I will remain silent in case Mama asks why I am late.
Mama has always said that children my age only laugh when a mjusi lizard tickles the inside of their skulls with a feather. So I have learnt to imprison my laughter in a small cage even when all I really need to do as a child is hatch laughter the way Madam Shangazi told us of the hyena. Class story time comes in the hot afternoons when we feel drowsy. The whole north coast and its white, sandy beaches boil with the heat of the sun. During story time in class, Madam Shangazi who is our teacher at Twafaa Academy in Lamu Town – where I learn in Class Five – usually tells us how the hyena laughed so loudly at the night feast that his well-behaved girlfriend dumped him for the lion. I always imagine that the hyena became either angry or resigned. If the latter, then the hyena must have looked at his dance mate the way Mama sometimes looks at Mishi and me – with a certain colour of deep sadness which I cannot explain.
Mama, my little sister Mishi, and I are two years old in Lamu Town. We are used to our new home even without Baba.
We are in our small hut. The koroboi tin lamp is burning. Mama washes Mishi so my little sister may sleep well this night. We have just eaten supper; that is sima maize bread and vegetable washed with coconut oil. I belch aloud. Coconut leaves are being rustled by the calm wind outside. The wide Indian Ocean smells salty. I know it is low tide every night and evening. The beach must be wide right now. But tomorrow morning all water will return from India and cover the naked beaches. No one will be able to see the endless red crabs with pincers-like arms.
Mama is addicted to throwing my little sister in the air after washing her. She does now. And then she grabs Mishi back with both hands, Mama’s hands fitting into my sister’s small armpits. I would cry if I were Mishi. It is dizzying. I fear falling hard on the floor – the way Madam Shangazi told us someone removed the ladder and kobe tortoise fell from heaven, cracking his back on the day animals returned from visiting heaven’s people. Mishi freezes. She tries to hold onto Mama tightly, clinging every time Mama wants to send her into the uncertain air.
Mama wears a sad face. She does it all the times she throws Mishi. Of course Mama’s teeth show. She pretends to laugh. But I know it is merely to stop Mishi from fearing. No one has told me why Mama terrorises Mishi.
Juu! She throws my little sister.
Mishi fell back from the air.
Mishi drops a second time.
My sister comes down a third time.
I look on. I fear Mishi will slip and I will not have a sister anymore. Mishi will die after cracking her head on the floor.
‘Mama,’ I call my Mama.
She responds, ‘Eee?’
‘If she falls?’
‘Mishi my only sister.’
‘My daughter will not fall.’
‘But if she does?’
‘You did not.’
I am silent. And then I ask, ‘I did not? Not me – Mishi.’
‘Not Mishi – you!’ Mama affirms.
‘You do not understand?’ Mama asks. ‘You did not fall when you were Mishi’s age and you were my only child then. I used to throw you in the air more times than I do your sister right now.’
Mama’s voice is cold and stiff. She does not always speak with me in this manner. I know that my lateness annoys her. I am quiet. The koroboi lamp continues to burn. I hear coconut leaves rustling again. I fear asking too much. It may give Mama an opportunity to ask me why I came to the house late this evening.
Mishi’s face is still wet with the water. But these days she seems to enjoy Mama’s throwing her in the air. Mishi laughs a bit. I look at my small sister and remember how she had cried those months in the past when Mama began sending her up in the air. The baby often clung onto Mama’s arms and dress, refusing to be set loose.
Mama wraps Mishi in the large shuka shawl. The garment quickly sticks onto Mishi’s wet skin, drinking water as if on God’s command. Mama begins mopping Mishi’s hair, ears and eyes with the corners of the shuka shawl.
Mama had told me ‘Promise me that you will not be like your father’ the first morning after our arrival in Lamu. That was where her brother Mjomba lived. Mishi’s eyes had seen the world for just three months then.
We had travelled north from Kinango on the south coast. My eyes will not forget the dusty road stretching towards Kwale. When we reached the hill in Kwale we were all red with dust. We had then descended east to Ukunda, turned north to Mombasa and boarded the ferry. We crossed into Mombasa. From Mombasa northeast to Lamu had been the longest stretch. So Uncle Mjomba had welcomed us with food. And then he had shown us where to sleep.
‘Why, Mama?’ I had asked that year.
‘See what he has done.’
Mama wanted to weep. I kept quiet.
‘He has left me a widow…’ tears wetted her two eyes. ‘A widow with two children…’
I had looked at the expansive blue water of the Indian Ocean. I had seen coconut trunks, birds flying, dhows floating, people fishing –the blue universe stretching to what my teachers at Kinango Primary School had said was Asia.
Uncle Mjomba had left for some place earlier that morning, at dawn.
‘Do not cry, Mama.’
‘How can I not cry?’ Mama snapped. Her tears fell on Mishi’s head because she had sat the baby on her lap, suckling her.
