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The opposition loses in that election, and also in the next. In each case the ageing man loses both his heart and soul. In that period economic oppression increases ten-fold in Odiya. Those tribes which vote for the opposition have a quota imposed on them at the sugarcane factory. Their cane is being rejected. In his farm, acres and acres of crop are turning brown, drying up under the harsh eye of the sun.
“Work hard in class my son”, he whispers to Mimi one of those evenings when Wetu is not with them at the table. “If you leave school, I will never take any of my children to school again”.
Mimi passes the examination. The haggard man is bathed in happiness. Secondary school arrives, and Mimi floors the examination again. Mimi sees the beautiful glow of pride on the man’s face as they leave Odiya one morning, slowly crawling out of the mud, the old man tapping ahead of Mimi with his walking-stick. They hike on a lone tractor delivering cane to the factory, and finally Mimi finds himself in Kisuma for the first time in his life.
“That is the hospital they brought me to”, he tells Mimi as if it does not matter. It is six years after the first democratic elections, six years after the arson attacks in Odiya, six years since the ageing man lost his friend Sepi.
The shoes are so small that they peel the skin off Mimi’s heels. Seeing that, the man buys his son a pair of slippers at Kisuma. They board the train at 6:00pm. And then the journey begins. Tutuk-tatak-tutuk-tatak…across the plain and leaving it behind them that evening, plunging into the ruggedness of the Rift Valley, the white man’s railway line cleverly evading high cliffs and going round the cheeks of the hills. They dig their noses into the cold, humid air. All the travellers refuse to sleep. Talk, talk, talk, and when a clever joke is uttered, people laugh. Mimi sees his white beard shaking in the weak glow of the bulb. The sellers trading brown, boiled maize, pig meat, mandazi, sausage, tea, water, chapatti, and everything under the moon. Tutuk-tatak-tutuk-tatak…The man occasionally looks at Mimi to see if sleep has overpowered the young man. His sharp eyes remain sharper than ever, glittering in the dim light, his walking-stick leaning against the grey, ageing walls of the cabin they are seated in – Tutuk-tatak-tutuk-tatak…all the way to Nairobi where they arrive the following morning at 8:00am.
And then, when they finish the endless task of registration at the university, he pulls Mimi aside and holds the young man’s shoulder:
“My brother”, he tells Mimi.
Mimi looks at him. He looks back.
“Now I am returning home”, he taps the bottom of his walking-stick onto the hard tarmac.
Mimi looks at him. The young man wants to cry, seeing all that his ageing father has gone through to make him reach this same place where he now stands – the compound of a university.
“If you want to live well, read”, the old man tells him. “Real goodness comes after real sweat”.
Mimi nods and thanks him. The young man tells him to greet Mama Small. He gives Mimi his right hand. The old man begins to walk away, the soles of his shoes bidding Mimi farewell as he struts down the tarmac – tak-tak-tak…
In those four years of college, Mimi is aware that Sepi’s family has been ground to dust by politics and culture. Berlin Wall denied the family a father. The wife-inheritor who took over the dead man’s wives had arrived with the great disease which had entered without knocking in the mid-1980s. The widows have both died and gone with the wind…
* * *
A decade and two upon the hump of the new millennium, a huge bull stands looking at Mimi, its long horns jutting into the skies, daring him for a duel. Mimi hears the fat bull bellowing inside the distant voice of Mama Small who calls on a mobile phone from home in Kano. After the Odiya clashes of the previous decade, Mama Small had had a new homestead erected for her in Kano.
“He is sick”, her voice comes that evening.
“Sick?” Mimi asks.
“Eee, sick – he is very sick”.
Mimi has all along known that age is slowly creeping in on the man. Night comes but Mimi cannot sleep. His belly is hot. He turns this way and that. Mimi is tense, like a traveller getting ready for a journey they have never taken before. He leaves Koyugi at dawn. They will find him in Kisuma.
That morning Mama Small travels with the ageing man to Kisuma. They find Mimi waiting for them at the private physician’s hospital. On seeing the man, Mimi’s heart thumps hard.
“My brother”, that is how the old man calls Mimi, “here you are!”
“Yes”, Mimi replies as they greet, smiling.
“I see you are well”.
“I am”, Mimi says, and adds as they three all sit on the waiting bench. “Sorry you are sick”.
The physician is seeing another patient. Mama Small looks at Mimi.
“Do not worry, brother”, the old man says to Mimi. “It is just age. When it arrives, even a giant cannot escape”.
