by Wanjala Njalale
We cycled past the farm every day.
We held hands to jump across the side trench, four feet in the air like space-bound objects. We squeezed through gaps in the barbed wire to enter the farm. At the far end, fencing poles had collapsed from termite bites. Trees were heavy with ripe fruits. Older boys sneaked into the farm too where they ate the fruits and later emptied their bowels on the little crisscrossing footpaths and later on, fat blue flies descended on these mounds of fresh excrement like vultures. We hopped and skipped and covered our noses with our palms. A few hours or a day later, only indigestible guava seeds were visible, the grass around burnt by corrosion. When it rained, the seeds sprouted.
Hunters set traps for the elusive guinea fowl, quails and gathered wild eggs. The owner, a thin gaunt man with a nomadic face, made out-of-the-blue appearances. My giggling sister, Angola, labelled him ‘the horizon man.’ Whenever he appeared, we ducked and crawled on our bellies like trainee soldiers, rubbing our elbows and knees in human shit, not daring to lift our bodies to his line of visibility. None of us wanted to cross the owner’s path, not when he bore his buffalo hide whip anyway.
But this happened many years ago when my elder sister still wore white lace and white stilettos to dance in church on Sundays. Father Benedict knew us by our names. This was around the time when I pulled out my front teeth using a pair of pliers from my father’s tool box. I bled so fiercely I thought I would die. My sister taunted me with the idea that I would spend the rest of life on earth toothless. She made me rub chicken dropping into the dental gaps every morning. For a whole month, my mouth smelled like a poultry house until I saw serrated white elements pushing out of my bleached gums. My classmates at St. Peter’s Primary School made fun of me. During non-class hours, I hid behind the main class block to evade their jeers and mockery. They would flush me out of my hiding place just to laugh at me.
My giggling sister, Angola, left home last month.
‘Finally,’ my father said. He drove to Crimson Horizon Bar and had it to the brim. My mother folded her flabby arms across her huge bosom in unhappiness. ‘What is so good about Ethiopia anyway?’ my mother asked, her exasperation hitting the limit, her voice weary. ‘All of them are running away from their damned country. They are all drowning in the Red Sea on their way to Italy and Greece. They are arrested daily in Nairobi, forty in a twelve by twelve room, like war prisoners.’ We looked at each other, drew breath and knew she had given up. That’s how my mother conceded defeat: by posing a question and walking away to grab a cup of coffee.
‘You have a great job at the bank,’ my mother insisted, ‘you earned your promotion only four months ago. Now, you want to throw everything away?’
‘Addis Ababa is the place to be,’ my father’s sense of smell was legendary. He perceived the faint whiff of victory beforehand; ‘there are job promotions there too. Don’t mind your mother.’
My sister is now working at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. I was with her when she began packing her suitcases. She wouldn’t let me help. She is too meticulous; she thinks everybody else is clumsy. She thinks I am clumsy.
‘Packing a girl’s stuff is really not a boy’s hobby,’ she said to me, ‘you will only throw things into each other, like a shoe into a suitcase of books.’
From time to time, she lifted her face to smile at me. Bewildered, I stared at her, marvelling at the swiftness of her slender arms. With her lean body, soft curly hair, arc eyebrows and big bold eyes, she looked like an Ethiopian princess. I wondered if she ever thought of herself as a lost Ethiopian trying to find her way back home. Now, she didn’t want to work at the bank anymore. She yearned for Addis Ababa the way a child yearned for lovely toys; Addis Ababa, the city of rich history and secret power.
I would be torn without her. No weekend ice cream, no late night laughter. The thought that I would play soccer for my school without her face in the crowd gave me chills. On my birthday, she bought me a German-made bicycle.
‘Work and adventure,’ she said, holding my cheeks between her lotion-softened palms.
‘Will you be visiting?’ I asked.
She gave me the big-boy-don’t-cry look. I rubbed my nose and held her hands. It was getting late and the following day was Tuesday, a school day. Before I left, I watched her stuff a few books and a picture we had taken together during our visit to Lake Nakuru National Park. Reading the heavy dejection on my face, she hugged me tightly. She promised to visit.
