You and I and Yesterday

essays Life

I am in my living room, arranging and rearranging the most memorable playthings of my childhood; books. But today, it isn’t a game, it is adulting. I moved house a month ago, and though my kitchen and bedrooms are orderly and my clothes folded away, the bookshelf remains stubbornly unruly. It is I who lingers, perhaps.

The neighborhood kids holler in the courtyard, through my window, I see little feet pedal colorful bikes furiously. In the great outdoors, they find the joy, sorrow and unexpected delights I used to find between the pages of books when I was their age. Is it possible that I am a little jealous of that carefree laughter and how it bursts from within tiny chests and bubbles to the surface? Could it be that the suddenness of childish laughter pierces my heart as much as it does the silent neighborhood? Will their parents ever take them to experience libraries; those wonderful buildings with comfortable corners and magic wardrobes that end up in Narnia?

I stare at the lattice patterns the afternoon sunlight makes on the floor tiles for longer than I ought. Even when I bend to continue with my task, my fingers linger and I want to stop and soak in the tearing sound as white masking tape separates from brown cartons. But wait! Why is the yellow of Pearl. S. Buck’s The Good Earth the same as that of Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman andMichela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat?  Are they the same color as the cover of Serpell’s The Old Drift? No way! Can you even believe the irony of Edwina Gateley’s I hear a Seed Growing sitting right next to Alice Walker’s Anything we love can be Saved when Edwina’s story is about how she tried to save someone she loved but failed? Faulks and Ondaatje and Baldwin must surely get a place next to Morrison, Cisneros, Danticat and Ndangarembga, but wait, why are most of the books on my shelf written by female writers. What happened to all my favorite male writers? Did someone borrow Ian McEwan’s Atonement? Where are my C.S. Lewis devotionals?

The colorfulness of this bookshelf reminds me of the libraries of my childhood. The public library in my hometown was colorful and cozy. It still is. Its books still carry that wonderful smell of old paper and ink. The one at Mukumu Girls–the primary school I attended– had books with butterscotch yellow pages and magic worlds. At St. Cecilia, I don’t remember what the library smelled like, I don’t even remember how it looked! I only recall reading tens of exciting Pacesetters as a thirteen-year-old form one student.

As an adult, I still find myself hunting down libraries every time I have a couple of hours to spend in a new town.  Five years ago, while on holiday in Mombasa, I abandoned plans to walk the narrow streets of Ndia Kuu in Old Town and instead, spent the day sifting through thick volumes at the Swahili Cultural Centre. I still can’t really say what I was looking for that day. In Dar-es Salaam, I was turned away from Maktaba Kuu because I wore shorts. Still, I found myself walking back the next day dressed like a monk; anything for books.

There are many things that one can only learn from strict Catholic boarding schools. Among these things are lessons about how to survive 4 a.m. cold showers, how to forget the biting hunger that stayed long after sugar, Cocoa and Blue Band became a memory and how to become a member of the unofficial, underground library that the school administration did not know about. At my school, the underground library consisted of thick forbidden novels that were never stocked in the school reading room: Harlequin Romances, Heather Graham’s tales, James Hardley Chase’s curious little titles and books whose covers had shirtless men in cowboy hats and slim waisted goddesses.

I don’t remember the names of the Nairobians who brought those books to school or how they bypassed the boarding mistresses’ roving eye. I only remember the sound of tearing paper as we divided up chapters because everybody wanted to read The Joker in the Park. We would then hide the torn chapters under our desks to read during double science. The romance between those pages thrilled us and we pronounced new forbidden words with so much relish we forgot the hunger in our rumbling stomachs.


All these years later, I am still thankful for the affluence and generosity of the writers who created complex make-believe worlds and thus cushioned me from the plainness and pellucidness that plagues many childhoods. Those writers expanded my childhood world far beyond the mtaragwa fence that separated my parent’s home from the neighbors’. No matter where life takes me, I know for sure that there will always be poetry in the way I see the world. I feel so lucky to know that for me, the dusty airlessness of December will always take me to the world of Half of a Yellow Sun, and that every April, when growing mushrooms sprout up and overtake trembling star grass, I will think of nothing else but The Secret Garden or did I mean Anne of Green Gables?


Leave a Comment