IN CHAPATI WE TRUST

Grown-ups are children too; they just play more complicated games. That sentence had me thinking for a while. Let’s start at the point where thinking isn’t a normal thing, like a state of emergency. When there’s some kind of threat to the country, the president declares a state of emergency. Curfews are imposed, security becomes tighter and generals with more stars on their coats than friends in their lives meet to discuss matters of national security. It’s a state of bloody emergency! Al-Shabaab! Border invasion! Country-wide ebola outbreak! Lionel Messi(When Messi is on the opposing team, I think it would be correct to declare a state of emergency)! Well, we’ve made thinking our own little state of emergency. We only think when there’s some imminent danger associated with not thinking, like the possibility that you might be conned by that well-dressed man asking for your phone so he can make a quick phone call to his relatives. He seems genuine. He is dressed impeccably, after all. That clean haircut, those glittering eyes, the million-dollar smile… And he seems like he really is in need. I mean, ANYONE could get robbed in town, right? If it were you, you’d probably do the same; walk up to a kind-looking stranger and ask for their phone so you can call for help. But wait a minute… Didn’t you hear about this happening to someone else? That guy who got his phone stolen the same way? Then you look a little closer… The eyes are glittering because they’re almost teary from all the anxiety. The smile looks more like a million Zimbabwean dollars. He didn’t walk up to you because you looked kind; it was probably because you looked gullible. In fact, the only clean thing about this guy is his haircut. A little thinking, and you have the wisdom to say “Sorry, no airtime on my sim”

Everyone knows to think when something dear depends on it and they’re facing their own little state of emergency. A rarer breed is the kind that thinks for pleasure. No stakes involved, no prize money, no life-saving. Just doing it for the kicks. Well, I tried it one day. I thought about that sentence at the beginning and let my mind wander and I ended up with the most ridiculous , most useless conclusion. And God! Did it feel good! It was almost like a high. Basically, it went something like this:

 

In primary sdownloadchool, chapati was very valuable. On days when the cook served chapati for lunch, there was bedlam in the serving lines. Everyone wanted to cut the line or take their friend’s chapati. Everyone was trying to get more chapati than was due to them. It was a dog-eat-dog situation. In fact, chapati was so popular, it acted like some sort of currency! “Yo Karis, lemme copy your homework you can have my chapati on Tuesday.” Or “Karis can I play your Gameboy all afternoon? Chapati is on me come Tuesday.” Or “I’ve got the latest issue of Supa Strikas. I’ll let you have it if you let me have your chapati on Tuesday.”(Said by Karis). Tuesday was like payday and Karis was the omnipresent debt collector. As you can imagine, his plate was stacked high with chapatis on Tuesday. He was like a kind of Godfather. He was smart too! He traded them for favours. Out of a plate of ten chapatis he’d eat two and trade the rest for anything from pencils to deskmates(“Yo, Karis, can I have a chapati?”; “Only if you get your deskmate Stacy to come sit with me during the English exam and leave her answer sheet open.”)

Karis was my classmate in class 5. That means we were on average 10 years old back then. This ten year-old had figured things out that I’m only beginning to figure out as a young adult. In fact, thinking about it now, I can imagine how he could have taken things further.

What if Karis convinced everyone to store their chapatis with him? Most of them would save the pieces they didn’t need and put them in their lunchboxes. Karis would tell them he has this super lunchbox that can hold all their chapatis and they wouldn’t have to worry about carrying their lunchboxes around all the time. But Karis would be smart as always. He’d find a way to make more chapatis out of this. He’d tell people they can borrow chapatis from him as long as they’d pay him back with more chapatis. If they didn’t, they’d have to deal with Mwaniki and Juma, Karis’s big nasty friends from class 8 South. Karis figured out how to make this work, like the maestro he thought he was. Let’s say Stacy gave him 10 of her chapatis to store for him; he would loan 2 out to Ouma, who wanted to trade them for a new Oxford Mathematical Set, 4 to Owino, who wanted to rent a brick game for two days, and 4 to Mutuma, who wanted Stacy to be his girlfriend for a day. They were all paying back at the rate of 1 chapati for every 4 borrowed. So Ouma would pay back 2 ½ chapatis, Owino 5 chapatis and Mutuma 5 chapatis. In total, Karis would get back 12 ½  chapatis at the end of the whole affair. If Stacy wanted back her chaptis he’d give them to her and keep his tidy 2 ½ chapatis. At any given time, Karis’s super lunchbox was empty because most of his chapatis had been loaned out. But no one had to know this, did they? As long as everyone didn’t come to claim all their chapatis back at the same time, his business would run smoothly. And he knew they wouldn’t. It was as likely as pigs flying.

