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Balls, Rugby And I

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I was a pussy growing up – to put it mildly. I was scrawny, tiny and the youngest in my class all through. Kids picked on me all the time and I couldn’t stand for myself. Mostly, I just broke down and wept – frequently. Tears came easy to me, they held me by the neck and tossed me into this ocean of fear, sadness and a mixture of other messed up emotions that I was too young to understand then.

The earliest such moment I can remember is when I was five and teacher found me sobbing in class. Being some sort of favourite, she got quite concerned – demanding to know who had hurt me and threatening to cane the whole class. There was no way to escape her questions, so I told her that Korah had hit me. The look on his face when I mentioned him still comes to me today. It spelt dismay and betrayal. Korah Mutwiri later became my best friend – until they moved to Kitale when we were in class four – I’ve never heard from him since. That day, he took one for me; said hitting me was accidental and apologized. That’s the only time I remember having ratted someone out. And it was a lie, he hadn’t hit me. The tears had just started flowing and I couldn’t stop them. When the teacher asked, I had no idea how to explain it so I implicated my friend.

The tears stayed with me till I cleared class 8. Halfway, my mother enrolled me for Tae Kwo Ndo classes after witnessing my cowardice in full display. I was 8. We were on the way home from school one evening and for some reason; a kid called Ronny was kicking my ass. Literally. I was walking straight ahead, wiping tears and strands of mucus, hoping to suppress the wails as kick after kick landed on my back, buttocks and thighs. I was scared to turn and face him… or the gang of boys laughing right behind him. Then we went round a corner and bumped into my mother. It was small town we lived in – everyone knew everyone – so the kids disappeared before she even threatened to set their mothers on them. That memory ends there; I don’t remember any embarrassment or the subsequent conversation. But the martial arts lessons started that week.

Those classes gave me points, my share of whatever equivalent of street cred we had then shot to the sky and suddenly no one dared to touch me. It was the fast time I was a physical menace to anyone and it was a sweet experience that lasted until we got into boarding school. Then things changed again. Some of the kids who knew of my “training” transferred schools, others joined and several of them were eager to see what I was capable of. I never let them tempt me into displaying anything, so they concluded it was all a bluff.

I sat for my KCSE when I was 12 and they cut off a piece of my penis later that November. Not the kids, the circumcision surgeon and the community. There is a bunch of people out there who strongly claim that slicing a piece of skin off a boy doesn’t make him a man. That is true. But the following month does, especially if you are in Mitunguu – right next to the heart of Meru – secluded, with your elder cousin watching over you as you watch your wound heal with no painkillers, just an unending flow of food. I didn’t shed a tear through the operation – that was kinda the point though, and we were all eager to prove we could withstand it. Okay, not all of us, the kid that went in after me screamed like a trapped puppy all through.

Somewhere during that month, in the darkest parts of the nights as I lay awake on my back holding a blanket away from the crotch (and terribly missing all those times I could have lain on my belly and didn’t. Insomniac friend, you complain about tossing and turning… wait for the day you can do neither), I swore not to slip back into that chicken I was. In fact, I made myself a promise; that I would actively look for situations to prove that I was not one. I was to pluck feathers from my chicken skin and add them to my cap.

An opportunity availed itself shortly after.

There are those first weeks after you join high-school that are extremely empty. You go through your dictionary, atlas and logarithm tables over and over. Impatient for those classes to start, hoping they’d be as fascinating as they sounded, especially chemistry, biology and physics. Maybe you did not, but I did – at Nkubu High School. During those weeks, over prep time, the older students showed up in pairs or groups, urging the new students to join this club, enroll for that sport, attend the Christian Union fellowship in the evening, learn the way to the YCS chapel… Mostly for a small registration fee. Mostly a con. That is when I first learnt about the call out to join the rugby team. I was a rural boy with no knowledge about the game so I ignored that it like the rest.

