Category Archives: Fiction

Sometimes The Fire Is Not Fire – Akwaeke Emezi

Sometimes the fire is not fireIn this memoir piece, Akwaeke Emezi chronicles a specific Nigerian childhood with starkness and poetry and truth. It entertains. It disturbs. It is exquisitely written. I particularly loved her ability to turn Aba – a town about which I hope more will be written – into a rich character. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.

Chimamanda Adichie

Kerosene burns nearly everything.

Growing up, our house would sometimes be invaded by soldier ants, rivers of red clacking bodies that ran over our windowsills and bit us with thoroughness. We soaked newspaper in kerosene to make torches and burnt the ants back, singeing our carpets and bathtubs. The price of gas kept climbing, so we transferred all our cooking over to the small green kerosene stove and watched as the pots blackened. In the dry season, we raked dead leaves into a pile next to the borehole that didn’t work, sprinkled some kerosene and dropped a flame. I remember being amazed at how a little wetness could lead to such fire. My little sister and I would dance around the blaze until we got called in and scolded for getting smoke in our hair. When you try to burn a person, it is cheaper to use kerosene instead of petrol.

I spent my entire childhood in Aba, a commercial town in the south of Nigeria, where both my siblings were born. When I came back to the country after leaving for college, I knew from my first circling of the Lagos crowd that the location of my childhood would be ammunition against people who thought I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t Nigerian enough. No one could argue with Aba. It was my best card, even better than being born in Umuahia, where my father and grandfather were born. It made me authentic in a way that was absolute; you couldn’t question if someone who grew up in Aba was a ‘real’ Nigerian. No one could say anything. Aba didn’t match the background they assumed for me: that I must have grown up outside Nigeria, because I smelled too foreign, right down to my blood. The truth felt like a story. I wanted to tell them we never had running water, that the cockroach eggs gelled into the egg grooves of the fridge door, that the concrete over the soakaway broke open and stayed open. The smell became part of our air and when one of the little chicks fell into the hole, my sister called me wicked for not helping it out. I said none of this, though. I just smiled at their shock and listened to the jokes about how Aba people can make and sell a fake version of anything, even a glass of water.

What I did tell people was how impressive it was that my parents kept their children as sheltered as they did in all the chaos of Aba during the 90’s and early 2000’s, with the way the town felt and tasted lawless. We got piles of books to read, bought secondhand from the Post Office on Ikot-Ekpene Road or sent from our cousins in London or pulled from my parents’ separate collections, and that’s how my sister and I ended up believing in fairies in the midst of riots. We had cats spilling over our carpets, a dog with raw bleeding ears, and several Barbie dolls sent from Saudi Arabia, where my mother moved to in ’96. I didn’t know I’d never live with her again. When our turkeys got fowlpox, we caught them and pinned them under our feet and learnt that you could treat the pox with palm oil. When the dogs got maggots, we learnt that applying careful pressure to the sore made them fall white and wriggling to the sand. We learnt not to handle bitterleaf and then touch your mouth, or peel yam and then touch your eyes, because the first ruins your tongue and the itch of the second can blind you. We mimicked the priests during Mass at CKC, driving home afterwards past the bodies dumped outside the teaching hospital. We stayed children.

After a pickup truck mowed down my sister in ‘95, my father forbade us to ride okadas, saying that the roads were too dangerous. I disobeyed often, leaning into the wind and raising my heels away from the burning exhaust so my slippers wouldn’t melt. The first time I climbed on one, my best friend called out my name and distracted me. I burnt the inside of my leg on the metal and she made a face. ‘Look out for the exhaust pipe,’ she said. By the time I went to school the next day, my burn had bubbled up and split. I packed it with powder and two types of iodine, till it was ugly and crusted in purples and reds. It scarred flat and I learnt to climb on motorcycles from the other side.

After I burned my sister’s left thigh, I learnt that burns always bubble reliably, whether you make them with metal or in her case, water. We were all sitting to breakfast at the dining table, the way my mother liked it when she was there, with the Milo and sugar and powdered milk and everything laid out. I reached over to grab the handle of the hot water flask, but my brother hadn’t screwed the top back on properly, so when the flask toppled over, it spilled a steaming river over my sister’s school uniform, burning her leg. She jumped up screaming and ran into the parlor, and everyone rushed to her while I apologized frantically. I think they cracked a raw egg over the burn. It was the second time I’d seen the skin of her leg do unnatural things. The first was the time with that pickup truck, when it dragged her down Okigwe Road, but that was her right leg and her skin had opened differently then, more intricately, chopped up by white bone screaming out of the pulpy red. My best friend’s father fixed it. I learnt that humans are meat.

Bodies in the sun smell unbearable after a week because meat goes bad, but I learnt that they smell even worse a week later. When walking back home after taking JAMB, it rained, and in the flooded water of Faulks Road, I learnt that a dead body will float and even bob. I learnt that brains were grey before I was eleven, from the tarmac of Brass Junction, from the cracked calabash of what was a person’s head. We looked at it every day on our way to school, waiting to turn left onto Aba-Owerri Road to head towards Abayi, holding our breath. I learnt that we can bear much more than we predict.

When the armed robberies got too bad in Aba, to the point where you could call the police to report one and the police would just make sure they avoided the area, a team of vigilantes arose and called themselves the Bakassi Boys. Their headquarters were in Ariaria Market, and we often saw them as we returned from school, their vehicles whistling down the road. They dangled out of windows and off roofs, waving machetes and guns, streaming with red and yellow strips of cloth. They killed and burned thieves, hacking them with machetes, throwing a tire and faithful kerosene over them, then leaving the corpses out as warnings and reminders. No one dared to remove them until it was allowed. When I was fourteen, we went to Malaysia to see my grandparents and I told one of my cousins about the Bakassi Boys as we walked on a beach. ‘That’s terrible, that they’re killing people,’ she said. I looked at her like she didn’t make sense. ‘Those people shouldn’t have stolen,’ I answered. Even our state governor allowed the killings, just like he allowed the riots in 2000, after the massacre of Igbos in Kaduna, after they stacked up our dead in lorries and sent them back to us.

I learnt other things in Aba, that a mother you see once a year is a stranger, no matter how much you cry for her in the long months when she’s gone. I learnt that if my father is a man who will wield a machete at the NEPA worker who came to check the meter, then I cannot tell him what our neighbour who took my sister to the hospital after the pickup accident did to me, because at twelve, I am entirely too young for that kind of blood on my hands. We can, I promise you, bear much more than we predict.

I told an acquaintance some of this during a lunch in Lagos, not the parts about myself, just about the bodies and the curfews and the ritual kidnappings they called Otokoto and the time they burnt down the mosque and killed every Muslim they could find, murdering three hundred Northerners in the two days after the lorries arrived with the bodies from Kaduna, when we got five days off from school and stayed at home and saw the ashes afterwards in front of the Customs House. I told her how a classmate had joked with me then that I should be careful. ‘You know you resemble a Northerner,’ he said. I told her about the rumors of this Muslim man who could pass for Igbo and so when they came for him, he joined the mob and killed his people to stay alive, to prove he was one of us. I told her about the woman next door whose gateman was a shoemaker from the North, how she hid him and his son in their boys quarters. When the child heard the noise in the street, he tried to run out to see what it was, but she caught him and beat him and sent him back. He was five. We shared an avocado tree with their compound.

We were sitting in Freedom Park as I said these things, and she stared at me the whole time, horrified. ‘You’re making that up,’ she said. ‘Are you serious?’

‘It was Aba in the 90’s,’ I reminded her. ‘I thought everyone in Nigeria grew up like this.’ I hadn’t thought she’d be surprised. She was Nigerian too, after all, and much older than me. Surely she’d seen worse things.

‘No, everyone did not grow up like that!’ She was agitated. ‘Why don’t you write about this?!’

I shrugged. It was a normal childhood, and besides, Aba was just Aba. None of it had seemed worth writing about. I could hear how the stories sounded when I said them out loud, dark like old blood, like I was supposed to be traumatized, different, like something in me, perhaps my innocence, should’ve caught a whiff of kerosene and gone crackly and black too, smoking away like suya edges. Except, I was fine. I felt like nothing had happened. In college, I had a friend from Serbia who wouldn’t even talk about the things he’d seen. I had a girlfriend in New York who’d spent years of her childhood in the middle of the war in Liberia. I know that life churns on, bloody and normal. I know I’m fine.

Sometimes the fire is not fire. Sometimes it’s not everything that burns.

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo/Tamil writer and filmmaker based in liminal spaces. She was born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria. Her short fiction has been published in Sable Literary Magazine, Golly Magazine, Specter Magazine, and the 2015 Caine Prize Anthology.

Secret Santa

As the year winds down, I always yearn for Christmas with so much anticipation towards the festivities which colours the atmosphere and fills the air with nostalgia. My perspective of Christmas changed six years ago by a traditional ritual which I have participated in for over two decades of my life.

My father died of prostate cancer while I was writing my final SSCE exams; this was chiefly because we too poor to mull over the option of surgery, when we could not even pay for his second round of chemotherapy.
Being the eldest child, I had to put my dream of becoming a doctor on the shelf and step into his shoes to fend for myself and the family, so I took up a job as an office assistant. But the zest to earn the most coveted prefix, did not stop me from sharing with whoever cared to listen, how I planned to save the world one day at a time.

My heart sank as I stepped forward to accept my gift from the Secret Santa exchange which was hosted by the Admin manager on 20th December 2009, it was a white envelope. While everyone in the office was all smiles as they opened up their gifts, the Christmas card I got read thus –

          "Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone"
                               Charles Schulz

Although the words did not mean much to me, especially when I was hoping to get a Tom Ford shirt or Michael Korrs wristwatch. By the time reached home, it was quite late and all my siblings were in bed but my mother was still awake.

“Somebody from a courier service delivered this here today, she said handing a brown envelope to me”. A short note was inscribed on it, ‘With Love From Secret Santa’.

Still a bit confused, I open it, the content of the envelope was a scholarship letter offering me admission to study Medicine and Surgery at University College Hospital, Ibadan fully funded by Hopevine Foundation.

Dear Secret Santa, if you are reading this story, I want you to know that I graduated as one of the best graduating students of my set in 2015 and I am presently working with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Thanks for believing in my dream, going the extra mile and showing me that Christmas is love in action.

Alien Taste || Binyavanga Wainaina

alien-taste-topmuseThere are times that even Graham believes the story he has peddled for so many years, about how he came to be gay. That he had always known; that he used to dress up in his mother; that he had been riveted by the biceps of Mohammed Ali, the anger of those black panthers on television; that he had played the kerfuffle game in public school; that the old gay friends of his mother, who had hosted him when she was in rehab, or consulting her guru in Lucknow, had made it easy to see possibilities in this world. These things are all true, but only small accessories to the main event.

