Ten fingers and two after the turn of the millennium…
He would appear in Mimi’s dream many days later, wearing his new blue suit, his featherweight body leaning on the walking stick. He hid his shaved skull under a wide-brimmed hat whose colour Mimi could not now remember. The brim of the hat cast a shadow on his face. Mimi noticed in the dream that the old man’s skin was sallow, including his hands, and almost jaundiced, just the way it had looked the last time he had waved at Mimi.
He shyly looked down when Mimi and Mama Small talked with him. His face turned to the bottom of the walking-stick where it touched the patch of dry earth. Something told Mimi that the man in his dream felt ashamed of his wife and child seeing him defeated in a battle he all along cheated them he could win. But Mimi was happy for him.
“Do not worry”, Mimi was telling him.
The old man did not talk. He only smiled.
“Do not worry”, Mimi repeated, closing the space between them.
“Mh, mh”, the old man muttered with a cagey smile.
It was at a political gathering. The last speaker wound up his speech and the crowd began to melt. That was when they saw him coming to greet them. Mimi thought his mother was afraid of the old man. She stuck behind Mimi as they walked to him. When Mimi told his mother about the dream, Mama Small said the old man had returned to thank them for having remained beside him during his Earth-shaking fight with destiny, for helping him cross the dark valley.
“We think it was difficult”, Mama Small said sympathetically.
The old man did not reply. He looked down and tapped the bottom of the walking-stick onto the dry ground. That was when Mimi realized someone had shaved the old man. There was a thin line of white hair running down his cheek, and even the tips of his eyelashes were white. He seemed to squint each time he looked at Mimi and Mama Small.
“Look”, Mama Small spoke again, “Mos – we are sorry for you”.
“Mh”, the old man smiled again.
“Mos ahinya”, Mimi also said, taking the palm which the old man now gave him. “We are sorry for you”.
He looked at them, managing very well to fight the shame smeared all over his face.
“M-m, it was not difficult”, the man answered. “One gets used to it; I got used to it”.
And then he smiled, again, turning his face and looking at the ground where the bottom of the walking-stick stayed. The weak rays of the setting sun touched the white lashes of his eyes.
The crowd in the dream had by now dispersed. But Mimi and Mama Small could still hear their voices echoing in the distance. Mimi looked west at the eye of the sun. The orange ball bathed itself in its own soft rays, sinking behind the lake. The old man began to walk away in the dream, waving back at Mimi and Mama Small, telling them he was well, and they needed not to worry about him…
* * *
The year 1992…
“Heh – heh! You are still here with cattle? Drive the herd away – drive them!”
“What is it?” Mimi asks innocently.
“Don’t ask! Drive them away – drive them!”
That is neighbour Guya shouting at Mimi. And then Guya starts beating the cows with a guava twig he has yanked from a parent tree nearby. Mimi joins, his head reeling. The boy does not understand. When the cattle catch the sense of panic, they start running, their tails pointing skywards.
Guya leaves Mimi to continue driving the herd to the next village, Achego, warning, “Do not stop – drive the cattle all the way to Achego”.
As Guya turns and starts running to his own homestead, Mimi hears a neighbour shouting, “They have murdered Sepi – they have killed him – and…”
The whizzing wind escapes with the tail end of the words. Sepi is the neighbour Mimi knows very well; he is the one who gave Mimi the name ‘Jakogola’. Something snaps inside Mimi. The boy stumbles and nearly falls on the grass. No, he does not fall. He beats the cattle. He whips this, runs there and whips that, comes back and beats this, all the while shouting, urging his younger sibling, Wetu, who is already tired, not to remain behind. Wetu gasps for dear air, but he is not giving up. Mimi’s eyes flash on the child’s neck in a split second. He sees a carotid artery sticking out with terror on one side of the child’s neck – a child fleeing for his life.
They go down the path and cross the stream. The cattle run, their intestines kulu-kulu-kulu as their bellies roll from side to side. Cow dung litters the path. The herd must be panicking. The cattle steady themselves, instinctively relieving themselves to remain as light as possible.
