“On your marks…Get set… GO!”

Kojo kicked as hard as his little legs could. At first, he didn’t see or feel anyone next to him. Just wind gushing past his ear. But after a couple of yards, his sister was by his side. Then ahead of him. Her breaths lost in the wind.

He kicked harder. Letting out little puffs to urge his body forward. But all he did was in vain. His elder sister was already at the finish line, where Joseph, his close friend, stood with a branch lifted above his head. Waving for the victor.

Vivian, Kojo’s elder sister, was jubilant. Punching the air and skipping around a disconsolate Kojo.

Kojo could see in Joseph’s narrow eyes that he empathised with him. But a sudden turn in his look told Kojo that his friend would be joining his older sister. Throwing salt in his open wounds.

“See you! You will never get across the road. A car will come and …” she skipped a couple steps then clapped her hands loudly in front of Kojo. “Crash you!”

Kojo’s tiny fists were balled and his smallish body went rigid. Deep inside, wells of tears were threatening to erupt from his eyes. Fearing this eruption, he ran away from Vivian and Joseph. Jeers and laughter following in his wake.

Kojo found his special corner tucked between the walkways of a heavily trafficked intersection. The congestion on the node was his cover. People walking, cycling, peddling, carrying, calling, begging. It was a jumble of activity. So anyone standing still would go unnoticed.

Kojo didn’t mind that his sister beat him or his best friend had laughed at him. But what was disturbing him most was the prospect of crossing the road.

The whole community had been talking about it.

Sleek. Vast. Deadly.

Before the road, there was another road and that was easily traversed. Kojo, Vivian and Joseph would cross it together to go to school every day. But a better and newer road was demanded by the mob, and, ‘mighty be the powers,’ the road came.

It had already handicapped five pedestrians, and several motorcyclists had met their end on it. But it was also heralded by motorists as a gateway to economic recovery and growth. Kojo didn’t know so much about death, or economic recovery, for that matter. But he knew what he saw when his father came home one day without a leg. All of sudden he was half the person he used to be. It wasn’t from the road, but from a road. Soon the remaining half of his father was lost too, and Kojo was left with none.

What if Kojo wasn’t fast enough to cross it?  What if he too lost his legs?  What if he too become none?  Then he wouldn’t be able to chase Jospeh about the compound. Or even run with his sister and finally beat her when he grew taller and stronger. These fears tangled with his anger of being teased, and he dragged them back with him to his house later that day.  Then with him into the morning of the first day of school.

***

Zoooooooom. Honk. Vroooom. Zoom-zoom-zoom. Skrrrrrr. Honk! Honkkkkkkk! Zoooooooom. Gyimi! Vrrrroooooooooom- ZZZzooooom.

The pattern of sounds was the only way the children could determine when to cross. Standing on the far end of the road. Looking over the railings. Timing the moment in which they would need to dash. The blur of colours. A trick of light.

Vivian mouthed for Kojo to hold her and Joseph’s hand. Her little brother was much smaller than the both of them. They gripped his hand as fiercely as they might squeeze a sachet of pure water.

Vivian had heard from others in the community that to cross the road, you needed to use your ears more than your eyes. The ice kenke vendor had said it. The koko woman had proclaimed it. The Waakye woman, sweat sticking to her neck, had bemoaned it. And by some coincidence, Vivian realised at that very moment, all their food had lost some taste since the road was commissioned.

The road. The road. The road. It rolled on and on in her head and tongue as she remembered the disappointment of the Waakye the other day.

Vivian was counting the seconds between the zooms and the honks. In there somewhere was their path to the middle partition of the road. During the morning, the death trap moved from left to right. By evening, it flipped. If they got to the middle, the worst would be behind them.

Vivian remembered her mother’s parting words. ‘Protect your younger brother.’ Vivian’s mother had so much trust in her that she didn’t fear for Vivian’s life.

Zoooooooooom. Honk. Honkkkkk!

“Onyourmarks!” Joseph yelled, raising his hand “… Getset!” His wide eyes met Vivian’s. “…. Go!”

Honk! Honk!! ZZZZoooooooom! HOOOOONKKKKK!

The children shot straight through. Vivian and Joseph pulling Kojo as they sprinted across. Kojo squeezing their fingers. Vivian wincing from the pain. Jospeh yanking his friend. Kojo’s eyes shut.

Skkrrrrrrrr.

“STUPID CHILDREN!”

They were at the partition. They just made it ahead of the car that had yelled at them. A distant insult and screeching of tyres now many miles away.

Vivian turned to make sure her brother and Joseph were okay. They both gave brave faces and a shaky nod. Vivian did the same. The next part would be easier, she assured herself and hoped to pass the confidence onto the others.

She pulled so that Joseph and Kojo could follow. They were walking this time. In a line. Then a sound. Vivian knew not to look. Only to run. So she pulled. Pulled hard so that her urgency would catalyse in the other children.  But fingers slipped. Cries were screamed. Hearts in mouth. Hands on chest. Joseph by her side. Eyes wide. Kojo no where to be seen. A red blur flashed. And a blue. A black. A silver.

Then a figure. Still. Rigid. Shaking. With tiny balled fists. Tears in his eyes. Vivian didn’t hear a sound. She only heard ‘protect your younger brother,’ echoing from within her. So she did as she had been told. Protected her brother.


Ekow Manuar is an African Futurist writer who hails from Accra, Ghana. He was educated as a sustainability scientist in Europe, and currently works as a renewable energy and environment project developer. His works include “Beans Without Korkor?”– the winner of the 2021 Economic Commission of Africa short story climate fiction award, “Kubulor Country,” published in the African Writers’ Anthology Resilience, “Tell Me What You See,” published in the Dark Mountain’s Literary Climate anthology, Issue 18, and many more. He can be found at https://www.instagram.com/abdallahsmith06/ and https://abdallahsmith06.medium.com/.

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