It’s all fun and games until hell breaks loose.
It begins as a whisper. A tiny speck of reality slowly unfolding right before your eyes, with total cluelessness of what is going on, how to react to the said tiny speck of reality. It then gradually increases its momentum and ferocity upon your innocent self and you are left there: standing with eyes wide open, caught in an inescapable dilemma of whether to escape: by escape I mean the literal direct version of you running the hell away from the crazy, life-threatening situation like the way a little girl would run away from something that looks straight out of a horror movie. The kind of running that would even shame the fastest of species in this cruel world of ours. Or the second option would be to face your deepest darkest fears: face them like the warrior you think yourself to be. A warrior from the ancient kingdom of Mphoko-something (You know those crazy names they give to those outstanding legendary African kingdoms) that our grandparents used to grace us with their long heroic tales during the Christmas holidays when we people from the urban areas undergo the annual mass exodus from our homes in the suburbs and retreat to be with the rest of the family members in the remote areas of our beloved country. Well, this particular incident would put me through one of the greatest dilemmas in youth history.
There’s no greater time of the year in the history of Mombasa than during the Christmas holidays. The sandy beaches are filled with fathers dressed in shorts, publicly portraying their round bulging pot-bellies to be feasted by the eyes of the public while they escort their children, who most of them happened to be seeing the ocean for the first time, into the shallow sides of the beach while tightly holding their hands in fear that the warm, rough waters of the Indian Ocean would scoop their children off their feet and drag them into the depths of the ocean where they would be devoured by hungry sharks who silently lurk around the shores, robbing them of their highly educated infants. At least such rumors serve an important role of ensuring an all-time surveillance of children as they enjoy the pleasure of playing in the soft sands and being washed by the pure white foam of the ocean waves as they calmly swish towards the edges of the shoreline. And all that fun is just the tip of the iceberg. When the sun finally sets and the night breathes its darkness into the world, everyone suddenly exits the caves they have been hiding into and slowly crawl out into the atmosphere. The whole area begins beaming with life as people head to their favorite night spots to “pass the night” with style (Drinking horribly while dancing like possessed people). And the next morning you are greeted with the sight of endless numbers of people lying dead asleep on the roadside, some snoring, others robbed of their belongings while drinking to the point of no return. No one tends to wake them up since the brutal heat of the daytime will soon install some sense into their hangover brains and reality will soon catch up with them of how they went past the limits of fun.
I looked at myself one last time as I headed out of our home to meet with my friends whom we had planned about how we would memorably spend the night leaving us with endless stories to tell our friends when we went back to school. It was the 31st month of December, the last month of the long, the treacherous year of 2013 which was filled with all sorts of scandals and mishaps that rained down on me. But today I would make sure I had the best time of my life, whether 2013 liked it or not. I took a thirty-minute walk towards my best friend’s home. Tony, he was called. I got in only to find that my whole squad was already there, patiently waiting for me. I froze. The kind of freezing that happens when you suddenly see someone whom you had not anticipated to see in due time. She was there. Seated at the edge of the brown couch, Lillian sat there like the angel she was: my all-time crush that made my hormone levels rise abruptly making my judgment vague and impaired. I stood there unable to think and act. Then she looked at me and smiled, displaying those teeth: those white teeth. My cluelessness increased. I thought of the best way to smile back and curved my mouth into a banana-shaped catastrophe which made her laugh hysterically as she placed her hand on her mouth trying to hide the laughter. Tony, after all this time, discovered my presence and got up from where he was sitting. We went outside where he briefed me of tonight’s plan. He was the formation captain after all. This night was all courtesy of his ingenious thinking.
“I saw the way you looked at her,” he said while laughing. He obviously knew but had to say it anyway. I did not comment on that.
“Here, take it and keep it safe,” he said as he handed me a blue backpack. I took it and opened the zip to have a peep inside. I dipped my hand and it came out with two medium-sized firework sticks. They were known as medium-sized but they were really heavy. There were more items in the bag. Two 500ml bottles of William Lawsons lay at the bottom of the backpack together with one whole lemon. “Quite the planner,” I thought to myself as I observed the rather expensive drinks wondering where he got the money to purchase such drinks considering the fact that we were all way underage. “Where will we light these fireworks?” I asked as I keenly looked at the instructions which stated that there has to be a stand for it to be thrown into the sky for it to explode marvelously and satisfy our eyes with an array of colorful displays lighting the night sky. “Hii unashikilia tu na mkono na inapanda juu yenyewe,” he replied confidently, contrary to what the instructions stated. “By the way, we should get going,” he added as he looked at the time. I looked at my watch and it was 11.00 PM. One hour until the annual display of fireworks in the shores of the Indian Ocean. That was where we were supposed to head. Tony rushed into the house and informed the rest that time was not our side. One by one, they emerged out of the house and stood where I was. I didn’t know some of them but who cared. We became connected as we were all about fun. Nothing more nothing less. Then she eventually walked out. Her white dress shone against the dim light of the crescent moon. Her long black braids swayed sideways as she walked towards us. She stood next to me and gave me the annihilating smile. Tony came and we left their house and headed to the beach. She winked at me as she began walking intentionally in front of me.
God’s plan I tell you.
The matatu stage was overcrowded. Multitudes of people were standing on the stage, all heading to the same destination as we were. We stood there for almost thirty minutes with each matatu doubling the price to the public beach as time went by. Lucky for us, one of the drivers happened to be my neighbor and we were quite good friends. He shouted my name and I saw him waving at me. We quickly entered the matatu before all the seats were taken. Luck was on our side as I couldn’t wait to see the fireworks unleashing colors into the sky. There was this particular street which was aligned with nightclubs and the way people were packed outside trying their level best to gain entrance before the night dies.
