There’s a likelihood that the last day you went out to play with your friends when you were little is a foggy memory, like dew drying in the face of a January sun. Luckily, I remember the last day I went out to swim with my friends; it was a hot day, and our shoes were dusty even before we got the what we called our pool. The clean, unrestrained river down at the bottom of the hill, before it was turned green, choking with trash, by uncultured humans and greedy industries.
StageCoach buses zoomed by as my friends and I made our way to the spot, ‘Unbwogable’ by GidiGidi MajiMaji was playing on the radios. Free primary education meant we all had a shot at learning the basics of education. Coca cola was fifteen shillings, and Softa was ten. Those were good times, and it was a good day…until I got home and lying about swimming became the cause of the aches in my behind.
Splashing in the water, gliding through it, soaking up the sun afterwards, swimming is good fun….unless you’re eight years old and you’re doing it in a raging river. It is fun, but risky fun, no life guard, no chlorine and you’re liable to lose your clothing to friends with sticky fingers, to slide on a slippery rock and get a contusion, or catch a beating from your parents for trying to have fun.
We called it ‘doof mpararo’, aptly named after the sounds you make when dipping into water, and the effect it had on your skin if you don’t moisturize, an ashy appearance that sells you out. It quickly became our favourite pastime after we learnt to swim in school but couldn’t afford the weekend charges at Methodist Guest House, the only place with a public swimming pool near Kawangware in the early noughties.
Money was tight, just like the hand-me-down shorts we used as swimming trunks, and asking for money to go swimming could lead to yet another beating from our overworked and underpaid parents, (Capitalism is consistent, oppressing workers from inception to date).
The spot we swam was at a bend in the river, where large rocks, slimy and slippery after millenniums of water gushing over them, acted as the dam from where we honed our swimming skills. The ‘pool’ was shared between the guys from a neighbouring carwash, who needed to make a living washing matatus and the few personal vehicles that existed back then, and young children who brought nothing but their enthusiasm and swimming trunks.
I often had to lie to get permission to go swimming, mislead my mum into believing that I was visiting a friend. Kawangware was wild in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and parents needed to know what their children were up to, as temptations to engage in crime were greater than the need to be model citizens. Most times, that meant leaving the house with no trunks and I often had to swim in my ‘sambusa’ underwear, the uncomfortable, triangle shaped ones that preceded the modern day boxer shorts.
Most boys could afford to swim naked, it was the age before cameras on phones and you could strut your stuff without fear of your junk ending up on people’s phones.
I left the house under the pretext of going to do homework with my friend Douglas that day, as he was good at math, and I convinced my mum that my method was cheaper than hiring a tutor. Anything that promised to save money was a solid consideration, and although my little brother’s eyes begged me to take him with me, that meant another set of clothes to watch over, and I pretended not to know what he wanted. The black shoes on my feet were uncomfortable, just like the bag of books I had with me, but lying is expensive and I had a studious image to maintain.
During our turn at the spot, on Saturday afternoons, when the older boys went to play or watch football, girls weren’t allowed at the river, because they told too easily and the few ‘sting operations’ to flush out kids from the river could be traced back to girls who were too scared at the sight of a parent waving a slipper. That meant most boys could afford to swim naked, it was the age before cameras on phones and you could strut your stuff without fear of your (undeveloped) junk ending up on people’s phones.
On this particular day, there weren’t a lot of swimmers, and as we waited for the guys from the carwash to finish stocking up on water, we compared notes on our favourite WWF wrestlers. Those were the days before ‘Arimis’, and with no money to spend, and the water unforgiving to our skin, we normally went home with ashy skin, a tell-tale sign that gave us away. After the buckets were full, and a few dips later, all care about ashy skin was abandoned as water fights and short laps took centre stage. The ‘pool’ wasn’t deep enough to allow for dives, although it was also not too shallow to allow for kids and those who, like me, didn’t know how to swim.
Why would I risk a beating if I wasn’t even going to swim, you can ask. I’d frolic along the edges, watch my friend’s clothes for a Ksh2 block of ice and spend the rest of the time imagining how good it would be to swim. This day though, there were girls further down the river. They were slightly older than us, about 15, with black biker shorts underneath and tank tops covering their chests. There were very few guys swimming as most of us stared, wide-eyed, our hormones raging at how beautiful and erotic this girls looked. In the era of no smart phones, this was the closest we’d come to seeing half-naked women.
Jayden, Chantelle and their friends in the generation that is currently in primary school or lower might never have this escapades, with rivers being polluted, parents frowning on unsupervised child activities and wishing them a ‘better’ life than they had. With green spaces reducing, technology advancing and parents being able to afford better and advanced fun activities, like video games and game arcades, there’ll soon be a generation that, through no fault of their own, will never know the thrill that was rudimentary swimming pools, bird hunting, mud skating.
Back at the river, with too much focus on their tight fitting clothes is how someone took off with our clothes and belongings. Apart from losing my ice cone, my friends couldn’t lash out at me as we had all been too engrossed in the girls to know our surroundings. The journey home, in shorts and looking ashy, might have been the worst; if only we didn’t have to go home and face our parents.
Personally, I probably would have had a longer beating if my mum knew that on top of losing my expensive bag, with text books, I also stared at girls swimming. The beating was so thorough; I wasn’t sure whether it was for lying, for endangering my life at the raging waters, or for all the times I got away with them. My younger brother pretended not to see, as I begged him to calm mum down on my behalf, and the last time playing with my friends at the ‘pool’ was memorable as it was painful.