Fiction

When Faces walk out of a Photograph: Fiction by Abenea Ndago

photo camera

Image: Pixabay.com

Tendayi is a Zimbabwean friend I met here in Toxteth, Liverpool, when I left Mombasa and followed my sister Mishi one year after she married Mr. Golightly. Mishi didn’t want me to remain. She hated me being scorched by the hot fire of our sun in the semi-arid loneliness of baobab trees surrounding our rusty homestead in Voi Town. And the scary prospect of two mounds of earth staring at her only sibling every morning like something captured in a photograph.

Mishi’s husband is an interesting man. He’d come to our coastal town as a tourist. He’d met my sister, and Golightly had left Kenya with her.

My sister’s husband isn’t my best friend. Maybe age is a factor. That’s why I’m ever with Tendayi who keeps asking why I’m always carrying my camera every time we visit the slave docks, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Princes Road Synagogue, and the Al-Rahma Mosque.

I haven’t told Tendayi that the reason is inside my head…

 

‘Press in well – the boy standing near his mother!’ the cameraman orders aloud, looking directly at me. ‘Why don’t you do as your sister does? Look at her – she stands at ease, carefree as a hen playing in granary dust.’

I try as best I can to follow the cameraman’s word. I’m ashamed that my sister Mishi, who stands near Baba, beats me in this posing game. My mind spins that a girl is beating me. I wonder who has taught Mishi to face the camera with a defiant calmness. She even smiles like the white women I have caught smiling in the many magazines we see Madam Lorna reading at school as we file in, one by one, taking our mathematics exercise books to be marked.

Our eldest sister is called Zena. She’s been married for three months.

Zena came the other day. She gave us sweets and clothes. Now she stands behind Baba and Mama with her two hands separately resting on Mama’s different shoulders. She’s as bold and confident as the rumour I’ve just heard from Mishi, that Zena’s people from Kinango are bringing dowry. I don’t know where Kinango is. I hear it’s near the ocean.

I shift in and steel myself stiff.

‘That is not enough! And don’t be stiff like a dead body!’ the cameraman cries at me. Why don’t Mama and Baba speak for me? I ask myself. The cameraman screams again, ‘Press in!’

I do.

‘Nkl!’ his tongue clicks impatiently. ‘That is too much – I mean press in only a little! Nkl! Primary school teachers in this village must be teaching wonderful heads these days. Thank God I didn’t become a teacher! I would have caused a genocide murdering pupils who don’t understand what I teach them – like this one here!’

My body stiffens at hearing those punitive words.

But I obey.

I try to rectify by withdrawing a little. What I don’t immediately discover is how sweat has begun wetting the skin on my little face because I’ve been publicly chastised. My left hand unconsciously seeks reassurance. I lean on Mama’s knee.

She remains as quiet as Baba. Her stomach is swollen. Mishi told me that mothers don’t speak a lot when they carry a baby in their stomach.

The cameraman focuses on me once more. He shouts, ‘Ah, stand upright young man!’

I do.

His left hand takes the huge camera away from his serious face as the right hand whizzes in the air commanding me to shift this way or that.

‘Take your thin hand away from the knee of the woman who brought you into this world,’ he adds naughtily. ‘Your Mama already did her part bringing you into this world.’

I obey.

Zena laughs shyly. I don’t know what she’s laughing at. Maybe it’s about her coming dowry.

The cameraman rubs into my ears: ‘You must know that male human beings are not supposed to lean on any part of their mother’s body even if they are still young. Stand upright!’

Mama tells the cameraman to proceed to hell. She warns him to leave me alone, repeating that I’m still young.

We hear our dog, Simba, barking behind us just near the fence. Everybody looks. The dog is quarrelling with the he-goat tethered onto our wire-mesh fence. Near them is our only cow Dibuoro, grazing near the boro cowshed with her calf, Elena.

The cameraman warns that we’re wasting his time looking at dogs, goats, and cows. We turn our faces and give him the attention.

