The Large Five Shilling Coin: A Story
Report from Kenya #411 – November 5, 2016
Note to my African readers: Please forward this story to
everyone you know who can read English.
Grace was at Nakumatt supermarket buying a few items for dinner. The total cost was 495/- so she gave the check-out clerk a 500/- note and received change of 5/-. The clerk gave her one of the old large, heavy seven sided five shilling coins, minted in 1985 with the portrait of President Moi on it. Grace flipped it into the air, caught it and turned it over on her left back-hand. It came up heads. Grace let out a repressed sob – one cannot cry in the supermarket – and mumbled to herself, “I am never going to have a baby boy.” Since this upset her, she decided to go to the café for a cup of tea before she walked home. When she sat down in the café, she was still holding the coin in her hand and decided to flip it ten times. It came up heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails in perfect order. Grace then commented that this would come up only once in every 1024 sequences of ten flips of the coin. She knew the number without even having to calculate it. Grace thought to herself, “How extraordinary!”
Let me explain. When Grace took the primary school examination, she received high marks in English and Swahili, but poor marks in science and a terrible mark in maths. If she had gotten the kind of high marks she got in English and Swahili also in maths and science, she would have been one of those high achievers that had their picture in the newspaper showing her either carried on high by her classmates or next to her proudly beaming parents. But she didn’t so her parents enrolled her in a good, private secondary school outside of Thika, just north of Nairobi where the family lived.
On the first day at school she met Jacinta since they were assigned to the same bunk bed, with Jacinta on the top and Grace on the bottom. As happens when people enter a new environment, excited, but also scared, they latch onto the nearest friendly face. And so Grace and Jacinta became close friends from day one on.
Grace was dark skinned, almost black except for a tint of brown. At one time she had complained to her mother that no boy would ever like her because she was so dark but her mother, who was almost as dark as Grace, would have none of this. “If a boy likes you only because you have light skin, then he is not liking you, but your light skin. The true boyfriend will like you regardless of how dark you are since the real you is inside.” Grace was impressed by this reasoning and never would ever use skin lighteners since she saw this as a “sin” like smoking or drinking alcohol. Jacinta was as light as Grace was dark. She had the reddish, brown complexion which had no need for skin lightener. This difference in no way affected their friendship since it was based on their mutual need to find friendship in a new, somewhat frightening place.
Skin colour was not their only difference. Jacinta was as good in maths as Grace was in language skills. In fact Jacinta was a math whiz, but she didn’t do as well in English as Grace. One of the strengths of their relationship was that this difference in academics became not a competition but a cooperation as Grace helped Jacinta with difficult English or Swahili words or phrases, while Jacinta helped Grace to improve in maths – a difficult task.
Jacinta came from Thika town itself so it was easy for her to hop on home for part of the day. Since Grace came from Nairobi which was somewhat of a trip, she didn’t go home except on term breaks and holidays. Jacinta often would take Grace to her home in Thika for the day when they could get permission – made easier because Jacinta’s Dad was on the School Committee of the school. He was an accountant for the largest vehicle dealer in town and so was also treasurer of the Committee – a position he took quite seriously. This gave Jacinta the status she needed when she wanted to go home for a visit.
It was in their third year when the girls had to learn to understand probability that the five shilling coin which Jancinta kept as a souvenir became important. As could be expected Jacinta grasped probability intuitively with little effort. Grace couldn’t. Jacinta then got the idea of demonstrating probability to Grace. She agreed with Grace, that each one would take ten flips of the coin while the other wrote the sequence down and then the other one would take her turn of ten flips. They would repeat this ten times so that there would be a total of 100 flips each or 200 total flips.
Grace went first and her total was four heads and six tails, really nothing spectacular about this. Then Jacinta flipped seven tails and three heads. And so it went until Grace’s seventh turn. She flipped a head, then another head, then a third, fourth, and fifth head. Jacinta then asked her, “What is the chance of the next flip being a “head?” Grace answered, “It has to be a tail since too many heads have come up?” Jacinta answered, “No, there is still a 50% chance it will again be a head and 50% chance it will be a tail.” “But look at all these heads – there can’t be another one.” “Yes, that’s the point,” responded Jacinta. “You can remember that there were five straight heads as I wrote them down. But the coin is stupid – it can’t remember anything. It doesn’t know that it came up heads the last five times. So it will do as it always does with the probability of being 50% heads and 50% tails.” So Grace flipped the remaining five times and remarkably they all came up heads so that she had ten straight heads. Jacinta then commented to her that ten straight heads would come up only once every 1024 times the coin was flipped ten times. When the two girls added up the total of their 200 coin flips, it was 101 heads and 99 tails – close to 50 – 50 as Jacinta had predicted.
