She had given up trying to stay away. It was a battle lost long before it had ever begun. Perhaps if it was anything else other than the kaleidoscope of colours in front of her, colours that tugged at her eyes and her heart and her soul, perhaps then. But no, here she was once again, face pressed to the glass, the beauty of the display on the other side making her almost shake with want.

“YOU! How many times have I told you not to come back here?!”

The voice startled her from her sugar-induced stupor, and she hurriedly wiped away the drool on her chin, rushing round the corner before the large baton, and its even larger wielder, caught up with her.

Amna had always had a sweet tooth, even as a child. Her father used to call her shazumami, after those tiny ants with the big heads that liked to drown themselves in sugar and were the bane of her mother’s existence.

So, it was no wonder that the perfection of the macaroon seemed to have her in a chokehold that would not let up. She wanted to taste one so badly. It was all she could think of. She woke up with it on her mind and went to bed with it still in her thoughts. It even followed her into her dreams, and the morning would find her once again sneaking uphill, past the run-down houses and porthole covered streets of her side of town, to the sprawling array of mansions on the other side of the rise.

The cafe that housed the objects of her desire was more glamorous than any building she’d ever entered. With its high arches and wooden panels, dim lights offsetting the pure white tablecloths covering the delicate tables, it evoked class and style. Walking amongst its bright flowers and shining crystal glassware, warping with the sunlight, was like walking into a whole new world. Not that she would ever truly know, having only seen it from the outside. No one would ever let her through the door.

“Where have you been, Amna?” her mother snapped the minute she walked into their house.

Amna blanched, trying to scoot past to the safety of her room. “Nowhere.”

Her mother grabbed her by the chin, squinting at her face. “You went to that shop again, didn’t you? Darling, you know we can’t afford any of the things they sell in that place. Why do you keep torturing yourself?”

Amna muttered something unsavoury, glaring at her feet, then hastily amended her expression when her mother frowned. Best not give her a reason to put me to work.

“I’d buy them for you if I could, you know I would.”

She did know. Her mother loved her, of course she did. As her only child Amna had a pride of place that no one could even come close to replicating. Mama would do anything for her. Would move mountains and burn cities if she had to. A macaroon was nothing in the face of that, even if she’d once had the audacity to call them “a waste of time”, laughing herself silly when Amna had almost expired on the spot.

She knew all this, so she only nodded to her mother and walked to her room, trying to get the bright colours of the little buggers to stop flashing in front of her eyes.

#

They came in a variety of eye-catching displays. Mint green, and mango yellow and cherry red, colours like strawberry pink and peppermint blue and lavender purple. There was even one in an off white colour the same shade as her mother’s old wedding dress, the one Amna had only ever seen when it was finally sold.

The names of the flavours on the tiny placards were even more exotic. Vanilla bean and chocolate hazelnut and something called pistachio. She did not know what eggnog was—or cappuccino or salted caramel—but she’d had cotton candy before, when there’d been a fair on the rise, and one of the sellers had taken pity on her wide eyes and wistful expression and offered her a small cloud on a stick. She’d never forgotten the bright pink colour of it and the way it had immediately melted in her mouth. So, she knew what cotton candy was like, and the macaroon on the furthest side of the display window labeled the same was the one she most wanted to try. Hidden in an alcove and seething with jealousy, she’d heard one of the wealthy patrons, a blogger of some sort, describing them once. The words a “crunchy exterior with a soft filling, made of buttercream”—or fruit apparently, or jam—had nearly sent her into raptures.

Amna had spent months staring at them whenever she had the chance, these little dimensions of colours and flavor, each with a story to share with her. She would fold herself into careful corners and vantage points where neither the cafe customers or employees could see her, and spend hours swaddled in a fantasy land where all she had to do was reach out — until a leaving customer inevitably spotted her and alerted the doorman, and she was angrily chased away.

So, it was a rather huge surprise a few weeks later, when instead of swatting at her with his stick the way he always did—like a particularly errant housefly—the doorman instead motioned her closer.

His eyes roved over her, or rather, her unbound hair. She’d worn it loose today instead of leaving it in its customary braids, wrapped several times around her head. Her hair was her crowning jewel, something both she and her mother were extremely proud of. Long and soft and silky, it was as black as the darkest night, rippling and shining like a waterfall and reaching all the way to her waist. It was a gift, Mama had said, passed down through generations from her Fulani ancestors to her, and Amna was pleased and honoured to carry on their legacy. She did not like the way this man was looking at her hair.

But she was curious, so she let him lead her to the alley behind the cafe and stood warily next to a garbage bin.

“Wait here sweet girl, eh?” he said, his eyes never leaving the cascade of her hair. There was a greed in there that made Amna uncomfortable.

He waited for her to nod before he slipped through the kitchen entrance, curling his large frame around the slightly opened door like a snake. The minute he was through, Amna took two steps back to the mouth of the alley, just in case.

When he returned some minutes later with extra company, he looked panicked for a moment before he spotted her. Scowling mightily in her direction, he said, “I told you to stay here.”

But Amna, refusing to answer, instead looked guardedly towards his companion. She was one of the waitresses of the cafe. Amna had seen her several times through the window carrying trays filled with tiny cakes and coffee mugs that hung on for dear life. She had a wig on her head that did nothing good for her sallow face. Amna wondered if perhaps she didn’t have any hair and suddenly felt bad.

“My God, it’s stunning!” the woman murmured, looking at Amna’s hair with the same hungry look as the man, like all her dreams had come true all at once. “Think of what we’ll get from this!”

The man nodded frantically.

The woman looked at Amna again, and probably noticing she was two seconds away from bolting, slipped smoothly to her knees, pasted on what she possibly thought was a kind smile, and held out her hand.

“My name is Maggie. I work part time at the salon down the way. And this is Chike,” she said sweetly, pointing at the man. “You have such lovely hair, love, won’t you let me feel it?”

Amna shuffled closer and let her run her thin fingers through her silky locks, pleased at the attention, but still wary.

“Chike tells me you like coming to see the macaroons. Is that true?”

Amna nodded shyly, her face filled with embarrassment. “I can’t afford them.”

“How would you like a whole macaroon to yourself then, just for you?” Maggie questioned, looking more than pleased with herself.

Amna looked up in shock. Her heart started an unsteady rhythm in her chest, and she felt suddenly weak. “You would do that, give me one for free? But why?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be for free of course. Nothing ever is. I want something in return.”

“What then?” Amna eagerly asked, already feeling the taste of her long-dreamt-of prize in her mouth, within reach at last.

Maggie gave a sharp smile and stroked a finger through Amna’s hair. “All in due time.”

#

When she walked through the door, her mother took one look at her and let out a wretched cry that shook the walls. “Oh Amna, how could you?!”

Amna lowered her eyes in shame, conscious of the tiny box with a single pink pastry hidden in her bag. She felt like a criminal on the execution platform, waiting for the swing of the axe.

“Why?” her mother asked tearfully. “What could possibly make you do such a thing?”

She shook her head and was momentarily stricken with the lack of weight attached to the motion. A sob caught in her throat. She had not wanted this, this ache in her chest that felt like it was choking her from the inside. She had only wanted a taste, had only wanted to be the person who could afford something she yearned for so dearly.

It’s just hair, she kept telling herself. It’ll grow back.

“I hope it was worth it,” her mother snarled, walking away.

#

It looked so delicate and tender, as if it would fall apart with the slightest of pressures, its perfect twin domes lovingly hugging the soft snowy filling between them.

Amna held it for a while, her back to the locked door as if something would come and snatch it from her hands, possessive in the way someone can be only of something they’ve owned for a short time and treasured for longer. She sat for a long time admiring the shape of it and its brilliant colour, cotton candy pink.

And then she raised it to her lips, holding it in one hand the way the cafe patrons did, and guided it into her mouth. Her teeth sank in, and she paused. At last.

A slight crunch followed the breaking of the crisp outer shell, followed by her teeth meeting the succulent middle—rich cream cheese filling Chike had said—a chewy texture that glided on her tongue and awakened her senses. It was both sweet and nutty and light as air. Amna felt like she was floating. She had never had anything so dreamy and decadent. So elegant. So ethereal.

She took another bite and moaned, eyes closing. After three full bites and nearly sobbing with pleasure as a result of them, she sought a fourth and met only her fingers.

Silence reigned in the room, and Amna suddenly felt empty. She spent a prolonged amount of time staring at the tiny box the macaroon had come in. When she finally moved to put it away, she instead caught her reflection in the small mirror on her pillow, fashioned by her mother’s own hands as a gift for her thirteenth birthday.

She picked it up and stared at herself for a long time. Then she started to cry.


Fatima Abdullahi is a Nigerian born writer, poet, and photographer with a
penchant for the dramatic. A graduate in mass communications and an animal
lover, she writes on heartfelt subjects including humanity, love, loss, and
depression. Her works have been published in Afristories and are
forthcoming in various publications, including Lunaris Review, The Shady Grove Literature, and The First Line Literary Journal. Find her on Instagram at @her_abstractions and on twitter at @ellisande_.

Every morning, as grandmother milked the cow while patting its ribs, my ten-year old brother, lanky with dark brown skin, held my tiny hand and walked us to the sugar cane fields. One day he hacked off a small piece of the cane for me to chew with a dull machete, the warm sweetness hurting my baby teeth. We ran around the stalks, digging into the dirt to bury treasures before the workers came. I remember my shoes, the leather dyed a raspberry red, were unbuckled, and so he hoisted me up on a wooden crate and fixed them for me and wiped the sugar stickiness off my cheeks with a spit-dampened bandana. This was the last time I saw him.

We had distant family near a place called New Orleans and a father with plans to kill us girls, so mama dug up the money she was hiding in a clay cup under the giant agave. She had sent my three older sisters one-by-one up north from Mexico, quietly, quickly, and we were the last to go. We got into the truck close to the border, where a stranger handed me a scratchy blanket. The bumps in the road felt like someone was kicking under the seat, but I knew we were taking a long trip and that I was supposed to be quiet for it.

For little girls, hours feel like weeks, but the truck stopped finally in a tiny dust-filled town. We stayed there to save money for the bus to New Orleans. The house we entered smelled of cinnamon and patchouli. We had some blankets spread out for us on the floor. In the evening, when everyone came back from working in the fields, after dinner was eaten and dishes washed, we sat around to watch I Love Lucy in English and eat blush-colored grapefruits and mangos the color of Mojave sunsets. Mama peeled the grapefruit for me, pulling the sections carefully away from the white fuzz. The sharp sweetness of the first juicy bite was replaced by a bitterness that lingered and stuck to the sides of my tongue. I preferred mangos when they became overripe, when the soft spots pooled with syrup that tasted like brown sugar.

My mother was quiet in her face only. I knew she had many sad thoughts swarming around inside her. It reminded me of the ants I once saw devouring a downed monarch butterfly. The bright orange, papery wings anchored to the dirt, becoming black and heavy with the weight of the colony gathering her up in morsels, pushing her towards the underground, a place which was foreign to her. How sad, I thought, to die in a place you’ve never seen before.

I remember hearing her crying at night. I heard her say to her sister before she left, “You know nothing. You know nothing until you’ve cut out two hearts that were once threaded together and burnt them over a pit. What would you know about loving a monster?” And I knew the monster was my father, but I didn’t know that love was involved at all.

Weeks, or maybe months, later she had saved enough money picking indigo grapes for us to take the bus to her cousin’s trailer. I was excited to go closer to the water, sad to leave behind the fruit cornucopia. I would be starting school as soon as we got there, and that also made me nervous as the only words I knew in English were Spice Girl lyrics and “Lucy! I’m home!”

We got our tickets at the station and a bag of chili-lime peanuts to share. We had many hours to talk about our new life in Louisiana. I had read about baby alligators that ate marshmallows, which I felt was a good place to start. My mother bent down to fix the straps of my sandals, much like my brother used to. I wondered then what was it that made boys like my brother and also made men like my father and why we had to leave both behind. I would ask her many years later, but for now we only spoke of baby alligators, wild banana trees, and all the gifts we might find in the dirt near our new home.  


Rosanna Rios-Spicer is a full-time nursing student, public health worker, and new mother living in California. She has spent the last few years exploring the role of geography, family history, and conflicting identities in her short fiction writing. She often draws from her experiences as a Chicana growing up in the Midwest.

The wedding procession will arrive shortly before three in the afternoon, by which time the women and girls that have been hired to prepare food for the day – mostly widows, orphans, and refugees (those who live on the fringes of this community, in short) – will have been on their feet for close to ten hours.

Yes, ten hours.

