My husband, Mustafa, likes to tease me about my habit of listening to funeral announcements on the radio after the nightly news. I picked the habit from my mother, and I too teased her about it throughout my childhood. Whenever Mustafa wants to change the station after the 8 o’clock news brief, I ask him to wait. When he asks why, I repeat my mother’s answer – “I might catch news I would never get otherwise.” And last night, an announcement caught my attention. Jane Aoko Ayiecho died after a short illness and is survived by a daughter and a list of other family members, the announcer said. The body leaves Gendia mortuary on Friday for her parents’ home in Kokoth and the burial will take place the day after, the announcer went on.
I called Brenda, a friend from high school I had kept in touch with over the years. She answered the phone on the first ring. I told her about the announcement and asked if there was any way of confirming if this was the same Ayiecho we knew from school. She said she’d find out from other high school friends.
“The burial is four days away,” I said.
“We don’t know if it is her. I’ll call you when I hear something.”
Ayiecho always insisted we call her by her surname, saying that if you threw a rock in a crowd the likelihood of hitting somebody called Jane was high. She joined my school in Form Three, in the third week of the second term. I was in Form One then. We never found out which school she had transferred from and why. We speculated that she might have had an affair with one of the teachers, gotten pregnant and was consequently expelled. “You need to check her nipples to know if she’s had a baby,” someone suggested. Some of us checked out her breasts in the bathroom and decided they didn’t look like they had ever fed a child. Someone else suggested Ayiecho had organised a strike, or was a thief, or maybe she beat up a teacher. The more we came to know Ayiecho over the following months, the more probable the last theory seemed.
The school was big, with about 800 students, but Ayiecho became popular within a week of her arrival because of an incident with Geda, the dining hall prefect. We feared the prefects more than the teachers, and Geda, a bully, was the most feared and hated of all. While the other prefects only gave punishments when they caught someone violating a rule, Geda first beat offenders. Only a few students dared stand up to her. Those were our heroes.
On a Wednesday morning, Geda spotted Ayiecho talking to the girl next to her. It was against the rules to speak in the dining hall during meals. She walked up to Ayiecho and said, “I don’t know how it was where you came from, but here we don’t talk in the dining hall. If I see you talk again, I’ll beat you.”
Ayiecho snorted, and the room grew quiet.
“Did I say something funny?”
Ayiecho snorted again. She did not answer the question or look up at the prefect. Geda raised her hand as if to hit her. “I’ll slap you if I see you open your mouth again.”
Ayiecho lifted her face. “Go ahead and try.”
Cheers came from behind Geda, and when she turned to the direction of the noise, a fresh round came at her over her shoulder. When she turned again to the direction of the new cheers, louder ones hit her back. This would have gone on forever if the matron, another person we hated and feared, hadn’t come to the table and defused the situation.
“Quiet,” she yelled. She told Geda that she would take it from there.
“You will see,” Geda said to Ayiecho as she walked away, scattered boos following her trail.
We talked about the incident for days, constantly describing Geda’s face, the anger and disbelief, and how we’d give anything to see that look again.
For a long time afterwards, Ayiecho’s name appeared on almost every list of offences. She protested some of them. The loudest protest came when her name appeared on two different lists outlining offences that supposedly happened at the same time in different locations. Somehow, she was on the list of library noisemakers and also on the list of classroom noisemakers. According to the two prefects who wrote the lists, the offences happened at the same time. It wasn’t a coincidence that Geda was on duty that week, ensuring that chores were done on time and everyone followed the rules. Ayiecho refused to weed the flowerbeds around the classrooms as punishment. She told the teacher on duty to suspend or expel her if those were the alternatives, and we admired her even more. The teacher warned the prefects against wasting his time again and told Ayiecho to go to class.
We loved her for doing what most of us didn’t have the courage to do and because her defiance gave us things to later talk about. And despite her behaviour, the teachers loved her for excelling in class. At the end of the second and third term, she was among the top students in her class, leading in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. The principal proudly presented her with awards—three exercise books and Biro pens—and told her to keep it up.
When we opened school the following year, Ayiecho came up to me during games time. She asked if I could write a letter for her. I was surprised that she was talking to me, let alone knew my name, even though I often wrote letters for other students to send to their actual or potential boyfriends. I told her I could. She asked me how much I charged, and I told her I never did. Sometimes, I got doughnuts or bread or money, ten or twenty shillings, as tokens of appreciation, but really, I did it for fun.
