The train slowed down at the northern end of Uthiru village, its monstrous engine stopping finally opposite a borehole. A big hose pipe was rolled out and fixed to add water for the steam boilers.
Chege got up, careful not to disturb the man next to him sleeping a fitful sleep. Like him, he was another soldier returning home after eight years.
He wrapped his few belongings in a worn military trenchcoat and jumped out, walking past the clouds of the engine’s steam hissing out from under the carriages. At the top of the hill, he set down the roll and surveyed the land below grimly. There were sprawling coffee farms where most of the homes he had left once stood.
He picked the roll and walked on down a new wide dirt road cutting through big farms, his anxiety mounting. Then he came to his parents’ one-acre homestead and stood frozen. There was a new stone bungalow standing where their old house once stood, and the old banana trees and sticks of cassava were the only familiar things left.
A new driveway to the bungalow was lined by young cedar trees, and by their height, he could tell the colonialists, or the chief had seized the farm not long after they had forcibly recruited him into war. Then his jaws trembled as he remembered the look on the chief’s face those many years gone. It had not been normal hatred but one of a deeply personal kind.
He heaved the roll back onto his shoulder and walked on just as a jeep came racing. He moved away to avoid the dust, but it swerved towards him deliberately, forcing him to jump over a ditch.
Eight White British soldiers jumped out like a pack of wolves, surrounding him and staring at him menacingly. Then they turned to one another grinning.
“My, my. What do we have here? A nigger in the wrong part of town,” said the oldest, stepping forward, his tattooed upper arms showing out of rolled khaki sleeves. Then before Chege could answer, a blow caught him in the stomach, but he rode much of it by bending slightly, tensing his muscles at the moment of the impact.
He feigned pain although he hardly felt the blow, aware the rest of them had their pistols drawn out. He could tell they were looking for any excuse to shoot him so they could write more heroic letters to folks back home about how they killed another Mau Mau terrorist in action.
He straightened up studying them. They were locally known as Johnnies since Johnny was the name they usually called one another. The oldest among them was not more than twenty-four, and his attacker was around five foot ten while Chege was six. They locked gazes and the soldier flinched as if disturbed by something he had seen in Chege’s eyes.
“What are you doing here, and why were you staring at the D.O.’s house?” he demanded, but Chege could tell the bark was just to sound commanding.
Chege realised they must have been lying in wait for lawbreakers around the next bend. “I just got back from the war,” he said, and they grinned as if it was the best joke ever.
“Another bloody Mau Mau from the Aberdares,” one of them spat.
“Couldn’t bear the heat of our bombardment, eh?” said another.
“Shut the hell up!” the leader silenced them, still studying Chege. There was a peculiar air about him uncommon to the locals; an air born of confidence rather than arrogance, and his English was unusually good.
“Which war?” he asked.
“Burma,” Chege said picking up his roll and walking off before they could recover their surprise.
One of them flicked the safety catch of his pistol on and the leader stopped him. “Let him be,” he said jumping back into the jeep, still staring after Chege. That is one bad… he told himself.
Chege went asking about his family once he got into the new village, but the villagers avoided him fearing another convoy of Johnnies swooping down on them for talking to strangers. But finally, someone told him that his wife lived in the farther end of the long rambling reservation.
The kids playing outside her hut shrank away as he passed, their eyes filled with fear until he smiled. She came to the dark doorway as he knocked, and they stood staring at each other, suddenly hurtled back to years gone and shocked to see how much they had changed.
The soft lines on Ciro’s forehead were unfamiliar and the full cheeks Chege remembered so well were no longer as supple, but her beauty was the kind that carried through life.
She had aged well Chege thought again while she studied his powerful build, her gaze returning to his face. There were tiny crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, and the face was no longer boyish. That only made him even more handsome man, she thought. Then that moment passed as well.
