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Author

Thomas Mlanda

Browsing

In this talk-performance hybrid, drummer, percussionist and TED Fellow Kasiva Mutua shares how she’s breaking the taboo against female drummers in Kenya — and her mission to teach the significance and importance of the drum to young boys, women and girls. “Women can be custodians of culture, too,” Mutua says.

“Listen. Do you hear that?” my grandmother asked me. “Listen. Listen to what the beetle is saying.” I would spend hours and hours listening to the little beetle rolling a huge ball of dung, and while at it, I heard a variety of environmental sounds. With the keenest of ears, I would hear family chatter, laughter, the wind howling and even crickets chirping. All these sounds crisscrossed into each other, and I would hear rhythm in between. Then I would beat my plate with a spoon and my chest with my tiny hands trying to recreate what I was hearing. I have been beating the same plates, shakers, drums, pans and so much more ever since to become a professional drummer and percussionist.

As I grew up, subconsciously, I felt a strong urge to hide my newfound hobby. Even without it being said out loud, I knew that somehow it was wrong to do what I was doing. In most of the ceremonies, I noticed that most of the women and girls were not in sight, but when they were, I noticed that they would wear their dancing skirts and shake their waists off, singing, clapping, ululating, while the men filled up the rhythm section. A few years later, I came to understand what tradition and culture meant, and what was considered taboo or otherwise.

In the majority of African cultures, women have been forbidden to play drums and percussion for a very long time. I believe this taboo stems from the psychological and traditional belief that the woman is an inferior being. I grew up hearing that the place of the woman is in the kitchen or in the other room. Mhm?

Women had been brainwashed and led on for so long until we had fallen victim and actually started believing in this ourselves. This, coupled with the lack of interest to educate women, played a major, major role in etching this into our minds. The sounds of the drum provoke emotion and movement. Essentially, the drum is a very sensual instrument. Once at a festival, a man asked me how I dared put a drum in between my legs. I have been considered loose and dirty for playing an instrument. I have repeatedly been questioned why I would choose to play drums instead of practicing journalism, which I studied for my undergraduate, which has been termed “more decent.” The sight of a woman playing drums enfeebles her, makes her less feminine, less desirable, but all this optimally puts her on a lower social stand.

Drumming has essentially represented the strong African heritage, and its importance can be seen in the many aspects of the African tradition. Many communities encompass drumming in their day-to-day activities, and still do up to date, from childbirths to initiation ceremonies, welcoming ceremonies, marriages and even burials. However, this same drum is disappearing very fast from the music scene, and the traditional genre is losing its popularity very quickly amongst the people. Inspired by the need to preserve this culture, I am teaching the significance and the importance of the drum to young boys, women and girls.

In my journey as a percussion teacher, I have realized that very many women actually want to play the drum, but at the same time, they fear it. Some fear how society will perceive them. Others fear the physical pain that comes with playing. Oh yes, it’s not that easy. Some, because their spouses don’t approve of them, and others generally fear the responsibility of being a bearer of culture. I believe, or I think that all these fears are etched in the collective feminine cautiousness because when we learn of the atrocities that have happened to women, continentally especially, it serves as a constant reminder that one step out of our designated place may end up in very serious consequences.

Well, I use my drum to tell my story and my people’s stories. My roots shaped me and my culture is here to stay with me. Women can be custodians of culture, too. We are born to bring forth life, to nurture it. We can definitely preserve our traditions very, very excellently. My drum and I, we are here to stay.

We are definitely here to stay. If women have led countries, women have gone to space, women have won Grammys, then the same, same women can play the drum and play it — to a five-star rating? No, to a million-star rating.

Thank you.

Light

Nneka Arima

When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts. Before this, they are living in Port Harcourt in a bungalow in the old Ogbonda Layout. Her mother is in America reading for a Masters in Business Administration. She has been there for almost three years in which her eleven-year-old bud of a girl has bloomed. Enebeli and the girl have survived much in her absence, including a disturbance at the market which saw him and the girl separated for hours while people stampeded, trying to get away from a commotion that turned out to be two warring market women who’d had just about enough of each other’s tomatoes. They survived a sex talk, birthed by a careless joke an uncle had made at a wedding, about the bride taking a cup of palm wine to her husband and leaving with a cup of, well, and the girl had questions he might as well answer before she asked someone who might take it as an invitation to demonstrate. They survived the crime scene of the girl’s first period, as heavy a bleeder as she was a sleeper, the red seeping all the way through to the other side of the mattress. They survived the girl discovering this would happen every month.

Three long years have passed and the girl is fourteen and there is a boy and he is why Enebeli is currently entrenched in what passes for the lobby to the headmaster’s office, a narrow hall painted a blaring glossy white meant to discourage the trailing of dirty child fingers but let’s be serious. He’s seated on the narrow bench meant for children and his adult buttocks find awkward purchase. The girl is in trouble for sending the boy a note and it is not the first time. Enebeli has seen the boy and, even after putting himself in the shoes of a fourteen-year-old girl, doesn’t see the appeal. The boy is a little on the short side. The boy has one ear that is significantly larger than the other. It’s noticeable. One can see the difference. Whoever cuts the boy’s hair often misses a spot so that it sticks up in uneven tufts. The only thing that saves the boy from Enebeli is that he seems as confused about the girl’s attention as everyone else.

The headmaster calls Enebeli in and hands him the note. This one reads ‘Buki, I love you. I will give you many sons,’ and it takes everything Enebeli has not to guffaw. Where does the girl get all this? Not from her mother, whose personality and humour are of the quieter sort, and not from him, who would be perfectly content sitting by a river, watching the water swirl by. He promises to chastise the girl and assures the headmaster that it will not happen again. It happens two more times before the girl learns to pass notes better. And he should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed.

Her mother attempts to correct the girl herself, but much is lost in transmission over the wires and a long absence has diluted much of the influence a mother should have. It is one of the things Enebeli and his wife disagree on, this training up of the girl, and it has widened the schism between them.

The first month wife and mother had gone to the States, the family called and spoke to each other several times a day. The mother and girl would have their time, full of tears and I miss yous, and the husband and wife would have their time, full of tears and I miss yous as well, but full of other things too, like my body misses you and all I need is 30 minutes max and when are you coming home.

She’d returned the first long holiday, Christmas. The girl barely left her side the whole trip and Enebeli would often find himself staring at his wife. He memorized her scent and the feel of her hair. They slept very little, making up for lost time. When her return to the States was fraught with delays and visa issues, they made their first big mistake, deciding that she should not travel back to Nigeria for the duration of her studies. There was some noise made about how the girl should come, too, but Enebeli vetoed it and his wife relented. They knew that of the both of them, she might be able to soldier on without her daughter, but Enebeli would shrivel like a parched plant.

So the girl stayed with him and they learned to survive without the mother, but for one relationship to thrive another must not and Enebeli saw this dwindling in the conversations the girl would have with her mother via Skype. They were friendly conversations, filled with the exchanging of news and the updating of situations, but there was a whiff of distance, as though the girl was talking to her favourite aunt, whom she loved very much, but would not, say, tell her about a boy.

The girl, at fourteen, is almost a woman, but still a girl and her mother is trying to prepare her for the world. Stop laughing so loud, dear. How is it that I can hear you chewing all the way here in America? What do you mean Daddy made you breakfast, you are old enough to be cooking. Distance between mother and daughter widens till the girl doesn’t enjoy talking to her mother any more, begins to see it as a chore.

And speaking of chores, father and daughter share them, each somewhat inept, each too intimidated by their sullen housegirl to order her around; she spends most of the day watching Africa Magic, mopping the same patch of tile till it gleams. When she isn’t pretending to clean, the housegirl talks to the girl in whispers and Enebeli isn’t concerned because they are in the house and how much trouble could they get into. Talk is just talk. This is what he tells his wife when she is horrified and worried that the girl is learning all the wrong ways to be in the world and she badgers and badgers till Enebeli sends the housegirl back to her village. The girl becomes sullen with her mother after this and waits with arms crossed for the Skype calls to end and the mother becomes more nitpicky, troubled that her daughter cannot see she is trying to ease her passage. What is this the girl is wearing? The girl should be sitting with her legs crossed at the ankle. Why is the girl’s hair scattered like that, when was the last time she had a relaxer?

Enebeli shrugs to the hair questions and his wife sighs then says she’s calling her sister. Enebeli balks at this. His wife’s sister is a terrifyingly competent woman with three polished, obedient sons and the wherewithal to take on another child. She’s been trying to get her hands on the girl for years. In a fit of spite and panic, Enebeli buys a box and does the girl’s hair himself, massaging the cream into her scalp like lotion, and the smell of it makes both their eyes water. When they wash it out, half the girl’s hair comes out with it, feathery clumps that swirl into the drain like fuzzy fish.

His wife’s sister doesn’t say a word about the over-processed mess, or about the scab forming on the girl’s forehead, but when she brings the girl back, her hair is shorn, cut close to her scalp, and she turns her head this way and that, preening, and they all, even her mother, agree that her skull has quite the lovely shape and, yes, she looks beautiful. But then her mother ruins it by adding that she can’t wait till it grows out so she can look like a proper girl again. This starts another argument between husband and wife, mild at first, but then it peppers and there is this thing that distance does where it subtracts warmth and context and history and each finds that they’re arguing with a stranger.

The girl stops talking to her mother after that, and for a week his wife pleads with him to soften her and he agrees, but doesn’t because he enjoys having the girl like this, as angry with her mother as he is. But the girl holds a grudge as well as she holds water in her fist and she is soon chattering away, but the space between mother and daughter has widened to hold something cautious, an elephant of mistrust and awkwardness. The girl feels it, doesn’t want it, and in a bid to close the distance, confesses to her mother about the boy. She strings his virtues out like Christmas lights – he’s shorter than her so he has to obey her, he’s finally learning how to kiss well – and her mother silences her by saying, sadly, that she didn’t think she’d raised that kind of girl. Her mother’s disappointment is the first time the girl becomes aware that the world requires something different than she is. It dampens her for a few days that worry Enebeli, and then she returns, but there is a little less light to her.

And when his wife says that she has been offered a job in the States, management at a small investment firm, Enebeli says nothing. They had promised each other at the beginning of all this that when she got her degree, she would come back and find a snazzy job as a returnee where she would be over-compensated for her foreign papers.

And later, even knowing what it will do to him, she will request that he send the girl to her in America, where her mothering hand will be steadier and he will fight her. He will use vicious words he didn’t know he had in him, as though a part of him knows that she will never be this girl again.

