The school’s iconic gate seemed to be protected by greek temple-like columns, on top of which unmistakable blue paint announced: “STONE TOWN ACADEMY P.O. BOX 152 LAMU”.
Above the big blue letters, was an arabesque balcony where a few girls in their colorful scarves (hijab) were standing outside the single classroom that was dedicated to girls. The gate opened into a wide playground, where boys of various ages hung out welcoming the new school day with a bustling and raw masculine energy.
Maskat passed through clusters of little children running around aimlessly, and made it to the circle of boys huddled around performing their latest ‘flips’. Flipping is exactly what it sounds like: A 360 flip in the air. Those that could do it kept getting wildly better at it every day. The crowded circle of boys of various ages was cheering hysterically as one of the flippers had just finished a routine doing 3 flips consecutively.
Jay was up next, and everyone knew they were in for a visual treat. Jay’s body was taller than the average boy and he had particularly long arms and legs which made him one of the most bizarre and impressive flippers at school. He moved in such a way that was really hard to be replicated by anyone and he had earned both respect and camaraderie in almost all flipping circles of Lamu.
Maskat stood in the circle, trying to jump over the other kids in front of him in the huddle to get a glimpse of the performance. Jay did a breakdance routine that was particular to him. He started with a double flip, knelt all the way down, and, supported by his long arms, pushed himself off the floor completely. He seemed to defy gravity as his legs hung in the air and made a sweeping full circle all around himself.
For a split second, he seemed to levitate!
The circle held its breath collectively until he landed on his feet again. Frantic clapping and cheering ensued.
He jumped back up, and Maskat recognized the look on Jay's face and knew that he was now energized by the circle and was about to do something extraordinary.
He took a few steps towards the crowd and then threw a sweeping forward kick with his legs pushing his whole body into a backward flip that seemed effortless. He landed back on his feet and stopped suddenly for effect…receiving majestic applause from the audience who could not believe what they had just witnessed.
The school's microphone blasted everyone silent.
“Classes are about to start, move to your class immediately or you will not be allowed downstairs during break time.”
Those words were very effective and the headmaster knew that. Every kid had a major plan for break time and no one would risk that for morning time.
The circle dissolved quickly as Jay and Maskat walked towards the class.
“That was crazy good Jay! I haven’t seen that backward flip before” Maskat congratulated Jay with excited eyes and a tap on the shoulder.
“It is a new routine I have been working on. Practice, practice, practice Maskat. It is just the number of hours you put into it” Jay said trying to be humble but he could feel the rush of pride and endorphins running through him.
They made their way across the playground and avoided the crowded hallways by taking the stairs behind the cafeteria which were not frequently used. Their hearts both stopped immediately at the site of Omari and Azizi.
Omari was taller, wider, and heavier than any other kid in school, including those 3 years older than him. His hands were thick and he was already fashioning a mustache and some facial hair at 13 years old. Azizi was the second biggest kid and Omari’s sidekick.
Azizi stood by the wall pinning a little kid upside and searching his pockets as Omari went through his bag throwing books out and gobbling any food he can find.
They noticed Jay and Maskat walking up the stairs behind them.
“Oh look there are the two fags” Omari announced with a wide grin “Are you two going to make out upstairs?”
Azizi laughed hysterically “Jay the Queer Aweer! Scram before I come mess you up you skinny bitch”
Maskat’s heart started thumping before Jay looked back and shouted:
“You fat clowns need to find something useful to do with your time!” Jay said it with a laugh, but both of them sprinted to class knowing full well they can’t afford to get caught.
Neither Maskat nor Jay would stand a chance in a fight against either Omari and Azizi. Jay was more comfortable answering back at them. He still avoided getting beaten up by bartering or giving them something valuable. He played with their emotions and knew that just like the muzungu, behind every bully there was a need that he can provide.
Maskat on the other hand did not have things to offer and was also in the same class as Omari. He just wanted to avoid trouble and would always ask Jay to shut up because he didn’t want to get beaten up.
They got up to the third floor and parted ways to their respective rooms. The classrooms had wide wooden desks that fit two students each. Maskat walked to his desk located second from the front.
Ali, his deskmate, was already there with his Fiqh book out and a pencil case that seemed to be designed by a young Leonardo DaVinci. 12 shades of crayons, 8 sharpies of essential colors, a three-size sharpener, a protractor, a double-sided eraser that worked for both pen and pencil, 4 pens, 2 normal pencils, 1 lead pencil, a box of 0.7” leads, and a metal ruler - all placed perfectly in his ninja-level toolkit.
Maskat threw a smile and a ‘Mambo’ as he settled in, pulling up a copybook that is half folded on itself and a pen that seemed curiously bitten, chewed, and had lost its cap many eons ago.