I did not head to my room for sleep. I slipped out through the back door. The cold night was so soothing it blew into the nakedness of my neck and arms. From time to time, I shivered and thought of going back to my room for sleep. I couldn’t. It was difficult to stop thinking of my sister’s departure.
The moon filtered through the line of cypress trees, revealing a glistening wetness on the surface of the vegetation. Behind the trees lay my father’s sugarcane farm. The moon slid in the sky like a huge soapy object. Inside the moon, a silhouette of a woman sitting on a low fireside chair was as clear as the sight of a red island. The figure was nebulous. The moon ducked and bobbed like a giant dolphin in the vastness of sea. The silhouette woman disappeared from the screen of the moon. All that could be seen then was a half-hidden face of a grizzled hunchback. The sight of it was less inspiring. Late night birds were squealing in the cypress trees. A taxi guy drove my sister to Nairobi. I imagined her in the back seat of the cab, flipping through the pages of Ethiopian Airlines Magazine, wiping away tears of departure. When I returned home from school, I checked my sister’s room and the suitcases were gone. What she left behind was a neatly made bed and a couple of novels by Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Adichie and Nadine Gordimer. I picked up the books and lifted them to my nose. For a moment, I was convinced that my sister hadn’t really left. She was hidden behind a door somewhere in the house, peeping and trying to compress her laughter. She was a giggler anyway.
Angola called yesterday, a year since he left for Ethiopia. She drooled over the architecture and ‘warmth of the people’.
‘Warmth’ was tourist vocabulary, I reminded her. She said that Ethiopian coffee had outdone Kenyan coffee on the world coffee market. She praised Ethiopian athletes and the magnificent portrait of the rock-hewn church of St George, Lalibela. I was befogged. The voice was unlike my sister. The second person to acknowledge this change in my sister was my father, though with a feeling of deep sadness and loss.
‘What has happened to her?’ I asked my father. His smile stretched from ear to ear; it was both calm and condescending. I couldn’t help feeling belittled. Why was everyone making a fool out of me?
Mum served the evening tea. Father insisted that I sit by his side. Mum scudded around in her kitenge dress; a deposed queen overcome by nostalgia. Her headscarf was high up like it was reaching for the ceiling. She looked like a rich Ghanaian woman in an Accra shopping mall, except for the weariness and loss on her face. We watched news. All over the news, our politicians were stealing and bickering. They were fucking their juniors in big cars and in parking lots. They were mutilating our new constitution. They sounded like junkie-monkeys. They were puppets of their own greed and godlessness. I didn’t know much. I was just a fourteen year old schoolboy. My father advised me not to ask many questions. ‘It is impolite to ask questions as you do. Observe quietly. That way you will tell who is lying,’ He said. Taking my father’s advice, I sipped my tea silently, like a paralyzed witch. Silence was discomfiting but I endured it. I didn’t want to watch news. News was full of scary things. News was full of politician’s faces, thrusting and breathing down on us, threatening us, killing us. News was full of drone attacks in Somalia. I wanted to talk about my sister, Angola. I wanted to talk about her Ethiopia. I wanted to defend my country Kenya from my sister’s aggression. I wanted to defend my country from the ugly politicians.
So I slipped from the living room, away from the suffocating presence of Father and Mother. They had not ironed out their differences. Angola’s departure had put a knife between them and slid it down to the base, severing any closeness they shared. Father eyed mother with the arrogance of a victor. Mother eyed father with the dejection of a victim. I was fed up with their cold war. I was fed up with the silent accusations in their eyes. I was fed up of being their outlet. Mother was trying to keep me on her side because Father had Angola. I was tired of their sick little game. Mother took to the habit of eating less and less. I tried to urge her but she yelled at me like a freak.
‘Don’t you have schoolwork to finish?’ she yelled. Since she had gone to Ethiopia, my sister taken on the responsibility of paying my school fees. She sent money for books and everything else that Hajj Mohammed, the school principal, asked her to. Hajj Mohammed called me to his office whenever my sister called. She was tender. She wanted me to pass my exams. I asked her if she had begun Amharic classes. She said something unintelligible.