But before all this, before the elders are called in, before even his father sides with his wife and his only unexpected ally is his wife’s sister. Before he bows to the pressure of three generations on his back. Before he sobs publicly in the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, cries that shake his body and draw concern and offers of water from passersby. Before he spends his evenings in the girl’s room, sitting with the other things she left behind, counting down the time difference till they could Skype. Before the girl returns from school and appears on his screen more subdued than he’d ever seen her. Before he tries to animate her with stories of the lovelorn boy who keeps asking after her. Before she looks off-screen as though for coaching and responds, please, daddy, don’t talk to me like that. Before she grows cautious under the mothering of a woman who loves, but cannot comprehend her. Before she quietens in a country that rewards her brand of boldness, in her black of body, with an incredulous fascination that makes her put it away. Before all that, she is eleven and Enebeli and the girl sit on the steps to the house watching people walk by their ramshackle gate. They are playing azigo and whenever the girl makes a good move she crows in a very unladylike way and yells In your face! and he laughs every time. He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out.

Handsomest Drowned Man In The World

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

The first children to see the obscure, stealthy promontory that approached in the ocean believed that it was an enemy ship. But then they saw that it carried neither flags nor spars, and they thought it was a whale. But when it ran aground on the beach they peeled off the thickets of seaweed, the jellyfish tentacles and the rest of the tattered cloth and driftwood it carried, and only then did they discover that it was a drowned man.

They had been playing with him all afternoon, burying and unburying him in the sand, when someone happened to see them and cried the alarm in the village. The men who carried him to the nearest house noticed that he weighed more then any dead man they had ever known, almost as much as a horse, and they said that perhaps he had been adrift so long that water had seeped in between his bones. When they spread him out on the floor they saw that he had been much bigger than any other man, for he hardly fit in the house, but they thought that perhaps the ability to continue growing after death was in the nature of certain drowned men. He smelled of the ocean, and only his form allowed them to suppose that it was the body of a human, for his hair was covered with an armor-plating of remora and mud.

They didn’t have to clean his face to know that he was from elsewhere. The village had barley twenty houses made of planks, with flowerless stone porches, scattered across the back of a deserted cape. The earth was so barren that mothers always went in fear that the wind would carry off their children, and they had to throw their deceased, continually taken by the years, from the cliffs. But the sea was tame and bountiful, and all of the men fit in seven boats. So, when they found the drowned man, they had only to look one to the other to realize that they were all accounted for.

That night they didn’t go out to work on the sea. While the men checked whether or not anyone was missing from the nearby villages, the women remained caring for the drowned man. They removed the mud with clumps of grass, untangled the submarine burrs from his hair, and scraped off the remora with descaling knives. As they did so, they noticed that the vegetation was from far-off seas and deep waters, and that his clothes were in tatters as if he had navigated through mazes of coral. The also noticed that he bore death with dignity, having neither the solitary semblance of the other drowned men from the sea nor the squalid, needy aspect of those who drowned in rivers. But only when they finished cleaning him did they become conscious of the sort of man he was, and then they remained, breathless. Not only was he the tallest, strongest, most virile and best-equipped man they had ever seen, but as they watched him he didn’t even fit in their imaginations.

They couldn’t find a big enough bed in the village to lay him on nor a table solid enough to hold vigil. The festival pants of the tallest men didn’t fit him, nor did the Sunday shirts of the fattest, nor the shoes of the best planted. Fascinated by his disproportion and beauty, the women then decided to make him pants with a piece of gaff sail, and a shirt of fine linen, so that he could continue in his death with dignity. While they sewed seated in a circle, contemplating the cadaver between stitches, it appeared to them that the wind had never been so sustained nor had the Caribbean been so unsettled as on that night, and they supposed that these changes had something to do with the dead man. They thought that if that magnificent man had lived in the village, his house would have had the widest doors, the tallest roof and the firmest floor, and the frame of his bed would have been made of giant timbers with iron bolts, and his wife would have been the happiest. They thought that he would have had such authority that he could have taken the fish from the sea by only calling them by name, and he would have put such effort in his work that he would have brought forth springs from between the driest rocks and would have been able to sow flowers on the cliffs. They compared him in secret to their own men, thinking that they would not be able to do in a lifetime what that man was capable of in a single night, and they ended up repudiating them in the depths of their hearts as the most squalid and paltry beings in the earth. They went on distracted by these labyrinths of fantasy, when the oldest of the women, who by being the oldest had contemplated the drowned man with less passion than compassion, sighed:

“He has the face of one who’s called Esteban.”

It was true. For most it was enough to look at him once more to understand that he couldn’t have any other name. The most stubborn, who were the youngest, maintained the illusion that upon clothing him, laid out among flowers and with charcoal shoes, he could be called Lautaro. But it was a vain illusion. The canvas turned out too small, the poorly-cut and worse-stitched pants fit him tightly, and the hidden forces of his heart made the buttons of his shirt burst. After midnight the whistling wind diminished and the sea fell into a mid-week stupor. The silence did away with the last doubts: he was Esteban. The women that had dressed him, those that had combed his hair, those that had cut his nails and shaved his beard could not suppress a shudder of compassion when they had to resign to leaving him tossed on the floor. It was then that they understood how unhappy he must have been with that colossal body that got in the way even after death. They saw him condemned in life to pass sideways through doors, splitting his head open on crossbeams, to remain standing during visits without knowing what to do with his tender, red hands, while the woman of the house searched for the most resistant chair and pleaded, dead with fear, sit here Esteban, do me the pleasure, and him leaning against the walls, smiling, don’t worry ma’am, I’m fine here, with heels worn raw and back burning from repeating the same thing so often in his visits, don’t worry ma’am, I’m fine here, only to spare the embarrassment of breaking the chair, and perhaps without ever knowing that those who told him don’t go Esteban, wait until the coffee boils, were the same that later whispered, finally the great fool’s left, thank goodness, finally the stupid bloke is gone. This is what the women thought before the body, just before daybreak. Later, when they covered his face with a headscarf so that the light wouldn’t bother him, they saw him to be so finally dead, so defenseless, so similar to their men, that the first cracks of tears opened in their hearts. It was one of the youngest that started to weep. The others, sitting around her, passed from sighs to laments, and the more they wept the more the felt the desire to cry, for the drowned man was becoming to them more and more Esteban, until they wept so for him that he was the most helpless man on the earth, the most meek and obliging, the poor Esteban. It was such that when the men returned with the news that the drowned man wasn’t from any of the nearby villages either, the women felt a space of joy between their tears.

“Thanks be to God,” they sighed: “he’s ours!”

The men thought their gesticulations to be no more than womanly frivolities. Exhausted from the torturous inquiries of the previous night, the only thing they wanted was to rid themselves once and for all of the nuisance of the intruder before the fierce sun of the arid and windless day rose. They improvised stretchers from the remains of foremasts and booms, and tied them with mast stops so that they would resist the weight of the body until they reached the cliffs. They wanted to tie a ship anchor to his ankles so that he would be staid without mistake in the deepest waters where the fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia, in such a way that the bad currents would not deposit him on the shore, as it had done with other bodies. But the more they pressured, the more things occurred to the women to use up time. They went around like frightened chickens pecking at treasure from a chest, here some getting in the way because they wanted to put scapulars on the drowned man that would bring good wind, there others tarrying to fasten a wrist compass, and after so much get out of here woman, go where you won’t be in the way, look how you almost made me fall over the dead man, the men began to get suspicious and to grumble, to what end such lavish hardware for a foreigner, for all the odds and ends he carries he’ll just be eaten by sharks, but the women continued digging up their cheap relics, carrying and bringing, tripping, going with sighs if not tears, until the men ended up ranting, since when was there ever such a fuss for an adrift body, a drowned man belonging to no one, a filthy stiff. One of the women, mortified by such insolence, then took off the headscarf from the cadaver’s face, and then the men too remained breathless.

He was Esteban. It wasn’t necessary to repeat for them to recognize it. If they had said Sir Walter Raleigh, perhaps, they might have been impressed by his foreign accent, by the macaw on his shoulder, with his arquebus for killing cannibals, but there could only be one Esteban in the world, and there he was tossed like a river herring, without booty, with tiny pants and stone-hard nails that only a knife could cut. It was enough for them to take off the headscarf from his face to realize that he was ashamed, that it wasn’t his fault for being so large, nor so heavy nor so handsome, and if he had known that this was going to happen he would have searched for a more discrete place to drown, honestly, I would have moored myself with a gallon anchor around my neck and would have stumbled up the cliffs like someone who doesn’t want all of this, to not come now getting in the way with this damned corpse, like you say, to not bother anyone with this filthy stiff that has nothing to do with me. There was such truth in his mode of being, that even the most suspicious of the men, those that felt bitterness during the long nights at sea that their wives would become tired of dreaming of them to dream instead of drowned men, even these, and still others who were much harder, shuddered to the marrow with the sincerity of Esteban.

And so it was that they held the most splendid funeral they could conceive for an abandoned drowned man. Some women that had gone to look for flowers in the nearby villages came back with others who did not believe what they had been told, and these went for more flowers when they saw the dead man, and they brought more and more, until there were so many flowers and such a crowd that one could barely walk. At the final hour it pained them to throw him orphaned into the sea, and so they chose a father and a mother among the best for him, and others made themselves brothers, and uncles and cousins, until through him all of the villagers ended up relatives. Some mariners who heard the crying from a distance lost their course, and it was later learned that one tied himself to the mast, calling to mind ancient fables of sirens. While they disputed the privilege of carrying him on their shoulders up the steep incline of the cliffs, the men and women became conscious for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the aridity of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams, before the splendor and the beauty of their drowned man. They released him without anchor, so that he could return if he wished, and when he wished, and everyone held their breath during the fraction of centuries that it took for the body to fall into the abyss. It wasn’t necessary for them to look at one another to realize that they were not complete, nor would they ever be again. But they also knew that everything would be different from then, that their houses would have wider doors, taller roofs, firmer floors, so that the memory of Esteban could walk everywhere without running into the crossbeams, and so that no one would dare to murmur in the future, finally the great fool has died, what a shame, finally the stupid bloke is dead, because they would paint the fronts of their houses with joyful colors to eternalize the memory of Esteban, and they would break their backs digging springs from the rocks and sowing flowers on the cliffs, so that in the dawns of the coming years the travelers on great ships would awaken suffocating on the aroma of gardens on the high sea, and the captain would have to come down from his quarter deck in full uniform, with his astrolabe, his pole star and string of war medals, and signaling the promontory of roses on the Caribbean horizon would say in fourteen languages: look there, where the wind is now so gentle that it stops to sleep beneath the beds, there, where the sun shines such that the sunflowers don’t know where to turn, yes, there, is the village of Esteban.

