To celebrate this month of love (listen, it’s still that month), human rights activist Njonjo Mue takes us back to a magical time when he felt the first flutterings of tender teenage love. But first a heads up. ‘Across’ means Alliance Girls High School, located across the valley from Njonjo’s alma mater, the Alliance High School (yes, we know. He too went to Alliance 😅). ‘Acrossian’ thus means a girl from Alliance Girls. This is a true love story of a boy and a girl from the Alliances.]
The year was 1983.
I was a 16-year-old Form 3 student at Alliance High School. It was the year President Daniel arap Moi had called a snap election to rid his government of the sympathisers of my namesake, former Attorney General and Minister for Constitutional Affairs Charles Njonjo, following the unsuccessful 1982 coup attempt. The subsequent ‘Msaliti’ saga had dominated national politics and Michael Jackson’s hit ‘Thriller’ had stormed the airwaves with the hurricane force of Katrina.
It was late November and school was out, and my cousins and I had gone to Hospital Hill Primary School one Thursday evening to attend one of the year’s highlights – the annual barbecue. Just as the sun slowly sunk beyond the horizon, I took a quiet stroll to enjoy the evening breeze and get away from other boys who had found their opposites and were busy exchanging sweet nothings.
As Kool and the Gang urged us in song to Get Down On It and to Celebration from the loud speakers outside the hall, I spotted her, and the very sight of her just took my breath away.
Her dark smooth skin seemed to radiate a mysterious warmth against the soft glow of the lone street lamp beneath which she stood, speaking quietly to a friend. Her eyes seemed to sparkle with mystery as she spoke, as if challenging her audience to guess what she was really saying, which was far deeper than the few words that she allowed to escape from her delicate lips. She wore a simple grey chiffon blouse that gave the upper part of her body an exquisite floating appearance, and a pleated navy-blue mini-skirt which stopped just above her knees, exposing the finest pair of legs I had ever seen.
I needed to speak to her. No, make that I had to speak to her. My very life seemed to depend on it, given the way I was running short of breath at the very thought that she might end up with someone else. You can therefore imagine my consternation when, upon saying a shy hello and telling her my name, she replied nonchalantly, “I know you.”
“But… but… you couldn’t possibly…” I stammered, my heart beating wildly. I did not know whether it was a good or bad sign that she claimed to know me, or even whether she was mistaking me for someone else.
“You are an Acrossian in Sellwood House,” she continued, with the regal authority of Wangu wa Makeri. The fact that she had used the word ‘Acrossian’ in reference to my school confirmed that she was also an Acrossian from Alliance Girls, which was across the valley from our school. And the fact that she knew my House made it clear that she had the right person in mind. As if on cue, her friend silently melted into the night, leaving just the two of us standing alone, silhouetted against the soft glow of the lone street lamp inside Hospital Hill Primary School.
If there is such a thing as an ideal standard for beauty, up until this point, my standard had been one Judy Achieng (not her real name). Back in Form 2, I had laid my eyes on her at some function in school and had immediately fallen head over heels for her. But each time I had tried to speak to her, my courage had entirely failed me at the last minute. And so I had decided to express my interest by penning a love letter to her. I had then eagerly awaited for her reply to come. Days had turned into weeks and weeks into months but the much-anticipated letter never arrived. From then on, I had kept a relatively low profile, finding comfort in observing the comings and goings on the social scene in quiet anonymity and from a safe distance. I, therefore, thought I was relatively unknown at Alliance Girls.
And yet here was this perfect stranger standing elegantly before me (listen, you needed to see her. I kid you not), smiling knowingly and proclaiming that she knew who I was. She did this with a familiarity that I found both unnerving and reassuring.
The annual Hospital Hill barbecue would take place in the school hall and the verandah surrounding it on the last Thursday of November. It was usually a family affair, with parents and guardians catching up in the hall over drinks and nyama choma. Their children, meanwhile, mingled freely nearby, only coming in once in a while to take a bite of the food and reassure their parents that they were okay, before disappearing again. All the while the latest music played in the background, giving the entire event the aura of a serious street party.
“Would you like to take a walk?” I ventured, expecting the worst.