At last they climb from the steep path. The cattle run ahead. Now Wetu is between the cattle and Mimi. Mimi begs the child not to get tired. They go at a trot. Mimi can hear voices mourning near the hill. He turns. Thick billows of smoke are rising there. Over the horizon scattered columns of dark smoke lift ominously, leaving behind destruction, but perhaps happy to go and kiss the eye of the sun. It is dirty smoke from plantations of sugarcane and lonely huts which the arsonists have set alight.
Mimi comes to the main road – odd dust. A humanity of feet is fleeing. Mothers have all sorts of luggage over their heads. They push their children’s heads so they can walk faster than they are doing. Mimi now discovers that Odiya is inhabited by poor people: mats and thin, smoke-blackened mattresses, even from neighbours most people consider wealthy. Mimi’s eyes suddenly catch their church preacher in the sad exodus.
“Come, let us go”, he tells Mimi and Wetu. The preacher holds his spear over his shoulder so that both his arms twine on its stem; he’s the image of a soldier who has surrendered. Then he helps them drive on the cattle. At that moment neighbour Okul’s car roars past. It slows a bit, and Mimi sees a bloody head leaning out of the car window, blood trickling over nose and cheeks.
“Look!” the bloody head shouts at Mimi. The boy turns. Something snaps inside him, again. “Drive the cattle, drive them”, the bloody head urges them as the speaker pushes the air with his left arm. The preacher looks at the head and Mimi can see that the preacher wants to cry. The car speeds and disappears in the brown dust. Neighbour Okul is rushing the bleeding man to the government hospital in Kisuma. It dawns on Mimi that Guya had told them the truth. The arsonists had really wounded him, the man – their father.
Mimi hears guns bursting behind them. He turns and looks. Perhaps the police are trying to stop the arsonists by shooting in the air. Whatever it is, everyone has left, and Odiya is silent behind them, an abandoned orphan, Mama Medium’s grave – buried barely two years before – also abandoned with it. And this is Mimi’s real mother. It haunts Mimi’s young mind very deeply why the ruling regime is making him leave his mother’s corpse even before she has properly rotted away. The thought that the invaders can raze down the homestead and steal away Mama Medium’s corpse torments Mimi the whole of that night.
* * *
The reason Odiya should not have gone to war with anybody was its own age. It was founded as a settlement scheme in 1965, a young village where homesteads were few and scattered. The founding settlers like the wounded man were now showing signs of going down with the sun when the Berlin Wall fell. Grey hair had already sprouted on their heads.
Last year members of the other tribes which sympathized with the new opposition party were expelled from the President’s home province. The reluctant were locked up in their huts and set alight. The news reached Odiya and villagers refused to spend in their huts at night. People calmly crawled into the bush every night and slept there.
The people fleeing from the President’s tribe arrived and camped at the shopping centre in Odiya. Mothers and fathers spent their lives weeding cane-fields for a living, the eye of the sun beating down their backs. Their sons cut and loaded cane into waiting tractors, to be hauled to the sugarcane factory at Chemelil. The most elderly died inside the squatting huts they had rented at the shopping centre; their bodies were taken away and stored under the earth at the cemetery near the stream.
The man had kept vigil each night. A mere child then, Mimi had occasionally gone to sit with him. At dusk Mimi’s sisters carted away and hid clothes and utensils in the bush so the invaders could not find and destroy them. Mimi kept looking in the darkness for any signs of light, of huts burning in the east where members of the tribe lived close to the boundary with the President’s people. The man was there with his two spears and okumba shield, prowling in the homestead every hour, daring the invaders with his slowly ageing presence…till dawn.
Mimi still hears ringing in his head the whistle which they blew at the primary school field that evening last year, calling people to gather and talk about the letters dropped from passing vehicles. One letter said:
You settled here. But this is not your land. White people like Mr. Macleod chased away our forefathers before coming here. And when the white people went away you people came. We would have let you live, still, but now you see you want to vote for this foolish opposition party. That one no – you can only live here if you vote for our president; the one chosen for us by God. You must leave this land before the date of… If you do not leave before that day, prepare for war. And then, before the signature, the letter said that the invaders were coming to take his head: We are coming to carry away the head of the man who once wounded two of our people down in Kano.