I remained quiet.
‘Your Baba has shamed me; I wish he were stronger than he was!’
I knew that Baba had been found dead on the lower end of a new rope. I did not know why. He was hanging under the branch of a big mbuyu tree deep in the hills. That was Sunday morning. The whole Saturday night Mama, Mishi and I had waited for him in vain. And then they found him that morning. The first person to see his corpse struck it with fresh leaves saying ‘Go in peace I did not kill you’ so as to prevent my Baba’s spirit from haunting the founder of his corpse.
We stood near the grave. Big stones fell; lumps of earth followed; and then the soil itself, being poured from the shiny blades of angry spades, till the grave was filled and firmed up into a sad mound. Mama was crying. We had left the following day.
In Lamu, Mama told me that Baba had killed himself because his Digo neighbour – there was a land dispute with Bwana Chirau – had called Baba a lost Duruma slave imported from Mozambique by the Portuguese slave merchants along the East African coast.
‘What did your Baba have to lose being called that – what?’ Mama had snapped again. ‘Who is capable of not being a slave in this world – under this single sun burning over our heads? Even if it were true, did your Baba think he could go back and trace his ancestors in Mozambique? Who came to this world with the sole purpose of living forever – who?’
To hell with Mama! I love Twafaa Academy because Madam Shangazi was teaching us about the history of Lamu Town. Not even the whole stretching ocean could have beaten her at it. Because of all the noise and enjoyment which she drowned us in:
‘Bright pupils of Twafaa Academy!’
‘Is history good or bad?’
‘Gooooood!’ we chorused like a crusade.
‘Good or bad?’
‘Do we know the history of our Lamu?’
‘When did we begin?’
‘1370!’ we shout.
‘Who came first?’
‘Who is ‘us’?
‘Who came next?’
‘What year was that?’
I said to me Ah, maybe that’ was when Baba’s great grandparents came to Kenya from Mozambique and settled in Kinango. I searched in my head for how my great grandfathers’ faces looked like. Were they crying in the ship? Or were they laughing? It does not matter to me. After all, I too am bound to remain a tiny nameless imaginary existence sometime in the future: I will die. And the earth on which I live will not care. My mind says if God is there then I will see Him; if He is not there I will see the devil. But if heaven and hell are not there then that will be the real heart of my sadness; that I will suddenly steal out of existence the same way I had seen a lone ant lying dead by the wayside in Kinango – just like that. And I will be silent. Forever. Forever. How humbling it will be for me to begin realising that I will be unable to outlast the endlessness of the eternity of death.
‘And next?’ Madam Shangazi woke me from my dream. My neighbour Ali giggled.
We screamed again, ‘The Turks!’
‘When was that, my clever children?’
‘Aha, good – and when was that?’
‘The Sultan of Zanzibar!’
‘Good,’ she nodded. ‘And then back to?’
‘Who, then, can say that things last forever?’
We shouted, ‘None!’
‘Nothing lasts –’
‘Nothing lasts –’
The lunchtime bell rang. Ali, I and the rest of the pupils ran out of the classroom as Madam Shangazi stood laughing…
Ali was the pupil I feared the most when I was new in class. He taunted me. He pouted his cheeks, enlarged his eyeballs, squinted at me, and showed his teeth. One day I reported to Madam Shangazi and she hit Ali’s fingers with a ruler many times. She told him if he threatened me again Madam Shangazi would throw him into the blue ocean. And Ali was going to be swallowed whole by the papa whale fish – not to be vomited again like Noah, but to die forever in the salty water like Lot’s wife. I triumphed.
But Ali’s parents were our neighbours. Mama knew them. They liked me. During the first days of our migration to Lamu I left the dusty playfields late and passed by Riyadha Mosque where the muezzin’s voice was calling. Soon belivers would begin reciting the Quran. White doves perched on the green half moons on top of the mosque.
My eyes were stuck on the flapping wings of a white dove when a small stone hit my eye. A girl’s voice shouted ‘It is Ali! It is Ali!’ I knew the voice belonged to Amina. Before kneeling down to cry, I opened my remaining eye and saw Ali’s white kanzu dress disappearing towards the mosque. Amina rushed to console me, searching my eye and touching my head. And then she hurried to the mosque, telling me to go home.
That evening I reached the house with tear paths on my face. Mama looked at me without saying a word. I saw the usual sadness on her face. Mishi was on her lap. Maybe Mama was worried without wanting me to know it. It was the same usual sadness she used to wear every time she was throwing Mishi in the air.
The following morning Amina’s mother came. She was pulling Ali by the neck. Amina hurried behind them. Amina’s mother told me ‘Let me see your eye’ after greeting Mama. I showed her and it was red.
She then asked me, ‘Is it this one who hit you?’