Missing Out

Leila Aboulela

 

In his first term at college in London, Majdy wrote letters home announcing that he would not make it, threatening that he would give up and return. to call him on the phone, his mother made several trips to the Central Post Office in Khartoum, sat for hours on the low wooden bench, fanning her face with the edge of her tobe in the stifling heat, shooing away the barefooted children who passed by with loaded trays trying to sell her chewing gum, hairpins and matches. ‘Get away from my face,’ she snapped at the girl who had edged by her side and was almost leaning onto her lap. ‘Didn’t I just tell you I don’t want your stuff?’ on the third day she got through, wedged herself into a cubicle but did not close the glass door behind her. Majdy’s throat tightened when he heard her voice. In the cool corridor of the hostel he held the receiver and leaned his head against the wall, hiding his face in the crook of his arm. The students who passed him walked a little bit quicker, felt a little bit awkward hearing his voice heavy with tears, unnaturally loud, foreign words they could not understand echoing and hanging around the walls.

There in Khartoum, she also, in her own way, could not understand what he was saying. All this talk about the work being difficult was, of course, nonsense. Her son was brilliant. Her son always came top of his class. She had a newspaper photograph of him at sixteen when he got one of the highest marks in the secondary school Certificate, shaking the now-deposed president’s hand. His father had slain a sheep in celebration and distributed the meat among the beggars that slept outside the nearby mosque. His sisters had thrown a party for him, heady with singing and dancing. And she had circled the pot of burning incense over his head, made him step over it, back and forth, to ward off the envy and malice that was surely cloaking him. Ninety-nine per cent in the maths paper, she had ecstatically repeated to friends and relations. Ninety-nine per cent, and mind you, they took that extra mark from him just from sheer miserliness, just so as not to give him the full marks.

‘Take this thought of giving up out of your mind,’ she said to him on the long-distance line.

‘Can’t you understand I’ve failed my qualifying exam?’ the word ‘failed’ was heavy on his tongue. ‘The exam I need to be able to register for a PhD.’

‘So sit it again,’ she insisted. ‘You will pass inshallah and then come home for the summer. I myself will pay for the ticket. Don’t worry.’ she had independent means, that woman. And when she put the phone down, a project started brewing in her mind. She dawdled on her way home, plotting and wishing. A few hours later, refreshed from her siesta and the cup of tea with milk she always had at sunset, she gathered the family and launched a new campaign: ‘my Poor son All Alone in London needs A Wife’. That was how Majdy came to marry Samra. After banging his head against books, working the proofs again and again, copying curvaceous lambdas, gammas and sigmas from the blackboard and into the whirling mass of his dreams, he was ready to sit for his qualifying exam. In June he flew to Khartoum. In July he received the good news that he had passed, and by the end of summer he was returning to London accompanied by his new bride.

All his life Majdy had known Samra, as a cousin of his sister’s best friend, as the daughter of so-and-so. There was no sudden meeting between them, no adolescent romance. He had detached memories of her: a black-and-white photograph of a child squinting her eyes in the sun, standing with his sister and others in front of the giraffes’ cage at the zoo. A teenager in a blue dress with her hair in a single braid, holding a tray of Pepsi bottles at a friend’s engagement party. And the horrific story that had fascinated him in his childhood – Samra getting bitten by a stray dog and having to have thirty rabies injections in her stomach.

In 1985, he had seen her through grapevines, behind a carport over which the leaves climbed and weaved a criss-cross maze. He was pressing the doorbell of a house near the university, on one of the smaller side roads which housed the university’s staff. On the main road, the students were demonstrating against the proposed execution of an opposition-party leader. While they were marching for justice, Majdy was searching for Professor Singh, lecturer in topology, to beg for a reference letter. It was for one of those numerous grants to do postgraduate research that he was always chasing. From where he was, he could hear the shouting. It came to him in waves, rising and falling, rhythmic and melodious. He could not make out the exact words.

They never let the students get very far; they never let them reach the marketplace where they would swell in numbers and cause a riot. Where other grievances and older pains would join the cry against the injustice of that one death. And deprivation might shake off its hypnotic slumber and lash out in the monotonous heat of the day. Down university Road until the first roundabout and then the tear gas would blind them, send them running back, tumbling through the dust and the fallen banners on the ground.

She was crying when she and her friend came running and stood underneath the carport of the house adjacent to the professor’s. Crying from the gas and laughing. ‘I tore my sandal, it’s ruined,’ he heard her say. She held it in her hand, the tears running in parentheses down her dust-coated face. Her tobe had fallen down, collapsed around her waist and knees, and her hair had escaped the one braid it was tied into and stuck out from her head in triangular spikes. At the nape of her neck, tight little ringlets glistened with sweat, dark and sleek. Laden with moisture, they lay undisturbed and appeared detached from everything else, the tear gas and the dust, her torn sandal, her fallen tobe. There was a zeer in front of the house and he watched her lift the wooden cover, fill the tin mug with water and begin to wash her face. She smoothed her hair with water, searched through it for hairpins which she prised open with her teeth and locked the wayward strands.

And all the time she was laughing, crying, sniffing. Chatting to her friend as they both pulled the ends of their tobes over their left shoulders, wrapped the material neatly in place and over their hair. ‘This sandal is so ruined you can’t even wear it as a slipper!’ her friend said.

He felt cynical watching them, especially when, now that the demonstration was disbanded, other students passed by, cursing and spitting, with torn shirts and the pathetic remnants of their banners. He did not have the anger to demonstrate, he did not have the ability to enjoy the thrill of rebellion. And the next day, as he predicted, the futility of their action was exposed. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was hanged on a Friday morning.

Later, or perhaps at the time he was looking at her through the vines, he thought, I could talk to her now. She would be approachable now, not formal or shy. She would yield to me now. And over the years we will talk of this day again and again and claim it was the start. But he let her go, rang the professor’s bell and soon heard footsteps coming towards him from inside.

It is pointless to resist fate, impossible to escape its meanderings. But who knows how to distinguish fate’s pattern from amid white noise? Years later when his mother led her campaign, the name Samra cropped up. His older sister was dispatched to test the waters. The reception was good. Prospective bridegrooms living abroad (it didn’t matter where) were in great demand.

When they walked into his room in London, they quarrelled. But this was not because the room was small and designed for one student. He had applied for married students’ accommodation but the university had yet to allocate them a flat. The tension started up as soon as she stepped out of the bathroom. There were droplets of water on her hair and her arms, the sleeves of her blouse rolled up. ‘Where is your prayer mat?’ she asked.

‘I don’t have one,’ Majdy said. He was lying in bed enjoying his return to that particular quiet of London, the patch of moving grey sky he could see from the window, the swish of cars on wet roads. It was as if Khartoum had been grinding around him in a perpetual hum and now that humming sound was pleasantly absent.

‘Well, what do you use instead?’ she was already holding a towel. ‘Where’s the qibla?’

He would need to figure out the direction of the Ka’ba. From Britain, Mecca was south-east of course, because Saudi Arabia was south-east. So in this particular room, which direction should she face? Where exactly was the south-east?

‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You’ve been here a whole year without praying?’

Yes, he had.

‘And Fridays? What about the Friday prayers?’

‘I have classes that day.’

‘Miss them.’

He sat up. ‘Don’t be stupid. Where do you think you are?’ the quick hurt look on her face made him regret that he had called her stupid. He took her in his arms and said, ‘It’s not as if I’m finding the course so easy that I can play truant.’

She smiled and was keen to brush away her disappointment. He suggested an outing and they went by bus to the Central mosque. There he bought her a red prayer mat and a compass which pointed to the direction of Mecca. She also picked up a booklet which listed the times of the prayers. Each month was on a page, the days in rows and the different prayers in columns.

Sitting next to him on the bus, she studied the booklet. ‘The times change so much throughout the year!’

‘Because of the seasons,’ he explained. ‘In the winter the day is very short and in the summer it is very long.’

‘So in winter I will be rushing to pray one prayer after the other and in the summer there will be hours and hours between afternoon and sunset.’ she said ‘I’ not ‘we’ and that seemed to him proper and respectful. She would forge ahead on her own whether he joined her or not. He was relieved that this outing to the mosque had satisfied her. Cheap and hassle-free. On a student budget, he could scarcely afford expensive restaurants or luxurious shopping trips. It was good that she was a simple Khartoum girl, neither demanding nor materialistic.

Still, she said that she wanted him to promise to change, to try harder and commit to the compulsory prayers. She was intent on influencing him but he was shy of the intimacy conversations about faith and practice evoked. After all, they did not know each other well and these were heady days of physical discovery, the smallness of the room making them bump and rub against each other. He was, naturally, the first man in her life and she was swayed between discomfort and pleasure, between lack of sleep and the feeling that all her girlhood and all her beauty had led to this. A honeymoon in London, her wedding henna still bright on her palms and feet. Majdy was, he had to admit to himself, captivated by the comforts and delights she offered, charmed by her looks and laughter. Then she would spoil it all by talking about religion, by reminding him that without these five daily contacts one was likely to drift off without protection or grace or guidance. Was he not a believer? Yes, in a half-hearted way he was, but he was also lazy and disinterested. Here in London, Majdy argued, praying was a distraction, an interruption and, most of all because of the changing times that followed the movement of the sun rather than the hands of the clock, praying was inconvenient. ‘Don’t talk to me about this again,’ he finally said, drawing her towards him. ‘Don’t nag.’

In the days to come, when he became engrossed in his work again, he sensed her by his side, sympathetic, aware of his moods, sensitive to his needs, gentle and generous. Then she would move away to splash in the bathroom and come out to pray. She held the day up with pegs. Five prayers, five pegs. The movement of the sun was marked, the day was mapped and Majdy felt his life become more structured, his time more blessed. In their cramped room Samra’s prayer mat took up a large portion of the floor, the old tobe she covered herself with dropped over it in a coiled heap. Sometimes, she reproached with a look or a word, sometimes she looked sad and worried on his behalf, but she continued to follow her own course, her own obligations, keen to preserve this practice even though she was away from home.

He wanted her to enjoy lively, civilized London. He wanted her to be grateful to him for rescuing her from the backwardness of Khartoum. He thought that, like him, she would find it difficult at first and then settle down. But the opposite happened. During the first months, she showed the enthusiastic approval of the tourist. Enjoyed looking at the shops, was thrilled at how easy all the housework was. She could buy meat already cut up for her. There were all these biscuits and sweets to choose from and they were not expensive at all. Even the pharmacies were stocked so full of medicine in so many different colours and flavours that she almost longed to be ill. Every object she touched was perfect, quality radiated from every little thing. The colour of hairpins did not chip under her nails like it had always done; chewing gum was not the brittle stick that often dissolved in her mouth at the first bite. Empty jam jars were a thing of beauty; she would wash them and dry them and not be able to throw them away. Biscuit tins, those she wanted to collect to take back home, her mother would use them to store flour or sugar. Or put her own baked cakes in them, send a tin proudly to the neighbour, and days later the neighbour would return the tin with her own gift inside.