He was happy to be sitting next to Ali because that meant he did not have to answer any questions by the teachers.
Ali was so eager to show that he had done his homework and is on top of every bit of knowledge. Ali’s father was the Stone Town Academy’s Principal. He needed to live up to his expectations to achieve and then achieve some more.
Maskat mostly saw him as an annoying overachiever but was happy with the arrangement of sitting next to him because it allowed him to cruise under the class radar and go to far magical places in his mind.
The class buzzed with life and chatter, as all the boys excitingly shared stories before the teacher came in. Omari stumbled in, pushing through a couple of boys at the front and moving towards his lair in the very back.
He moved slowly by Maskat’s side and then stood still and kneeled down by his desk.
“Smells like you got some of that special Choma again, Zemunke.” He looked at his bag and smiled. “Better give me a fair portion if you don’t want me to take the whole thing.”
He left Maskat with a squeeze of the back of the neck as a reminder that pain is on its way if he was not listened to. Maskat shook his head as the rest of his body strived to stop from shaking.
He suddenly felt a lot of anger towards Mama. Even though he loved her special food, he begged her at home to give him the same ‘Mandazi’ crackers every other kid had, but Mama only wanted the best for Maskat.
Although they weren’t very rich, mama was still a food snob and baba was somehow an elitist.
Maksat never explained to his parents why he didn’t want the Choma. He was afraid Baba would make a scene at school because he would never accept someone threatening his son.
The Fiqh teacher, Mr. AlHaadi walked into class in his beige suit which he wore every day despite the hot and sticky summer weather. He taught jurisprudence: Arguments and analysis of the Quraan. Mr. AlHaadi adjusted his glasses and brushed his mustache with his hands as he started class and stared blankly at all the boys.
“The best form of worship,” he said, “is Fiqh,” and “A session of Fiqh is better than 60 years of piety”.
Mr. AlHaadi stayed silent to let the power of these words land on his students.
That was the last thing Maskat heard during the first class.
He frequently got lost in his daydreams.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the football game they had that night. His team “Red Socks”, third in the league, was playing “Hard Target”, who came second in the league. Maskat had been training very hard and felt like he had a good chance to be subbed in tonight. He had been relentlessly imagining the perfect curveball that he would strike during the game and score the winning goal over Hard Target.
He spent the rest of class imagining how he would celebrate the goal, where each of his teammates would be, what chants the crowd and parents would sing. Math, English, and Quraan reading classes passed by, as he drifted off.
He imagined joining the first league, playing for the national team, and created small paper goals from his copybook. He started practicing the curve shot with tiny paper balls on his desk and his index and middle fingers as his legs.
Noon break was finally here, and everyone rushed downstairs. The sun was scorching hot, but that didn’t stop the abundance of activities on the playground.
Maskat walked out and followed 3 of the boys who were out to test their new handmade wooden miniature cars on wheels. He steered them on the road with a long stick. Such handmade vehicles could be seen everywhere, and the kids in Lamu took a lot of pride in creating them. They boasted their new tiny car models in races all across the village.
There were also hand made boats by the beach, where many of the children went to during the break. It was a luxury available to Stone Town Academy students, being located right in the mouth of the Indian Ocean that once brought their ancestors from Arab countries many centuries ago.
Maskat was not very impressed by boats and cars. The boats paled in comparison to his grandfather’s dhows and cars were not something he could relate to. He had never seen a car up to this point in his life.
He walked by the shore’s stone walkway looking for a place to sit, and there she was again: Leila. She sat tall by the water and noticed him approaching. Her vibrant eyes still glistening with rays of light which seemed as helplessly attracted to her as he was.
Maskat drew a blank and felt like it was not the right time to talk to her. He kept walking, acting like he never saw her, and barely containing himself from the flurry of feelings he had for her.
These feelings were dangerous, he felt, especially because of all the anxiety they created. He was not supposed to think of girls that way anyways he thought. He knew that he didn’t agree with that thought, but it made it easier to avoid talking to her.
Why would she think of someone like him anyway? He wasn’t cool like Jay or strong like Omari. What if she found him boring? What if she just said no?
He found a place that was safely far away from her and instantly felt a stream of regret for not going up to talk to her. He imagined how his life could pan out if he had smiled back and walked up to her.
While he sat alone with his thoughts, a deep coarse sound suddenly whispered:
“You are a scared little wimp. You do not have the balls to talk to her” Something whispered to him.
Maskat was startled! He looked behind him, but there was no one to be seen.
Maskat got lost back in thought and answered himself: “She is so beautiful I can’t risk going to talk to her. What would I talk to her about anyways?”
“You blew it.” The voice answered. “Why can’t you be normal like all the other boys? You’ll never have the kind of girlfriends Jay has.”