It was in their last year that the probability lesson had another twist. Grace said that she was going to have two children, one boy and one girl. Jacinta asked, “How do you know you will get one each? You have only a 50% chance of getting one boy and one girl, a 25% chance of getting two girls, and a 25% chance of getting two boys.” “I will pray,” replied Grace. So Jacinta got out the 5/- coin again. This time they filled the coin only twice. Heads meant a boy and tails meant a girl. They each took turns flipping the coin twice and low and behold, it was exactly half the time that the result was a boy and a girl. On the other hand, two boys came up more often than two girls, but Jacinta commented that if they did this a hundred times, the result would be closer.
It was Monday, March 17, 2008 – Grace well remembers the date – shortly after Kibaki and Raila had shaken hands on February 28 to end the Kenyan post-election violence. Grace along with other students had been told to go home to collect fees for those annoying add-ons that secondary schools charged – extra building fund fee, charge for the mock examination, fund for the teachers’ tea, and so on. The total was 2600/-. Since her English class was having a practice exam that day, Grace asked if she could stay for the class, eat lunch and then go home. Since Nairobi only at most three hours away on public transportation she would have no problem getting home and then returning with the fees the next day. Since she was the best English student in fourth form and the school had high hopes that she would receive an extremely high mark, she was given permission. The other girls who had been sent home left in the morning.
After lunch, Grace packed a small bag with one day’s change of clothes and grabbing her purse and bag walked down to the bus stand to catch a bus or matatu for Thika and then on to Nairobi. When she got to the bus stand, as usual there were many motorcycle and bicycle taxi boys plus the touts, drunk as always. One of the touts grabbed her bag, but Grace resisted since she never let these drunks carry her bags since one could never be sure what would happen to them. The tout then responded in Swahili, “You black bitch, why don’t you go back to where you came from? Central [Province] is only for us.” The other men standing around laughed and said something in Kikuyu. While Grace didn’t know the Kikuyu language she had been around long enough and was adept at language so she understood that they said something like, “Go back to Lake Victoria and swim in its filth with Raila.” They laughed again. All this upset Grace but she held tightly to her bag and purse and crossed the road to the stand going to Thika.
The rude tout followed her and then began pushing her, repeating a good number of foul phrases. Although the post-election violence had ended, violence at the local level persisted. The tout pushed her again and again until they were behind some bushes beside the road. Then he knocked her down. Her right shoulder hit a rock and hurt painfully. The man pulled up her uniform and tore off her underwear. Grace crossed her legs to protect herself, but the man slapped her hard on the face and told her to open her legs. With her head ringing, she complied as she had no other option. She could hear the other men encouraging and egging the tout on. When he entered her, she felt excruciating pain and screamed. The man put his hand over her mouth and told her to shut up. Grace just lay there praying that it would be over. When the tout finished and stood up, Grace began to sit up, but another one of the touts, this time a big heavy man, pushed her back so that he could have his turn. He was so heavy that Grace thought she would suffocate. When he finished, a third man entered her; then a fourth. Grace passed out and she didn’t know how many men had gang raped her. When the last one was finished, one of the men took a water bottle and poured some water on her face. This woke Grace up as the men returned to the road, talking and laughing as if Arsenal had just won another match.
Grace grabbed her bag and purse – it was clear that her money for the fare had been stolen – and ran, actually hobbled, back to the school. She could feel the blood trickling down her legs. The school gate man took one look at her and called the matron, who quickly summoned the Principal. She asked Grace, “You were raped?” Grace nodded in agreement. The Principal told the matron to get a wet towel to wipe off the blood, told her secretary to call Grace’s parents, and ran and got her car to take her to the nearby hospital.
Since the school had a long-standing relationship with the hospital, there was no wasted time in filling out forms. The doctor and nurses were immediately informed of the situation. After they examined Grace, they wheeled her to the emergency room, gave her an anesthetic, and performed a small operation to stop the bleeding – by this time Grace had lost a lot of blood. When this was finished she was moved to the ward where the nurse gave her a number of pills – the first was a morning after pill so that she wouldn’t get pregnant, the second was a dose of anti-viral drugs to protect her from HIV/AIDS, and the last were antibiotics to protect her from sexually transmitted diseases.
Shortly thereafter her parents arrived. Her father, a briefly spoken, taciturn man, only said, “I’m sorry this happened.” Her mother sat on the bed and gently took Grace’s hand. Grace could see that she wanted to burst out crying, but was holding back as not to upset Grace even more. Grace herself, still in absolute shock as to what happened, was beyond crying. She was just in dazed disbelief. Her mother then timidly asked Grace what had happened. Grace replied that she had been attacked by the men at the bus station. (Notice that Grace was already beginning to suppress, to hide the rape since she had substituted the work “attack” for “rape.”)
