Rite of Passage
The boy wondered if that was it for him. He scoured over the dozen papers before him, hanging on to every word like his life depended on it. But it did depend on it. Being more than he’d ever borne, his eyes watered. A tear seeped gently through his lashes to splatter onto the stack in his hands; right on the ‘err’ in ‘Terror’
Chills tingled the back of his neck and multiplied, raising the hairs on his skin. Still, he found it past the weight on his shoulders to lift his head up, shift his eyes to the incessant ticking on the wall, heightening the beating of his heart. 10:31a.m.
The air, he found stale and hard to breathe. His seat uncomfortable. He adjusted his posture straight as his eyes scanned through the packed empty room, in search of faces familiar.
At the front row, his mother, puffy-red-eyed middle-aged, smiled at him. Her face powdered by concern and the ensuing struggle to make it all make sense. Also, his father, nodding his way as he balled his fist at the corner of his chin. The boy understood. Quickly, he wiped his tears away, inhaled and put on a stoic face.
But tension still brewed inside and he grew abject; looked to his left; at the judge, but more so the gavel; of when it falls, what would the verdict be?
A court guard signals the boy’s parents that they could approach his chamber where they quickly acquainted themselves with the charges he was facing.
“Did they beat you?” asked the boy’s mother, unconscious of how much she was holding his face.
The boy denied.
“Tell us if they did. They’re not allowed to do that.” Jumped in his father, softly gripping the boy’s shoulder as if to lessen the fear scribbled on his face
With his voice faint, the boy replied, “They haven’t.”
The boy’s uncle, looming behind asked him what the charges were. To which the boy could only look down at the papers with a heavy heart, clench onto them more tightly and draw them towards them, but not wanting to let go. This was his book of deeds.
His mother skimmed through it and then began to cry.
“Is any of this true?” asked the uncle, eyes firm on the boy now. “Cause if it is, you’ll need to tell us so we know how to handle it.”
“No,” the boy cried defensively, clasping back the papers and leafed to a section he pointed out. “I don’t even know what IT skills they’re taking about.” Then let out an exasperated sigh, pillowing his head backwards with his palms, papers on the counter.
“Kwani what course do you take at the university?” his uncle asked.
“Maritime…” the boy began, hesitated and then proceeded, “…It’s business.”
His father, who now had the papers, grabbed onto his shoulder again. “Listen,” he said, “Just answer precisely what they will ask and all will be well.”
“No,” the uncle interjected. “These things don’t just go like that. Who knows how they’re trying to have him cornered? What will he even say for himself? Look at him.” Then he turned to the boy, “Listen, if the judge asks you anything, just tell him you have an advocate and he’ll be here in the afternoon.” The boy nodded.
The boy’s name was suddenly called aloud by the prosecutor cutting short the family reunion. He quickly stood as the guard ushered his parents back to their seats.
“Ndiyo mheshimiwa, Yes your honor.” The boy said, eyes on the magistrate.
The prosecutor asked whether he’d like the trial to take place in English or Kiswahili. The boy opted for ‘Kiswahili.’
The magistrate presented the case in English as the prosecutor translated.
He had just begun reading through the dates and case introductions, when the boy sprung to his toes with all the courage he could muster, raised his hand and shouted, “Samahani mheshimiwa, nina wakili ataingia saa nane, excuse me your honor, I have a lawyer and he’ll be here in the afternoon.”
The magistrate faced the boy fumingly, and told the prosecutor, “Tell the boy that he can only speak after I’m done.”
This initial slip crushed the boy and thought himself so naïve. He nailed his back to the wall, shoulders caving enough to sink his head in.
The court called upon the defendant to present his charges, the Commander the boy had met the previous night.
He stood in the witness chamber and read through the charges as fast as he could, which was around 15 minutes, the audience punctuating through it with gasps and blank stares.
Suspected to be in communication with ISIS.
Planning to travel to Libya during his holiday; has his visa ready.
Sought after by ISIS for his IT skills.
All circumstantial suspicion, the boy thought to himself.
“For cases like these, we usually require up to 3 months to conduct thorough investigations your honor, but we’re only asking for one,” the Commander summed it up.
The magistrate started addressing again, and the prosecutor translated, “Does the accused have anything to say in his defense?”