“Sure,” she said, almost in a whisper. “And where exactly would you like to take me, Mr Mue?” She said ‘Mr Mue’ with the exaggerated respect of an overpaid butler accompanied by a slight bow. The dancing in her eyes seemed to suggest that this evening might be pregnant with possibilities.
“Well, I thought we could move a little further from the hall,” I offered, “where the music is not so loud, so we can talk a little.” I knew it was really an excuse to move away from the light and the noise in the hope that some privacy might yield unexpected dividends for me. I half expected her to object, but she obliged. Soon, we were strolling away from the crowd escorted by the fading sounds of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross as they sang their hit duet, Endless Love.[My love,
There’s only you in my life
The only thing that’s bright
My first love,
You’re every breath that I take
You’re every step I make…]
I casually slipped my arm around her waist and pulled her closer to me. She did not complain. I held her tighter, so tight in fact that we struggled to maintain our balance. Only then did I loosen my grip on my newfound treasure. We walked towards our unknown destination with the sudden urgency of a new love waiting impatiently to be discovered.[And I
I want to share
All my love with you
No one else will do...]
As we walked past what must have been the administration block building, I could vaguely make out the school motto written boldly above the entrance. It said “Nothing but the best.” I took this as a message from the heavens that our romantic stroll under the night’s moonless sky was the beginning of something truly special.[And your eyes
Your eyes, your eyes
They tell me how much you care
Ooh yes, you will always be
My endless love...]
“You seem to know all about me, but I know nothing about you except that you are an Acrossian,” I gently protested, stopping and turning her to face me as I leaned against a wall as soon as I felt we had gone far enough to guarantee our privacy.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said, playfully tugging at the lapels of my jacket. “I can either tell you everything about me tonight and then you will never see me again. Or I can give you a couple of hints and if you manage to find out who I am by the time we open school in January…” she paused and smiled coyly, the mysterious twinkle returning to her eyes. “You might just be in for a few more surprises.”
“If I choose the latter,” I said, putting my negotiating hat on, “I will need a deposit guaranteeing my investment.”
“Agreed,” she said.
When I asked her to give me the hints, she told me that she was a class behind me at Across and was in Bruce House. But she would not tell me her name. That was what I needed to find out by January if this night was to become not just the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning.
All too soon, I knew that we needed to be heading back to the hall before a search party was sent out to look for us as the barbecue was nearing the end. Lionel Richie and Diana Ross also seemed to be coming to the end of their song, which for some reason, the DJ had decided to play again.[Two hearts,
Two hearts that beat as one
Our lives have just begun…]
“And my deposit?” I asked as I gently repositioned her so that we switched positions, with her back now against the wall. By now, I had given up my jacket to help keep her warm, and so I couldn’t tell whether the shiver I felt was the result of the light breeze that was blowing our way or whether it was coming from somewhere deep within me.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she whispered, moving closer to me and closing her eyes.[Forever
I’ll hold you close in my arms
I can’t resist your charm…]
As I wrapped my arms around her, I noticed that she too was shivering. For what seemed like an eternity, neither of us spoke. We stood there, holding desperately onto each other, swaying gently, as if dancing to the wind, and listening to the silence that only gave way to the sound of our own two hearts beating as one.[And love
I’ll be a fool
You know I don’t mind
Oh, you know I don’t mind…]
When the moment finally came, it came without warning and was as surprising as it was expected. Our lips found each other and we kissed, lightly at first, then deeply and passionately, as if we had no intention of ever letting go.[’cause you,
You mean the world to me
I’ve found in you
My endless love.]
Eventually, we reluctantly pulled away from each other and walked back, hand in hand, to the hall where the party was just ending. She was even more strikingly beautiful in the full light inside the hall than she had looked in the soft glow of the lone street lamp when I had first laid eyes on her earlier that evening. I was reunited with my cousins and she with her friend. We said goodbye, promising to look each other up when school opened after the Christmas break.
As I left Hospital Hill School that Thursday night, I was excited at the fact that there was a distinct possibility that I might soon join the ranks of the elite club of those boys in school who had their very own Acrossian. But before that could happen, I also knew that I had my work cut out for me.
The December holidays could not end soon enough once I managed to figure out who she was. It had happened in the most unexpected way. A friend of my cousin’s, who was in Form Two at Alliance Boys, had also been at the BBQ during that magical night in late November. He was visiting us one day just before Christmas when he casually mentioned her name in conversation, asking me how she was doing.