“If I were you I would charge,” she said. “You would make a lot of money. I always see you writing things, even in church.”
When I didn’t say anything, she asked me when I would be free. I told her I could do it right then, but she was on her way to do a punishment.
“I will find you when I finish,” she said.
I told her she did not need to be present. “I just need the name of the boy and what you want the letter to convey,” I said.
“Who told you I am writing to a boy?” She laughed when I stammered out an apology. “I’m joking. I’ll look for you later and explain what I want.”
I spent the rest of the evening thinking about the assignment. I was nervous about it, nervous about the prospect of hanging out with Ayiecho and worried that I wouldn’t do a good job for her, but she did not show up that night after the evening prep classes. I waited the next day and the next, but she did not come. I figured that she must have changed her mind, although at some point, I wondered if the encounter had happened at all or if I had made it up. But a few days later, on a Saturday morning, when we were on weekend thorough-cleaning duty, Ayiecho came. She carried a mop and bucket and explained that she had just come from cleaning their classroom. She was amused that I, one of the shortest people in my class, was assigned to clear out spiderwebs from the rafters of the Form Two block. She asked if she could see me later that evening before entertainment time. On Saturday nights we had no prep classes. A teacher donated her TV for the night and we’d watch a Nigerian movie followed by music, usually reggae music, and I was not a fan of either.
She came to my dorm room after supper. There was a moment of silence as she walked towards my bed, and then my dorm-mates pretended to resume the conversations they were having, discreetly glancing over at Ayiecho and me, no doubt trying to catch what she was saying to me.
She suggested we go to her classroom. I walked a few paces behind her. She led me to her desk and offered me the seat next to her.
“Do you want me to write it for you?” I asked.
She frowned. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“Some people prefer that I compose the letter and then they copy it out. Not everyone prefers my handwriting.”
She said, “Just write it.”
I looked at her and she stared back, not moving. “You’re supposed to provide the writing pad.”
She unlocked the padlock on her desk, took out an exercise book, tore out a page and handed it to me. “Just write it here.”
Girls normally preferred floral writing pads and even sprayed them with perfume before folding them into envelopes. I decided not to tell her any of that.
“His name is Mark. Use that poetry of yours to let him know that I love and miss him,” she said.
She leaned over my shoulder and laughed at what I’d written. “Cross out that part about my heart slamming against my chest whenever I think of him.”
“What do you want me to write instead?”
“I don’t know. You’re the poet,” she said. “Just don’t make it too dramatic,” she added when she saw my irritation.
I had learnt to keep a poker face when writing those letters. I never judged or offered advice or opinions, unless someone asked, and, importantly, I never repeated what I had written to other people. I like to think the girls always came back, and sometimes paid me, because they trusted me. They knew I would never tell what or who they were writing to. But what Ayiecho asked me to write next made me pause.
“Tell him,” she said, “that I need to leave school. Tell him to come to school and pretend he is my brother and say our father is dead and I am needed home for the funeral.”
I turned to her and forced out a laugh. I waited for her to laugh too and say she was only joking, but she did not. It’s true that people had asked me to write ridiculous things before, laughable things, but they were all harmless. What Ayiecho was asking me to do was criminal. The only time we were allowed out of the school gates was when we closed school, or when going to the river to fetch water, always under supervision, during the dry season when the taps dried out. Of course, some students managed to sneak out of school; it was the only offense that attracted an expulsion, no questions asked. That and getting pregnant.
“I can’t write that,” I murmured.
“It’s…” I paused. “It’s wrong.”
She sighed. “Okay.” She took the paper and pen from me. “Thank you.”
I didn’t leave right away. I expected her to press me to do it, and maybe I would have if she had. She tore the paper into small pieces, looked at me impatiently and said I could leave. I wanted to say something. I’m not sure what. I left the classroom still hoping she’d call me back.
Two days after I’d last seen Ayiecho, on Tuesday morning, the bell rang at the beginning of the first period, summoning all 800 of us to the assembly grounds. We knew something was up because we never had assembly on Tuesday mornings, and never after lessons had started. We lived for times like this when classes would be disrupted, when we’d get fodder for gossip and speculation. We girls from Form 2B were especially happy since we had double maths that morning. But when we got to assembly and saw the principal Mrs. Olum, her deputy, the matron, and a handful of other teachers, we knew there was trouble. We quietly stood by class, in a semicircle of rows, around the flagpole.