But the main event, as seen by him now, is also untruthful: it was not as clear a sexual selection as he prefers to imagine, and he knows this enough not to share this story– it could well be that he was always gay, and that he would have come to it in one way or another, despite his self-protests to the contrary. But the unambiguous epiphany that the first gay fuck gave him marked not his sexuality, but his approach to life itself, it was his Woodstock, his civil rights movement. And inside himself, he remains unconvinced of his visceral homosexuality, believes that he has willfully created himself.

He was fifteen, had committed himself to liking beer, but found it gaseous and filling and bitter, and spent much time in the Gents burping and sometimes vomiting in the toilet to make space for more beer, to keep up with his friends, who seemed much more comfortable in pubs.

He had already slept with one woman, Diana, an American friend of his mother’s, a sculptor. It was peculiar – he had so persuasively constructed the sensation of sex in his fantasies, that he found the act itself unconvincing. It smelled wrong, felt wrong, was too slippery, far less efficient than a firm, lubricated hand. The hairy, soft, oddly naked layers of her pussy were confusing; and more so the conflict between his desire to thrust hard, and hers to be manipulated this way and that. There seemed to be too much to take into account—her mouth was startling—he had expected it to be tasteless, as his own mouth was to him, and her alien taste and familiar texture was confusing. But that he could make somebody moan, relinquish pride and self-possession, was repellent and exciting.

He assumed that sex was like beer—that soon it would create an unquestioning language in him, and he could lose himself in its subtleties.

The day all that changed, he was in the buffet car, on his way back from visiting his mother in rehab in Suffolk, a whole daunting pint of bitter in front of him, and a pack of cigarettes in his top pocket. Today he would smoke in public for the first time.

“Can I join you?” The voice was deep, and careless, from a roughly used throat. The man sat – placed his beer on the table, a big brown hand curled around the glass, stony, hairy knuckles standing in relief. His name was Fred, accent was Irish, and he was black, face ashy from the cold, and a recent shower. He explained himself: He worked in buildings, removing asbestos, made good money. He had worked on ships for years, till containerization cut jobs. He could speak Mandarin Chinese and Filipono. He imitated the high, brittle voice of the woman who he was presently working for, and told stories about his train ride in Communist China in 1981. His laugh rolled, smoky, phlegmy even – big, smoke-stained teeth running evenly far into his mouth. Time rolled downhill, a little bit of Graham’s mind gathering tension as the rest loosened, and the man talked, and laughed, and they drank, and the usual surround of public silence vanished, and Graham found his throat swelling to take in the beer.

Then, with the suburbs of London undulating alongside their table, Fred leaned forward, warm breath in Graham’s face, smelling of leather jacket and concrete and soap, and sweat and rollup tobacco, and said, can I tell you a secret? Graham nodded, the warm breath narrowed the world, “I like to fuck men. Fuck them silly.” Then laughed, hoarse and deep and free and Graham found himself laughing with him. Found himself shaking and warm, as that big hand, here in a public train, reached forward and brushed his chin, softly.

And, hours later, in a small house in the East End, as a large lubricated finger prized him open, Blues guitar counting sluggish strings far behind his mind; rough, soft Irish laughter, he was cut loose for the first time, head above a certain water, knew he could release his mother from being his whole belonging. He had a tribe, or a reasonable fucksimile thereof. He laughed.

Binyavagan/TopmuseBinyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author, journalist and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. His debut book is a memoir titled One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011). In April 2014, Time magazine included Wainaina in its annual TIME 100 as one of the “Most Influential People in the World.”

#WorldFoodDay– Mitigating the Impact of Climate change on Food Security in Nigeria

world-food-dayToday is the World Food Day, a day of action against hunger in honour of the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 1945 and the theme “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.”
One of the biggest issues related to climate change is food security and the global population is growing steadily and is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. To meet such a heavy demand, agriculture and food systems will need to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change and become more resilient, productive and sustainable. In a research conducted in 2005, it was reported that even a slight change in climate could affect the production of crops. Accessing the food harvest was once rather straightforward as it was largely a matter of harvesting and extrapolating with minor adjustments. However, it has all recently changed in the recent years and is no longer only slowing or accelerating of trends but in certain cases, the direction is reversing.
“Hunger remains the number one threat for heath and most of the world’s hunger comes from developing and less developed countries globally. There are 1.02 billion undernourished people in the world today” – (World Food Programme, 2009).
climate-foood-agriculture The World Food Summit in October, 1996 has defined Food security as when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.
Nigeria is still faced with the problem of associating their food supply with the ever increasing demand for it even after four decades of attaining their independence and due to economic recession, malnutrition and household food security are related human welfare problems that heightened.
While the public and political debate on climate change has traditionally been dominated by players in the energy and energy-intensive industries, this has to change. Food and beverage companies also need to have a clear interest in early and effective action on both mitigation and adaptation. As an industry with such a sizable emissions footprint and one that relies on millions of farmers and agricultural workers in regions that are already being significantly affected by climate change, the sector also has a major responsibility to play a prominent role in fighting climate change.
Some mitigation measures to cushion the effect of climate change are construction of wide drainage channels for flood control and clearing all drainage ways for easy flow of water. Dissemination of information about climate change in local dialects at the grass root and campaign against over stocking of livestock and overgrazing of a piece of land as a way of avoiding land degradation.
Climate change is impacting negatively on food security in Nigeria as shown by low agricultural productivity. A large number of Nigerians are still malnourished, hungry, starving and poor and have various health problems due to food insecurity caused by climate change. Nigeria needs to adopt some adaptation strategies that will enable her
cope with the challenges of climate change to ensure food security in the country. To achieve this, there is urgent need for climate change policy at both National, state and local government levels in Nigeria.

#WritivismPrize2016 Winner – Sundown by Acan Innocent Immaculate

acan-immaculate-notofcode Acan Innocent Immaculate is the winner of Writivism Short Story Prize for her story Sundown, there were five shortlisted stories but Sundown was crowned the winner at the end of yet another Writivism festival in Kampala, Uganda.

Immaculate Innocent Acan’s Sundown is dark, near-apocalyptical, eschatological, there’s no hope left and we get to experience that depressing world through the eyes of a disillusioned child. The main character’s situation is as tragic as it can get, as all the earth’s inhabitants, considered as not being part of mankind’s best, are sentenced to die with earth. Two scenes were genius: The church one where the books are with the erudite dwarf, the end of the world as well as the end of the protagonist. Beautifully written, the plot unravels with an awful elegance.

The Short Story Prize was judged by Tsitsi Dangarembga (chair), Sumayya Lee, Richard Ali A Mutu, Okwiri Oduor and Mamadou Diallo. The winner of the Short Story Prize will take home a cash prize of 400 US$ and take up a one month writing residency at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Congratulations to Acan Innocent Immaculate.

Indices of Identity: A Critical Take on Abu Amira’s “The Swahilification of Mutembei” by Omidire, Idowu Joshua

abu-amirah-topmuseAbu Amira’s “The swahilification of Mutembei” captures the episodes of becoming in the life of Mutembei. The unknown narrator, does not go straight to the story; he first meanders through the gloom that is Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city – the city of poetry, commerce, dreams, illusion, spice and salt. We hear how dreams are smashed against the rocks of the city, how its ocean reeks of servitude, how Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail around Africa in order to get to Asia, sweeps away the aspirations of people with his “piss.” We learn about the night life of the Swahili people: the drinks, the oud and the less concerned ancestors. Then we wonder what the story really is. The history and the city of Mombasa are successfully developed into a chaotic character that sets the doomed tone for the rest of the story. Then there is Mutembei whom we are told is the reason we are able to see the city the way it is presented; it has all been a reflection in the eyes of this character. There are so many similarities between the protagonist and the city that we can safely reckon that Mombasa is Mutembei.

But all that has not really given us the life of Mutembei piece by piece: we only have a compact introduction to the life that the rest of the story explores through a motif – the game motif. The story is told in the course of the game of draft between Mutembei and Nasoro, an old friend. The game that they play is symbolic of life itself. Life is a game. Some win, some lose. The player that plays better shows a level of devotion over time as Nasoro suggests that things and people get better with time. The pieces with which they play the game are inverted bottle tops. The inversion of the bottle tops is symptomatic of the topsy-turvy nature of Mutembei’s life. The pieces get pushed here and there and then claimed as the game progresses – this is how life pushes these two players about. Playing the game with an old master of the game is not helping to keep Mutembei’s life in order, instead, he gets defeated every now and then. However, something is happening: he is gradually finding himself through each defeat.

There is a clash of two metaphors: the old and the new. The old is represented by Nasoro while the new is represented by young Mutembei. The young have their virility and the old have their ways. As Nasoro puts it: “While you younger men have your vigor and vitality, we older men have our secret weapons.” The youthfulness of the young is their strength while the power of the old is in their experiences and wisdom. The strife between the protagonist and his father over the profession of noble standing is also symbolic of the war between traditionalism and modernism. Mutembei’s father is a teacher and he deems it a noble profession for a noble soul. Mutembei thinks otherwise; he would rather be a writer and touch the world through the power of the written word. For this, Mutembei’s father disowns him. Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Chinua Achebe and a host of other African writers have explored this same concept in many of their writings. August Wilson, American author uses his play Fences to run commentary on parents who would prefer that their children live permanently under the shadows of parenthood, hence the clash between Troy and Cory, his son. The same battle is presented in Rayond Sarif’s Dear Parents and Ogre. Many of such parents mean no harm, they just want to build walls of protection for their children.

Thus, Wall comes as a symbol representing the professions that pull father and son apart. It is the same wall, created by profession that separates Mutembei from Cindy, the blonde girl he dreams of marrying. The lady is so much in love with painting, photographing and making documentaries of fauna that she goes away without blinking when her profession calls for it. Wall therefore is separation, not protection.

The dialogical style in which the story is told is a more traditional way of telling stories amongst African elderly men who after the hard day’s work eat dinner and play games. Game Time is story Time. Interestingly, the stories that are traded during the game are basically about the two players of the game. Though there are many stories woven into one, the plot connects every piece seamlessly because of the way the dialogue flows. The dialogue is dotted with interventions of the unknown narrator in parts where the dialogue cannot take us. We get to learn of the failure of Nasoro in handling his son, Musa who is fighting in Somalia. So it is not only the young that are liable to failure, the old too fail at a lot of things. They are often too ashamed to tell the young such stories.

Nasoro too has a peculiar life. Like his name suggests, he is the bringer of light into the life of Mutembei. He is the guide on the path of self-discovery. The irony is in the fact that he too does not know much of himself. He may be a master of the draft game; it is obvious that he is not a master of life. If he were, his wives would not suffer three miscarriages and his son, Musa would not become a terrorist in another land. He alone has fourteen children, this is a contribution to the chaos that tears the society into pieces. Nassor is another Swahili equivalent of his name. It means triumphant. Is he really triumphant? Someone who is a failure at parenting cannot lay claim to being an overcomer.