The boy shot up again, forcing the same energy he had mustered the first time, “Samahani mheshimiwa, nina wakili ataingia saa nane.”
The door to the court chamber shut behind the boy as he slowly descended the dark stairwell. Somehow hoping that at the end of it was a doorway out of this dream. Somehow, he’d awake and resume watching that American comedy about a female vice president. That this was all some twisted sense of magical realism. He knew it wasn’t but still… he hoped.
He knocked three times and a guard opened revealing the long corridor of the Mombasa High Court cells.
“Oh, Kijana, you’re back,” the guard said, rather warmly. They had met this morning when the boy’s aunt, who worked for the county, asked him to keep an eye out for the boy. Disappearances were common in cases like these and families had to be vigilant, lest they be misled on whereabouts.
Like that morning, when the boy’s father inquired at the police station on which court his son had been taken to, they told him Shanzu and that’s where they were headed, until this guard said he’d found him was when the convoy turned to Mombasa High Court, putting them in the situation from the beginning.
The guard proceeded with pleasantries on how court had been and the boy went on explaining how the judge decided that the case was to commence in the afternoon.
“What are you in for anyway?” the guard asked.
“They’re saying I’m an Al-Shabaab.” The boy said, viewing it as a lesser extreme than ISIS.
“Well, is it true?”
“No,” said the boy wryly, and proceeded to ask where the bathrooms were.
The guard escorted him to the end of the corridor, filling in the silences with questions about his aunt.
The court toilets had no doors and their smell could make your need to go, go. One either had to be very relentless or out of options to even step into them. In this instance, the latter. There were a series of doors and the boy began peeking into one after the other, in search of one that had afadhali. In one, he found a man bent over, sliding a kabambe inside himself, using his shiny hands. The boy gave a casual nod on eye contact, then proceeded his business in the loo at the furthest end and left.
Back at the court cells, his name would be called a series of times; relatives who’d come to see him, neighbors, representatives from MUHURI who had taken a keen interest in his case and a food vendor whom his mother had sent. Good food for a change.
After his meal, he made his peace with what he deemed out of his control, coiled into a corner as he listened to the stories being told. Then began to reminisce, how it all began.
The boy’s door flung open with a ferocity that knotted his stomach tight with fear, springing him from his bed. Joltingly, his hand scampered to his bedside in search of his glasses. His heart now pounding with increasing intensity. He lifted his gaze, darted it to the door to meet the dark armed figure straddling in.
There was a shadow of menace about him even under the fluorescent yellow light. He drew a long audible breath before deflating himself, as he fiddled with the trigger to his rifle like a man on a mission.
“What is your name boy?” his voice deep from the pits of his stomach that it vibrated through the boy’s body than it did his ears.
The boy said his name shakily.
“Oh? …You’re the one we’re looking for.”
He stomped in with his combat boots, grabbed the boy by the hand and drew him to the living room, revealing three giants of men. Armed. The boy grew pale, taken by a whirl of emotions. He went silent as his gaze bounced off the four strangers, not knowing what to make of the situation.
“Found him,” said the deep voice.
“Oh…YES!” said the frailest of them, excitement leaping out his voice. There was an immediate air of command about him that the boy established it was he who called the shots.
If this was what he thought it to be, he imagined it best not to retaliate lest he end up with a bullet in his head.
Meanwhile, another, massively built and stood a head taller than the boy turned to his thirteen-year-old brother, slapping him with the neck of his palm, leaving him groveling on the floor. His eyes were dancing in their sockets as if to keep up with the ground tilting under him.
“I thought you said he’s not home!” He barked, pointing at the boy. “Were you lying to me, boy?”
“No,” cried the boy’s brother, his voice raspier than usual, “I thought you were asking for my father.”
The boy’s brother had just had his K.C.P.E rehearsal earlier that day. He was doing some final revising with his tutor, Mr. Oduor, his big exam to start the following day.
The built man then turned to Mr. Oduor who was picking up the brother from the floor, simultaneously trying to phone the boy’s parent.
“Are you the father?” barked the man.
“No,” Oduor replied, disoriented by the whole thing. That was clearly not how he pictured this evening would go down.
He was still trying to reach the boy’s parents but without any luck.