She put on weight, she wrote happy letters home. Majdy showed her the university’s library – so many floors that there were lifts inside and even toilets! They toured the shining computer rooms and she was impressed. She made him feel that he was brilliant, which deep down he knew he was all along. Then the days shortened, became monotonous. She was like the holidaymaker who was getting a little bit tired of her exotic surroundings. Everything around her began to feel temporary, detached from normal life. This happened when Majdy began to talk of getting a work permit once his student visa expired, of not going back after he got his PhD.

It was the continuity that she found most alien. It rained and people lifted up umbrellas and went their way; the shelves in the supermarket would empty and fill again. The postman delivered the mail every day.

‘Don’t your lectures ever get cancelled? Don’t your lecturers get ill, don’t their wives give birth? When the Queen dies, will they give everyone a holiday?’

‘She’ll die on a Sunday,’ he would say, laughing at her questions. ‘This is what civilization is, the security to build your life, to make something out of it. Not to be hindered all the time by coups and new laws, by sitting all day in a petrol queue. By not being able to get your ill child to a doctor because they are on strike.’

She listened carefully to everything he said. Would nod in agreement though her eyes remained wary. When she spoke of the future though, she would imagine they were going back, as if his hopes of staying in London were only dreams, or as if his hopes were an inevitability she wished to deny. ‘I imagine you coming home early,’ she would say, there would not be this endlessly long working day like here.

‘We would sleep in the afternoon under the fan, its blades a grey blur, the sun so hard and bright that it would still be with us through the closed shutters. I would tease you about your students – are the girls pretty, do they come to your office after lectures and sweetly say, Ustaz, I can’t understand this, I can’t understand that? Ustaz, don’t be so hard on us when you’re marking our exams. And you would laugh at me and shake your head, say I’m talking rubbish but I would know from your eyes how much my possessiveness pleases you. The children playing on the roof would wake us up, their footsteps thudding over the hum of the fan. They are not allowed up there, it is not safe among the jagged green pieces of glass that ward off thieves. And you are furious with them; you go outside and throw your slipper at your son as he drops himself down from the tree, one foot balanced on the windowsill. He is the eldest, the instigator. But he is mischievous and ducks; you miss him and have to shout BRING THE SLIPPER BACK. From inside I hear his laugh like cool tumbling water. You once bought a whip for this boy, you got it from the souk in Umdurman where they sell good whips, and you were quite pleased with yourself that day. You lashed it through the air to frighten the children with its snake-like power. But you did not have much of a chance to use it because he took it and threw it on top of the neighbour’s roof and so it remained there among the fluffs of dust, razor blades and other things the wind carried to that roof. I would make tea with mint. By now the sun would have nearly set, it would be the hottest part of the day, no breeze, no movement, as if the whole world was holding its breath for the departure of the sun. Our neighbour comes over and you drink the tea together, he brings with him the latest gossip, another political fiasco; and you are amused, your good mood is restored. Your son behaves well in front of guests; he leaves his play, comes and shakes the man’s hand. The sound of grief cuts the stillness of the evening, like a group of birds howling, circling and yapping with their throats. We guess it must be the elderly neighbour across the square; he has been in and out of hospital for some time. I grab my tobe and run, run in my slippers to mourn with them.’

‘You are hallucinating, woman.’ this was Majdy’s answer. He had proof. ‘Number one, I will never, with the salary the university pays its lecturers, be able to afford us a house or a flat of our own. Unless I steal or accept bribes and there is not much opportunity for either in my kind of work. We would probably live with my parents; my mother would get on your nerves sooner or later. You will complain about her day and night and you will be angry with me because you expect me to take your side and I don’t. Number two, how will I ever get to the souk of Umdurman with no petrol. And there is unlikely to be any electricity for your fan. The last thing, why do you assume that nothing pleases me better than drinking tea and gossiping with the neighbour? This is exactly the kind of waste of time that I want to get away from. That whole atmosphere where so-called intellectuals spend their time arguing about politics. Every lecturer defined by his political beliefs, every promotion depending on one’s political inclination and not the amount of research he’s done or the papers he’s published. My colleagues would be imagining that it is their responsibility to run the country. Debating every little thing from every abstract angle. the British gave it up, packed and left without putting up a fight, and somehow the Sudanese carry this air of pride, of belief that their large, crazy country will one day rise gracefully from its backwardness and yield something good!’

She sometimes argued back when he spoke like that. Accused him of disloyalty, a lack of feeling. Sometimes she would be silent for days, control herself and not mention either the future or the past. Then like one breaking a fast, she would speak, offer him memories and stories, and wait for him to take them. Wait with the same patience, the same serene insistence with which the little girls at the Central Post office had offered pins and gum to his mother.

‘I am not making this up,’ she said one night as they walked on a side street sleek with rain and yellow lamplight. ‘This really happened. After your mother phoned you at the Central Post office she stood for an hour waiting for a bus or a taxi. None came; transport was bad that day because of the petrol shortage. The sun burned her head and she became exhausted from standing. So she walked to the middle of the road, stood right in the middle of the road, and raised her hand, palm upwards. She stopped the first car, opened the front door and got in. “my son,” she said to the driver, “I am fed up of waiting for transport. And I can’t move another step. For Allah’s sake, drive me home, I’ll show you the way.” And he did drive her home even though it wasn’t on his way. And as they chatted, he called her Aunt.’

And in July, rain that made silver puddles. The sun disappearing for a day, the new smell of the earth. And there would be no work that day, no school. The cars stranded islands in the flooded streets.

‘Because there are no proper gutters,’ he would tell her. ‘No drainage system and all those potholes. Remember the stink of the stagnant water days later. Remember the mosquitoes that would descend, spreading disease.’

‘Silver puddles,’ she would say, ‘under a sky strange with blue clouds.’

Another memory. She offered it like a flower pressed into his hands. On the week before the wedding, they went to visit his uncle. The electricity cut and the air cooler’s roar turned to a purr, its fan flapped and then all the sound died down. The sudden darkness, the sudden silence. They sat and listened to the gentle drip-drop sound of the water on the air cooler’s fresh straw. Opened the windows to let in the faint night air and the scents from the jasmine bushes. Moonlight filled the room with blue-grey shadows. Outlines rose of the coloured sweets on the table, the ice melting in their glasses of lemon juice. While their hosts stumbled around in search of candles and lights, Majdy had leaned over and kissed her for the first time.

‘But, Samra, do you want a power cut in London? Think of that – elevators, traffic lights, the trains. Chaos and fear. They would write about it in the newspapers, talk about it on TV. And in Khartoum it is an everyday event, another inconvenience, part of the misery of life. Defrosted fridges become cupboards with the food all soggy and rotting inside.’

Sometimes he looked at her and felt compassion. Felt that, yes, she did not belong here. Looked at the little curls at the nape of her neck, dry now and light, not moist with sweat, and thought that she was meant for brilliant sunsets and thin cotton dresses. Her small teeth made to strip the hard husk of sugar cane, her dimples for friends and neighbours. He could see her in idle conversation, weaving the strands of gossip with a friend. Passing the time in the shade of palm trees and bougainvilleas, in a place where the hours were long.

Most times though, he could not understand how she was not excited by the opportunities their new life held. How she could not admire the civilized way that people went about their business here, their efficiency and decency, ambulances and fire engines that never let anyone down. The way a cheque card could slide through a wedge on the wall and crisp cash emerge. These things impressed her, but not for long. She exclaimed at how the pigeons and ducks in the parks were left unmolested. No one captured them to eat them. But instead of enjoying their beauty, she brooded over how poor her own people were.

He began to think of her homesickness as perverse. Her reluctance wholeheartedly to embrace their new life, an intransigence. He began to feel bored by her nostalgia, her inability to change or to initiate a new life for herself. Homesickness was blocking her progress, blinding her to all the benefits she could gain. There were so many choices, so many new doors and yet she was stuck in the past, adoring Sudan and missing out on the present. He had, in the time he had spent in London, met Sudanese women who blossomed in their new surroundings. He had seen them in tight trousers they would not dare wear back home, playing with lighted cigarettes in their hands. And though he did not expect or really want her to do exactly these things, he was disappointed that she did not capture that same spirit and instead seemed shyer, more reserved than she ever was in Khartoum. She wanted to wear her tobe, to cover her hair and he would say no, no, not here. I do not want us to be associated with fanatics and backwardness.

It is frightening to come home at the end of the day and find your wife sitting, just sitting, in her dressing gown and her hair uncombed just as you have left her in the morning. She, who checks her reflection in every mirror, who for you scents her hair with sandalwood, dips steel in kohl to wipe the rims of her eyes. You find her sitting and the whole place is untouched, no smells of cooking, the bed unmade, mugs stained with tea, the remaining few flakes of cereal swollen in their bowl. She is silent, looks at you as if you don’t exist, does not yield or soften under your touch. Stroke her hair and rub her hands and probe for the right words, the words she wants to hear. Talk of jasmine-scented gardens, of a wedding dance, of the high Nile breaking its banks. Until she can cry.

For days afterwards, as Majdy put his key in the lock, as he turned it, he would brace himself for that same scene, he would fear a reoccurrence. He had been happy that day. While she sat at home with a frozen heart, he had glimpsed a modest success, a slight breakthrough in his work. A paper he had been looking for, a paper written five years ago in his same area of work, was located in another library. And he had gone there, to that college on the other side of London, an event in itself, for he was always at the library or using the mainframe computers. He had found it, photocopied it, warmed to its familiar notation and travelled back, full of appreciation for that meticulous body of knowledge, the technology that enabled one to locate written material. We are centuries behind, he would tell her later, in things like that we are too far behind ever to catch up. And while she had sat in her dressing gown, immobile, ignoring hunger and thirst, he had entered the mind of that other mathematician, followed his logic and when finding an error (the subscript for lambda should have been t-1 and not t), a typing error or a more serious slip from the writer, he had been infused with a sense of pleasure. So that even while he knelt next to her and asked, what is wrong, what has happened, the formulae with their phis and gammas and lambdas still frolicked in his brain and the idea occurred to him that her name, if he ignored its real Arabic meaning, sounded just like these Greek letters, these enigmatic variables with their soft shapes and gentle curves. Alpha, lambda, sigma, beta, samra.

He proposed a practical solution to her problem. She must do something with herself, she was too idle, and as she was not allowed to work without a permit, then she must study. Already her English was good so word processing would be ideal; she could type his thesis for him. He was enthusiastic about the idea; a word-processing course of a few weeks, and through it perhaps she would meet others like herself from all over the world, make friends and keep busy. So she, who had once braved tear gas, the crush of running feet, now faced a middle-aged teacher, a jolly woman who had recently travelled to Tunisia for her holidays and come back encased in kaftans and shawls. The teacher gushed at Samra, ‘You must be so relieved that you are here, all that war and famine back home. You must be relieved that you are not there now.’ From such a woman Samra recoiled and like a spoiled stubborn child refused to continue with the course.

