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The Evidence of Nostalgia: Fiction by Kabu Okai-Davies

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

“Spring is here with us,” Ingrid said. I agreed with her that the twilight sun paints the receding sky with a magenta colour that reminds her of the last day heaven finished creating the earth. I was thinking about the lines in the Lord’s pray, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven and it occurred to me that life reflects the luminous marriage between heaven and earth. Ingrid has shown an interest in me and once or twice a month, she’d find time in her busy schedule as a nurse to talk, asking how I was coping in Australia.

“Anyway, I am telling you this because I trust you. Since you’ve asked me why I am looking out of sorts, I guess I must tell someone why I appear exhausted.” I remember telling her, at the start of our last conversation a week ago.

You see, I have always walked, I told her. I live in Kaleen not far from where I work and go to school. Back home in Sudan, we walked wherever we had to go and we would travel for miles from one village to the other, to visit relatives, without breaking a sweat. The longest journey I’ve taken on foot was during the civil war. We walked from our home town to the border with Kenya, before we arrived at a refugee shelter on the outskirts of Nairobi. We travelled for almost forty days and nights, like an exodus, thousands of us, walking. I was then young, I suppose; almost thirteen years old. The long walk to Kenya impressed itself on my mind and it has stayed with me till this day, almost fifteen years later.

Walking affords me time to muse on the meaning of being. To know and understand the meaning of things matters to me. I wonder how Canberra looked before it was chosen as the capital of Australia. I also like to think about the magic of dreaming. My dreams are vivid, as though I was really there, in another dimension of myself, an alternate world. This makes me wonder how it feels to other Sudanese, knowing that we come from a country that failed. Have we inherited the legacy of loss? What is fragmented always fails, I think. A certain sense of ambivalence lingers, reminding me of things I do not want to remember. I read somewhere that the failure of Africa to reconcile her contradictions, lacking an awareness of the malfunction of its culture is the reason why Africa has lost its relevance to the contemporary world.

Disturbing thoughts though they are, they come to me at night, seeking redress and attention. I keep staring at the ceiling in the dark night. I stay up, aware of the surrounding spaces in the house, illuminated by the street lights. Then it makes me remember how the night used to be pitch-black when we were trekking on our way to Kenya, the silver glow of the moon served as our guiding light. In the darkness of night we the children couldn’t sleep. The black lightless night stirred our imagination into thinking about the things that our parents talked about; and the horrors we witnessed that altered our lives. We would gaze at the stars glittering in their firmament, trying to count them, whispering our thoughts into each other’s ears. We imagined the coming of monsters on horseback, sorcerers of sadness, spirit succors of sorrow, magicians of madness, burning villages, kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers. These monstrous men transform into hyena-like figures, with blood shot eyes, hunting for humans, blood thirsty, wraiths of death drifting in the darker realms of fear in search of prey. My father would warn us in a foreboding voice, be quiet, believing that war was a visitation of evil spirits within the realm of a demon’s dream and those who spoke at night, inadvertently evoke evil spirits and lure the devil to find our hiding place in the dark.

“Silence,” he would say, “do you want the devil to know where we are hiding?” I still hear that murmur. It is ironic how he thought that, the way the devil uses God as a means to justify his actions. “To kill in the name of God is doing it for the devil.” My father lived without religion, without embracing any traditional faith; he worshipped nothing. “Hypocrites need religion to justify their actions in a world where no one has seen God before,” my father said. For me, God is land, the sky, the moon and the sun. They are always giving us life, love, freedom and we return to the earth when we are done with life. I have always wondered if pure thinking was possible. To think, without any aid from godlike entities beyond our ken. Pure, rational, objective thought. The war that drove us out of Sudan was about religion, nothing else. They used the fact that we the Southerners were not of the same religion as the North to justify genocide. “Do you wonder why I am ambivalent, skeptical and disinterested in all things conceptual about divine beliefs?” I asked Ingrid.