In that meeting last year they chose him to inspire resistance against the coming invaders. It would have been a miracle if he had refused to take up the challenge. Mimi still chuckles to himself each time he remembers that Odiya was putting her fate in the hands of a man born in the 1930s, merely because he was the most courageous in the whole village. Yes, he had murdered wild pigs single-handed at night; he had wounded cattle rustlers. People feared and respected the power stored in his joints. But now he was not young when the Berlin Wall fell. Mimi could see white hair on his head and beard each time the man combed it neat before leaving for the shops where they gathered to politick about the two parties, to talk about the impending battle which the arrival of multi-party democracy had brought to their doorsteps.
* * *
The following morning Mama Small and Mama Big call the children to see him. He has suddenly re-appeared before the eye of the sun has risen behind the eastern hills. Mimi guesses that he has returned from the government hospital in Kisuma. But Mimi does not even know that hospital. The child has never been to Kisuma in his life. The man is dirty. Paths of dry sweat zebra down his cheeks. What terrifies Mimi more than the bandaged head – which the nurses have sewn with what looks like black thread – is the tiny dot of dry blood which clings onto the man’s left cheek. Mimi’s eyes are glued onto that tiny dot as the man drinks the porridge which the preacher’s wife has served him. His jaws move mechanically as he drinks.
Perhaps that is why he too avoids Mimi’s stolen stare. Yes, the shame a father feels when his child discovers that the world contains stronger people than he, people who could even kill him if they so choose. Still, Mimi can see that the man looks relieved to be with his family again.
Mimi ate nothing at the preacher’s house last night – nothing. The preacher’s wife tried very hard to feed these homeless members of their church, but Mimi thinks they forgot about him as he minded the cattle outside in the yard. At any rate, thoughts about the bleeding head sticking out of the car window, and Mama Medium’s body possibly being stolen from the grave, had occupied Mimi’s mind so totally that he forgot about food altogether. But on the morning that the man arrives, all children are served porridge.
Mimi feels the full effect of that porridge when he, Wetu, and the man begin driving the cattle towards the sugarcane factory this morning, on their way to Kano.The three of them are in the middle of the vast cane-fields which form the nucleus belonging to Chemelil Sugar Factory. The herd is grazing. Coupled with the heat of acidic hunger rolling and burning Mimi’s stomach, the sound of the cattle’s mouths pulling the grass reaches Mimi’s ears with a rhythm which threatens to soothe the boy to sleep. Mimi’s jaws are tired and fatigued. He and Wetu must now have chewed their tenth cane stems. Mimi does not want the taste of sugar in his mouth any more.
The eye of the sun beats down on them. Out of the slit of Mimi’s eyelids he thinks he sees the man leaning on the tall walking-stick he plucked from the bush to support himself. The boy thinks that the man must have dozed off. The sweaty beard suddenly jerks downwards. The bandaged head flashes in the distance. And then the man raises his head, very tired, and his eyes look at Wetu and Mimi.
“You are hungry”.
“A-a, not very hungry”, Mimi lies. He does not want to humiliate the old man further.
“Wetu. You are hungry?” the wounded man turns and asks Wetu.
“Break a cane stem for him”, the man tells Mimi.
The child does that.
The man’s voice is hoarse – like a bereaved man who has been mourning since yesterday. Yes. Mimi knows the man has been mourning neighbour Sepi.
The man’s whole heart aches with pain and anger at the loss of his friend, the nearest neighbour with whom they often walked to the shops and talked about the new political party. Sepi the age-mate with whom the man had grown up in Kano, he of the yellow teeth and failing ears. Oh, dictatorship! And now Sepi’s wives are widows, his children without a father.
Everyone who had been at the battlefield agrees that even this wounded man with a bandaged head is supposed to have died there with his friend. Only God had intervened for his children, in the shape of Mimi’s elder sibling.
Much later, after his anger has subsided, the man narrates that the first arrow had struck Sepi’s ankle. To save his friend, this man had charged forward with his shield, scaring the young battalion of ochre-painted chests who then scattered into the bush. He had hoped that Sepi would utilize the split second to pull out the arrow so they could escape and run. It could not happen. Indeed, it was at that moment that a clever arrow greeted the stooping Sepi under the left armpit, hurled him in the air, and when he landed he grumbled, trembled with death kicks, ‘Leave me, my friend. Leave me here and run away. Leave me to die’. How Mimi’s elder sibling had appeared at that moment and helped his father hold the shield – leaving Sepi kicking on the ground as the raiders surged forward again – and retreated into the bush is a mystery of nature, people say. It was in that thin moment that an arrow had struck this man’s head as they fled. Mimi is lucky to see one of these arrows, an escapee had picked up. The sight of its large blade – as large as the palms of a baby – and its two long thorns, all pointing backwards, makes Mimi tremble with the same gush of warm destruction and tearing which had ruptured Sepi’s beating heart.