Out of exasperation, Majdy suggested that she should go home for a few months. He winced as he saw her try to hide the eagerness from her voice when she said, ‘Yes, that would be nice.’ And the polite questions, wouldn’t the ticket be too expensive, would he be all right on his own? Then she left, easily, so easily as if she had never truly arrived, never laid down roots that needed pulling out.

Without her, it suddenly started to feel like the year he had spent alone in London before they got married. The days drifting together, no reason to come home in the evening, all around him too much quietude. Without her he was not sure how to organize his day, to work at home or at the library, to work late at night or wake up early in the morning. He knew it did not matter either way but that early sparkle of liberty which had characterized the first days of her absence, that feeling of relief, of a responsibility shed, soon faded away and freedom hung around him, stale and heavy.

While Samra was away, London became more familiar to him. He thought of it as his new home and it was as if the city responded. He could feel it softening around him, becoming genial in its old age. The summers getting hotter and hotter. A new humid heat, sticky, unlike the dry burning of the desert in Sudan. People filled the streets, the parks, a population explosion or as if a season of imprisonment was over and they were now let loose. They lay immobile on towels spread on the grass, drove in cars without roofs, spilled out of cafes onto the pavements.

Beggars squatted around the stations, third World style. The sight of the beggars jarred him, he could not look them in the face, he could not give them money. It did not look right or feel right that white people should be poor. It was shameful that they were homeless and begging. It was unnatural that he was better off than them. He had a faint memory of discovering that in Europe begging was illegal. The information, incredible to him and awe-inspiring, had been in his mind part of the magic of the Western world. A place where everyone’s livelihood was so guaranteed that begging could be considered a crime.

He had once told Samra that this country chips away one’s faith, but he began to see that it chipped away indiscriminately at all faith, even faith in itself. And as it accepted him, his admiration for it stabilized, his faith in it wavered. It was no longer enough, as it once had been, that he was here, that he was privileged to walk London’s streets, smell the books of its libraries, feast his eyes on its new, shining cars. He would walk on wet roads that never flooded and realize that he would never know what it would be like to say, ‘my ancestors built this, my grandfather borrowed a book from this library.’ London held something that could never be his, that was impossible to aspire to.

His mother phoned him, her voice loud over the bustle of the Central Post Office. ‘Why did you send Samra back for a holiday so soon? Is anything wrong between you?’

He was taken aback. ‘No, of course not.’ marrying Samra had helped him feel settled and comfortable, well fed and looked after. He had liked working late into the night, kept company by her presence, the click of the spoon as she stirred sugar in tea, the chiming of her bangles, her movements when she stood up to pray in that early summer dawn. ‘Did she complain about anything?’

‘No.’ his mother’s voice was casual. ‘She just mentioned that you don’t pray.’

‘Oh.’ he could not think of a reply. The corridor of the hostel was empty. He stared at the vending machine which sold chocolates and drinks. Samra had been fascinated by this machine. She had tried to get it to work with Sudanese coins. He missed her.

‘Is it true that you want to stay on in London after you get your degree?’ this was why she had telephoned. The nip of anxiety.

‘Yes, it would be better for me.’ His PhD was now within reach. He had been invited to a conference in Bath, he was stepping through the door, and after all this hard work, he intended to stay and reap what he had sown.

His mother gasped down the line, ‘How can you leave me all alone in my old age?’

He smiled because he had brothers and sisters living in Khartoum. There was no need for her melodramatic response. ‘Don’t you want the best for me? You are the one who is always complaining that Sudan is going from bad to worse.’

His mother sighed. First he had threatened to abandon his studies and return without a degree, now he was threatening the opposite! She had married him off so that he would not drift away, so that he would stay close. ‘But what if things improve here, son? If they strike oil or make lasting peace, would you not be missing out?’

‘I can’t decide my future based on speculations.’ Simulate a system over time, build a model, play around with a set of variables, observe what happens when you introduce a shock. This was his work.

Back in his room, Majdy noticed the silence. The floor looked strangely larger. Samra had folded her prayer mat and put it away in her side of the cupboard. She had not needed to take it with her. In Khartoum there were plenty of other mats. Mats with worn faded patches in those places where people pressed their foreheads and stood with wet feet. Majdy opened the cupboard and touched the smooth, velvet material. It stirred in him a childish sense of exclusion, of being left out, like a pleasure he had denied himself and now forgotten the reasons why. She had held the day up with pegs; not only her day but his too. Five pegs. And now morning billowed into afternoon, into night, unmarked.

 

My Father’s Head

Okwiri Oduor

I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was here and I did not know how to send him back.

It all started the Thursday that Father Ignatius came from Immaculate Conception in Kitgum. The old women wore their Sunday frocks, and the old men plucked garlands of bougainvillea from the fence and stuck them in their breast pockets. One old man would not leave the dormitory because he could not find his shikwarusi, and when I coaxed and badgered, he patted his hair and said, “My God, do you want the priest from Uganda to think that I look like this every day?”

I arranged chairs beneath the avocado tree in the front yard, and the old people sat down and practiced their smiles. A few people who did not live at the home came too, like the woman who hawked candy in the Stagecoach bus to Mathari North, and the man whose one-roomed house was a kindergarten in the daytime and a brothel in the evening, and the woman whose illicit brew had blinded five people in January. Father Ignatius came riding on the back of a bodaboda, and after everyone had dropped a coin in his hat, he gave the bodaboda man fifty shillings and the bodaboda man said, “Praise God,” and then rode back the way he had come.

Father Ignatius took off his coat and sat down in the chair that was marked, “Father they pleased. As though one could look at it and say, “Now see: I have ten loves in total. Let me save three for my country and give all the rest to my neighbours.” It must have been the way that Father Ignatius filled his mug – until the tea ran over the clay rim and down the stool leg and soaked into his canvas shoe – that got me thinking about my own father. One moment I was listening to tales of Acholi valour, and the next, I was stringing together images of my father, making his limbs move and his lips spew words, so that in the end, he was a marionette and my memories of him were only scenes in a theatrical display.

Even as I showed Father Ignatius to his chambers, cleared the table, put the chairs back inside, took my purse, and dragged myself to Odeon to get a matatu to Uthiru, I thought about the millet-coloured freckle in my father’s eye, and the fifty cent coins he always forgot in his coat pockets, and the way each Saturday morning men knocked on our front door and said things like, “Johnson, you have to come now; the water pipe has burst and we are filling our glasses with shit,” and, “Johnson, there is no time to put on clothes even; just come the way you are. The maid gave birth in the night and flushed the baby down the toilet.”

Every day after work, I bought an ear of street-roasted maize and chewed it one kernel at a time, and when I reached the house, I wiggled out of the muslin dress and wore dungarees and drank a cup of masala chai. Then I carried my father’s toolbox to the bathroom. I chiselled out old broken tiles from the wall, and they fell onto my boots, and the dust rose from them and exploded in the flaring tongues of fire lapping through chinks in the stained glass.

This time, as I did all those things, I thought of the day I sat at my father’s feet and he scooped a handful of groundnuts and rubbed them between his palms, chewed them, and then fed the mush to me. I was of a curious age then; old enough to chew with my own teeth, yet young enough to desire that hot, masticated love, love that did not need to be doctrinated or measured in cough syrup caps.

The Thursday Father Ignatius came from Kitgum, I spent the entire night on my stomach on the sitting room floor, drawing my father. In my mind I could see his face, see the lines around his mouth, the tiny blobs of light in his irises, the crease at the part where his ear joined his temple. I could even see the thick line of sweat and oil on his shirt collar, the little brown veins that broke off from the main stream of dirt and ran down on their own. I could see all these things, yet no matter what I did, his head refused to appear within the borders of the paper. I started off with his feet and worked my way up and in the end my father’s head popped out of the edges of the paper and onto scuffed linoleum and plastic
magnolias and the wet soles of bathroom slippers.

I showed Bwibo some of the drawings. Bwibo was the cook at the old people’s home, with whom I had formed an easy camaraderie. “My God!” Bwibo muttered, flipping through them. “Simbi, this is abnormal.” The word ‘abnormal’ came out crumbly, and it broke over the sharp edge of the table and became clods of loam on the plastic floor covering. Bwibo rested her head on her palm, and the bell sleeves of her cream-coloured caftan swelled as though there were pumpkins stacked inside them.

I told her what I had started to believe, that perhaps my father had had a face but no head at all. And even if my father had had a head, I would not have seen it: people’s heads were not a thing that one often saw. One looked at a person, and what one saw was their face: a regular face-shaped face, that shrouded a regular head-shaped head. If the face was remarkable, one looked twice. But what was there to draw one’s eyes to the banalities of another’s head? Most times when one looked at a person, one did not even see their head there at all.

Bwibo stood over the waist-high jiko, poured cassava flour into a pot of bubbling water and stirred it with a cooking oar. “Child,” she said, “how do you know that the man in those drawings is your father? He has no head at all, no face.” “I recognize his clothes. The red corduroys that he always paired with yellow shirts.” Bwibo shook her head. “It is only with a light basket that someone can escape the
rain.”

It was that time of day when the old people fondled their wooden beads and snorted off to sleep in between incantations. I allowed them a brief, bashful siesta, long enough for them to believe that they had recited the entire rosary. Then I tugged at the ropes and the lunch bells chimed. The old people sat eight to a table, and with their mouths filled with ugali, sour lentils and okra soup, said things like, “Do not buy chapati from Kadima’s Kiosk— Kadima’s wife sits on the dough and charms it with her buttocks,” or, “Did I tell you about Wambua, the one whose cow chewed a child because the child would not stop wailing?” In the afternoon, I emptied the bedpans and soaked the old people’s feet in warm water and baking soda, and when they trooped off to mass I took my purse and went home. The Christmas before the cane tractor killed my father, he drank his tea from plates and fried his eggs on the lids of coffee jars, and he retrieved his Yamaha drum-set from a shadowy, lizardy place in the back of the house and sat on the veranda and smoked and beat the drums until his knuckles bled.

One day he took his stool and hand-held radio and went to the veranda, and I sat at his feet, undid his laces and peeled off his gummy socks. He wiggled his toes about. They smelt slightly fetid, like sour cream.

My father smoked and listened to narrations of famine undulating deeper into the Horn of Africa, and when the clock chimed eight o’clock, he turned the knob and listened to the death news. It was not long before his ears caught the name of someone he knew. He choked on the smoke trapped in his throat.

My father said, “Did you hear that? Sospeter has gone! Sospeter, the son of Milkah, who taught Agriculture in Mirere Secondary. My God, I am telling you, everyone is going. Even me, you shall hear me on the death news very soon.”

I brought him his evening cup of tea. He smashed his cigarette against the veranda, then he slowly brought the cup to his lips. The cup was filled just the way he liked it, filled until the slightest trembling would have his fingers and thighs scalded.

