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The Life and Times of Papa Jake: A Short Story by Wesley Macheso

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Image: Transformer18 via Flickr (cropped)

It was Papa Jake who first told me that God was dead. He was a man of ideas but Mama told me that he did not read as much as he claimed to know. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “He just collects bits of scattered ideas that he doesn’t even understand, and that kind of knowledge is dangerous,” she told me and I listened. I had heard a lot about Papa Jake before I actually got to meet him. He was my mother’s brother and I first saw him when he came to live with us in the village. That was after he had separated with his second wife – or to put it more correctly, when his second wife chased him away from their small house in Efe, a shanty town very close to the city centre where they claimed to have lived happily.

Before that, Papa Jake used to live in South Africa where he claimed to have landed a big job in one of the big companies. He told me that he was “eating big monies” and he only came back home because he had missed Jake, his only son. But Mama told me that Papa Jake did not always tell the truth. She said that even Jake was not Papa Jake’s only son. She was very certain that his brother had several children by different women and that he kept running away from responsibility. In fact, Jake was not living with him for most of his childhood. He grew up in our house and I regarded him as the brother I never had. Where I come from, people bear children for other people to raise and Mama says that is why poverty will never leave us alone.

When he came back from South Africa, Papa Jake was the talk of the town. He did not come back with anything of substance but for his stories of money and the big bottles of whiskey, which he always carried with him in a huge casket of steel. He promised his wife that a truck was bringing his goods from South Africa and that she only needed to be patient.

“I bought you three sofa sets, big TV screens, and clothes, clothes, clothes! Wait till you dress like a queen and these poor people here will be licking your feet! He He! He!” He would say and for a while his wife believed him.

But weeks turned into months and the truck did not come. By this time, Papa Jake was the town’s favourite and he was always surrounded by men whenever he went out to drink, which was every day. The men were amused by his stories of Jo’burg and they also wanted to taste his whiskey. Mama told me that his stories of Jo’burg were dirty and not befitting a man of his age.

One day when Papa Jake went out to drink, his wife went through his suitcase looking for money with which she could buy food for the day. She went through his clothes and even tried to search in the books that he kept but never read. And in one of those books she found pictures of Papa Jake with some huge women. In all the pictures, Papa Jake was naked and he appeared to have been having a lot of fun. When he came back from his drinking, he found plates of food set on the table as usual and he washed his hands for a big meal. He opened the food container only to find the pictures inside. He jumped from his seat as if he had just seen the ghost of his first wife. Immediately, his wife rushed into the living room with a pot of hot water and Papa Jake knew that he had to run. That is how he came to live with us.

I liked Papa Jake because he seemed to love Jake and me. I was happy that Jake finally got to know his father and that he was not as bad as people said he was. Papa Jake used to take us for walks and he would tell us a lot of stories, especially when he was drunk. He used to take us to a certain restaurant at the market square owned by a big woman who claimed to be Nigerian. He first took us there so that we could taste “jollof rice and big chicken”, which he claimed to have been his favourite food when he was in South Africa.  The restaurant woman always greeted us with exaggerated excitement accompanied by histrionics and an accent I doubted was truly Nigerian.

“Welcome o! Abeg!” She would say.

And when we entered and sat down, she would say incomprehensible things like “Biko! How you dey be my sown? Welcome o!” She irritated me. But what irritated me the most was that there was actually no big chicken to go with her rice. What she called jollof rice and big chicken was just brown rice with too much soup and small bits of chicken in it. Mama told me that the woman did not even know how to cook and that she was a big fraud. In fact people suspected that she was sleeping around with the men who frequented her restaurant and that the restaurant was actually just a facade. They said she was not even Nigerian. I later learnt that the big woman was also Papa Jake’s girlfriend.

Papa Jake went to South Africa not because he wanted to, but because he was running away from arrest. It was an open secret that he loved money too much and that he would do anything to get it. Mama said that had it been that his soul was marketable, he would have already sold it to the devil for riches. It was this love for money that made him steal a few millions from the Asians he was working for before he ran away to South Africa.

“I wanted to spend that money here with my brothers. I mean, who wants to eat money with strangers in a strange land? But things got tighter here my children, I had to run. He! He! He!” He told us.

He said that when he stole the money, he went to Phoka, a place well known for black magic and potent herbs here. He had heard that there are herbs-men there who would help him escape arrest. The first medicine man he met told him that escaping arrest was simple only if he followed a few simple procedures. He told him to take a small path through the forest there and that he should hit the first person he met on that path with a hammer. The medicine man told him that the end of that person’s life would be the end of his problems. It all sounded simple and straight forward until Papa Jake took the pilgrimage. The person he met on that path was the least he expected. He met his own mother, looking lost and perplexed as if in a bad dream. Papa Jake did not believe his eyes and wondered whether what he was seeing was real of just a phantom of his imagination. He came back running and cursing until he found his way out of the forest and out of Phoka. That’s when he decided to escape to South Africa where he would be safe without having to kill anyone.