Since the point of cooking on days like this isn’t to preserve nutrients – surely no one comes to wedding receptions expecting to get the recommended daily dose of water-and-fat-soluble vitamins!

No.

The point of cooking on days like this is to present a feast so exotic and tasty that common people will have no choice but to remember and discuss it for years.

Today’s tasks have been assigned according to a well-established hierarchy. The refugees and orphans are ferrying firewood, water, fruit, honey, herbs, and fresh spices from the nearby forest. They will light and tend to the fires throughout the day – their main responsibility being to ensure that the stoves and ovens are constantly fed with charcoal and hot rocks.

The widows will manage all the baking, boiling, frying, grilling, roasting, simmering, and stewing of food (not just for the soul, but for the tissues as well). But only those who bore children for their dead husbands will be allowed to access the main kitchen and serve food – something about fruit rewarding fruit. Therefore, only they will have the privilege of watching the well-timed approach of the showy, angled cars in the wedding procession. They will crowd around the large bay windows, which overlook the large entrance and larger compound, jostling for space in the nooks until they are squeezed in – trapped like wingless grasshoppers in a bottle.

Until then, all the widows – childfree and otherwise – are putting up a united front. Or, at least, pretending to. As per Bellden’s instructions (Bellden, a small woman that’s rumoured to be related to the bride, is in charge of the cooks today), the widows are preparing two categories of food – one (mostly plant-based) for the bride’s entourage and another (mostly animal-based) for the bridegroom’s entourage. Per the common saying: women will be docile, and men will be virile.

Thus, the bride and her entourage will nibble daintily on sweet potato fries, sun-dried beetroots, glazed carrots, cucumber and yoghurt salad, roasted red cabbage, goat cheese-stuffed grilled peppers, honeyed lettuce wraps, aubèrgines and mushroom soup, black bean sauce, sweet and sour fried rice, green peas masala, and ash-baked cassava bread.

While the bridegroom and his entourage devour the following:

Guinea fowl baked in garlicky, ghee sauce

Creamy bacon pasta served with sweetcorn

Roast goose with soursop wine gravy

Grilled chicken kebabs

Barbecue-style beef ribs with gooseberry jelly

Smoked lungfish with spinach pancakes

Lamb chops with raisins, lemongrass, and parsley

Side dishes of chilled avocado soup (drizzled with sunflower seeds and hot pepper sauce)

For dessert, duck egg pie with caramelized onions, pan-fried cherry tomatoes, and stir-fried noodles

And then, for the invited guests, the usual:

Stewed plantain, spicy yam cakes, bitter tomatoes in sour milk, and groundnut sauce (with a side dish of stir-fried pumpkin leaves) for the women. And for the men, Irish potatoes, plantain and gizzard sauce, and cow feet soup (with a side dish of silverfish in groundnut sauce).

The cooks are without the advantages of modern cooking equipment and facilities. For the most part, they have to rely on clay pots, cast iron saucepans, rusty handheld grills, plastic sieves, wooden mortars and pestles, and short bamboo skewers. Nonetheless, Bellden is pleased with the progress they’ve made. Although you wouldn’t know this from the brusque way she moves about while she’s inspecting saucepans for leaks, punching through dough, dipping her fingers into bowls filled with purée, and inhaling flavoured steam from the meat dishes.

Because her face is set in a permanent scowl, and her upper lip seems in danger of disappearing into her nostrils, one’s initial impression of Bellden will likely be that she’s unimpressed. In truth, her stomach is churning with all kinds of digestive juices: the wonderful, pungent smell of seasonings – of spices she’d never smelt until today – is making her desperately hungry. Yet she can’t, under or above any circumstances, show that she’s moved. She can’t ask one of the cooks to save a few pieces of guinea fowl or beef for her, either. Imagine how it’ll look!

And so Bellden carries on dutifully, walking stiffly around the outdoor cooking areas, with her hands clasped behind her back, as if she were an invigilator overseeing an end-of-year exam. Because you can never be too careful with people from the fringes. God knows what they get up to when you’re not watching. If you’ll believe it, they’ve been known to put drops of their menstrual blood and urine, locks of their pubic and anal hair, and dashes of their faecal matter, into food!

Whenever, by some miracle, Bellden allows herself to be called away or distracted by other duties, she leaves someone else (usually one of the armed askaris) in charge. The cooks use the opportunities presented by Bellden’s absence to bribe the askaris with large pieces of meat. That way, they are able to take intermittent breaks – not so they can flavour the meat sauces with their blood or hair, but to creep along the sides until they find a good vantage point from which to stare lustfully at the furniture and lighting that’s spread out on the lawn in front of the main house.

Considering that this occasion marks the first time many of the cooks have seen salad plates and wine glasses, there’s very little that won’t impress them. Wherever they turn their eyes to, there’s yet another thing or couple of things to fill them with strange and surprising feelings.

To begin with, there are the tents, which are covered by transparent canopies and topped with flags. Forget salad plates. Who’d ever have thought that a tent could be transparent?

And what about those luxurious floral arrangements that run the length of each table? —or the tall pillars of star-shaped flowers? —or the chairs draped in garlands of handmade lace and silk ribbons? —or the boutonnières to match the day’s orange, gold, and blue colour palette? —which all look too perfect, too pretty, to be true?  

Most importantly, by what magic do round candles float in square, glass jars?

And all those children, dressed in their Sunday best, holding gold bowls, throwing fresh petals all over the snake-like driveway! —what bright futures they must have!

Yet all those things, magnificent as they are, are not what a wedding is about. As far as the cooks are concerned, wedding receptions are about the brides. So, although they are open-mouthed now, they are reserving their most amazed, most stupefied looks for when their eyes fall on the bride, who they’ve been reliably informed will arrive in the longest, shiniest car.

Soon after the bride steps onto the grass, which was carefully cut and watered this morning, she’ll raise a heavily jewelled hand to shade her eyes from the sun. Only after someone runs up to her with an umbrella will she fully emerge from the car. It’s all been carefully choreographed, beforehand, you see, for that is the way of rich people.

***

When the cooks finally catch a glimpse of the bride, well over three hours after the arrival of the wedding procession, they are so hungry and thirsty that they have to hold onto each other in order not to faint. Those that aren’t complaining of dizziness and nausea are making headachy sounds.

The oldest and frailest widows are practically shaking.

It doesn’t matter that these women have been up since five in the morning, or that their hands prepared the feast that will be unleashed on guests in a few minutes. The rules of well-established hierarchies exist for a reason: the cooks will eat last, if at all.

Be that as it may, the cooks are not without hope. If anything, looking at the bride is, in a way, very much like ingesting food.

The bride is seated quite far away, on the highest table, in a chair labelled “Wife.” Yet not even distance can dull the magnificence of her outfit, which is a cross between a mushanana and a sari. (The fabric of the mushanasari is hand-woven, a substantial brocade with gold and orange geometric designs.) Or the luxuriousness of her expensive jewellery – the thick, gold ferronnière encircling her forehead; the emerald jewels sewn into her hair; the snake charm bracelets clutching her wrists like frightened children.

The bridegroom, on the other hand, has failed to excite the cooks. The colour of his skin is much lighter than they expected. But what is even more surprising is his size. They’d assumed that, like most foreigners, he’d be slender. But, no, the man is so large that he looks like a small city.

His saving grace is his pleasant-looking face. That and how he keeps turning to look at the bride with what looks like love and longing.

After a few minutes of watching the bridegroom’s face, the cooks decide that his size isn’t such a bad thing, after all; that, perhaps, it is a representation of generosity, sympathy, and tolerance. His tight, ill-fitting suit, and the slanting M in the “Man” label affixed to his chair, start to seem like good-natured jokes.

***

What a happy coincidence that Bellden is so wise! If it wasn’t for her insistence that food is served before the speeches, there would probably be only a handful of guests left seated under the tents right now.

As things stand, even those who didn’t get official invitations are sated. Hence the general willingness to be patient with the bridegroom. For twenty minutes, guests have watched his slow and clumsy movement from the elevated platform on which the high table stands, down to the ground level, and then across the grass to where the microphone stand is mounted.

After another twenty minutes, when the bridegroom is finally as close to the microphone as he needs to be, there’s a collective sigh of relief.

“Invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, good night,” the bridegroom’s high-pitched voice echoes out of the microphone.   

Although “good night” is the appropriate greeting, since night fell a few hours ago, there’s some restrained laughter from the guests.

“With all protocol observed, I’d like to recognize the following people, who are very special to me,” the bridegroom continues, restrained laughter regardless. “Please stand up and wave when I mention you.”

The bride’s name isn’t the first, second, or third one that the bridegroom mentions.

Those who are present, those watching with their own eyes what’s happening, will say that long before the bridegroom mentioned the bride’s name, she’d started wheezing. But that it didn’t matter to him that she was having trouble breathing; that he insisted that she stand, wave, and walk toward him so that everyone could see what a lovely bride he chose.

“I have full confidence in her,” the bridegroom announces in a pinched voice, when he finally gets round to calling his bride by her given name. “She gets up while it’s still dark, and provides food for…”

The bride stands and waves, alright, but doesn’t get very far. She waddles to the edge of the platform and then stops as vomit erupts out of her in violent streams.

Since a first aid kid is the last thing people think anyone will need at a wedding, there isn’t one in the main house or nearby houses.

The bride collapses before a medic is found to check her pulse.

A few of those who are present, those watching with their own eyes what’s happening, will say the bride collapsed because of three reasons: one, she was heartbroken by the bridegroom’s failure to name her first. Two, the stress of wedding preparations got the best of her. Three, her marriage to the city-sized man was arranged by her parents; so, she swallowed rat poison to spite them.

But most guests will claim that everything, including the wheezing and collapsing, was carefully choreographed beforehand. For such is the way of rich people.

***

Let the record state that this is neither the first nor last time. The bride, Azza, has [almost] died many times before, and will [almost] die many times after. She has an undiscovered allergy to aubèrgines, you see, which is what triggers the wheezing, vomiting, and fainting spells. Like most allergies, it can be easily managed through vigilance and the proper medications.

But, in places like this, it is much easier to believe that Azza has been bewitched – perhaps by a stepmother or a malevolent, childless widow; witchcraft narratives are infinitely more interesting than tales of medical complications. Further, discussions about witchcraft tend to be democratic: you don’t have to have or be a PhD in witchcraft to speak boldly about its motivations or effects.

So, over the next few days, weeks, and months, community members will happily debate and weigh a variety of beliefs and judgments about who bewitched the bride, and why.

Meanwhile, Azza will slowly but surely recover in the ICU of the region’s only referral hospital. Lying in bed, she’ll think about the quiet, orthodox life she’s lived – a life which has culminated in a marriage to her father’s business partner, a man twice her age.

***

Although Azza has had many near-death experiences, there’s something about this one that promises to change her life. This is the first time she’s actually been afraid – the first time she’s ever allowed herself to consider the possibility of a different path.

All her life, she has done exactly what’s expected of her. But what if she doesn’t have to anymore? What if the most recent episode of her body’s hypersensitivity is the universe’s way of telling her to try a different track, beat her own path?

***

It’s unclear if the bridegroom believes in witchcraft. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to demand an investigation into “possible irregularities.”

The bridegroom will, of course, receive a detailed police report confirming that, yes, indeed, X number of “questionable activities” happened in the kitchen because of Bellden’s failure to perform the supervisory duties assigned to her.

Naturally, Bellden will be arrested (although she won’t spend more than a few days in the women’s wing of Murchison Bay Prison), and the widows will be heavily fined (as restitution to the bridegroom for “unplanned loss of honeymoon time”).

For that, interestingly, is the way of rich people.


Davina Kawuma is a Ugandan natural scientist, educator, administrator, editor, and storyteller. Her poetry has been published by platforms such as Brittle Paper, African Writers Trust, and FEMRITE. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the Afritondo, Gerald Kraak, and Short Story Day Africa Prizes. Her creative non-fiction, whose subject is racial justice trainer, community organizer, and systems change strategist April Michelle Jean, was published last year in a cross-cultural anthology by Ugandan and American women titled This Bridge Called Woman. Her flash fiction is forthcoming in the eco-literature and eco-art edition of the Global South Journal.

Kelechi had never seen so many white walls in one house. In fact, she wondered how these people kept the place stainless. Kelechi was not someone to leave her questions unanswered, and that was why she came. The woman of the house, Madam Ibeneme, motioned one of the servant girls to bring Kelechi a drink. When the servant girl came, she asked, “Mummy, is it zobo or Ribena?”

Madam Ibeneme sized up Kelechi, and her eyes landed on her burgeoning stomach. “Bring her some zobo.”