I did not want to give her an answer. Amina said very quickly that it was Ali. She said she had seen him throw the stone at me.
‘Ali!’ Mama Amina shouted.
The boy said, ‘Mama.’
‘Why did you?’
My Mama begged, ‘It is alright, Mama Amina.’
But it was already too late. Mama Amina raised Ali in the air and threw him down, cursing aloud ‘Do you not know Allah does not like those who hurt others?’
‘I am sorry, Mama.’
‘Do you not! Do you not! Don’t…’
My Mama said again, ‘Forgive the child, Mama Amina.’
Mama Amina went on beating Ali with a stick. The boy was rolling in the dust. He cried out but his mother did not stop.
Mama went and pulled her away.
‘Mama Mishi,’ Mama Amina said to Mama, panting. ‘This is my firstborn child. But he makes me mad the way he behaves.’
‘Forgive him now.’
‘I should,’ Mama Amina explained, ‘but do you not see that because of the recent Al-Shabaab kidnappings in Manda and Kiwayu, now everyone says all of us Muslims are violent people?’
Mama told her, ‘It is well, Mama Amina; but I will not say that.’
The visitor apologised on behalf of her son and left with her two children. From that day on we became the best of friends with Ali.
While in Kinango and Baba was alive I had heard of the Kikambala Bombing of the Israeli Paradise Hotel in Mombasa. We were gathered in the Catholic Church compound and people had talked about it. Baba had told me about places called Israel and Palestine in the Middle East…
The following week Madam Shangazi took us on a tour of Lamu Town. The next time she came to class we began shouting again.
‘My good children of Twafaa Academy!’
‘Where did we go?’
‘On a tour!’
‘Our Lamu Town!’
‘Did my children enjoy?’
She stopped briefly, went to the blackboard, and drew several landmarks which we all could recognise especially after the tour. She numbered them from the top downwards. Madam Shangazi then faced us and asked:
‘What did you see?’
We chorused the first drawing, ‘Riyadha Mosque!’
‘Good children!’ she told us.
The next moment I was wrestling with thoughts inside my head. All the old landmarks came to me in their aged appearances. My mind whispered to me that we had gone to see things whose builders or founders no longer lived. They had all died hundreds of years before. Something winked its eyes at me, mocking me, saying it was a command to die and belong in a certain past which was yellow, windy, distant, and dry – a past full of sleeping bones. We too would finally say our farewell and go away in peace.
On our first month of June in Lamu, Ali and I went to attend the Maulidi Festival. Ali literally pulled me along so I could go and see for myself. Uncle Mjomba had told me that a good part of the festival – mainly the night prayers in honour of Prophet Muhammad – took place inside the Riyadha Mosque. But it was during the day that I enjoyed the most. We danced to the beat of the Goma rhythm. Men stood with walking sticks. They danced. Pairs of men then grabbed Arabic swords and fought against each other. They fought and danced simultaneously. They played football. They ran and swam. Men and boys held hands and walked into Lamu Town. Ali took my hand and we walked alongside Uncle Mjomba who had come. We shouted. And then the donkey race on the last day, the fourth day. I had never seen so many donkeys before.
Someone narrated the birth and life of Prophet Muhammad. He said 8 June, 632 AD and Saudi Arabia. I looked across the blue ocean. I tapped Ali’s elbow and said that was many hundreds of years ago. It reminded me of the thousands of years on whose wings we were flying behind the Jesus Christ of our Baharini Catholic Church. I felt sad. I was bound to die the same way the people we were worshipping had died.
And, however hard I try, on the last Maulidi I must return to the house late every year –so late that Mama becomes sad rather than angry…
The koroboi tin lamp still burns. Palm trees rustle outside. The salty smell of the quiet ocean enters through the hut window into our nostrils. The smell feels as distant as India, the other side of the ocean. Mama has finished drying Mishi. This night is one of the many June nights I have returned to the hut too late.
‘Why did you come late?’ Mama asks me.
I am quiet.
‘I am talking to you.’
I beg her, ‘I am sorry, Mama.’
‘Do not say to me that you are sorry,’ she tells me. ‘How many times have I warned that walking at night is not good especially for a child your age?’
I look at Mama and see the lamp’s yellow flame dancing in her eyes. I see Baba and Kinango living inside her two eyes. Mishi has begun snoring on Mama’s lap. I turn my face and look at the silent floor below us.
My Mama looks at me, quietly, sadly. I know this sadness. My eyes have seen it on Mama’s face when she throws Mishi in the air and grabs my little sister back. Something told me yesterday that no mother is mad enough to expose her own child to danger. Throwing a baby in the air is dangerous. I know Mama is always sad because every time her grip frees Mishi in the air, she feels in her heart the uncertain world in which she must eventually abandon Mishi and me when she goes and leaves us behind the way Baba did.