I remember the first card I ever received in my life. It was not a post card from an uncle in the states with a picture of him with the White House in the background neither was it a two year old birthday card from my father.(Me with two years not the card and my father does not send cards, he thinks expressing his emotions makes him vulnerable and weak.) It was also not a Season’s greeting card for Christmas since in the village money is not wasted on niceties. This particular card came in during a windy and chilly early morning parade on 28th October 2008. The missus on duty called out my name and I shot from the back line where the class eight pupils stand, she looked at the card again before handing it to me. It was in a cream-colored envelope, a scrawly writing inscribed my name, the name of the school, and the postal address on it. No stamping. I was curious to rip it open but it was sealed tight, in many licks of saliva, I thought as I gave up. I would open it later while in class. Several other candidates received cards bigger and brighter than mine. Few received stamped ones, maybe from relatives in the city or from God, I chuckled at the thought.
There was a battle of dominance in class, melodies of success wishes, indistinct chatter and laughter and a bundle of confusion, me. I tore through the envelope to reveal the front cover that instantly drew my interest. There was a poster of an African-American couple and a tan stallion. The three were surrounded by a field of pink, red and white roses. The woman sat astride the horse, while her companion held the calm horse by the collar. The three were smiling, I mean the man, woman and horse. I think horses smile, American horses. I flipped, still no classmate was curious to see what I received. The scrawly handwriting welcomed me and I read through;
I wish you success in exam.
You will go to good secondary school.
It was not signed and this made me even more curious. The sender should have been between class three and five, perhaps lower which I could tell from the scarcity of words and the handwriting. They were however idealists due to their ability to know there are bad and good secondary schools. The back cover was a thumbnail picture of the big poster photo. I folded it and put it back into its envelope before squeezing it between pages in one of my textbooks.
“Who sent you that? It’s beautiful,” I grimaced at my classmate.
“It’s from my brother in college,” she said proudly, allowing me to feel the card, listen to the melody, and admire the fine calligraphy and stamps.
The teacher came in for the first lesson of the day. We ran to our desks, hid our cards and fished out our geometry sets and arithmetic books for a lesson on trigonometry. The card fell on my lap as I pulled out the course book. The handwriting was intriguingly familiar from the way the J was curled and lay to the left. How could I forget? She remembered to send me a card-I had forgotten that she could be smart enough to send me one. I felt guilty but quickly wiped it off my face. She was Njeri, my younger sister in third grade. I missed seeing her steal my ink pen to write it, I missed her smiling cheekily at me over breakfast, and yet I missed thinking that she could be the one. Honestly, I thought it was a secret lover in class six, those too shy to disclose their identity but sentimental enough to send a card. Yet they didn’t send one but my small sister did. My sister whom I had always thought was a small enemy; a nuisance who robbed me of my mother’s attention, an intruder who stole from me the title last born and the favors that come with it and worse, a snitch who accompanied me on my boyhood errands and mischief but ended up telling on us.
“Bruh! You remember how you dived into the dam and I dived in after you. That was fun,” she said one day during supper. I bit my finger to warn her but mother was already at it.
“Ati you did what.” That night it rained blows thanks to sister.
This sister sent me a card with a smiling couple and their horse in a flower garden. It was so peaceful, so sentimental that I felt remorseful. She liked me, and looked up to me as the older and fun brother. At that age I missed it but at this age I miss it.
Fast forward eight years later, we are grown up citizens, she is to do her secondary school final exam in a week’s time and I am here all grown and nostalgic, writing about our childhood. (I sent her a card yesterday and thanks to my fastidious friends, I know you are reading this, it was not a small card with a smiling couple.)
I write this today to my sister and also to your sisters and, or brothers who will be behind those metal gates, all alone in a school compound, answering questions asked by psychopaths who already know the answers.
The rain will fall and dark clouds will fill the sky
Days will be long, and nights tormented
It will be silent and grey, you will feel hungry
But you will have a stomach-full, of butterflies
Sooner you will realize twas not that hard
Sooner than you expect twill be over
The long wait shall commence…
(I quit poetry)
Did it always rain at your school during K.C.S.E? In our formerly government school for natives it did, we were fed on a special diet and frequent tea breaks with real tea and buns. Those days there was no whatsapp to send leaked questions, there were no android powered phones and we did make it. There was one landline telephone operated by a grumbling school tailor. During the exam period we were allowed to make calls home during the afternoon, to ask for motivation and anything we felt we required. Parents prayed for us, teachers sacrificed their nighttime for us; things went to a standstill just for us and we never disappointed.
In form four I received cards; I mean many cards from relatives, girlfriends, friends, and from my sister. This time she wrote in a good writing and signed at the bottom. She had grown but the effect the first one had had sufficed. This year we are doing it old school, we shall buy cards and post them through the post office, and we shall lick stamps and fix them on the edge of the envelope after we admire them. Stamps are beautiful; they are the most ancient things I know. I had a collection while growing up. To remove the duty ink, we would wipe them with toothpaste and stick them in old books. Some stamps, if not all appreciated our heritage as Africans. They would have pictures of Kipchoge Keino with the finishing line flying at his waist and his hands outstretched in jubilation and a nearly passing out mzungu panting yards behind him. Others would have pigeons, Lenana Peak of Mt. Kenya, a river with water so cool that you could hear it flow and some just had the colors of the flag. They also expressed love as it was by the stamp magic I received my first love letter, it was by a stamp that most of us born in the past millennium were conceived. It was by the magic orchestrated by a mere stamp that we got jobs, letters to join college and get internships. We collected them because we could, and our parents let us since they had time for us. It was a slow sweet life that everyone enjoyed. Education was taken seriously and exams were not rigged. Exams were feared and were the test hurdles for courage and hard work. Those who excelled were honored and taken to good school leading to great jobs while those who failed were given a second chance which if they failed were allowed to take up the roles of farming and early marriage. It is by these exams we have seen great men rise and shape up our country, it is by these exams we have seen doors open and change fortunes for families and it is by these exams we call ourselves learned and enlightened. Let us strive to preserve the integrity of our success litmus.