My father took a sip of his tea and said, “Sospeter was like a brother to me. Why did I have to learn of his death like this, over the radio?”

Later, my father lay on the fold-away sofa, and I sat on the stool watching him, afraid that if I looked away, he would go too. It was the first time I imagined his death, the first time I mourned.

And yet it was not my father I was mourning. I was mourning the image of myself inside the impossible aura of my father’s death. I was imagining what it all would be like: the death news would say that my father had drowned in a cess pit, and people would stare at me as though I were a monitor lizard trapped inside a manhole in the street. I imagined that I would be wearing my green dress when I got the news – the one with red gardenias embroidered in its bodice –and people would come and pat my shoulder and give me warm Coca Cola in plastic cups and say, “I put my sorrow in a basket and brought it here as soon as I heard. How else would your father’s spirit know that I am innocent of his death?” Bwibo had an explanation as to why I could not remember the shape of my father’s head. She said, “Although everyone has a head behind their face, some show theirs easily; they turn their back on you and their head is all you can see. Your father was a good man andgood men never show you their heads; they show you their faces.”

Perhaps she was right. Even the day my father’s people telephoned to say that a cane tractor had flattened him on the road to Shibale, no one said a thing about having seen his head. They described the rest of his body with a measured delicacy: how his legs were strewn across the road, sticky and shiny with fresh tar, and how one foot remained inside his tyre, sandal, pounding the pedal of his bicycle, and how cane juice filled his mouth and soaked the collar of his polyester shirt, and how his face had a patient serenity, even as his eyes burst and rolled in the rain puddles.

And instead of weeping right away when they said all those things to me, I had wondered if my father really had come from a long line of obawami, and if his people would bury him seated in his grave, with  a string of royal cowries round his neck. “In any case,” Bwibo went on, “what more is there to think about your father, eh? That milk spilled a long time ago, and it has curdled on the ground.” I spent the day in the dormitories, stripping beds, sunning mattresses, scrubbing PVC mattress pads. One of the old men kept me company. He told me how he came to spend his sunset years at the home – in August of 1998 he was at the station waiting to board the evening train back home to Mombasa. When the bomb went off at the American Embassy, the police trawled the city and arrested every man of Arab extraction. Because he was seventy-two and already rapidly unravelling into senility, they dumped him at the old people’s home, and he had been there ever since.

“Did your people not come to claim you?” I asked, bewildered. The old man snorted. “My people?”
“Everyone has people that belong to them.” The old man laughed. “Only the food you have already eaten belongs to you.” Later, the old people sat in drooping clumps in the yard. Bwibo and I watched from the back steps of the kitchen. In the grass, ants devoured a squirming caterpillar. The dog’s nose, a translucent pink doodled with green veins, twitched. Birds raced each other over the frangipani. One tripped over the power line and smashed its head on the moss–covered electricity pole.
Wasps flew low over the grass. A lizard crawled over the lichen that choked a pile of timber. The dog licked the inside of its arm. A troupe of royal butterfly dancers flitted over
the row of lilies, their colourful gauze dancing skirts trembling to the rumble of an inaudible drum beat. The dog lay on its side in the grass, smothering the squirming caterpillar and the
chewing ants. The dog’s nipples were little pellets of goat shit stuck with spit onto its furry underside.

Bwibo said, “I can help you remember the shape of your father’s head.” I said, “Now what type of mud is this you have started speaking?”Bwibo licked her index finger and held it solemnly in the air. “I swear, Bible red! I can help you and I can help you.” Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through
the spaces between his fingers.

And you, you will have to tell them stories about places not-here, about people that soaked their table napkins in Jik Bleach and talked about London as though London was a place one could reach by hopping onto an Akamba bus and driving by Nakuru and Kisumu and Kakamega and finding themselves there. You will tell your people about men that did not slit melons up into slices but split them into halves and ate each of the halves out with a spoon, about women that held each other’s hands around street lamps in town and skipped about, showing snippets of grey Mother’s Union bloomers as they sang:
Kijembe ni kikali, param-param
Kilikata mwalimu, param-param

You think that your people belong to you, that they will always have a place for you in their minds and their hearts. You think that your people will always look forward to your return.
Maybe the day you go back home to your people you will have to sit in a wicker chair on the veranda and smoke alone because, although they may have wanted to have you back, no one really meant for you to stay.
My father was slung over the wicker chair in the veranda, just like in the old days, smoking and watching the handheld radio. The death news rose from the radio, and it became a mist, hovering low, clinging to the cold glass of the sitting room window.

My father’s shirt flapped in the wind, and tendrils of smoke snapped before his face. He whistled to himself. At first the tune was a faceless, pitiful thing, like an old bottle that someone found on the path and kicked all the way home. Then the tune caught fragments of other tunes inside it, and it lost its free-spirited falling and rising.

My father had a head. I could see it now that I had the mind to look for it. His head was shaped like a butternut squash. Perhaps that was the reason I had forgotten all about it; it was a horrible, disconcerting thing to look at.

My father had been a plumber. His fingernails were still rimmed with dregs from the drainage pipes he tinkered about in, and his boots still squished with ugali from nondescript kitchen sinks. Watching him, I remembered the day he found a gold chain tangled in the fibres of someone’s excrement, and he wiped the excrement off against his corduroys and sold the chain at Nagin Pattni, and that evening, hoisted high upon his shoulders, he brought home the red Greatwall television. He set it in the corner of the sitting room and said, “Just look how it shines, as though it is not filled with shit inside.”
And every day I plucked a bunch of carnations and snipped their stems diagonally and stood them in a glass bowl and placed the glass bowl on top of the television so that my father would not think of shit while he watched the evening news.
I said to Bwibo, “We have to send him back.”

Bwibo said, “The liver you have asked for is the one you eat.”

“But I did not really want him back, I just wanted to see his head.”
Bwibo said, “In the end, he came back to you and that should account for something,
should it not?”

Perhaps my father’s return accounted for nothing but the fact that the house already smelt like him – of burnt lentils and melting fingernails and the bark of bitter quinine and the sourness of wet rags dabbing at broken cigarette tips. I threw things at my father; garlic, incense, salt, pork, and when none of that repelled him, I asked Father Ignatius to bless the house. He brought a vial of holy water, and he sprinkled it in every room, sprinkled it over my father. Father Ignatius said that I would need further protection, but that I would have to write him a cheque first.

One day I was buying roast maize in the street corner when the vendor said to me, “Is it true what the vegetable-sellers are saying, that you finally found a man to love you but will not let him through your door?”

That evening, I invited my father inside. We sat side by side on the fold-away sofa, and watched as a fly crawled up the dusty screen between the grill and the window glass. It buzzed a little as it climbed. The ceiling fan creaked, and it threw shadows across the corridor floor. The shadows leapt high and mounted doors and peered through the air vents in the walls.

The wind upset a cup. For a few seconds, the cup lay lopsided on the windowsill.
Then it rolled on its side and scurried across the floor. I pulled at the latch, fastened the window shut. The wind grazed the glass with its wet lips. It left a trail of dust and saliva, and the saliva dribbled down slowly to the edge of the glass. The wind had a slobbery mouth. Soon its saliva had covered the entire window, covered it until the rosemary brushwood outside the window became blurry. The jacaranda outside stooped low, scratched the roof. In the next room, doors and windows banged. I looked at my father. He was something at once strange and familiar, at once enthralling and frightening – he was the brittle, chipped handle of a ceramic tea mug, and he was the cold yellow stare of an owl.

My father touched my hand ever so lightly, so gently, as though afraid that I would flinch and pull my hand away. I did not dare lift my eyes, but he touched my chin and tipped it upwards so that I had no choice but to look at him. I remembered a time when I was a little child, when I stared into my father’s eyes in much the same way. In them I saw shapes; a drunken, talentless conglomerate of circles and triangles and squares. I had wondered how those shapes had got inside my father’s eyes. I had imagined that he sat down at the table, cut out glossy figures from colouring books, slathered them with glue, and stuck them inside his eyes so that they made rummy, haphazard collages in his irises.

My father said, “Would you happen to have some tea, Simbi?”
I brought some, and he asked if his old friend Pius Obote still came by the house on Saturdays, still brought groundnut soup and pumpkin leaves and a heap of letters that he had picked up from the post office.
I said, “Pius Obote has been dead for four years.”
My father pushed his cup away. He said, “If you do not want me here drinking your tea, just say so, instead of killing-killing people with your mouth.” My father was silent for a while, grieving this man Pius Obote whose name had always made me think of knees banging against each other. Pius Obote used to blink a lot. Once, he fished inside his pocket for a biro and instead withdrew a chicken bone, still red and
moist. My father said to me, “I have seen you. You have offered me tea. I will go now.”
“Where will you go?” “I will find a job in a town far from here. Maybe Eldoret. I used to have people there.” I said, “Maybe you could stay here for a couple of days, Baba.”

How Much Land Does A Man Need?

Leo Tolstoy

 

 

A woman went to visit her younger sister in the country. She was married to a man who had a good job in a city. The younger was married to a peasant in a village. As the sisters sat over their tea, the older one began to talk about the advantages of city life. She told her sister how comfortably they lived, how well they dressed, what fine clothes her children wore. She talked about good things they ate and drank, and how she often went to the theatre, dances, and other entertainments.

The younger sister was hurt by the older sister’s words. In turn she spoke badly about city life and spoke well about that of a peasant.

“I would not change my way of life for yours,” she said. “We may live roughly, but at least we are free from worry. You live in better style than we do but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. It often happens that people who are wealthy one day have nothing to eat the next. Our way is safer. Though a peasant’s life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.”

“Enough? Yes!” said the older sister with a look on her face that said she did not agree. “If you like to share with the pigs and the cows. What do you know of fine living or good manners! However hard your husband may work, you will die as you are living — poor — and your children the same.”

“Well, what of that?” answered the younger. “Of course our work is rough and hard. But, on the other hand, it is sure. And we are in charge of our own lives. But in the city, there many things that could lead a person to do something bad. Today all may be all right, but tomorrow the Devil may try to get your husband to play cards, drink too much wine, or go with other women. Then all will be lost. Don’t such things happen often enough?”

Pahóm, the younger sister’s husband, had been listening. “It is perfectly true,” he thought. “We peasants are busy from childhood working the earth. We have no time to let any silly thoughts settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t enough land. If I had a lot of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”

The women finished their tea, talked a while about other things, and then cleared away the tea things and lay down to sleep.

But the Devil had been sitting behind Pahóm. He had heard what he said about not fearing the Devil himself if he had plenty of land. “All right,” thought the Devil, “we will see who is stronger. I will give you enough land. And by doing that, I will put you in my power.”