The love affair with the white girl is a denial of Mutembei’s Africanisms. Cindy symbolises Europe. She moves on to another lover while Mutembei is yet to recover from the betrayal of his love and trust. This is the way Africa has been left broken many a time. Heartbroken Mutembei lives in an African society where not getting married at his age emblematises immaturity and gross irresponsibility.

The story, however, is dotted here and there with certain linguistic irregularities. The verb “am” is killed in several places through the writer’s severance of the pronoun “I” from it. For example, “…now am stronger…” should read “…now I am stronger.” Also, hyphens take the place of dashes in a couple of sentences. Ironically, one of these sentences – “…purpose-inhaling …him” – is one of the best sentences in the story. Unfortunately, it is too long like some of the others. If the hyphen fault is chalked off as a forgivable result of typographic impatience, what do we say of the rule of subjunctives flouted in “I think it’s time you forget about your blonde-haired fiancé”? It can be argued, though, that the linguistic haphazardness helps to project the chaos that characterises not just Mutembei’s life but also that of all other players of this game called life.

Read the Full story here

Omidire, Idowu Joshua writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

#WritivismPrize2016|The Swahilification of Mutembei by Abu Amirah |Kenya

Writivism2016-Shortlist-TopMuseMutembei keenly observes Mombasa beneath the inexorable sun, a town clinging on its designated part on the warm palms of Mama Africa, trying- like any other metropolitan- to curve a niche for itself against an absurd level of expectations-

Youthful dreams smashed against the jutting rocks on the shores with a promise that others who dare share connatural dreams will suffer the same pitfalls and abstraction.

An Ocean the smell of slavery, broken promises, Portugal and Vasco Da Gama’s piss, washing away hopes and aspirations, so much so that new generations have nothing which resembles their ancestor’s footsteps to fit or surpass.

Swahili Nights skewered skillfully, ducking between ghawha cups, rising up with the scented Oud which bears the prosody and cadence of Arabic nights, to meet an enthusiastic, vibrant culture; a culture that thrives on the backs of ancestors who look on with less alacrity.

Yet beneath all these and the uncanny ability of the aforementioned fireball to offer a sacrificial, ephemeral lamb to camera lenses in the form of unforgettable sunsets and adorable sunrises, the city thrives and lives to make a better tomorrow from a wounded past.

The view is as breathtaking and contagious as the touch of a fleeing lover, who in her routine disappearances leaves one with the anticipation that indeed tomorrow, if it ever comes, will hold better and perhaps more compelling narratives than yesterday.

“You know something, Mutembei?” Nasoro quipped.

“Tell me,” Mutembei said, pushing an inverted bottle top across the board. It made a screeching sound.

“While everything spikes out with age, your game funny enough seems to deteriorate,”

“Is that so, that everything grows with age?” he asked.

“Naam, Kila kitu,” Nasoro remarked. “Everything apart from your wife’s love for you. That, my friend, never grows!”
“Is that an admission that you are lonely because your wife no longer loves you?”

“Which one? I have three wives, remember!” Nasoro winked.

“Compounded loneliness,” Mutembei said. “No wonder you have been so grumpy lately.”

Nasoro grunted, tapping on the draft board with his piece, striding over Mutembei’s cowering pieces, three of them, ultimately holding them hostage with several others on his side.

Mutembei winced. How will I ever beat this old timer?

“It reaches a certain point in life when you can no longer say that your partner loves you or vice versa; it is more than love, perhaps we could call it…” pausing a moment, piece held in the air like a drone, to study his opponent’s apparently weak position on the board, “a sympathetic appreciation of the role that you play in that partnership, and the innate knowledge that that person, in spite of peculiar characteristics they may possess, is the right one for you.”

He knew all about Nasoro’s three marriages from which he had been wonderfully blessed with fourteen children, three miscarriages and four cats; and he had maintained a perfect balance of sanity throughout. Mutembei figured he would have lost his mind already if he was in his shoes or bed for that matter; but Nasoro kept growing stronger with age!

“Nyumba ndogo raha,” Nasoro used to tell him. “Ever since I got the third I feel like I am indeed growing younger. She makes me honey and milk every morning my friend, now am stronger than an ox from Rift Valley!”
Honey and milk?” Mutembei would ask, almost always over a game of draft under the ageless, timeless shadow of a Makuti roof. “What’s special about it?”

“Aah,” Nasoro would say. “While you younger men have your vigor and vitality, we older men have our secret weapons. Or why do you think young women prefer old men!”

“Your wealth and the endearing prospects of a good inheritance?”

“No. Start taking honey and milk and you will realize why!”

Mutembei had first come to Mombasa in the infant nineties after dropping out of high school courtesy of Mwiti, a friend of his who had gotten into the Miraa business while he was still very young; and he had whispered into Mutembei’s ear of exponential, endless profitable exploits in Mombasa, vast as the ocean itself.

“Take for instance the last trip I made on Tuesday,” Mwiti had explained. “I only had two sacks of Miraa but made enough to add the tally to four sacks for my next trip this coming weekend. Hii maisha yanataka ujanja, Vaite. Now I have loyal customers already who are never content until they get my Khat.”

Mutembei nodded slowly, the sheer weight of his thoughts in the face of such profits weighing down his chin.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Mwiti had continued. “I have built a decent house for my parents already and soon I will be moving out of my Thingira!”

“Has your father given you a piece of land to build on already?”

“Kitambo sana!” Mwiti said, throwing his hand back to give an impression of how long ago he got his land. “You know once you prove that you are a real man, your father will welcome you into manhood by giving you a share of his property so you can be your own man.”

Mutembei’s father was a primary school teacher and it went without saying that he wanted his son to follow suit. He was sitting on a twelve acre piece of land which he had inherited from his deceased father, and Mutembei did not need a logarithm table to calculate how much land he stood to inherit

“I will be getting married soon too,” Mwiti had announced.

“Married?” asked a shocked Mutembei.

“Sindio,” Mwiti shrugged. “What else is there for a man making his own money to do other than get married?”

“But you are still very young!”

“That’s where you are wrong my friend,” He patted him on his shoulder. “Money makes you mature quicker because you have the power in your pocket!”

Mutembei remained restless for the entire week as he pondered over Mwiti’s good fortune. True, he had built a very good house for his parents, which so happened to be the envy of all villagers. Women talked about it in their Chamaa meetings while men discussed it amid sagacious nods in their drinking dens.

He thought about school and his father’s dream that he would too become a teacher one day, though that was hardly what he wanted to do with his life. He considered a teaching profession to be too Napoleonic, ridiculously dwarfish and an unjustly rewarding activity which would without doubt impose upon him a case of chronic dissatisfaction at the thought of living a life without purpose- inhaling chalk dust his entire life to cough out teachers and lawyers, pilots and doctors, more teachers and blue and white collared robbers, all of whom end up with more fulfilling lives than him. Ultimately he would probably die from chest infection.
Such a sorry life!

He desired to be a writer because he knew he had a way with words. Prose and poetry made his heart race and on many occasions he had placed himself in the shoes of great wordsmiths like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen though he had struggled a bit with Sense and Sensibility. Writing was life, capturing every moment in it and immortalizing it for eternity in the capsule of an adjective and it was through it that he could create a world of his own filled with wordy rainbows flawlessly pinned to the sky.

“Writer kitu gani?” his father had spat angrily when he mentioned his desired brand of lunacy. “How do you expect to make a living from that?”

“By writing!” he answered too fast. The words were wiped clean from his mouth with a slap.

“That is not a career I want for you,” his father cautioned. “Being a teacher is God’s way of giving you the power to shape the lives and destinies of the people you teach and the joy and satisfaction comes from seeing the product of your labor become something meaningful in life. Nothing good ever comes from being a writer.”

But there is father, he wanted to point out. Prolific writers like Ngugi was Thion’go have made it big and ironically they are now teaching the native English speakers to use their language. And Meja Mwangi, Achebe, Soyinka, Grace Ogot and David Mailu. I want to follow their path, father, I really do. My satisfaction will come when I see the words I create blossom into splendid flowers that everyone smells and enjoys in this path of life…

But the slap had rendered all his arguments meaningless.

“So, when are you getting married?” Nasoro asked him as he rearranged the pieces on the draft board again for a third round of decimation, plunder and victory.

“Not anytime soon.”

“Why, doesn’t your Mzungu darling want to get married anymore?”

“We will get married. Everything in its due time.”

“Of course,” Nasoro said, nodding. “But if you permit me I can talk to my fellow Wazee and we can get a good Swahili girl for you. Your Mzungu shows no signs of ever coming back.”

Mutembei laughed.

“You are growing older as the days pass and I think it’s time you forget about your blonde-haired fiancé.” Nasoro explained. “Besides, you have lived among the Swahili people long enough to warrant you the right to marry here.”

He knew Nasoro was right and it had become clear to him too that Cindy had probably forgotten him. They had had what seemed to be a very promising future with a possibility of settling in Delaware once they got married; she to continue with her Documentaries and painting, while he pursued writing in the hope of publishing an anthology-poetry or otherwise, someday.

Cindy had left with a bearded American photographer- with a camera lens the size of a Giraffe neck, for the Mara and Serengeti to film Cheetahs and Lions for National Geographic and that was the last he saw of her. Not that she was mauled by a Lion or anything, she just fell head over heels in love with Fauna and memories of him were replaced with an undying, rapacious fascination with nature. The emails no longer bore any semblance of the passionate fire they once shared, but of images of animals doing mundane things like licking their paws, with the same being emailed to a thousand other people too!

“But having lived here still doesn’t give me that exclusivity to marry a Swahili woman,” he said. “The Swahili are a very cultural people who prefer marrying from within the set up. Far as marriage is concerned, I will still remain an outsider.”

“How can you be an outsider when you break bread with them?”
“Breaking bread is a universal human need-”

“Then if you can’t beat them, join them!”

“Am not sure I follow-”

“Become a Swahili,” Nasoro said with no hint of his regular jokes.

“Ostensibly yes, but I cannot rearrange my origins and genetic impressions to make them Swahili-”

“Leave that to me,” He sighed as he signaled the start of the decimation on the draft board.

Mutembei imagined many things. Living among the Swahili was one thing but to become one was a different thing. He still swore unmatched allegiance to his upcountry home in Meru while at the same time fighting a raging emotional battle, trying to reconcile with his father’s spirit which seemed to etch itself on every thought he had of home. He just couldn’t bid farewell to his spirit without an appropriate way of appeasing it.