On my way out, I usually look into the open reserved lands that are now going to be developed into the new suburbs; like Lawson. Such open spaces and grass lands remind me of how Australia might have been, with the herd of kangaroo grazing in the fields. Is this how it used to be before Australia was discovered by a cook who happened to be a Captain? I thought, thinking about Australia when I first arrived and taught Australian history in school. Since then many kangaroos have been culled to make way for new settlements. As I walk, I reflect on the origins of the universe and why life in Africa is not as organized the way Australia is, forgetting I am walking on the streets of Canberra. I find myself thinking that I am still back in Sudan following my father on our way to the farm. That was before the war. I also use the time walking home to conjure up vast landscapes of empty uncultivated land in Sudan, imagining that the townships back home were transformed, the streets well paved, the houses more modern and the city streets arranged in a secret symmetry, with street lights, the way it is here.

I study plant life, flowers, watch bird behavior and discover new short cuts and back roads along which I can walk to work. I usually like the Australian native plants; they remind me of the origins of life and the resilient spirit of the earth. I take the time, usually during the day, to admire the garden patches in front or by the side of homes. I prefer to walk along the edge of the streets or where the pavement is beautifully laid out and less undulated.

Sometimes in the clear evening light, the golden twilight sun of spring, bright as day, and the grassy patches appear stubble, rumpled off the ground, the lilies and natives, strange trees blooming with pink and yellow flowers, and the long grass shining in their emerald beauty; I become tempted to pluck off a flower or two, just for the sake of it. Touching the plants gives me a sense of connection with the land, to nature and to assure me that I also belong here.

Tonight, as I looked at the twilight colors of the vanishing sky, I realized how blessed I was to be working and living in another world that is both my home and yet still alien to me. I work at the hospital where I go in the evenings and on the weekends to clean. This is not something I like doing, but that is the best job I could find that would allow me to go to school during the day. Probably I could still work in the restaurant at nights but the last time I did that, the supervisors wanted me to work the day shifts and that conflicted with my school schedule. School is very important to me. You see, I am originally from Sudan – I mean when Sudan was Sudan – but my people come from the south, so it is now Southern Sudan. Ingrid, do you understand? I asked. She looked straight into my eyes and nodded.

The truth is I have not been sleeping well lately. I talk to myself and I hear my father’s voice throughout the night, echoes of his voice: Stop talking, the devil might be listening. The thought of it makes me nauseous. As children it sent shivers down our frail hungry bodies. This new insomnia is of another kind. It is the burning sensation of the past, evoked by the persistent demands of memory. It has nothing to do with my life in Australia. On the other hand, I wonder if it is about the condition of dissonance I feel about being a Sudanese refugee in Australia. All I know is the malady of loneliness in my dreams. I experience dreams about myself, reminding me of being back in Sudan, only to wake up to realize that I am in Canberra. These are vivid dreams and for days, my mind would muse over these dreams as though they were real occurrences that form part of my life.

I live in shared housing, with three other mates from Sudan. They are not from my tribe, but we are all Sudanese migrants, in fact refugees, who have settled in Canberra. They are not necessarily my friends because we see life differently and have varying ideas about Australia, in fact some of them don’t like Australia for whatever reason and we always argue about what is going on back home. We all have separate arrangements with the landlord, because some of the rooms are bigger than the others, but share and clean the same kitchen and the two bathrooms in the house. At night I am a janitor aware of the smells in the hospital: medicines, sedatives, excrements, foul scents, bloodied clothes, vomit, chlorine, soiled dresses, leftover foods, rancid salads and uneaten hospital foods that have gone off. I smell the odor of sickness and nausea that follows after someone has vomited in the toilets. I apply disinfectant to clean the putrid smell and open the windows to let in fresh air, though the queasiness remains and stays with me through the night, stirring up repressed memories of death, sorrow and the war.

During the day I study at the University of Canberra. I try to learn, to grasp the abstract concepts of architectural sciences, design technology and geometry and the ecology of the landscape. I try to understand the subjects and the many things we are being taught. Some of the professors talk too fast and disregard the fact that there are students who may not understand everything, as English is their second language. While sometimes other lecturers would talk to you as though you were slow in the head, over-explaining themselves. It is an assumption, with overtones of condescension. I resent that. But I just nod to assure them that they are doing a good job as lecturers, that I understand what they are teaching me.

“Aguer, do you understand?”

“I hope you get it, right?”

“Aguer, am I explaining myself well to you?”