Their turn comes and Mimi leads him into the room. The old man pours all his troubles to the physician who sits there with his stethoscope looped round his neck. Barium Meal Test is ordered, and they discover the patient has terrible duodenal ulcers. Mimi buys a universe of drugs, hires a taxi, and it drives them all the way home that evening. They arrive in Kano with the darkness.
What Mimi cannot understand is the old man’s difficulty in breathing. It is laborious. The physician assures that the problem would disappear once the duodenal wound is healed.
“When you reach your house in Koyugi”, the sick man tells Mimi as the son leaves the homestead the following evening, “call back. Tell us you arrived safely. Only God can predict a journey”.
Mimi does exactly that when he reaches Koyugi. Mama Small relays the message to the ailing man, and after days, when Mimi calls again, he finds that the patient is really healing. The difficult breathing has died out. The old man can now speak over the phone. Mimi hears the man’s voice roaring in the echo of the mobile phone.
But it does not take long. After several days Mama Small surprises Mimi with the news that both his legs are very swollen.
“Bring him along tomorrow”, Mimi tells her.
The following morning Mama Small travels with him from Kano all the way to Gendia, the private hospital some distance to the east of Kendu Bay. They find Mimi waiting. Their noses catch the smell of the quiet lake. The sick man gets one foot out of the shoe to show Mimi. It is indeed swollen. An X-Ray is done.
“Jaduong’”, the Clinical Officer refers to the old man by the respectful term, peering against the flowered shape of the old man’s heart imprinted on the film. “It is your heart that has enlarged”. Mimi sees his father’s ribs in the image.
“Eee. My heart”, the old man says very coolly, without the least panic.
“Yes, your heart. So you should not take salt”.
Mimi buys the drugs. They go to eat, they chat a lot about home, and when they are done the son escorts both to Kendu Bay. As mother and father begin their journey back home, Mimi stands beside the road, looking intently as the vehicle they are in becomes smaller, smaller, smaller, till it melts on the black tarmac in the distance. Mimi looks down. A fly buzzes past his left ear and the sound fades like the disappearing vehicle. Mimi raises his eyes and looks at the quiet lake. The silent water stretches to the other side of the gulf…
* * *
Something startles Mimi. In his mind, the bull’s horns are longer than they had been. When Mama Small brings the patient back after weeks, they again find Mimi waiting at the hospital. The old man talks very little. He had had very public views on national politics. It shocks Mimi that the old man has lost interest in all that now.
It is his breathing again, and his feet are badly swollen. They admit him. Mama Small painstakingly looks after him in the ward. Each evening Mimi comes with bananas and oranges he has bought at the market in Koyugi. After seven days his feet are well and Mimi escorts them to Kendu Bay again, where the couple takes a vehicle back to Kano.
No, it does not take long. After thirty days Mimi rushes home in panic. But he does not reach. The old man is very ill. Mama Small brings him. Mimi waits at Ahero Town and watches with sadness as Mama Small alights with him from the vehicle. No, that is not his body! The old man cannot walk without support from someone else. Mimi realizes that the walking-stick the old man holds onto is more visible than the holder. The patient’s large, brown cap shields the sun from his face. His skin is very dark. The eyes are running away from the world, dipping into their sockets. When they all sit, Mama Small whispers to Mimi that his father is refusing to eat.
“My brother”, the old man tells Mimi, “I cannot find my legs. They are going”. His voice is not his. Mimi panics.
Labourers are planting sugarcane at home – sugarcane which no longer pays because politicians themselves import sugar and sell – so Mama Small returns to see to that. Mimi stops the next vehicle. The old man leans on Mimi’s shoulder as the vehicle swerves forward. The father’s head touches the son’s shoulder. Mimi looks at him – a shell. The destiny of all living things walking under the eye of the sun! He is asleep. The vehicle speeds towards Katito. The son looks outside. Telephone posts flash past. Pools of water too, and long-legged birds which Mimi sees wading in the rice fields.
Passengers have been alighting along the way. When the vehicle comes to Kusa, the patient and his minder are the only passengers.
“I cannot reach Kendu”, the driver shocks them.
The patient wakes up abruptly. “What did he say?” he asks Mimi.
“That he will not take us to Kendu Bay”, Mimi relays the news. The patient clicks his tongue.
“Dereba”, Mimi shouts at the driver.
“What fare did we pay you?”
“The fare to Kendu Bay”.
“And where are we?”
“Since when did Kusa become Kendu?”
“I will refund part of your money”.