Kelechi struggled to hide her displeasure. The zobo arrived – thank God it was cold because the air conditioning was barely touching her skin – and Kelechi found her answer. Since Madam Ibeneme’s boys were sent off to boarding houses since JSS 1, she must have repainted the walls white and never let the servant girls lean on them. Even when their five boys returned for holidays, they must have visited the sitting room for a few hours, and retired to their rooms to study. Kelechi had heard the rumours — how Madam Ibeneme and her husband never spared their boys. During the holidays when Kelechi and her sisters with their neighbours cooked in clay pots on the sand and caught lice in their hair, Madam Ibeneme’s boys were shut up in their rooms and forced to read for hours. No wonder they all secured fully funded scholarships abroad and became the only topic their Nigerian parents talked about. If her own parents had been that strict, Kelechi wouldn’t be sitting in this woman’s parlour, drinking her gingered zobo with caution.

“We will be going now, nne.” Mummy announced. “Sorry for the wait. My suppliers in the market must be waiting for me.”

“No problem ma.”

“Pauline, bring those market bags.” Mummy called out. “Tell Dairu to start the car.”

When the woman rose, Kelechi jerked up also. It was reflex, something she would regret doing later, because she never wanted this woman to feel she was doing her a favour. But inside this white house, Kelechi felt powerless, and that was a feeling she was desperate to shed. Inside the chauffeured car, Mummy held her phone out, punching the touch screen with her first finger, one step at a time.

“Do you know how to cook utazi soup?” Mummy eyed Kelechi.

“That is white soup, is it not?”

“The leaves are bitter. White soup doesn’t have leaves in it.”

“Oh.” Kelechi smiled sheepishly. Was she failing the test, already? If only she had paid attention while her own mother cooked. But they didn’t cook too many soups. All Kelechi knew was egusi, okro, ogbono, and ofe onugbu.

“White soup is the one we call ofe nsala.” Mummy continued, not lifting her eyes from the phone. “My husband loves it with catfish, but the boys prefer chicken.”

“Okay ma.” Kelechi nodded like this information was critical to passing the bar exam she had in a few weeks. The woman just hinted that her son, the one Kelechi would be getting married to, loved ofe nsala with chicken.

“I will teach you how to make the utazi, and I will watch you make ofe nsala. So, we will get fresh catfish and some kilos of chicken at the market. Let me see whether your barrister brain can still cook a pot of soup.” Mummy was laughing, but Kelechi looked away.

Kelechi dreaded markets. It reminded her so much of hardship because she never understood why people loved to make the trip to Sabo when they could go to the local street stalls to buy foodstuff. Sabo Market was hell, brimming with all kinds of people – Hausa load-pushers with their smelly bodies, little children shoving their wares in your faces, beggars clamouring for the money in your pockets, and even thieves trying to sell you spoilt foodstuff. She struggled to keep up with Mummy who was many steps ahead, despite her average height, and who seemed to know everyone in the market. They stopped in front of people’s stalls too many times because Mummy needed to greet and remind the market women to attend fellowship sometime. This was the Christian fellowship Mummy pioneered some fifteen years ago, the one Kelechi’s mother said she used to bring women in the neighbourhood to under subjection. Nobody who attended fellowship could defy Madam Ibeneme, and Kelechi noted when her own mother started avoiding the fellowship. Now that she would be marrying their son, her mother had no choice. She might not like the Ibeneme family, but she couldn’t deny that they were one of the most influential families in their neighbourhood. Kelechi would be joined to a dynasty – and her mother ought to be proud.

“Pack these ones for me. I don’t need anymore.” Mummy haggled with the sellers. The price of catfish was outrageous. Kelechi wondered why the woman bothered.

Soon, all the market bags were loaded on wheelbarrows owned by muscled Hausa boys. Mummy looked at her list and back at the market. She squinted at Kelechi. “I think we got everything.”

Kelechi smiled. She had no idea what was on the list.

“Oh, One more thing. Thank you, Jesus,” Mummy piped.

“What is it?” Kelechi’s legs were on fire. She wanted so badly to return home and return to her own house quick.

“Dog food. We need to get some dog food.”

Fortunately, Mummy haggled quickly this time. It was past two in the afternoon, and the sun was having a good time dealing with their skins. They bought two large bags of dog food and loaded them onto the carriers.

“Madam, your money na seven hundred oh.” One of the two Hausa boys spoke.

“Which kain seven hundred?” Mummy retorted. “Come on, carry this thing for me. Let’s go. See your black head like seven hundred.”

And that settled it. Mummy had this silencer effect on people. It was the reason she was so powerful. On the ride back home, Kelechi worried if this was going to be a problem in her marriage. She had not given this much thought. Yes, her fiancé, Mummy’s son, was the only son who moved back to Nigeria to reside, and that meant they would be closer to the family. Not that Mummy would make the trip to their home every week, but didn’t she control her son as well? So far, Mummy was the one who introduced both of them, who insisted that Kelechi was a perfectly good-natured fit for her son. Kelechi was not sure that her son cared for her, as much as he cared for his mother’s words, but after some months, he asked her to marry him.

“How does your mother make oha soup?” Mummy slashed through her thoughts. “Does she use uziza or what leaves?”

“She uses uziza and oha leaves. Both of them together.” Kelechi was happy the woman was smiling. So, she added, “Oha soup is my favourite soup.”

“Eh hehn! I thought all you children of nowadays only like egusi.”

“I am not an egusi person oh.” Kelechi chuckled. “It’s my sisters that will finish egusi soup in one sitting. Me, I like to eat it slowly. I think it’s too sweet.”

Mummy laughed. “It’s good. Not all these shawarma generation. The boys, when they were younger, they only wanted egusi and rice and bread. I had to force them to eat all kinds of soups.”

Madam Ibeneme only understood force. Kelechi noted this somewhere in her head. She must be prepared for moments when Mummy would attempt to force her son against her wishes. Right now, she was forcing him towards her, Kelechi knew it – she wasn’t stupid.

“Ezenduka will be coming this evening. Did he tell you?”

“Oh.” Kelechi went pink. She had not gotten comfortable with talking about one of Madam Ibeneme’s boys as her husband-to-be with anyone. Not even with his mother.

*

“Have you guys finalized the wedding date?” He asked.

That piece of information was the reason Kelechi wanted some time alone with Ezenduka. It wasn’t supposed to be a discussion between his parents and hers. But theirs. So, she asked him to come pick her up at the market – she was going to cook him dinner. She wanted him to look her in the eye and tell her he was as excited to get married to her, the same way she was. He was an accomplished and good-looking man, and she was lucky to have him. But Kelechi wasn’t roadside food herself – she was a full spec. She needed him to see this.

“We’re supposed to pick our wedding date. Both of us.” She looked at him, as he started to reverse out of Sabo market.

“Kele, I told you that I am fine with any date you choose.” He pushed up his glasses – one habit Kelechi found very charming. Was there anything she hated about him?

“Where do you want to spend the honeymoon?”

“Paris.” She said without thinking.

He chuckled. “Stereotypical. But I thought you’d have chosen Florence.”

“It’s Florence that’s more cliché. Why do we need to go to the city of love if we’ve already found love?”

“Fair point. So, you said you wanted to cook for me?”

“Yes. Let me be sure I know what I am doing.”

Ezenduka laughed some more. “I really don’t mind. I do all my cooking. But the gesture is nice. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Kelechi smiled. She looked out the window. Hawkers were brandishing kilishi, suya, drinks, and bread at her.

“You want to buy anything?”

He was being polite, too polite. Kelechi knew he was trying to be nice to her – but she was willing to be patient. She also planned to sleep over at his place today, something she didn’t discuss with Mummy.

“Not really. But this bread looks fresh. And maybe some kilishi too.”

Ezenduka tossed her his wallet and kept his eyes on the road. “I don’t trust Lagos kilishi but buy if you must.”

She had already wound down the windows and started selecting food. Impatient drivers honked from behind, forcing Ezenduka to move the car, and the hawkers started chasing their car. Kelechi threw some money at them, only after they’d given her the correct change.

“I can’t wait to see where you live. I’ve been curious,” she said when they were many miles on the highway.

“Really. It’s nothing special. If the space is not enough for us, we’ll move to a bigger place.”

“How many rooms?” Kelechi asked.

“Three.”

“Sounds okay to me.”

Ezenduka’s apartment smelled of lavender. The walls were stained white, and it was clean. Ezenduka moved all her market bags to the kitchen. She wanted to empty her bladder, so she found the restroom. She washed her face, ears, and hands before returning to the kitchen. She noticed how it was devoid of foodstuff, and she smiled at the opportunity. She wanted to make plantain porridge and some ofe nsala. If she had time in the morning, she would make some egusi.

“Your kitchen is naked.” Kelechi remarked.

He shrugged. The space in the kitchen suddenly felt small. “I cook all my meals; I told you that.”

“Oh. I imagined you ate mostly takeouts in school.”

His phone buzzed. He looked at it and ignored it.

“My brother was my flat mate, and he insisted we cook on weekends. It was our way of keeping up with African food. Courtesy of my mum who loaded us with supplies.”

Kelechi laughed. “I can imagine her transporting produce from Sabo to Europe.”

“Yes, she went to those lengths. At first, it was annoying, But I soon started to appreciate it. Because we ate Nigerian food, well, it was easy for me to come back here. I really missed the culture here.”

“Won’t you take the call?” Kelechi was already poised like a proper wife, peeling the plantains and arranging spices for the porridge.

“Oh, it’s work stuff. How can I help?”

Kelechi smiled. “As if you can.”

“Yes oh. Look at this woman, I can cook.”

“Okay. Peel some onions. Later you’ll pound fresh peppers.”

“Tough job for the tough man, right? Give me a minute. We need some music here.”

He left the kitchen, and soon, The Cavemen boomed from the speakers in the living room.

When he came inside the kitchen, he was swinging to the Afrocentric highlife fusion. Kelechi watched him move this way and that – he had some moves. She started laughing, cheering him as he moved. He stretched his hands to her, and Kelechi dropped the plantain, and planted her hands in his. They moved in rhythm, their bodies syncing into the highlife beats, as if The Cavemen were a private band playing in Ezenduka’s kitchen.

“Wow. You are a dancer,” Ezenduka commented, with sweat soaking his face and shirt.

“If the mood is right, yes.” Kelechi was ecstatic – she never wanted the moment to end.

But it did end, because someone appeared in the hallway and screamed. The strange woman was taller than Kelechi, with fuller breasts. She must have had a house key, because Kelechi was sure that Ezenduka locked the house when they came in. The intruder kept screaming, “this is why you didn’t take my calls?” And she had a heavy British accent.

Kelechi felt the walls closing in on her, the plantains, and her foodstuff bags, so she left the kitchen and disappeared into the bathroom. The Cavemen was still playing, yet it was easy for Kelechi to hear their brawling. He was asking her to leave, pleading that he would call her tomorrow, but the woman wouldn’t budge.

Kelechi tried to forgive herself for being stupid. Of course, she didn’t expect him to be single. That was too high an expectation for a successful man living in Lagos. But she expected him to be cutting off his side girlfriends since he was soon to be married. She paced in the bathroom and was tempted to call Mummy. But she thought against it – and then she remembered her cooking. She would go out there and enter her husband-to-be’s kitchen and cook him dinner. If the bloody woman decided to stay, she was welcome. But Kelechi would not exchange words with a prostitute. At the end of the day, Ezenduka would be indebted to her. Perhaps, Kelechi could finally have some of that power that Mummy had acquired for herself.


Favour Iruoma Chukwuemeka is a creative writer from Eastern Nigeria. Her writing has appeared in Afritondo, Conscio, Cypress Journal, Lolwe, The Shallow Tales Review, Kalahari Review, and African Writer. She is an alumnus of the 2021 Creative Writing Cohort with Chigozie Obioma. She can be found on twitter at @heeruomah.

General Kamiti could smell a nice aroma coming from a distance. Before joining the liberation movement in the forest, he was a chef to the colonial settler. Immediately he smelt the nice aroma, he flashed back to how he used to cook nice food for the colonial settler. So tasty was his food that the settler decided to increase his salary. He used to cook delicious food for his bosses like fish and chips, Sunday roast, cottage pie, steak, kidney pie, English breakfast, and more. Since he never learned to prepare British cuisine from school, he taught himself how to cook them. When he served his boss in the dining room, his boss was very happy and asked for more. Kamiti could not disappoint, and he made sure that his boss ate to his satisfaction. This made the White settler very happy, and he decided to increase his salary. One day, Kamiti had prepared very delicious food such that Peterson, his boss, had ordered a second and third helping.