‘That’s Amharic,’ she said between giggles.
Back home, I didn’t tell my father or mother that I spent more than an hour talking to my sister in Hajj Mohammed’s office. Hajj Mohammed didn’t mention it either. I asked him not to.
My parents were catholic. On Sundays like this we would accompany each other to church. They were watchful so I couldn’t skip it. Mother would stand at the door to my room, kitenge-dressed, with eyeglasses sagging on the bridge of her nose, a glimmering silvery wristwatch and a leather-bound Bible. This was something Mother and Father had agreed on. After church, I would cycle up the road to meet Atieno. I would cycle past the now decrepit guava farm. The trees hadn’t grown an inch taller; they were still squat, bowed down by the weight of the fruits they bore.
Shortly after my sister outgrew our childish trips to the guava farm, she told me that the guava trees resembled black women, in the way they bore the weight of their own fruits. In the middle of the farm, there was a strange tall guava tree. It stood stiffly, never swaying. It never bore fruits.
‘That tree is male,’ my sister said, ‘look at the firm thickness of its stem, the glossiness of its bark and the smoothness of its leaves.’
‘Maybe it’s female,’ I said, ‘and barren.’
My sister regarded me curiously. ‘There are no male or female trees,’ she said.
Our parents knew each other. Atieno wanted to ride my bicycle but I was frightened by the idea of her crashing into a trench and scarring her face. Her hair was so long it grazed her sloping shoulders whenever it was straightened. Her cheeks were dimpled when she smiled.
Her mother was a worshipper at the New Gospel Church. We could see the church from here. The iron sheets were shiny under the sun. The church was big and noisy and the worshippers prayed in tongues. They would listen to Tanzanian and Nigerian gospels tunes and sing after them, ululating and stamping their feet in holy animation. Atieno told me they would be having an exchange program with a church in Lagos. I was thrilled by the idea of flying to West Africa, the idea of having fufu and jollof rice for dinner, the idea of dressing up in agbada in spite of the humidity. I found the West African accent comical. Often, I laughed at Pastor Adeleye’s DVD. Atieno was distraught at me. ‘Do you believe in Christ?’ she asked. ‘Does it matter?’ I asked back. She began to laugh too, falling over on my shoulder. For the first time I felt like squeezing her. She was tender and didn’t resist. So I held her hand and moved my head toward hers. My mother burst into the room before our lips touched. I jumped to the end of the sofa set.
‘What is this you’re watching?’ My mother was catholic to the core. ‘I don’t want these things in my house.’
‘It’s Pastor Adeleye,’ I defended. ‘He has a great message from the Lord.’
Inside, I felt like bursting out into uncontrollable laughter.
‘So does Father Benedict.’ I could tell from her words that she was not in a good mood.
‘Does your mother know you are here?’ Atieno was stunned by Mum’s question. Mother’s gaze was so cutting Atieno winced in imagined pain. I was wrong when I thought she liked her.
‘No,’ Atieno said.
‘You are welcome,’ my mum said in sudden turnaround, ‘but both of you need to switch off that TV and sit at the study table.’
‘But Mum, it’s Sunday,’ I tried to protest. I had just ironed my clothes and I was feeling really tired, my limbs and shoulders were aching, ‘Atieno is from church. You know how long they stay in there like prisoners. She needs a break, not books.’
‘What about you?’ my mum was insistent.
‘I will have two hours in the evening,’ I said, ‘I did all my assignments yesterday. I did not watch TV yesternight. You must have noticed it.’
‘I think you two need some coffee,’ Mum said in another turnaround.
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Atieno agrees too.’
‘Don’t let him speak on your behalf,’ my mum said to Atieno, ‘that will turn him into a chauvinist, thinking he can speak on behalf of women.’