“I’m sure you’re all wondering why you’re here,” Mrs. Olum started. “The school opened only three weeks ago and we already have a problem, girls.”
The prefects hushed the gabble of murmurs that broke out. “Two test tubes are missing from the laboratory,” Mrs. Olum said.
Brenda and I stood in the front row. She turned to me and murmured something I didn’t get, but Mrs. Olum spotted her and called her out. “What is so important that you have to say it when I’m still talking?” Brenda apologised and Mrs. Olum went on. “If you stole those test tubes, come to my office with them, and nothing will happen to you. You have two minutes. If the time passes and you have not given yourself up, you’re going to make everyone else suffer. Someone or people amongst you did it. If you know that person, come forward. If you are the thief and don’t come forward, you will make things worse for yourself when we finally get you.”
Mrs. Olum was wasting time. No one ever came forward in such situations, even though missing test tubes meant a search in the dormitories, and a random search meant we’d get caught with forbidden items like juice, sugar, margarine, and for the hooligans, as the teachers liked to call smokers, cigarettes. I had sugar in my box and even though I had hidden it well in a sanitary towel wrapper, there was still a chance it would get confiscated. The teachers were always thorough during random inspections.
“Whoever stole the test tubes, can you go forward?” That was Helen. She smoked cigarettes. A lot of us knew although we pretended not to. Possession of cigarettes and alcohol attracted suspension a lot of the time, but she would have been out of her mind to store her stash in her box or even in the dorm.
“If I know who you are, I will kill you,” she said. Someone told her to shut up. “Idiot,” Helen snapped back.
Mrs. Olum walked back to us from the administration block. “Two minutes are over. Do we have the thief?”
We remained silent. As expected, no one came forward.
“Since we don’t have the whole morning to waste, you girls follow us to the dorms. We will call you one by one and you will open your box and turn it upside down. That is going to take the whole morning because you are so many, and we are so few inspectors. So if we find the thief, she will pay dearly. And since she would have wasted everyone’s time, we will suspend her for the trouble she has given all of us. Before we suspend her, she will get the beating of her life. And then,” she turned to point at the farm the agriculture students managed, “she is going to dig that farm.” She turned again and pointed to the administration block. “Then she will clean every room in that building. Then we will send her away.”
Some of us laughed quietly because Mrs. Olum never followed through with her threats. If such a threat had come from the deputy principal, who we’d never even seen crack a smile, we would have been scared.
Mrs. Otieno, the Christian Religious Education teacher, oversaw inspections in our dorm. We were relieved because she was usually lenient, although not so when it was my turn to open my box. She asked me to turn it over on my bed and sorted through the contents. Sugar poured out of the sanitary towel wrapper when she lifted it. She looked at me with a bored expression and asked me to scoop it and carry it outside. She waved her hand as if to swat away a fly when I started to plead with her. “Go outside and line up with the others.”
Outside, I joined the other students who carried their sins in their hands – sugar, margarine, juice. There were eleven of us from my dorm alone, including some prefects. The teachers herded us to the netball court and asked us to kneel as the other students were dismissed to return to class. I wasn’t surprised to see Ayiecho among us, and less so surprised when I saw that she was holding two test tubes. Mrs. Olum asked Ayiecho to follow her to the staffroom; the rest of us were assigned tasks by the other teachers. One of the male cooks came with a basin and carried away the confiscated items. I was grouped with three other girls. Our task was to slash the grass around the Form One ablution block. It wasn’t a tough punishment as the area had recently been cleared. Others were asked to slash around the teachers’ quarters, other ablution blocks, the dorm areas and the dining hall area. Before we all dispersed to go get slashers from the staffroom, the deputy principal told us we were all to go to the assembly grounds when we were done and kneel as we waited for the others. “You’ll only be dismissed when you’re all done.” She said it was a lesson in teamwork; it meant we had to help each other out because the faster we finished, the less time we would spend kneeling in the hot sun.
