What we used to love

Girl, put your records on, tell me your favourite song
You go ahead, let your hair down
Sapphire and faded jeans, I hope you get your dreams,
Just go ahead, let your hair down.-Corinne Bailey 

At night, after the day’s ups and downs at the Music Festivals in Mombasa, we washed off the hints of eye shadow and lip-gloss we had applied against school rules. We slid out of our favorite school skirts, placed them under our mattresses to straighten them and have them ready for the next day. We eased into our pajamas. The intricate hairstyles we had spent forever making came undone. By day, we put in crazy efforts into attracting small talk from the students in the boys’ schools. By night, we put away our masks, and we met five older men who, like our fathers and uncles, listened to us when we spoke, and were not preoccupied by the fantasy of bumping their street credit by getting our phone numbers.

As we set out for the school auditorium to meet them, I was aware that a trip to Mombasa was cliché. When we were young, every time we were told to write an essay about “safari ambayo sitasahau”, the journey I will never forget, almost everyone in class would write about Mombasa. You go to Mombasa for the madafu (coconut milk), or for the sunshine, or for the Indian Ocean, or for the elegant houses expatriates have built, but never for surprise.

With this in mind, we walked on the wet sand through the warm humid air and the darkness, further and further away from the lively jam session the students of Waa girls’ High School were holding at the courtyard, and into the brick building. We found the men seated. They were lost in performing old-school music (or, as the Swahili term puts it, zilizopendwa, what-we-used-to-love kind of music). But one by one, they slid out of the trance and, one by one, they became aware of us.

They must have had common Kikuyu names- like Manene and Mbugua and Njuguna and Mwangi and Maina- but I do not remember. They knew *Shiru and *Liz already who had met them the previous night. I took a seat next to Manene. Nearly everything that came out of his mouth was funny, but he had a shy smile that made him look like the models magazines use to depict fathers. As he began to tease and say I seemed scared of him, one of them started humming another song, and, like magic, the attention shifted and they all joined in, playing the keyboard, kayamba, guitar and drum.

I watched and I allowed myself to romanticize the moment. I noticed the light at the corner of the auditorium, which served mostly to cast shadows, hit their faces at the perfect angle. I thought the cracked cement floor and the old benches we sat on, and the fact that the president’s picture was hung on the wall was perfect setting for their music and their you-know-when-we-were-young kind of stories.

I wondered what their lives were like. They were music teachers at Gathirimu Girls’ High School. Well, not really- they were teachers who loved music. I heard their students sing. It was true. They had not been kidding when they said their students’ voices were angelic.

“Back in the day,” the plump man started, like ‘back in the day’ was one word, not four. “Girls were forbidden from speaking to boys,” Each time he finished his sentence, he laughed that laughter that first sounds like a bout of coughing.

“If you approach a girl, she goes, “Ma-ne-ne ti-ga!” in staccato. It means stop, Manene.”

I shifted in my seat. Our own uncles would not be so candid about their experiences, let alone those where girls were involved. But they told jokes the way fathers tell jokes. The joke did not belong to anyone. It was story telling and everyone had their own contributions: how it was sacrilege to wear old clothes on Christmas day, how anyone in your parents’ generation was your parent, and was allowed to beat you if you erred and how there was a woman who always sat next to the choir at church, sang louder than them, and ruined the whole service.

That was how the night went on. They sang, and they paused. They broke into song the way they broke into laughter. They held nothing back. They did not care for audience. Like laughter, music just came to them.

“Why do you shower everyday? That is a waste of clothes. When we were young we showered on Wednesdays!” Manene added.

“And on Sundays when we were going to church,” the plump one chimed in.

I wondered what their childhoods had been like, as I laughed the thousandth laugh that night. I grew weary, and so did the night. But like this night, I stayed on, wishing that this stillness would last forever, aware that the next morning, I would be up at six, navigating the girls’ dormitory in the chaos, comb, eye shadow and lip-gloss in hand.