When he came to live with us, Papa Jake had lost everything and I could tell that he was a desperate man. I could tell that he was unhappy although he claimed to be happy. He told me that he was a hedonist – whatever that meant. He told me that the purpose of life was to be happy and that there was no point of living if you did not maximize your happiness.

“Man shall not live by bread alone so drink some rum and dance! He! He! He!” He would say. But I doubted if he was living at all. He was usually quiet and meditative when he was alone only to feign joy and merriment when he saw somebody approaching. I felt that Papa Jake was a sad man only that sadness, just like love, is a matter of the heart. And who knows the secrets that people keep in that dark place we call the heart?

After he lived with us for three months, Mama decided that Papa Jake had to leave. She said he was old enough to take care of himself and that he had to get his life back on track.

“You cannot waste your life living in the past. Your stories about how you used to have a lot of money will not feed you. Find something to do with yourself,” she told him.

And when Papa Jake was finally leaving, he announced that he would be leaving with Jake. Mama refused him that courtesy but Papa Jake insisted that if he was to leave then he was leaving with his son. They argued for several days and Mama finally gave in on condition that he would allow him to live with Jake for a month and if the boy complained about not living well, Mama would take him back. And in that way, days turned into years and Jake never came back to live with us although we knew that he was better off living in our house than with his father. But the events that made me tell you this story did not happen until four years later when Jake was sixteen years old. Our lives were normal until Jake reached puberty and he became something else – different from the rest of us.

Since our childhood days, Jake had been different but his difference was not as bizarre as it later became. I always saw him as a soft boy who did not want to risk too much for fun. He never went with us to steal fruits from the orchards around the village. He did not like football or war games like the rest of the boys. He loved to be alone and to play with his imaginary friends, whom he claimed were all white. He was the only one in our village who had white friends (although we could not see them). Jake liked to play with dolls and he also loved knitting so much that by the time he was eight years old, he had managed to make his own sweater which he kept for Sundays when we were going to the Catholic Church to learn about Jesus and other white men who came to save us. Papa Jake always had something negative to say about the church and he said that he never understood why people were so obsessed with the history of a certain tribe of people who did not even know that Africa existed. He wondered why we were always on edge – afraid of burning in some hellfire that did not even concern us. Papa Jake said that heaven and hell were right here on Earth and that the idea of life after death was utter nonsense.

Papa Jake must have noticed Jake’s difference the moment he came back to the village. He did not say much but his actions spoke more than the ear needed to hear. In the first month that he stayed in our house, Papa Jake had bought his son a machine gun toy and some combat boots, which he said he should be wearing when playing war games.

“But I don’t like war games,” Jake complained but he was told that war games were what boys played.

“And what if I don’t want to play the games that boys play?” He had asked and Papa Jake told him that boys would always be boys. “You must learn how to be a man at your age or you will fail to survive in this world,” he told him.

In the weeks that followed, Papa Jake began to coax his son into playing football. Jake had always come with us to the playground but he only cheered us on and he never played. On the days that he tried to play – and that was when we just needed someone to add a number to the team – he was a sight. It was as if his legs were neither left nor right and he failed to hit even the slowest of balls. We all agreed that football was not his thing and we let him just watch as we played. But Papa Jake tried to force him to play so that he could be like any other boy but his efforts were in vain. Jake was different but his father did not want to accept that simple fact.

When Jake turned fourteen, his difference became even stranger. While us, the other boys, were developing broader shoulders and growing hairs on our chests, his body became even softer and he was developing what were thought to be small breasts. They were tiny, like peaches that refused to mature, but we could see them when he visited. Jake’s voice did not deepen like the rest of us. His was soft and squeaky. We did not talk about it but Jake had curves that we didn’t usually see on boys. Papa Jake seemed to be uneasy about his son’s appearance. People say that his friends made fun of him at drinking joints. They mocked him that he was too stingy to spend money on two children such that he decided to give birth to a boy and a girl in one body. He would pretend to laugh to the terrible jokes but something burned deep inside his heart – an unwanted feeling that gave birth to resentment for his son.

Jake must have noticed the unusual way in which his body was changing and he became very confused. I could tell that he was uneasy with his body. He was always too cautious about his appearance and he resorted to hiding his body in huge clothes even when it was too hot to wear such clothes. He also seemed to have noticed the change in his father’s attitude for all of us know when love is no longer love. There are valleys in our hearts that dry up when streams of affection have ceased to flow. Jake must have felt the dryness in such valleys. He must have known that something had changed in his life and that he was no longer loved – the distant look that he always wore on his face was enough to tell me that.