“Anyone who drops out of school to pursue foolish dreams is not worthy of being my son,” his father had warned him when he broke the news that he would be dropping out of school to start a Miraa business in Mombasa. “Never set foot in my property ever again. In fact, don’t even come to bury me when I die!”

And his father had remained adamant throughout the years in spite of his mother’s constant pleas to tone down. He proved his seriousness when he turned Mutembei down after he had been arrested in Mombasa for allegations of being a member of an outlawed sect which sought secession from what they called Bara, Mainland Kenya. Were it not for his mother, Mutembei would have spent the better part of his youth in jail, and just like that the feud between father and son, which sadly lasted until the former’s death, began in earnest.

Part of reconciling with his father’s spirit led him to start writing a book about a brilliant boy who as a result of peer pressure denounces his citizenship on Planet Earth for a promise of a better life on Mars with a blue-eyed woman who jumps ship and leaves him to traverse the Galaxy alone with only a rodent for company. Then it becomes a rat race, each trying to eat the other for survival, but the boy cannot bring himself to nibble on the rodent’s tail, yet the situation prevails upon him to do so. The protagonist in his book is called Joshua and he hopes that through Joshua’s journey he would finally put his father’s ghost to rest.

“Take me through the basics of becoming a Swahili,” He asked Nasoro who was busy as always studying his next decimation moves on the board.

“Oh, it’s quite simple,” He explained. “First lesson you need to learn is how to tie a Sarong. Second…”

“A Kikoi?”

“Yes. Why?”
The last time I tried wearing that thing it started slipping from my waist while I was talking to a lady-” He laughed. “That would have been utterly embarrassing!”

“Your problem is that there is just so much of a villager in you that I have given up hope of ever eradicating it. How can you wear a Kikoi with no underwear?”

“For the record I had underpants. Let’s skip the first lesson, not applicable to me unless I wear them with suspenders. Second?”

“Second you become a Muslim.”

“Do I have to?” His heart skipped a beat.

One of the reasons he was allegedly charged with being a member of an outlawed sect was his friend Mwiti, who had joined several of such groups, ending up- as rumor had it, in Somalia as an Al Qaida affiliate fighter. The Police had been on Mutembei’s back for quite a while, closely associating him to being a member too- an accusation he escaped through sheer luck.

And his fear was that being a Muslim, much as terrorism wasn’t a Muslim monopoly, would draw the Security Agents’ interest in him again. He had heard stories from Mombasa residents-victims of arbitrary detention and renditions on terrorism-related charges, of the torture that they had gone through.

Water boarding.

Electric shocks.

Crushed dreams and genitalia.

He knew he wouldn’t last a day if ever he was arrested. He would rat out anyone and everyone he ever knew, starting with all his phone contacts and friends he remembered from Kindergarten!

“Well,” Nasoro explained. “Not really. There is no compulsion in religion. Your religious allegiance is a matter that only you can decide for yourself.

Nasoro was disappointed. Unbeknownst to Mutembei, Nasoro had a son whom he rarely talked about. He had heard people call him Abu Musa- father of Musa, but he never at any one time asked him who Musa was since none of his children had that name. Ultimately, he just presumed it to be one of the many nicknames his peers called him by. Musa had been recruited as a Somali based fighter, leaving behind a disappointed father- who had been safe in the knowledge that he would leave behind a worthy heir, and a grieving mother who cried for his son every night.

At first he had really blamed the Government for Musa’s recruitment into a terrorist group. It was the Government that had marginalized the Coastal people by failing to provide proper schools and resources to improve the state of learning. Musa had tried on several occasions to get employed, but the more learned, better equipped, more favored upcountry people got the best jobs and the locals like Musa were left to eat the crumbs. Nasoro had eventually quit the finger pointing once he realized that while only one finger pointed at the Government’s fault, three other fingers were inadvertently pointing back at him.

Nasoro loved Mutembei as if he was his own son right from the moment he walked into his famous Biryani Café several years back looking for a job, any job. This was after everything he owned had gone down the drain when he got arrested.

“Fair enough.” Mutembei said.
“But you can still pick a Muslim name to be identified by.” Nasoro masked his disappointment with a smile, a luxury only enjoyed by the wise. “A name like Hemedi.” Had he embraced Islam that very moment he would have gladly married his daughter to him!

“Hemedi?” Mutembei repeated the name several times, whispering it, savoring it in his tongue, perceiving of it in upper and lower case letters, as a signature on a bank cheque, trying to match his core values to it. “Sounds alright,” he said. “But isn’t the name common only among the people from Lamu?”

“So what?” Nasoro pushed a cap on the board. “Will they sue you for using it?”

“I guess not,” Mutembei answered, holding his inverted bottle top to jump over Nasoro’s pieces, holding the vanquished ones hostage on his lap. “But don’t you think it’s odd a dark skinned guy like me answering to that name?”

“I didn’t know names had a tribal or pigment affiliation too. I thought that was only a reserve for our political selves!” studying the draft board. “Okay, choose one of your own liking then,” reeling from the shock of having so many pieces taken at once.

“Third lesson?” It was his time to study and anticipate Nasoro’s move.

“Identify wholeheartedly with the Swahili culture, history and problems.”

He could easily identify with the culture but history and problems were a different brew of Kahawa. The culture had already adopted him and he had no problems with that. His own history with his father and the problems he went through trying to reconcile with him prior to his death kept him from adopting other people’s problems.

He would only become Swahili after he had adequately appeased his father’s spirit, giving it an appropriate send off. Joshua was the vessel he was using to bridge the gap between him and his senior’s spirit and he would wait until Joshua had fought his battles in Space- which hinged on a very thin line between precaution and paranoia, so he could fight his when he got back to earth.

Until then, he would only be partly Swahili.

Abu Amirah finds pleasure in the written word because of the ability to lose himself in an infectious world filled with characters begging to come to life, metaphors, muse and madness; and amid all this, the power to give the reader permission to laugh, cry, love and hate!

#WritivismPrize2016|The List by Aito Osemegbe Joseph|Nigeria

Writivism2016-Shortlist-ShortStory-TopMuseThe one I once called my daughter haunts me now. While my family sleeps peacefully in the hours before a new day is fully born, she saunters in and tortures me with her soft smile. Up until six months ago, Adaeze’s smile did not have such power. Up until six months ago, we all preached the same message to Adaeze, but did she hear word?

Marry an Ibo man.

Marry a strong, rich Ibo man.

Marry a man whose parents are Ibo.

She had refused.

She would say Chris is this and Chris is that, that our opinion did not matter. But it came to matter when it was time for the native wedding, the giving away, in her father’s compound in Ogudu, Lagos. She was in the room waiting to be called upon. The guests sat under canopies in the field outside the house, already feasting while we, her fathers, made the transactions of her head, deciding her fate. The decision-making shouldn’t have been harder than it usually was, but for goodness’ sake, her Chris did not even know that ‘mba’ meant ‘no’ and all he wanted was a ‘Yes’ from us. I taught him the word and the first sentence he makes with it?

“Mba Sir, we don’t live in America,” he said, interrupting me. “We’re from London and we live right there, sir.”

I just smiled and pretended not to notice his mother nudge him in the side. I decided to put the arrogant boy in his place. After all, when a child rubs his father’s face with fingers extracted from the anus, then is the right time for a merciless beating of those buttocks.

“Young man, don’t you know that when an Elder farts, the children around must perceive the smell in silence? Whether it is London, Canada, Italy, Portugal, China or Japan, everything is ‘America’. A white man’s land is a white man’s land.” As I spoke, the whole sitting room erupted in laughter. I wasn’t assuaged by the forced laughter. I straightened the paper in my hands (before Chris spoke, we had started verifying the wedding list printed on this paper), turned away from him and faced the dining table where the gifts were heaped. Adaeze’s younger brother, Uchenna, stood beside this heap alongside Chris’ younger brother, Oliver. The duo nodded, signifying their readiness to continue the list verification.

“Forty tubers of yam,” I called out.

“Complete!” Uchenna shouted in reply, after a meticulous count.

I wondered if the hard times caused by the crash of oil prices had hit London also. No, I prayed it had hit them so bad they would default on at least one of the items. I continued with the list, silently swearing that if just one carton of anything wasn’t in that heap, they would smell their behinds.

Two packets of Cabin biscuit.

Complete.

Twenty-four tins of Dusting powder.

Complete.

Five jars of Stella pomade.

Complete.

Ten packets of St. Louis Sugar.

Complete.
This far into the list and these people hadn’t missed out a single item yet. I looked at the young man, Chris or whatever he called himself, his mother, and the hoard of the others that came from the United Kingdom with him. All of them, speaking as if from their noses, chattering on without respect. I was tempted to tell them to get out of the house and return when they were ready to marry, but the look on the face of Adaeze’s father, Mazi Okonkwo, begged me to bear with their interruptions and unwholesome chatter and get it all done with. The old man was tired; he had let his daughter strong-arm him into giving his consent to the marriage. I went on.

Two big-sized Ovaltine.

One carton of Peak milk- powder.

Twenty-four loaves of bread.

Twenty-four cartons of malt.

Two bags of salt.

One big tray of stock-fish.

One 25kg keg of palm oil.

One 25kg keg of groundnut oil.

One 25kg keg of kerosene.

They had brought two kegs of palm oil, groundnut oil and kerosene each.

“This is insulting. We asked you people to bring one keg and you bring two? Are you saying you know more than us? Or you think we are begging you people?” I asked Uchenna and Oliver to shift the extra kegs towards Chris’ people. Even though I noticed that Chris’ jaw was tightly clenched and he was silent all the while, his people apologized for the oversight, I forgave them and went on with the list.

A basket of onions.

Two 25kg bags of rice.

One thousand, fifty Naira for the bride price.

One thousand, five hundred Naira for the village youths.

Ten thousand Naira to bring the pot down from fire.

I didn’t care if they understood what ‘bringing the pot down from fire’ meant. I saw no reason to explain. They want to marry an Ibo girl and they can’t speak Ibo. Nonsense. When they come for our festivals and parties, will they call me to come sit beside them to interpret? Common sense should tell them that for more than two decades we have cooked a delicious meal, it is not empty hands we’d use to bring the pot down.

Two big-sized stainless steel basins.

Two big umbrellas.

Two George materials.

Two Hollandis materials.

Two blouse materials.

Two head ties.

One wristwatch.

Two pairs of shoes.

One big box.

One lamp.

One handbag.

Six yards of Nigerian wax.

Pa Ezekiel, the oldest amongst us, the man who was to give the village’s blessing on the couple, looked worn out too. The edge of his lips curved downwards and his eyes were distant as if he was looking at the future of the union of these two very different families. Like the rest of us, he had tried to convince Adaeze to avoid this mistake by bringing good men to her feet, threatening and raising hell, reminding her of the fate of her cousin Uluomachi who had married a Yoruba man and had become his mortar, only good to be pummeled with the pestles he called his hands. But our Adaeze didn’t hear word.