 

 

 

 

II

Close to the village lived a lady who owned about three hundred acres of land. She had always been on good terms with the peasants until she employed an old soldier to manage her farm. He took to charging fines to people whose animals came onto her land. However careful Pahóm tried to be, he was always paying fines. Now a cow of his found its way into her fields. Then a horse of his got among the lady’s corn.

Pahóm paid up, but was unhappy about it. He would go home angry and be unkind to his family. All through that summer, Pahóm had trouble because of this farm manager. He was even glad when the winter snows came and the cattle had to be kept indoors. Though he did not like having to pay for hay, at least he was free from worry about them.

In the winter the news got about that the lady was going to sell her land, and that the keeper of the inn on the high road was talking to her about buying it. When the peasants heard this they were very worried.

“If the inn-keeper gets the land,” they thought, “he will charge larger fines than the lady’s farm manager. We all have to use that land sometimes.”

So the peasants went and asked the lady not to sell the land to the inn-keeper, but to sell it to the Commune so that they all could use it. They offered her a better price, which she accepted. Then the peasants tried to arrange for the Commune to buy the land. The Commune met twice to discuss it, but could not agree on the matter. The Devil caused them to argue with one another. So it was decided that that the peasants should buy the land individually, each according to how much money they had. The lady agreed to this plan as she had to the other.

Soon after this, Pahóm heard that a neighbour of his was buying fifty acres. The lady had agreed to accept one half in cash and to wait a year for the other half. Pahóm felt jealous.

“Look at that,” he thought, “the land is all being sold and I shall get none of it.” So he spoke to his wife. “Other people are buying land,” he said, “and we must also buy twenty acres or so. Life is becoming impossible. That farm manager is destroying us with his fines.”

So they put their heads together and considered how they could get enough money. They already had one hundred roubles in cash. They sold everything that they could sell. They got one of their sons to take a job working on another farm, and borrowed against his wages. Then they borrowed some money from a brother-in-law. They were able to put together half of the amount needed to buy forty acres.

Having done this, Pahóm selected an area of land, some of it with trees, and went to the lady. They came to an agreement, and then went to town to sign the ownership documents. He paid half the price down, and was to pay the other half within two years.

So now Pahóm had land of his own to farm. He borrowed seed, and sowed it on the land he had bought. The crop was a good one, and within a year he had managed to pay off the money he owed to both the lady and to his brother-in-law. So he became a land owner. He ploughed and sowed his land, made his own hay, cut his own trees, and fed his cattle in his own grassy fields. When he went out to work his land, or to look at his cattle or corn, his heart would fill with joy. The grass and flowers that grew there seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere. When he had passed by that land before, it had appeared the same as any other land. Now it seemed quite different.

 

 

 

 

III

Pahóm was very happy, and everything would have been fine if the neighbouring peasants would have kept their animals off his land. He asked them to do this very politely, but they still went on. The man who took care of the village cows did not watch them carefully and they would get into his fields. Horses set free for the night would get among his corn. Pahóm turned them out again and again, and forgave their owners. He knew that the owners did not have their own land, and that they did not mean to cause him harm. But at last he lost patience.

“I cannot go on doing nothing,” he thought. “Otherwise they will destroy all I have. They must be taught a lesson.”

He complained to the District Court and gave them one lesson, and then another. Two or three of the peasants received fines. After a time Pahóm’s neighbours began to feel angry towards him for this. Now and then they let their cattle on to his land on purpose.

One peasant even got into Pahóm’s wood one night and cut down five young trees for their bark. Pahóm was passing through the wood one day noticed something white. He came nearer, and saw their trunks lying on the ground where the trees had stood. Pahóm was very angry. “If he had only cut one here and there it would have been bad enough,” thought Pahóm, “but whoever did this has cut down a whole group of trees. If I could only find out who did it, I would make him pay.”

He thought for a long time about who it could be. Finally he decided that it must be a neighbor by the name of Simon. He went to Simon’s farmhouse to have a look around. He found nothing, but caused an angry scene. He then felt more certain than ever that Simon had done it. He took Simon to the District Court, but the Judges found Simon not guilty. There was no evidence against him. Pahóm felt that he had been cheated, and let his anger loose upon the Judges.

“You let thieves who give you money go free,” he said to them. “If you were honest men, you would not do this.”

So Pahóm now argued with the Judges as well as with his neighbours. People started to talk about burning his farm buildings. Though Pahóm had more land, his place in the Commune was much worse than before.

About this time word came to the village that many people were moving to new parts of the country.

“There’s no need for me to leave my land,” Pahóm thought. “But some of the others might leave the village and then there would be more room for us. I will take over their land and have more. I would then be happier. As it is, I don’t have enough land to be comfortable.”

One day as Pahóm was sitting at home, a stranger passing through the village happened to call in. He was allowed to stay the night, and was given dinner. Pahóm asked him where he came from. The stranger answered that he came from the the other side of the Volga River, where he had been working. One word led to another, and the man went on to say that many people were settling in those parts. He told how some people from his village had moved there. They had joined the Commune, and been given twenty-five acres per man. The land was so good, he said, that the wheat sown on it grew thick and as tall as a horse. One man, he said, had brought nothing with him and now he had six horses and two cows of his own.

Pahóm’s heart burnt with desire. “Why should I suffer in this small place if one can live so well elsewhere?” he thought. “I will sell my land and my farmhouse here, and with the money I will start again over there and get everything new. In this crowded place one is always having trouble. But I must first go and find out all about it myself.”

Towards summer he got ready and started. He went down the Volga on a boat to Samára, then walked another three hundred miles. At last reached the place. It was just as the stranger had said. The peasants had plenty of land. Every man was given twenty-five acres of Communal land for his use. And any one who had money could buy, for around one rouble an acre, as much more land as he wanted.

Having found out all he wished to know, Pahóm returned home as autumn came on.

He then began selling off his belongings. He sold his land at a profit, sold his farmhouse and all his cattle, and left the Commune. He waited until the spring, and then started with his family for the new settlement.

As soon as Pahóm and his family arrived at the settlement, he applied for admission into the Commune of a large village. He gave presents to its leaders, and was given the necessary documents to five shares of Communal land for himself and his sons. That was a total of 125 acres. The shares were not all together, but in different fields. He could also use the Communal pasture.

Pahóm bought cattle and put up the buildings he needed. Of the Communal land alone he now had three times as much as at his former home. And it was good land for farming. He was ten times better off than he had been. He had plenty of farm land and pasture, and could keep as many cattle as he liked.

At first, with all the activity of building and settling down, Pahóm was pleased with it all. But when he got used to it he began to think that even here he did not have enough land. The first year, he sowed wheat on his 125 acres. He had a good crop and wanted to go on sowing wheat. But in that part of the country, the land could not be farmed every year. After being farmed for one or two years, it had to be left with nothing on it until the natural grasses had grown back.

Some poor people who did not want to farm their land from the Commune would rent it out to others. Those who were better off would rent such land for growing wheat, but there was not enough for all. There were often arguments about it. Pahóm rented some land for a year. He sowed much wheat and had a fine crop. But the land was too far from the village and he had to carry the wheat more than ten miles.

After a time Pahóm noticed that some farmers were living on separate land that that they had bought and were growing rich. “If I were to buy some land,” he thought, “and live on it, it would be different. Then it would all be nice.” The question of buying land came into his mind again and again.

He went on in the same way for three years: renting land and sowing wheat. The seasons turned out well and the crops were good. He began to save money. He might have gone on living happily, but he grew tired of having to rent other people’s land every year and having to fight to get it. Wherever there was good land to be had, all the peasants wanted it. Unless you acted at once, it would be gone. In the third year he and another man rented a piece of land from some peasants. They had already ploughed it up ready for planting, when there was some kind of argument. The peasants went to the law about it, and took the land back. All the hard work they had done was lost. “If it were my own land,” Pahóm thought, “I should be independent. There would not be all this unpleasantness.”

So Pahóm began looking out for land which he could buy. He came across a man who owned thirteen hundred acres. The man had got into difficulties and was willing to sell it cheaply. Pahóm bargained with the man, and at last they settled the price at 1,500 roubles; 1,000 roubles in cash and the rest to be paid later.

They had all but completed the sale, when a passing stranger happened to stop at Pahóm’s farm to get some food for his horses. He drank tea with Pahóm, and they talked. The stranger told him that he was just returning from the distant land of the Bashkírs. He said that he had just bought thirteen thousand acres of land there for 1,000 roubles. Pahóm questioned him further.

“All one need do is to make friends with the chiefs,” he said. “I gave away about one hundred roubles worth of presents, as well as a case of tea. I also gave wine to those who would drink it. I got the land for less than eight kopecks an acre. It lies near a river, and the whole area has never been farmed.”

He showed Pahóm the ownership papers, and Pahóm asked many more questions.

“There is more land there than you could cover if you walked a year,” the man said. “And it all belongs to the Bashkírs. They are as simple as sheep, and land can be got almost for nothing.”

“There now!” thought Pahóm. “With my one thousand roubles, why should I get only thirteen hundred acres, and have to pay more money later. If I take it out there, I can get more than ten times as much land for the money.”

 

 

 

 

IV

Pahóm asked how to get to the place, and as soon as the stranger had left him, he prepared to go there himself. He left his wife to look after their farm and started on his journey, taking just one man with him. They stopped at a town on their way and bought a case of tea, some wine, and other presents as the stranger had advised. On and on they went until they had gone more than three hundred miles. On the seventh day they came to a place where the Bashkírs lived.

It was all just as the stranger had said. The people lived in tents by a river on the steppes. They did not grow crops or eat bread. Their cattle and horses were allowed to run free. The young horses were tied behind the tents, and their mothers came to them twice a day and were milked. From the milk the women made cheese and a drink like beer called kumiss. As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea, eating, and playing on their pipes, was all they cared about. They were all strong and happy, and all the summer long they never thought of doing any work. They knew little of the outside world, and most of them did not even speak Russian. But they seemed friendly enough.

 

As soon as they saw Pahóm, they came out of their tents and gathered around their visitor. A man by the name of Ivan who could speak Russian was found. Pahóm told him that he had come about some land, and the Bashkírs seemed very glad. They took Pahóm and led him into one of the best tents, where they sat round him on a carpet. They gave him tea and kumiss, and had a sheep killed, and gave him some of its meat to eat. Pahóm had his man take some presents out of his cart and give them to the Bashkírs. He also divided the tea amongst them. The Bashkírs were very happy. They talked a great deal among themselves, and then told Ivan to translate.

“They wish to tell you,” said Ivan, “that they like you, and that it is our custom to do all we can to please a guest and to thank him for his gifts. You have given us presents, now tell us which of the things we possess please you best, so that we may give them to you.”

“What pleases me best here,” answered Pahóm “is your land. Our land has too many people, and the soil has been farmed for too long. But you have plenty of land and it is good land. I never saw the like of it.”