Out here in the fields, the eye of the sun is harsh above their heads. It beats them relentlessly. After coughing with a hoarse voice the man turns and looks east, towards the place where his homestead is now silently trapped. Mimi sees him place his right palm above his two eyes; he squints to look, but only instinctual furrows of pain form on his face.
“Is that smoke?” he asks with a hoarse, booming voice.
“Eee”, Mimi replies after looking.
Wetu also turns and looks. “That is smoke. That is smoke”, Wetu says without really knowing what is happening.
Yes, yesterday Odiya was attacked. Today the next village, Onena, is bearing the brunt. In the distance, they see dirty columns of smoke rising above the hills, rising in the bubbling heat of the sun. People’s huts are going down.
The man keeps looking at the lifting smoke for a long time. Mimi knows that the dark columns interest the old man because he sees in them the reason his friend Sepi – carried to the mortuary by policemen yesterday – is now no more.
“Let us go”, he says to them.
They drive the herd towards the sugarcane factory, where they arrive as the orange eye of the sun slowly slides in the west. The tractor carrying the rest of the family circles the round-about near the factory. It stops, he speaks with the driver, and Wetu boards. And then the tractor heads to Kano…
The old man and Mimi camp at the factory for seven days with many village families. Seven days of hunger, of hot sun, of rising dust, of hauntingly cold nights, of memories of dead Sepi, and Mama Medium trapped inside the grave in Odiya. At night they light a bonfire at the Chief’s camp and surround it. People talk and laugh deep into the night. The cattle rest nearby. The man laughs along. His voice is regaining its charm. When the cold wind begins to blow around 3:00am, Mimi coils around his feet like a puppy.
“You can sleep”, he tells Mimi.
And then Mimi floats away in sleep, to be woken up by the small noise which comes every dawn, of people hurrying to milk the cows and prepare tea over the open fire before the calves have suckled. After taking the tea, the task of grazing the cattle begins. At midday they walk all the way to the distant river called Mbogo, to water the herd. It is a very long stretch. Mimi is usually hungry, chewing sugarcane stem as he plods over the black, thirsty tarmac.
“You must be hungry – are you not?” a journalist comes at Mimi, flashing the light of his camera.
“No”, says Mimi.
“You are not?”
“No. I am not”.
“You are not hungry?”
“I have sugarcane”.
“Sugarcane is enough?”
“You do not want kuon and vegetable – a real meal?”
The following day there are rumours that Mimi has been seen in the newspapers chewing sugarcane. Someone brings the newspaper and shows the page to Mimi. The boy looks. He can see their cattle in the photo. He also sees the wide tarmac. He sees and knows the dirty, sweaty clothes he has been wearing all these days. But Mimi cannot recognize the distant face staring at him and chewing the cane stem. No, he thinks it is not him!
In the photo, whole families are roaming with their cattle, nowhere to rest, nowhere to hide their heads. They pray that the skirmishes should die out. It does not happen. Thank God this man still has land in Kano. After seven days he and Mimi bid bye to the other families and lead the whole herd to the place where the man was born.
Mimi is happy to see the old man’s father welcome his son with a long hug. Mimi is aware that the man’s mother had died a decade ago.
“My son”, Mimi’s grandfather tells his son, stooping with a white head. “I see you are here. You now know He still loves you. I hear Sepi the son of Obuya was not lucky. Welcome to this home where you were born”.
Mimi is shocked at how news of death travels fast.
Many days later, when the white bandage is still wrapped on the man’s skull, Mimi hears that Sepi is going to be buried in Odiya. Mimi follows him as they leave Kano at dawn. They arrive at the foot of the hill in Odiya shortly before midday. Sepi’s widows are crying sorrowfully in the small homestead. The many young children – they have not even started going to school – are just there, tight-lipped, too shocked to talk. A cock crows and the echo of its voice dissolves into the stream nearby, running to the lake. Mimi hears the buzzing of the wings of a passing fly.