‘He will not remain young forever,’ he gives a quick reply to Mama’s earlier suggestion that I’m still too young. ‘Soon he will be braying here like that he-goat tethered onto the fence.’

Mishi laughs.

I try to stand upright.

The man says finally, ‘Now tilt your neck or head – only slightly.’

I do and remain stiff, eyeing him.

‘I said tilt!’ he orders with a big sense of importance.

I stay that way. I’m tense. But I look at him, helpless about what to tilt.

‘Bwana cameraman Sir,’ I’m happy Mama intervenes on my behalf. ‘Say whether my child is to tilt his head or neck?’…

 

Days before we gathered in front of the hut Baba said a cameraman was the most powerful man in the world and so I wanted to be one. Baba said only a cameraman could host God in case the latter arrived from heaven on an old bicycle one evening and He wanted a place to spend the night in.

Sunday morning came and I knew how a cameraman was God. He could use invisible sweets to lure our shadows and capture our bodies with the flash of his magic on a rectangular piece of paper, making us remain that way as if electricity had frozen us dead, keeping our respective postures and smiles till another world would begin.

Mishi and I became aware of the end of the world in our minds because the government was planting electricity across the hills. It was an endless line of tall, metallic poles. The tall monsters had hanging arms which carried wires on either side. Moving our eyes from one monster to another, Mishi and I imagined that one giant metal was walking away, till it dug deep into the hills, on its way to the city. We said Nairobi was a place where everything was clean and very huge. Death didn’t live in Nairobi.

It lived with us here in the village. It lived on the metallic giants in the hills. On the evening Mama took us to the hill to gather firewood, we saw ‘DANGER’ written in red and the skull and eye sockets of a corpse screwed onto the tall metallic giants. The dry bones of the dead man’s legs crossed like an ‘X’ under the chin of the skull. The skull had dry teeth crying. Mama said touching the electric pole meant dying like the dead skull.

When I had heard Baba speak about the god-like power of the camera, my memory ran to the only cameraman who lived hidden like a spider at the foot of the hill. He was hoarse-voiced and small. He also had a tiny limp – like the hyena Madam Lorna had told us about at school the day before. I’d never experienced a camera. Baba knew I hadn’t, and so he had invited the spider to come home and take a photograph of the whole family before we would leave for church that morning…

 

‘He may tilt either,’ the cameraman answers Mama. ‘– Provided your child is able to put his body well enough for the focus of my imported Kodak to catch.’

Mama spites him, ‘You talk like your camera.’

‘That’s better than talking like all the people who do not have one in this village – they run to my hut with the morning dew, begging me to ‘please come and take my family a photograph.’’

Baba says, ‘You speak as if you do it free of charge.’

‘You wanted me to?’

‘No one said so.’

‘And?’

Mama quips, ‘A boat telling water ‘You are dirty.’ Of course you would be dead without those villagers coming to your great hut.’

‘Boats are boats and water is water: know that I’m not Jesus who did things for free.’

Baba laughs.

The cameraman says my position is now good. He tells us to relax, smile, and to surrender our eyes and faces to his Kodak. He kneels, rises, bends, and crouches for the positions he wants. I admire him. My mind says he’s a great man. The camera is God.

One…two…three…

The eye of the camera flashes like the tongue of a serpent. I barely have enough of it. My eyes chase the light in vain. I can’t tell where the flash rushes to hide after surprising my two eyes. I want the light to burn longer than it does. Madam Lorna has told us in class that only God and Jesus can manage certain things. God must be hiding in the camera.

The cameraman presses the top of the Kodak again and again and again. He says that either my right arm has been ‘cut’ by the light, or it’s Mishi’s left arm ‘absent’ from the picture. I can’t understand. After church, this night I will ask Mama if she lent her sharp knife to the Kodak. Tomorrow Monday I will find out if Madam Lorna calls the register. If she won’t, then the register will have been lent to the camera and its owner.

