Kamau's Finish

"Wooyay please with sugarcane juice," I silently pray. "Let me be one of the lucky ones today."

Although Kenyatta Primary Academy in Nakuru has almost...Baba is there for me.

While the headmistress screeches something or other on the squeaky microphone, I scan the group standing on the other side of the track. Baba is not among them. You can’t miss him because he’s tall and big like Tiger Power, the strongman who pulls cars with his teeth.

My team is the Red House, and we’re squashed between the Yellow and Blue House teams. Immediately across is the three-step winner’s podium. 

I cross my eyes three times in its direction, shooting lucky uganga rays. But Chris and Daudi pull my T-shirt and break concentration.  

I bat their hands away and crouch down. We’re sitting on the ground right in front of the track. Mr Juma our sports master let us sit here because we helped him mark the track into lanes with white chalk. 

 Murram dust will fly in our face during the races but we’ll still have the best view.  

Suddenly, I see a tall figure approaching from a distance and shoot up again. But Baba is half bald, and this man has tight clumps that look like sleeping safari ants scattered about his head.  

"Down, Kamau!" barks Mr. Juma. My race will start in a few minutes. I close my eyes and slowly mouth the secret word. Ndigidigimazlpaxkarumbeta! Please let Baba be here by the end of this blink. But I open my eyes too soon, way too soon. Still, I will not lose faith. 

Just this morning, I pressed my thumb into the fleshy pad of Baba’s thumb to will him to come and see me run. He didn’t pull away.  

"I have an important business meeting, Kamau, so we’ll just have to see." His dark brown eyes seemed full of heavy thoughts.  

I pushed my thumb harder to get his full attention. "Please, Baba..."  

Mami butted in, "Stop pestering your father. Only thinking about yourself. How selfish can you be?" She is hugely pregnant and can scold until your head vibrates. "Your father has to work. Do you think the money we use to educate you is donated by foreign aid? May be you think we can feed on Saliva like bacteria, or live on yesterday’s skin like fleas? You have no idea about the financial problems…."  

Baba coughed.  

Mami stopped talking and for a moment they stared at each other.  

Mami lashed at me again. "What’s that mushing thumbs uganga anyway?" 

My eight year-old sister, Wanja, laughed, giving us all a good long look at the mushy stuff in her mouth. Neither of my parents said anything about her bad manners. She had just shown them her report card and, as vomit usual, she was first in her class. Of course, they ten asked for mine, and I had to dig it out of the bottom of my bag.

"Kamau needs to concentrate. He is easily distracted…" Mami waved the report at Baba. "Didn’t I tell you that all this boy does night and day is dream? If they tested a subject called dreaming, Kamau’s grades would burst through the ceiling and pierce the cover of the sky!"  

Baba had nodded his head in Mami’s direction. Did he agree with Mami?  

"Kamau’s head is full of nonsense!" Mami prodded my head. I let it bob up and down like a rubber on a string. "He needed to knuckle down. I want him to succeed. Achievement is what matters. Maybe he dreams he’ll be the next president of this country. President Kamau? Heh! Kamau, get serious, even future kings need to work."  

It was no use telling her I try. 

My friend Chris once told me his mother said babies in the belly kick. So I squinted and sent mega uganga rays to the baby in Mami’s belly to make its legs stronger. She stopped talking and placed a hand over her side.  

Maybe my uganga rays were too strong.  

I held my breath in awe of my powers, but nothing else happened. Then Njau, my four-year old brother, piped up in his voice, "Baba said effort is what matters."  

Baba rumbled, "And problems help us grow."  

Mami had scrunched her face as though a mountain of firewood was pressing on her head, and waddled off to pack my special energy lunch- sweet potato slices, maziwa lala, boiled egg, two carrots, and an orange. 

 I bite into the pad of my thumb, it’s tingling. Ndigidigimazlpaxkarumbeta!  

"Sit down, Kamau, how many times do I have to tell you?" Mr Juma’s voice  rises up and whips me back down.  

I glance over at the Yellows. When my eyes lock with Kip’s I silently chant, "Yellow, yellow, dirty fellow."  

He points his index finger and cocks his thumb at me. I duck the imaginary bullet, but he’s laughing, trading high-fives with his mates, and doesn’t notice.  

Kip is ten, a year younger than most of my class, and usually the fastest. But twice, during practice runs this term, I beat him. He spat at me and sulked off. Everyone else clapped me on the back, even Mr Juma. 

When I told Baba, he said, "Well done, son" and "Good for you."  

Now if only Baba would get here, I’d show him how I did it. I’d prove to him that I’m not just a hopeless dreamer.  

Our eight hundred-metre race is announced over the screechy microphone. I stare desperately at the parents’ side of the track as we file to the starting block. He isn’t there.  

Three runners from each team stand at attention. Mr Juma calls for silence. 

"Good luck," says Chris in a hoarse voice,  

"Same to you," I whisper, as we crouch down in starting position. 

"On your marks!"  