Once Kamiti smelt the aroma, he decided to follow it to see what made his saliva come out uncontrollably. He decided to follow a footpath hidden in a deep forest to conceal his footsteps from British soldiers who were hunting the Mau Mau fighters like wild goats. Kamiti had been sent as a spy by his seniors back in the forest to go and look for food supplies back in the village. The freedom fighters had gone without food for several days and had to rely on wild fruits to survive. After the imperialist government learned that the fighters were getting food supplies from villages, they forced the villagers to dig deep trenches to surround the villages and cut off the food supply from reaching the forest. So, after this trench boundary, Kamiti and his seniors knew that if things went on like this, the freedom fighters would starve to death.

He tried to hurry up while following the food scent for he knew he had to return to his deep forest hideout before dusk. Therefore, he followed the sweet smell carefully without losing it; he knew he was on the right track. The experience he had in food production could not let him err in something important like this. Apart from preparing European foods, he was an expert in preparing his community’s traditional foods. Most of the time, when there was an occasion in the village, he was the one who was assigned the duty of guiding the cooks on how to prepare important foods like meat. As he hurried towards the village, he felt bitter about the colonial rulers in the country.

He could remember very carefully that this was not the first time they were using food as a weapon to suppress the Africans. When they were coming to colonize the country, they brought in soldiers from Europe to come and fight the Africans. The Africans fought the battle tooth and nail, and when the imperialists realized that they were not easily defeated, they decided to use a tactic called the scorched earth policy. This was where they burned down crops and killed animals that might be used by the Africans as a source of food. This policy affected Africans so much that finally, they succumbed to brutal colonial rule. When this happened, Kamiti was in his early teens. He had experienced the brutality of colonial rule, and so he had vowed to use all powers at his disposal to see that they succeeded in the fight for African liberation and freedom.

It was approaching around five o’clock in the evening, and Kamiti took bigger steps towards where the aroma was coming from. He reached a large, cleared area with no bushes or trees. He stopped abruptly and peered while hiding in a bush. From where he was looking, it was very clear that the colonial administration might have told the village to clear a large section of trees so that they could spot any freedom fighter coming out of the forest for food. At a distance, he heard a crowd of people talking and laughing loudly. At this level, he knew that any wrong move would see him dead or rotting in detention camps. When he listened carefully, he heard that the people were talking in English. Immediately he heard this, he knew that those were colonial settlers or police officers. He decided to go no further but look for another plan. In his pocket, there was a binocular he had been given by one of the visitors who used to come to Peterson’s home. This binocular was awarded as the visitors were happy with his cooking. Without wasting any other minute, he climbed a big tree that was nearby, and when he was at the topmost part, he took out his binocular and looked through it. The binocular was single-lens, and he could see the whole village. He remembered the book he had read about Egyptian history where a certain Egyptian god called Horus had an all-seeing eye where he saw the whole of Egypt kingdom.

 Looking carefully, he noticed that a group of White police officers stood guard over scores of African trench diggers. Standing on their side was an African chef roasting meat for them, the police officers were laughing at an African worker who lay on the ground and looked very exhausted. One of the police officers kicked the guy hard on the stomach and exclaimed, “This stupid African thinks we are fools. How can he claim that he can no longer dig the trench because he is very exhausted?”

Kamiti felt sorry for the young man, but he could do nothing. He knew that despite his carrying his gun with him, he could not manage to fight the ten officers who were mistreating his tribesmen. All the same, his mind turned back to the roasted meat that was being barbecued near the trench. He had not eaten for two days, only surviving on wild fruits and water. The best he could do was to go back to the forest and inform the other liberation fighters what he had seen. They would then lay a plan on how to find food because they knew that they could not fight or survive without it. Without the food supply, the fight for freedom would not succeed. Once he surveyed the area skillfully, he climbed down the tree and sat on the ground holding his chin. From what he had seen, it was almost impossible for any human to cross the other side of the trench to get food for the fighters. The trench was so wide and deep that anyone who would try to reach the other end would find himself or herself breaking their limbs.

Kamiti regretted the colonialists coming to his country. He remembered his family he had left alone back in the village and felt sad. At that time of the year, he could have been planting cassava and arrowroots on his farm. His farm was big, and many people came to buy foodstuffs from there. Right now, he had been demoted from being a farmer and chef to a gunslinger, but he never regretted it because he had to fight for the freedom of his motherland.

The sizzling sound of the roasting meat continued to meet his ear as he left the scene. He hurried towards the hideout where he had left the other freedom fighters. It took him about an hour and a half to get there. When General Wachuka and the other fighters saw him, they all stood and looked at him anxiously. General Wachuka was the head of the battalion. They respected him for his leadership and combat fighting.  They were very anxious to know what message he had brought to them. At this time, the hunger pangs were biting them seriously. Many of them had no energy left to fight the enemy. Immediately Kamiti arrived at the scene, he ordered everyone to gather at one point so that he could tell them what he saw.

“I had the honor of being sent to look at what we could do to get food supplies for our soldiers,” he began. “The works of emissaries belong to younger scouts, but the nature of the work required a more experienced person. Therefore, I was the one who was chosen to take this noble task,” he continued as others listened.

“I went to where the trench is being dug, and to say the truth, the trenches are very deep and wide for any human being to cross. Even our best cliffhangers I guess cannot cross the other side of these trenches. Hence, I think we have to know what to do to get food supply from the village other than crossing this dangerous trench,” he concluded. And at this point, the fighters became astonished.

 Everyone looked disappointed and hopeless; it was only General Wachuka who shot up and suggested that anyone who had got an idea of what they could do should stand up and say it before it was too late. There was one young man in his early twenties who stood up and said he had a suggestion. He was given a chance to speak.

“When I was attending a Sunday school with missionaries, we were told about how a young boy called David in the Bible used a sling to kill an enemy soldier by the name of Goliath. I would suggest we write a letter and tie it on a stone. One emissary will go to where we take our letter and fling the letter to the village using a sling. The letter would advise the villages to also bundle food in small packages. They would then fling the food using the same slings to the place where we used to collect it before,” he said.

After he finished his statement, everybody clapped, and they looked excited. They almost forgot that they were in a hideout in the forest. As the young man suggested, the letter was written and given to an emissary. As the letter described, the freedom fighters would be waiting for the food the next day very early in the morning at the designated scene. As the young emissary disappeared at a distance, the fighters wished the hours could fly off so that they could go and look whether there was any food to eat.

It was almost two hours since the fighters arrived at the suggested scene. They wondered whether they were the ones who had arrived earlier, or if the people designated to bring the foodstuffs might have forgotten. General Kamiti kept on moving from one place to another looking at his scratched wristwatch. When he looked at the watch again, it was four o’clock in the morning; he started to get worried but never told anyone about it. Another twenty minutes elapsed, and he was about to open his mouth to order his troops back in their hideout when a big lump of something soft hit him hard on his forehead.  At first, he thought it was British soldiers who had ambushed them. But when he came back to his senses, he thought he had smelt the sweet aroma of fried meat and potatoes.

After the first lump landed, others followed and within a duration of fifteen minutes, the whole place was awash with foodstuffs. A few minutes later, the food bundles stopped coming and everything was silent. General Wachuka and Kamiti ordered his troops to gather the food quickly and head back to their hideouts before the dawn light came out. Some of the fighters were very hungry, and they secretly went back into the hideout while eating what they were carrying. Soon the fighters reached their destination, and Wachuka told them to keep what they had gathered at the front.

“Today we are very lucky. We have managed to get food supply, but there is one issue that I would like to raise. We have seen how we have struggled to get food again after the enemy ordered the trenches to be dug. We need discipline when using our foodstuffs. Please eat only what is enough and keep the rest safe for next time,” Wachuka said.

The fighters did as they were told, and the rest of the food was kept safe in a cool dry place. That night, both General Wachuka and Kamiti told the fighters that they had to resume back fighting the enemy. So, when night came, they prepared their guns and other weapons. Before they could embark on the mission that night, Kamiti said he wanted to talk to them.

“Gallant soldiers, there is one thing I would like to request of you when carrying your guns, remember to carry slings and stones. This weapon has helped us a lot, and it may help us again. We can dismiss now,” he said as the fighters cocked their guns with much strength showing that they had regained the energy to fight the colonialist until they got their freedom.


Mungai Mwangi is a prolific writer. After high school, he attended college for an information technology course. He studied creative writing through correspondence. He has written articles for newspapers and blogging sites as well as a novel titled The Godly Merchant. He has received awards such as The Reading Ambassador from the the Start A Library Trust Organization and Story Moja Publishers. Currently he is working on novels and short stories. He can be found on Facebook at Mungai Mwangi.

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


Jaiminho, the son of Dr. Carlos Tati, wished to have a talk with his father but was unsuccessful.

            Dr. Carlos Tati was an anthropologist, educated in Kinshasa, at least according to his calling card. The card was a bit problematic because the name that appeared right in the center was “Doctor Carlos Tati,” which, at first glance, might mean that his name was Doctor. But that was a naïve reading that those who had known him for some time seldom made since they would never call him by the supposed name, but just Carlos or Tati.

            Besides the name, Dr. Carlos Tati’s card also mentioned his profession– anthropologist–and included a supreme innovation, a color photo in which he appeared wearing a striped brown coat, yellow tie, and a green handkerchief with black polka dots. If color photography had never been invented, I don’t know what would become of Dr. Tati.

            Dr. Carlos Tati was so effusive and imperious that his son couldn’t look him in the eye, much less speak to him. His father’s phrases, always delivered in a tone of absolutism and superiority, fell on his head like huge stones that devastated him in such a way that he always felt crushed, squashed, flattened to ground level. A worm. Worse, a useless insect, because worms at least possess some potential for menace, which obliges and legitimizes their destruction. Jaiminho, on the contrary, felt like a nullity, a zero to the left, a nothing.

            Actually, he was a sensitive youth full of doubts. It can be said that, in theory, all young people are like that, but in the time period when this story took place it was inadvisable to be so. It was a complex era, one in which young people had to be tough, self-confident, and decisive since the examples they received from earlier generations were not exactly edifying. Therefore, the young people of his time killed, stole, and fornicated from a young age. (I read somewhere I don’t recall that these constitute the three vital functions of human beings in times of crisis). Thus, Jaiminho felt like a true stranger in the nest.

            He would have liked to talk with his father about it. But the mere thought paralyzed him with fear.

            Before we explain Jaiminho’s terror — if the diffuse fear he experienced is even explainable — it is worthwhile for us to know, briefly and succinctly, some of the theories defended by Dr. Carlos Tati regarding the future of Angola as a nation.

            The anthropologist was an obdurate defender of the Bantu underpinnings of Angola. He even argued that they were the only ones that must be considered. He used the verb “must” with complete naturalness, a dangerous symptom, as anthropological realities are not formulated by decree. But I say this protected by my position as narrator. Jaiminho experienced a slight but particularly incisive shock when his father made such statements.

            “We are a Bantu nation and that’s all there is to it! The rest is nonsense…”

            Dr. Carlos Tati was also a champion of the ancestral Angolan nations. One day he had a major confrontation during a television debate with a journalist who liked to call himself an intellectual. This man reminded Dr. Tati that those ancestral nations — which, he said, were not yet “Angola” — no longer existed. The journalist quoted an Italian statesman who, it seems, said at the beginning of the twentieth century: “We have created Italy; now we must create Italians.” To the journalist, that is what must be done in Angola.

            That day, Dr. Carlos Tati arrived home especially upset. Jaiminho heard him say, as he paced about the house: “We need an Idi Amin… We need an Idi Amin…”

            His son opted not to comment with him on the television debate. He chose, rather, to retreat to his room and read a strange book.

             Another theory of Dr. Carlos Tati’s was that there is an intrinsic relationship between individuals’ names and their identity. He railed against the fact that many parents gave their children Portuguese and, above all, Brazilian names like Ana Cristina, Vera Lúcia or Rita de Cássia. In the same way, he detested supposedly revolutionary names, like Marx, Fidel, Nkrumah, or Mandela, not to mention Eastern European names, revolutionary or not, like Natasha or Svetlana.

            “People with those names cannot be Angolan… Shit! Why don’t those parents give their children authentic Bantu names?!…”

            Yes, I have noted that Doctor Tati’s first name is Carlos. And that his son is named Jaiminho. What’s the problem? As I have said over and over, human beings are complex and inherently contradictory. Besides which, if literature is not for explaining something, it is much less for understanding anything.

