I was on my knees because we had all been made to. My mistake was failing to clean when I’d been supposed to. I had cleaned, just that the person who I had been assigned to clean with, hadn’t done his part. So it wasn’t my fault but captain couldn’t hear any of it. It wasn’t his job to make sure that we had our shit together, he’d said. My partner in what captain called absconding duty, was by my side, both of us on our knees. Captain was almost thrice my size and played rugby too. At the time, the most important requirement to become house captain was the size of your body. If you looked like a person who’d take down two men at a go, then you’d be made captain, your leadership qualities notwithstanding. That was how we had ended up with captain. He did know how to fight, that was for sure. And he showed it by practising with our cheeks. Well, my cheeks.
‘This is the reason why other dorms are beating us. While their form ones are working there, here you are busy playing. Are you joking around with me?’ We’d infuriated the wrong guy. Judging by how casually he had constructed his sentence, it was apparent that shit was just about to hit the fan, and it didn’t help matters that I seemed to the villain in his lecture. Of course, no one was joking around with captain. No one ever dared joke around with captain. He was the man among men. Everyone feared him. Apart from well, my partner, who seemed disinterested that captain was burning with fury. ‘The two of you step forward,’ we were made to move forward, crawling on our knees. We’d now been separated from the other form ones, who were also on their knees. It was a tradition that whenever any one of us did something wrong, we’d all be harangued while on our knees, the culprit isolated and given a few slaps while everyone was watching so that no one would ever contemplate being a jerk. I’m trying to downplay it by calling it ‘a few slaps’ because the size of the man giving the dosage made the slaps feel more like punches.
‘What is your excuse?’ my partner had been asked. The guy, calm and collected, explained himself like he was making a submission in a court of law. I almost found myself clapping. The only thing that stopped me was the realization that I wouldn’t be able to explain myself as articulate as he’d done, and that he’d just let himself off the hook, while he was the one who was guilty. And then there was the issue that captain had to practice with someone. ‘So you, what’s yours?’ he’d said it like he knew what I’d say next were all lies. His facial expression was basically a warning that if I dared lie to him, then I’d face the music. Whatever it was that I was going to say didn’t matter though because my goose had already been cooked. Captain had to practice with someone, you know. ‘Captaaaaaiiinnn I Diiiiiid…..’ my head made the zzzz sound before I could finish what I was saying. A heavy slap had just, unannounced, landed on my right cheek. I recall shutting my eyes immediately after the slap and seeing something that looked darker than darkness. And then afterwards being caught in a web of thoughtlessness. You see, I was a stammerer, I still am. Captain, however, thought that it was the guilt that was stopping me from speaking. One, two, three, four, five…. forty-eight. My cheeks had been made a pendulum; swinging from left to right, by a man almost thrice my size. But because I considered myself a man just like he was, I took them all without flinching. If I’d gone through the initiation, there was nothing that was going to shake me.
The initiation was a tradition that everyone in the school had gone through. It was passing through a thicket that was two hundred metres long. A thicket of shrubs, thorns here and there, a few indigenous trees and weeds (not the drug). Basically, an abandoned piece of land that anything and everything grew. And we’d be made to go through it forcefully, at night. During prep time, in a day that was least expected, if you heard a commotion, and by checking through the window saw seniors charging towards your direction carrying logs and pelting stones, you’d be forced to scamper for safety through the bushes. There wasn’t anywhere else where you could run to. So it’d made us develop a thick skin. I had become a ninja. It is that thicket of shrubs and thorns that had made me almost become numb to physical pain.
Some of my friends had been counting the slaps because captain didn’t look like he was going to stop. I was to act as the perfect example of what awaited you if you thought of absconding duty. It was almost like those slavery movies where other slaves are forced to watch as the one who tried to escape was being clobbered. No heads-down. All of you had to look up to see it all. You had to see the pain of the one on the receiving end. It was the best and efficient way of making the others toe the line. Captain would ask me questions that would go unanswered so he’d continue with the slaps. I think I annoyed him by not showing emotion. By not reacting, I was showing the rest that he wasn’t shit after all. That perhaps he wasn’t all that. And he hated it. He hated that I wasn’t screaming or crying or begging for forgiveness. He hated that I wasn’t bowing to his might. So he went all up to forty-eight. Forty freaking eight!
After forty-eight, captain berated us one last time, telling us that if anyone thought about becoming a knucklehead, then the same fate awaited. And then he released us to go to bed before disappearing to his cubicle which was in the senior wing. Anybody who wasn’t in form one slept in a separate wing of the dormitory. The wings had been built separately. We, monos, slept in the junior wing. Ours was a classic case of segregation. This segregation nonsense had made it easy for anyone who was in the business of bullying monos. At night, bullies would come to demand money or sugar. Anything that those cowards wanted, and there would be no one to defend us. Most of us were too naïve to defend ourselves. I’d tried standing up to a bully once, only to end up becoming a refugee at every single one of the eight dorms because I was being hunted down for what my hunters called ‘disrespecting a senior.’ A crime that apparently, was worse than murder. A crime that, if found guilty by the court of senior public opinion, the charge sheet would be to write a letter of apology on a chalkboard in one of the form four classes, while all kind of missiles being hurled at you.
When everyone was sure that captain was gone, they surrounded and consoled me for having had to go through a beating that I never deserved. I was a good boy. Everyone knew that I was, except for captain. They’d formed a circle, each one of them with sad-looking facials, while some asking me how the hell I’d been able to take in all those slaps. It is in that circle that I’d learnt the slaps had been forty-eight in number. To some, I’d almost been like a hero. Captain had, without knowledge, made who he thought a villain, to be a hero. It is the only time in my not so illustrious life that I have ever came close to feeling like a cyborg. That day, I’d been christened Don Okumu. A title that would last until later that night.
Inside the confines of my blanket, I began to shed tears. I had waited until 1 AM so that nobody could hear me. I was determined to retain my title as the Don so I cried silently hoping that no one would hear me. I cried and cried and cried until there were no tears left. Until all I could do was breathe and sigh heavily.
‘I heard you cry last night man,’ one of my friends had told me the following morning. ‘You are human after all,’ he’d continued. I had thought that nobody had heard me but guys can really snoop. The news of my beatings and my cries late into the night got people talking. It still has people talking to date. It is one of those things that you look back and say, ‘Wow, it really did happen.’