Chege’s attention turned to the two strange kids next to her, his eyes going from one to the other. His chest congealed looking at the girl with an oval face. She must be about six. Too young to be his. But the boy — aged about eight — he had his slightly hooked nose and broad shoulders.
As Ciro stared at his hard face, her mouth thinned into a bitter line.
“The chief…he…he told me you died!” she stuttered pleadingly as Chege picked up his roll and started for the door.
“Chege!” she screamed, running after him reaching for him, tears pouring down her face. “Chege, listen! it’s not what you think!”
He shook off her arm and walked on, leaving her rooted there, her arms at her slim waist, her fingers intertwined.
“Chege, please!” she screamed, “I have been dreaming each night that you would come back…even after the chief cheated me you died,” she sobbed.
Chege slowed his step, then walked faster, his jaws pulsating again. “Is that why you went with him;had his child?” he growled back, seeing heads peeping out of doorways, people wondering what was going on, and who he was.
“I never went with him!” Ciro whispered fiercely. “I…I just wanted to let you know that after we married, I promised myself I would never let another man touch me; that I would rather die.”
“So far as I can see, you’re alive and well, and you have a bastard kid!” Chege said brutally, choked by the utter futility of it all. Each day he lived in Burma as others died, it was for her. Thinking of her had given him the will, the reason to go on — turning his fears and doubts into a wall of anger so formidable that no enemy could destroy it.
“I did my best to die! I smashed your gourd of wine on his head giving him concussion! “For that I was jailed for six months. My mother had to take care of Gikeria. It’s okay, Chege if you don’t believe me,” she sniffed, wiping off tears and turning back, finally accepting she had lost him forever.
Chege stopped and retraced his steps. “You said the boy is called Gikeria?”
She nodded, still sniffing. “I…I named him after your father.”
“And the girl? “he asked quietly.
“Wamaitha. I didn’t know if you would like it otherwise, so I named her after my mother.”
Then she stared around worriedly. The sun was setting, throwing an orange glow over the baked countryside.
“We shouldn’t go too far, Chege. Especially you — a man. This far beyond the village and the mzungus demand to see your kipande.”
Chege flinched as if slapped. “My what?”
“It’s a pass. They declared a state of emergency while you were away and now all males over seventeen must show the pass on demand called kipande.”
Chege’s jaws hardened again. His people forced by colonialists to show IDs just to move freely in their own country.
They sat in her darkening hut, stealing occasional glances at each other, their faces etched out of the darkness by the glow of the fire. Ciro had confirmed what he already knew — that his parents’ farm had been taken, and that it was now where the D.O.’s house stood. They had also built a fort at the other end of the sprawling farm called Fort Smith. A lot had changed in all those years they had not shared.
Chege took a gourd of muratina which Ciro had procured from some neighbour and leaned back and took a sip. Outside the children were playing in the bright moonlight.
“Looks like there is a famine,” he said, and she nodded.
“People are surviving on government rations, but the White man only gives it to those in their good books — the collaborators and those willing to work in their shambas for free.”
“And others?” Chege asked.
“They are helped by others or left to starve,” Ciro sighed. “I can never bring myself to work for the same people who have enslaved us!” she said fiercely. “I too would be dead if it was not for my father. Much as he hates me, he can’t stand the shame seeing his only daughter dead of starvation.’
“Hates you? You mean he’s still bitter with you for marrying me?”
She nodded. Then, before she could talk, there was a distant gunshot. He cocked his ears, but there was no other one. He turned back to her.
“Is that why he didn’t intervene when that gikuruwe was harassing you?” he asked, using the hated chief’s nickname which meant big pig.
“Gikuruwe protected my father from losing his property, then later helped him also be named a chief. The two are now part of a clique of favoured Africans for whom greed for power and wealth supersede their own dignity,” she said bitterly.
He took another sip of the muratina then paused and again cocked his ear at another gunshot.
“They are still rounding up people?”
She nodded. “Just the other day, they came at night to a neighbour’s.”