            Jaiminho’s father spoke fastidiously correct Portuguese in the style of Coimbra — which was in fact his native tongue — and Lingala, a creole language he had learned in  former Zaire. He barely spoke Kikongo, the country’s mother tongue. However, he accused Portuguese of being the “language of the colonizer” and defended the urgent prioritizing of the African “national languages” spoken in Angola. This was another of the theories that he considered essential for the future of the nation.

            When the President, in a speech that became famous, classified those languages as “regional” given their limited range, Dr. Carlos Tati almost had a stroke. Days later, he wrote an article asking if the president was crazy or merely misinformed. Nothing happened to him, which proves that the absence of democracy in Angola is, as said by supporters of the government, “a maneuver of imperialism.”

            All these assertions were expounded by Dr. Carlos Tati with such vehemence that his son Jaiminho knew it was practically suicidal to disagree with him. His father’s personality was omnipresent and omnipotent, to the point that it not only smothered, but annihilated him.

            Jaiminho was incapable of having with him the special conversation that he sheltered in his fragile and seamless heart. Every day, his doubts grew.

            He was Dr. Carlos Tati’s youngest son, the only one who lived with him. His father was on his third marriage, to the secretary of his department at the university. She was a young woman from Huíla, a descendant of the Cuanhamas, slender and well-spoken, and Jaiminho’s mother. Dr. Carlos Tati had three other children from two previous relationships, all of whom lived with their mothers. In addition to Portuguese, Jaiminho’s mother spoke fluent Cuanhama, her native tongue, and Nyaneka-Humbi, the language of the Huíla region. All that diversity irritated her husband, who one day expressly forbade speaking other languages in the house.

            “Portuguese is the only truly Angolan language — because all of us at least understand it!” he said, quickly adding, “How am I supposed to understand what you say in those bizarre languages?”

            The truth, however, is that Jaiminho had an almost inborn difficulty in dealing with hypocrisy. His father’s position mortified him.

            He was a sensitive youth with no known friends who spent most of his time at home reading strange books he showed no one and listening silently to what was called “foreign music” by Dr. Carlos Tati. Tati’s musical knowledge was limited to the songs of Urbano de Castro, a popular Angolan singer of the 1970s who plagiarized from old Latin American merengues. Ray Charles, Jacques Brel, Patxi Andión and other musical preferences of his son were for him more cryptic than the languages his wife insisted on speaking at home, especially when she received family members from what he called “the backwoods.” Jaiminho had become acquainted with that music through the writer Freddy da Cunha, and he listened to it mystically in his room at night. He had an inexplicable admiration for da Cunha, who he had approached at one of the frequent activities of the Union of Angolan Writers.

            Before independence, the writer had studied abroad. And it was overseas, alongside influential authors, that he learned to know and love this kind of music. . When Jaiminho, who was twenty years younger then he, approached him and spoke of his literary trials, Freddy da Cunha lent him books by Mayakovski, Eluard, Neruda, Lorca, and Guillén, saying:

            “You have to read, young man, read a lot… To be a writer it’s necessary to read a lot…”

            Later, upon returning from a trip to participate in an international literary symposium, he brought back for Jaiminho a package of blues, jazz, and protest music. In his view, Jaiminho needed to increase his general culture, without which he could never be a writer.

            “Have you ever thought of spending some time outside the country, for example, to study?” he asked.

            Jaiminho made the writer his master, albeit secretly, as not even Freddy da Cunha had any notion of it. There was one aspect of the writer’s personality that Jaiminho had trouble accepting: Freddy da Cunha was a womanizer. Without his knowing why, that saddened him.

            Dr. Carlos Tati never met the writer. He didn’t know whether he was Black, White, or mulatto. He was unlike those Angolan legislators, who years back had made the strategic decision to include “race” on ID cards. That was why, when Jaiminho arrived home with the jazz records given him by Freddy da Cunha, his father didn’t hesitate to let escape that surprisingly original and creative phrase:

            “Jazz is mulatto music!”

            Jaiminho paid no attention.

            The truth is that by then Jaiminho had completely given up the idea of talking with his father.

            His dilemma was now a different one: did he want to be a writer or a musician?

            His attempts to transform into literature his doubts, anguish, desires, and plans had turned out to be a total failure. Freddy da Cunha’s hints seemed more and more useless to him. Besides that, he couldn’t help remembering that the writer was an inveterate womanizer.

            Maybe his path was music. He didn’t want to dedicate himself to jazz, despite his continuing to listen to it every night. When he was more depressed than usual, he wanted to make protest music. The problem was: protest against what? And how?

            He felt he harbored a repressed scream in the depths of his soul. But finding out the nature of that scream anguished him profoundly.

            In addition, how could he communicate it at that unique and special moment so that everyone might hear and come to respect him the way he would like to be respected, with his desires and choices? His father, Dr. Carlos Tati, would die from displeasure.

            Jaiminho found out what to do the day the anthropologist brought home a newspaper whose front page dealt with homosexuality in Luanda. His father was painfully peremptory:

            “Jaime, take a look at this shit… Queers in Angola? Where are we heading? This is contrary to our culture! Homosexuality isn’t part of Bantu civilizations! It has to be the influence of those gringos in the United Nations, those NGOs, those consultants who run around corrupting Angolan youth!… Or else TV Globo… The petty bourgeoisie in Angola spend all their time watching Globo soap operas… Angola is truly lost! Homosexuality is the direct manifestation of the roots of evil. If I had a son who took it in the butt, I’d beat him to death!…”

            The next day, Jaiminho left home, leaving just a note asking his father not to come looking for him and above all not to worry about him anymore.


(Translated by Cliff E. Landers)


JOÃO MELO, born in 1955 in Luanda, Angola, is an author, journalist, and communication consultant. Founder of the Angolan Writer´s Association, and of the Angolan Academy of Literature and Social Science, he currently, splits his time between Luanda, Lisbon and Houston, Texas. His works include poetry, short stories, articles and essays that have been published in Angola, Portugal, Brazil, Italy, and Cuba. A number of his writings have been translated into English, French, German, Arabic, and Chinese. He was awarded the 2009 Angola Arts and Culture National Prize in literature category.

Decolonial Passage is honored to announce the nominations for next year’s Best Small Fictions Anthology.  This list includes writing published from January to November 2021.  Congratulations to the nominees!

Flash Fiction

“The Road” by Ekow Manuar

Prose Poetry

“The Aging Colossus” by T. Francis Curran

“Ode to Newark” by Keishla Rivera-Lopez

He had his appointment with the santera on Thursday morning. That was the whole reason for this trip. The lies we tell ourselves. He didn’t even believe in Santería, but here he was. Maybe, just maybe, the santera would be able to fix his problem. We do a lot of things just to prove to ourselves that they won’t make us feel better, like calling that ex-girlfriend when your dog dies just to remember that she never made you feel any less alone. There is always the hope, though, that it’s going to be a tender and warm moment and you will realize you’ve been remembering everything wrong. 

He had been seeing that ex-girlfriend last March. His wife didn’t know, or maybe she did. He felt, at times, that they had developed a non-verbal agreement. He had seen the movies. The wife is supposed to smell the perfume on your clothes and spot the lipstick on your neck and say, “I don’t have that color”. He wasn’t careful either, but she never said anything. 

He went out to dinner alone. He had arrived that afternoon on the island and didn’t know anyone here anymore. Maybe he had never known anyone; he just had the illusion that he did. He remembered his childhood friend, Lazaro, well. Dark skin, olive eyes, robust — even as a nine-year-old boy. The streets where they used to play baseball with improvised baseball bats made out of wooden blocks that once held buildings together; majestic Baroque houses in pastel colors facing the sea. 

Lazaro probably didn’t remember him or the details of his face. He probably didn’t remember his skinny, long legs and the weird shadowy mustache that he had when he was just ten. “We forget the ones who leave because they are too many to remember,” his Aunt Haitana had told him once, years before, on his first visit to the island. She was dead now, her ashes swimming somewhere in the Caribbean with a gam of sharks. 

The restaurant where he dined was right in front of the Malecón, the big stone wall that protects Habana from the anger of the ocean. He thought that it would be nice to go for a walk after dinner. It was always relaxing to walk next to the sea. The waves crashing into the wall sounded like a song he liked when he was a teenager. In this song, there was never a climax, just an approximation to it. The waves came with all the energy and determination to go as far as their force would permit it, to travel through the sand until all the power in the water was exhausted. Instead, they were abruptly stopped by this stone wall. No warning. He wondered what the first waves felt, the first waves that hit the Malecón wall. The anger and confusion that overpowered them and how ever since that day they’ve been trying to tear the wall down. Some day they will.  You can’t kill the ocean. 

The ex-girlfriend that he slept with in March had once told him a joke that really made him laugh. He would think about it every now and then just to remember why he fell in love. For some reason, that night, he wanted to remember why he fell in love. It gave him a false sense of autonomy – so much in his life felt unintentional. They were talking about dying and how they wanted their bodies to be disposed. It was a phone conversation. He was driving on the highway. He wondered where she was, but he never asked, and she probably didn’t even remember the joke anymore. “I want to be stuffed and hung in a plaza like a shirt in a clothes hanger.” He laughed so much that he almost got into an accident, even though most people would find it hard to even understand it was a joke. 

The reason why he had been able to hear her joke, and all the other things they talked about on that phone call is because of electrical signals and cell towers. Her phone had converted her laugh into an electrical signal, which was then transmitted via radio waves to the nearest cell tower. Then the network of cell towers received and passed the radio wave to his cell phone which converted it to an electrical signal and then back to sound again. He wondered how her laugh looked in radio wave form when traveling from wherever she was to his car. He imagined it as a salty and warm Malecón wave speeding through the air only to be abruptly stopped by his 2001 red Honda Civic. Her laugh could have travelled galaxies if it wasn’t for him. 

They were over now, though, and he was in Habana, and she really didn’t matter. These were the things that sometimes occupied his mind, and he couldn’t control it. He felt dumb about walking through the Malecón thinking about how a good joke had reached his red Honda Civic eight years ago. 

The night smelled like tobacco. There were people drinking bad rum everywhere. Some had old guitars and others were playing reggaetón from their black-market smartphones. He tried to imagine what he would be doing on that August evening if he had stayed. He had tried to fantasize about how his life would have turned out if he had never left Cuba. It was impossible to imagine; yet, he did have a feeling that he would have been happier. Maybe he wouldn’t need a santera to help him with what everyone else back home called a hallucination. 

The next day he woke up with an urge to walk to Parque Almendares. He got out of bed and realized the floor wasn’t wet, he wasn’t wet, and he had slept all night without waking up once. He got to the park and felt like he was stepping into a bathtub full of hot water, a delightful sensation until the water starts getting cold and all pleasure is lost. He had played there as a kid and every time he came back, it seemed like nothing had changed, or at least everything that had changed was for the better. This nostalgia for an untouched past felt healthier in the park than when looking at the crumbling columns of the city. He had heard about the man who died when his building on Calzada del Cerro collapsed in the middle of the night. The park was different, though – all the chaos and abandonment had paved the way for the most beautiful urban jungle. In front of him the trees were huge and had vines that fell like Venus’s hair. The plants on the ground seemed like a sky of fluffy green clouds. 

But then the water went cold. There’s only so much walking and reminiscing he could do before the absurdity of this trip started to catch up with him. His wife was eight months pregnant, he was an atheist, and he had taken a three-day trip to Habana to talk to a santera. 

The pills that the psychiatrist had prescribed had done nothing during all these months. If anything, it made it worse. The sound was louder, the room got colder, and every night there seemed to be more and more of it. His wife couldn’t feel it. He actually hadn’t asked her, but he figured if she could, there was no way she wouldn’t have brought it up. When she found the orange prescription bottle in the bathroom, she walked up to him and hugged him for a very long time. He stood there feeling more misunderstood than ever. Nothing was wet this morning, though, so maybe the pills had finally had an effect on him. 

He hailed a cab right outside the park. It was a pink convertible, probably more expensive because it was for tourists. 

“Where to hermano?” The man had white hair and looked tiny on the driver’s seat. He was wearing round, wire glasses and a striped button-down shirt. 

He pulled out his phone and read “Carolina and Torres, in Guanabacoa, house 73.” 

They left the park. The cab driver asked him all the typical questions: where he was from, what he was in Cuba for, had he enjoyed his visit, did he have family here. Then he talked for a long time about something, maybe politics. He suspected he had given the driver very monosyllabic answers so the man felt the need to fill the silence himself. 

The experience was like going to a big concert. The words in the conversation were the strangers at the concert. He knew they existed, and he had seen them, but he couldn’t remember one single face. Sometimes people talk at you like they are holding a gun, like they are shooting question marks and words like “happiness” and “sister” and “president”, and you try to catch the words in your hands before they hit you, so you can throw them out the window, but sometimes they are too many. And with your silence you beg the person to please drop the gun, but they are too busy shooting, and you don’t have a gun, so you just sit there, and words hit you, and then you forget everything anyone said. 