Atieno winked and stretched her hand across to me. I stretched mine and we were touching. I felt a million pulses; little electric shocks rocked my adolescent body. I didn’t know how fast it happened but when I saw her off, after Pastor Adeleye and mum’s tea, I grabbed her cheeks and kissed her. She watched astonished as I picked my bicycle from the trench and cycled back to my parents’ house. When I looked back I saw her waving. During the kiss I thought I perceived delight in her eyes, a curiosity. I too wanted to discover stuff I didn’t know. Back in my room, I felt the need to call my sister, Angola. She was better positioned to explain what was happening to me. I wanted to tell her that I had kissed a girl for the first time. I wanted to tell her about the million pulses that coursed through my body and the anxiety that filled me afterwards. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t simply close my eyes and sleep the way I used to. All I saw was my crush’s face and my erection. I didn’t know what to do with my erection and so I grabbed my penis and stuffed it back into my pants, pressed it between my thighs and feigned sleep.
My crush deflected me, like a ball. The guava farm was now gone. The adjoining sugarcane farm was also gone. I didn’t know when it happened, but a new building with terraces descending from the roadside was being put up. Almost all the trees had been uprooted. The farm had also been divided into smaller units; the new barbed wires resembled a spider web. So many divisions, each with its own entry point. I wondered if the owner, the thin gaunt man with a nomadic face, was still alive. I wondered if he still carried the buffalo whip now that the squat trees had been uprooted. The little mounds of human excrement had been replaced by bigger cones of sand, ballast and bricks. I wondered if the fat blue flies still ruled the air, buzzing and scavenging.
I parked my bicycle across the road and stood on a raised ground, watching the thick arms of the construction workers busy digging wells, mixing cement, pushing mud-stuck wheelbarrows, shouting obscenities, driving nails into the scaffolding, joining wooden planks, arranging fired bricks, hoping, sighing, wiping sweat from their hardened faces, twitching their fingers from a torn leather hand gloves, stamping their feet, draining away stagnant water, making jokes, destroying the last memories of the guava farm.
Closing my eyes, I summoned my sister from Addis Ababa. Her apparition, heeding my call, approached and stopped by my side, on the raised ground across the construction site.
‘Are you really sure it’s not somewhere else?’ she enquired, ‘is this where the guava farm used to stand.’
I examined her closely. I was startled too. There was a smile of wicked pleasure dancing on her lips. I imagined her saying, ‘such things don’t happen in Ethiopia.’ Her words confirmed my fear and awakened lost feelings of patriotism.
I left her standing on the raised ground, smiling. I picked up my bicycle from the ground, dusted it and cycled toward home. I had overcome her power over me. I had extricated myself from her web and I could now do anything I pleased.
After classes, I budged into Hajj Mohammed’s office. I stared at the framed pictures of Mecca. It looked like a whole universe to me. Hajj Mohammed was the only Muslim teacher in our school. We loved him, not just because everybody else was Christian but because his huge smile never ceased. He found me waiting in his office. I wondered why he did that, knocking to enter his own office. His smile broadened under his moustache when he saw my face.
‘She called,’ Hajj Mohammed said, ‘she left a message for you.’
He handed me his cell phone. There was a short text message from my sister: Hi Bro? I’m flying home tonight. I have missed you big. I have lots of stuff for you. Do you remember our secret trips to the Guava Farm?
I felt my face flush with hesitation. I was a big boy now, my sister a mature woman. Girls her age were now wives, serving their husbands and kids. Until that moment, the memories of Guava Farm had receded.
‘What is the matter?’ Hajj Mohammed asked.
‘Nothing,’ I lied.
I did not mention Guava Farm to anyone. When I arrived home that day, my parents had already begun preparations to welcome my sister. It was now two years since she left for Addis Ababa.
‘Ethiopia must really be a good country,’ mother remarked.
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘Of course I don’t,’ mother said, ‘Bruce will accompany you to the Airport.’
Bruce Mandela was a distant cousin. He was chatty, his hair was dishevelled and the sleeves of his checked shirt folded above his elbows like a repairman. He smelled of tobacco and weed. He talked about his work with a small film production firm in Nairobi. He was a great talker and he kept me entertained throughout the journey. My sister touched down at JKIA, booked another flight to Kisumu and checked into a hotel in the centre of the town. We caught up with her at the hotel lobby.