We started slashing. The brutal January heat was heavy on our backs. None of us spoke for a while, and we only stopped when we saw Ayiecho approaching. She carried a slasher, and Mrs. Olum walked beside her. They went to the Dorm A toilets, a few meters away from us. We watched Mrs. Olum point around the toilets and watched her leave. We watched Ayiecho fumble with the slasher. It was hilarious that Ayiecho, always slashing as punishment for one thing or another, had not learnt how to do it.
“When will that girl ever finish?” one of the girls I worked with asked. “Is she slashing or digging?”
I told the girls to finish the remaining patch. “I’ll go help her, or we’ll be at the assembly grounds the whole day.”
I joined Ayiecho without saying anything to her, or her to me. We worked in silence for a few minutes, and then she sat down on the grass and started laughing. “They thought I was going to use the test tubes as dildos.”
I did not laugh with her. “You stole the test tubes because you wanted to be suspended,” I said. “You planned to get caught.”
She didn’t say anything. She plucked a blade of grass and put it between her lips. Finally, I asked, “Are they suspending you?”
She spit out the grass. “No. Mrs. Olum, who is still convinced I wanted a dildo, said it is a normal urge, but girls like me shouldn’t be thinking of things like that. She said that I should concentrate on my studies instead.”
She laughed again and then suddenly grew quiet. The girls I was grouped with were done and asked me if I needed help. I told them I was almost done and watched them walk away. Ayiecho and I were quiet as I worked. I wanted to ask her then why she had commissioned me to write a letter she could have easily written herself, and why she wanted to sneak out of school, but instead I said, “If you want to leave school so badly, why don’t you just steal a chit and forge Mrs. Olum’s signature?”
I meant it as a joke because I wanted to hear her laugh again, because it was an absurd thing to attempt, impossible even, but I could tell from her pensive look that she was thinking about it.
A good number of us were already at the assembly grounds when we got there, complaining about the heat. Ayiecho said, “Has this sun been sent? It is too hot.”
Helen glared at her. “I wish I could slap you. You’re the reason we’re here. You will see me when we go back to the dorms.”
“I will see your grandmother?” Ayiecho said. I wanted to tell her not to engage Helen, but I didn’t. Maybe I was still intimidated by her.
Helen got up, but someone pulled her back down. “You’ll make Mrs. Olum punish us again,” someone said to her. “If you want to beat her just wait until we get back to the dorms.”
“She is the reason we are all in trouble,” Helen said.
“You’re in trouble because you had forbidden items in your box,” Ayiecho told her. That was when I told Ayiecho to let it go.
“Guok ma dhako,” Helen said. One prefect told her to speak in English. “Your mother’s English?” Helen snapped, and we laughed. The laughter did it. I could feel the tension fade away. From then on, we only spoke Dholuo as we waited for the others to complete their punishments.
Mrs. Olum came to dismiss us some thirty minutes after we were all done. “I hope you’ll find leftover tea in the dining hall. If not, then that’s a lesson,” she said. She gave us a short lecture reminding us of the importance of following school rules, a lecture we knew by heart and one that meant nothing to us.
At the hall I sat next to Ayiecho. Molly, a girl from her class, whispered to her that someone was smelling.
“Smelling like what?”
“Like rotten blood.”
“Someone must be on her period and staying out in the sun made the blood go bad,” I said.
“Hey,” Ayiecho shouted. “If you’re on your period, please go and change your pad and wash. Molly says you are smelling.”
Some people laughed while others told her to shut her mouth because they were trying to eat and didn’t want to think about blood, which elicited more laughs from us. I looked at Ayiecho; she was smiling. When I think about her now, it is that smile that comes to mind.
“Matron, matron,” someone whispered. The laughter died and we all looked into our cups.
“What’s going on here?” she asked. We remained quiet. “Am I talking to myself?” She waited. “I don’t want to hear another noise in this hall. You only have one mouth and there is only one thing you can do with it here. I hear noise again and you will stay behind to clean this hall.” We sniggered when she turned her back.
“What’s your shoe size?” Ayiecho asked me as we left the hall.
I was a size five. She was a five as well and suggested we exchange shoes for the week. We all wore Toughees, but hers had straps with buckles and mine were lace-ups. She said she wanted to know what it felt like to wear boys’ shoes.
“Turn around,” she said after I’d put on her shoes. “They look beautiful on you.” She moved closer to me and took my face in her hands. “You don’t use anything on your face. Just Vaseline?”
“You should start using lip gloss and powder. You’ll look prettier.” She turned around. “I look tougher in laced shoes. I like this look.”
