The Joy of Breaking Up a Watch
By Haron Wachira
He never ceased to find a way of getting into trouble. With teachers. With other boys. And with us, his family, especially Mom.
I avoided him, whenever I could, because, although I was one or two years older, Langa’s fights never ended. He believed that he had to be last one to hit back, no matter how badly beaten up he got. He was also a lot stronger. Most others in our family also kept clear of Langa.
Not my elder sister. Norah had always been the brave one at home. Now married and living far away, she had not been up to date with the nitty-gritty of the goings on at home. When she heard that Langa had dropped out of school and was literary on his path to destruction, Norah came home and carried him off with a valiant commitment to give the headstrong rebel a complete turnaround. Only Norah could have done that.
Langa lived in Norah’s home for a week. Then one cold July morning as we sat by the fire in Mom’s kitchen Lynn, the youngest girl in the home, cried out in alarm: “Langa!” Instantly, we knew that trouble was knocking at the door. He walked into the kitchen in a slapdash fashion, carrying a curious bundle.
“What happened, Langa?” Mom greeted him as he stooped to find a sitting place on one of Mom’s stools.
“Ah!” he retorted, settling in the low stool, and we all waited for an answer.
After he had made himself as comfortable as could be achieved in the low stool, Langa placed his curious bundle on his thighs and dug two elbows into it, as if he was guarding a valuable possession he was afraid of losing.
“Mom said, ‘What happened?’” I reminded him.
“The problem with you people is that you always think something has to happen,” Langa complained.
“You’ve said it, man,” my Mathiu, Langa’s perennial irritator, cut in. “Something is always happening with you.” Mathiu was big-bodied, generally civil, but never afraid. And very strong.
“Shut up,” Langa said….
At that point, the sound of a car interrupted us. It was toiling hard as it climbed the hill towards our home. Then we heard a screech of brakes and banging of doors. It was clear that its occupants were our visitors – and they were in a hurry and very angry.
We all trooped out of the little hut to go meet our visitors. Then I heard Norah’s voice, and everything fell into place.
“Has anybody seen Langa!” she was saying.
That is when we noticed that, in the disorder that was occasioned by the sudden approach of our visitors, Langa had disappeared.
“He was here just now,” Mathiu assured Norah. Then he asked no one in particular, “Did anybody see where Langa went?”
“Was he carrying anything?” Norah asked.
“The bundle!” Mom exclaimed. “Now where has he gone? Didn’t anyone see where Langa went?”
“Oh, Please, please. Someone help me catch Langa,” Norah mourned.
“What did he take?” Mother begged her. “Mathiu. Aaron! Find Langa!”
We wanted, but none of us got, to hear what Norah answered Mom. The urgency of having to find him became for the moment the overriding consideration, and soon enough we all spread out all over the five acre tea and coffee farm in search of Langa.
We made our way toward the north end of our compound, the highest vantage point, so we could easily see him if he tried to dash across the highway.
Mathiu said, “He cannot have gone far”.
“Oh, Langa could be miles away by now,” I refuted. “Remember when he’d beaten up that boy in school and was chased by the marathon runners for four hours?”
Mathiu remembered, I could see. They had chased him down a valley, along the major tea transport route all the way to Kiamutugu, across a river that they had to swim to cross, up a steep incline and then eventually into the dense Mt Kenya forest. Eventually they gave up. It was the last time Langa had showed up in school.
“He may be hiding in the tea bushes,” Mathiu suggested.
“In which case we might as well give up looking,” I noted. Our small scale tea holding had more than five thousand tea bushes, all compactly intertwined. You would need all the searchers to go as a team, in a row stretching from one end of the farm to the other – at least one hundred people. And you’d have to approach from all sides so as to converge at the centre, otherwise Langa would sneak into the next tea smallholding.
Predictably, we never found Langa, and eventually we had to return home more anxious to hear what he had done than with the hope of catching him.
“Isn’t that Aluvat?” Mathiu pointed out as we approached our gate. Aluvat was our neighbour’s son, about my age. His illiterate father had intended to name him Albert, after an important white man he had heard about, but the rendering of the name came out “Aluvat.” And that is what we all called him.