But the night was young. Really young. And so were we.
So, after twenty or thirty minutes on the road, we arrived at one of the legendary public beaches off the coast of East and Southern Africa. The crowds that were there… Unimaginable. People were streaming in their thousands, wearing all forms of clothing their deep pockets could afford. There was an exodus of people from the comfort of their warm cozy beds towards the cold windy shores of the ocean: all in the name of fireworks. Some loud, colorful explosions in the sky that gave people, me being one of them, a great sense of happiness and content into my young soul. The way they shoot up the night sky making the ocean shine and reflect its cool waters, burst into thousands of colors then slowly trickle down like dust into the ocean: and the cycle continues for the better part of the night.
She came out of the matatu. Then I swiftly followed behind her, following her every step like a zombie. We walked together, the lot of us that is, carefully maneuvering the endless curves formed by people walking in different directions, talking as loud as they can, some yelling about how the incoming year would make them formulate some goals and ambitions, which as usual, would be dumped and forsaken immediately the second month approaches. The sea breeze was blowing in a cool soothing manner as we approached the sandy shore side. People were irregularly seated on the sand, all facing one direction: the designated side for the throwing of fireworks. Tony glanced at his watch and quickly reminded us that it was almost time for the party to begin. He began running slowly towards the area, and so we followed him. I suddenly felt a soft hold on my hand and on looking; it was her hand, soft as silk, holding mine as we began running like the rest of us. She gazed at me with those eyes. &#@$ !!!
She held my hand.
My hand was in her hand.
And so we held hands.
We reached the spot. And it was packed I tell you. People of all races were represented in the upcoming fireworks display. It was three minutes before the start of the event. Fireworks were set on their stands, some were huge, others were small, but they all had one destination: up.
“Tony, where’s the stand bro?” asked one of us as Tony began unpacking the two fireworks we had brought.
“I think I forgot, but no worries my people. One of us shall do the honors and launch them while holding with both hands. Like this…” He said while holding each one with his arm and raising them up.
We looked at each other, hoping that one of us would emerge and unleash the fireworks. We looked at each other blankly.
“I’ll do it.”
And then she stepped forward.
Just like that, she took the two launchers with her hands, looked back at us: at me and gave us/me the killer smile. I watched in amazement as she walked towards the center of the “spot”, held her hands up high, placed her fingers on each of the switches with were located on the side of the launchers. I stood there staring at her white dress as it swayed away from me.
The countdown had begun and everyone started shouting from 9 going downwards.
“…THREE!… TWO! …ONE! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!”
The crowd went wild with wails and screams and chants as the clock ticked 00:00. A new year had begun. The fireworks began being launched as people backed away from their stands as soon as the fireworks were ready to launch. Lillian looked at us as she pressed the ignition switches on. We cheered her on as she smiled excitedly; anxiously waiting for the fireworks to shoot from both arms and splash the sky with all sorts of colors.
The sky became lit with fireworks and it was breathtaking. We all looked up as they shot up the sky making a loud explosion then scattering into tiny specks of colors as they trickled down the sky and vanishing into the atmosphere.
Then we heard a loud explosion. Followed by one of the loudest screams we’ve ever heard. Then another explosion. And soon there were multiple explosions and we were surprised that there were explosions but no fireworks. We looked at the ground and saw her.
It was Lillian.
What we thought were screams of joy as she unleashed the fireworks into the sky was the total opposite. There she was: instead of the fireworks exploding into the sky, they unceremoniously exploded all around her. We watched in shock as the fireworks kept erupting all around her. Her screams filled the air and her beautiful, long braids suddenly caught fire. She vigorously shook her head as the fire quickly spread all over her hair due to the cool sea breeze which increased the intensity of the fire. The specks of fire fell on her white dress and all hell broke loose. She made a loud scream as we stood there, shocked and clueless about what to do. Her screams synchronized with the loud explosions of the rest of the fireworks being launched. I was speechless. We all were. The look on Tony’s face was that of shock: eyes wide open, mouth open even wider, hands on the head. We looked at each other as the horror unfolded before our eyes.
“She’s on fire!” People finally noticed her on the lower side of the dress was in flames which were on the verge of submerging her into their brutal heat. I lifted up my foot ready to dash towards her when Tony’s hand swiftly gripped my forearm. I stopped and looked at him, wondering what on earth he was doing.
“Bro, where do you think you are going? If we remain here and the police come we are all screwed. If she asks who let her hold the fireworks knowing it is prohibited without a stand, who do you think she is going to point at? US bro! We need to leave right now!”
And with that said the rest of the ‘crew’ whom we came with begun vanishing into the crowd in different directions. Tony patted me on the shoulder, a sure sign of “Goodbye bro, you’re on your own” and quickly disappeared amongst the crowd. I was left there, gazing at Lillian as her screams became louder and louder. People were rushing towards her with buckets of water and sand in an attempt to kill the fire. Two uniformed policemen arrived at the scene and desperately began to control the wild crowd which had formed around her.
“Why didn’t she use a stand….It’s against the law….”
I overheard two men speaking as they spectated the life-saving attempt on Lillian. The crowd had gathered so much that I was now unable to clearly see her. I had to make a choice. To run along with my friends and be at least on the ‘safe side’ or stay put and see what happens next. Whether she would be taken to the hospital, whether the police would question her. Would her pretty, angelic face be disfigured from this incident?
Would she know me as the coward who left her while she was in dire need or the one person who stood by her through thick and thin? If I stay will I risk myself or I should just run and be safe with the rest of my friends?
I had to make a choice.
I had to make a choice fast.
Meanwhile, the sounds of exploding fireworks continued echoing in the air as people who were on the far side of the beach enjoyed themselves while chanting the “Happy New Year” word again and again.