The boy, Chris, was as black as any Uchenna or Chibueze could be and he would have passed for one, until he let words roll off his quick tongue. His Best-man was worse. This one spoke so fast, I doubted that he could understand himself. Quick as their tongues were, they had never known the joys of Nsala soup or of the legendary Ogbono soup. These ones hadn’t begun living yet. They had been fortunate to win Adaeze’s heart in the one year that she had spent studying in the United Kingdom, opting for her instead of their lean girls that look like starved thirteen-year-old boys. It was a good thing for them, surely, but we couldn’t say the same thing for Adaeze or for us, her family.

Our Adaeze had come back with a Master’s degree in Operations Management and a boy. This boy, Chris. I let my eyes linger on the scar that made a short dash across his left cheekbone. Had he earned that in a brawl? Was the scar a gift from a disgruntled lover he had previously beaten up? But our Adaeze had refused to see these things. She was the stubborn fly that was following the corpse right into the grave. Even the good book had said that ‘There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end of it is destruction.’ Adaeze would say, “But Uncle, you’re not my father.” What she failed to accept was that I was her father and she was daughter to every single one of her uncles. She knew that among us the Ibos, when an arrow kills a game, the hide is for the shooter but the meat is for all and that when we marry a person, we marry the family also. She didn’t realize that this stupid decision of hers would break her father’s heart and mine as well.

I remembered my conversation with Adaeze’s father the night before, as we sat at the backyard and stared into the dancing flames of the firewood over which the women cooked in preparation for the festivities.

“My brother, I have decided to accept my daughter’s decision, but I still have concerns. Has Adaeze thought of how Chris will cope during Christmas celebrations in the village? When young men of his age-grade compete in wrestling matches, will he join them or be in a corner smoking his American cigar? Will he join us when we all gather to eat from the same bowl? When we roll perfect balls of hot garri with our trained palms, will he ask to use a fork?” The crackle of burning wood filled the night as he shook his head in worry. “How will he and his people handle our ways?”

I had no reply for him, but those words stayed with me. I wasn’t sure Adaeze understood these things the way we did; the complexities of multiracial family relationships. But these were the simple problems Mazi Okonkwo had raised. The hard ones made me shudder. What would she do when she has to flog her child to correct some wrong-doing and Chris disagrees? They would begin to argue what child abuse is and what it isn’t. How would they cope with our loud and ecstatic version of Christianity? When the young boys jam their hands non-stop in rhythm with the drum beats and then Mama Nkechi starts rolling on the floor, howling and screaming in the spirit, would they even understand? How would they feel when they were at one of our parties where no one ever remembers to speak English? I fought a good fight. I did everything I could to dissuade Adaeze from mixing blood with these strange people right until that moment I read out the list. I continued reading, slow and sad, dreading every second that brought the impending doom closer.
Ten thousand Naira for the siblings of the bride.

Complete.

One carton of Canoe soap- the unwrapped one.

Complete.

One thousand, two hundred and fourteen Naira for the mother of the bride.

Complete.

Two big goats.

“Tied to the mango tree in the backyard,” Oliver called out in response.

We couldn’t accept word-of-mouth testimony, so a delegation of six had to go confirm; three from our family and three from theirs. But before we went to the backyard, I gave another speech.

“All these things on this list and our strict adherence to it is not us selling our daughter out to you. It is tradition that has been passed down for centuries.” After a round of applause, we proceeded to the backyard to check the goats, and till today, I wish things had gone differently.

When we reached the tree where the goats were tied, I saw an opportunity but the words came out of my wife’s mouth first.

“Eeeehhhhhhh, what is this? We asked for goats and you people are here with rabbits.” She struck her open mouth with her palm repeatedly, making mocking noises.

“Blimey! Fighting over the size of goats? What kinda primitive people are these?” Oliver blurted, unable to rein his disgust.

“Primitive? You call us primitive? Do you have Elders where you come from? You just disrespected these grey hairs on our heads, but I don’t blame any of you. I don’t. You have come all the way from London to play but now you can see there are no swings and bouncing castles around…”

“What’s this Codger saying? Bollocks!” Oliver shot out, rudely interrupting me while breaking free from his mother’s withholding grasp. “What’s so bloody special about their daughter, yeah? My brother just had to want a minger, yeah?”

Adaeze’s brothers and cousins fired back immediately, flinging curses without restraint.

“Look at you people. Blowing big grammar on top empty pockets. Simple bride list you cannot bring and you’re opening rotten mouth to insult your generation,” Uchenna blared.

Chris’ people didn’t hold back either. They joined Oliver in hurling slurries of nasal retorts interspersed with ‘innits’ and ‘gonnas’ and ‘yeahs’. Insults which we barely understood anyway. In all of these, Chris and his mother remained quiet.

The guests close enough to hear the squabble joined us at the backyard and the sound of angry voices escalated. I noticed Adaeze at the backyard window, peeping. She jumped out of view when our eyes met.

With the loudest voice I could muster, I hushed every other person and spoke the words; the words of doom, “You people should leave here and return when you’re ready to marry.”

The silence grew intense and I could see Adaeze’s father plead with his eyes. Everyone focused on me, and the mouths that were running sharp a moment ago started to quiver. In several past marriages, we would get to this point and the begging would begin. They would kneel and make several promises and then I, the Whirlwind of Umuchoke, the speaker of the village, would tell them to calm down. I would tell them that the marriage list is part of our culture, and that the haggling was designed to build rapport between the marrying families. I would give this speech, round up with the marriage list and move on to the prayer of the oldest clan man. This was our way.

But, these people did not beg. This was final proof of how ignorant they were of our ways. I watched the angry look on their faces transform into that of surprised shock. I hid my own surprise. Had they not thought to bring someone along to tell them how we did these things? Someone old and wise enough to advise them on the right way to please their future in-laws? I watched the boy’s face tighten, his teeth clenching on his lower lip and his jaws pulsing. At that moment, he didn’t look like a little boy anymore. The fire in his eyes blazed and I knew hell was close by. No one attempted to break the silence and it seemed everyone’s gaze had shifted to Chris. We watched as the boy stretched trembling hands towards the backyard door, towards Adaeze. Our gaze shifted towards the door and we caught the tears on Adaeze’s face before she backed out of view again.
Chris walked boldly into the house and like an animated crowd we followed him. When we got into the sitting room, we saw that Adaeze had her arm in Chris’, the duo walking towards the front door. We followed them outside and stood, watching as they passed the surprised crowd seated under the canopies, past the compound gate and out of sight. It was at this point that we woke up. Mazi Okonkwo, Adaeze’s father, was the first to bolt for the gate. I followed quickly and I heard many footsteps and murmurs coming behind me. It was barely ten seconds after Adaeze and Chris stepped out, but we didn’t see them anywhere along the street, no trace of them, and that was the first of the unfortunate events to come our way.

At first, all we felt was rage. We shooed Chris’ people outside the compound and for the next few days we tried to get over the insult of Adaeze and her stupid boy walking out on the family and all the guests. I was the family’s hero. I had told the cheap Londoners off and upheld our pride and culture. Over the next few days, all the family members returned to their homes. Some returned to our place in Umuchoke village, others returned to places as far away as Kano but most of us who were now based in Lagos didn’t have far to go. I was one of the last to leave Mazi Okonkwo’s compound, because we were neighbours and I just needed to walk around the fence.

When Adaeze refused to return home after one week, things changed. From hero, I became the villain. Faces frowned whenever I showed up, and whispers hushed when I stepped into a room. The faces of those who had supported me in sending Chris’ family off became coloured with disdain.

My wife would mutter and grumble when she returned from the nearby hair salon, relaying gossip. “I heard that Mazi Okonkwo’s wife has been talking about you, saying you are jealous of her daughter’s success and pride pushed you to take a poor decision.” She would refuse to look me in the eye while saying these things. “You really should have stopped them from leaving.” The other day she came home crying, she had watched in dismay as Uchenna swore to disrupt the weddings of our daughters in fair revenge. “Go and beg your brother,” she pleaded. “You did wrong. Accept it like a man and go and beg all of them, please”.

Adaeze sent a Facebook message to Uchenna two weeks after her disappearance: Tell ‘em gudbye. When Uchenna relayed the message to the rest of the family, there was wailing. Adaeze’s mother held my shirt to the neck, pushed me against the wall and shook me violently, demanding her daughter from me. Mazi Okonkwo asked that I leave their house and only return if I was sent for. My own wife and children gave me foul glances and took sides with the rest of the world. For goodness sake, I had only done what I always did. I had only spoken the mind of every true Ibo man.

After loads of messages the family sent to Adaeze via Facebook and e-mail, she replied with another Facebook message, much longer than the previous one, and even though Mazi Okonkwo didn’t let me see it, I knew the details from overhearing them talk about it. Adaeze had moved with Chris to Berlin, Germany and wasn’t sorry for walking out on us. She had gotten a job with KPMG, an auditing firm, and was looking to begin a PhD programme soon. And most shocking, she was two weeks pregnant. No one complained that an unmarried girl was pregnant; instead, they offered a thanksgiving mass in church on her behalf, praising God for her safety. The messages came in fortnightly and the reading became a regular part of our family’s monthly meetings. Uchenna’s phone would be passed from person to person while nsala soup and garri went around in trays. They admired her Berlin pictures and read the messages with joy, but somehow, the phone never got to my hand. No one was sure how much more havoc I could cause by touching the phone or seeing the pictures. I didn’t complain, satisfied with hearing them talk about our estranged daughter.

It was six months after she disappeared that I saw Adaeze again. In the early hours of the morning, before the darkness drifted away with the cock’s crow, and before the noise of crying babies and clanking pots filled the air, she walked in through the door, smiling at me. She didn’t say a word but her smile told me a thousand things. It told me that she had learnt her lesson and would come back home to marry a proper Ibo man. I smiled in response and like a fading dream she walked out the door as quietly as she had come in. Same time, every morning, she visits and together we go over that terrible day that she walked out on the family. We talk about how things could have turned out differently. But when the darkness fades and the bright light of day floods my mind, I know the visits are just a taunting mirage, a recurrent dream.

“I’m worried about you.” my wife said to me two nights ago, as we lay in bed. “You talk in your sleep. You walk around, talking to yourself. Adaeze this, Adaeze that. Biko, I am worried, isn’t this issue affecting you too much?”

I stared at the lowered flame of the kerosene lantern on the table, her words echoing in my mind. Adaeze this, Adaeze that. Was I slowly running mad because of guilt? No way, Tufiakwa! I did what was right.