It was the oddity of him standing outside our house that had struck Mathiu, and I understood without explanation. For, though we were neighbours with Aluvat’s family, typically, we only got together when my dad had to confront them about a boundary that Aluvat’s family kept pushing, eating into our land. In my own not so many years, I had witnessed at least three such confrontations, including one in which the chief had to be brought in and another in which the government district surveyor had to call in the police to guard him while he straightened up the disputed boundary line.
“Oh, no,” was all I could say, and then we were too close to speculate more.
“Langa is in our place,” Aluvat said simply. Apparently we were the first to return home from the hunt.
“Where about?” Mathiu said.
“Come,” he said, beginning to run back home. “I’ll show you.”
We sprinted after him, tearing through a short cut in our tea holding, and coming through from behind Aluvat’s home.
“Careful,” Mathiu began but stopped as suddenly as he had began. Aluvat had slowed down to nearly a crawl now, and was beckoning us to approach cautiously. Instead of rounding the corner to the front of his father’s house, he led us away from the main building, towards a large barn that had been abandoned for some time.
We followed on tiptoe, until we got to where Aluvat had now stopped, evidently trying to decide the best way to approach the barn. It was then I saw the others, including Norah and Mom. They stood a little distance away to our right – all of them very quiet – their eyes fixed on the barn. Aluvat’s father had a spear with him, held menacingly at the ready.
Mathiu got to the barn’s wall first. I followed right behind, and joined him where he had placed his face against the wooden planks that made up the barn’s walls.
Langa sat cross-legged on a bed sheet he had spread on the floor, facing a little-away from us, so that we could only see his left ear and a part of his mouth and cheeks. Next to him were the curious bundle he had come home with just a short while ago, and an assortment of crude weapons he had assembled for the battle he no doubt anticipated.
But what held our gaze was what he was doing. In front of him on the bed sheet he had dismantled a Swiss watch into hundreds of pieces and was, using a precision screw driver set, engaged in the impossible task of re-assembling back the pieces into a watch. So engrossed was he, I was sure, that even if we hadn’t approached on tiptoe, he would never have heard us.
We were so captivated by Langa’s work that we simply stayed there, spellbound, watching him through the tiny gaps between the planks, like peep toms. Slowly, the others joined us, including Aluvat’s father, whose grasp on his menacing spear had relaxed and now stood next to Mom, as if they had ever been the best of neighbours. Norah was right behind me, pressing her head on the barn’s wall over and above me, and I could feel the animated thumping of her heart and her controlled breathing as Langa progressively dropped each piece in its proper place, until he had a completely new watch. He wound the watch up carefully, then placed it proudly against his ear to confirm that it was making the right tick tocks. Upon which Langa smiled. So happy and fulfilled was he that we all had to join him in his moment of glory.
The sudden commotion outside the barn brought Langa back to the reality of imminent danger, spurring him into action. Grabbing a broken bottle that was part of his motley collection, he whirled around in anger, and would have hurled it without a moment’s hesitation had there been a ready target. I knew that next Langa would be whooshing through the barn’s door, wielding his weapons, and that everyone would give way to him in fear of getting hurt. And that we would never catch up with him.
But Mathiu forestalled the possibility. Before Langa could make his move, Mathiu jumped into the barn from one of the side windows, and was on top of his wayward brother in a jiffy, wrenching the broken glass bottle from Langa’s hand before the weapon found a target. Langa was a strong fellow, and the ensuing battle can only be described as a match between champions. But we stepped in and soon overwhelmed Langa. Norah rampaged through the bundle Langa had brought as we tied up his hands behind him, and his legs together.
“Where is the money, Langa? And the jewellery?” Norah screamed.
Langa did not say a word. We roughed him up a bit but he said not one word. Mathiu slapped him several times, threatening real damage if he did not tell where he’d hidden Norah’s money.
“Langa never keeps money. He drinks it all the same day.” That was Mom, now alarmed at the possibility that we might kill her son.
Suddenly, Norah ordered, “Take him to the car!”