“Chico, get out, we are here.” The man hit his arm, and he realizes the car has stopped. 

The neighborhood is composed of one-story houses and smells like pulled pork and sewer water and warm asphalt. He takes out a $20 bill, hands it to the driver and gets out of the cab. $20 will make up for his social impairments, at least in Cuba. 

He knocks on the door. He can hear the TV inside. It sounds like a game show. He can also hear some salsa playing which might be coming from the TV, but it could also be a radio. 

A large Afro-Cuban woman opens the door. She is wearing a pink t-shirt that says “Paradise” in glitter and sequins. She stares at him, he stares back. 

“Yes? Who are you?” She says while she bites into her long, red index nail.

He gives her his name.

“Mijo, your appointment is tomorrow” she says as she begins to close the door. 

He stops the door with his hand.

“Please.” “Your manners, Dios mío. It’s my day off.”

“I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m leaving.” 

The woman stares at him with the music and game show still playing in the background. “Okay, let me get dressed. There will be a fee, okay? For this whole…” She makes circles with her hands to explain what a disaster he has caused, then walks back inside. 

Sitting on the sidewalk he can hear old, rusty bikes in the distance and kids screaming. The day has gotten hotter. The asphalt breathes out the heat. The door squeaks behind him. He turns around and the woman is standing in the doorway with a long white dress, a white scarf covering her head and a red flower resting above her left ear. “Come in.” she says. 

He stands up and follows her in. 

The walls in the hallway are turquoise but the old paint is falling, and you can see a mustard yellow below the turquoise paint. The floor is concrete. He can see the room with the TV at the end of the hallway, but the woman leads him through a hallway where he has to crouch, then through another doorway. 

They enter a space filled with all types of religious figures: baby Jesus, Virgin Marys, adult Jesus and others he can’t identify, but if he could, he would refer to them as Yemayá, Eleguá, Ogún, Oshún . There are flowers and fruits in bowls everywhere. Two of the walls are turquoise, one is yellow and the other one is pink. There are no windows. Flower-patterned cushions lay on the floor. The woman gestures for him to sit down. 

She takes out four cowrie shells from a box. “So, we are going to communicate with your ancestors and spirit guides with the cowrie shells now. I am already sensing that there’s a spirit following you, an old man, maybe.” She closes her eyes. “Maybe a grandfather or a father.” 

“Can I just explain why I’m here?” The words tumble out of his mouth like old dust balls. 

“The reading of the cowrie shells will explain that. I can sense you have a deep connection to Ogún right now, maybe he is protecting you during a complicated phase of change.” 

“Please let me just tell you what my problem is.” 

She looks at him, and he feels naked. She looks at him and snorts. She looks at him and says, “So you are another one of them.” 

“Another one?”

“Yes, those who left and think they want to come back.” 

He finds it hilarious that this woman thinks other people have the same problem as he does. He feels the baby Jesus and the Virgin Marys and the Yemayás and the Oshúns and the adult Jesus and even the cowrie shells laughing with him. He imagines all of them have a phone, and they are all calling each other inside this tiny room just to laugh in unison over the telephone. The room is filled with each deity’s laughter in radio-wave form, and he can see them travelling through the air like ocean waves, except each one has a different color. They’re all dancing and laughing, and Baby Jesus kisses Yemayá and, she blushes, and the Virgin Mary spanks Oshún. 

Antonio laughs as he imagines this. The woman in front of him looks at him with pity in her eyes. He laughs at the absurdity of this woman thinking she understands. 

There is no way this woman knows that it rains inside his bedroom every night. That it rains so much that his room is flooded. There is no way she understands that on some nights there’s even thunder, and he gets cold, and he gets wet, and he wishes he could drown. But he will never drown because the water never rises above the bed, it always stays just under the edge of it, even when it keeps raining. He can hear and feel drops all night, but the level never rises above the bed. 

“I suppose your bed becomes an island because it rains in your room every night.” The woman plays with her long nails, her eyes lost in the red acrylic. 

And just like that, the radio waves of all the deities’ laughter drop to the ground. 

“Go back to your country.” She looks at him now. He thinks she’s about to start shooting words like “exile” and “freedom” and “letting go.”

But they both just sit there in silence, and he understands. 


Maria Luisa Santos is a Costa Rican filmmaker and writer. She writes stories and makes films dealing with immigration, personal loss, and family. Luisa is interested in the connections between one’s internal life and the natural world, and she expresses subjective, unknowable experiences through description of landscape. Her latest short documentary Café de Temporada won at IndieGrits19 and her short fictional film TER premiered at SXSW20 and was broadcast by PBS. Her work has been shown in The New Yorker, SXSW, PBS, New Orleans FF, Femme Frontera, and Philadelphia Latino FF, amongst others. She can be found at https://www.marialuisasantos.com/, https://www.sinfincine.com/, https://www.facebook.com/marialuisa.santosf/, and https://www.instagram.com/marialuisasantosf/.

The vehicle was offered whilst the kitchen staff changed. Following a loud function that had fed five hundred, Alistair, the sous-chef, doused himself in a cloud of strong deodorant, before casually enquiring if anybody fancied a motor. His offer fell cold onto the ground, until Zuba, in a haze, offered to take the car.

Standing next to a discarded heap of chef whites and still in his underpants, Alistair wrote Zuba’s address on the back of a crumpled blue menu, promising to drop off the car the following afternoon. He explained the car’s details, the specifics of which were consumed in Zuba’s confusion and excitement.

***

On the late bus home, Zuba thought back to months before when he had been employed as a teacher in Sierra Leone. Only two members of staff owned cars then. One was the principal who had a low silver Datsun car that had an amicable relationship with rust and belched out thick smoke when it was in motion. Staff and pupils often joked that the smoke from principal’s jalopy was so thick it could cook rice. The only other member of staff with a car was Mr Vandy, the physics teacher, who had acquired his degree in America, and, as such, considered his skills wasted in a mere secondary school. His car, therefore, was an extension of his disdain for his situation — a lumbering prop that emphasised his superiority. 

***

The offer of the car further convinced Zuba that the conference centre was a place where things were given away. The previous week, a tattooed waitress with blue hair and a pierced nose had offered up a futon. Zuba did not volunteer to take the futon because their cramped flat could not accommodate a futon; cars on the other hand slept outside.

The conference centre was also a place where good food was thrown away in massive amounts. Zuba had therefore taken to rescuing portions to feed him and his flatmate, Boy Kennedy, which meant they had more money to send to relatives and friends in their home countries. Their fridge was currently crammed with cooked lamb from a lavish dinner for an insurance company, lasagne from a shift at the Caledonian Hotel, whilst unrelated slabs of sticky toffee pudding, liberated from different restaurants, kept company inside a transparent bowl on their coffee table.

His initial dismay at being food-destroyer-in-chief had eventually mellowed to resignation. His first order to dispose of leftovers had been disconcerting, and he thought that  the sous-chef, was joking, when after a function to feed delegates of a conference on climate change, Alistair declared, that two wide containers of chicken should be put in the bucket.

The chef had sensed Zuba’s incredulity from his alarmed expression. He therefore explained the rationale behind the mass wastage; leftover food used to be given to the homeless until some sad bastard claimed that he got food poisoning after eating their salmon. There had been talk of a lawsuit.

Since chicken had always been a luxury, Zuba refused to carry out the order to dispose. He instead emptied the contents of the two trays into a green bin bag which he took home, leading to some strange glances from other passengers on Bus 33. The rescued pieces of chicken fed him and Boy Kennedy for a couple of weeks.

***

If you were lucky, you ate chicken twice a year in the home country. Once was during Christmas when masked devil parades were organised and singing children patrolled the neighbourhood in matching ashobi outfits. The other chicken-worthy occasion was Ramadan Pray-Day when Muslims celebrated the end of their period of fasting. Jollof rice, cassava leaves, groundnut soup and other delicacies were cooked and shared amongst households.

Back then, being the oldest boy-child of the family, Zuba was often tasked with slaughtering the single rooster which was saved for that particular occasion. On said occasion, he stood on the squawking bird’s wings, dug a hole in the ground with a sharp knife to collect the blood and then slit the throat. The chicken would jerk spasmodically as the blood oozed, the part of the ritual which he hated the most. His mother had reprimanded him for being squeamish, stressing that she expected him to embrace the duties of manhood. One chicken to feed his family of fourteen meant a meagre piece for Zuba, and as was customary, he got the neck which was awarded to him as compensation for slaying the fowl.

***

It was Boy Kennedy, the flatmate from Zimbabwe, who had advised him to work in kitchens. He reasoned that people in this part of the world took food very seriously and used every opportunity to eat out. He even made Zuba watch a couple of programmes on the television featuring animated chefs jabbering away over exotic creations. Zuba watched transfixed, being most bewildered when a beautiful chef with dark hair poured half a bottle of wine into a bubbling sauce. Surely alcohol was for drinking only?

***

With time though, he was sent almost exclusively to the conference centre where fridges and freezers were entire rooms, and cleaning them required wearing an oversized red jacket reserved for that purpose.

 On another occasion, he had to polish strangely-shaped knives which were apparently used to eat fish. He also received a crash course on how to operate huge bellowing machines used to wash pots and pans. He realised that a side plate was different from a saucer, and that some top quality cheeses had pungent smells that lingered. And then there were the perplexing concepts of starters and desserts which involved eating separate portions of food from different plates before and after the main meal.

When he therefore phoned home, his mouth was bursting with stories about life in the kitchens. There was for instance the drama of Hubert, the bald pastry chef, who was escorted from the premises by a couple of stiff security men. Hubert had screamed obscenities and smashed a stack of plates after hearing that he would not be getting a pay rise.  

Still buoyed at the prospect of owning a car, Zuba arrived home just after one. Surely, Alistair could not give him a car for free. Perhaps fatigue had addled the chef’s brain, shearing him of common sense. Nobody gave cars away.

He had the flat to himself, which meant that Boy Kennedy had taken himself to the Mambo Club at Tollcross. Zuba had been to the club a couple of times but hated the choking cigarette smoke which left his clothes stinking. And he also could not understand some of his fellow Africans who visited the club only to spend the entire evening acting like American rappers complete with fake drawled accents and baggy clothing. 

Boy Kennedy had been lucky enough to meet someone in the club though, a svelte woman with long yellow hair that reminded Zuba of bright raffia. The woman claimed that Boy Kennedy looked like Will Smith, and they were since then inseparable, Zuba often hearing them having loud sex through the wall.

After switching on the central heating, he emptied his camouflage backpack of the wide Tupperware container that accompanied him to all shifts. Today it contained condemned sausages and black pudding from breakfast. He had also wrapped up squashed chunks of cheesecake in foil paper.

He ate in front of the television, trawling the bright green teletext for news of back home. Manchester United were interested in signing Patrick Kluivert. Peace talks continued between the central government and rebel forces. He would buy a phone card and call home over the weekend. News of the car would make for good conversation.

***

As promised, Alistair, the sous-chef, arrived with the car the next day. The flat Zuba shared with Boy Kennedy was on the third floor, their living room window overlooking the court below. From his elevated position, he observed Alistair’s approach in the distance, his red hair distinct behind the steering wheel of a white car, which Zuba recognised as a Ford Uno.

Not bothering to lock the door, he hurried down the stairs to receive his car. The courtyard was deserted, the only occupant being a typical biting wind.  

On seeing Zuba, Alistair broke into a broad smile and beckoned him to get into the vehicle. Zuba welcomed the warmth of the car as he settled nervously on the seat which was covered in black and red tartan material. The sous-chef twisted a dial, dousing the voice of an animated radio presenter who was busy praising the qualities of a newly released pop song. Alistair was wearing a sleek leather jacket and a pair of grey jeans, and it was almost as if being out of his chef’s uniform had taken away his customary grumpiness. 

“Here she is mate! All yours. Missed the turning coming here or would have been a little earlier.”

“This belongs to me?” Zuba replied, running his hands along the dashboard which had accumulated a thin coat of dust.

“Absolutely. Got a new one, and this banger’s worth next to nothing now. Would maybe get fifty quid for it on Auto Trader, which is not worth the effort. So, you might as well have it, as long as you don’t mind your neighbours laughing at you. It is MOTd till next July, and I put in new brake pads just a couple of months ago. Runs smooth and engine’s only 1.4 so it does not drink a lot of fuel!”

