Dreams in a Time of War

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

April 1954, Limuru

I had not had lunch that day and my stomach had already forgotten the breakfast porridge gobbled before my six-mile run to Kĩnyogori Intermediate School. Now there were the same miles to cross on my way back home. I tried not to look too far ahead. My mother was good at conjuring up at least a meal a day, but when one is hungry it is better to find something, anything, to take one’s mind away from thoughts of food. I did this at lunchtime when the other children took out their packed lunches and those who lived in the neighbourhood went home to eat. I would pretend that I had somewhere to go, but really it was to the shade of a tree or the cover of a bush, far from the other children, just to read a book, any book – not that there were many of them – even class notes were a welcome distraction. That day I read from an abridged version of Oliver Twist. There was a line drawing of Oliver, bowl in hand, looking up at a towering figure, with the caption, ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ I identified with his request.

Listening to stories from the other children was a soothing distraction, especially during the walk home, a lesser ordeal than in the morning when we had to run, barefoot, all the way to school, sweat streaming down our cheeks, to avoid tardiness and the inevitable lashes on our open palms. On the way back Kenneth, my classmate, and I were good at killing time, especially as we climbed the last hill before home. Facing the sloping side, we each would kick a ‘ball’, usually sodom apples, backwards over our heads up the hill. The next kick would be from where the first ball had landed, and so on, competing to beat each other to the top. It was not the easiest or fastest way of getting there, but it had the virtue of making us forget the world. But now we were too big for that kind of play. Besides, no games could beat storytelling.

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