Now that evening, the boy’s three-year-old brother had taken ill and his parents had to rush him to the hospital. It was after the 7p.m news and there was still no sign of them.
“Kijana, do you go to Moi university?” The commander asked.
The boy gave a hesitant nod before he whimpered ‘Yes’.
The commander then signaled to his comrade, “You know what to do,” as he whipped his phone out, took what the boy understood to be mugshots.
The comrade walked into the boy’s room and tore it apart, to come out with his phone, two laptops; one that had belonged to the boy’s father, his wallet; which housed his identification documents and also stepped on the boy’s nine-year-old brother who’d been laying on a prayer rag and would have slept through the entire thing.
“Where are your shoes boy?” asked the Commander. The boy pointed to his room and was instructed to go put them on. Stepping out, cuffed his hands, and told Mr. Oduor, “Tell his parents we’ve taken him to the headquarters.”
What headquarters? The boy thought.
“Son,” sighed Mr. Oduor, shaking his head. “What have you done?” Answers unbeknownst to the boy himself.
He pulled his gaze to the ground as they dragged him out of his home. A walk of shame sound-tracked by the buzzing murmurs of neighbors hanging on their balconies, peering, adding their eyes to the back of his neck, heavy, his head hung low.
There was a white pick-up parked under the biggest baobab tree in Kizingo. The boy was sandwiched between the Commander and another in the back. His phone started to ring; his mother calling. They switched it off. He began to whisper a prayer. Then the commander asked him what cracked it all open for him: “Do you know anyone outside the country?” And who doesn’t.
The car necked at the Urban roundabout and took the Serani road, totally opposite to where the ATPU headquarters were. And the boy grew more worried. Fueled his prayers. Took a turn at Kizingo Butchery, headed for Fonta Nela and clearly, this affair wasn’t to go to central police. Even more prayers. And soon they’re in Markiti and before he knew it, Nyali bridge. Now, contemplation and prayers. He thought of radical clerics he’d seen on the news. All their executions were done in these parts of Mombasa. Was that it for him too. He hadn’t even prayed ishaa. He whispered his prayers even more audibly.
“What are you doing?” The Commander asked.
The boy looked up at him owlishly and shook, “Praying”
The Commander chuckled and the boy looked back down and kept whispering.
Laa ilaaha illa Allah, Muhammadar-Rasuulu-llah
There was a sigh of relief when the vehicle pulled into Nyali police station.
The boy was dragged into a room where for the next hour, all his details would be taken; his formal education, non-formal, family, friends, hobbies, places he’d travelled and the list rolled out, and then he was handed over to the police station where they took his cuffs off, took from him his belongings including his belt and one shoe, and thrown into a cell.
At first there were only 3 inside that urinal, him in one corner and two cuddled up in another, next to the urine bucket. Before fifty others were poured in for breaking curfew. And in his first night, he lay there in the darkness of drunkards, facing up, whispering, as tears rolled on his sides to the ears. Forgive him, he was but a boy. His parents would search for him through and through; Mombasa, Changamwe, Likoni, till an officer at one station would ask them to consider the prospects of a ransom situation. And when all hope was lost, though they could not see him, they found him.
The sound of his name cut his daydream and it was time for court. The nice guard had come to escort him.
“What do you think will happen up there?” the guard asked.
The boy simply shrugged.
“I saw your sister come and sneak you something. How about some two hundred shillings?” He said cajolingly.
The boy thought for a second and said, “I have no money.”
“Oh! It’s going to be like that, eh? Okay.” He opened the stairwell to court and while it was ajar said, “Now you see me smiling, but this will be a different face when I’ll be packing you for Shimo la Tewa. Just you wait.”
The boy grew even more fearful climbing those dark stairs. He would only settle down after the judge sustained his lawyer’s request to convene the following day after he’d prepared an affidavit, transfer him to port police where his family could easily access him.
A thing he noted heading back to the cells; that wasn’t as much back and forth lawyer shouting than he’d witnessed on TV court. Rather civilized.
The commander would come for him and drive to the ATPU headquarters. The driver would say: “Break his fingers,” as they alighted at the building. Questions from four ends would be thrown at him in this really tiny interrogation room. From 3 O’clock till it was dark outside. Whatever happened behind those closed doors, our boy would never speak of. But one thing would echo through him throughout after: ‘20 years.’