Military Life: Chapter 15 – Bricks Without Straw.


We woke up one morning to a status parade. By now, we were already used to this. These parades were important for accountability purposes.

This is just a random one, not a continuation. But in case you need to catch up… We left off at Bums Meet Tarmac.
It was around 6.00 am and our hands were freezing. It was still foggy, dew heavy on the grass. After a few minutes, I could feel the condensation on my face as I became one with nature and ‘dew’ also started forming on my face as well. My cheeks went numb. I was already hungry, couldn’t tell where the egg and bread I had consumed only a few hours ago had vanished to. Unlike normal circumstances where we would have gloves or the option for pocketing or rubbing hands together, here our hands were nicely crossed at the back while standing at ease. A few mummers came from the platoon of 52 recruits standing in perfect formation outside the barracks. It was also muddy since it had rained the previous night and to make matters worse, the water from washing the barrack had flowed outside to this very spot where we were assembled.
              Our platoon commander received a call, and I managed to grasp part of the conversation, which involved ‘slashers not being found, but the compound was still untidy’. Back in the enlistment weeks, we had been told stories of how grass would be cut by bare fingers. I was ‘bleuh, bleuh, bleuh, who are you kidding.’ The call ended by “itafanyika afande!”
              I remembered this while reading the book of Exodus. I don’t know how it even relates or if it even relates in the first place. I think it was the mention of straw, or the fact that the phrase describes the situation. Remember the time when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to pass the message from God, that he was to let the people go? Yeah that part. It is in Exodus 5. It is an interesting piece. So, the funny side of this, was, Moses and Aaron just wanted the people to go into the Wilderness and hold a feast for the Lord. They wanted to go for 3 days. Pharaoh refused of course. He actually wondered how the two had the audacity to get the people from their places of work and had all the time to go and make a feast for the Lord. (We will see a lot of this later in the career).  It is at this point that Pharaoh even realized that ‘ooohhh, the people are too many now, and the work load is reducing huh?’ ‘These people are not even busy enough’, ‘That is why they even have time to worship God’). We learn that Pharaoh ordered those who were in charge of the slaves not to give them straw to make bricks. But there was a catch to it. A bad one that they were to produce the same quantity of bricks even without the supply of straw. This means that they were to get the straw themselves and then they make the bricks and they were still to produce the same quantity of bricks.
              In any team effort, roles are distributed to make work easier and make the process efficient. In this case, pharaoh decided, they would do everything. The reason according to him was because they were idle. It is this word Idle that brings me to the first month of military service. Idleness was reduced to zero. Within a month, the process was so grueling that in “The zone” meant you remembered you had a family after like two or three days. Read the rest of Pharaoh’s story from your bible it is interesting. The term idle in my mind also brought with it the term “malice”. From my perspective, malice is that tendency to really make life hard for your colleagues while you have been given a particular task to play, for no particular reason. ‘Malice’ in training is part of the process. In the case above, Pharaoh thought that work load was too little because of the increased manpower (read slave-power) that he wanted them to have more work (getting straw and building bricks) so that they would not have the time to go and make a feast for their God – or even think about God. I will get back to my military story. But in all places of work, we have those people who always want to make your life hard. They feel like you are not sweating enough. Please note there is a difference between sweating enough, and being productive. You can be sweating and non-productive and you can be sweat-free but very productive (an aspect of sharpness) in the military sense. Malicious people at the work place always want to make life hard. They want something done, but they are not ready to facilitate the efficient running of the process. It is pure evil! But I was not writing an advice column. Malicious people will always be malicious people. If they don’t exist who will we gossip and make fun of, over coffee break?
              Back to the parade. There was a thin line between the malice I discussed/ Pharaoh tendencies, and the training process that we were to undergo. Where were we?
“Itafanyika Afande!”
