I wasn’t innocent.
No one ever is at that age. And the advantage of the age of ten is that no one suspects you are the devil’s errand kid. Not unless you let it get to you and decide to scream about it. At ten years old you are at the perfect stage of character development. What people tell you sticks and you learn from consequences way faster than any other age. So I think.
I started small. Harmless. Two bob. Three bob. Five bob. Back then that was a lot of money for a ten-year-old. And I didn’t need a lot. Jaggery went for one bob. Sugar cane was one bob. Everything went for one bob. So having five bob was a lot of money. I could cater for myself and my best friend in no sweat. Break was always on me.
“Where do you get the money every day?” My best friend asked. It was not like me to have money, however little.
“From my aunt.”
My room and hers were next to each other. I waited until she was in the toilet and crept in, searched through her bag ignoring the notes and taking the coins. I would then hurry to my room and hide them inside my uniform pocket. I couldn’t risk putting the coins in my school bag. What if my aunt suddenly decided she wanted to go through my school work?
My five-bob brought me to the limelight. Kids I never talked to were now walking with me to the toilet. I had kids waiting for me at the jaggery and sugarcane place. I was the one with the credit card. And I served them alright. I realized one five bob was not enough. Two five bobs did the trick. Then a shilling more. Three shillings more. At one point I was twenty shillings rich. I was the boss. It felt good.
But as is always the case with the human race, one person is always ahead of you. Annoying, I know. I had twenty shillings. I was rich but not richer than Frederick and his family of cats. Frederick was not just rich, he was important. He was important because unlike me he had notes. Notes made you important.
And to be important I needed to blend in. Blending in meant upgrading from coins to notes. And as my aunt was out of her room I crept in like the thief I was. This time round I ignored the coins and went for the notes. A fifty-shilling note was all I needed. And it’s what I got.
I remember how it felt holding it in my hand. Powerful. I believe God looked at me at that particular moment and thought;
“This one is slowly turning into a Kenyan politician. Ain’t no way I’m going to let that happen.”
I bumped into the maid from my aunt’s room. I didn’t have to say anything. The horror in my face and the fifty-shilling note that was now on the floor was enough voice and reason. And thus ended my short intriguing stealing profession. My aunt took me to court. The only court she believed I needed. God. She read the bible to me and prayed for me until I felt the devil leave through my nostrils. It was surreal.
I felt different. I breathed differently. I was different. I lost my admirers though. My pride, my confidence. It all went away with the devil through my nose.
Moral of the story: Stick to the coins, notes are a trap.
It was about this time that I befriended a rich kid from the same area I lived. I don’t remember her name but it sure would have been Angela. Angela was a rich kid and I was from the other side of the fence. The side that spoke about your agility as a child rather than your comfort. Angela looked and behaved like all rich kids. You know the likes that don’t get emotional about things like cakes and bread and chips and juice because they have them all the time? The ones that wore clothes of different colors but the same design each day? Yes, she was that.
As is with every rich area there were no kids to play with Angela. She was five and I was ten. Her mother thought we made a nice couple and let her hang with me. Hanging with her meant me going to her place, going with her to the shops, playing in the field but never taking her to my house. Which I wasn’t going to anyway. Who wants a kid looking at their TV screen like it’s a tablet?
She was not fat but she was meaty enough. Her run was like that of a rabbit hopping from one cabbage to the next. She was not funny when she ran. And she didn’t seem to care. I liked that about her. When she was in a hurry or horror-stricken she ran like a cat. I’ve only seen her run like a cat once. The day she messed up. I watched her, intrigued.
“Nini mbaya?” I asked her as soon as she stopped before me. She was panting and I could hear her heartbeat.
She looked behind her and reached out her hands.
“Hii ni ya nani?” I asked staring at the five hundred shilling note in her hand. It was brand new.
“Nimetoa kwa bag ya mummy.”
I pulled her aside and took her behind a fence. We were hidden there. Don’t ask why we needed to hide, we just did.
“You mean you stole this from your mommy?”
I took the note.
“No. I did not steal it. I took it.”
She took in a few breaths as I examined the note. I had held one such note before. And along with that, I had to sing my way to the shop and back.
“Should I return it?” She asked suddenly terrified.
“Is your mom home?”
“Yes… What if she realizes it’s missing?”
She was paranoid. Jumping up and down. Holding her head. Shaking her hands. Rubbing her sweaty palms on her ‘power puff girls’ dress…
Now like I said, I had talked to God about my previous misconducts and He had wiped the slate clean. I was clean. Sinless. That wasn’t going to change.
“Relax. I’ll take care of it. Just relax.”
This was a kid who was scared and didn’t know what to do. She came running to me because she looks up to me and believes if anyone can help her it’s me. Now if that’s not honor, to be a savior, What is?
“What are you going to do?”
She was almost on the verge of tears.
“You’re a nervous wreck right now. You and this money cannot be at the same place as your mom. She’ll smell you out. Do you want her to think you’re a thief?”