Ivan translated. The Bashkírs talked among themselves for a while. Pahóm could not understand what they were saying, but saw that they were seemed very happy, and that they shouted and laughed. Then they were silent and looked at Pahóm.

“They wish me to tell you,” said Ivan, “that in return for your presents they will gladly give you as much land as you want. You have only to point it out with your hand and it is yours.”

The Bashkírs talked again for a while and there seemed to be some kind of disagreement among them. Pahóm asked what they were talking about, Ivan told him that their Chief was away. Some of them thought that they not act while he was away. Others thought there was no need to wait for his return.

 

 

 

 

V

While the Bashkírs were arguing, a man in a large fur cap appeared on the scene. They all became silent and stood as he entered. “This is our Chief,” said Ivan.

Pahóm immediately went and got his best presents and offered these to the Chief. The Chief accepted them, and seated himself in the place of honour. The Bashkírs at once began telling him something. The Chief listened for a while, then made a sign with his head for them to be silent. Addressing himself to Pahóm, he said in Russian:

“Well, let it be so. Choose whatever piece of land you like; we have plenty of it.”

“How can I take as much as I like?” thought Pahóm.  “I must get ownership papers to make it secure, or else they may say, ‘It is yours,’ and afterwards may take it away again.”

“Thank you for your kind words,” he said. “You have much land, and I only want a little. But I should like to be sure which bit is mine. Could it not be measured and ownership papers given to me? Life and death are in God’s hands. You good people give it to me, but your children might wish to take it away again.”

“You are quite right,” said the Chief. “That can be done quite easily. We have someone who can make up the papers, and we will go to town with you and sign them at the government office.”

“And what will be the price?” asked Pahóm.

“Our price is always the same: one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahóm did not understand.

“A day? What measure is that? How many acres would that be?”

“We do not know how to reckon it out,” said the Chief. “We sell it by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahóm was surprised.

“But in a day you can get round a large area of land,” he said.

The Chief laughed.

“It will all be yours!” said he. “But there is one condition. If you don’t return on the same day to the spot from which you started, your money is lost.”

“But how am I to mark the way that I have gone?”

“Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must start from that spot and start walking, taking a spade with you. Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a hole and pile up the earth. Then afterwards we will go around with a plough from hole to hole. You may mark off as large an amount of land as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from. All the land you cover will be yours.”

Pahóm was very happy with this. It was decided to start the next day. They talked a while, and after drinking some more kumiss and eating some more, they had tea again. Then the night came on. They gave Pahóm a soft bed to sleep on, and the Bashkírs went to their own tents for the night. All promised to meet early the next morning and ride out to the appointed spot before the sun came up.

 

 

 

 

VI

Pahóm lay on the bed, but could not sleep. He kept thinking about the land.

“What a large area I will mark off!” he thought. “I can easily walk thirty-five miles in a day. The days are long now, and if I walk thirty-five miles what a lot of land there will be! I will sell the poorer land, or rent it to peasants, but I’ll pick out the best and farm it. I will buy two ox teams, and employ two men to work them. I will grow crops on a hundred and fifty acres, and pasture cattle on the rest.”

Pahóm lay thinking of his plans most of the night, and only fell asleep an hour before it was time to wake up. Hardly were his eyes closed when he had a dream. He thought he was lying in that same tent, and heard somebody laughing quietly outside. He wondered who it could be, and got up and went out. There he saw the Bashkír Chief sitting in front of the tent, holding his sides and rolling about with laughter. Going nearer to the Chief, Pahóm asked: “What are you laughing at?” But he saw that it was no longer the Chief, but the stranger who had stopped at his house and told him about the Bashkír land. Just as Pahóm was going to ask, “Have you been here long?” he saw that it was no longer that man, but the other stranger who had come up from the Volga to Pahóm’s old home. Then he saw that it was not him either, but the Devil himself sitting there laughing. And before him on the ground lay a man with only trousers and a shirt on, and no shoes. And Pahóm dreamt that he looked more closely to see what sort of a man it was that was lying there. He saw that the man was dead and that it was himself! He woke up in horror.

“What things people sometimes dream,” he thought.

Looking round he saw through the open door that the sun was about to come up.

“It’s time to wake them up,” thought he. “We ought to be starting.”

He got up, woke his man who was sleeping in his cart, and asked him to get the horses ready. Then he went to call the Bashkírs.

“It’s time to go to measure the land,” he said.

The Bashkírs, including the Chief, got up and came together. They began drinking kumiss again, and offered Pahóm some tea. But he would not wait. “If we are to go, let us go. It is nearly time,” said he.

 

 

 

 

VII

The Bashkírs got ready and they all started. Some rode horses, and some rode in carts. Pahóm drove in his own small cart with his servant, and took a spade with him. When they reached the steppe, the sky was beginning to turn red. They stopped at the top of a small hill and gathered in one spot. The Chief came up to Pahóm and stretched out his arm towards the plain.

“See,” said he, “all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like.”

Pahóm’s eyes shone. The land had never been farmed and was almost completely flat. The soil was rich and black, and in some places the grass grew breast high.

The Chief took off his fur cap and placed it on the ground.

“This will be the mark,” he said. “Start from here, and return here again. All the land you go round before the sun sets shall be yours.”

Pahóm took out his money and put it on the cap. Then he took off his thick coat, remaining in his woolen vest. He put a little bag of bread into his vest pocket, and tied a water bottle to his belt. Then he pulled up the tops of his boots, took the spade from his man, and stood ready to start. He thought for some moments which way he had better go — everywhere looked good.

“No matter,” he decided, “I will go towards the rising sun.”

He turned his face to the east, stretched himself and waited for the sun to appear above the horizon.

“I must lose no time,” he thought, “and it is easier walking while it is still cool.”

As soon as the sun appeared, Pahóm, carrying the spade over his shoulder, went down into the steppe.

He started walking neither slowly nor quickly. After having walked a mile he stopped, dug a hole, and placed the pieces of earth one upon another to make it easy to see. Then he went on. Now that his body had warmed up, he walked more quickly. After a while he dug another hole.

Pahóm looked back. The hill could be clearly seen, with the people on it and the cart wheels shining in the sunlight. At a rough guess Pahóm thought that he must have walked three miles. It was growing warmer. He took off his vest, put it across his shoulder, and went on again. It had grown quite warm now. He looked at the sun. It was time to think of breakfast.

“The first part is done, but there are four parts in a day, and it is too soon yet to turn. But I will just take off my boots,” said he to himself.

He sat down, took off his boots, tied them to his belt, and went on. It was easy walking now.

“I will go on for another three miles,” he thought, “and then turn to the left. This spot is so fine, that it would be silly to lose it. The further one goes, the better the land seems.”

He went straight on for a while, and when he looked back the hill was hard to see. The people on it looked like small black insects. He could just see something there shining in the sun.

“Ah,” thought Pahóm, “I have gone far enough in this direction. It is time to turn. Besides, I am very hot and very thirsty.”

He stopped, dug a large hole and, as before, placed the pieces of earth one upon another to make it easy to see. Next he untied his water bottle, had a drink, and then turned sharply to the left. He went on and on. The grass was high, and it was very hot.

Pahóm began to grow tired. He looked at the sun and saw that it was mid-day.

“Well,” he thought, “I must have a rest.”

He sat down, ate some bread and drank some water. But he did not lie down, thinking that if he did he might fall asleep. After sitting a little while, he went on again. At first he walked easily. The food had strengthened him, but it had become terribly hot. He felt sleepy, but still he went on, thinking: “An hour to suffer, the rest of my life to live.”

He went a long way in this direction also, and was about to turn to the left again, when he saw an area of wet land. “It would be silly to leave that out,” he thought. So he went on and dug a hole on the other side of it before he turned the corner. Pahóm looked towards the hill. The rising air caused by the heat made it look as if the hill was moving, and the people on the hill could hardly be seen.

“Ah!” thought Pahóm, “I have made the sides too long. I must make this one shorter.” And he went along the third side stepping faster. He looked at the sun. It was nearly half way to the horizon, and he had not yet done two miles of the third side of the square. He was still ten miles from the goal.

“No,” he thought, “although it will make my land an unusual shape, I must hurry back in a straight line. I might go too far, and as it is I have a great deal of land.”

So Pahóm hurriedly dug a hole, and turned towards the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

VIII

Pahóm went straight towards the hill, but he now walked with difficulty. He was tired from with the heat, his feet were cut and sore, and he found it hard to walk. He wanted to rest, but it was impossible if he meant to get back before the sun went down. The sun waits for no man, and it was sinking lower and lower.

“Oh dear,” he thought, “if only I have not gone on trying for too much! What if I am too late?”

He looked towards the hill and at the sun. He was still far from his goal, and the sun was already near the top. Pahóm walked on and on. It was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He pressed on, but was still far from the place. He began running, threw away his vest, his boots, his water bottle, and his cap. He kept only the spade, which he used to help him walk.

“What shall I do,” he thought again. “I have tried to take too much, and will loose everything. I can’t get there before the sun sets.”

And this fear made him still more breathless. Pahóm went on running, his wet shirt and trousers stuck to him, and his mouth was dry. He was breathing heavily, his heart was beating loudly, and his legs were giving way as if they did not belong to him. Pahóm became scared that he would die of the pressure.

Though afraid of death, he could not stop. “After having run all this way they will call me a fool if I stop now,” he thought. So he ran on and on. As he drew near, he heard the Bashkírs calling and shouting to him. Their cries made him try even harder. He gathered his last strength and ran on.

The sun was close to the horizon, and looked large and red as blood in the dying light. It was quite low, but he was also quite near the hill. Pahóm could see the people on the hill waving their arms to hurry him up. He could even see the fur cap on the ground with the money on it, and the Chief sitting on the ground holding his sides. And Pahóm remembered his dream.

“There is plenty of land,” he thought, “but will God let me live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!”

Pahóm looked at the sun, which had reached the earth. One side of it had already disappeared. With all his remaining strength he ran on, bending his body forward so that his legs could hardly follow fast enough to keep him from falling. Just as he reached the bottom of the hill it suddenly grew dark. He looked up. The sun had already set! He gave a cry. “All my labour has been for nothing,” he thought, and was about to stop. But he heard the Bashkírs still shouting. Then he remembered that though to him, from below, the sun seemed to have set, they on the top of the hill could still see it. He took a long breath and ran up the hill. It was still light there. He reached the top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding his sides. Again Pahóm remembered his dream. He gave out a cry, and his legs gave way under him. He fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.

“Ah, that’s a fine man!” cried the Chief “He has earned much land!”

Pahóm’s servant came running up and tried to raise him. He saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahóm was dead!

The Bashkírs made sad noises and shook their heads to show how sorry they were.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to he in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.