BARRACK OBAMA COMING IN A WEEK’S TIME…
— was how the bottom of the China-made TV screen beamed at the ill-tempered man as he lay in the cold sofa watching news yesterday. He spent the day before that wiping the red TV with a wet rag, after being away for five years, and that night all ears in the homestead heard an eerie sob from the dull womb of his simba hut closest to the main house, the small hut which is his by tradition because he is the eldest son. The strange sob ended with a belching roar like a bull cornered and head-butted by a virile-bodied rival. Whatever the sound was, they knew that there was something objectionable to it, self-inflicted, self-indulgent.
He arrived with a stomach as taut as a sisal-root drum and a guilty smile smeared on his fat cheeks, his big buttocks and woman’s breasts ringing slack bells in the midday sun. He was tense. His locked hair itched. He scratched with dirt-clogged claws. The lice he was bringing home, smelly wounds, scars, strange scabs. He swung into the entrance, turned left, saw his ageing hut with the door ajar, hurried straight there, not interested in whose eyes those were, stealing stares at him between half-open doors and cracks of hinges, children being grabbed by their ears and pulled into huts with loud Enter the hut can’t you see he has returned!
Only his mother and kid sister came. The widow told him to close his eyes. He did, and she prayed powerfully. They gave him their hands. Mother and daughter both realized how strangely soft his palms had become. But more than that, the stench! He stunk like a wound. His mother knew that the swollen stomach was normal for people returning from there. Later she welcomed him with a big calabash of porridge and warned him You must not overfeed lest your stomach burst like Sapphira and Ananias.
He bathed and reclined on the sofa that evening. The memory of his two younger siblings not coming to greet him returned. Each had a wife and three children now, but they too did not. He understood. He had not seen the flattening mounds of earth, but his mind’s ear knew the sound of the two graves hidden behind the main house.
His eyes opened with the suck of a bedbug. The floor was swept. Perhaps it was the work of his kid sister’s hands. He thought of his wife who had fled. A guilty wife could not wait…
Before the end of the week of Obama’s coming he spends the rest of the days indoors, mostly, but occasionally out, standing in the sorghum field behind the homestead, savouring the free world of the village hills with heaps of charcoal smoke burning, he looking at the vast cane plantations, at women and girls going to the stream, at children playing, listening to cocks crowing every dawn. Looking at young shoots of sorghum makes him remember his father and he laughs at what he’d told him; he laughs in spite of the burden of his own past.
OBAMA ARRIVES THIS EVENING, 8:30P.M…
— the red China-made TV announces again as he reclines his bloated body in the cold sofa he bought for his gone wife over five years ago. He watches the news anchor. She is red and ripe like osaye fruit. Pictures come of lanky Obama addressing with a serious face, in neat suits, and then smiling with a set of sparkling teeth, folded sleeves, meeting Americans who voted for him. The sight of it leaves the returnee lonely, deserted. His powerlessness inundates him.
His teaching job at the primary school went. The agonizing appeal brought a lesser charge which saw him begin the sentence. But now the presidential pardon has come on a national holiday and brought him home at last.
Supposing I am a good man, he tells himself, and patient, I will get new work again…
He turns in the hard sofa of bedbugs. The TV discussants are loud, explaining why the first time the American President visited Africa Obama went to Ghana and Tanzania but avoided Kenya, the country of his father’s birth:
America is angry –
Kenya is presided over by criminals who must visit The Hague –
Ghana is a wonderful example in Africa –
Nigeria is corrupt but the oil –
Nyerere decimated tribalism in Tanzania –
He keenly listens. His mind races back to the time he taught at the school, when Obama first raided the American presidency and left him sleepless the whole of that night, watching his China-made TV till the sun erupted in the east smiling like something born.
Before Obama he used to mount the bicycle and ride to school, his mind boiling with what he taught his pupils about Napoleon, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler, and how the Berlin Conference of 1884 brought English language to Africa and made him a primary school teacher of history. But even as he rode and thought, he knew that onlookers were piercing his broad back with barbed arrows of gossip about why he was reluctant to marry, why he bathed alone in a dark bend of the stream. If not that, then it was his kid sister he sent to the stream for water in a pail and he bathed alone at night, in the dark. Till his mother had reprimanded:
Marry and send your wife to that stream!
