The day I got a new suitcase is also the day I left home for good. I had just turned 10 a month before; I was a troubled child, split between two worlds. My grandmother raised me, when they came for me, I was already eight, I didn’t want to go. So when I came to Nairobi, I never really settled, I hated my new home. I would go to school but would dread going back home, so I started running away from home. I would sleep on the streets, buildings under construction anywhere but home. The weekends were the toughest because I had to stay at home for two days and there was so much violence.
This went on for the better part of two years, no one asked the question why I hated home so much but not school, even when I ran away from home over the weekend, I would still show up in school on a Monday, one time my late uncle had gone to school to report that I was missing and the teachers were puzzled because I was in class, sitting in the front row as if nothing had happened. They got me out of class and took me to the headmaster’s office. By then I had gotten accustomed to the beatings that would follow, I was stubborn and wouldn’t cry while being beaten, the only thing that would stop the beatings is if I started nosebleeding and even then I wouldn’t cry. I just wanted to go back and be with my grandmother, that’s all I wanted.
In April 1987, my grandmother and Aunt come to visit in Nairobi, I had run away from home as usual and they came looking for me, I had taken off my shoes and schoolbag and hidden them at a thicket near home. So much construction was going on in Mathare then and I had slept in a building under construction, I was scared at night especially by the stray cats that would fight or mate and make too much noise, but I found that better than going back home. I was sitting near a dumpster when I saw my grandmother, I was so excited and didn’t know whether to run away or to run towards her, I hadn’t noticed that my auntie had gone behind me and she caught me by surprise. They took me home, cleaned me up and fed me. They asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted to go home with my grandmother, she took me with her and I was so happy.
My joy was shortlived, I stayed with my grandmother for the April school holidays, this was my best time, I was on top of the world but come May, the schools opened and I was taken back to Nairobi. I couldn’t take it and would run away from home for longer periods. I learned how to survive the streets of Nairobi because I would always show up in school, I would be caught and taken back home, I’d stay a few days then ran again. I don’t know why the adults in my life couldn’t notice a pattern, why wouldn’t they allow me to go back to my grandmother? To go back home?
So around June 1987, I was bought a new suitcase, a new Kaunda suit and new shoes, I was told that they had decided to take me to boarding school. To date, I still remember my excitement, that I would be away from that place, that I would go away for three months to boarding school, I was elated. My journey to Nyeri begun, Nyeri became the place of my oppression, it became the place where I lost my freedom and my rights, it is at Nyeri that the journey to my activism began, it is in Nyeri that at 10, I realized the law doesn’t work, that justice is miscarried, that money can get you anything. It is at Nyeri that I lost trust in humanity. I have gone to therapy many times but the pain and trauma from this period really never goes away, this was where my depression began.
I spent the night at my late Aunt’s place. I think she suspected something was amiss because she asked me “Muhaari, where are they taking you”? and I told her that I was going to Boarding school, little did I know what was waiting for me. That morning we went to the Nyeri provincial headquarters and on the 10th floor I was introduced to a hawkeyed short Man who I was told was the headmaster of the new school. I later learned that He was the provincial children’s probation officer, a nasty, corrupt idiot of a Man. The Nyeri Lawcourts were directly opposite the provincial headquarters and so when we crossed the road to children court number 4. I didn’t suspect anything.
I later learned that I had been arrested, without my knowledge and I was presented to a magistrate and charged. I was just learning English so a lot of what was said I missed. But I heard words like vagrancy and committed to a juvenile remand home being said. The court session took less than 15 minutes, id never been in court before, the police presence shook me and I started suspecting that something was not right. After the charges were read, the commitment process began. I later learnt that the magistrate required witnesses and because I was accused of being a flight risk, He jailed me at a juvenile remand home.
At 10! I got jailed at 10!
What happened next replays in my mind, 32 years later, I still see this day clearly, I wake up sweaty at night, scared shitless. I was taken to the police canteen, they bought me bread and handed me over to a policeman. He took me to the court cells, they were in the court basement of the Nyeri lawcourts. Me and my new suitcase, new shoes, new Kaunda suit and my bread, that’s how I entered the Kenya justice system, at 10! unprepared, unaware, alone.
The policeman asked me to take off my shoes, took the suitcase and threw me inside a dark cell. Now if you have been to a Kenyan court cell, the first thing you notice is the darkness, the second thing is the smell, court cells are temporary holding for people waiting to go to court, or those who are awaiting transportation to either prison, remand or police cells. I don’t know why the policeman saw the need to put a 10-year-old in a male holding cell with all sorts of criminals, it is not the standard but the stars were not working for me this time. I was lifted high in the air the moment I was thrown in. I was in the air, scared and confused, up to this moment, I was still foolishly thinking that I was going to boarding school. I think I let out a loud scream. I was saved by the bread, the men started fighting over the bread and they lost interest in me for a moment.
The commotion and I think the scream attracted the policeman’s attention, they opened the door and quickly realized their blunder, they got me out, my new Kaunda suit now all crumpled. One policewoman was so concerned that a child was put in a male cell. To this day, I still think I escaped Rape or worse, death. I was put in the female cells. The women were kinder, more gentle. I stayed here for some hours and in the evening, I was taken to the Nyeri Provincial police station, I spent two days in the police cells, they kept me with the women. On the third day, I was transferred to the Ruring’u juvenile remand home. I would spend 6 years in the prison system. 6 years and all I wanted was to go and be with my grandmother.
I might write or not write about those six years, if I get strength, I will write about the court case, the surprising witnesses, and my eventual commitment to an approved school, I might get to write about Ruring’u juvenile remand home. Gitathuru Approved school, Kericho approved school and Othaya Approved school. These were difficult years, I survived by sheer luck, my first attempt to commit suicide was at 11 years. I carry these years with me. I hate therapists who tell me that all I need to do is to let go of my past. Fuck you! I carry my past with me, I relieve it every day, it impacts who I became, I didn’t have choices and I will forgive when I am ready.
That’s how I got a new suitcase!