Later in the day, the hospital psychologist came in for a session. She sat on the bed and also held Grace’s hand. She asked Grace to tell her what happened, listening only to the story as Grace told it, never asking for details or clarification. Grace felt reassured by her non-judgmental attitude and poured out, not so much the details of what happened, but more of the anguish and disbelief that this terrible kind of thing could have happened to her. When she had finished, the psychologist said a number of phrases such as “You didn’t do anything wrong,” “It is not your fault,” “Don’t blame yourself as those men are the ones who did evil,” “The worst is over,” “You are young and have a long life ahead of you,” and “You are getting better now.” Grace heard all these words but frankly they did not sink in.
During the second day in the hospital, the Principal came by and, after getting permission from the medical staff, told Grace that she was going to take her to the police station to report the incident. Clearly, if parents thought their daughters were not secure at the school, this incident could have extremely negative repercussions for the school. She had already announced a new rule that no student could go alone to the bus stand; there had to be at least two students and preferably even more. This did not satisfy Jacinta and Grace’s other friends and classmates. They demanded that the Principal hire a big man (big in size, they meant) to escort any girls when they went to the bus stand. To protect the school and herself, the Principal quickly agreed.
The Principal knew that the police would do nothing, but in order to cover all her bases she realized that she had to report the rape to the police. Even though this was the last thing in the world that Grace wanted to do, the Principal took her to the police station. The intake male officer got out his report form and wrote down Grace’s story as she retold it again. When she used the word “attacked”, the police officer asked her if she had been raped. Grace replied in the affirmative. When she finished her story, the officer asked her if she knew the names of the men who had raped her. Grace answered in the negative. He then asked her if she could identify them. Since Grace had been trying to put these rapists out of her mind as much as she could, she hesitated in her response and said, “I am not sure. There were so many of them.” As the Principal had anticipated, the police did not do anything.
Of course Jacinta and Grace’s chums at school came to visit. No more than two visitors were allowed to be by the bed at any one time. Like Kenyans do, the girls bent the rules until there were so many that the nurses had to ask some to wait outside for their turn. The girls knew how to respond to such a situation: they didn’t ask any questions, didn’t ask Grace to tell her story which they already knew, didn’t talk, laugh, and gossip as they would have done back in school, but remained mostly silent realizing that the most helpful thing they could do was just be present.
Yet in the middle of this silence, Grace inadvertently blurted out to Jacinta, “How could you Kikuyu do this to me?” Jacinta was stunned and hurt by this accusation, but was intuitively wise enough not to respond. On her part, Grace knew that this statement was rude and wrong, but sometimes the reasoning of the brain is overcome by the need to blame, to comprehend, to rant against the injustice of the world. Grace did not apologize.
While Grace’s father had to return to work, her mother stayed with her for the three days she was in the hospital. On the third day, her father came to pick them up and take them home to Nairobi. When they passed the bus station, Grace closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t see any of the men who might have raped her and then bent down so that none of them could see her and perhaps laugh at her again.
It was bitter-sweet to be home. Grace was glad to be out of the hospital, but on the other hand lonely as she tried to understand how life had been turned upside down so quickly, so unreasonably. Her back right shoulder where she had hit the rock throbbed incessantly – in the worry about her private parts, the doctors, staff, and even herself had mostly ignored the major bruise on her back. She asked her mom to get some of that hot stuff to rub on it, but it was in an awkward place so that she couldn’t do it herself. She didn’t want to bother her Mom often about this. She had been given some painkillers which Grace took religiously as directed.
During the second night at home, Grace had a bad nightmare and woke up screaming, sweating and her heart beating wildly. Her parents came rushing in, switched on the light, and asked what the matter was. Her Mom got her a glass of water and a wet washcloth to wipe off the sweat and cool down her forehead and face. After fifteen minutes her parents turned off the light and went back to bed. Grace, though, couldn’t sleep as she was afraid that the nightmare would return again. Although she dozed off now and then, she didn’t really go back to sleep again that night. The sad aspect was that the nightmare would return every few days. The nightmares were almost always the same. A big man was sitting on her and she would be trying to escape but couldn’t as she was totally helpless. She felt she was suffocating. It was clearly a replay of her being raped. Grace soon learned to put the glass of water and the washcloth on her nightstand before she went to bed. She hated waking up her parents, yet she had no control over those nightmares.