My lecturers would ask, especially when I am tired, drowsy and dazed from not having enough sleep the previous night. At first, people turn around to look at me because I like to sit at the back of the class. Now everyone seem to be used to it, that, some of the lecturers like to make the extra effort to make sure I understand what they are teaching. My presence in the class provides the evidence my mates sometimes need to project what they think about Africa on me. I think I am like an enigma of sorts, I guess. I don’t blame them, considering the fact that Africa is a riddle. What about those who know anything about Africa or the Sudan? Sometime, I feel as though people see me as helpless, they try to be supportive, extra careful or make jokes that are not funny, but I suppose they see in me what they think about Africa. And all of this I think about, sitting in class, trying to fit in, prove myself and be the best at what I want to become, trying not to doze off, listening to the abstract concepts of geometry.

Anyhow, in my dreams I see myself, leading an exodus of children trekking our way through the bush lands across the open plains towards the border into Kenya. Sometimes in my dreams, I see myself on journeys that would take us into a mythical ancient world that was once Ethiopia. I remember the many children following me on this long journey into the oblivion of time. I morph into many roles, doctor, teacher, father and storyteller. Even though I am training to become a landscape architect; I see myself play roles that have nothing to do with who I am in real life. Yes, when we were in the refugee camps, I remember telling stories to my younger siblings. I remember nursing my father on his death bed and teaching some of my brothers how to draw, read and write. Ingrid appeared mesmerized, wrapped up within the realm of my story.

Sometimes my mates at home would ask me in the morning or on the weekends when we all happen to be at home, resting from the daily routines of the week.

“Were you talking to yourself in your sleep?” One of them would ask. “Whom where you talking to in the middle of the night? Did you call home?”

“I was fast, asleep,” I said.

“You’ve been talking a lot at night,” one of them said.

“I got up and had to go to the wash room in the middle of the night and I heard you talking. That’s all, I am just asking,” another mate said.

“I guess I was dreaming,” I said.

Soon after my father died, we were selected as part of a humanitarian program and taken to Kenya, where we lived for three months before we were flown to Perth. My mother and my youngest brother are living there and my older sister, who later joined us in Australia. She met her Nigerian husband, got married and moved to Brisbane. I received a scholarship to study architecture, but I decided on landscape architecture, because I want to work with the land. Land was always an issue with my people back home, now I am in another land, this land, though not mine, I still love this land because it has welcomed me. But in my dreaming, I do not see myself here. I am back in Southern Sudan, reclaiming land and ancestral memories of my childhood.

“Aguer, you need a girlfriend, a woman,” one of my house mates said.

“Once you get a girlfriend and you can make love to her, all this pent up urges and dreaming, would cease,” he said, laughing at me as though I was incapable of comprehending his suggestion.

Even though I knew he was right, I did not respond to his remarks and glanced at him as if I was not aware that I needed a woman in my life. I am single, by choice. I do not want the responsibility of committing myself to another person. A few of the Asian girls like to spend time with me, mostly for study and group tutorials. Otherwise, I refuse to participate in their out of school social meetings. I like being in the inner world I have created for myself. I see myself sometimes as an emotional recluse, an invisible man, a shadow and an imperceptible entity called Aguer, an African from Southern Sudan, Dinka by origin, and Nun by name. Sudanese women here are on another tangent, with needs that exasperate my sense of expectations. I want something different and Ingrid wonders why.

Where I work, I see so many people even though no one seems to see me. Am I invisible? I come in late in the afternoon from school, change into my uniform and then start cleaning. I clean the toilets, mop up the corridors, the window panes, the doors, disinfect the doorknobs and clear out the bins in the cafeteria and the lounges and offices. I clean the furniture and arrange all the magazines that the patients and clients have scattered all over the place before I go home. On the weekends I vacuum and clean areas of the hospital allocated to me. There are other cleaners too who come late at night to do some more cleaning when the hospital is less busy. We all have different schedules but we are all immigrants, from Serbia, Croatia, Nepal, Bangladesh, South India and Zimbabwe. We all use the same cleaners changing room and I meet some of them when I come in to start my shift, or at the end of my day’s work.