Daudi is in the farthest lane. His lips are moving in silent prayer. Kip calls him mkiha, the last carriage of a train. Of course, Kip sees himself as the engine, the one that always gets to its destination first. I look past Daudi. No sign of Baba, only a few other parents jostling to get a better view of their sons at the starting line.  

Mami said I was selfish to need Baba here today, but I so want to prove to him and Mami I can be a winner. If he comes just this once, I’ll never ask him again.  

"Get Set!" 

I look down at my hands splayed on the ground and feel such a sharp tingling in my thumb that I glance up.  

And there he is! My thumb never lies. There is Baba pushing his way through the throng of parents along the track. There is no mistaking that huge shining head floating above the rest, hurrying  in my direction.  

Boom! The gun goes off.  

I want to burst with happiness. But a blur of bodies has already bolted forward. They have a head start. I have to concentrate on the race instead of thinking about the miracle of Baba being here. I glue my eyes on the nearest runner, a blue T-shirt. I concentrate on catching up with him. 

I run like Ananse the hungry hare on his way to Mr. Elephant’s feast. I overtake him.  

Concentration, concentration, concentration now begins. To that beat, I run faster. I run in long hard strides that bounce off the ground and pull on the back of my thighs. My legs feel strong. I set my sights on a yellow back. A surge of warmth floods my body as I overtake him.  

I can tell it’s Daudi directly in front of me because he runs with his head facing the sky. He’s already slowing. I pound past him with my eyes locked on Kip’s yellow shirt.  

He’s in a cluster but I know Kip always goes for the flashy sprint finish. I have to catch up with him now if I’m to have if I’m to have a chance. Concentration, concentration, concentration now begins. 

Amidst all the crowd noises, I think I hear Baba yell, ‘’Run, son!’’ 

A new energy tingles from my feet, up along my legs, loosens my hips and expands my chest. I tear past Chris who is panting like a horse, Uganga magic is with me!  

The cluster is breaking up. Kip is racing ahead. My heart hammers in my ribs. I open my mouth wider to take in more air. I’m catching. I’m dispersing cluster. I overtake one, two, three boys.  

I’m flying, my feet almost slapping my bottom, half a step behind Kip.  

When I win this race, Mami will never scold me again. When I win this race, Wanja will swallow her snickering. Best of all, Baba will look in my eyes to congratulate me. Baba will finally see me.  

Everything feels slow motion. The noise, the people, and the track float away into the great uganga-land of dreams. I hear only distant echoes, "..win, win, win!"  

I’m neck and neck with Kip, matching him stride for stride. He leans toward me as though to draw strength from me. The finish line ribbon flutters red maybe 50 metres ahead. I’m going to win! My teammates will carry me on their shoulders, shouting, "Hero! Hero!"  When I climb the winner’s podium to collect my medal, I won’t even punch the air or do a show off dance. Baba will already know I’m a hero. Baba will…

An unexpected shove jolts me out of my dream. Then I’m wobbling, fighting for control. I fall 

Unbelievable!  

I swallow the grit on my tongue and shake my head to clear the ringing on my ears. I feel confused. Not quite on this earth.  My hands are grazed with white track chalk mixed with brown soil and smudges of blood. I shape them into fists and press hard to force away the pain. A blue shirt whizzes by, kicking dust in my face.  

While I was in my dream, Kip must have pushed me with his elbow. I think Mami would be proud of a son like Kip who knows winning is what matters.  

Legs zoom past me in a whir of hot air and dust. I glance towards the side of the track. The crowd probably thinks Kip and I touched accidentally.  

A cheer goes up and I realize Kip must have crossed the red ribbon. Kip has won my race. No. Kip has stolen my race. I want to call to Baba that I should have won. Will he believe that Kip tripped me?  

Most of the runners are finishing. Daudi rushes past me, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, probably elated not to be the mkiha for once. I look back and see Baba’s shiny face. He is running alongside the track, gesturing wildly- up, up, up-pointing to the finish line. But how will getting up help me? I’ll pretend my leg is broken. I’ll give a dramatic cry for help. I’ll… 

I become aware the noise, the cheering. They’re chantingmy name. "Ka ma uu, Ka ma uu!" They’re shouting for me to finish, I feel like shouting back, "Whatever for? All I’m good for is dreaming." 

Then I notice their eyes are not on me but on my lumbering Baba who has crossed the track behind me. He is wearing a black suit and shiny lizard shoes he bought donkey years ago that usually make me cringe.  

My ears buzz, but I think I hear him shout, "Run son! Get up and run!" 

Uncertain, I scramble up and gape at Baba. Sweat streams down his face, and he holds a hand over his chest. Is he having a heart attack? 

He can’t be. His eyes are shining. I can see every tooth in his mouth. 

Baba is beaming!

So I wipe my nose with my wrists and laugh through the tears. It sounds like I am crying. But Baba is beaming. 

I keep my eyes on him and trot sheepishly alongside to the finish. So much noise, so many people crowding the finish area. Mr. Juma is probably shouting for order. 

But I only have ears for Baba.