After the chef’s departure, Zuba spent time exploring the car, turning dials and flicking switches. He was happiest at the fact that the vehicle had a basic stereo system that played CDs. Music was one of the few luxuries he had allowed himself since arriving in the new country, and he had managed to accumulate a respectable stack of mainly rap and reggae albums.

***

He showed the car to Boy Kennedy when he arrived home in the afternoon. The flatmate was very impressed, purring as he circled the vehicle, excitement dancing in his eyes.

“In this country there are opportunities for all,” Boy Kennedy pointed out as he settled on his haunches to inspect the vehicle’s tyres. “Do you see how we now live in the land of Betty’s Head?”

Sensing Zuba’s confusion, Boy Kennedy explained, “Betty is their Queen Elizabeth, and her head is on the pound notes we struggle for. So, this is her land. Imagine owning a car after being here for just three months! As long as we work hard and follow the law, nobody will disturb us. Our parents are not corrupt government ministers who steal public money, but today in this foreign country which has ice on the ground, we have opportunities! You the man who cleans kitchens now owns a car!”

***

Zuba took to eating in the car. He would heat liberated food from the kitchens in their old microwave and carry it down to the vehicle. He also took  CDs, which provided mood music.

On the first evening, he ate sea bass and mashed potatoes to the accompaniment of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. On another evening, Bob Marley’s Uprising provided the background to a tender pork joint. At other times, he fiddled with the radio, settling on random stations that produced music pleasing to his ears.

The white car remained uncomplicated, especially as he could not drive and as such did not have to buy fuel. He only once had to put water in its engine to ensure that the heating worked and kept him warm as he dined, the dashboard illuminated like a constellation.

***

In mid-December, the conference centre closed down for the Christmas holidays; yet, Zuba was offered shifts in the kitchens of an airport hotel. He danced across the living room after Marie, the narrow Gothic lady from the agency, explained in a light voice down the phone that he would receive triple pay for working on Christmas and New Year’s days. Boy Kennedy would be missing till the new year; Amanda, the girlfriend with the raffia hair, was spending the holidays with her family in Orkney and had invited him to travel up with her.

***

There was no public transport available after his early shift on Christmas day so the hotel provided a taxi. The driver was round and pleasant and on hearing that Zuba was from Africa mentioned that he had been on holiday to The Bahamas in the summer.

The Queen’s Speech was in its final lines when he switched on the television, and he stayed on his feet to listen to her message of hope and goodwill, observing that unlike on the pound notes, the crown was missing from her head.

He waited for the end of the speech before phoning home, whilst he watched rescued turkey and roast potatoes rotating in the microwave. The money he had sent earlier in the month through Western Union had been received by his mother who had cooked for all of their relatives. Everybody was well except little brother, Abu, who was laid low by a troublesome bout of malaria.

He ate in the car again, settling his plate on the passenger seat as he selected music appropriate for his meal – Brenda Fassie’s Memeza. The temperature gauge read two degrees and he adjusted the heating in the car accordingly. The turkey tasted bland and so he transferred his attention to the potatoes which were crisp and well-seasoned.  

***

The police woke him up on Boxing Day, their knocking pitched between apologetic and urgent. As he was led across the court into their waiting car, he could feel the neighbours’ eyes from behind curtains.

He was driven to the canal that ambled through a nearby housing estate at Wester Hailes. One of the police had to walk round to let him out, opening the door as if it was made out of crockery.

 Zuba’s white car was in the canal.

The vehicle was positioned as if it had attempted a somersault and landed on its head, the wheels facing the sky, the rusty undercarriage exposed in the dull morning light. The windows were smashed, broken glass strewn along the canal’s path like rough diamonds. Something sharp had been taken to the seats, the stuffing spread on the path like confetti, other bits floating in the half-frozen water. The CDs had been removed from the glove compartment and smashed underfoot, 2 Pac’s face on the cover of All Eyes On Me hidden beneath a surface of pulped plastic.

A policewoman took pictures of the car whilst talking to Zuba about insurance and how they would test the abandoned beer bottles for DNA. There had been a spate of car vandalism over the Christmas period. This happened almost every year and was the work of yobs who were bored and drank too much.

They promised to be in touch and returned Zuba home just in time for him to get ready for his Boxing Day shift.


Foday Mannah hails from Sierra Leone, currently lives in Scotland, and is employed as an English teacher. He holds an MSc in International Conflict and Cooperation from the University of Stirling and an MA with Distinction in Professional Writing from Falmouth University. In his writing, Foday seeks to represent the experiences of the remarkable people he encounters in life. He likewise explores and highlights the disproportionate use of power — both domestic and political. His short story, Amie Samba, was shortlisted and published for the 2019 Bristol Short Story Prize. Foday has also had pieces shortlisted and longlisted/highly commended for the Commonwealth, Bridport, Sean O’Faolain, Mo Siewcharran and Brick Lane writing competitions. He can be found at https://twitter.com/FodayMannah and https://www.instagram.com/foday_mannah/.

He stood there, looking up at the friend who came to visit him. The forced smile on his lips was crooked, like his yellowing teeth. Standing beside his caller, he looked like a small boy standing beside a gigantic father. These visits had become frequent since word of his ailment went around. Kimani enjoyed the amount of attention he had been receiving since he was diagnosed with the dreaded cancer. It was more attention than he had gotten in his fifty-five years. Rumour had it that his disease was deadlier than AIDs, and either out of pity or curiosity, people wanted to see its effects firsthand.

This particular caller was a former classmate. A man he had shared youthful dreams with, and religiously teased for his squinted eye on their four-kilometer barefooted walk to school. Now the man drove the newest Range Rover and had a pretty lady on his arm. The lady wore four-inch heels and occasionally lost her balance as she walked the muddy path toward Kimani’s small house. Kimani stood at the door observing them. Noticing how his friend tightened the grip on the lady’s arm each time she stumbled. He waved them closer, all the while maintaining a wide smile that now made the edge of his mouth ache. The lady looked young, maybe too young.

His classmate finally standing beside him, Kimani felt every ounce of energy leave his body. He felt small. He literally was small. The loss of appetite from his medications and the constant body aches had left him with little desire for food, and when he was really hungry and tried to eat, his gums hurt. But the smallness he felt had nothing to do with body size but rather his position in society. Kimani was not what people considered rich or even middle class. He had no money or any other kind of significant wealth to his name. Now, he could not even boast of good health when he found himself defensive about his financial status. He had no property other than the small iron sheet house with a thatched roof he had built in his young adult years, and even that had no toilet. He had to borrow toilet from the neighbors. His small piece of land was only enough to grow about thirty head of kale and maize, enough to feed him only. But even that looked unhealthy from the lack of fertilizer and manure. Men his age had large pieces of land, and those who had small pieces at least had fertile pieces. Men his age had stable sources of income from employment or entrepreneurship. Most importantly, men his age had children, a wife, and maybe a girlfriend. His unmarried status was the great thorn to his side on a day too many now. This, above everything else, made him feel even smaller.

But his lack of a wife to order around and children to claim did not always make Kimani feel small. He had for a long time grown into his singleness. He enjoyed his senior bachelor’s existence and the freedoms he saw married people only dream of. But on days like this, when he met his childhood friends and men his age, especially those with a sharp tongue and a boastful ego to accompany ignorant questions, he felt his marital status was magnified.

That night as he lay on his squeaky bed, Kimani pondered over his choice not to marry. It was a decision he made in his late twenties. But if he was being honest with himself, he had made a subconscious decision not to marry in his teen years. His decision was not influenced by any of the reasons people often whispered about, like his purported lack of libido or the popular claims of impotence, and certainly not a preference for men as some people would have it. The subject of a man sexually entertaining another man was taboo in his culture. It was something that was rarely talked about, and when it was, mostly among the younger generations, it was discussed in hushed tones. Kimani was baffled by the naivety of these people who considered themselves to be modern and educated. A week before, he had read an article about how the United States government had passed a Bill that protected the LGBTQ community from discrimination. The thought of the amount of upheaval such a bill would cause in his country made him grin, an evil grin that craved the discomfort the legal tolerance for the LGBTQ would arouse in his community. But Kimani’s decision to remain unmarried had nothing to do with any of the said externalities. It was a personal decision that he could not explain in any satisfactory way to nagging relatives or the ever eager rumor mongers. He was simply among the very small percentage of men who, for no tangible reason, had no interest in ever marrying.

Kimani was not alone in the senior bachelor boat. His friend Mark, albeit five years younger, received similar scrutiny and speculation over his bachelorhood. Mark was a commendable hustler who worked too hard but drank too much muratina and cheap liquor, the kind that could, on a bad day make you lose your eyesight. He took great pride in caring for his aged mother, a role he embraced as his life’s sole purpose. The house he was bound to inherit after his mother passed on was fancier than Kimani’s, with stone walls and tiled floors. His land was also bigger, and he enjoyed fresh milk from his mother’s Zebu cow. The ten chickens roaming the compound, only stopping to bury their beaks in the grass in search of worms, were more than most people could wish for. Still, Mark was unmarried. Kimani remembered something Mark had once mentioned to him in passing, something about how parents can mess up their children. This was after the village witnessed the chief beat up his wife, resulting in a broken leg, and no one dared report him at the police station. After all, matters between people who covered themselves with the same blanket were none of their business. They would work out their issues behind closed doors. Moreover, the chief signed their children’s bursary papers. A chief with a wounded ego meant no signature on the bursary papers, which meant the children would be sent home for school fees, so no one dared anger the chief.

On that particular day, women famed for their closeness to the chief’s wife stood the furthest from the watching crowd. They murmured amongst themselves, their kangas tied hastily around fat waists, only stopping their chatter when their friend screamed from a fresh kick to the ribs or the stomach.  One woman was overheard asking rather ignorantly, “Why does she stay when he beats her like a dog?”

In all the ensuing commotion, the heart-wrenching sight was the chief’s children frantically hovering around their mother. The older siblings trying to pull their father away, to no avail, while the younger ones watched in bewilderment at the man they were expected to respect.

“See, now this stupid man has really messed up the children,” Mark had said in anger, his fists clutched. “Violence is imprinted in their young minds, and the grisly picture of their father beating their mother will never leave them. They are messed up.”

Mark was now staring straight into Kimani’s eyes, his blank face revealing no emotion, the anger that previously overcame him now long gone.

“Kim,” Mark started to say something but suddenly stopped, like someone cautiously picking out his next words, “This is why I will never marry,” he finally stated.

A part of Kimani understood Mark, but he wanted to be sure.

“So you will never marry because the chief beat up his wife?” he asked avoiding Mark’s eyes.

Mark was silent. Maybe, he had not heard the question. His eyes were fixed on the youngest of the chief’s children. A young girl now seated at the front door to the house she called home, unbothered. Her calmness exuded a sense of normalcy, like everything that just happened did not actually happen. Her eyes darted between the people helping lift her mother from the ground and the dispersing crowd. She caught a glimpse of her father disappearing behind the house and her eyes began to water.

  “Mark, did you hear me?”

“I heard you the first time, Kim,” his voice was hoarse, “Men beat up their wives, and children watch. Everyone watches. And no one does anything about it. That is why I will never marry,” Mark was now walking away from the scene.

“But you are not this man, Mark.”

Kimani wanted to keep this conversation going. He, like everyone else, wanted to understand the psychology of unmarried men. Maybe he could better understand himself.

“But I am my father’s son,” Mark retorted impatiently, “And you know what they say about the apple and the tree.”

“What has your father got to do with anything? He was a good man. God rest his soul.”

“Sure, God rest his soul, somewhere deep in hell, with his fellow ‘good’ men.”

The air quotes at the mention of “good” were accompanied by a wobbling head, ogling eyes, and a tongue sticking out. The way children did it when teasing an adult while hiding behind their mothers’ skirts.

“You see that limp on my mother’s left leg? She got that while running away from my father. The man was chasing her with an axe, mama fell and sprained her ankle, and it never healed.” Mark was now walking faster. Like someone hoping that his brisk pace would somehow leave this memory of violence behind.

“Kim, all these people with their perfect marriages are hypocrites. You should witness the monstrosities that happen behind closed doors. Do not let the smiles of these women and their chubby babies fool you. Marriage is a den of lions, and by God, I am not jumping into that trap with my eyes open.”

“But Mark, you can choose to be different.”

“Or I can be exactly the same, maybe worse. I am not about to find out.” Mark suddenly stopped, “What about you? What’s your excuse?” he was staring at Kimani with those piercing eyes.

“My reason will never be as convincing as yours. I simply do not want a wife, children, or anything to do with the institution of marriage for that matter.”

Kimani was now walking away, taking long steps in the direction of his house. Mark did not ask any further. The men walked home, trying to comprehend the reasoning of their unmarried fellow man.

