“You have not changed”.
That is how long forgotten school mates start conversations. The phrase is supposed to be a compliment. It means one has retained the same appearance despite the poor eating habits, lack of exercise and an assortment of adapted poisons that became part of the staple diet with the loss of innocence. To retain the same appearance after three decades can only be a good thing. The effects of parenting and middle age can take a toll on one’s looks, I kid you not.
I had recently reconnected with a friend online, who I had not seen nor heard from in almost 30 years.
Kennedy Obiero, JaDunga is a guy I went to primary school with in Kisumu at M.M.Shah where I did my final two years of primary school. M.M.Shah was part of a small cluster of Indian founded schools that included Arya, Bhayani, Aga Khan and Xavier (which had Goan roots). My parents believed that if you wanted to pass exams, you went to an Indian manned school because they were unrivaled in mathematics.
I had lost connection with the school’s alumni, save for a small clique of about 5 friends that I remained in contact with since the late 80s.
Obiero was a name from that past. I thought he looked exactly the same too. The same guy with a big head, ever happy for no good reason and his “Dholuo” was still deep.
We were candidates in 1988. In those intense cram or die days, when passing exams was the sum total of the school experience. Primary school was where potential was graded, to compete for the few best slots in good high schools that prepared the ground for college, where prestigious careers were horned. Our life purpose then was to become successes and make our parents proud.
School was where I spent the better part of my childhood. As soon as I could run, I was in school studying. The pressure was to make it through what was considered the most important public examination.
The dreaded KCPE. Passing the exam with flying colours became the main focus of the primary school life. Surviving the rigour of the school experience as Guinea pigs of the 8-4-4 system took resilience and cool classmates to take the edge off the seriousness. We all needed a friend to lean on with 10 compulsory subjects on the menu.
We studied from morning to evening, 6 days a week, through the holidays. Leaving our homes before 6 in the morning and returning after 6 in the evening with homework.
Then after three years of the academic bootcamp, from class 6-8, the results were released and only the winners were celebrated. Soon after, students were dispatched to various secondary schools and friends drifted apart like ocean waves, separated by distance and unknown forces. Only to be heard of at death, after the accidental encounter with as a familiar name in a newspaper obituary, that triggers a faint memory of someone you knew as child, now a connection gone for good.
Obiero had since moved to the UK where he works and lives. With the fallout of Brexit campaign, he had probably been looking homeward more. It was his idea to reunite our final year primary school class of 88. So he started a whatsapp group. The responses were slow in beginning but it soon took a life of its own.
School reunions are like a roll call. When your name is called out, the simple response required is ‘present”. The excitement of finding lost connections does not stop until all names have been accounted for.
Names that had been relegated to a distant memory were back in real time. They were familiar names and recognizable faces but we all knew we had changed. In South East Asian they would use the term as ‘same, same but different” to illustrate how, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
We now posted pictures of ourselves with young ones and a reunion party involved bouncy castles and a kids food menu. We were grown-ups . A few of my primary school peers were about to be grandparents and I had come to reluctantly admit that my generation were “the leaders of tomorrow” that teachers in primary school kept on harping about.
I recognized faces in public affairs and politics as names from school. There was a whole generation behind us who thought of us as ‘fathers’. They sought our guidance, questioned our examples and expected us to remain steadfast as role models.
They say that life begins at 40. I would add, reflection begins at 40. I have changed a great deal from the starry eyed studious boy at I was in primary 8. Life had taken me through the wringer. I have learnt to live out the consequences of my choices and become a better man from the experience.
My life purpose has evolved into something bigger than my personal career goals. I also found that the only way to have a true friend, is to be one. True friends stay, beyond distance, beyond words, beyond time.
Some of my childhood friends occupy the rarefied realm of friendships. They were there in the beginning when we were all trying to figure life out. They remind me of where I came from and how far I have traveled. They hold the mirror and they don’t lie back.
The intriguing thing about old friendships is that people can grow separately without growing apart. For true friendships can be resuscitated after 20 years with something as little as two worded whatsapp message
In a little over a week, I had reconnected with names and seen faces that I only realised were impossible to forget.
Some friendships remain imprinted in our hearts because they are built on a solid rock. Out of the haziness of the past, they emerge when it matters most to lend a hand that you had forgotten existed and the first thought that runs through one’s mind is,
“This guy has not changed”
Picture credits: Ben Curtis