When he woke up that morning, Lempei knew it was going to be an interesting day; but how exactly, he still did not know.
First, he had woken up earlier than usual and when he got to the school bus park, he was the first student there — something that had never happened before. In fact, when the other students got to the bus park they started making fun of him.
“Wewe siku ya trip ndio unaweza rauka mapema but kuraukia daro is where you draw the line?” they jested.
Lempei laughed it off. But deep down the truth stared at him mockingly. He had been at the university for three months now. His first semester was coming to an end in the next couple of weeks, but he could count with the fingers of his left hand the number of times he had made it to class early.
“See this as me trying to turn a new leaf.” He answered the ones that still persisted with the early comer joke.
“The early bird catches the worm.” He quipped, laughing as he took the best seat on the bus: right at the front where one doesn’t have to share a window with the person sitting in front or behind them.
When the bus left the bus park, Lempei still had the feeling that something interesting was going to happen that day. He could feel it in the tingling fever in his bones. He could feel it in the pitch of the voices of his friends as they made fun through the journey.
Outside his window, the world seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Backwards. First, the trees lining the driveway out of the university which stood erect like children waving at a passing soldier’s parade. Then, the skyscrapers in town that moved backwards to give way to the other short buildings. When the bus got to Ngara, it was the people’s turn to walk backwards as if going back in time. One by one, in a single file line like a group of ants, the stream of pedestrians made their way to the city center flanked on both sides like a parent walking their toddler to school, past a bunch of hawkers.
“Tropikos! Tropikos! Tropikos!” called one.
“Face mask na kumi. Face mask na kumi,” called the other.
Lempei had hoped that staring out the window would calm him but now it seemed like it only increased his anxiety.
“Close my eyes for a bit,” he told himself. “Maybe this will do it.”
As he shut his eyes to the outside world, he wished to go back to the place that always offered him comfort and rest. So his thoughts carried him to his little home village, Loosuk, tucked between two hills, like some lost thing that didn’t want to be found. Around it was a wide expanse of land with an endless blue sky and unforgiving sun that felt no mercy for both herd and herder. His memory drifted to his little self, trying to scale the two hills, running around in the wide field, his little brother hot on his heels. The afternoon dives when he and his friends would compete on who could swim fasters across the river. Memories of the evenings by the fireside. His hands busy whisking and slapping mosquitoes from his face as his grandfather’s voices pierced the sky as he told and retold stories from long ago, back when mountains spoke, trees sang, the tortoise had not yet fell from the sky to break its shell and hare was still the smartest animal in the animal kingdom.
He had been to the city three months now and was already missing the village. He was a calm and collected man, always doing things at his own pace while the city was fast paced, with its own kind of busy—everyone rushing somewhere, always one thing or the other to do. Maybe he wasn’t suited for the city, his new friends would tell him and he would answer back that maybe the city wasn’t suited for him.
The bus finally came to a sudden stop; this shook him up from his reverie. They had arrived. The big sign outside the gate announced KENYA NATIONAL MUSEUM for all and sundry as if to distinguish it from the UGANDAN or TANZANIAN NATIONAL MUSEUMS. Slowly, the students disembarked from the bus for the security check. Lempei handed over his identification card over which the security guard asked the usual, “Where are you from?” after he couldn’t pronounce his full name. When he answered Samburu, the guard seemed more surprised. Lempei had become used to this. The surprises written all over their faces. The bewilderment spelt out in the shape of their eyebrows. The questions stuck in their throats as they couldn’t be asked out loud. Are you sure you are Samburu? Not Maasai? Why aren’t you dressed in a shuka, walking around with a jerry can full of medicine to wash the blood stream like I’ve seen other Maasais do in our estate?
Lempei took his ID and made his way to the small parking lot where the rest of the students had gathered for a small briefing. When he got to the parking lot he found the students packed together in a circle, heads bent at an angle as if they were watching a fight at the center of the circle or revising a mwaks like they usually did before an exam. The voice, shrill like the screeching of car tires, is what gave it away.
Must be Professor Gikonyo, probably giving out instructions on the order of activities for the day.
They were anthropology students and today they had made the visit to the National Museum to have a look at some of the artifacts that had been returned to the museum. These artifacts were part of thousands more that had been held in British museums ever since they were looted from the country during the colonial conquest. The students were to discuss the cultural significance of this return, and Professor Gikonyo, being the head of department at the university, would lead this discussion. He ordered the students to slowly make their way into the hall and join the other guests at the event. There would be a small round of speeches before the exhibition which would then be followed by the refreshment session which every student anticipated.
