What happens when the sun shines after a long period of rains? The land brightens with the lurch greenery of foliage. Water pans dry out leaving behind a cracked earth. Small valleys sink where the rivulets from the rains flowed. There is a new hymn from the birds of the trees. A hymn I have heard before but it feels new at the turn of seasons. The sun burns like it burnt before the rains. It picks from where it left. This is the metaphor of his life.
One early muddy morning as I manned the entrance to the school as the master on duty, I saw him running barefooted and sullen. His sunken cheeks and protruding cheek bones evident of how sun beaten he was by perhaps something else and not only the sun; poverty. His lips dry an indication that he had hardly taken any meal that morning. The hems of his torn short khaki pants undone to make them hide his ashy knees in vain. An old overused green nylon PIL bag carried his books and probably his soul. The threads of his sweater falling off on the elbows and his shirt, clean, had a button, sewn with a thread color that completely mismatched the white shirt, holding the two parts and his body.
A humble boy of no measure and brilliant at it in spite of being pulled down by indigence. He looked destitute. Not the poverty of mind but a physical impoverishment that bit him hard and refused to free him.
But one thing made me admire him, his unceasing pursuit of excellence and his pinched smile. His down to earth and submissiveness when he talked to me made me weak. He slant his neck with resignation written all over his face and reverberating within his soft words.
When not in school, he spent his time in coffee plantations picking berries at thirty shillings per bucket of seventeen kgs. To fill a bucket that size took upto two hours. The berries were delivered to the factory before midday and that meant he would hardly pick two buckets. The little money he could make went to buying a meal for himself and a packet of flour for his mother. The flour would last them three days and they had to wait for the lorry on Saturday to ferry coffee pickers to the plantantions. It was not an outright casual job but that edged on luck. Sometimes the farms would be invaded by human souls as early as 4 am marking their territories and by the time you got there, only a few bushes were left to be picked. Or if unfortunate enough, you were assigned to collect the fallen berries.
His afternoons and Sundays were slow and empty. He would spent his time in their wooden two roomed rustic house working on some homework. Some of which I had given them in class while I on the other end spent these afternoons in Keg drinking dens watching football matches and when not, listening to the stereotyped local music and when not, darting at the nearby church hall.
I would meet him again on Monday with my language books tucked beneath my armpits, nursing little hangovers while he nursed the wounds of privation, hopelessness and indignity.
I thought I was poor from the pittance I earned but he was poorer because he couldn’t afford a regular meal, a proper meal, proper uniform, proper stationery and little shit.
Insolvency had robbed him his dignity but not his resolve. I don’t know who was to blame for his situation because I didn’t want to find out. You see, when you are poor somebody is responsible for it just as when you have a ballooning bank balance. It’s the law of cause and effect.
So Ngugi, worked hard in class. He was always position two and the worst three. He scored every sum in a maths paper, that which he didn’t score, he appealed and often he was right. His performance in language was outstanding, I hardly found grammatical mistakes in his compositions neither spelling mistakes. Every composition was unique and with newly acquired vocabulary meaning that he read widely.
Like any other school during that time, no one had time to implore the social lives of the students. Whether you had supper or had breakfast bothered no one indeed. It was about your appearance in school and cooling your horses in class when it was class time and breaking them outside when it was breaktime. And good enough obeying the school rules and regulations among which, each student had to bring twenty shillings on Saturday for additional tuition. I hardly saw him on Saturdays that meant he and his entire clan were piss poor that they couldn’t afford the twenty shillings. What else on earth could they afford?
His brilliance drove me to pity. His fate hung on a balance and he wasn’t sure whether he will register for his final exams. He was sent away over and over and when I couldn’t take his absence anymore, I broke my wallet, I owned no bank account, I wanted Ngugi to sit for his final exams and excel and maybe fate would have mercy on him and take him wherever it so wished.
I paid the exam fee and all outstanding balances for him and the joy in his eyes was palpable. He couldn’t believe that finally he was going to sit for the coveted exams. I went on and assured him that I will share my little wages with him. That he should never go hungry as long as I was around.
However, I didn’t tell him that it was a burning guilt of my time to payback, that drove me to him but I wanted to help him cross. I wanted to pay back to the help of one Hellen, the Chief Principal at College, who, having heard my predicament when I lost my mother and the only fee provider when I was in my last semester in college, sent for me and as I sat on her office narrating my story of how my family had crumbled down into smithereens within a short span of time, I could see tiny drops of tears dropping down beneath her spectacles. She pulled a drawer on her left and drew a cheque of the fee balance that was standing between me and a future coveted. I couldn’t hardly believe it. She footnoted the voucher with the words, ‘pay and keep it to yourself Nzioka’.