When I didn’t reply, she hissed and turned around to face the wall. “My own is, stop this behavior. And don’t wake me up with your mumbling again.”

It’s 4a.m. in Ogudu, Lagos. I lie in bed, my wife’s back warm against my body, and watch Adaeze walk in through the door again. Her smile is derisive but it will not dissuade me from reminding her of all the warnings we gave her. Once again, I will remind her that all of the sorrow she has brought upon us is because she refused to hear word.

Aito Osemegbe Joseph works as a Sales Professional during the day and at dusk, writes horror stories and psychological thrillers. His short stories have appeared in ‘Brittle Paper’ and ‘Kalahari review’. He is set to publish a collection of short stories and is currently working on his debut novel.

#WritivismPrize2016|Boyi by Gloria Mwaniga Minage|Kenya

Writivism2016-Shortlist-TopMuse
Madness entered Mama’s eyes the day Baba pushed my brother Boyi to Matwa Kei and said, ‘‘Hold onto the boy until I find your forty thousand land protection tax and then I will have him back.’’

When Baba had put the latch on the door after Boyi and the men were swallowed by the darkness outside, Mama stood abruptly as thought fire ants had invaded her body. She tore off her kitenge headscarf and started to shout. She told him he was sick in the head to think Boyi would return. Was he deaf? Had his ear not caught stories of neighbors’ sons who had been recruited by the SALADEF Militia? Did he think a child was like a mat, which one folded and gave back to the owner after sitting on, or a dress, which one could borrow from a neighbor?

Baba just sat there and held his rage firmly with his hands. He pulled in his lips to a narrow thread, like a line drawn on his dark face by a ruler. His voice then sank to a metallic whisper and he asked Mama what she wanted him to do. Didn’t she know that they chopped off the heads of whole families if one didn’t give them money? Hadn’t she heard of how they carried off fresh heads like trophies and hanged them on trees and maybe even ate them like Idi Amin? Was she ready for the torture afflicted with, first, the slow chopping off of ears and then feeding of worm-filled earth to the victims?

By the time Baba was finished, hives had broken out on her skin and her eyes were a deathly white, like eyes of one who did not know her own mind.

I stood at the kitchen door feeling queasy, as if someone had pulled my insides out through my nostrils.

We knew they would come to our house. We knew the day Baba’s friend Chesober, who taught at Chepkurkur primary school, carried the story to our ears that SALADEF had a long list of people who had aided the government exercise to divide our land and give some of it to the Ndorobo.

We knew they would come because Baba had lent a panga and makonge ropes to the government surveyors that day. So, when the news broke that they had begun attacking government representatives, Mama started blocking the sitting room door with sacks of maize and beans.

I do not know if it was fear or denial that made Boyi and I laugh at the thought of SALADEF attacking us, their Soy tribe mates. I only know that we were laughing about it the night Matwa Kei knocked on our door and told Baba, ‘‘Mzee Give us the 10,000 land protection tax and 30,000 betrayal tax or today we will show you smoke without fire.’’

Baba brought out everything he owned. His savings which lay hidden in a metal box under his bed. His precious Sony transistor radio. Even his hunting gun. In the end, desperate to save his family, he promised to sell our bull Mtambakaki the next day and give SALADEF all the cash. However, Matwa Kei simply shook his head and said ‘‘You did not wait until tomorrow to lend the saveya your panga and makonge. I will not wait until tomorrow to get the money. Bring it now now or your whole family is finished today.’’

That is the moment Baba had pushed Boyi forward and told Matwa Kei to hold onto him. That is the day Baba shook his head sadly and muttered, ‘‘Our very boys, who ate oaths to protect our ancestral land have turned on us like the hungry chameleon that eats its intestines’’.

Many of the neighbors visited us after Boyi went. They came to shake their heads and say, I stand with you. Others shrugged, asked if there was anything they could do. Still, others came to give us stories about people who had disappeared and then miraculously came back. Sometimes, if Mama’s madness had taken a walk and she looked better, we would brew tea together and then she would sit with the visitors and tell stories about Boyi. How Boyi saved her marriage by confirming that her womb wasn’t tied up by Djinnis. How Boyi’s ebony skin had a particular naked smoothness like the bark of a guava tree. How Boyi spoke excellent English, English that was too good for a fifteen-year-old like him.

I used to leave the kitchen door slightly open for the clink of tea cups and the voices to reach my ears. After some time however, the stream of visitors became a trickle and then we would stay a whole day without anyone coming to drink tea and to say anyoogaat.

A full moon was rising outside the night Saulo carried the story to us wrapped in his spittle-moist lips. I saw his bald head over the bougainvillea fence and rushed to open the door.

‘‘The government has decided to put its head in the matter by launching Operation Okoa Maisha,’’ he said. ‘‘A troop of two hundred Kenya Armed Forces men have already been dispatched in huge green lorries. They are coming to flash out the SALADEF. The land war had gone on too long and it is us, us who have forced the mighty arm of the government’. He spat out the words mighty arm like over-chewed sugarcane pith and swung his thick arm in the air.

Early next morning, Baba and his cousin Kimutai dug a shallow grave at the back of the house and buried a banana stem wrapped in a green cotton sheet. ‘‘Death, take this body,’’ Baba muttered, ‘‘Take it and do not bother my home with your visits again.’’ I stood near the pit watching and wondering why Baba, a Christian, could believe such things. The organic scent of moist earth made my eyes water. I did not look at Mama who sat on the soggy ground next to me tightly hugging the lesso written amani haipatikani ila kwa ncha ya upanga. She refused to throw fresh soil on the grave and only followed Baba’s movements with her eyes as he shoveled lumps onto the grave. When he had put a wooden cross on the mound of fresh earth, Mama said, with a manic vibrancy in her voice, that she would not participate in escorting Boyi’s spirit away.

The long rains came and fell with both hands.

The water gouged out deep channels and swept away twigs, leaves and top fertile soil from the shamba. Chocolate-colored rivulets collected into a single rapid which flowed down onto the main road and collected on both sides. The mountain wind blew hard. It snapped the tap roots of young maize crops, tore them out of the earth so that they lay like dead green snakes. Windows rattled, doors slammed against houses and leaves fluttered up like lost kites.

The mountain wind also yanked off the tin roof of our mud and wattle kitchen. It wrenched it off the day I smelled for the first time, a sickly-sweet bloody whiff from the Elgon forest. The scent rose like a gigantic bird and hovered higher and higher, finally enfolding houses and shambas in the spread of its phantom wings.

It was also the day the jungle green Kenya Army lorries arrived.

All of us children ran through the light afternoon drizzle and stood shoulder to shoulder by the roadside to watch the convoy. We prayed the lorries would get stuck in mud so we could peek at the soldiers’ cobra-skin belts which we had been told sucked away pot bellies. The men joined us so that we lined up the main road like vertical dashes, waving madly at the soldiers with inverted green bowls on their heads.
The womenfolk too abandoned their pots and water vessels and clambered up to the road to join us in trading stories about the army’s expensive colognes which smelled of pork to scare off dead spirits. Someone started a tale about the soldiers’ hippo leather boots which made their feet smooth like the buttocks of newborn babies.

In the days that followed, Mama stopped touching her food and started muttering to herself. Her ugali would remain untouched until a crusty brown film formed and I had to throw it away to the chicken coop. I used to sit at the kitchen steps so that she was within my line of vision and I’d catch the twist of her mouth as she engaged in the monologues. ‘‘Have I not suffered enough, have I not? God, tie a rope around my stomach.’’ Sometimes, she’d look up, notice me and say, ‘‘lakwetaap baai, do you remember? Do you remember Boyi’s perfect teeth eeh?’’

After weeks of watching Mama, I got tired and started to go with the rest of the children to the chief’s camp in Cheptap-burbur where the army had pitched their green tents. At the armory, we spent hours peeping through the cypress fence. We eavesdropped on the soldiers’ conversations and then made up fabulous tales from them. ‘Do you know that very black officer they call Sah-gent. Imagine he is the one who defeated Idi Amin in Uganda. I heard him tell the others that Matwa Kei has more magic than Amin even, wallahi that man is a real djinni.’’ I’d picture Matwa Kei’s favorite Chicago Bulls red cap absorbing Sah–gent’s booming bullets so that they didn’t burst his red puffy eyes.

The stories bubbled like pots of boiling soup from mouth to mouth. They made me think of the tales Boyi used to tell me about SALADEF: How they drank magic potions from Orkoiyot so that their bodies, like the Luo legend Lwanda Magere, would become stone and the enemy’s spears would slide off them. How SALADEF’S bodies were embalmed in bloody cow dung to make them invisible so that their raiding missions were always successful. How when SALADEF marched through dry land, clouds of red dust would rise up to the heavens like a swarm of locusts because the earth god, Yeyiin went with them. I held onto these stories tightly. Willing them to be true. Willing Boyi to be more powerful than the soldiers.

I remember that December like it was yesterday. The farmers didn’t clear their shambas for the second planting of the maize crop because SALADEF stole young crops from the fields and goats from the pens. Instead of working, the womenfolk stayed at home while the men gathered in little groups under mtaragwa trees and exchanged news about how SALADEF cut up people and threw the bloodied bodies in rivers, pit latrines and public wells. ‘‘They now go from house to house forcefully recruiting boys as young as ten. Who knows what their mission is anymore? They forgot that they were to protect our land from being given to those lazy Ndorobos. Now, they even cut off our necks. After all, isn’t Soy blood red like Ndorobo blood? I hear the recruited have to first go back home and kill a close relative so that their hearts are strong to kill others,’’ I heard our neighbor Koros tell Baba one day. ‘‘Ndugu Koros,’’ Baba had replied solemnly, ‘‘This thing should have ended a long time ago, but puoot, war is a maggot that nibbles and nibbles at the hearts of men.’’
That night, I dreamt that Boyi, whose eyes were the color of coca-cola, came and cut me into small-small pieces so that his heart would become strong to kill. I woke up feeling like an anchorless red balloon was floating in my stomach.

The mass exodus to Bungoma and Uganda began the day my breasts became painful, stone-hard lumps in my chest. My friend Chemutai, before her family moved away to Chwele, said that my breasts grew too fast because I spent too much time lying on the ground outside the musasa tree reading books instead of working chap–chap like a normal girl.