By the time he turned sixteen, Jake had completely changed and it seemed like all of us had silently accepted the changes he chose for himself. He distanced himself from the rest of us and we rarely saw him. He concentrated on things that amused him – like reading – but he tried as much as possible to avoid human company. I wanted to be there for him because I loved him but he did not let me in. And during that time, Papa Jake had sunk into poverty and drunkenness. Mama said that he was in deep depression and that had he lived in Europe or America, he would have sought psychological assistance. But in our part of the world mental health is usually ignored and we lose most of our brothers and sisters to situations and conditions that are otherwise redeemable. Mama tried to get Papa Jake to move back in with us but he refused. Mama said he refused out of sheer pride. Jake also said that he would not move in with us because he felt that his father needed him. That was a few weeks before Jake disappeared from our lives and probably from the face of this world.

It is rumoured that a few days before Jake’s disappearance some people had heard Mandiwa, the man who once owned the biggest grocery store in our village, whisper something about Jake to Papa Jake. It was at their usual drinking joint and Mandiwa called Papa Jake aside and put some ideas in his head.

“Papa Jake, I don’t know why you are suffering like this when you have a goldmine in your house,” he said.

“What do you mean by that nonsense? Are you trying to mock me?” Papa Jake was angry.

“No my brother, far from it. Listen, that boy you are keeping, your son, is a lot of money.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, riches go with fertility. And there are rare people who have both the fertility of men and of women. Those people, my brother, can bring you riches. I know a man in Phoka and I can arrange it well well….”

“Go to hell Mandiwa!”

They say Papa Jake left the drinking joint disgusted after that conversation and he never went back to that place for days. But in those days he became more meditative than ever. People say that he did not drink for days and he was always seen talking to himself. He looked like he was a man who needed counsel without actually seeking it. But all these are just rumours and nobody knows for sure whether Papa Jake was really disturbed, and if he was, what it was that disturbed him. It was a few days later that Jake disappeared and in the weeks that followed, Papa Jake became a mess.

Papa Jake looked like a man at the brink of madness. He said a lot of things that shocked people and he was always restless. It was his neighbours who first reported his strange behaviour to Mama. They said he often stormed out of his house at night screaming at the top of his voice, “He is here! He is here! Leave me alone! He is here!”

They said sometimes they would hear him grunting the whole night and he did not even hear them when they went to knock on his door to try and wake him up. Papa Jake was haunted by nightmares whose cause and content people failed to understand. He never drunk again but he was always wandering the streets, talking to himself and smiling. Sometimes he even laughed out loud or suddenly darted off the street and stormed into the bushes. When I last saw him, his ecstasy had evolved from that of extreme happiness to that of deep sadness. He was a broken man and was always crying – saying the same words over and over again in his laments.

“Where is the money now? Where is the money? Mandiwa, where is the money? Money! Money! Money! I want the money….”

And it was at that point that Mama decided that Papa Jake needed help. She called her younger brother who lives in the city to come and take Papa Jake to a mental facility so that they may try and see what was wrong with him. But maybe her decision was delayed for on the next day, Papa Jake also disappeared from our lives. Nobody knows where he went or what happened to him. Some say he hanged himself in the forest and that they had actually seen some of his bones. Others swear that he is a mad man and he is going about his madness in Efe, where he used to live with his second wife. Still others claim that Papa Jake is now a very rich man in the city.


Image: Transformer18 via Flickr (cropped)

Wesley Macheso
Wesley Macheso
Wesley Macheso, PhD, is a Malawian writer. He teaches literature at the University of Malawi to survive and he writes to live. His short story “This Land is Mine” is published in Water: new short story fiction from Africa (2016) by Short Story Day Africa. He won the 2015 Peer Gynt Literary Award in Malawi for his children’s book Akuzike and the Gods (2017). Some of his poems are anthologised in Wreaths for a Wayfarer (2020). His work can be read online on African Writer, Brittle Paper, Storymoja, The Kalahari Review, and Agbowo magazines. He edits for and Twitter handle: @Wesleymax89


  1. This story is really wonderful. I kept glued till I read to the end. I enjoy the way the author wrote it — the way he continued, the imprecise end. It is awesome.
    The mental conflict; psychological conflict. It’s what I rarely read in literature, it is what I greatly love.
    Thank you for writing this beautiful story, you have inspired me. You are wonderful.

  2. I like how the writer weaves the story with simple but powerful choices of words that carries the burden that most Africans face_the mental health issues like trauma, anxiety and depression. just like how the narrator puts it, people in our setting take those issues for granted; it is as if mental health is not important to them. worse still, they tend to laugh when the victim is a male figure. All in all, I’ve enjoyed reading this story and I can say it’s more than worth reading.
    congrats sir,

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