“Let us not go to class. Let’s just go sit behind the dorms until the bell rings,” Helen said. She seemed to have forgotten about the threat she made to Ayiecho because she looked at her when she said that, but we were already walking away. “You are so boring. Why are we even going to class?” she asked.
My classmates made comments about the shoes later that afternoon, asking me if I’d stolen someone’s. “They are Ayiecho’s,” I said, enjoying the admiration I was ringed in.
“So now you are friends with Ayiecho?” Brenda asked. When I remained quiet, she said “Kiawa,” which reminded me of my mother. She loved to say that when she knew something wouldn’t work out.
I started hanging out with Ayiecho and her friend Lorine. I’d go to her sleeping cube in the evening and polish her shoes, but not because she asked me to; I loved shining shoes. I’d learnt to do it with military precision from my father. Sometimes I did it for the girls who shared my sleeping cube too. With Lorine around, the conversations always turned to boys. They both teased me about being single even though I wrote countless love letters.
“Are you a virgin?” Ayiecho one time asked me. She and Lorine laughed when I said I wasn’t. She said I might as well wear a sign written “virgin” around my neck because she could tell I was. Lorine said maybe I would get a boyfriend if I started going for more outings, taking part in school activities that would get me out of school.
Ayiecho smiled at me. “You don’t need a boyfriend just because everyone here has one.” When Lorine butted in and said I did need one, Ayiecho went on. “You know what I like about you? You’re different. You follow rules and yet you still manage to be different.”
One midmorning, I was scribbling a love letter in my exercise book as the history teacher droned on. I addressed the letter to a pretend lover. I wanted to know what it would feel like to write a love letter of my own. I wrote “Dear Michael,” the first random name that came to me, and scratched that. Then I wrote “Dear Ayiecho” and furiously scratched that, my heart thudding and my face growing warm. I stared out the window. The Form Two block was next to the path leading to the administration block and we could see anyone who came through the gates, so when a young man walked past, we all stopped to stare. Even the teacher halted for a few seconds before trying to direct our attention back to her.
“My boyfriend is here to see me,” someone said and a handful of us laughed. We heard noise from the next class and figured they were also staring out and making lewd comments.
“Girls, stop being so mannerless,” the teacher said, but we only turned back to her after the man had disappeared into the administration building. We soon forgot about the stranger. But after a while, Mrs. Olum’s secretary came to my class, knocked on the door, whispered in the teacher’s ear. The teacher nodded and turned to me. “Millicent, the principal wants to see you.”
I felt my classmates’ eyes follow me out of the room. Ayiecho, the stranger, Lorine and their dorm prefect were all in Mrs. Olum’s office.
Mrs. Olum introduced the man to me. “This is Mark,” she said. “He is Ayiecho’s brother.” He was tall and skinny and looked nothing like Ayiecho, save for the light complexion. The whole thing was hilarious. I wanted to laugh in Mrs. Olum’s face. I wanted to shake her and ask her if she was that stupid. Mrs. Olum’s sombre face stared back at me. I shook Mark’s hand.
“Ayiecho’s father passed away yesterday,” Mrs. Olum continued. “And I understand you have her shoes and she has yours. Give them back and I want you all to escort her to the dorm. She needs your support.” Her voice had a soft tone I wasn’t accustomed to.
Ayiecho kept her eyes down the whole time. Mrs. Olum turned to her. “The dorm prefect will open the door for you and will wait as long as you need.” Ayiecho nodded, her gaze still fixed on the floor. Mrs. Olum’s secretary walked in with a stamped chit, which Mrs. Olum signed and handed to Ayiecho. “You have two weeks off. I know this is hard for you, but I want you to know the school is here for you.”
Lorine held Ayiecho’s hand as we walked to the dorm. I tried to catch her eye, but she stared straight ahead. The prefect unlocked the door and told us to take as long as we needed. We waited for Ayiecho to walk in first, and when she walked past me, our eyes met briefly. Hers were empty. Mine probably looked bewildered to her.
As we walked down the corridor to Ayiecho’s sleeping cube, a teary Lorine recounted her experience of losing her grandmother and told Ayiecho she knew exactly what she was feeling. I told her to shut up. She looked at me as if seeing me there for the first time, then opened her mouth to say something else, but I cut her off.