“No. I’m not a thief.”
“Good now listen to me. Wait until she asks if you’ve seen it. Then you’ll come and take it, drop it under the bed, and ask her if she looked there. Then you’ll volunteer to help search for it. You’ll find it under the bed and give it to her. She’ll think you’re a hero.”
See? Like a boss.
“You think that will work?”
“Do you want my help or not?”
“Then do as I tell you.”
I decided the money had to be hidden somewhere away from the houses as we waited for her mom to realize its absence. Mine and hers. I didn’t have time and energy to explain to my aunt where I got five hundred shillings when I talked to God in her presence and promised never to steal again. The money was staying out.
And since I had more experience in the profession I decided where and when to hide the money. Of course, I didn’t tell her where I was going to hide it. She was young, stupid, and paranoid. Who knew what she could do?
“Go home and tell your mom I want you to take me to the shops. Hurry.”
She ran back to the house. I looked at the pile of leaves behind me and decided that was to be the bank. I quickly dug a hole deep under the dirt and deposited the money.
Every single day on my way to school I checked if the money was still there. It was. The leaves were burnt and some more piled up but the money was still there. Three days passed. Angela’s mom did not mention a missing five hundred note.
“What now?” She asked. We were in the field. Trying to play but failing. How do you play knowing five hundred shillings were out there somewhere unclaimed?
“Your mom doesn’t know it’s missing. You’re safe.”
And now that the money was not pronounced missing it belonged to us. Right?
We decided to use it. I had thought splitting it in half was fair. Everyone could do what she wanted with her share. The kid refused. What if her mom saw it? We decided to eat it little by little. Ten shillings a day.
We couldn’t afford to buy a lot. Just enough to eat and finish by the time the shop was out of sight. That left enough room to clean mouths and anything that could sell us out. Like I said she was a rich kid. Cakes and biscuits didn’t move her as they did me. I ate for both of us most of the time. I decided taking few coins with me to school wasn’t such a bad thing. Call it payment for a job well done. And it’s not like she was going to check the balance and realize I’ve been eating behind
her back. She didn’t know the bank and she never would.
I know what you’re thinking.
Did it ever not rain? Didn’t the bank ever catch fire when all the burning was being done?
My people, God does not forsake His people.
Five days. Or was it six? I can’t say for sure but our hippy days came to an end. Angela is the perfect representative of the rich side blew things up. She started refusing to eat at home because she was full from our outings. A piece of mutura and a packet of biscuits. Kid, seriously? That’s enough to shut your worms up?
Her mom probed and the little brat spat words she shouldn’t have.
“Angela told me everything about the money,” I remember her mom saying. She was standing at the stairs and I was on the lawn. Angela was inside. I didn’t see her but I heard her.
“I’m not mad. Angela said you keep the money. Is that true?”
“How much is left?”
“It’s finished,” I said swallowing a huge lump.
“According to Angela you’ve only used seventy shillings.”
She then proceeded to name everything we ever bought.: Biscuits, kangumu, chips, mutura, kashata… Everything.
“That means you have 430 left. Can I have the balance?”
“Where do you keep it?”
Like I was going to tell her that!
“There.” I pointed to nowhere in particular. Her daughter didn’t know that place and neither would she. That was mine. My secret to keeping and her mystery to never uncover. And to think she always walked past the heap every single day…
“Go and bring me the balance.”
I turned around like a lifeless boneless piece of paper. I felt twice as small as when my aunt reprimanded me for stealing from her. I had talked to God. What the hell happened?
As I walked back to my deposit box I counted everything I ever bought while in school. Some I remembered. Some I didn’t. Others I didn’t know if it’s her money I used or mine. All I remember is eating.
I dug out the balance. Sixty-five bob.
Where was the other money? I dug deeper but nothing. I knew deep down all the ‘chapati surwa’ and ‘ice ya maziwa’ I was enjoying the past week was not two loaves and two fish. But still, sixty-five bob?
How was I to take that amount to Angela’s mother? She was waiting for four hundred and thirty shillings and I had in my hand a proud sixty-five shillings. Yeah, this was an idea of a joke.
Maybe I should run away, I thought.
What if she told my aunt? My aunt. She would disable my esophagus for sure.
I was done for.
“This is it?”
The woman asked looking at the pitiful money in her hand.
“I used some in school. I’m sorry.”
I was crying.
“Why didn’t you come to me when Angela came to you? Angela is a child she can’t reason. You are old enough to reason.” Her voice was calm and controlled. She didn’t yell or call me names but I knew. I knew she was disappointed in me. She was hurt and betrayed. And even after all these years, I’ve never forgiven myself for that. I can’t think of Angela and not be haunted by her mother’s pained hurt look.
I avoided Angela, she stayed away from me. The following month they moved. Now, I don’t know where they went or how they are but I just wish she’s still close to her mom. And I wish her mom would not see me as a criminal and realize that I was just trying to help. Her daughter was not a thief and neither was I. We were just two kids learning the hard way.