Maskat’s brain was going to explode with these voices. He remembered his father’s advice. Be kind, be giving, and be respectful.
He had to let her know that he loved her, but taking her out for a meal in the village seemed too out of reach. He took out a piece of paper from his copybook.
Conversations to Have with Leila
- My match and how we will destroy Hard Target
- Funny donkey and buibui story
- The carnival and to be my date
He tried to think hard of what would impress her but he could not find much. He crumpled the page and threw it out into the ocean.
He started a fresh one and wrote the following in Swahili.
Since I saw you, I have been thinking about you a lot and wished to write you this letter a long time ago. I love your smile and the smart things you say. I wish we could go on a walk by the sea and we can listen to songs together. Please tell me if you do too, I would like to take you on a date. Maybe!?
PS. Here is my mother’s special Nyama Choma made with goat meat and Ugali. Enjoy it.
He drew a big smile at the end, with 2 dancers from the carnival and 2 stick figures smiling holding hands. He walked back to class early, and ran by the edge of the playground avoiding any distractions. He mustered the courage and took a deep breath.
Maskat walked to Leila’s classroom, left the meal with the love note at her desk, and ran back to his building.
Three more classes of Arabic, Kiswahili, and Seyra (history and stories of Prophet Mohammed) passed by like a breeze with thoughts of Leila and the carnival. Maskat kept imagining her reaction to reading the letter and the happiness she would feel when she ate the Nyama Choma. He could not wait to hear back from her.
The school day was quickly over. As soon as the bell rang, he got out of class and walked briskly - too afraid to be seen by her. He wanted to hide - tomorrow would be a better day to talk to her.
He used the back stairway again to remain discrete, and stopped at the water fountain to drink and hide for a bit. He imagined her seeing him and looking at him.
As he knelt down to drink he felt the bright hard sun of 3 pm suddenly disappear with a giant shadow covering both him and the water fountain.
He turned around…it was Omari.
“Well, well Zemunke” Omari said as he got closer “You made me very angry today.”
“What do you want from me?” Maskat asked as he examined the surroundings for any teacher or friend passing by.
“I am hungry because of you, little bitch. I waited all break for you but you were hiding from me. You better have saved me that Choma.” Omari loomed over Maskat.
“I’ll give you mine tomorrow, I couldn’t today.”
“You selfish prick! You ate it all didn’t you!” Omari said as he grabbed him by the throat.
Maskat could barely speak back. He pushed hard against the giant trying to escape quickly and run, but Omari held on to Maskat’s white shirt, ripping a couple of buttons off with his hands, and the shirt was now a leash that tied Maskat to his doom.
Omari pulled him back so that he faced him again, held his neck with both hands, and thrust his big round knee straight into Maskat’s groin.
The pain was excruciating.
It was nothing like anything Maskat had ever felt before. He held his genitals with both hands as he grunted and gasped for air.
Omari landed a quick kick to his ribs that slammed him to the ground.
“And this one is for your big-mouthed fag friends of yours.” Omari announced as he walked away.
Maskat lay there for what seemed to be hours.
No one else came by and he rolled over beneath the stairway as the pain moved from a sharp shock to dull heavy engorgement.
He finally made his way to the bathroom, took his pants down, and almost fainted seeing how big his left testicle had become. The tip of his penis was also bruised and blackened.
He fell to the ground in the bathroom and started finally sobbing and letting the pain out. He stayed there for a couple of hours, staring at mindless graffiti drawn on the bathroom wall.
It was quickly becoming clear that he would not be able to make it to the game that night. He could barely stand. He could not go home either because he did not want his parents to know and get involved.
Maskat stayed on the floor until he was finally able to stand and walk. He changed into his football clothes and walked straight home making his way slowly with a wide and painful gait.
He got home around the time the game was over.
His team, Red Socks, had won Hard Target that night. Maskat had to act like he just came back from the game. What concerned him the most was not the state of his testicle, or that he missed the game of his life, but that Baba would know and try to take matters into his own hands. The last thing he wanted was to be embarrassed by his parents coming over to the school.
This was his mess, and he wanted Professor Zemunke as far as possible from it. He splashed some water on his face and drenched his shirt to look like sweat. He walked into the old home through the big arabesque front door, joined his parents for dinner, and shared with them all the imaginary stories about the goal he scored to help the Red Socks win that night.
When they asked about why he was limping, he told them he got injured at the end of the game but he is healing and that the doctor said it was no problem.
Maskat was quite convincing. . He was silent over dinner. There was something brewing deep inside of him, and a new feeling of resentment that will not blow over without this balance being settled.
My insides crawl
And I clam up
I just slam shut
I just can't do it
My whole manhood's just been stripped
I have just been ripped
So I must then get
Off the bus then split
8 mile, Eminem