Mr. Etyang, the school principal, got wind of Karis’s business and had to make some quick decisions. He sat down for a few minutes, with his arms folded over his million-chapati pot belly, and thought hard about it. On the one hand, it was illegal to do unauthorized business on school premises. On the other hand he had a mug full of tea, but that’s not the point. If he endorsed Karis’s business and came up with a way to profit from it, everyone would be happy. He chose door number 2 and came up with what looked to him like the perfect plan. He would bring Mr. Mokaya, the guy who made chapatis in the kitchen, on board. Basically, it worked like this: Karis would now have to store some of the chapatis given to him for storage by the other students with Mr. Mokaya, in the kitchen. So for every 10 chapatis given to Karis, 2 would have to be handed over to Mr. Mokaya. That way, Karis couldn’t loan out all his customer’s chapatis. Karis protested at first, but Mr. Etyang quickly found a solution. Karis could borrow chapatis from Mr. Mokaya and loan them out. He’d just have to loan them out at a higher rate than he was paying Mr. Mokaya. Mr. Mokaya, however, could change the rate whenever he felt like it. To protect Karis’s chapati depositors further, Mr. Etyang also decreed that Karis would have to pay them for keeping their chapatis with him. Karis didn’t worry much about this. He would probably pay them very low rates, like 1/8 of a chapati for every 4 chapatis held. Lol. Mr. Etyang’s ace however, was a little law he declared. Now chapatis were the only medium of exchange to be used for all transactions within the school. He gave it a fancy name, to make it sound more formal. Something like legal tender. At this point, Mr. Etyang felt like his stomach must actually be holding his brains. That was the only explanation he could think of for why his stomach was so big!

The system was now much more interesting. Mr. Mokaya figured out a way to control the supply of chapati in the school. He would sell little paper notes to Karis whenever he wanted Karis and the other students to loan him money. They came to be known as kitchen notes. He would sell them at, say, 2 chapatis per note and promise to pay the holder ¼ of a chapati for every note held. There were notes that were redeemable in one week, two weeks or a month. If he wanted more people buying his notes, he would simply increase the rate, maybe from ¼ to 3/8. If he wanted more people selling their notes to him he’d reduce the rate. And if he had no chapatis to buy the notes back, he’d simply cook more!

On the other hand, trade was booming whenever there were a lot of chapatis to go round. People traded pencils, sets, bags, books and even desk mates (especially popular during exams). Mr. Etyang handled the big stuff, like commissioning the school carpenter to make more desks or getting new doors fixed for the older classrooms. To fund this, he declared that all students had to give him a portion of their weekly chapatis. Like a ¼ for every chapati. And when the money he’d collected from this wasn’t enough, he simply borrowed more from the students and promised to pay them his own rate, like say 1/6 for every chapati. His thinking was that he would collect more taxes next week as trade improved and use that money to pay the students back on the money he had borrowed. But this wasn’t always so. Most of the time the taxes weren’t enough, so to pay back the loans he would simply borrow from a different source, Mr. Mokaya. He’d just tell Mr. Mokaya to cook enough chapatis to pay back the loan and record it as a loan to Mr. Etyang in his books. But since Mr. Mokaya and Mr. Etyang were such great buddies, Mr. Etyang knew he could take his time paying off Mr. Mokaya’s loan. Within no time Mr. Mokaya was boasting about how many chapatis he could cook in one day. But this presented problems of its own.