Baba asks, ‘Did it come out well?’

‘It has no choice but to obey me. There is no cameraman better than me.’

‘Speak the truth.’

‘In the name of God.’

‘I will not hear that the photograph got ‘burnt’?’

The cameraman reassures Baba, saying, ‘In that case I will compensate by coming right here and taking again.’

Baba pays him.

‘When will I have the photograph?’

The cameraman says after fourteen days and jumps onto his clean bicycle.

 

The visitors arrived last night. It’s a bright sunny morning today. The young heifers are eating grass just near the fence. They’re clean. They were brought in yesterday, and early this morning Mishi asked if I was sure the people of Kinango didn’t wash the cattle with Omo detergent before bringing. The four heifers are Zena’s dowry. They’re ours.

Three cousins prepare meals in the kitchen. Rich smells beat our nostrils.

My sister Zena isn’t easy to see in the compound. She’s made herself as scarce as a leopard; Mishi tells me that Zena isn’t supposed to be seen too much. But I know Zena is in one of our huts, clad in her new brown dress. Baba is in a black suit. He looks calm. Mama is in a blue full dress which doesn’t reveal her swollen stomach.

The visitors are seated in the hut which Baba built for me. However I am too young to converse with them about the issues that matter, so it’s my distant cousins doing it. Music is hissing from the hut. Why should I worry when so many chickens are dead? I’m not even jealous. I’ll do the eating when the time comes to fill my stomach.

By evening everything is done. Zena is now officially married. The bride wealth has been brought and everyone can see the four heifers. Zena’s husband has paid even the kiawuyi money to our uncles. What more should Baba and Mama ask for? Nothing. I wish I’d a Kodak like the spider near the hill. I don’t know why Baba hasn’t called him to take many photographs of the visitors and us. Maybe Baba only forgot.

Zena’s people leave for Kinango. My cousins lead them out. After seven days Zena will follow them. Mama will pray for her eldest daughter. Baba will wish Zena well in her marriage. Our aunts and uncles too will. Mishi and I will escort our sister to the road. We will wave both hands as the car leaves for Kinango through Voi and Mombasa.

 

It is months since Zena went. My fingers will say Three if I count well – the way Madam Lorna has taught us to count with our fingers in class. Mama is making noise on a mat in the bedroom. It is afternoon. The sun is very hot on our plain red soil. You cannot see any bird. They are hiding from the cruel sun.

Baba runs in. He does not ask Mama what is wrong. He brings her out and makes her sit on the carrier of the old bicycle. Baba begins pushing. Mama makes noise. She holds the back side of her waist. They disappear on the lips of the bush.

My sister Mishi tells me, I know.

What do you know?

Where Mama is going.

Where? Tell me if you do.

Baba is taking her to Voi.

That is far, I tell my sister.

She agrees, Ndiyo, very far.

We’re quiet.

Mishi says, I am happy.

Why?

Because I know.

What do you know?

Why Mama is going.

Why is she going?

To buy a baby.

I do not understand.

I ask Mishi, Babies are bought?

Yes.

You’re lying, Mishi.

You’re the one lying! Lying! My sister screams. You and I were both bought. Mama bought even our sister Zena.

I ask her, Who sold us?

You will ask Mama when she comes back from Voi.

 

Mama did not return. Baba came home the following day. He was crying. Mishi was crying but someone tied my tongue. I was looking around me – seeing our chickens, looking at the sun, seeing the red earth on our yard. I was not feeling even the heat of the sun.

Zena came. She entered the homestead running. The red dust she had walked in from Voi bathed her legs. She came and fell on us, crying. I cried.

They brought Mama and the baby. Many visitors. Zena’s husband gave us sweets and many coconuts before people scattered. I wish Baba had called the spider near the hill to take a photograph of the baby for me to see.