Mos Mama – I am sorry.
He had spoken like a coward. Even his mother had felt it in her woman’s mind that she had given birth to a first son who was as hollow as foam. His father did not talk. He knew the fact when the boy was young; when he told him to hold the calf as the father milked, and it pulled him so badly that he fell down back-on-dust, his legs apart, and the father thought he heard something nearing a slack fart, like the last flabby air escaping a balloon.
About his father, his memory is as unclothed as the midnight moon; clear with crickets chirping, the sister of queer little bells rung in the midnight grass. He remembers what the old man, now gone to the stars, had whispered to him about his now absent wife:
I am telling you.
His dead father had leaned forward and whispered across the duol dung fire smoke that evening those years, two days after the arrival of the woman who would be his wife.
Father I am listening.
You say you are listening.
I am saying that your brother has done a great deed to bring a prize woman for you. No one denies that the woman is good for the eyes. But they also say that the man who plants the best sorghum field in the village must ready himself to chase away the birds.
And then pregnant stillness invades the China-made TV screen this night. He opens his eyes wide and sits. The discussants wait. The news anchor connects the reporter at the airport. The virgin pictures come. Air Force 1 hits the runway with royal wings and something red winking on one of those wings: power. American officers – mean men and unsmiling women – look different ways, peering into the darkness in case terrorists erupt to bomb the plane carrying Obama. The man on the cold sofa looks at the white officers again. Unlike the Kenyan security men, none of them is smiling. He is awed at the way white people never laugh when executing their tasks. If they were water before the task began, they are fire when it starts.
The moody man on the dusty sofa sees Kenyan Ministers jostle, line like school children, their faces humbled. And then Obama comes down the flight of stairs, his pairs of shoes – which look surprisingly ordinary – lightly cutting like the sharp edges of Western power:
‘Kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes…’
— down the steps.
The lonely man’s eyes are fixed on the Chinese-made TV. Standing on the red carpet, Obama grabs the young girl with the bouquet of flowers in an international hug, and a smile that carries two. The first smile is for the young girl and Kenya’s media cameras. The second smile is for what most Kenyan Luos interpret as the American President torturing President Uhuru.
You see? President Obama posed with the young girl for too long, a Luo discussant observes.
Aaah, well, perhaps, weighs in a Kikuyu discussant.
Says the Luo, You know, he was sending a message –
The Kamba news anchor chips in, And what was the message?
That he is the king; he is the most powerful man on the planet; the only superpower…
I disagree, the Kikuyu objects. President Uhuru had no choice, you know. He had to wait –
Precisely! Precisely! The Luo digs in. Power is about leaving your opponent with no choices –
Hey guys, the news anchor interrupts, seeing that the Luo does not say ‘President’ when he refers to Uhuru, and the Kikuyu does not say ‘President’ when referring to Obama.
The man on the dusty sofa looks on, sympathizing with Uhuru.
That is it, the Luo resumes. Do not joke with Obama the Luo –
The Kikuyu says, of course he is an American –
Unless you mean that Jomo Kenyatta did not father ‘Ouru’ Kenyatta your president –
Guys, guys, guys…the Kamba news anchor mediates.
The man on the hard sofa watches as Obama hugs Uhuru in a ‘lengthened hurry’, obviously contrived, for the media, and the Maasai Minister for Internal Security is the only Kenyan official with whom Obama laughs genuinely, exhaustively, till the keen observer can see that the American President cannot control his own dangling arms, the way most people can’t when a true laugh eats their lungs. After that, Obama hugs his Kenyan sister, he wants to cry, and they board the black, muscular Beast which hisses in the dark, fleeing to the hotel…
This night, July 24:
The returnee’s kid sister brings the night meal. It is kuon corn-bread and aruda pumpkin leaves. She finds him surly as usual and tells him mother says that the only chicken which remained was the one slaughtered that day, two weeks ago, to welcome him home. He eats with a sense of bitterness – the bitterness of knowing that he has a hand in the absence of his father; the loneliness of knowing that the whole village has its thumb on his role in the absence of a brother who brought him his now absent wife, the precise reason he is returning after five years.