That piece of paper lies beneath a pile of some other papers in my repository as evidence that the world once had good people.
And with that, I felt indebted, I had to give back and help somebody else cross. I helped Ngugi cross and I told him the same words, but in a different arrangement, ‘don’t tell the world who did this’.
His case was one too many in this school. Perhaps the reason no one else felt obligated to help him cross. The old staff with an experience of no comparison would have come to his assistance but I felt they must have seen it all and their hearts hardened. I, at 23, and freshly from college, had a soft heart and the fact that I made it out of college, I owed it to a stranger I was never going to meet again.
Days later I extended to him my traveling bag to use it for his books since I was no longer traveling and even if I wanted to travel, I didnt want to go to the haunted home notwithstanding that all my earthly belongings fit in that strap bag.
His dignity was slowly getting back into its feet and when I later handed him some shirts that I had outgrown but were still new, I saw that boy’s smile change. He had such an infectious smile that made me well afraid of blinking because that would have shown my weak side. I would stare away from his smile and gaze at an empty space and plead with my eyelids not to shut. I always lost that battle.
From henceforth, I never met Ngugi in any other outfit on Sundays where we both worshipped. I hadn’t had much in life at that age but I was contented I had touched a boy’s heart. Ngugi always came to me after church service while other students he schooled with shunned away and only pointed at me with their snouts. He had become a personal friend.
As time would have it, Ngugi cleared school and I never saw him again. I never left him with my contacts but I was convinced I had altered the course of his life. He must have excelled because when I asked of his whereabouts I was told he had joined Kanunga High School. I had left the school where we had met and only went back to visit my folks who lived in that region after an eternity.
Days turned into months and into years, my frequent visits to my folks in that region sufficed and eventually stopped. I went on my own and started life. I moved jobs and jobs until I finally dropped the white piece of dust into oblivion.
Got into business and rekindled my old age dream of acquiring a University degree and ran with it.
It is at the university while I took some rest on the concrete benches one dull afternoon that I was startled by a familiar voice which I couldn’t register instantly. It called me teacher in a slang almost shenglike. I turned and there stood Ngugi. I was dumbstruck by his appearance, his towering height and that infectious smile. All other attributes had left him apart from his smile. A backpack stuck on his left shoulder and he had a phone in his right hand.
He joined me on the bench and it was then that I learnt he was in his final semester pursuing a degree in economics while I was in my first semester pursuing a literature degree!
However from his deep soft spoken voice, he had some remnants of the indignity poverty had slapped him with. His outfits were not all that good and he didn’t have a scent of affluence. Life hadn’t been so good to him but he hadn’t lost his resolve to make it in life.
We sat on this bench for about half an hour on an eight year palaver when he stood up to leave. He looked at me straight into my eye and I stared away again into that old emptiness I had stared at eight years ago. I knew what he was about to tell me, and when he did, I blinked.
Thank you teacher for helping me cross. I will forever be grateful to you. Then he left, I stared at him dissappear into the young human traffic along the University corridors and felt a sense of self actualization. If I was ready to die at that point I would have done so, but I wanted to help many more people cross.
This story is my story, maybe yours is much better but it would be best if told. I chose to tell this story because I believe we all can help someone cross. It could be that poor kid in the estate block who doesn’t go to school. That man at the far end looking for anything called work. That woman sitting by the roadside hawking her wares. But we can’t help everyone, you would say, the world is so cruel and cold that everyone minds his own troubles. Help one person at a time. Don’t t expect they will return the favor but that is the ultimate goal of being human. There are genuine needs cases around, don’t go looking for them, let them cross your path and help them cross. Somebody may help you cross one day when you cross their path. It always comes back.
Last, I found about Ngugi when I wanted to meet and interview him for this post, I was told he works for a certain supermarket as an attendant but time and other deadlines couldn’t allow.
This story is inspired by Tyler Perry’s acceptance speech for the iconic personality of the decade during the BET awards 2019. When he says, ‘Help someone cross, there are people whose life is tied on your dream.’
“The major theme of Perry’s 4½-minute sermon-esque talk perfectly summarized the guiding force of his career: to “help somebody cross.”
Perry has spent the entirety of his career being intentional about creating opportunities and offering aspiration for Black people. Whether it was hiring celebrities like Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Idris Elba when they struggled to get jobs in mainstream Hollywood, or opening his studio in one of the poorest Black neighborhoods in Atlanta, “so that young Black kids could see that a Black man did that, and they can do it too.”
“While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own,” he later said.(Chicago tribune, June 24th, 2019 )
Help somebody cross.
One deed is good until another one is done.