Sometimes on the weekends the cleaning company would assign us all to do a thorough clean up of the whole hospital, and we will clean throughout the day from morning into the evening. It is my memory of the many people I see, going in and out of the hospital in the evenings and late at night, that makes me realize how blessed I am for not being sick or suffering from any illnesses. I am fairly fit, except for the flu or fever during the winter. I am strong and healthy most of the year. But let me tell you, many people have ailments that speak more about the way they think, than the real truth about their condition. They are suffering from the maladies of the heart and the tragedy of being part of a broken home. They suffer from secret longings, yearning for unattainable things and delusional expectations. I have realistic expectations but it is in my dreams that the delusional cycle of my life finds expression.

I still see my first love appearing before me in my sleep, even though I know she is now in Canada, married with two children. I know I cannot reclaim my past, but when she appears to me in my dream, her voice is still as fresh as I used to hear her, back when we were in South Sudan, telling me, “When we leave Sudan, I will marry you.” She wanted to go to America and I wanted to go to Canada. I wonder if she is dreaming of me and committing telepathic adultery in her dreams, the way I dream about her and wake up wet, imagining being with her. I still wonder if the idea of marriage would be something to consider sometime at a later stage. The last time you asked me if I have gone back home, I lied. I had planned on going back to Sudan to visit, but then fresh fighting disrupted my plans, plus there was the terrorist attack in Kenya. I changed all my plans and rather went back to Perth to visit my mother and younger brother. What is the value of home, when we do not feel as though we belong there anymore?

“Ingrid, you are probably the only Australian I have trusted with my story, because you appear to care,” I said. She’s been observant and bothered to ask me how I felt coming to Australia. Then it occurred to me that probably because she is a child of an Irish mother and a Jewish father, suffered the tragic experiences of forced migration from Europe after the war; I guess she understands the tragic nature of human loss and exile. I will never forget it when she referred to my height, the first time we met.

“You are very tall,” she said.

“You haven’t seen a tall person,” I said, smiling, “there are so many people in Darfur and South Sudan who are so tall, if they raise their hands high, they can touch the sky,” I said laughing. And that is why I find it comforting when she says paradoxical things to me, because I know she cares.

“Aguer, you are suffering from the malady of nostalgia,” Ingrid said, after I finished telling her about my dreams and the story of my life. “Exiles and refugees always carry with them the burden of nostalgia. My parents did,” she added.

“As my friend, if what I am telling you gives you evidence that I am suffering from homesickness, then that is what it is,” I said. I do not have any delusions about the past, because home is now a bloodied place, a haunted haven for a dispossessed people, a place of wounded memories and a tragic story that can only be forgotten by minds that want to be sane and cease their private suffering.

“All life is an allegory of something else,” she said. It made me think that, it is that strange anomaly about loss and the enigma of exile that I think continues to find expression in my dreams. I kept thinking that, I do not know if there is medicine for this sentimental ailment, but if there is, please let me know and I will recommend it to all the exiles walking on invisible tightropes of survival and suicide in the void of life. Whose country is this? I keep asking myself. Whose land have we now possessed to call this our land? I thought you would find it strange when I told you that I believed the earth is secretly wedded to heaven, in a mystical kingdom that holds everything together. At the hospital, I see pregnant women come to give birth and people who are taking their final steps towards the realm of death. What about us, whose lives straddle the invisible gorges of birth and death? Every day something of us dies and my past is now dead to me, though its ghost lingers on in my dreams. Even though I am yet to give birth to a new self I can call Australian, I know I have lost Sudan forever to my past.

“Now that I have told you my story, make what you want of me. My life is a metaphor of the African presence in Australia,” I said.

“Every day is an awakening in a new future of life,” she said, “even if you think your life is a metaphor of nostalgia and an invisible marriage between Africa and Australia, you exist, becoming what you’ve imagined yourself to be,” she whispered to me. Then it occurred to me that I am the invisible evidence of this symbolic matrimony and wedlock between Africa and Australia. Such thoughts keep me company as I clean the hallways of the hospital. People come in and out to heal from the maladies of a broken heart, fractured bodies, diseases and sickness; I work in silence, thinking about how to reshape the landscape of Australia in my own image, this country of my dreams that I now call home.

Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies is an African-Australian playwright, novelist and poet from Ghana. He is the author of Long Road to Africa, Curfew’s Children and Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing - UC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Writing - School of Arts and Humanities at ANU and the 2015 Alumni Award Winner for Excellence, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. (Editor: Dr. Okai-Davies passed away on February 17, 2017, after a battle with cancer. He was a good friend of


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