The hall had a church-like arrangement perhaps to give an impression that it was a holy place. A small stage was set at the front of it, an altar for the holy man of God. A series of seats facing the altar, for the congregation. Then the artifacts, secured in glass boxes lined the walls of the hall, surrounding the congregants the way ushers at a church would during an altar call. The students took their seats then the speeches began.
First to speak was an attaché from the British Council, standing in for the ambassador who, perhaps being too ashamed of his country’s colonial legacy, couldn’t make it to the event. The attaché began his speech with the usual white expatriate greeting, Jambo! To which the audience in true church spirit responded with a chorus of Jambo. The attaché then rumbled through the rest of his speech, dropping phrases like; this is an historical event…it will bring healing… foster unity…as he gulped down huge chunks of saliva in between. Not once in his speech did he mention the words violence, looting, colonial legacy or even reparations. He quickly finished his speech and made for his seat as he wiped the small colony of sweat that had started forming on his forehead.
Professor Gikonyo then took the stage. From the podium his full body came into view. He was a short man shaped like a big watermelon, a small pointed head with tufts of gray hair like the beard of a maize cob, a round base like a globe that gave way to two short limbs that ended in a pair of large feet.
“This isn’t just about returning pieces of art, but about restoring the very essence of these cultures,” he said— as if cultures were static things that don’t change with time. From the speakers his voice sounded different, like something was squeezing the words out of his throat or perhaps it was all the enthusiasm trapped in his voice.
Professor Gikonyo wrapped up his speech and opened up the exhibition to the gathered guests, asking them to feel free to move around and have a look at the items, interact with one another and get to learn something about these artifacts that were once looted but now returned.
Lempei moved from one object to the other. First was the series of earrings and spear heads that were stolen from the Samburu. He stared at the earrings and pictured his own grandmother, those many many years ago on the night before her wedding day, fitting the same pair of earrings on. How beautiful she looked. Then he turned his head to the spearheads and imagined a group of moran carrying to a wedding dance, the same spears they carried to battle weeks before, dry bits of blood still staining the sharp edges. The complexities of life. His eyes then darted to a set of cooking utensils that were marked to be from the Agikuyu. He imagined the last person that ate from one of the bowls in the display. Pictured three tender fingers slowly dipping and rising, dipping and rising, the way a swimmer’s head does, retrieving with each dive a small chunk of meat which they carried to an eagerly waiting mouth. Now the bowl on display, cracked on one side, looked abandoned, like the seed that fell on rocky ground where there was little soil. He couldn’t take it anymore, so he looked away.
Something still seemed amiss. He could still feel the tingling feeling from earlier. This feeling had now carved a home in his belly and filled it with butterflies. He looked round the room and everyone had now put on an animated face different from the gloomy disinterested ones they had earlier worn during the round of speeches. They now moved from one artifact to the other like guests moving through the buffet line at a wedding reception.
Then he saw it. At the furthest corner of the room. The object was in a glass box with tungsten lights that bounced off its body, producing thin golden-orange rays. Unlike the rest, this object had no name. Attached to it was a piece of paper that read:
Object number – 13
Object designation – figurine.
Object description – figurine made of soapstone (steatite). A representation of man. Has a rigid back, with short zigzag lines radiating from a central ridge.
Material – soapstone
Dimensions – 53.2cm
Source institution – Horniman Museum and Gardens. London, United Kingdom.
Place of Manufacture – Kenya, Africa.
Date of Manufacture –
Cultural Grouping –
The object still looked smooth like the rough hands of time had not caressed it yet. It had hollow eyes like a dry bamboo pole. The eyes seemed to be staring into the distant future like it was looking for something lost in time. Lempei stared into these eyes and he was enchanted. The zigzag lines running through to the back of the figurine hypnotized him. They seemed to be moving. Telling him something he could not understand. He stood rooted to the same spot and the world around him came to a sudden stop. No one moved. No sound was made. Silence hung thick in the air like the moment before a firing squad begins its execution. Then his left foot moved. Then the right foot followed in a slow calculated step the way a shy bride walking down the aisle would. A hand was raised and the long shriek scream of shattering glass was heard. Then quick shuffling of feet as heads turned to see Lempei racing for the door, figurine between his left armpit the way a Jehovah’s witness believer clutches onto his Bible while he is out saving souls.
“Who keeps a God behind a glass box!” He muttered to himself as he disappeared into the hot Nairobi midday sun.