We hugged tightly. On the way back, I didn’t enquire about Ethiopia. I allowed my sister to marvel at the greenness of the roadside vegetation, at the flatness of land, at the entrepreneurial spirit of the roadside venders. She surprised me when she asked Bruce to stop the car. She bought three pieces of roast maize. We resumed our journey, munching and laughing. Bruce giggled and asked if roast maize was common on the streets of Addis Ababa. My sister laughed at the aspiring filmmaker’s insinuation.
‘I love Kenya,’ she said, ‘do you want me to say it over again.’
‘There is no Guava Farm anymore,’ I said, cutting short Bruce’s intrusion.
My sister stopped the movement of her jaws. Her eyes narrowed. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked wearily.
‘Six residential homes are being put up on the exact spot,’ I said coldly.
‘Guys, what are you talking about?’ Bruce intruded once more. He threw glances at the overhead mirror.
‘Then I would convince the owner to sell me a piece of that land,’ my sister said. Her face was flushed with shock.
‘That won’t bring the Guava Farm back,’ I said, staring out of the window.
‘I thought you had overgrown that kind of stuff,’ my sister said, ‘I didn’t know it meant so much to you too.’
‘It would be irrational,’ I lied, ‘the Farm doesn’t mean anything to me.’
‘The memories do,’ my sister said, ‘you do.’
She reached for my hand. I gasped from surprise. I was no longer a kid. I thought about Atieno and the million pulses she aroused in me.
We arrived home under two hours. Bruce parked the car and went near the bush of blooming bougainvillea to smoke. On the way, he had stopped the car thrice to light a cigarette. Every time he returned to the car, he talked about how smoking keeps his mind going.
Father descended the front terraces to the car. Angola was soon lost in father’s huge embrace. I envied her.
Mother broke into song and dance. Other women joined her. Before anyone knew it, a full-fledged choir was rocking the air. Her face radiated with raw happiness at seeing a well-kept Angola. The crowd of relatives swarmed around the car, singing, hugging, and expressing their elation at the ever-growing beauty of my sister. Neighbours gawked from across the hedge; others ran into the compound to shake my sister’s hand. Everyone was saying how happy they were for my sister. But you couldn’t rule out a few wicked souls.
‘The guava farm,’ my sister said to me later. She was sitting on her bed, caressing the top cover with her palms, ‘I can’t kick it out of my mind.’
‘Why should you?’
Pursuing the trail of my scattered mind, I woke up at cockcrow the next morning. Thoughts of reclamation filled my head. Like old time, I cycled to the construction site.
Dug out and flattened, humans had wrecked their havoc on the land. I packed my bicycle across the road and jumped over the wall into the compound. It was deserted. I could only perceive the damp smell of cement, unused bricks and the smell of new paint. Nothing was left of our Guava Farm.
No one outgrows childhood, I thought. I picked a strip of iron sheet from the ground, cleaned it with the edge of my shirt and pressed it into my thumb. I watched with pleasure and satisfaction as blood, my blood, dripped on the ground in dark red globules. This way, the Guava Farm became mine.
That night, my sister slithered into my room like an ill-mannered cat. Moonshine filtered in through the window, creating a sense of déjà vu for me. Moonlight marked our childhood nights. We sat out on wet grass to whisper stories to stars.
She sat on my bed and stared at me. I was tall, broad-shouldered, bearded and deep-voiced. I saw that she was afraid to touch me. She never spoke of the Guava Farm. She talked about her new Italian boyfriend, Francesco, an architect working and living in Addis Ababa. She talked of Ethiopian Jews, of a government that clipped dissent. She talked of ancient emperors and Bob Geldof.
About the Writer:
Snippets of Wanjala Njalale’s short stories have appeared in Brittle Paper and The East African Magazine. His poetry is also available online. The writer is currently looking for a a suitable publisher for his book-length works; a collection of fourteen short stories and a book of poetry.