“Oh, Ndaana,” Norah lamented to me as we walked back towards our compound, her newfound hope now frustrated. “He took everything. Everything. A loan my husband had just gotten to restock our shop. Our clothes. And my jewellery. Everything. And now, all I saw in that bundle were the old clothes.”
“And the watch – was that yours?” I said.
Norah stopped in her tracks. I had been following her in the narrow path that cut through the tea bushes, so I also had to stop. Turning to face me, it was as if Norah suddenly woke up from sleep, no, as if she had entered into a trance.
She was smiling when she eventually spoke. “You saw it, didn’t you?” she said. “Where did he learn that?”
“Learn what?” I asked, confused.
“The watch. Didn’t you see how he put it all back together?”
“Yeah.” I remembered.
“Where did he ever learn that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Frankly I did not care. Langa was breaking up someone’s watch – a stolen watch.
“Was it yours?” I asked again.
But, as always, Norah was different. She saw things from another plane. “Yes, no actually, it was Daniel’s.” Daniel was Norah’s husband. “But I would gladly give it to Langa for his kind of education?”
“Yeah,” I said. Even I could not help now but admire the work.
Norah and I resumed our walk back home, and when we got there we found that Langa had been packed up, like a piece of baggage, into the boot of the car. The driver had turned the car around and was waiting in the driver’s seat.
“Let’s go,” Norah said to the driver. It was then that I noticed that the car was a taxi – on hire. The trouble that Langa could put people through.
“What are you going to do with him?” Mom asked. She was the only one in our family with a soft spot for Langa.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Norah said. “Bye, Mom. And thanks to you all.”
They zoomed off and left a brown cloud as they sped along the dusty highway.
I went to a boarding high school soon after, and did not get to hear much about Langa or my sister, except during the holidays. I did get to hear that Langa had been consigned to Wamumu Approved School, the reformation centre for wayward kids. Through my high school years, I never visited him there, and for some reason, I never asked myself or anyone how Langa was doing, or how he spent his holidays. And so I was completely in the dark about Langa – for many years.
Until the day we met at home, again in the company of Norah. I had just arrived home myself for the holidays from college.
Again, they came in a car, a new Colt Lancer, not long after the brand became famous in Kenya after winning the Safari Rally with Kenya’s Joginder Singh. We saw the car weave its way effortlessly up the steep incline towards Mom’s house, but we only realised it was coming to our home when it stopped at exactly the same spot that the hired taxi had been parked with Langa in the boot many years back. I told Mom that I would attend to the visitors and made my way towards the gate.
I recognised the tall, handsome fellow that sprang out from the driver’s seat and went beside myself in shock. It was Langa, indeed. But he was smart and very respectable, and held the keys of the Colt Lancer like a pro!
“Mom!” I screamed, at the same time running towards Langa. But she was also out by now. It was always rude in our home to sit in the house and wait for visitors.
Norah got out from the passenger’s door as I engaged Langa in a bear hug, patting him hard at the back.
“What happened to you, man?” was all I could say.
“You should call him Corporal Langa?” Norah said.
“Corporal Langa!” It was Mathiu. Now married, he had shown up, followed by his little girl, Rhoda, from the tea farm where he had been working.
“Afande!” returned Langa in the traditional response of soldiers to their officers, making a mock salute.
“He is an electronics technician,” Norah revealed. She had it all carefully planned, I thought. “He fixes military aeroplanes.”
“Hear, hear,” Langa was saying, soaring above Norah, and very proud.
“And where did you learn all that?” I asked.
Norah said, “It’s in him. Remember that day in the barn?”
Of course, we all did. But we also knew that without Norah’s patience and ever enduring ability to see and keep pushing someone towards their better side, towards the light at the end of a very long dark tunnel, Langa would never have been able to answer to his new title.
Mom expressed it beautifully, “Thank you, Norah. Thank you.”
“All the glory to God,” Norah said, “who transformed Langa and taught him obedience.”
Indeed, I thought, looking up proudly at my new, six-foot tall brother.
The Joy of Breaking Up a Watch, is used with permission from Love in the Heart and Other Stories, by Haron Wachira, published by Jomo Kenyatta Foundation.