There are two administrative police officers who stand guard so no invaders can interfere with the burial. Mimi wonders where these people were when the attackers were killing the corpse in the coffin. Father and son stand beside Sepi’s coffin. The bandaged man prays. When he has finished, he opens his eyes and tears zebra his cheeks, for his departed friend. Mimi peers in the coffin and sees Sepi’s mouth and nostrils stuffed with white cotton. The coffin smells of new varnish. The man sits, but even before he does, people overwhelm him with greetings of courage:
“Ah, our bull! They were intent on killing you but they could not manage”.
“Oh, buffalo! No one trifles with the courageous man of Odiya!”
“God still loves you”.
They return to Kano that evening…
* * *
When they return to Odiya after months of waiting, families find entire maize fields devoured by wild weeds. The crop cannot be rescued. And that marks the beginning of a period of sizzling hunger which stretches to the next season, and to which Odiya village gives the name ‘Ilawa’ – ‘I am being chased’.
Even more shocking for Mimi is the discovery that cats have nothing to lose even if their owners disappear forever. On the evening of the family’s return, the cat which had remained behind when people fled those months ago suddenly crawls back from the bush where she has become a wild animal. Soon she brings all her kittens to the homestead, one by one.
As for the man, the return to Odiya intensifies his friendship with the radio more than ever before. He had always listened to his black transistor radio before they fled Odiya in February.
Mimi knows that a certain part of the man is still in Tanzania, the place he had grown cotton and gained his wealth, the wealth he had sold to buy land in Odiya. Mimi knows the man’s heart is in Tanzania because he used to listen to Tanzanian stations. Mimi had heard the names of people called Julius Nyerere, Sheikh Abeid Karume, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, and one Oscar Kambona, people whose names were preceded by the Kiswahili term ‘ndugu’ (brother). Even Nyerere, a president, was ‘Ndugu Julius Nyerere’.
But now, in the middle of the year after their return to Odiya, this radio becomes an extension of the man’s body. He buys batteries weekly. The FM stations are still unavailable. So he tunes the radio on the short wave, and it hoots noisily, as if the wind is blowing the announcer’s voice over some hills. At midday he tunes the German Deutsche Welle Radio. The strange bell comes ringing. The announcer says his name – either Mwai Gikonyo or Osman Miraji. In the evening the man tunes the BBC.
The main news on the country is the impending election in December, and the man listens avidly. Mimi and Wetu are the only children who eat with him. They hear the names of opposition party politicians and the President. And each time the radio mentions the name of the country, Mimi can see that the man stops eating and listens properly. If the news erupts when Mimi is giving him a mug of water and his arm is in the air, the man does not take the mug. His arm remains there, suspended, as he listens keenly, and when the news ends he takes the mug and drinks. His gullet whips the water down his throat.
He has had more than great faith in the opposition party, probably because its chairman comes from his tribe. In that party, Mimi thinks, the man hopes Odiya will be safe. The opposition is his only insurance against the clashes which now lie months in the past, homesteads which were torched, his own wounding in that battle, and the loss of his friend Sepi under the ruling party. One evening the opposition battalion comes to Muhoroni near Odiya for a huge rally and he returns home a rejuvenated man, very upbeat. Mimi hears they have given him a small locational post in the party.
“Opposition will beat this ruling party”, he tells Mama Small that evening. “If opposition does not split it will beat this dictator”.
And then Mimi sees him slowly losing appetite as December approaches. The man is a shell again. The haggard look he had worn immediately after the clashes comes back to his face. He does not eat much. Mimi hears over the radio that the opposition is splitting.
They are listening to Deutsche Welle Radio that evening when the voice of a member of the opposition comes. The politician is being interviewed by journalists who have waylaid him as he sneaks out of State House where he has been having clandestine meetings with the President. The politician tells the reporters that the President is also his President (even if he personally belongs to the opposition party), and he had gone to consult and eat ugali with him.
The country is tongue-tied – a senior member of the opposition acting as a mole for the ruling party? The haggard man hears this, Mimi sees him take back his head and lean it slowly on the back of the chair he is seated in, each hand holding onto the arms of the chair; the man inhales deeply, and then he expels the air out of him, slowly, slowly, slowly.
“Mk”, he clicks the back of his tongue onto his palate.
* * *