“Did we talk about refunds when we boarded at Ahero?”
“But, sir”, the driver observes, “it will be loss on my part if the vehicle goes all the way to Kendu with two passengers only.”
“And whose business is that?” Mimi rubs in.
The driver pulls the vehicle beside the road. Mimi carefully helps the sick man out of the seat, takes him under a nearby tree. When the driver comes to refund part of the fare to Mimi, the angry son goes straight for the driver’s belt.
“Fool! You will not go back to Ahero before you put these two people in another car. And you will pay.”
The terrified driver is taken aback. He did not expect it. He fights to wriggle free, tugs, but he is in the jaws of a crocodile. The clamp is solid. The driver accepts defeat and smiles. From somewhere ahead, Mimi hears the voice of an onlooker shouting: ‘Yes, this country is under a new constitution. Stupid drivers cannot continue mistreating passengers!’ Still holding the driver by his belt, Mimi looks behind and finds the ailing man looking at him with a bemused smile. He has all along been looking at his son wrestle with the driver, reminding him of his own youth gone past.
The next vehicle comes. Mimi and the driver support the patient into his seat. The errant driver apologizes, he greets Mimi, and the new vehicle hurtles on the road to Kendu Bay.
When they alight at Kendu, Mimi sees someone with red skin crossing ahead of them. Numerous black patches dot his skin. Mimi thinks he knows the man. He must have seen him on the television. He looks again. Yes, Mimi knows him.
“Do you know that man?” Mimi asks the old man leaning on him.
“No. Who is he?”
Mimi explains that he is the man who lost his entire family in the post-election violence. His skin is red because he escaped from the raging inferno of petrol which consumed his two wives and eight children in their hut in Naivasha.
“Oh, oh, oh, God help him”, the man leaning on Mimi curses as Mimi stops briefly so they can look at the victim’s disappearing back. What strikes Mimi is that his father offers no comment whatsoever about national politics. Yes, he has already given the world his back.
The next car dumps them at Gendia again. The doctor admits him for the second time. Mimi is there with him for ten consecutive nights. The patient is wearing his pale-blue ward uniform. Occasionally Mimi finds him exchanging conversation with the patient from the other side of the gulf, the one whose bed is nearest his. Mimi hears his hoarse, booming voice in spite of the thin life slipping away. And then, one day, when the son pops in at midday to ambush his father with a visit, Mimi arrives in time to witness the neighbour being sent to the mortuary. The old man looks queerly as his friend is pulled away, the soles of the corpse’s dead feet all white and cold. The patient knows he might follow the same path one of these days. But he remains deeply controlled, steely. Mimi pities his father, trapped inside the womb of death.
No, thank God. His swollen feet breathe, and when they regain their size, Mimi leads him back to Kendu, and then to Ahero, where Mama Small takes the patient home. His son looks at him through the car window. Something startles Mimi. His blood itches. The following day Mimi will shift all his belongings from Koyugi to Kisuma, to be near him. It is evening. The eye of the sun is an orange ball. The patient and Mama Small wave at Mimi; he waves back as the vehicle leaves…
* * *
Two days later, Mimi receives his call. The old man sounds very alive. He says he is in Kisuma waiting for Mimi as they had agreed. Mimi finds him taking tea at the hotel near the entrance to the large government hospital. He is strikingly alive. He can even walk by himself. But Mimi suspects this man is tricking him – the way human beings who want to die cheat those they love. Mimi is carrying the hospital card. They walk to the counter, and Mimi books an appointment for him with the cardiologist. What shocks Mimi is that the cardiologist’s list is booked two months ahead! It is September 20th. He will see the doctor on November 20th. What’s wrong with this country? Mimi desperately asks himself. As they leave, father sees his son is disturbed.
“What is it?”
Mimi tells him the date. The son does not know whether that is a smile on his father’s face, or something else Mimi has never seen. It is a very subtle gesture.
“Look, my brother”, he pulls Mimi aside. “Even our Bible gives us only sixty and ten years. That makes seventy. But you see, I have added six more years to that. So I think time is up in my case”.
Mimi looks at him. A dark ring has sneaked and formed round the sockets of the old man’s eyes. That is when Mimi realizes that the man means what he is saying.
“I have finished my years pep, pep, pep”, the patient continues, slapping his palms against each other in the traditional sliding way, to show that he has cleared all, all, all the years he is supposed to have lived under the eye of the sun.
Mimi’s head reels.