After the meal he looks at the big stomach he has brought home, his small, stick-like legs, and the woman’s breasts which he has carried with him since adolescence. He turns on the hard sofa and breathes deep. He does not go to the cold bedroom. The mattress is not there. Someone stole it – probably either of his two siblings. He does not know who. He grabs the torn sheet his mother gave him for a covering the day he returned. He blows out the nyangile tin lamp and switches off the red China-made TV.
This night, again, his mother and kid sister, and the two siblings with their wives, hear a subdued sob like a trapped animal; a man being suffocated by his own tongue. When the lonely man was young he had heard that the human tongue could kill its owner.
Before the sound came that night he was lying prone and thinking about the philosophy of power. His mind captured Obama and his ‘kwes kwes kwes’ down the flight of stairs. He saw America in the eye of his mind. He knew it was a tight, disciplined, sharp-edged sound which came from the Europe he taught his pupils about, the neat sound that historically made rules for the world. The disciplined emotionalism of France; Italian art; German precision; British tough-mindedness which America turned to practicalism; all these raced through his mind. His own powerlessness was looking at him. He compared himself with Obama and chuckled under the torn sheet, slapping two bedbugs and scratching his hair. He knew he did not possess such tight discipline. If he ran down or up that flight of stairs like Obama, his big, slack buttocks and woman’s breasts would have gone:
‘Mbek mbek mbek mbek…’
— the sound of flabbiness and lack of rules and self-control and self-determination; the unhealthy, slack echo of infertility.
He sullenly quit the worry and thought about his being a husband those years. He remembered his wife who fled and recalled his dead father: the man who plants the best sorghum field in the village must ready himself to chase away the birds. His father was right. The lonely man counts the men he had found her with: one…two…three…four… ‘Jaber ja hula’, he calls her these days. ‘The most beautiful has the ugliest flaw’. She had borne him no child. Was he, or she, the problem? It gnaws at the walls of his memory.
The memory drags him to the stream, when he was still a young village boy in primary school, and he and the other siblings were throwing water at one another. Every time he rose to hurl the ball of water, his sibling fixed a gaze on his breast. Not that the two mounds on his chest were really feminine. Only that something told everyone – even his own age mates – how his breasts were sneakily past the normal size for a boy. Indeed, had their jutting not been doubly compensated for elsewhere, his immediate younger sibling would have told him God meant you to be someone’s wife.
They were in the stream throwing water at one another. His youngest sibling stood in front of him. The second youngest joined and they both struggled to blind him with water. The lonely man lying on the sofa cannot remember why his third sibling, the one born immediately after him, the one who later brought him the beautiful woman, stood behind him.
Big! The youngest screamed, laughing.
What is big? The man on the cold sofa asked guilty.
Yours! Yours! The second was screaming.
Lying – you are lying! He stuttered.
True! His breast is big!
You are lying!
He looked at the breasts and saw how unlike theirs his were. He bent, scooped water with both hands to throw at them, and was on the verge of doing so when he heard:
Gath! Gath! It was the sibling standing behind him.
He turned and asked, What?
You are gath! The news-breaker repeated, laughing. And soon the other two boys who now stood behind him were laughing too as he bent to scoop water and throw at the one in front of him, his immediate sibling who is now dead.
He did not know the meaning of ‘gath’ then. He wondered who had invented the eerie word. But something told him that the word lived inside his body. It had to do with him. He feared telling his mother how they were calling him. Sleep was an enemy that night.
Its meaning dawned on him when the black cow belonging to their neighbour gave birth. People gathered at once. Women were sadly holding their cheeks; husbands rounding their lips, bending down to look under the calf, rising, whistling.
The calf had no trace of testicles. It had nothing under its small tail. The following day, when the umbilical cord had dried, the owner made the calf lie supine, and inspected its belly. There was no future penis. In its place was something never before seen in Odiya. Between the calf’s two thighs, where the testes should have been, was something like the rusty, rotten seed of a young mango, planted in the middle of an area so soft, humid and numerous, that it resembled the underside of a mushroom. Beside this was a hole of sorts, with two lips.
