It was Parents’ Day & Prize Giving Day, all rolled into one. This is the highlights of boarding school life, rivaled only by the Closing Day in importance. Morning was beehive of activity. Touch up cleaning of the dormitories and classrooms, which had been scrubbed spotless the previous day. We were dressed up in our best pair of uniform. We did last minute rehearsal of songs, shairis and skits that were to be presented to parents, teachers, and invited guests. It was a testimony that we were doing more than just reading books. We were budding artists and entertainers. The excitement was tangible. Everyone was upbeat.
I had a shairi to recite. I may not have been an A Swahili student, but all I needed was confidence and a good memory, no?
Mafunzo ni kitu bora, elimu tusiacheni
Tusione masikhara, nawapa hilo yakini
Elimu kitu imara, asiyejua ni nani?
Vijana wasomesheni, pesa tusizidhamini….
It ran eight stanzas long. I had mastered it, having rehearsed many times over. I incorporated the facial expressions, hand gestures and body movement necessary for crowd engagement. Hook them in first stanza, build momentum, and let them follow on as you lead them to the resounding crescendo! Big applause, take a bow, and walk off the stage as the clapping fades away.
But Murphy’s Law happened.
I opened my mouth and with half-raised my hands I started: “Mafunzo ni kutu bora…”, or rather, that is what I meant to say. Instead, I heard myself say: “Mafunzo ni kitu mbaya…”
Saitani! The devil – it had to be the devil, who comes to steal kill and destroy!
Halt. Very pregnant and awkward pause. Gasps from the audience. A few chuckles.
Reset and start again.
I am not sure how I made it to the last line. All I wanted was for the ground to open up and swallow me up – alive. I walked off the stage and hoped to forget the poem forever.
Several decades later, I have not forgotten.1