Zena returned to Kinango again. When she left Mama’s hut her eyes were red. She did not want Mishi and I to escort her to the road the way we had the time she was leaving home when her dowry had been brought. I know Zena was sad. At the entrance, she looked back and saw us standing in the yard, looking at her. Our sister burst out crying. I heard Mishi crying near me. I couldn’t see her properly. Maybe I too was crying. Zena walked on anyway, sobbing aloud. Baba was not around.

When Zena next came she was thin. Maybe she was worrying about us. She fell over us the way she did on the day of the funeral. She cried.

And then she came to see us less and less. The next time we saw her, it was Baba, Mishi and I, and we had travelled to Kinango. Spades. The church was singing. Zena’s husband was weeping.

 

Baba used to say ‘Utumwa’ before his face chose to walk out of the family photograph we took those years. He meant slavery. I’ve always told Tendayi about the word every time we visit the slave docks here in Liverpool.

He whistles dismissively, saying Nonsense!

Why?

It’s not new.

I didn’t say it’s new.

Africans have always bought and sold their own across the centuries.

I know.

Ok.

The first time I went to the Sunshine Arts Carnival I found the Afro-Caribbean community dancing with abandon. Tendayi talks about Zimbabwe and President Mugabe. He tells me about his parents and siblings. He says he doesn’t want to return to Harare. He says ‘Zim’ is a photograph in his memory.

 

Leaving the slave docks one summer day, my eyes had caught a dry mango skin fallen from a green bin, painfully curled up by the brief heat of the sun. I’d pointed it out to Tendayi and told him the singed skin looked like the face of a dead man in a deserted photograph.

 

Tendayi visits me in Mishi’s Toxteth house the following day. I’m holding our family photograph in my hand. I begged Mishi to let me look at it. The photograph is a treasure my sister doesn’t hang on the wall. She keeps it safely in the wardrobe. Only very rarely does she show it to her husband.

It’s yellowing and light, having braved over thirty-eight years. Nearly every face in it has stolen away and out, like the gleaming eyes of a black cat suddenly erased by the fallen wool of a dark night, never to be seen again except in dreams.

Tendayi says It’s a timeless photograph. Where’re you?

Right here. I’m holding Mama’s shoulder.

I’m young but big-kneed. My hair is short but it looks long and browning. My short pants reach high up. My nylon shirt has yellow mangoes. Like all children when they hear of a big event requiring cleanliness, I’ve applied too much oil on my face.

This is your Mama?

I nod absentmindedly, saying Yes – doesn’t she look like me?

She does.

Mama’s face is as hers as it was that Sunday morning decades in the past. Her purple headscarf covers her hair, forming a sharp curving line across her forehead. I look at her purple full-dress. These days I can see the small bulge of her pregnancy under the dress, and I know that the baby, too, died. The purple dress a church woman claimed for herself on the burial day as was the ritual immediately a dead woman was buried, and her belongings were divided amongst church members.

Tendayi asks Who’s standing behind her?

My sister Zena – she too died.

Oh, I’m sorry.

Thanks.

My sister loved to smile. She smiles even in this photograph. The day of Zena’s marriage comes to my mind. I see the heifers. I hear music playing. I see us eating heavily, Mama praying, the in-laws leaving; Mishi and I escorting Zena to the road.

Your Dad was a no-nonsense man?

You got it – how did you tell?

His eyes.

He was.

Tendayi asks I guess this is your sister?

Yes, that’s Mishi.

She looks more relaxed than you do.

I say That’s right and laugh, recalling how I’d been belittled and humiliated that morning.

What happened?

Can’t remember.

Our dog Simba is visible in the background. His tongue is flailing as it barks at the goat that morning. The cow Dibuoro stands near her calf, a bell strap circling round her brown neck. The calf’s jaw is buried in the mother’s udder, drinking milk. Something tells me that Baba, Mama, and Zena all took the right postures in the family photograph. None is ugly. They all prepared. Their various bodies were fit to leave. All knew they were supposed to walk out and leave behind only Mishi and me. To look at their shadows frozen like that.

———-

Image: Pixabay.com

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