“Who is that?” I asked, looking at him blankly.
“The chick I saw you with at the BBQ,” he said. “Don’t tell me that you’ve already forgotten her name.”
“Of course not,” I replied, recovering quickly. I did not want to disclose the nature of the curious challenge she had presented to me as a result of which I didn’t even know her name. But I was barely able to hide my excitement now that the code had been cracked. I asked him how he knew her, and he said that she had been one class ahead of him in primary school. When he came to Alliance, he had escorted her twice across the valley and had later tried to pursue her but she had remained aloof and obviously considered herself beyond his reach, and so he had given up.
As the holidays drew to an end and we prepared to go back to school, I was so excited that I found it difficult to sleep through the night. I imagined how it would be having an Acrossian girlfriend of my own. I no longer had to fear floating during joint events because she would be there for me, and when she happened not to be, there would be no pressure to socialise since everyone would know I was committed to this one person and would take my floating as a voluntary act of loyalty. Life would never be the same again!
January came soon enough and I went back to school to begin my Fourth Form. I wondered about the best way to break the news that I had managed to find out her name so that we could get on with the business of discovering the ‘few more surprises’ she had promised to have in store for me once I got over this hurdle.
Should I pay her a visit at Alliance Girls during the first weekend? No, that would appear too desperate (though if truth be told, I was indeed desperate to see her again). Should I wait for the first joint school function? That seemed too far, since most clubs were still preparing their calendars for the term. Should I write her a letter? I was reluctant to do that, based on my previous bad experience with letter writing.
In the end, it was not me who went looking for her, but she who came to me. I was sitting with some friends in the dorm in the afternoon of the second Saturday after school opened, sharing our various holiday escapades – some real but mostly imagined – when a Form Two boy from Aggrey House walked in and announced that I had a visitor waiting to see me at the Parade Ground. I was not used to receiving random visitors in school and so I wondered aloud who it could be as I started for the door.
“It’s an Acrossian,” said the Form Two, his voice chiming with the exaggerated tone of the bearer of unexpected good tidings. My heart almost stopped. I knew it could not be anyone else. I did not know any Acrossian who would walk all the way unannounced across the valley to see me on a Saturday afternoon. But I also doubted it was her. Wasn’t she supposed to wait until I found out who she was and sent word to her? But then I thought back to our first meeting at the BBQ in November and remembered how she had come across as a woman who usually knew what she wanted and went for it. It had to be her. I went back to my locker and quickly changed into more presentable clothes, applied a dab of cologne and dashed off towards the parade ground.
When I got there, I found her half-sitting, half leaning delicately back against the low stone platform on which the teachers usually stood as they addressed the school parade. She looked composed and regal as if posing for a portrait, with her arms crossed over her chest, one leg bent at the knee and the foot resting gently against the wall. The new school uniform she wore made her look somewhat smaller than I remembered her from our first meeting. It also made her look sober and innocent now. The blue miniskirt had made her look sensual and provocative then.
“Hi, what a surprise!” I said, my voice sounding a pitch higher than usual in my own ear. I wasn’t sure how I should greet her. A mere handshake seemed too formal given how our last encounter had ended, and yet a hug in mid-afternoon in the middle of the parade ground might be interpreted as being a wee bit forward and invite trouble from some over-enthusiastic prefect. I did neither, instead choosing to give her an endearing look that I hoped adequately communicated my dilemma.
“Well, I guessed that you’d failed the test and did not have the courage to admit it, so I thought I should come over and put you out of your misery,” she said, laughing gleefully with the confident manner of one accustomed to winning. As she laughed, she tossed her head back in such a carefree way that I found myself instinctively joining in the laughter. But my excitement at seeing her made my own laughter go on a little too long.
“Ah, but you are wrong, my dear,” I said, regaining a measure of control. “Terribly wrong.” I did not immediately tell her that I had already found out her name. It was my turn to play games, now that she had brought herself willingly and unexpectedly to my territory.
“How much time do you have?” I asked. “Can we take a walk?” I was half-hoping to re-enact the memorable stroll we had taken at the BBQ, though of course, I knew that this time around we had to keep a respectable distance from each other. I could almost feel the eyes of curious onlookers on our backs as we casually strolled, deep in conversation, past the dining hall and the swimming pool towards the lower gate.
