Gaichanjiru: Don’t Cry This Time

I have been writing about searching for a secondary boarding school for someone who is like my little brother in Kenya. If you’ve missed them, you  might want to catch up on the previous posts first:

The School Search Begins
The Time I Cried in the Principal’s Office
Gaichanjiru: Could This Be It?

Onesmus, John, and I on another day wearing our Sunday best

We reach the tarmac road, climb off the bike, and cross the street to catch a matatu to Kenol. With ease, and some great 90s music, we reach there at 7am. I encourage John to eat something so we stop at a hotel to take chai, and John has some nduma (arrowroot). We board our next matatu, get off at a motorbike stand down the road and take 3 motorbikes to the high school (Motorbikes here charge per person, so by taking 3, we’re simply spreading the work across a few of them). After a beautiful, and much smoother solo ride, we arrive at the school just before 8am. We are covered in dust, and I hand John some tissue to wipe down his shoes. Even the edges of his white shirt collar are a nice shade of orange from the dust of the red clay roads, but it can’t be helped. 

There are seven other students and their parents waiting in the crammed lobby (five more arrive an hour and a half later). They start the exams before 8:30, and I’m surprised at the timeliness. Then, I found out that the other parents were told to report at 8, so we’re just lucky we got there early. I sent John with enough pens and pencils for the exam, but when I see that some of the other kids have brought their own scratch paper, I hurriedly toss John my beat up journal so that he has some paper just in case.

A group of parents quickly make friends, women dressed nicely and some with cars, and they go to sun out on the lawn. Onesmus and I go back to the message board to look at grades again, and also to read yesterday’s newspaper that is posted. A father of one of the boys looking for a vacancy begins to talk to us. We end up having a very interesting discussion about education, the role of the father in Kenya as compared to the U.S., society, economics, etc. We venture into the construction zone and look through the new administration building being constructed and then, an hour and a half into the exams, we decide to go to a local cafe for chai. It was just a 10 minute walk, but when we arrive in the village center, the group of mothers had already gotten there- they went by car. It’s a strange dynamic; the father we befriended doesn’t have a car (and no one really does from our village either) but works his tail off and has sent all of his children to boarding school. I clearly don’t have a car in Kenya, and our slightly dusty appearance has already set the dividing mark. It’s interesting to watch societal breakdowns in a foreign country. Slightly off track, so anyhow… we head back to the school and wait another hour out on the grassy lawn. There’s really no place to sit, and it’s a nice day out. Finally the students exit the classroom. Onesmus and I nervously wait for John, because after 4 hours of testing, we want to know how it went! But he doesn’t come out. We wait. And we wait. Another 30 minutes later, John emerges. He looks pensive. I try to read his facial expressions, like an anxious-ridden mother. All of the other parents and prospective students are sitting around us, so I try to contain myself just a bit so we can have a quiet and civilized conversation once he comes over.

He sits down, and I give him the “Well, how was it?” look.  The first words out of John’s mouth were, “It was hard. I didn’t recognize a single question on the Chemistry exam. None of it. I had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never seen any of it before.” I shudder, but try to keep his and my spirits up. “Well, that’s okay, you still have an interview. And you thought the Math and English went okay?” The truth is, when you miss two of three terms in the previous school year, and then the one term you actually did learn, it was in a school that has a terrible record, it shouldn’t be surprising. But to score well on Chemistry exams in the village school, just to find out you don’t even recognize a single question on this exam, just goes to show the pitfalls of education in Kenya. For the next few hours, we just had to sit and wait.  The staff started the interview process. We watched each child go in for maybe a 10 minute interview. Finally it was John’s turn. I moved into the shade, as the sun was starting to burn, but we still were sitting on the ground. He comes out from his interview, and I could immediately sense that all was not well. His head dropped, and barely above a whisper, he told Onesmus and I, “It’s a no.” I asked him what happened but tried to keep my voice even and calm. He said, “They said I didn’t perform well enough on my exams to enter Form 2. But they said they might be able to offer me a spot in Form 1.” We had already discussed this a few days ago- whether or not to send John on to Form 2 at his new school or to place him back in Form 1. He missed so much of Form 1 and I suspected he might struggle to catch up, but other principals and friends had encouraged me to push him forward. I replied, “Well what did you tell them?” “I said I needed to check with you first,” he said. Onesmus and I both told him we thought it would be great for him to go to Form 1 and get a solid foundation, not having to struggle through the next few years. His face lit up, his attitude changed once he realized we weren’t disappointed, and he was happy with the idea. He knew how much he missed out learning in Form 1, and I knew it too. But these tests were the confirmation we needed. Form 1 it is.But the interviewees were impressed by his drive to learn and also with his English (which they attributed to his muzungu interactions, as they had seen me from the window).