Mimi helps him into the next vehicle and they alight in town. There, in Kisuma, he walks Mimi around, to no particular destination. They just roam along the streets. He looks at the tall buildings. He even buys a medium-sized radio which Mimi knows the old man does not need. He has one at home. He buys a bag and puts the radio inside.
When the eye of the sun sinks behind the lake Mimi escorts him to the vehicle. The son waves, the man goes home.
Mimi cannot sleep that night. The next day he ambushes them at home in Kano. The old man is lying under the tree, his head supported on a pillow. He is happy to see Mimi, and he says he is well. Wetu is looking after him. Aunty Saisi has also come. Mama Small has gone to Odiya to bring maize. In the evening the tractor arrives with Mama Small and sacks of maize. She tells Mimi he did well to come.
Before leaving that evening, Mimi tells the old man to continue taking drugs. The son walks to the road.
* * *
“Your father refuses to talk”, the voice of Mama Small startles Mimi the following day, just after midday. It is a desperate voice.
“I am sending a taxi”, Mimi finds himself shouting in the mobile phone, and he leaves without touching the meal on the table.
He rushes to the government hospital where he met him the previous day to make arrangements. The Clinical Officer is in the room. Mimi stands in the yard waiting, and just when Mama Small tells him they are about to enter the hospital grounds, Mimi hears the siren mourning in the distance. Oh, My God, has he gone? Mimi wonders. The gate clangs open, the ambulance breaks in, swerves, and stops at Mimi’s feet near the casualty area. He greedily peers. No, it is not he. That is when Mimi remembers they were coming by taxi – not ambulance. But Mimi’s panic is short-lived. The taxi shows its white nose at the entrance. It comes, stops, and Mimi sees his head at the window.
He is quiet when they heave him out of the car seat. His eyes are nearly still. The officer prescribes. But there is a hitch: the nurses’ strike began yesterday.
Mimi thinks fast and they rush to Consolata, a private hospital, before it is filled to the brim with patients. They are unlucky. The last patient to fill the beds is the one who has just entered ahead of them. They rush back to town, to Aram, another private hospital. Here they are lucky.
The drugs have helped him – and so has the water they are injecting into his characteristically large arm. Mimi talks with him, seated on the edge of the bed. He tells Mimi many things the son has never known. He eats. Mimi is happy. He is convinced that this man will go back home alive. Mimi reasons that he took him to Gendia and returned him home alive, not once but thrice. Why should the patient die in Kisuma when he didn’t in Gendia? Over the days people arrive to see him – even his sister, Aunty Saisi, who resembles him in everything but gender.
Mimi visits each day. Yet from that very night the old man has finally begun his journey, but Mimi is unaware.
Mama Small looks after the patient always, and when she has to go home and see to things, Saisi and Mimi replace her at night. Mama Small cares for the patient with every atom of devotion. Mimi wonders if this is part of the reason Africans marry more than one wife.
The first seven days elapse, and then the second. They are still in the ward at Aram, in Kisuma. The fan flaps overhead. Mimi had thought they would be here shortly, but now the yellow bulb glowing under the ceiling board is Mimi’s friend. He is used to the smell of the rotting wound on the thigh and buttocks of another patient who sleeps on the bed at the corner.
Till now the wound is hearsay. But this morning Dr. Pol is doing the rounds. And when the doctor pushes the sheets, Mimi accidentally sees the wound – a whole continent stretching from the lower calf all the way to the patient’s buttocks! The devil’s wind breaks in and blows into the room. The great stench is unbearable. The owner of the wound begs the doctor to treat him fast so he can return home and see his cattle. He has been here for months, with his wife and daughter.
That same evening a young woman arrives with her husband who has a swollen stomach, but the husband does not look very sick. From their lively faces, Mimi can judge that the couple hopes they will be the first to leave the ward and return home. But at midnight, Mimi hears something stretching in one of the corners. Out of that corner comes the young wife. She is going to call the nurses. When she arrives with the nurses they put ‘it’ on the stretcher and push. Another pair of dead soles of feet as Mimi had seen in Gendia. One nurse returns to mop the bed with a damp towel.
Mimi’s patient is still asleep. Mimi looks at him. The following night, the same time, when Aunty Saisi and Mimi are burdened by sleep at midnight, Mimi hears a small twitching in the bed where the man with the wound lies. His wife and daughter raise a loud wail, beating their palms, their thighs.
“Father you lied to me! You cheated me!” the daughter is uncontrollable. The guard arrives to shut the wailers up. The nurses come. Mimi sees cold feet passing near him again. A nurse returns to mop the bed with a wet rag.
