Short Story: Evolution of the mwakenya

Thursday December 04 2014

J did not see the professor until he was standing right in front of him just as he was putting away the mwakenya. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |

Welcome to what for many of you is your final paper,” said the literature professor, who was looking especially dapper today. He had worn one of his heavy woollen suits. It was a blue so dark it shimmered between purple and black. A silver pocket watch was hanging from his waistcoat.

He always looked like he had stepped out of the last century oblivious to the new times or the weather of the country he taught in.

“What I will tell you may not help you pass this paper but it will help you make it through this institution.”

He said this as the exam was being passed around. The suppressed excitement of sitting the final paper suffused the air. Everyone was eager to begin.

“I believe one or even two of you may remember my lectures about how words change meaning from generation to generation. Mutating faster than anything Darwin could have imagined because the ultimate in evolution is language. Well, a generation ago the word mwakenya was created and used to refer to seditious material that had to be hidden from the government. It was written in very small print so that a lot of information could be crammed onto a small piece of paper. It was a word synonymous with defiance, democracy and defeat of despotism. It was a proud word.”

At the mention of the word mwakenya, J immediately checked to see that his was secure. For three years he had carried three things with him into every exam room: a pen, ruler, and a mwakenya.


“With time, the meaning of the word has changed. A mwakenya is no longer a word associated with pride and patriotism. Now it is for cheaters and louts. People who do not have enough faith in themselves. I know that many of you here have little pieces of paper cheat sheets. Some of you will use them and life will go on but others of you will be caught. Being caught with a mwakenya has the potential of ruining your life.”

J wondered if the professor had timed his speech because as soon as he finished his last sentence all the papers had been distributed.

“You may start.”

Students approach exams differently. There are those who start the exam scribbling as fast as they can as if scared that what they have memorised will disappear. There are those who begin the paper with a plan of how to proceed; they write down lists and theorise how to tackle questions and in which order.

Then there are those who laugh or smile and pray to their god. However, at a certain moment something almost mystical happens. A powerful silence engulfs the exam room.

J began his exam. He knew some of the answers and approached the paper with the confidence of a man with a secret weapon. Many times just knowing his mwakenya was there was enough to help him ace a paper and many times he did not use it. Today was not one of those times.

He had strategically sat at the back of the classroom so that the wall was behind him. There isn’t a perfect time or place to cheat, you just have to rely on your instincts. However, there was a moment that J had learned to recognise. The moment when it becomes deathly quiet. This skill was useful for cheating.

J did not see the professor until he was standing right in front of him just as he was putting away the mwakenya.

“Young man, it seems your lies have caught up with you.”

He reacted the way he believed an innocent man would, with shock and disbelief.

“What are you talking about?”

He flung his hands up in order to sneak his mwakenya into the back of his baggy jeans, while struggling not to betray the fear growing inside of him. He thought about his mother and all she had done to get him this far. He thought about the past four years and how they would go to waste if his degree was nullified. He needed a way out and could not see past the next corner.

“Come with me. A simple search will reveal the truth,” the professor said, while gesturing to J to get up from his seat.

“Mwalimu, I have done nothing wrong, just allow me to finish my paper.”

The professor gave him a stern look that said he was not going to change his mind. He began walking after the professor and as he did he could feel the mwakenya move down his trouser. Instead of putting it in his pocket, he had placed it in the space between his jeans and his waist. Because they were big jeans the mwakenya moved down pretty fast. He helped it move even faster by bouncing in an exaggerated manner. He wanted the paper to slip into his boots.

The search

In the security room the professor forced him to empty his pockets, which he did with all the confidence of an African dictator asking election observers to place themselves at whichever polling station they wanted.

On the discovery that there was nothing but several 1,000 bob notes and the pen he had been using, the lecturer asked the security guard to carry out a more thorough search.

The search began. He was patted down. Then the professor asked him to remove his shoes. As he did he gave the guard a knowing look, while slipping a 1,000 bob note into one of his shoes.

The guard took the shoes and looked through them and J held his breath. His future lay in the hands of a guard whom he hoped would be tempted by the money. The guard fished inside the shoes.

“The boy has nothing to hide,” the guard said to the professor.

J sighed with relief, he realised he had been holding his breath the whole time.