“You don’t know how she is feeling. She has lost her father.” I looked at Ayiecho when I said that; she stared back at me with that empty look. “It’s not the same. Isn’t that right, Ayiecho?” I said.
“What is wrong with you? Can’t you see that she is grieving?” Lorine snapped.
Ayiecho didn’t say anything. She removed a backpack from the bottom of her box and stuffed lotion, a packet of sanitary towels, and a few bras and panties into it. I only remembered my shoes when she removed them and pushed them towards me.
We followed Ayiecho out and when we got back to the administration block, Mrs. Olum and Mark were standing outside, waiting for us. Mrs. Olum held Ayiecho by the shoulders. “Jane”—it was the first time I heard anyone call Ayiecho by her first name—“this is not the end of the world. Your father’s time has come, but that doesn’t mean you are alone. You have friends and teachers who care about you.” She hugged Ayiecho and asked me and Lorine to escort her to the gate. I did not look in the direction of the classes, but I was sure the students were staring at us.
At the gate, Lorine hugged Ayiecho for a long time, sniffling, and told her to come back soon, as if she were merely going for a holiday. I hugged Ayiecho. It was the first time I was holding her so intimately and the hug felt awkward. I looked into her eyes and said I was sorry for her loss. She smiled and thanked me, took Mark’s hand and walked out the gate.
“Why are you still here?” the watchman asked as we watched their backs disappear round a bend.
When I got back to class, my classmates looked at me expectantly. I took my seat and gazed at the blackboard. Brenda poked me with a ruler and mouthed a question. I pretended not to pay attention. She wrote a note on her exercise book and pushed it towards me. “What happened?” it read. I pushed the book back without writing anything down. When the bell rang and the teacher left the class, everyone was on me, asking what had happened. I refused to talk to them. I heard one person say that I was a selfish idiot. “The story is not soap. It won’t run out if you tell it to us. Just tell us what happened,” Brenda said.
Still, I refused to talk. Someone pushed my head and called me a donkey. By the time we broke for lunch, word had already spread. The students talked about the death of Ayiecho’s father and how sad she looked. Even the girls who hadn’t seen her leave insisted that she looked so unlike her, subdued.
I kept to myself the next few days. The girls commented upon it. Every time someone asked me why I was so quiet, I shrugged and said I had always been quiet.
“You’d think it is her father who has died,” I heard one of the girls who shared my sleeping cube say. She intended for me to hear her.
Ayiecho came back to school after two weeks and some days, a fact that the teachers overlooked. She looked hollow, as if a part of her was missing. Her name stopped appearing on lists of offences even though she was violating almost all the rules. She hardly went to prep classes, and showed up late when she did. During games and assembly time, she went to the sickbay. I didn’t go to her cube when she got back and Brenda repeatedly asked me why I wasn’t showing up for my friend, a question I always ignored.
“She looks so sad,” she said whenever she told me that I should go talk to Ayiecho. Finally, the third Saturday after her return, during entertainment, I went to the sickbay to look for her. She was on the top bunk of the bed. I had rehearsed what I would say to her but when I saw her face, I fumbled with a greeting instead. She didn’t respond. She didn’t even move.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
After a short pause she turned towards me. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you.” I waited. “How was the funeral?” I said and chuckled.
She hopped down from the bed with so much force I thought she was going to hit me. “Threats don’t work so well on me.” She started putting on her shoes. “I don’t know what you’ve been telling yourself, but we are not friends.”
The words, although spoken softly, hit me like a cold blast of air. I wanted to say something clever, or to tell her I didn’t care, but my throat tightened. I went to the dining hall. I sat on the steps at the exit and listened to the intermittent laughter from the students watching a movie. I blinked a few times to hold my tears back, but one drop escaped and gave way to others.
We spent most of our free time at the wooded part of the school. We called the place savanna. That’s where I was with Brenda one visiting day in mid-September. I wasn’t expecting my mother; she had written a few weeks before saying she would not make it and had sent money instead. Brenda’s mother and sisters had just left, and we were enjoying a soda she had paid for. It was going on 5 p.m.; most of the parents had come and gone. From where we were sitting, I noticed Ayiecho at the gate, talking to a woman who wore the kind of rubber shoes we made fun of because they were a poor person’s shoes.