It was half-past ten. Kimani had stayed up too late. He needed to be well-rested when he took his cancer medicine in the morning. Sometimes he forgot how he was required to take the pills. Those pills confused him. Which pills did he take before meals, and which ones were after meals? Which tablets made him nauseous that he had to lick sugar after, and which pill made him feel drowsy? The drowsy pill was particularly important because he could only take it after lunch and at night, but never in the morning. At that point in his life, maybe a wife and children would be good. They would help with the pills.

That woman in four-inch heels he had seen earlier crossed his mind. She had bothered him, and suddenly he knew why. She was the unmarried woman from a nearby town who the village women had begun to talk about.  The lady was almost in her thirties with nothing noteworthy to show for her advancing age other than her two university degrees. Not even a child, leave alone a husband of her own. Kimani knew the women would devour gossip over her visit for a long time to come. Had she no shame parading with a married man like that? But Kimani wondered who was at fault. Was it the married man who took an oath or the woman suffocating under society’s expectations? No, marriage was not for him. Kimani slowly closed his eyes and wished for a sunny day come morning. Today had been cold.


Linda Thotho is an aspiring writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes fiction borrowed from true stories of her life. Linda enjoys reading African stories by African authors. She holds a degree in Natural Resources Management from Egerton University, Kenya. She can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/thotho_linda and on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/linda_tho_tho/

Dear Descendants:

     Tonight, I cannot stay in my bed.

     Like an oversized morsel of solid amala coated in films of steaming ewedu, burning the mouth, I’ve rolled these thoughts all around the corners of my head all day, but I have yet to make sense of them. Strange things do happen in this world of ours. Stranger things even now, with all the unfamiliarity our traveller friends are bringing home with them.

     If what my friend Samieli tells me is true, then norm is soon to dissipate into obsoleteness, and strange will morph up to take its place; only I’m born too early to witness it.

     You see, Samieli hasn’t always been Samieli, and he hasn’t always known so much about the future. Tragedy visited our small village of Osogun one notorious afternoon—a day rarely mentioned, but neatly tucked away in the shadows of our memory—and took everyone it met away with it.

     Back then, he was Ajayi, my playmate. Together we hounded the thorny trees that taunted our long throats with high-hanging oranges. We took them for all their ripe fruits and left the dark-green ones hanging among the leaves, until the ripening of their backs betrayed them too. On that fateful day, however, I had gone with my mother to collect ajo—thrift savings—in a neighbouring village, so Ajayi had to do the plucking alone.

     When we returned, a hair-raising emptiness welcomed us. There were prints in the soil that showed plenty of hooves, plenty of dragging and a lot of blood. Doors and windows were left ajar, and from outside one could see they had all been ransacked. I remember seeing the oranges scattered around in Ajayi’s compound and the silence in the village being almost as tangible as they were. That was before my mother’s piercing scream confirmed to me that the worst had happened. I would never see most of the villagers again, most painfully, my father.

     When this thing happened, my hand on one side could barely go over my head to touch my ear on the other. My mother could swear I only just stopped suckling. That was decades ago, years have folded into years, etching their passing on our faces. Now, our mothers are no more, and we ourselves are preparing to become grandparents. The tragedy of then had shown a different side to itself, taking away young Ajayi, my playmate, and bringing back Samieli, the bright, learned, and widely travelled man who is among many bringing some colour to our black and white.

     As I grow older, I’ve found very few things are as valuable as wisdom. It has also been easily recognisable. I lay in my earthen bed at night, with closed eyes and a lively mind, playing back all Samieli has been teaching me. I have found wisdom in him, and every morning I count the seconds until the cocks crow so I can resume again.

     There’s not much more to do since the cruel hands of death snatched the love of my life, Abeke Okin, oju loge t’in wo ewa bi aso.[i]  I have died a hundred times since she’s been gone, in my tears and in the nights I spent questioning Eledua—almighty God—, hoping for day to break so that the sun could snap me out of my bad dream.

     I have since accepted my fate. Even Adisa, our son who jumped into her grave asking to be buried with her, has moved on, showing strength and maturity everyone has asked me to emulate. So, when my old friend returned and showed me a new world on the pages of his books, and in the stories from his many travels, I found a new purpose.

     Plenty has changed since my friend has been back. Ojo is now Maikeli. Ogidan is Gabreli, and Talabi is Esikieli.

     These are names of a new faith, but it is more about the “-eli” than it is about attending lengthy church-services. Even Dauda who is Musulumi, and Falana the Ifa-diviner’s son, both attempted the suffix, but Daudaeli and Falanaeli didn’t exactly sound right.

     Some of the new Kristeni converts themselves rejected names like Pita, Abraam and Mosis. Ajayi is Samieli, and we too must eli-lise. Give us new names only if they’re suffixed -eli.

     Eli-lise?

     It sometimes amazes me how much I’ve learned in such little time. My hair had started to grey out by the time I began, but I have not only mastered the entire language, I can even invent my own words. Samieli says I’m the smartest person he has taught English, and that weighs more to me than a bountiful harvest from my cocoa farms.

     He thinks me smart for many whys. I’m of the few who cared more about the things that happened on his journey than the goodies he brought back from almost becoming a slave.

     “The ship was like a haunted house,” he says. “Haunted not by the mercilessness of the masters, but the hopelessness of the chained, lying on their backs and sides through the length of the gruesome journey—the Middle Passage. Souls lifted off bodies like steam from a boiling pot, leaving the bodies heavier but completely empty.”

     “There are three things I will never forget,” Samieli always says: “the ship that rescued us away from that hell—the HMS Black Joke; the captain of the ship—Henry Leeke; and the place it took us to—Freetown.”

            It’s with these three that he tells the story of his freedom every time.

     The HMS Black Joke being the miracle that ended what seemed like a cruel joke, a horror he had to bear for being black-skinned; Henry Leeke’s name being close to the Yoruba expression e’n ri, which translates to ‘you all can see it’ as the horror played out in real life for all to see; and Freetown being the place he and the others became free again, with the name of the place wearing a constant reminder that it was all over.

     His journey wasn’t entirely a nightmare, and the part where he says this to me is usually the bridge between the horror and the glorious part—the part that is my favourite.

     Samieli soaks me in intense euphoria this way, seizing the canvas of my mind to paint vivid pictures of the dingy pits on the slave ships and the harsh sufferings vested on the unlucky ones in there; the experience of breathing clean air that didn’t threaten to choke and good food that didn’t provoke a puke in his new life in Freetown; the new worlds he discovered on the pages of books taught to him in the Queen’s country; and so much more.

     The irony of it all is how you cannot feel bad for him. It’s hard to feel bad for a man whose lemonade you are sipping on, made from the sour fruits life has thrown at him.

     As we sit together, breaking kolanut and drinking this sweet and sour lemon water, I take in how similar I am to my friend, yet how different. I wear my hair on my head while he spreads his to the sides of his face and the top of his upper lip like the white man. It’s also the white man’s clothes he wears now. I tried them once but since decided nothing compares to my buba and soro, with a fila abeti-aja—traditional shirt and trousers, with a fitting cap—to match.

     The English rolls off Samieli’s tongue with such perfection, it is easy to forget how much of a traditional Yoruba man he is. I’m reminded when he chants my oriki—eulogy—in admiration of how fast I have mastered these languages—English, Nupe and Igbo: Omo ologbon ti’n fogbon s’omimu. Ologbon lo laiye, eni ti ogbon oya ju eni to ti kulo.[ii]

     Truly, he who doesn’t seek knowledge is no better than a dead person. This has been in my oriki, but until he sang it to me, it didn’t really mean more than mere praises. With renewed clarity to these words, I decide to start to live afresh. After all, my son, Adisa has taken a wife and showed himself capable of taking over my cocoa farm. This is surely a better way to spend my time than to continue wallowing in self-pity over my Abeke’s demise.

     So, I bid my friend goodbye and set out on a quest for more knowledge. With each figment of it came a new splash of colour. My footprints can bear witness to the expanse of my quest across the continent of Africa. I’ve fed on written words within the walls of Timbuktu, and I’ve been taught in a place called yunifasiti in Karueein, Morocco.

     Trotting from place to place across Africa showed me more of her beauty and the abundance of wealth tucked within her. I still lay with closed eyes at night, closed eyes attached to a lively mind. The “lively” was in black and white, but now I see in colours. The greying has eaten up all of the black strands on my head, but you should see it, shiny and sitting pretty like a silver crown.

     My friend published a book in Yoruba many years before. By the time I’m back, he has written more in Nupe, Igbo, as well as English. He is even writing the entire Kristeni book – the Bibeli – from English into Yoruba. I know I’ll likely never publish, but I took inspiration from him to start writing in this, my book.

     Among the things I’ve written is a burning question I carried all the way home with me from my travels. Samieli hardly heard it in full before giving me a knowing nod. The mention of Ali Quam, the alchemist from Dar-es-Salam, was all it took. Apparently, they met a while ago and rubbed minds extensively on the issue.

     While I was being taught Swahili by Ali Quam in a lonely settlement along the River Nile, he told me about this Vibranium. He said it’s believed to only be available in Africa. He said it’s powerful enough to transform the world. But he also said it could take up to a hundred years before we even find its exact location.

     “So, you believe in this Vibranium?” I ask.

     “Seeing is believing my friend,” he responds.

     I’m building this image of the future in my mind. It’s a stairway that leads to a summit beyond my sight. Finding Vibranium is maybe the only way I can see it.

     Samieli doesn’t agree, and he makes a good point. Vibranium or not, do you not see how blessed we are already?

     Truly, we are the balance of existence, where nature sits, and all the good things of life abound.

     Is our air not clean, or our soil not fertile? Are our children not warriors, or does milk and honey not flow beneath our grounds? His questions keep coming.

     Submerged in reflection, I nod slowly, and then I ask a question of my own: “How do you imagine this place would look in a hundred years?”

     “Everything will be better,” he says. “Humans will live better, trade better, transport themselves better, and communicate better. Maybe the world will have a meeting point then, centralised and without the barriers of borders. More diseases will have cures, and maybe that can help people live longer.”

     My mind struggles to create better houses than the earthen masterpiece I live in. Would they be movable, or would they sit in mid-air?  How about getting the education I got through space and time without having to leave home? Would that not be some kind of egbe—disappearance charm? I know Samieli’s horse-pulled carriage tops my aged donkey, but what could top the carriage? Perhaps I could speak from here and Quam would respond wherever he is? All these seem strange and impossible.

     Samieli scratches his sideburns, his face tilting upwards as if he’s been deeply reflecting too. “You’ll be surprised how many more things you think strange now that were the norm then,” he says.

     “If only I could see it,” I sigh.

     “Who says you can’t?”  He responds. “Who says they wouldn’t have found a way to fold time by then.?”

     That comment danced around my mind all evening, and now as I lay in my bed watching the glowing bow of the moon through my open window, it has birthed an idea that’s shaking my whole body with excitement.

     Tonight, I can no longer stay in my bed. My mind is alive and in colours, but my eyes are not shut. I am bending over my journal, inked feather in hand. If I can’t make sense of these hot morsel thoughts, I can at least send a message forward and ask for help.

     A hundred years is what Samieli and I talked about, but when I tear this page off from this book, I will add another fifty and lock it away in my inheritance until the year 2020 AD.

     So, dear great-great, or great-great-great grandchild or children, this is a journal entry for you. I believe strange must be the norm by the time you’re reading this. Maybe you even found Vibranium.

     If by now, folding time backwards is possible, please travel to the year 1870 AD to get me. It must be a beautiful place where you are, and I would really love to see it. More importantly, please bring some cure for high fever if it exists. Together we will travel a few more years backwards and undo my greatest regret by saving my Abeke Okin. I miss her much more than I can invent new words for.

     It will be fun, I promise you.

Yours ancestrally,

Alabi-eli Omoafrica olowo Cocoa

[i] Fashionable face who wears beauty like a cloth.

[ii] Child of the wise who drinks from the fountain of wisdom.  The wise owns the world, he who is not wise is no better than he who is already dead.

After he was forcibly sent to science class in high school, it took Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim twenty years to finally find his way back to his passion, in 2019, when he left a successful ten-year career in media and entertainment to become a writer.  In that time, his works have appeared in Doorisa Jar, Ake Review, Agbowó, Analogies and Allegories, and more.  He finished as a finalist in #GogeAfrica20 Writing Contest and Ibua Journal’s Packlight Series.  He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He can be found at https://twitter.com/heemthewriter, https://www.instagram.com/heemthewriter/, https://www.facebook.com/heemthewriter