I had never enjoyed being the centre of attention so much before in my life. I was suddenly in very good spirits and had to resist the urge to stop and say hello to random boys we passed on our way to ensure they took note of my exceedingly good fortune.
I had once wandered into the beautifully manicured lawn of the Church of the Torch where I had spent a lazy afternoon lying alone on the soft grass reading a book and enjoying the sights and sounds. At the time, I had thought it such a waste not to have anyone to share all this serenity with. I had, therefore, subconsciously made a decision that one day I would bring my Acrossian girlfriend, if I was ever privileged to have one, here to share this beauty. And so, once outside the lower gate, we turned left towards the junction and then walked up the hill past Musa Gitau Primary School and onto Hospital Road, enjoying the perfect afternoon weather that was neither too hot nor too cold. Once inside the church compound, we spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on how each of us had spent the Christmas holidays after we had taken leave of each other in November. We admired the grand architecture of the old church before settling down to sit on the grass and enjoying the giddy feelings of young teenagers falling in love.
From then on, this church lawn would become one of our favourite places to hang out on the weekends. I would often read poetry to my newfound love as the majestic cathedral stood in silent witness. The birds also seemed to cheer us on as she regaled me with stories of growing up in her family farm in Nakuru. It was the start of a whirlwind romance. We couldn’t see enough of each other.
Being one class apart, we did not let the fact that we didn’t have many club functions in common deter us. Instead, I would usually make a point of waiting for her at the end of a club meeting and she would skip the refreshments to spend time with me before I walked her across the valley.
And then there were the charity films that neither of us missed and yet hardly really watched, as the highlight for us was the opportunity to sit together, holding hands in the darkened hall, whispering sweet nothings to each other and rekindling memories of the first night we met. We also exchanged letters, sometimes as many as three a week, making full use of the unique mail service that delivered letters to and from Across twice a day.
All the while, we eagerly looked forward to the weekend and the obligatory walk up the hill to our favourite spot on the green lawn of the Church of the Torch. It was a romance made in heaven, whose details we were just faithfully working out here on earth. Surely, the gods were smiling down upon us.
Or so I thought.
For all too soon, our fairytale romance came to an end. Suddenly and unexpectedly. We had a date to meet at Across one Thursday evening after a Debating Society meeting. Earlier during the day, I had gone to Nairobi for a dental appointment. Unfortunately, I never made it back in time to join the team going Across as the Kenya Bus broke down at Dagoretti Corner on our way back. I, therefore, wrote to her that same night apologising for not showing up and explaining what had happened. I ended the letter by telling her how much I had missed her.
Her reply, when it came, was a thunderbolt that knocked the breath out of me:
“I did not miss you at all,” the words leaped from the page, assaulting my unbelieving eyes. “In fact, I never want to see you again.”
I thought it must have been a joke. But when I wrote to her two more letters that went unanswered, and two weeks passed without hearing a word from her, it started to dawn on me that she may have been serious after all. I went Across to see her the following Saturday afternoon, hoping at least to get an explanation, but when I sent for her, she did not come. Instead, a friend of hers came and told me flatly that she did not want to see me. “Why?” She was not at liberty to say.
To this day, I have no idea why our budding friendship came to such an abrupt end. I had been the perfect gentleman during those six months, at least as perfect a gentleman as any sixteen-year-old boy could be. Nor was it, as far as I could tell, the fact that she’d met someone else, for after that, she avoided all social functions.
And so, as suddenly as she had come into my life, she had gone away, taking my heart with her. And for a while, I did not know whether it would ever be returned to me. But, eventually, it came back, in bits and pieces. As I wrote her long letters of lament – which I never posted, and took lonely walks up the hill to breathe the fresh air that we had shared at the Church of the Torch. As I silently re-read the poems I had read to her in happier times and remembered the moments we spent together during those magical months. All this, surely but agonisingly slowly, brought my tender, aching heart back to me and, eventually, released me to move on.
With the passage of time, I have often wondered whether what we had was true love or just a passing infatuation between two teenagers. But whether the love was real or imagined, the memories of the moments we shared in school and on the hills and valleys around Kikuyu during the first two terms of 1984 remain some of the most defining features of my youth. For it is better to love and lose than not to love at all.