The next day, I went prowling around the sports field – or the pitches as we called them – looking for a game I had an idea on how to play. They were divided along lines that weren’t skill based: Basketball was for the cool guys which also meant town bred or those seeking to be like them. Volleyball was for the utterly and hopelessly rural country boys. Hockey was for those with no respect (or use) for toenails. Football was for the masses.
My first choice was badminton – we had played it in primary school and I was quite good – but the rackets here were few and hoarded by form three and four students so I walked away frustrated and by doing so bumped into the rugby pitch. The players were in training, doing crunches, a million sit-ups, short quick sprints and other forms of physical exercise that would make anyone’s mother increase her prayers tenfold. I stood and watched the whole session, all the while wondering how the hell they had all managed to grow so huge on the meager rations of bad githeri served in the dining hall. After the session ended, we all rushed to queue for the said food, but I passed though the washrooms to create space first. It was on my way out that I had my first encounter with Joshua.

He was in the rugby team. All six feet of soot black skin, a desk of a chest and log like arms of him. His head was pointed at the top with slow slants to the side. Almost conical. Very comical. Like hitting his head against others during the rugby scrum for four years had had its toll. Pointed head Joshua was huge. End of story. He looked like he would march around Jericho alone and have the walls give up and collapse two laps in. Give up and collapse is exactly what my bladder and bowels almost did when I stepped on his foot. They actually gave up. Went loose. Thankfully, I had just had just come from emptying them and only a few drops leaked out when he squinted at me, bent almost halfway to the floor to attain eye-contact and growled a single word, “MONO!” He must have seen the abject terror on my face because he stepped aside and gave me a look which obviously suggested that I scoot off before his generous grace strained. Which I would have done, if my legs hadn’t abandoned their duty.

The next day, they started the training with a mock game. Which wasn’t really mocking anyone since they went all out. Of course I was at the sidelines. Watching as they intercepted the ball midair and run for their lives. A gasp must have escaped my throat every time someone got tackled and went crushing into the hard ground. They would often stand covered in dust, limping or bleeding from bruises and grass burns. After the game ended, I sat there and wondered why a sensible human being would do that to himself. Why would you put your body through that? Does your grandma know? I concluded it made absolutely no sense so I did what any logical person in my situation would do. I walked to the safety of my dormitory… then changed into my sports kit and jogged right back.

When I strolled into the pitch, the guys were doing their mandatory laps around it. Only one had completed his and was now tossing the ball up and down. Pointed head Joshua. He spotted me and frowned.

“We ni ile mono ilinikanyanga jana?”

I kept silent.

“Unafanya nini hapa?”

“Nataka kujoin team.”

He laughed at the statement then realized I was serious and looked me up and down with worry. Probably wondering how I would run from seven huge players if a single word had frozen me the previous day. I was expecting to be dismissed to the table tennis team when the worried look slowly changed to mischief and he smiled.

“Okay. Tuanze tizi basi… songa huko.”

I dashed to where he had pointed.

“Sa iko hivi, nakurushia ball, uishike, unirudishie, fiti?”

Toss the ball back and forth? Really? That I can do. So I nodded.

He held the ball with both hands and moved it to the right, a foot from his pelvis, then tossed it to me with this almost invisible flick that sent the ball beautifully spinning anticlockwise. Knowing that all my future in rugby probably rested on catching that ball, I fixed my eyes on it as it spun and covered the fifteen feet between us. It was a high ball. He had hanged it. Hanged passes shoot towards you, but vertically, they seem to go up and up then pause for a second in the air before descending towards you in almost a 90 degree angle. The secret is to wait for the ball; your legs spread out for stability but ready to sprint. Yours truly did the opposite.

I jumped as soon as the ball started descending, my legs together, eyes firmly on it and hands stretched out. Catch the ball I did, but at the exact moment my fingers touched it, I felt Joshua’s shoulder connect with my belly. My lungs hastily emptied, tears stung my eyes, something popped in my back and my legs went numb. All the mistakes in my life shifted down the list and left the first spot on the list for rugby. We were still in the air falling backwards, with my ball tightly clutched in my hands. The way down was in slow motion at first, seemingly endless, then the sky receded fast and my mid-back hit the ground and slid for two seconds.
Joshua stood as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, took the ball from my hands and said,
“Karibu rudge.”

I lay there with my back burning and my belly about to pick pickets up and march for its rights. The clouds looked down sadly and seemed to collectively ask, “Where is your mother? Does your grandma know you are doing this to yourself?” I could swear the last thing I heard before a high pitched whine kicked into my ears and drowned every other sound out was a random bystander exclaiming, “Haki amekaua…”

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