Memories of Mbagathi

On the wall in the study room at Mbagathi Study Centre, a centre of formation for young men which adjoins Strathmore University, there once hung a large world map, framed in carved wood and covered with a clear glass pane. It was the sort of nifty decoration that a young man, sitting at the table under it, might absent-mindedly fiddle with while wrangling a calculus concept, or perhaps trying to remember the name of some obscure philosopher.

One afternoon, sometime in 2004, Geoffrey, a freshman at Strathmore University, was doing exactly this to the map. He had done it many times before; maybe it had even helped him remember the name of one philosopher. But, on this fateful day, the ornate frame slipped its mounting, and the map crashed onto the floor with a loud bang and the painful crackle of glass shattering into a thousand pieces, startling all the other young men spread across the room.

The ensuing commotion attracted the director of the centre. Rushing into the room, he quickly zeroed in on Geoffrey, whose terrified and guilty face must have stood out like a sore thumb. The young man braced for a thorough tongue-lashing and, after that, a bill, at the very least. And since he knew he wouldn’t have the means to pay for it, he quickly concluded that that was his last day at the centre.

Geoffrey had been going to Mbagathi for about a year at that point. A classmate, who had a side-gig as a receptionist at the centre, had brought him there soon after they joined university. Geoffrey quickly fell in love with the place. He was especially struck by how everyone there was not only nice, but also evidently joyful. Almost every conversation, regardless of topic, was punctuated by sporadic laughter.

He had taken part in the numerous activities organised by the centre, which were aimed at moulding and strengthening the human character and spirituality of those who participated. His favourite, however, were the weekly meditations in the centre’s chapel; and the get-togethers that took place in the living room, where invited guests regaled rapt audiences with anecdotes from their life experiences. All was going swimmingly. Mbagathi had come to represent the best things he had in life.

But now, sitting aghast amidst shards of glass and a twisted frame, he thought he had literally, and definitively, shattered his welcome. And as the director approached him on that fateful day, he saw himself losing it all. And he internally cursed himself for his wanton carelessness. Why had he ever touched that map? How was he going to explain the bill for the damage to his father back home?

The director’s first words shocked him. “Are you okay?” And the next ones, delivered with an unexpectedly cheeky exuberance, nearly brought him to tears. “Don’t worry about the map. I’ve been telling guys here that it was bound to fall one day. It was just a matter of time.” And then he set about clearing out the broken glass. Geoffrey, hastily recovering from his disbelief, clumsily helped him. And that was the last he heard from the director about the map.

In the years that followed, he converted to Catholicism, graduated from university, started a professional career, got married and raised a family. The centre remained a focal point in his life, a serene backdrop to the steady march of time. And the memory of that incident, perhaps lost to almost everyone else who had witnessed it, remained with him.

He shared it with the group of alumni who gathered at the centre on a recent Saturday. The motley crew, numbering almost forty, was there to celebrate the centre’s 30th anniversary. Some of them hadn’t seen the others in decades; others, like Geoffrey, had kept up contact. Over a get-together and a barbecue, they reminisced about the years they had frequented the centre.

And, as always, mirthful laughter permeated the banter.

Image: A view across the gardens at Mbagathi Study Centre. Courtesy of Mbagathi Study Centre.

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