The villages of Kopsiro, Saromet, Chepyuk and Chelebei all had a thick yellow fog of fear over them. The fear came because nobody understood the mind of SALADEF anymore. We talked about how the militia now took away young girls to go and cook for them. One lady said she knew a woman who, because she had sent away all her sons, was ordered by Matwa Kei to give him her daughter to go and cook for SALADEF. There were other stories as well. Darker tales. Stories of how river Cheptap-burbur was scarlet with fresh blood from the human heads floating in. Stories of how the militia raped their own blood relatives who ended up giving birth to babies transparent as plastic bags. When the stories reached our house, Mama said she would never run away and leave Boyi and if Baba wanted to go, he could go and leave her with her tears. Mama, who had always sided with Baba. Because nobody went to school anymore, I spent my days under the Nandi flame tree with half-closed eyes. I imagined Boyi’s plastic bag baby playing Tinker-tailor-soldier-sailor with boats that fell from the flame tree.

The news came with the dust devil that whirls in January. The very wind that yanked my silk skirt from where I had tucked it between my legs and lifted it up, up above my waist like an upside down umbrella. Perhaps it was Mama’s mourning that courted misfortune. Maybe even, it was Baba’s total refusal to talk about Boyi that made our ancestors forget to protect him.
It was raining, so I had been standing at the kitchen window staring at the little silver droplets which shone like handfuls of glittering rice being poured from the sky when I saw Chesaina. An old friend of Baba, he worked as a watchman in a grain depot in far away Chwele market. I was therefore surprised to see him visit. He sat on the animal print sofa, then told Mama and Baba that he had got word from a Bukusu trader, who got it from the mouth of a big government man, that Boyi was now a marked man. ‘‘He is Matwa Kei’s right hand man, imagine. My God, Mama Boyi, this war has taken with it the mind of your son.’’ I hid behind the kitchen door watching Mama with the tail of my eye.

‘‘No!” she hissed in her old voice. “I must not be told me such rubbish about my son. Chesaina, if you want Omo to wash your dirty mouth with just say so.’’ Her eyes flooded with tears and she put both hands on her head. ‘‘Matwa Kei, what did I ever do to you? Tell me Matwa Kei, tell me now so that I repent.’’ Her voice choked and I wanted to say, Chesaina shut up, but my tongue was clammy and it stuck to the roof of my mouth. Baba tried to calm Mama. He told her that Boyi was a good son and did she remember how he used to recite the responsorial psalm earnestly, with tears in his eyes? Mama kept crying and so Chesaina walked out in the rain. That day, I saw Baba’s tears: Two silver streams rolling down polished porcelain.

That night I slept on Boyi’s bed for the first time. His blue bed sheets, with prints of chicks coming out of yellow eggshells, enfolded me with a deathly coolness. They smelled so much of him; of his boyish laughter which shone like toffees wrapped in silver foil; of brown butter scotch sweets which appeared as though by magic from his sticky pockets. I remembered how he used to hoard items Baba had declared illegal, jawbreakers and sticks of Big G which we later stuck under the table. I pressed my sore stone-breasts on the sheets, willing the pain my brother felt in the cold caves on myself. I imagined him staring with shiny eyes as I told him about the solders, especially Sah–gent, whose adventures I knew Boyi would like most. I imagined us playing Ninja soldier as we had done as children, with him wearing his checkered school shirt and me a t-shirt and hiding when he shouted, ‘Cover Ninja soldier.’ Mother had caught us playing that game once and had scolded us for courting misfortune and calling death by name.

I knew it was a bad omen the night thunder struck and a bolt of lightning shattered the huge Nandi flame tree at the front of the house. I knew it was a bad omen even though Mama came out of her room and jubilantly declared that the evil which was to come to our house had been struck down and swallowed by the Nandi flame. She then sat next to me on the animal print sofa and listened to the tatatata as the splinters of tree fell on the mabati roof and shook the whole house. The Nandi flame tree no longer scattered its embers of blossom upon the earth after that night.

Early the next morning, Simoni dashed into our compound and handed me a copy of the Nation newspaper with the headline Sabaot Land Defence (SALADEF) Ragtag Militia Leaders Killed by Kenya Army Forces. Everything inside me held. Something throbbed with both fists at my chest as I ran like a mad woman and banged on my parents’ bedroom door until Baba shouted, ‘‘Do you think the plague of deafness descended on us in the night?’’
I didn’t stir when Baba finished reading the article and crumpled to the floor like an old coat. I didn’t frown when Mama’s ribbon laughter pierced the early dawn. I didn’t weep when, a few hours later, neighbors started streaming into our house heaving their chests and saying, ‘‘It is a bad death that kills a man in the prime of his youth.’’

Mama didn’t roll on the ground when Simoni described how Boyi had been captured deep in the sacred caves. She didn’t weep when he said Boyi was hoisted to the aircraft and then after it had ascended up, up like a kite, he was shoved out by Sah-gent ‘without a parachute, imagine’.

Mama didn’t slap slap Boyi’s corpse asking him why he fed her the bread of sorrow because there was no corpse to slap. Instead, she turned to Baba and looked at him with unclouded innocent eyes of lunacy. Then with death in her voice she told him that the government Sah-gent had thrown her Boyi down without a parachute, imagine!

Her voice was not bitter. It was not sad. It was flat. It cracked a little, like dried firewood when fire ate in. Mama didn’t fling words at Baba afterwards when he took his Sony transistor radio and the Nation newspaper and threw them in the almost-full pit latrine outside.

She didn’t say ‘‘If you want to go, go but leave me alone to mourn with my tears’’ when I took her hand and led her to Boyi’s room. She just sat on the blue bed sheets with prints of chicks coming out of yellow eggshells and spoke Boyi’s name softly as though the syllables were made of tin and would hurt the roof of her mouth if she spoke too loudly.

I let the tears roll down my face. I let them soak my blue silk blouse and purple boob top. I didn’t tell Mama what I knew. I didn’t tell her that I had felt life leave Boyi’s body. That I had felt it because at the very moment, when the Nandi flame had splintered and shattered, the wind had lost its magic and turned into an ordinary country wind.

Gloria Mwaniga Minage is a high school teacher in Baringo where she also runs a children’s reading club. She is also a freelance writer of literary pieces for The Saturday Nation and The East African newspapers as well as coordinator of Amka, a literary workshop that meets monthly at the Goethe Institut in Nairobi to critique works by budding female writers in Kenya.

#WritivismPrize2016|SunDown by Acan Innocent Immature|Uganda

Writivism2016-Shortlist-ShortStory-TopMuse
It’s 2050 AD and humanity finally seems to be waking up to the reality that the scientists lied to everyone – the sun is dying and, with it, a civilisation that they painstakingly built over the course of a hundred and fifty thousand years. A skinny Albino boy, maybe fifteen years old, pulls a tee shirt over his head as he walks out of a cosy bungalow and grins up at the red sky. He must be the only human alive who’s happy to see the sun on her glorious deathbed; it’s a relief to not have to wear hats, sun glasses and long-sleeved shirts anymore. The scient ists no one trusts anymore say that the sun has a few weeks to go; days even. The boy’s scuffed sneakers kick up snow as he makes his way down the stairs from the porch and he smiles again. Ten years ago, before the gold of the sun bled out – both figuratively and literally – leaving in its stead a pale red, it would have been a blistering hot day, and any suggestion of the possibility of snow in these parts would have been laughed out of the door and blamed on the many American shows that had taken over African cable television. Now, however, Uganda is experiencing its first winter and one of the greenest countries in the world is now as white as… well, snow.

Inside a large glass dome that’s frosted over, the rounded figure of the boy’s caretaker is visible. The dome is one of many advanced greenhouses that have popped up all around the world in the past decade; a haven for earth’s nearly depleted Plant kingdom and a source of the food that is becoming scarcer and scarcer. The figure moves towards the dome’s opening and the boy grimaces, trying to move as quickly as he can towards the gate. It’s futile.

“Red Sun! Don’t you dare walk out of that gate without a jacket and your oxygen tank!”

Nyambura’s voice is, in Red Sun’s opinion, more cutting than the alien cold that permeates the air of Nakasongola. She is a plump woman, her face shrewd and her skin smoother than one would expect of a sixty-five-year-old woman, and she has been taking care of Red Sun since he was a baby. It is she who, after his parents left in the Mass Exodus, named him Red Sun. She claims that it’s because the sun turned red on the exact date of his fifth birthday but he knows there is more to it; it’s a private joke between her and the lanky, one-legged askari who is Kenyan, like her, and laughs every time he hears or says Red Sun’s name.

With shuffling faintly rebellious movements, Red returns to the house and re-emerges with a thick sweater on and a blue tank strapped to his back. He slaps the gas mask over his nose and mouth and inhales deeply, for Nyambura’s benefit, and then returns it to its perch on his shoulder.

“Happy now?”

The look on Nyambura’s face forebodes another lecture on respect for elders, but she surprises him by crossing the snow-covered compound to hug him tightly. Bemusedly, he looks down at the colourful scarf covering her greying hair and a spurt of rage overtakes him. The people in charge of the Mass Exodus should have taken Nyambura with them on their big exclusive space ships. It shouldn’t have mattered that she was above the age limit they had set, or that she was no genius with perfect genes. She is the perfect embodiment of what the soul of the human race needs; compassionate, loving, altruistic and an expert at wielding an iron glove when the previous qualities do not yield the desired results. Of course, to the single-minded scientists, politicians and environmentalists in charge, those weren’t the qualities required to be allowed onto the ships. When Red was six, the Mass Exodus had begun. There was only room for half of the world’s population, they said. They had to take only the crème de la crème of the race, they said, because it was crucial that when the ships finally stumbled on a habitable planet, humanity put its best foot forward in the race to propagate and continue the race. So the old, the cripples, the diseased, and the people with the genes that had gone haywire… those would have to be abandoned. A sacrifice, for the greater good of the race as a whole, they said.

Red scoffs. He still remembers the day they came for his parents and his sister. Under normal circumstance, his parents would have been left behind – they were both carriers for the albino mutant gene and that was undesirable in the new world the bureaucrats in charge had, but they were brilliant scientists. Red’s father had been an understudy in his mother’s laboratory when, together, they discovered a way to extract oxygen from water and also, a baser chemistry between each other. The bureaucrats needed their skills. He still remembers the foolish trust in his mother’s eyes when the bureaucrats told her they would return for him later. He had stopped waiting when the last ships left the earth. They would be millions of light years away by the time the sun died; the scientists had ensured that.

“Red…” Nyambura’s voice is now gentle, a glaring contrast to the tone she used before, “You’re daydreaming again.”

He wants to laugh. Aren’t daydreams supposed to be something beautiful? He disentangles himself from Nyambura’s arms and this time makes it to the gate without her stopping him. The askari is seated in his little house at the gate, polishing his metallic leg and whistling a merry tune while the one leg that he can still feel taps a beat on the smooth cemented floor.

“Jambo,” Red greets in Kiswahili, his head ducked. He hasn’t quite overcome his wariness of the askari, who they say lost his leg in the Third World War after he had felled an entire battalion of Congolese soldiers. The askari grins, baring a set of teeth blackened by years of smoking and, in a hoarse voice, responds in English, “You’re going out again, eh? Go and explore, boy. See if you can find a solution to our problems in the barrenness out there.”

