people. Courage is lonely. Courage makes you a minority. If not coerced into submission, courageous people are left to starve to death within their own rebellion, if not killed or bought for a price.
You have to device your way of life, to understand that you will only have a handful of friends, and even then, some will leave when its convenient. Family disconnects, and your solace becomes the peace that comes with sticking to your truth.
The struggle to survive will always be building an independent mind and tactics to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate courage from independent thinkers. Remaining unbowed is not just a skill, it becomes a way of life. To understand courage, you need to watch Softie – and if you haven’t watched Softie, grab your ticket today!
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