              Organization/ neatness/ tidiness is the first thing instilled in military life. It is an identical twin to discipline. Our current territory was dirty. It needed tidying.
“Funga mguu!” “Fungua Mguu!” “Saasaaa, hii area ni chafu! na inafaa ing’ae!” (Attention! At ease!, Now, this area is dirty! & it is supposed to be clean!) I know Kung’aa means to shine but in this context, the dictionary is not your kind
              In my early days, my standards of spotless were not the military standards of spotless. For every new recruit and cadet. Until you learn that clean is not just, “clean”. (Insert 1Kg of Malice here). As far as we were concerned, the area was spotless. Until afande pointed the 50 by 2 meter strip of grass surrounded by a flowerbed behind him.
“Kurutuu, hii nyasi inakaa mbaya! Na lasma! Iende chini, Na Hio Maua Ipaliliwe!” (Recruits, this grass looks bad and it has to go down and those flowers cleared of weeds.)
Well, everything here was all “YES SIR” then queries later. 
I couldn’t feel my fingers at all. Then someone asked,
“Afande tusaidie slasher… na panga” (Sir, please help us with a slasher and a machete.)
“Slasher gani? Si una mikono? Tumia! na uwache kihere here!” “Si najua sijawapatia!” “Ama utafute wembe na vijiti” (Which slasher? Don’t you have hands? Use them, & stop being a know it all, I know I have not given you slashers! or find a razor blade and sticks.)
              We thought this was a joke. He got to the paddock and gave us a demo. We were going to pluck the grass like tea and weed the flowers with our fingers and stakes like cave men. After that, he scattered the grass he had in his hands on us, in some weird ritual like way and told us to “carry on”.
              At the back of my mind I was like, ‘no way!’ this is a joke! I looked to my right and I shivered to the sight of the overgrown, one meter long grass that rose at the extreme end of our company’s quarters. ‘Even those? We would do the same by hand?’ I got into the grass patch and got down to business after a few ‘plucks’ I realized I would do a better job with the flowers and so I picked a stick and used it as a tool. A few of us took the time to walk to the toilet (excuses) others just watched in shock while a few of us got into it. Others thought it was a prank of some sorts. Never mind my frozen fingers, but I picked that grass like we used to as kids, pretending to pick tea back in the day and worked on those flowers just like I used to back in my younger years. I never minded, this is what I had to go through to get what I wanted. In a few minutes we were done. The few of us that is. Cleaned the patch like a new lawn mower!
              The instructor came back. Told everyone to “Funga Mguu!” on location. This was some hostile voice and nobody dared to move. We were 19 of us in the patch, out of 52 and it was already clean. Our hands held evidence of the job. The 19 of us were told to stand at one end and the others on another end. Then our afande called out to his colleagues.
“Kirui! Wekesa! Afande Omollo!” “Iko wajanja ya Lang’ata wamekataa kazi!” (These smart ones from Lang’ata don’t want the job!)
The morning silence was broken by screams and wails. Like a burial in some parts of the world.
              The 33 were placed into 3 files and marched off accompanied by tough words and a few isolated blows occasionally, towards the field while the rest of us were told to wait for further instructions. A few other instructors joined shouting “ARAP! IKO NYAMA ASUBUHIII!!!” We never saw them again until after our mid morning tea – which they missed that day. From the look in their eyes, it was not a fairy tale; nobody was speaking to the other. Ng’eno came to me and said;
“Maish kesho ata wakisema tukule hio nyasi! Mimi takula aki ya nani!” (Maish, tomorrow, even if they tell us to chew and swallow that grass, I will eat it, I swear!)


              He was almost in tears, like most of everyone else. One of the girls had red, puffy eyes, a sign of a nice session of crying. Later heard that she was the one that saved them. Sympathy from the instructors. That was our first lesson in resourcefulness, obedience & teamwork. Happens at that point of every new career in various ways. After lunch that day, we all received machetes. (Which were never sharpened until the 3rdmonth). You cannot train someone without an open mind, without an obedient heart and without the spirit of teamwork. For 52 people that was such a short patch of grass to clear with our hands considering the dew (Soft). But then again what happened to the 33 is one of those stories they tell everyone who asked “How was training?”.
Military Life: Chapter 15 – Bricks Without Straw.

7 thoughts on “Military Life: Chapter 15 – Bricks Without Straw.

    1. I am civilian, have come across a few military personnel and one thing in common is that they never spoke of their time in training. One told me “kuna vitu huwezi eleza, unakufa nazo tu”. I am glad to have a sneak preview of what he might have gone through.

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