Red says nothing and continues to walk, the maniacal laugh of the askari following him until he turns the bend that leads to the old man Kazinda’s ranch. It used to be full of cows and bulls but even those have disappeared, taken either by the ravages of hunger or on the spaceships that had been set apart to carry samples of earth’s fauna and flora. Vaguely, Red recalls a rhyme from a Bible story.

The animals went in two by two…

Against his volition, the gruesome images from TV when the animals had started dropping dead from hunger, death climbing up the food chain until all that were left was the vultures and flies that thrived on the dead and the reptiles and amphibians that thrived on the flies, come to the forefront of his mind and he closes his eyes for a moment. And after that, the Great Floods had taken care of the animals that had survived. People had died too, during the Mass Extinction. The flies had carried disease and hunger had driven people to eat the dead animals. The result was a population of the four billion that had been left behind falling to just a few hundred million.

Snow starts to fall. It does that more often these days. The snow stops falling long enough for the hydrogen-powered winter service vehicles to shovel the snow off the roads and then starts up again. Red holds out his hands to catch the white crystals. They float gently into his palms and do not melt – his hands are too cold. He used to hate the snow when it first started to fall. Cold prickly frozen water, sticking to his skin and making his clothes soggy… he really did hate the snow. He understands it better now, though. It did not choose to be here; it was forced into this situation by the dying sun. It is just like him. The snow starts to fall more heavily. Nyambura will soon send the askari with the snow mobile to come get him. Red breaks into a run. He does not want to be found yet.

Nakasongola was a sleepy town before the Mass Exodus. Not small, by any means, but sleepy nonetheless, roused only when the flow of traffic was at its peak. Now, it is a dead town. Snow blows into the open windows of abandoned shops and an old Shell signpost peeks through a huge pile of snow. Red has forgotten what the town looks like underneath the carpet of ice. He makes his way towards the large abandoned church he used to go to with his parents and his sister. The wooden double doors are frozen at the seams and he has to scrape the ice away with his brittle fingernails, the cold making him oblivious to the possibility of frostbite or injury. Halfway through the meticulous task, he has to stop and inhale deeply from his oxygen tank. Red goes back to scraping the ice away; he hopes that the sun dies before the atmospheric oxygen is completely depleted. He would rather cease to exist than live a life that hinges on the insulated metallic tank he hates carrying around. The wind picks up and blows bits of ice into Red’s face. Now the wind, he has always hated and will continue to do so. It is the snow’s bad tempered older cousin, influencing the crystals of ice to go from gently cool to violently frigid and leaving cuts all over Red’s delicate skin. He finally removes the last of the ice sealing the doors shut and pushes them open, his arms straining and his breath huffing out as his muscles eat up the meagre oxygen available to them in an effort to counteract the resistance offered up by the rusty hinges.

The inside of the church is warm. The townsfolk claim that it’s the spirit of the Christian God that keeps the building that way but Red knows better. It was built by American evangelists who preferred their cheaper style of building – double wood walls with air pockets to insulate against the cold. They probably had no idea that the Great Freeze was coming but Red is sure that if they were here today, they would claim that they saw the Great Freeze coming in visions from their God and were instructed to build the church this way. But then, if they were here right now, they would probably be Atheist, like most of the world has become. Another excerpt from the Bible plays in his mind.

Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?

It seems to him like it’s the other way round; the world has turned its back on the gods it used to worship. Crime is rampant in the bigger cities where people gather like seals in the Arctic, seeking comfort in the very masses that kill them. Red likes it in his deserted town, where his closest neighbour lives ten minutes away. His sneakers barely make a sound as he walks down the aisle towards the altar. On either side of him, the brown pews are covered with cobwebs whose makers are long extinct. A small door off to the side of the altar is slightly ajar and it is through this door that Red walks.

“You’re underdressed for the weather.”

Red’s companion is standing with his back to the entrance, wearing a thick overcoat and fur boots two sizes too big. He’s shorter than most, his dreadlocked head coming just up to Red’s waist and his hands invisible in the sleeves of the overcoat he probably nicked from a taller person.

“How can you tell?” Red demands.

The dwarf chuckles darkly. “Your teeth are chattering and I can smell your wet sneakers.”

Red ignores the jibe and walks over to the pile of books on the floor, plopping down onto his butt and picking up a book at random. Quantum Physics. These are his mother’s books. He carried them here, methodically, day by day, from the sacred library in the house. A moment later, the dwarf joins him on the floor and picks up a book of his own. They’ve been meeting here for the past four months and the dwarf has been helping him understand the art his parents practised. Nyambura does not approve; dwarves are a bad omen, according to her. However, she no longer bothers Red about his regular visits to the church.

“Let the boy go where he pleases,” the askari is constantly telling her, “We are all going to die anyway, one way or another.”

Sometimes, Red thinks that Nyambura prefers to let him go exploring just so that he doesn’t hear the dark words that spring from the askari’s heart.

“From the heart,” the dwarf is always saying, “That’s where all our words come from. The lies come from the surface and the truths from the deep corners where the light does not reach.”

Red is not sure whether the dwarf is sane or not. He fluctuates with terrifying ease from philosopher to physicist to biologist to linguist to theologian… Every so often, he wanders off with his thoughts, his bleary eyes clearing for that prolonged moment of mental travel, and then he’s back on the floor with Red, telling him the scientists from the eighteenth century had it all figured out, and science had started to go to hell when these newbies from the twenty first century started to believe that they were greater than the universe. Half the time, Red zones out. The thing that holds the most interest for him is The Law of Conservation of Energy. He is fascinated by the idea that nothing ever ceases to exist in reality; that everything is basically energy that will never be destroyed. And so he spends his days with the dwarf poring over writings by Einstein, Galileo, Joule, Leibniz, and Noether, attempting to convince his teenage mind that the certainty of his death should not be a thing that disconcerts him, for he shall continue to live on in another form.

“The end is nigh,” the dwarf says suddenly. Red puts down his book to stare at his formerly silent companion. He recognizes the clear faraway look in his eyes. He’s having one of his episodes again. Red elects to pay attention to the dwarf’s blabbering this time.

“The end is nigh and humanity has brought it upon itself,” the dwarf says in an ominous voice.

           We’ll be going out with a bang, Red muses. Isn’t that the only way to go? Outside, the engine of a snow mobile rumbles. A few seconds later, someone pounds at the door. It’s the askari. The dwarf speaks without looking up from his scribbling. “You should go.”

Red gets to his feet without argument. He makes it to the door before the sounds of the dwarf getting up stop him. Slowly, he turns, and is met by the outstretched hand of his eccentric companion. For a moment, he is stumped. The dwarf has never initiated physical contact. Hesitantly, he takes the proffered hand and shakes.

“The first and last time we shall shake hands,” the dwarf says cryptically. His words haunt Red even after he gets home.

That night, Red does not feel like sleeping alone. The sky is a pale pink, and the moon is a bloody red that normally does not irk him but is now making an old apocalyptic Christian hymn play over and over again in his head.

Oh, when the moon, turns into blood…

He climbs out of his parents’ bed and walks out of the master bedroom that he has taken over. Three doors down the hallway, he stops and knocks at Nyambura’s door. She asks no questions and makes no remonstration; simply makes room for him in her bed and wraps her warm arms around him. In her gentle voice, she starts to hum the lullaby she used to sing him before his parents left. A few seconds later, he is asleep.

The heat wakes Red up. It is too intense to be coming from Nyambura’s sleeping form. He throws the blankets back; his body is drenched in sweat and covered in a bright white light that he later realizes is spilling in through the windows to flood the entire room. He makes his way out of the bedroom and out of the house. Outside, the bright light nearly blinds him and makes his sensitive eyes hurt. It reminds him of the days before the Red Giant phase, when he couldn’t step out of the house without layers of clothing and sunglasses. A burn registers on his exposed skin and he steps off the porch; his toes curl involuntarily when his feet hit slush instead of packed solid ice. He slips; his arms flail ineffectually for balance and he lands on the slush with a splash. The pain in his backside goes unnoticed in the face of the blinding burning light.

This is it, he thinks. He half expects the God from Bible stories to descend from the sky, with bronzed feet and a beard and robe as white as the melting snow around him. With considerable effort, he gets to his feet and immediately, a strong invisible wave nearly knocks him back down. Before he can fully grasp the implications of the wave, a gaping chasm cracks across the ground right before him. Red jumps back with a startled gasp. He watches the chasm rip the house he calls home into two and the terror that had been concealed by confusion comes to the forefront. This is actually it. He wants to run into the crumbling house to grab Nyambura, if not to save her, then to throw himself into her embrace and die in the security of her arms. But he can’t get himself to move another step. His mother’s voice is on replay in his mind.

It has always been his destiny to die with the sun, hasn’t it? Of course it has. Red steps towards the chasm. Vaguely, he hears the askari yelling for him to stop over the thundering of a million earthquakes. He couldn’t if he tried to. One foot makes it into the chasm, and then earth’s gravity gives, and Red is floating into the white sky, together with a billion animate and inanimate objects; the askari is visible in his peripheral vision, his posture a study in befuddlement. Another of the waves crashes through the air. A metallic chair sails languorously past Red’s head, and his arms spread out in a sacrificial gesture. He is ready to die. Perhaps he has always been ready to die. The waves continue to come, in quicker succession, and more objects fly past, into Red’s prone body, hitting him with all the impact of a feather. The bright white in the sky is joined by the bright red from the earth’s core as it starts to disintegrate. Is it happening too quickly or too slowly? Red can’t tell. He is reaching for the infinite space that is just a moment away. Suddenly, he can’t breathe. Is there something blocking his nose? He realizes, a second later, that he can, in fact breathe, but it’s the oxygen. The forces of the universe have denied his unspoken request that the sun die before the oxygen is depleted. Or have they? He can’t think clearly now; his brain tissues are feeling the oxygen deprivation. A goofy smile forms on his face. It is goofy; he can tell. The white light is now fading. So is the air. He can’t breathe. His lungs are becoming one with the endless vacuum that is space. One more wave, stronger than the rest, cuts through the sudden blackness. A force starts to pull on Red. Piece by piece, he is disintegrating just as the earth did. Is this what a black hole feels like? The pain does not matter. He is giving back what was taken from the universe to make him. It is just a cycle. His final thought is the only thing that escapes the ravenous pull of the black hole and it is sent out into the vast blackness to float among the stars.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form into another or transferred from one object to another.

Acan Innocent Immaculate is a 20-year old Ugandan pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery. Writing has always been her first love and she looks forward to a literary atmosphere where African stories will break the mould even more than they do now.