We had to wait with all of the other parents and students to meet with the principal after the interviews were completed to get the final decisions. By this point, we had been sitting on the ground for almost five hours. Onesmus and I at least got to take chai around 11am, but John had not taken food or drink since 7am. It was now 4pm. We were all famished. And the 25 or so others that were hanging around with us were in the same boat and none of us expected it to take this long. I shared the last few drops of water I had with the boys. We listened to one of the fathers, crack joke after joke about the situation, eventually deciding that we were going to sleep here for the night since the staff was taking so long. I had finished my book about a school for HIV/AIDS students in Uganda and passed it to one of the fathers to read. Aside from hunger and boredom, my butt was sore from sitting on the lawn for five hours. I was antsy and expressed multiple times that I couldn’t take the waiting much longer! Finally, the staff called us to the front of the office where we all had to stand around and wait to be called in one-by-one. When it was finally our turn, we went in. John stood, while I took the seat in front of the principal next to a teacher. I was informed of John’s exam performance and told the same thing, that he wasn’t ready for Form 2. I asked about the Form 1 spot and was told that we would have to wait another week to find out if they would have an opening for Form 1, as the government had yet to announce this year’s KCPE results. We were all exhausted by this time and still didn’t have a conclusive answer. I thanked him for his time and told him I would be calling him in a week. He’s a nice guy, and said, “Please do.”

No matter what, I felt like I had to put on a smile. I didn’t want John to get discouraged. I told him that at the end of this brutally long and exhausting day, we learned that he was not ready for Form 2, and it was a blessing in disguise to end up there. But I also knew that I couldn’t wait another week and risk finding out that there wasn’t a vacancy for him. I would be leaving the country in a few weeks and I needed to leave knowing that John was settled in a boarding school.

Dusk in Kenya

We left the high school around 5:30 and the employee in charge of water at the school was leaving as well. He decided to show us a shortcut to the main road nearby so that we didn’t have to walk as far. It turns out he took us down into a valley and up another, and we were trekking. I wouldn’t have minded except that I wasn’t exactly wearing hiking shoes, it was hot, and we were out of water.

The water guy’s name was John Mwangi, and he was quite amiable. He told John that if he got a spot at Gaichanjiru, to “ask for the water guy John Mwangi when you get there, and then we can be friends.” I was touched. We finally reach the main road where we hoped to pick up transport, and John Mwangi left us to go home. All of the matatus were passing with the door open and 3 or 4 butts hanging out. They were packed. One after another, after another. It was turning to dusk, it started to drizzle, we were starving, and I started telling them that I think we might have to spend the night in the ditch behind us. Onesmus assured me we would eventually get a matatu, while John started to agree with me- we were stuck here. Onesmus went down the road to find us some bread so we could at least eat a little something, but exhaustion had set in, in all of us. We watched as more matatus passed that were packed, and then our friend John Mwangi reappeared, dressed up to go into town. It turns out that it was market day, which is why all of the matatus were passing full. His shortcut was actually a bad idea, and we should’ve walked the long way in order to pass through town. We started walking. If we had any hope of catching a matatu, we needed to go to town.

Around 7pm, we got three spots on a matatu from town. Hallelujah! John and I talked more about his schooling options, and since we finalized that he would be starting back in Form 1, which doesn’t report for a few more weeks, John asked if he still had to continue going to his current school. Of course I told him, “Yes.” We didn’t have a school finalized so until then, he had to keep going to his school in the village.  We took this matatu to a town 40 minutes away called Kabati. It was dark by the time we reached it. We quickly switched to another matatu to a town five minutes down the highway called Kenol. From here, we knew we could catch a matatu home. It was already 8pm, but we stopped to eat something so that no one would go to bed hungry. After dinner, we had to wait 20 minutes for another matatu to come that would at least drop us off on the main road to head to our village. At 9pm, we reached that intersection, and caught sight of our favorite motorbike taxi Ndung’u. I was so happy to see him, and yet so surprised. He usually starts working at 6am, so why is still working at 9pm? Gotta put food on the table. He dropped us off at a spot halfway between the orphanage and the boys’ home. The gate was locked, so I climbed through the barbed wire fence and practically collapsed from exhaustion.

A few days earlier when I had asked John about the boarding schools he was accepted into the year prior (and not sent to), he said he couldn’t recall the names. I asked him for the acceptance letters, and he said he no longer had them. After returning from Nairobi, from the school that really wasn’t and after the director of the orphanage refused to take him to another school, he had all but given up hope. In sadness, he burned his acceptance letters, because he thought he might never go back to school. It broke my heart to hear this and to imagine that low point for him and what it must have felt like to practically give up. To lose hope is one of the worst things I can imagine in life. I couldn’t let him down. It was time to come up with another plan, but that would just have to wait until tomorrow.


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