Since Mr. Etyang was the biggest spender in the school, what with all the chapatis he had at his disposal, his actions had a big effect on things. When he had a lot of money, he made large orders, the school carpenter, Mr. Wafula, seemed to figure this out because at such times he would charge Mr. Etyang more for his services. This seemed all good at first, until the students realised that Mr. Wafula was now flush with newly cooked chapatis. They would now charge him more for whatever they sold him, which included pencils, rulers, hammers and nails they’d stolen from home, and deskmates (Though the deskmates were almost always female, weren’t being sold for the purposes of exams, and probably had no idea they were being sold or they would have slapped the living daylights out of all parties involved). These students would in their turn be flush with chapatis and buy more things from other students, who would figure it out and charge more. The end result is that suddenly, everything was more expensive. Ms. Chelimo, Mr. Etyang’s advisor on all matters concerning student activity, and the custodian of his belly (trust me, I don’t know what that means either), told Mr. Etyang that due to this, he might have to watch his spending and borrowing habits a little more carefully.

Meanwhile, other interesting things were happening with Karis and his ilk. When the new system was put in place, other students started providing services like his. There was Mwajuma, who was biased to catering for her fellow girls, there was, Bilal, who mostly held chapatis for the more broke students, Then there were the others: Watieri, Warsame, Nzioka, Mzirai et al, who, to be honest, gave the same services under different brands. Karis now officially had competition.

Not all the chapati storers were up to par though. Karis was the first to go down. He started to steal from his own depositors in what he thought were clever ways. He would give loans to himself and his two cronies, Mwaniki and Juma at very low rates and then whenever he was reporting his performance to the students he would use bogus figures to lie to them. What the students didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them… Until it did. One of them found out and spread the news. Suddenly, all of Karis’s depositors wanted all of their chapatis back. On the same day! Looks like those pigs finally sprouted wings. Mr. Mokaya had to shut Karis’s operations down and put Mzirai in charge of his affairs. Meanwhile some other chapati storers got especially greedy on a particular week when Mr. Mokaya lowered interest rates, making the school flush with chapatis. They loaned out chapatis to anyone and everyone in a bid to maximize their profits. Unfortunately, they loaned them out to people who clearly couldn’t pay back. One even loaned out chapatis to Njire! Njire didn’t even come to school on most days! And he was allergic to wheat products! He didn’t even eat chapati on Tuesdays… How exactly was he supposed to pay back? Well, most of them gave out these loans to students so they could buy mathematical sets from the school stationers. The students would then pay the chapati storers a daily rate till the loan was fully paid back, ideally at the end of the week. Because so many students were buying mathematical sets, the stationers began to hike the price. Interesting things then began to happen.

Stacy took a loan of 2 chapatis on Monday, which she was supposed to have paid back by Friday as 2 ¼ chapatis. When she took the loan, a mathematical set was going for 2 chapatis. She bought one at this price. By Tuesday morning, a set was going for 3 ½ chapatis because of high demand. That meant that Stacy could sell her set to someone, pay her loan back, and keep a tidy profit. Mwajuma figured this out and convinced Stacy to take another loan of 1 chapati, secured by the extra value of her set. She gave it a fancy name. Something along the lines of “Your equity in your set has increased.” A lot of people did this, but as they were to soon find out, it was a house of cards. Because the storers gave loans to people who were unlikely to pay back, soon people began to stop paying their daily rates. The storers had to confiscate sets from these defaulters. The number increased until the chapati storers had more sets in their possession than chapatis. They were starting to look more like stationers themselves. Lol. They tried to sell the sets but because many people already had sets and they were selling sets themselves, demand took a dive. With few people buying, price took a deeper dive. Suddenly, People like Stacy realized that their sets cost something like 1 chapati but they were repaying loans north of 3 chapatis. It made more sense to just abandon their sets and stop repaying. Some storers had given so many bad loans they went down quickly. The house of cards tumbled. Then students began to lose faith in the other storers and started to demand for their deposits. More pigs sprouted wings. Mr. Etyang had to step in and give the suffering storers chapati loans from the government, sometimes buying a share in their ownership, just to keep the depositors satisfied and the businesses floating.

I could go on, only the drugs I took to think up that story are beginning to wear off. But I think I got my point across. Grownups are children too, they just play more complicated games. I can’t help wondering where Karis and his posse are now as adults, though something tells me they’re right there at the top. They’re the guys in charge. The guys we put our faith in. In their chapati we trust.

 

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