Chege hushed her as a series of booming shots came suddenly. Listening, he gauged they were coming from somewhere at the centre of the sprawling village. Then there was screaming, women screaming in high pitched voices repeatedly warning others to get out and run.
“Things will change, Ciro,” he said quietly, and she glanced at him, his words both chilling and warming her. She had been stealing quiet glances at him as they talked, seeing a change in him she could not define. He looked composed, frighteningly composed for someone just arrived from a war which had claimed countless millions of lives.
Her hand searched his, and she was gratified he did not pull away. Instead, their fingers intertwined and like that, they sat, both of them content to just sit and listen to the children playing outside. Then the children suddenly went silent, and Chege and Ciro heard rapid footsteps, followed by a slap.
Wamaitha came running back into the hut shrieking, and by then, both Chege and Ciro were by the door. Wamaitha buried her head in her mother’s dress, sobs wracking her as Chege stepped outside.
Gikuruwe and a home guard were glaring down at his son demanding to know what he and his sister were doing outside at that hour. Chege brushed past the boy who was holding his bleeding nose, refusing staunchly to cry or show fear.
“That is my son you slapped, a mere child. I don’t see any reason why you should have hit him.”
The obese chief staggered back laughing, and his guard raised his rifle ready to bring its butt down on Chege’s head.
“Hold it,” the chief told him pushing him back and facing Chege, his beady eyes glittering with malice. “I heard you’re back,” he said throatily. “We followed the news about the war — the carnage. Terrible!” he said, feigning sadness. Who would have thought you would survive? Not many did, so I guess that makes you feel like a hero, right? Just a word of caution; you don’t play big shot around here, boy. Understand?”
Chege flinched as if slapped. The fat sell-out was calling him boy, aping his White masters.
“Oh, I forgot to mention,” the chief went on, “I did my best to keep her company. After all, you were gone such a long…”
Chege had been steeling himself but now the dam burst. He stole glances at the guard noting the lazy way he was holding his weapons, and why not? He and the others They were now the masters of the land. They had nothing to fear.
He faked a grin which said the chief was the original Casanova, and the guard joined in grinning and winking at the chief knowingly. In turn, the chief smiled sheepishly, basking in their praise. Then it happened.
In the split second the guard was distracted, a devastating hook sent him reeling backwards doubled up, his gun slipping from his hands. Chege had it before it touched the ground and spinning it around in one smooth upward move which laid a haymaker to the jaw of the chief. He collapsed in a heap and Chege turned to the guard. He was just straightening up, holding his stomach, his face creased in pain. A fist slammed into his jaws like wood on wood.
“I’m back,” he said calmly, “from one war to another.”
He walked into the hut and grabbed his roll of clothes. “I have to go,” he told Ciro starting out. “They will be all over soon searching for me. But I’ll be back. Promise.”
She nodded, anxious to see him leave before the enemy arrived and choked with a sense of loss.
He stepped out, looking at the guard’s rifle, tempted to take it along, but decided that would only tell the enemy he had gone to the other side. Better to let them assume he was fleeing for assaulting the law.
He took out his war medal — the only thing they had given him apart from transport money. “Here. Keep this for whatever it is worth,” he told her, then hurried away into the night.
After high school in Kenya, Ngumi Kibera attended Bradford College in Massachusetts to study business, music, painting and writing. He graduated from both Ramapo College in New Jersey with a BSc in Business and the University of Minnesota with an MBA. An early retirement left him time to write his first book, The Grapevine Stories which won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. To date, he has written over twenty-six titles for pre-teens to adults, among them The Devil’s Hill, winner of the Burt Prize for Kenya. Born at the height of the colonial suppression, it is inevitable that memories of its brutality and devastation remain indelible. He can be found at (99+) David Ngumi Kibera | LinkedIn, Ngumi Kibera | Author (@ngumi_kibera) • Instagram photos and videos, and (20+) David Kibera | Facebook
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