No sooner had they signed their admission rules and regulations forms and understood cooking was illegal and that they would never engage in the practice; than the first year students pompously proceeded to their newly allocated rooms and cooked dainty pancakes as a way of celebrating. Not everybody made it to the university.
Cooking in the halls of residence was a new experience even to Comrade Kan who had become a cook at a village kiosk as he auspiciously waited for his turn to join the university. Using electricity instead of charcoal had its thrills.
Comrade Kan did not have to sleep on an empty stomach just because he came from a place where he had never brushed shoulders with electricity.
All he did was make a prioritized budget. He bought enough sufurias, plates, cups, cooking stick, cooking floor and with the little cash that remained, he bought a small exercise book for taking the ever austere lecture notes.
Kan did not have to buy a water heater or a cooking coil. He readily collected them from the dustbin since a coil that had `refused’ to work in first floor was always willing to work in third floor. A heater that had blown up in second floor could boil five liters of water in two minutes in fourth floor. An electrician was never necessary. Anyone who could answer to the name `comrade’ was qualified to do the wiring.
Kan`s room did not have a socket, having blown up during the reign of the former room occupants. However, this was a fact he accepted with equanimity since there were bare wires dangling flaccidly from the socket holes. All he did was to extend those bare wires to the cooking coil, to the heater and to anything else that he thought needed electricity.
Some comrades did not have socket wires in their rooms. However, this did not mean that they could not contend for the position of the best student cook in the university. Electrical power could be `borrowed’ from the fluorescent bulb lighting system. All one had to do was to tear apart the lighting system, identify the wires feeding the bulb and extend them downwards to the cooking implements.
Sometimes, a comrade got into arguments with electricity. A deafening sound and sparks flying all over the room was a common scenario. In such instances, the whole hall would be thrown into pitch darkness. But a comrade did not have to swear that he will never cook again. All one had to do was to reverse the wires, the red one to the left and vice versa. After this one would run to the switch board and turn on the electricity.
A continued deafening sound accompanied by sparks and subsequent power failure only meant that the system was short circuited. In this case, a third wire had to be added to the set up to conduct the excess electrons, or neutrons, or whatever they are called to the ground or to wherever they wanted to go. This third wire is legitimately known as the earth wire.
On some occasions, electrical shocks sent a comrade flying across the room at a speed of a bullet from an anti-riot policeman. All one had to do was to repair the connections as soon as he regained consciousness. Through trial and error, the electricity finally became docile and allowed one to cook his omena.
Every now and then, an electrical fault would guzzle down a whole room in fire. These fires were always bad news since even the inner wears were rarely salvaged. But this mostly happened when one allowed a visiting comrade to operate his system. A visiting comrade was not likely to know which of the labyrinth of bare wires zigzagging over the floor were not to be stepped on.
It wasn’t uncommon for comrades to forget their Ugali in the middle of the cooking spree. This happened when euphoric noises were heard from the TV room, meaning a favorite team had scored. As the students rushed to the TV room, Ugali would only be remembered after the final whistle.
Some of those who did not rush to the TV room rushed to the women’s hall of residence. It usually happened when one was busy cooking ugali and a call from a difficult girlfriend would interrupt;
`Hi, hebu kam unishow vile ulikuwa unasema, my room-mate is not in.’ Come and tell me what you were saying earlier, my roommate is not in.
In such a case Ugali would be impetuously forgotten as the lucky comrade strutted to the women’s hall and joined his girlfriend in cooking something better than Ugali.
Whenever the above happened, it was always the duty of those affected by the smoke to break into the obtrusive room, switch off the power and help themselves with anything of value from such a room.The main transformer at the upper campus gate usually got jealous of the students having the fun of cooking. That’s why it occasionally blew itself up, plunging the whole campus into darkness. Students used to solve this by stampeding into the streets waving placards and chanting, `Haki yeeetu! Haki yeeetu!’
In such circumstances, the students’ leader used to be interviewed by the media and he would talk about the students losing their study time as a result of the government turning a deaf ear to the issues regarding the electrical upgrading. And in the name of peaceful demonstrations, the rowdy students would `talk’ to the motorists, owners of supermarkets, kenchic inns, bars and restaurants about the pain of losing half cooked ugali. The Nairobians never enjoyed these talks.
The KPLC used to send its engineers to replace the burnt-out transformer. These men mostly worked late into the night and in some cases braved the rains so as to restore sanity in the university. They would then send a circular to the university administrators on the escalating costs of what they called electrical overloading. The university administrators kept on sending intimidating notices to student cooks on the dangers of what they called illegal cooking. The students simply called it their right.
© Martin Mbugua