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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Curiosity, hidden in books

There is a common saying that curiosity killed the cat, and a belief in that saying precisely denies us the opportunity to explore and learn. Growing up, curiosity was my second name. In fact I feel, I have missed out on getting the maximum from life, due to reduced level of curiosity in the name of growing up and knowing that the world is not a straight line, that life is not always as it seems; that people are not always as they seem. When I look at my nephews and nieces I can’t help but see aspects of my childhood in them. My niece Bridget in particular reminds me of my childhood curiosity with books! I grew up in the rural, where newspapers and other reading materials were not common. But this didn’t deter my curiosity, as a child, the world was a whole as it could be, after all as a child you don’t know what’s missing, just what’s available. One of the issues I was curious about was how the body ‘knows what the medication is meant for’! As young as 7 years I used to really wonder why when one takes pain killers especially Panadols for different kinds of pain! How does the body ‘know’ the pain is in the head and not the leg?? Of course I had to wait until secondary school to learn about nerves, and I remember that biology class was an Aha! moment for me.

Back to my niece Bridget, who is 5 years now, I used to empathize before she joined school; the was so eager and curious when her older sister Valerie (7yrs) was reading and more so when singing and referring to a book. The sadness in the eyes of the just over 2 year old (then) that she could not read! At one time eager to go to school ( she was not yet 3 yrs) she decided that fees must be the issue. She asked her mother how much ‘her sister’s school cost! The mother tried to explain wondering how to conceptualize the cost of setting up a school to a kid! But, when my sister shared the story I realized the young girl was asking about school fees! She must have reasoned that the money needed for her to go to school must be a lot that her parents had not yet been able to accumulate it, she must have thought of various reasons why she was not yet in school.

It didn’t help matters that when the mother would often go with her to pick the elder sister from school, the teacher made the joke about her being welcome to class. Later, the girl had to literally be unplucked kicking and crying from a desk! she went home crying and refused to eat until she was bought uniform and school bag. At long last she was old enough to go to school, (actually she joined school in the middle of the year) and I pray that her curiosity remains. The last time I bought her a coloring book, her mother didn’t get to close her eyes till 1.00am! She must be lucky to have a teacher for a mother!

My fascination and curiosity with reading and was inspired by my siblings, more so my elder brother, who I used to see reading novels most of the times. (Now, my brother George you never told me university there was more than just reading novels at the university!). I always used to admire the size of the novels he read, and for sure I thought university was all about reading novels, and I did read enough novels in campus anyway!

In our family I seem to be the one who had so much drama about school and stories are retold to-date. I loved school! I loved reading (loudly most of the times) and I wrote on any surface that I came across using chalk and charcoal, whichever was close at hand at any particular moment. It didn’t help that our primary school head teacher told us that one would get a stomach ache if they stayed a whole day without reading during the holidays and weekends. I was never one to get the stomach ache, I obeyed.

I have fond memories since nursery school. In my days, one went to nursery school at 6 yrs of age to mainly know how to write 1 -10, your name and A-Z (if you are lucky). We used to write on the floor, walls, and books were reserved for only main class work after one had practiced on the walls, blackboards and the floor. As kids we were taught as individuals so it came as a shock when one day a certain boy was asked to write on the blackboard and he wrote numbers 1- 10, while I had only been taught 1-5! I went home running and ‘reported’ the teacher and my dad promptly taught me 6-10. I proudly ‘showed off’ this newly found knowledge to the teacher the following day.

The curiosity of discovering what is in books was so strong I must have been such a bother to my elder siblings. I was eager to know what was in the books that any new books that I came across meant trouble for my older siblings. I developed the love of books at the early age, and luckily I got away with failing in household chores since there was something to show for it at the end of the month with the monthly tests. I especially loved English books as they had many stories that I hoped could turn real. In those days, while in class 1-3 we learnt 4 subjects: English, Kiswahili, Maths and Kikuyu. Somehow there was something new to solve every day, curious questions some of which I didn’t think answers would be discovered in this life time! Like when a certain older man put us on the spot when he asked us if we knew how to add and subtract! Of course we did; then he gave us a test of 5-8! We were sure that is not a possible mathematical problem and went home disheartened since he insisted there was an answer and my older siblings effort to explain negative numbers didn’t make sense!

As I grew older, with more books and more subjects, my favourite books were stories in the three languages we learnt. I will never forget the magical calabash and used to imagine some magical calabash that would fulfill the childish dreams that I had in my imaginative mind. The Alladin lamp…the ogres in stories, the beautiful Wacici the beautiful girl who was mistreated by her jealous step-sisters; Waceke the girl who got lost and cried in the market; elfu Lela Ulela; you name them, what a fantastic childhood. Unlike in real life, the stories always ended with the good winning over the evil. I believed that was what life was all about. Curiosity worked just fine, as a lot was hidden in books. I am not sure if there is a difference between reading and cramming in childhood. I know I read/ crammed, since I can still remember cramming several pages of the books in lower classes. No wonder Maths get left out, what was there to read/ sing? We sang the Baba, Mama, Kaka…. And I felt an achievement when my elder sister learnt from me that ‘uteo’ is the winnowing tray. I am not certain if she really didn’t know (before 844 system, Kiswahili was optional) or she was flattering me, but it worked just right. My late sister Jane Wangari/ Mama Gitau,Amos and Kevin(May she Rest in Eternal Peace) was such an encouragement for me. Despite the fact that she was a teacher I actually thought I was teaching her what I had learnt. Such is the faith of a child, such is the nurturing a curios child’s mind requires.

I am not sure when I stopped believing in the magic calabash, or who introduced the Pacesetters to my life. By the time I finished class 8 I was reading novels, not sure if out of curiosity anymore or a stage in life. The first book outside of the African writers’ novels that I read was the Sidney Sheldon’s ‘If tomorrow comes’. I still love the name 'Stacy' the main character in that book. I can’t count the number of novels and other books I have read ever since then. I can’t count the number of books that I buy, every month, but I know that books have formed an important part of my life. Books are a treasure. When I am feeling low, I need to buy books, and there is such a calming relief from reading books. Some people find it strange when I say that visiting a book shop is my favourite shopping spree when am feeling low. If I step out of a book shop without buying a book then that is quite an achievement ( cant remember doing that though...may be in 5% of the cases)

I hope my niece will continue having curiosity to learn more and more. Often I wish I can recapture the curiosity of childhood. The curiosity of wanting to know more and more. In the current world with ICT revolution where there is overload of information, there is often more to read than curiosity can allow. There is a lot of relevant and irrelevant information, but there is something unique about written books! There is always an expectation of opening a new book, of wondering what is in the next page. Every book leaves the mind different. Right now I am re-reading Paullo Coelho’s ‘By the River Piedra, I sat and wept’. Some of the quotes in this book, like in many of Paullo Coelho’s books are inspiring, that I can repeat over and over. Here is one interesting quotes ( and you can now only guess what is in the rest of the book, and the many others of Paullo Coelho's)

"You have to take risks, he said. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Every day, God gives us the sun--and also one moment in which we have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Every day, we try to pretend that we haven't perceived that moment, that it doesn't exist--that today is the same as yesterday and will be the same as tomorrow. But if people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover that magic moment. It may arrive in the instant when we are doing something mundane, like putting our front-door key in the lock; it may lie hidden in the quiet that follows the lunch hour or in the thousand and one things that all seem the same to us. But that moment exists--a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles."
— Paulo Coelho (By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept)