Don’t be dejected, sister Akoa, that I no longer write as predictably as I used to the first few months after the UN aeroplane carried me from Juba to Nairobi, and then I landed here after months, leaving you behind to stare at Mama and Baba’s graves on the banks of our great river in Juba, the White Nile. It’s only that the hectic life here in America torments me in ways that I can’t explain. What’s more, Uncle Maliki still drops down and kicks in spite of all the drugs psychiatrists give him to swallow. So he feels terrible afterwards and he has to lick a pinch of salt just to stabilise his floating mind. It makes him visibly disoriented, Akoa. One of these days you too will visit us here in America, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Of course you know that Uncle and I live near the University of Nevada, not too far away from our gambling city, Las Vegas. Our place is called Tamarus Park Apartments. Uncle tells me that he used to live in West Sahara Apartments before, but then he quit after the terrible news about his family reached him. He couldn’t take it, and to this day he keeps finding bitter fault with many things happening in Africa.
I’ll tell you how I laughed badly not a very long time ago, when Uncle took me to one of those interesting places (it’s called Palomino Club), me and his white date, Stephanie, who comes from Sacramento in California. Being a professor of history can be an interesting thing, Akoa, and you know that’s what Uncle Maliki is, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He lectures and paints with regular diligence.
Apart from Stephanie, Uncle has a buddy of his called Prof. Tonderai, an elderly Zimbabwean professor of psychology who isn’t very ugly, and a beautiful Senegalese lady called Madame Fatou. I’ll tell you more about them – later. Prof. Tonderai’s good wife is called Mama Kudzai. One more thing: know that Uncle has recently become a painter of repute here in America, and they recognise the weight of his art.
Sister Akoa, I’ll never forget our journey from Nyala in Darfur, the Janjaweed militia panting on the heels of we black Fur people as we fled downward to what’s today South Sudan. Then the Comprehensive Peace Agreement hadn’t even been signed in Nairobi yet. I recall our sweaty, dusty, panting hardship in the bush as we trekked past Raga, Wau, Tonj, came to Rumbek, set foot in Bor, and finally entered Juba after so many months that I forget, because we hoped that the fate of our black skin was bound with that of John Garang’s people, and fearless General Garang was battling to have a country of his own people; like us they were tired of Khartoum. Everything still smells fresh in my mind’s nose. I feel as if it’s happening right now.
I see you crying in the hot sun and rising dust after that painful ambush by the Janjaweed on horseback as aeroplanes bombed us from the air. The memory can’t leave my mind. I see the men grabbing Mama by the scruff of her neck. The crowd scatters and everyone tries to flee. We shout and cry, and Baba runs back to help Mama escape from the strong hands of her captors. You and I know exactly what those men wanted to do to our Mama. Like all husbands, Baba fights hard to protect Mama. However the men violently throw Baba down because they are many. Then they bring their swords and cut his throat as we look in fright, and neighbour Tegani drags us into the bush, all the while shouting that we must flee because we’re outnumbered. And that’s how we leave Mama and Baba behind as we run behind neighbour Tegani. I still hear Mama’s voice crying for help, and Baba urging us to follow neighbour Tegani.
‘So Mama and Baba remain?’ You ask me, three days after the ambush in Wau. I ask you back, my heart aching, ‘What are you saying, Akoa?’ ‘Mama and Baba will never find us again?’
I see only tears and remember not replying to your question because the same pain was tearing through my small child’s heart, hunger burning our insides on that difficult journey southwards, and it took us weeks to reach Juba.
Poor Juba remains in my mind for two reasons, sister Akoa: one, that the Red Cross brought the two swollen bodies after weeks, and we buried Mama and Baba in Juba cemetery, off the banks of the White Nile; the second reason is that CNN has recently shocked us with images from that town. Uncle Maliki and I see people fighting. And all the fighters are black. We hear it’s because Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, Dinka and Nuer tribes respectively, cannot agree on how to govern their young country. That bursts the boil in my heart, sister Akoa, and how I wish General Garang’ were alive today!
I used to think that the problems of black Africans were all brewed by either brown Arabs or white Europeans. I’ve these days expelled that thought from my mind. I think it’s not true.
Uncle Maliki says he feels pissed off about Africans and their Africa. You know how he came to America before anyone else in our family did. He says he understands the history of the world, and knows that Africans have always lit and poured kerosene on their own problems. ‘Look at the Slave Trade, Akonu,’ he mockingly points out to me. ‘Here were chiefs handing over millions of their own to the white man, but in return for just a bottle of liquor, and a chief’s being able to see the shape of his own foolish nose in a glittering mirror. What’s that, my sister’s child? And you think colonisation was anything different? Even now they can’t solve their own problems!’
Sister Akoa, I don’t like Uncle’s questions because they leave me naked. But he doesn’t ask me often these days, because he became extremely angry the last time he did, and then he fell on the floor. I gave him the drug and he regained consciousness. Thank Allah these days I appreciate the relationship between anger and Uncle’s seizures, so he has a lot of AED tablets in the cupboard, which either I or Stephanie give him every time he falls.
Akoa, I’ve not asked Uncle why he’s never remarried. I fear he’s just not keen on it. However, Stephanie keeps telling me that Uncle hasn’t properly healed from what happened to his entire family in Darfur. Perhaps he’ll get cured one of these days, and we can only keep asking Allah to give him another woman, or even women. That’s a task I leave to Stephanie, the sweet white woman Uncle is dating.
Let me remind you how Uncle Maliki burst out the day Kiir and Machar started bandying words in Juba as Dinka and Nuer soldiers exchanged gunfire. We were watching The World Report on CNN that day. ‘Now look at them!’ Uncle had spat out. ‘Call that a president and his vice! Even on a matter as mundane as ethnicity, all African leaders combined are still a hundred times less courageous than any fish terrified of hopping across the Sahara Desert.’
That happened to be the day Uncle had been painting all day, and Prof. Tonderai and Madame Fatou had visited us when Stephanie was out in Sacramento. The day before that, Uncle had taken me in his car and we’d hurtled on the roads to Sherwin-Williams Paint Store where we’d gone to replenish spray, scaffold, ladder, wallpaper, paste, sealants, sandpaper, abrasives, drop cloths, plastic sheeting, tape & masking, and brushes for his painting work. North along Maryland Parkway, west along, E Desert Inn Road, and then we’d come to the paint store north, at the end of Penwood Avenue. We’d then covered the short distance back to our apartment. I’d sat watching as he mixed the paints to suit his taste.
Listen, Akoa my sister. Uncle Maliki has talent. He paints many things, especially coloured human beings in intriguing opposites. One face cries as another laughs. There are short and tall people. If one painting runs across plains on horseback like Janjaweed men who made us flee from Darfur to Juba, another walks nonchalantly, whistling even, as dogs pant behind him with flailing tongues. Other paintings depict women – very interesting women. He has this way of painting black women with very big buttocks, and all their faces are hidden, looking the other way. Conversely, his paintings of white women depict buttocks which are as flat as a chimpanzee’s, and the white women look directly at you with their blue naked eyes. I don’t understand those paintings, Akoa my sister. And Uncle never takes his time to explain them to me.
That always makes me angry with Uncle Maliki because I think he’s trying to paint Stephanie, and yet his date from Sacramento has always been very sweet to me. Stephanie is a sweet woman. Every time Uncle falls when she’s around, Maliki usually regains his consciousness on Stephanie’s lap, and she’s crying over him, consoling him, telling him how all will be well because life is still worth living.
Listen to what Prof. Tonderai told Uncle on the day of the painting: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘You’re always painting women’s buttocks.’
Akoa, do you know the way Zimbabweans speak? Prof. Tonderai talks exactly that way – like an overfed eater about to vomit from constipation.
Uncle Maliki asks him, ‘What part of a woman’s body do you want me to paint for you?’ ‘You don’t paint them “for me”, Prof. Maliki.’ ‘Okay, okay…what part should I paint?’ ‘I’m interested in their forehead.’ ‘Well, why exactly?’ Prof. Tonderai says, ‘Because the head is the real human being; anything else is irrelevant.’ ‘Far from it,’ observes Uncle Maliki, ‘Freud wouldn’t swear that you’re a professor of psychology.’
You should see Madame Fatou. She’s a tough woman. She instantly tells the two men, ‘Stop uttering nasty things about women’s behinds. We women never waste our time discussing the sweaty buttocks of male professors at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.’
The two men apologise. I like Madame Fatou. She talks straight and looks men in the eye.
‘I paint the human buttock because it’s the key to all civilisations on earth,’ Uncle Maliki says, going on with the work. ‘You must be sick, Prof. Maliki,’ the Zimbabwean observes. He adds, ‘It’s because of people like you that the subject of history is generally derided. What have buttocks got to do with civilisation?’ Uncle replies, ‘A lot, if you ask me.’
I’d always wanted to ask Uncle why he liked to paint women’s buttocks but hadn’t met a ripe opportunity for it. I’ve been keen enough to notice that he does it only when civil war erupts somewhere in the African Continent. There are big paintings marked ‘1994’. He says he did them when Rwanda was going on. I saw bare paintings here when elections were stolen and people drew machetes in Kenya. Uncle did more when Christians and Muslims were kicking one another in Chad, and in the heart of Chibok girls the black painting was very big. And now he’s painted these when Dinka and Nuer are shedding blood over the presidency in Juba.
I used to think he was badly missing his first wife, Zena, whom the Janjaweed killed with all their four children while he was away studying here in America. At any rate he’d told me how he didn’t want any children again. He feared betraying his lost wife and children. Stephanie has heard the bitter story and she tells me it’s a psychological condition which Uncle might get over, but much later in life. That’s why she keeps encouraging him.
‘The history of civilisation is at the heart of the dual relationship between the human face and our buttocks,’ Uncle Maliki goes on as he paints and we are looking on. Madame Fatou and I listen. Prof. Tonderai asks him, ‘And how’s that?’ Uncle adds more black paint on the black woman’s behind and says, ‘Our Africa’s so-called civilisation resides here – on the swollen behind of all Africans – which is the “past” of the human anatomy.’ The Zimbabwean shakes his head and says, ‘You are sexist.’ Madame Fatou jumps in, ‘But he didn’t say anything against men or women.’ ‘Thanks, Senghor’s daughter,’ Uncle says, nodding, and I learnt the other year that Leopold Senghor was the first proud president of Senegal. Prof. Tonderai accuses again, ‘You don’t mean that the great stone walls built in my Zimbabwe belong to the past, Prof. Maliki?’ ‘That’s what I mean, brother.’ ‘But it can’t be!’ Uncle laughs. He says, very simply, ‘All those stone walls have not cured the inflation in Harare.’
(Now let me whisper something to you about Prof. Tonderai. I don’t like the way he shouts, and just imagine he’s always wanted to take me as his second wife. He’s handsome yes but I don’t like him as a husband. It’s not even about my being a Muslim and his being a Christian – I just don’t like him, plus Mama Kudzai is really fond of me and I can’t bring myself to want to begin betraying her motherly love for me).
Looking at Uncle, I know he must soon get agitated at the argument about civilisation. These are the things that usually annoy him. And then he will fall hard on the carpeted floor. I must take care. In preparation, my eyes run to the cupboard which contains his drugs. I’ll do the work since Stephanie isn’t around.
‘Conversely,’ Uncle goes on, ‘the white race has nothing on its behind. All anatomical beauty has been transported to the front, the face, which is the “present.” Every time the white race thinks about the “past,” it’s for the benefit of the “present,” which is “life now.” It’s vice versa for we the black race, who incarcerate our present in jails erected in the past. Only the devil knows what purpose that’s meant to serve.’
I don’t pretend to really understand what Uncle Maliki means, Akoa, even though he’s the one who enrolled me for an undergraduate course in anthropology at the university the other year. But I see his face changing now, the way it always does when the fit is knocking against the walls of his mind. Madame Fatou looks on with sympathy. Prof. Tonderai knows Uncle’s sickness, as does Fatou. The Zimbabwean is quiet, letting Uncle speak and speak. We all just look on, knowing well that he’s slipping away from our ordinary world, and entering his, which is populated by trembling beasts which belch after eating contaminated grass.
‘Look at Juba right now!’ Uncle bursts. ‘I long ago thought that Khartoum was the problem – yet now it’s Dinka versus Nuer. Khartoum! Khartoum that ate my family in Darfur…’
Uncle Maliki suddenly falls, Akoa my sister, and Madame Fatou and Prof. Tonderai rush forward to hold him and help. He’s down on the floor. The seizure overcomes him. He kicks. He suffocates. His eyelids dance. Only the white of the eyeballs are visible in the slits of flapping lids. He groans. Madame Fatou asks if Uncle took his Acetazolamide today, and when I check, I discover that he didn’t. We administer. He slowly regains after several minutes. As usual, his pair of trousers is wet.
I know Stephanie returns tonight. If you remember well, sister Akoa, I promised to tell you something about Palomino Club, which sits a mere twenty minutes’ drive away from where we live in Tamarus. I now come to it because Palomino Club is the best treatment Stephanie has always given Uncle. She regularly does it a day after he’s had a particularly bad fit like this one. I don’t know why she likes that interesting place, but I suspect it’s to entice him into her because, she tells me, he’s never slept with her in all these years.
Sometimes Madame Fatou will come and accompany us to Palomino. She’s never shy. And then she’ll dance on the floor when the time comes, her bou bou dress swelling and bursting, her neck straight, the head stern like a guinea fowl’s. Akoa, you should see how Madame Fatou bullies her dance mates, be they black or white men. Like every Senegalese, she always has her way. Prof. Tonderai and Mama Kudzai might come too, and then I’ll see them hold each other as they waltz. I think sometimes Tonderai does it just to make me feel jealous. Hehehehe (I beat my hands), Akoa, he will wait.
Tomorrow evening Stephanie will invite Uncle Maliki and me into her car. We’ll have eaten the spaghetti she loves to cook. Talking all the way, Stephanie will be telling us about her mother and father far away in Sacramento, and that interesting tree called the Joshua tree, which is native to the state of California. We’ll reach Palomino Club after about twenty minutes, going via the smooth E Flamingo Road. Akoa, Palomino is what people call here ‘a strippers club.’ Wearing nets as thin and light as the spider’s webs which we used to see while tending sheep in our poor Nyala, Darfur, women bare their bottoms to the world as men watch. Their breasts bulge like gourds. Uncle says it inspires him to paint, and I’ve no problem with that. They’re extremely steamy scenes. You know I’m over eighteen these days and don’t mind looking, provided Stephanie means it to cure Uncle Maliki’s Scrupulosity (that’s what I’ve seen written on the psychiatrist’s card which Uncle carries in his purse). Surely not many religions would allow it – least of all our Islam – but living with Uncle has taught me to be very indifferent to all theistic traditions.
I don’t know what Mama and Baba would say about Uncle Maliki’s falling and strange taste, sleeping there on the banks of the White Nile in volatile Juba; and about my not flinching at the site of nude anatomy. They must be sneezing in their graves.
Image: Bill Strain via Flickr