The next day after her Dad came home from work, he brought in the old TV, cleared off an appropriate shelf, and with an extension cord plugged it in. Grace was surprised as she hadn’t even thought about the TV. Yet it had been a long standing issue between her and her parents. For years Grace had begged her parents to put the old TV in her bedroom, but they had refused. They said it would make her watch TV too much and also too late at night where she might see inappropriate shows. Grace thought, “Did Dad bring in the TV now in order to distract her from her sorrows?” “Probably,” she concluded. To pass the time, Grace began watching those unrealistic Spanish soap operas with the stilted dubbed English that are so popular in Kenya.
Grace did not want to go back to school. She had already paid for the year end exam, but she knew that she could not concentrate as she should in order to receive high marks. Moreover what if she had one of her nightmares while at school?
One Sunday evening after she had been home for about three weeks, her Mom came into her room shortly before going to sleep. Grace immediately sensed that her Mom was there to discuss something important. She chitchatted with Grace for a while about really nothing, but then said, “Grace, I need to tell you something. I know you are going to be upset, but you need to know.” Grace looked at her warily. “The operation you had in the hospital was not a ‘small surgery’ as we told you at the time. The doctors had to remove your uterus.” Grace quickly reacted in panic, “You mean I can never have children?” “That’s correct,” her Mom replied. “You mean I can’t have a boy and a girl that I always dreamed about?” Unlike the time in the hospital when Grace was too stunned to cry, here she burst out in uncontrollable sobbing. Her Mom held her, seemingly for hours as she continued to cry. Her Mom worried if she should have told Grace about this, but then she realized that it was better to tell her than for her to find out later when, for example, she visited a doctor who would tell her.
If Grace had been despondent before, she was now depressed. Her parents were concerned so her Dad asked one of his unemployed nieces if she would come and stay with Grace for some time until she recovered. She agreed and arrived Monday morning to keep Grace company. She stayed about a month – Grace’s parents were most thankful.
Yet Grace continued to be depressed. Now and then she thought of ending it all. “To be or not to be” as she remembered from her English class. Fortunately she never progressed to the point of planning on how she might end her life. She passed this critical juncture when she remembered the words of the psychologist in the hospital – “You are young and have a long life ahead of you.”
Grace’s Mom had always taken her to church, a Pentecostal church a short walk from the house. On Sundays she encouraged Grace to attend and to please her Mom and to get out of the house, she would go. Yet she felt angry at God who had failed her in her time of great need. “Why did He forsake me?” she questioned.
Grace liked to sing. She had been going to that church as long as she could remember and knew all of the songs without even looking at the hymnal. She decided to join the choir. She enjoyed this as it took her mind off of her attack. She never missed a Wednesday evening rehearsal, sang at church every Sunday, and joined whenever the choir sang at weddings or funerals.
The following year Grace needed to finish her last year of secondary school and take the exam. She didn’t want to go back to her old school partly because Jacinta and her classmates had already graduated, but more important, she didn’t want to pass the bus stand and couldn’t even think of going there to catch a bus. This would mean that her parents would have to drive her every time she went or returned from school. Rather she decided, with her parents’ blessings, that she would stay at home and finish secondary school in Nairobi. She did this and fared quite well on her exam. She got an A in English as expected, but passed in math with a C-, thanks to Jacinta’s coaching, so that she got a total score of B+.
This B+ got her in to a good college, but again she wanted to stay at home rather than attend a boarding student. She was a diligent student, ending up majoring in journalism. On the other hand she did not involve herself in student activities nor party as so many college students did – her life just had a dark spot that kept her from the freewheeling of the other college students. She also had no interest in men. She inherently reacted negatively to any light-skinned student even as she realized that he might be a totally decent person. As to dark skinned men, she just couldn’t see herself enjoying sex. She isolated herself from usual college activities.
One interesting incident was when “Twelve Years a Slave” came out in 2013. Lupita Nyong’o who later won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress was as dark as Grace was, but she turned her darkness into radiant beauty. So Grace had to see the film and asked her Mom to go with her. But during the scene when Lupita was being raped by a very white man, Grace had to run to the Women’s Room where she threw up. She didn’t tell her Mom.
For almost a year after college Grace looked for a job. With her good marks, she finally found a position in an advertising firm. It paid her decently well since, although she was now 25 years old, she still lived at home. Her parents did not complain.
Grace finished and paid for her tea at the café. Picking up the 5/- coin she flipped it again. It came up tails. “Well,” she thought, “I’m not going to have a girl either.” She picked up her bag and purse and walked out of the mall towards her home. When she reached the entrance into the gated community where she lived, she stopped, flipped the coin again and let it land on the ground. It didn’t come up either heads or tails, but stuck upright on its side in the dirt. “Such,” thought Grace, “is my life.” She left the coin in the dirt and walked through the gate towards her home.
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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues with his peacemaking work in East Africa. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (available at www.davidzarembka.com).