Story of Koko: The Illiterate Beach Boy Fluent in Six Foreign Languages

July 21, 2022 at 15:03
Story of Koko: The Illiterate Beach Boy Fluent in Six Foreign Languages

I feel the grit of warm, fine sand in the soft spots between my toes. Curiously, a blurred image of the planet’s diced cross-section in elementary Geography crops up.

It shows the strata – from the layer of white sand massaging my toes to the red hot core. There’s an almost tangible sense of connection with nature.

A blast of wet, salty wind hits full on the face. It breaks my reverie.

Koko regains my attention. Koko has a tiny sharp knife in his right hand, curving away with short practiced strokes at a green coconut. He’s mid-20’s, quite lanky with a couple of thick, brown locks on his head.

School kids frolicking in the white, sandy beaches in Malindi, Kenya (file images)

Koko dons a stained pair of combat shorts with hemline miles above visibly-scarred knees. At his feet, there’s a bunch of green coconuts – he sells Madafu – the overrated coconut water drink. He’s a career beach boy. He sells Madafu in the low season.

I point to his feet. He’s barefoot.

“Koko, unavaa kiatu number ngapi?”

I ask, with a relaxed familiarity seemingly built over a long period of friendship. Wrong. I’ve known him inside the half an hour I’ve been on the beach. He ain’t offended, like it certainly would to a large swab of upcountry people.

Watu wa bara. Sic.

“I don’t know. Sijawahi vaa kiatu, kaka brazza.” Koko says, good naturedly.

I wait for the rejoinder. Most people quickly follow a joke on themselves with a redeeming rejoinder. Koko has none.

I take my eyes off a bare-chested man walking perhaps a quarter mile in the ocean – its low tide – and, look at Koko. A straight face – like you’d have on a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed

I survived a shoeless phase in our rural primary school days, but – striding through three decades of life without a shoe? Hard to take that in.

Koko’s feet – like most local lads stomping by – were heavily webbed. Yes, like a duck’s.

See how your favorite (ugly) Crocs are web-shaped? They were meant for the beach. Not for the mall, and certainly not with socks.

Here, it’s not entirely useless. Career beach boys literally swim better than ducks.

I ask for a second Madafu. Koko is interesting. It beats staring at an empty seabed. Low tide is underwhelming. The banter comes easily.

To be honest, I hate the drink. For taste, Madafu is neither here nor there – a quite bleak affair. It’s not sweet, or sour – oh, wait – it tastes like a yucky version of ORS.

That oddly-tasting salt and sugar mixture used to treat diarrhoea. No (yes) offense, Coasterians.

Like you’d offer a whiskey shot to a benevolent bartender in a new town, I offer Koko a drink of his own. He settles down flat on the sand.

Koko is native Digo – one of the nine constituent Mijikenda sub tribes. He was born and bred in Likoni. Storytelling comes naturally to this tribe. Perhaps, the trait that makes Coastal Kenya so appealing and homely.

Koko vividly narrates of his early life, starting school. He’d drop out in sixth class, and not for lack of want.

His father was a fairly successful fisherman, and schooling was inexpensive. He just says – ‘the beach called’ – and, ever since Koko has been on Shelly Beach. Its barely a mile from Likoni Ferry.

Koko is super fluent in English and Swahili, but he doesn’t know, or get to write.

On the Swahili adage ‘Mugala muue na haki umpe’,  he’s double fluent in German, French, Italian and a bit of Swiss. But, if humanity depended on it – Koko cannot read or write any of their syllables!

Of paradoxes in life – Less is more, You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t – I bumped into the biggest paradox of my life.

How does a man speak six of the biggest global languages and lack the basic skill to write his own name?

I’m now on my third Madafu. The taste kind of grows on you – I guess taste buds just slump out, resigned to their fate.

“How did you learn all these languages?” I ask Koko.

“Hapa tu kwa beach na tourists. Miaka kumi na tano kwa beach sio mchezo.” Koko says, and shrugs.

There’s a faraway look in his eyes. The tide is coming in.

Koko is happily married to an age mate, a beautiful Digo lady.

Aside, in conspiratory tones – Koko lets slip that he’s been thrice married before, as he says ‘in my younger years’.

To a German, a French and lastly to a Swiss lady – before ‘cruel pandemic’ had cut short the romance. They’d been prepared to travel to Switzerland, but Covid 19 happened.

Koko digs out a dog eared pamphlet wrapped in a polythen paper from his side pocket. It’s his passport.

Dear Lord, its colorful – end to end stamped with arrivals and departures in cities across the world. If you have a travel bucket list, Koko has most probably ticked off three-quarters of it.

A group of youth in an exercise run at a beach in Mombasa, Kenya (file image)

Wait, barefoot.

Well, fancy a nonchalant stride through cobbled streets in Munich – barefoot, and webbed.

Suddenly, my world felt so small. Not unlike a translucent lizard on the wall in my servant quarter rental house. I’ve always felt like a snobbish brag when I say I live in Karen, up-market Nairobi.

A beach boy hawking bland-tasting Madafu on Shelly Beach has been there, and certainly done that.

I’ll have to travel more. I’ve started baby steps.

This year, I couldn’t resist incredible off-season travel plans in a deal between Magical Kenya, Jambojet and Hotels across the Kenyan Coast, Rift Valley and Lakeside region.

I didn’t see dolphins, learn surfing or attempt drowning with a snorkel on my two-day stay-cation. But, I did meet Koko – who served an unapologetic juxtaposition to personal ideals about life.

See you soon, Koko.

#TembeaKenya

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