When Mimi turns back to look at his patient who stopped talking and eating yesterday, he is shocked to see the old man supporting himself on his elbows, staring blankly at the source of the noise. The patient looks extremely shocked. Clearly, the patient thinks he is the one who has died, and the noise is Mimi, Aunty Saisi, and Mama Small mourning him. Mimi sees him trapped inside the mosquito net. The patient’s eyes are clear. But Mimi is certain he does not see him. A good deal of his awareness has left him.
“An ka – here I am”, Mimi tells him.
“Mmm?” the man mumbles back, looking around him. For the first time Mimi realizes that the patient is trying to form some words, but his tongue is too heavy to articulate them. He has no energy. His eyes are still stuck where the noise came from even when the stretcher passes near his bed, meaning he does not even see these people carrying away the corpse! When the stretcher is gone Mimi is blind, and he feels his nose running. Someone is gasping near him. And it’s Mimi himself. He cries because he knows his father will be the next. But Mimi will soon realize that even the awareness of imminent death is still a million miles away from the actual occurrence of death.
“Can I give you water?”
“Mmm?” the patient mumbles again.
“Do you want water?” Mimi asks a second time.
The patient mumbles, and Mimi suspects the old man is telling him to stop crying. The man is too weak to remove his elbows from their position. Mimi slides them forward for him and he lies on his back. From then on the patient does not talk. He sinks rapidly each day. His thin body is as hot as the bottom of a pot. Occasionally, Mimi props him to sit, and Mimi also sits looking the other side as the old man leans on his son, their backs meeting. The patient is very, very heavy. Mimi sweats almost immediately. The old man breathes with difficulty. The following night Aunty Saisi feeds him water with a spoon from the green cup she came with. It chokes him lightly. Mimi tells Aunty Saisi to stop.
When Mimi returns that evening he sees the tube they have inserted in his nose. Mimi says remove it. The nurses obey. Mimi follows the logic: I brought this man here three weeks ago. He was talking. He was eating by himself. But now he does neither. But even this awareness is still two worlds away from the reality of death.
Mimi looks at the patient’s coat, his cap, and the walking-stick over which the coat is hung, leaning against the wall. Mimi relives his own memory of where this man was born in Kano; how he went to Julius Nyerere’s country; how he came back and bought the land in Odiya; the cattle thieves he wounded in Kano; the wild pigs he used to kill; Berlin Wall and the land clashes where he lost his friend Sepi; the rasping poverty inflicted on him by the government for voting for the opposition; the radio they listened to; their journey to Nairobi by train; and all the running Mimi has lately done to prolong his life.
The following morning Mimi goes to the back of the ward and stares at the small mortuary. A mother with a patient finds Mimi standing there pensively. She seems to know what Mimi is thinking.
“My son”, she tells him sympathetically, “God only. God knows, my son”.
Mimi agrees half-heartedly. He turns and looks at the eye of the sun, the primary source of all energy on earth. You bomb the sun, and all life is snuffed out. The sun, under which African women bring their newborns to receive energy; the sun, worshipped for ages by ancient civilizations! Its energy made from the mating of two hydrogen nuclei to form helium. Mimi discovers an African secret, and the secret spreads in front of Mimi’s mind like the waters of a lake.
The patient’s body is hot, and he breathes fast. All his tissues beg for energy. The diaphragm is crying to pull down and let in more air. His heart is failing him. He closed his eyes days ago. But the human heart is an obedient marathoner. It still beats with devotion, refusing to let down its owner. Fff, fff, fff, fff…nostrils are at work, begging the air to come in. Africans know death has arrived when you cannot control your tongue. Mimi sees it has slipped between the teeth. No, the man does not know that they all stand here around him. The body gasps as if it wants to cry. It is ok, don’t cry. Mimi tells him in his heart. They all rise and close their eyes. Aunty Saisi prays quietly but powerfully, and when they open their eyes they have set him free. They look in time to find his body finally relaxing after losing that battle. With it, Mimi discovers that his own experience of life on earth is a clean slate; he knew completely nothing. The nurses arrive. As they lift, Mimi sees that the man was slightly bow-legged. After fourteen days they will take him home to Odiya. But, from Kisuma, they will first branch to Mama Small’s homestead in Kano – his birthplace – for him to bid bye to his father and mother buried there several years in the deep past. And then, with rainclouds gathering, they beat the long stretch to the village at the border…
IMAGE: Old and Young – Bigstock.com
IMAGE: Calf by Greg Westfall