Rita sits on a stone and watches the water flowing down the stream. This small stream is what she and the other people in her village know as a river. In the sleepy village of Karuma, they call it Muteema.
When she was younger, she used to get amazed whenever she heard about people drowning in rivers. Muteema is a gentle river, flowing slowly but steadily. Although it is a small river, it never dries up. The water is clear, and as it quietly meanders across the farms, it does not exhibit any signs of violence. This river is a friend, and even now as she sits here she feels as though she can talk to it. Muteema has only two bridges that she knows about in her village. In many places where footpaths intersect the river, people simply jump across. The two bridges that she knows are along the roads used by vehicles, which makes sense because vehicles cannot jump across a river. So how can someone drown in a river?
The worst that can happen if you fall in here is your clothes getting wet, and possibly getting a beating later on from your mother, or in Rita’s case, grandmother. The boys in the neighbourhood come here to swim, but they are always on the lookout for malicious adults, especially Kirimi. Kirimi is the owner of one of the farms bordering the river, just like Rita’s grandmother. For some reason Kirimi does not like seeing small boys swimming in the river. Watching naked boys running away from him is always a hilarious spectacle.
Her uncle drowned during the first rainy season that she can remember experiencing. It had been raining heavily for a week, and the tranquil little river had suddenly became furious. It had swelled with brown water which flowed downstream with hurried urgency. Someone must have annoyed it upstream, because it was hurrying down violently. It swept away the two bridges in her village. Rita’s uncle was going home, drunk as usual and tried to jump across. His body was found the following day by farmers downstream.
Rita cannot even remember him properly; she was very young when he died. But she remembers the drama at her grandmother’s home when the news of his death broke. Since then, she has seen this river swell every time it rains heavily, and is therefore not fooled by its current gentleness. Over the years she has seen bigger rivers, namely River Maara and River Mutonga. These are large, busy rivers which have no time for idle chit chat, even in the dry season. Her grandmother explained to her that Muteema empties its waters into Maara. Her teacher would say that Muteema is a tributary of Mutonga.
She has learnt in school that there are bigger rivers in Kenya than Mutonga and Maara. She has been taught about River Tana and River Athi, mammoths of rivers that may or may not harbor crocodiles, depending on which of her classmates you listen to. According to her GHC teacher, because we are in an age long before Social Studies, there is a river that is even bigger than Tana. It is called River Nile and it is in Uganda.
According to the teacher, African rivers are not navigable because of water falls, rapids and cataracts. The same teacher says that navigation means moving in a water body using boats and ships. Water bodies are rivers, lakes seas and oceans. It is hilarious trying to imagine one using a boat on Muteema. But perhaps one can navigate on Mutonga. Except that that waterfall in Kiangua would make it difficult to go very far. So yea, the teacher is right. Rita has no idea what rapids and cataracts are, and it doesn’t really matter. They won’t ask what cataracts are in the examination. They will only want to know why African rivers are not navigable.
Rita smiles. She is pleased that she can remember all this. GHC is her favorite subject in school. It is actually a three in one subject: Geography, History and Civics. Those are separate subjects in High School. Geography is the part of GHC where they learn about relief and convectional rainfall, rivers, mountains etc. History is where they are told taught about the early missionaries such as Mungo Park, Vasco da Gama, John Speke, David Livingstone and Johann Ludwig Krapff, who was the first man to see Mount Kenya (although they say he was taken there by Chief Kivoi, and Rita wonders how Chief Kivoi took him there if he had never seen it. Or perhaps Chief Kivoi was a woman in disguise, you never know).
Civics is about government, but they don’t have that subject in High School. Which is a pity because learning about President Moi, his ministers, Parliament and all that stuff is fun. For instance,
‘There are two hundred and ten constituencies in Kenya, and each has an MP. Then there are twelve nominated MPs and two ex officio members of Parliament. These are the Speaker and the Attorney General. The Attorney General is called Amos Wako and the Speaker is called Francis Ole Kaparo. Kenyan Parliament is unicameral, meaning it has one chamber, unlike say, the United States of America where they have a bi-cameral Parliament-it has two chambers, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Kenya had a senate at independence, but it was disbanded.
Rita doesn’t know whether that last piece of information falls under history or civics, but it doesn’t matter. They don’t ask such questions in the examination.
She has held the badge for the best GHC student in her class since she was in class five. She is now twelve years old and in class seven, and is staring at KCPE next year. She is confident she will pass. She has never gone below seventy percent in any subject, and she has never scored anything below ninety percent in GHC. She has competed in the top three since she was in class four.
Rita stretches out on a rock and closes her eyes. The midmorning sun is giving her skin a pleasant sensation. Her bare feet are touching the water.
There are three arms of government. The Executive, the Legislature also called Parliament and the Judiciary. The Executive is headed by President Moi, and consists of the President and his cabinet. The Attorney General is also a member of the Cabinet. The secretary to the cabinet is also the Head of Civil Service.
Parliament is where things get a bit confusing.
Parliament is headed by Speaker Kaparo, but President Moi, who is the leader of the whole country, is also a member, representing Baringo Central. So who really is bigger than the other? President Moi is obviously the boss. All the Ministers are also members of parliament. The Attorney General is an ex-officio member of parliament. The leader of official opposition is Mwai Kibaki who is the MP for Othaya.
The Judiciary consists of all the courts and is headed by Chief Justice Bernard Chunga…
“Rita! What is taking you so long?”