The calf rose and shook its head. It squatted to pass water. A drip of yellow liquid fell from between its thighs…
The man now prostrated on the cold sofa was a tiny child then. Something had shrunk in him when he heard the calf being described as ‘gath’…
He broodily remembers how he feared marrying. Not that his weapon was unwholesome. His immediate younger sibling, now buried near his late father, would joke that other people’s logs could cook whole pots of nyoyo maize-and-beans and feed mourners. Only that these lucky people had no hearthstones. In his elder brother’s case it was a curious slit with lips more confounding than the calf’s.
He remembers the first woman he ever brought to his house, the one he met at the Teachers College.
What is that?
Where? He responded to her in the darkness of the mattress-on-mat.
She said, Down.
Nothing is there.
I feel water.
There is no water.
I am telling you, yawa!
It is sweat only.
Everything was well. All her rooms were fully rented out to well-built occupants. But copious water was pouring on her lower buttocks and threatening to crawl up her breasts. She wanted to wriggle free but he locked her by some unearthly trick of his, lying on her body in that strange manner, the way he soaked his gone wife every fruitless night.
He led her out of his simba hut the following morning. She never returned…
July 25 before today:
He switches on the red China-made TV. Obama is at the United Nations Hall in Gigiri urging young entrepreneurs in Africa to seize the moment. The American President is being flagged by Uhuru. Learn to confront your problems, Obama says. The African Continent will soon be one billion people. Why must malaria continue to kill hundreds of thousands every year? Women and young girls…retrogressive traditions…the cancer of corruption…say enough is enough…put paid to petty ethnic bigotry…dictatorships like Zimbabwe…America will lend a helping hand. America isn’t a special nation because we’re perfect; it’s because we keep hunting for alternatives to our imperfect solutions, we keep testing and trying…And it’s time Africa did…
The TV camera catches Uhuru looking at Obama, cowering. Uhuru’s lips are slack. They hang slightly – very unlike him, for someone who has lately turned to donning army fatigue and posing for cameras to threaten the opposition. Uhuru has been a wonderful host, but he looks pale, deflated in the presence of the person whose throat swells in speech like a python swallowing a broken goat. The man on the cold sofa looks on as power is dramatized; he sympathizes with Uhuru.
July 26, today:
The man with the big stomach and stick-like legs still watches the China-made TV. He longs to see power being dramatized again. From the university, Obama arrives at the airport in a small plane. The returnee sees two unsmiling white policemen salute a black man, contrary to the history he used to teach at the primary school five years ago. America must be a very strange place, he says in his mind. The airport is tense again. Guns and strange gadgets, binoculars, mean faces, slack-shouldered ministers – even dancers who want to entertain the departing American. But the sharp edge of Europe arrives again in the shape of a purse-lipped American official who seems to tell Obama that there is no time. Air Force 1 has to rip the air on its way to Ethiopia immediately, to address African heads of state at the China-built African Union headquarters.
‘Kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes kwes…’
— the edges of Western power as Obama mounts the flight of stairs. At the door he stands and waves. The aeroplane hits the runway and lifts, its white wings mocking the ugly, widowed Kenyan planes which the TV cameraman diligently captures for a sense of humour.
The pardoned convict turns in the cold sofa, sighs, seeing the plane disappear on its way to Ethiopia, watching Western power go.
This night he will take his mother’s meal. He will grumpily prostrate on the lonely sofa and consort with thirsty bedbugs, watching the China-made TV. And listen to post-Obama analyses. He will blow out the nyangile tin lamp and cover his head with the torn sheet. But before he sleeps tonight, he will recall the two siblings who despise him, their wives and children. He will remember the wife he now does not have. The one his immediate sibling seduced, married for him; and was then piercing on the banks of the stream because the convict could not give her a baby, a deed for which he fatally punished the sibling with a machete as the woman fled, and his own father collapsed, and jail welcomed Apina. Before he sleeps he will run his right hand down his swollen belly and hold, bending himself into himself. This night the homestead will hear him sob.
Image: Eneas De Troya via Flickr