Dastaan – Part 5
Traditionally the cap was as important for the boys as it was for the adults – even more than the footwear for the boys. Bare head, and not bear foot, was frowned upon by the elders. Normally the cap was the round black wooly type stitched to a required size. This tradition imposed an added cost as a daily wear for the boys. Replacement came about after a couple of years of use and abuse. When the cap lost its original stiffness and shape after a few months, it became reduced to a durable shape of the skull it covered. The age and shape of the cap showed the distinction of who were from the poor families and who were not.
The dress according to the tradition even for boys included a coat in addition to a black wooly cap. There would be, among children, about two boys as an average in a large family. The boys kept out growing heir coat, and, as replacement every year was beyond the means of the poor parents, the sleeves became shorter for the eldest boy to give a distinctive unfavourable appearance of the clothes of such boys as a conspicuous exception to that of other boys. The sibling (younger brother) would then use the elder brother’s coat and continue to do so even after he too out grew the coat, wear and tear notwithstanding.
The boys in poor families had their hair cut at home. One could tell even when the cap was on. Often the hairlines above the ears would not be even, a haircut became due only when the cap lost its grip over the head. After a haircut the face would look different for the first few days but attract no comments from the other boys who were mostly in the same proverbial boat. They saw no point in laughing at themselves in turn!
The most daunting situation faced by the poor students was when the school prohibited the use of pencil in upper primary classes and required instead a fountain pen which though normally cheap, seemed still relatively costly to poor families. Ball pens were unknown then. The parents saw it virtually as a disaster when a fountain pen failed to suck in ink from an ink bottle or the nib ceased to write clearly or if it leaked ink to soil the fingertips or spoil the papers.
An unemployed member of the community became known as an expert for repairing the “offending pens” at a fee which was much less than the price for a new one – and thus the disaster was side tracked into a control zone for a time being much to the relief of the parents. He would remember what pen belonged to whom and needed what repairs among the many he handled.
Necessity is the mother of ingenuity. A washed and dried pair of school trouser pressed under a mattress over night was ready for the next day’s almost presentable wear for school to save the cost of charcoal and the labour for self ironing.
In such an intimidating emotional environment, a dislike for schools may have built up in many bright students, and their poverty became an obstacle to their future professional career, and thus the legacy of poverty spilled over to the next generation.
The taste for riding a bicycle was a rare lavishing moment for the boys from the poor families on seeing a few boys who owned and rode their new gleaming ones slowly. The poor boys would manage a collective saving of a few cents and hire a bicycle from a lot of old ones, which creaked and groaned when ridden, for one hour on a Sunday to be shared among them. The joy would often be marred by a quarrel that arose when any one rode away longer than his share of time.
It was the creative mind of such boys who with a spirit of self consolation made a lemon do – for its durability among the round shaped fruits – in the place of a tennis ball to enjoy what an inconvenient lemon produced: a noisy and disorganized football game – in their backyards on some Sundays. The one who charitably brought the lemon would, at the end of the game, take it back home to restore it quietly where he had “borrowed” it from.
In a human society, the moving moments are when the children do not know why the mother is not serving them the evening meal before they are sent to bed on any particular day when they are hungry and pleading to her for some food. This can happen to any poor family of any community or race anywhere.
There was a saying in Kiswahili among Zanzibaris: “Pasha Maji Moto Walale Watoto”. This relates to the mother who makes a pretense of now beginning to cook the evening meal by keeping water boiling at a slow pace so that the children cease to complain of hunger and later drift into sleep while in the state of anticipation for the “delayed meal” when there was no meal for that evening. This of course assumes that there was some charcoal left for the pretense. This is an example of the emotions suffered by the parents in a family of children when poverty is intense in a society which also has rich families.
Fortunately, the severity of poverty in the community started to ease with a fair number of families who began to produce primary and also secondary school leavers for employment in the Colonial Civil Service and by the international companies. The sons were no longer removed from schools to press them into serving in shops as assistants because shop keeping ceased to produce adequate income for a modest living.