Rita jumps up from the rock at the sound of her grandmother’s shrill voice. She came to fetch water so that her grandmother can cook lunch. Her grandmother, Florence, does not have piped water and they always have to go down to the stream to fetch water to cook and clean dishes. When it comes to washing clothes, instead of carrying water up the hill to the house, you carry the clothes down to the river and wash them there.
Rita loves grandma Florence. The old woman is not wealthy, but she works hard to provide. Rita has never slept hungry. Grandma Florence keeps telling Rita to work hard in school so that she can become wealthy and live comfortably. The old lady is a very godly woman and has taught Rita to be a good Christian girl. Rita wants to go to Alliance Girls High School and thereafter study medicine at the University of Nairobi.
Diana, Rita’s mother, works in Nairobi. She is a businesswoman, but Rita has no idea what business she does. She comes home occasionally, perhaps once every five or six months. When she comes, she is always bearing goodies. Bars of chocolate, apples, spaghetti (she calls them macaroni), drinking chocolate, fruit juice, Blue Band amongst other things that are rarely seen in grandma Florence’s house. She usually stays for a day or two then disappears to the city again. Sometimes she writes letters. She uses the postal address of the local Presbyterian Church, which Rita and grandma Florence attend. Rita reads and translates the letters to her grandmother.
Rita does not know who her father is.
When Rita gets to the house, she is panting. She has walked quickly up the hill, with each hand carrying a five liter jerry can full of water. There is a surprise waiting for her at home: her mother has arrived. She did not mention in her last letter that she was planning to come. But then again this is not the first time she appearing out of the blues like a ghost.
When she was a little baby, Rita used to be excited about her mother’s arrival. She would jump up and down with joy and hug the woman tightly. Not anymore. She still loves her mother, but she can feel the distance between them growing. At twelve years of age, Rita is at the cusp of womanhood, and she is acutely aware of the absence of her mother in her life.
She smiles and hugs her mother lightly, then steps back.
“Your mother has some news for you,” Grandma Florence says.
“I want you to go back with me to Nairobi, Rita,” her mother chips in.
Rita is confused. Grandma Florence’s house has always been home.
“We are leaving tomorrow,”
“What about school?”
“I have found a new school for you. A better school,”
“What about grandma?”
“Grandma will be fine…”
“I will be okay, Rita. Don’t you worry,” Grandma Florence says, patting Rita’s hair.
Later on, Rita overhears her mother Diana telling Grandma Florence that she (Diana) has found a husband. Apparently they are going to be living with the man. This makes Rita nervous. Her mother is almost a stranger to her. Add a total stranger and her life is just about to become complicated.
She would have wanted to know more about this man, but she has been taught that it is bad manners to put her nose in the affairs of adults. She was not supposed to have overheard adults speaking in the first place. Refusing to go is also out of question.
They get to the house in Nairobi early in the afternoon. It is a beautiful stone house, and there is nobody there when they arrive. There is no sign of the step-father she heard about yesterday. Diana shows Rita her bedroom, then shows her the toilet and bathroom. Everything is so different. The room she will now be calling her bedroom is spacious, with a large window.
She will now be using a “flush toilet” as opposed to the pit latrine at her grandma’s home. Even the bathroom is inside the house. There is no more chocking under firewood smoke. Her mother cooks with a gas cooker. And there is electricity! She will ask her mother to get her a desk and a chair in her room. There is no reason why she shouldn’t go to Alliance Girls next year but one.
He comes in the evening and Rita dislikes him instantly. He is a tall thick man with a nice suit and cleanly shaven beard. Rita has learnt from her mother that he is a professor, but he doesn’t look like one. Rita’s mental image of a professor is an old man with an overgrown and unkempt beard, very shabby clothes and ancient spectacles. This man is neat, like the elders in her church. But there is something sinister about him that she doesn’t like, even though she cannot tell what it is.
He is tipsy when he arrives. He talks to Rita’s mother, but ignores Rita completely. Even when he inquires about her from her mother, it is as though they are talking about someone who is not there.
Rita endures an uncomfortable dinner then helps her mother to clear the table and clean dishes. When her mother says she is going to bed, Rita gladly flees to her room. She switches off the light and jumps into bed.
An hour later, Rita is still awake. This change is of environment is making her nervous. Especially her new stepfather. She longs for the simple life in the village. There were no luxuries there, but knowing that Grandma Florence loves her has always been enough to make her feel content.
Suddenly someone opens the door of her bedroom. She did not lock it because she did not think she was supposed to. Her mother said nothing about locking her bedroom door. The shadowy figure at the door is large, and Rita instantly knows that it is not her mother. Besides, the smell of alcohol leaves no doubt as to the identity of the intruder.
Her new stepfather staggers towards the bed. He must have continued drinking when he was left alone in the sitting room because he looks more drunk than when they left him at the sitting room. He comes and sits on the edge of the bed. Rita rolls away, towards the wall. He lifts the duvet and the bed sheet and gets into the bed. Rita tries to stand and leave the bed but he grabs her tiny waist and pulls her back under the sheets. She screams, calling her mother to come and rescue her.
“This is my house, sweetheart. Your mother won’t come to help you. So just give me what I want and you will be alright,” the man says smugly. He reaches under her clothes and touches her breasts, which are yet to be fully formed. As she hears him unbuckling his belt and pulling down his trousers, Rita wishes she would die right there and then, before being violated by the filthy brute.
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