It had been months since Ayiecho and I last spoke. I’d convinced myself all this time that I wasn’t mad at her and that I didn’t miss her. Without thinking, I got up and hurried towards them. Brenda followed me, asking what I was doing but I ignored her. Ayiecho and the woman were arguing. I held out my hand to the woman. She closely resembled Ayiecho.
“Are you Ayiecho’s mother?” I asked. The woman nodded. Ayiecho glared at me and demanded to know what I was doing there. Brenda stood a short distance from us. Ayiecho led her mother to the gate and told her to start heading back home, as if talking to an unruly child.
“I am sorry about the death of your husband,” I shouted after them. The watchman, opening the gate, stared at me. Ayiecho told me to shut up.
“What is this girl talking about?” I heard Ayiecho’s mother ask her.
My voice grew even louder. “She left with a man.”
“Are you losing your mind?” Brenda asked, touching a hand to my shoulder. I pushed it away. I shouted at Ayiecho’s mother. “Ayiecho left school last term saying her father died and she was going for the funeral.”
The students who were at the savanna, smelling drama, moved closer.
“She left with a man who she said was her brother,” I continued. The fury in Ayiecho’s eyes didn’t stop me, but her fist in my face did.
The blow shocked me to my knees. Brenda helped me up. I walked to the sickbay in a fog of pain, Brenda’s arm supporting me. After Brenda explained to her what had happened, the matron looked at my face and said nothing was wrong with it, and that it was such a shame the punch wasn’t a proper one.
“It is just swollen. It will resolve itself,” she said, and dismissed me.
Later in the dorm, I gathered from the snippets of conversation that Ayiecho and her mother were led to the staffroom and her mother later left crying. Ayiecho was expelled, told to come back only to sit the KCSE national exams. Some said that Mrs. Olum was also seen crying, baffled that a student could go to the length of faking a parent’s death to sneak out of school. The crying part must have been an exaggeration. The students were determined to find out why she had sneaked out of school, but none of them asked me for leads.
I went to the sickbay the following morning and told the matron I needed to lie down. She told me to stop fooling around and go to class. She was reserving the beds for the students who were really sick.
“You’re not sick. What you have is a big mouth and you already got medicine for that,” she said, indicating my swollen lip.
At first I thought I was imagining it, but I sensed people regarding me with a wariness that bordered on hate. Even the girls from my sleeping cube, who always had things to say about my every action, stopped talking to me. I could feel it even from the teachers. I felt it in the dining hall when the cooks reduced my food portions. I felt it when I took a seat and whoever was next to me went quiet, like I wasn’t to be trusted. I felt it grow worse when Ayiecho did not show up for the KCSE exams. I felt it in Mrs. Olum’s speech when we closed school. She said she was positive that although we were one student down, it wouldn’t affect the school’s overall grade.
I wasn’t at that school the following year when the national exam results came out. I convinced my mother that I needed to go to another school. I used her arguments against her. She always complained that the school was too far and the fees too high, and that it was only known for excelling in sports and the arts but not in “actual” subjects like the sciences. For good measure, I added that most of the students smoked and they all had boyfriends. That clinched it. She found me a girls’ boarding school in Machakos.
I learnt about the abortion rumours two years later, when I was in Form Four. Brenda wrote to me that the man who showed up as Ayiecho’s brother was actually her boyfriend. Of course, I already knew this. Mark had told a friend about the abortion, and the friend told another friend, who happened to be a student at the school.
I never saw Ayiecho or heard any talk about her after that.
It has been three days and Brenda hasn’t called. I haven’t tried reaching her either. I think I am afraid to confirm what I already know. I will not attend Ayiecho’s burial tomorrow. As she said, we were not friends. I haven’t cried for Ayiecho. I did that years ago at the steps of the dining hall with the cold wind on my face.
Mustafa asked me the other day why I have stopped listening to funeral announcements. “What is the point?” I asked.
“To catch news you might not get otherwise,” he said, mimicking my voice.
“If news is meant to reach me, it will,” I told him. “Why go looking for trouble?”
“Why go looking for trouble when it will always find you anyway?” Ayiecho once told me when I was polishing her shoes. I teased her about the punishments she was always doing, and she laughed when I said trouble sure loved her.
Caroline Okello is a freelance journalist living in Nairobi. Her short story, Stampede, appeared in Rafiki Zetu, an anthology of Kenyan LGBTIQ stories, as told by allies.