Like any other morning, Zinu awoke from a sleep alive with colour. In his dreams he was in the classroom, seated at the front desk. The vague murmurs of the other children floated around him, but his eyes were trained on the shiny Bata shoes twinkling up at him. His gaze trailed up the black trouser legs of the man who wore the shoes like he had been born in them. The man turned and pointed a stick at something on the blackboard.
Zinu imagined they were words, and leaning forward, he peered at them through narrowed eyes, but right before he made them out, he realised he had not seen the teacher’s face. The thought that the face remained elusive was so tormenting to Zinu that the sharp cry that always woke him up escaped his lips. His eyes opened to the dull morning light as the howl of his voice rung in his ears, like an echo bouncing from hill to hill. As it receded, he closed his eyes once more, taking in the morning sounds like he was picking small stones from the roadside; no stone was the same size or shape – no bird chirp or cricket song held the same tune.
“How are my friends this wonderful morning?” He shouted, so loud that the walls of black polythene separating him from the outside billowed like curtains in the wind. His dark face broke into a grin, and like he did every morning, he shook his head ten times before breaking into a melodious whistle.
“Isn’t it wonderful to be alive? What shall we do today? Tell me, what shall we do today?” He sat up on the bed of cardboard and banged the cold brown earth with his calloused palms.
“Do you hear me world, do you hear me?” He regarded the sliver moons of dirt beneath his fingernails, “Keep fingers short and clean. Short and clean. Teacher inspecting at morning parade. Fingers short and clean, short and clean. Look for razor blade.”
Then he stretched to his full six foot four height and took two steps to the corner of the shack where a large torn cardboard box gaped. He rummaged through it, humming, as he tried to remember what he was supposed to retrieve.
“Shoe. Plate. Book. Knife. Papers. Spoon. Comb… where is it. I need to find that thing. Things get lost. All the time they get lost. Lost. All the time I can’t find …”, He was distracted by the sound of an ambulance siren.
“Time. Time. I can’t be late. Need to go to school now. The bell has gone. Can’t be late for assembly. Teacher will use his stick on me like this,” and, palms up, he held out his hands and spoke in a deep stern voice unlike his own. “Put your hands there and receive your punishment. Receive your punishment.” Then he pulled back the hands quickly and whimpered, “Forgive me teacher. I won’t be late again. Late again, I won’t be! Please teacher!” He stopped suddenly. He turned his head to one side and scratched his beard, chuckling.
“Zinunula is going to school. He is going to be a very big man when he grows up. All important men went to school. Amin failed, no school for him. But you will be like Obote. The world has changed my boy. Big men go to school and become kings of the country. You will be a king one day, the biggest man in Uganda. That is why you’re always number one in class, five years, still number one! You will be a king surely!”
Zinu shook his head and returned to his box of belongings. He fished out a red torn kitenge cloth and wound it round his head. “King of Uganda. This is my crown and I am the king. The most important man in the land, see what happens when you go to school? You become a big big man like me, King Zinu of Uganda.”
He thumped his chest and pranced about his small abode. Then he returned to the box and picked out a shad of spotted mirror.
“Oh yes! Zinu the King is so smart. With his crown, don’t you see how smart? I know you see, but you will not tell him because you fear he is better than you. So you will not tell him, you will not tell him. But I know Zinu is smart.”
He tipped an imaginary hat and bowed to all the four corners of the shack.
“Now to school,” he said, as he moved the mouldy door that covered the entrance of his shack to the side. He replaced it carefully and slid an imaginary bolt home, along with an imaginary padlock that he clicked into place. Then he spun around slowly, as if he expected to find someone watching him. His eyes skimmed over the cassava plants in the vast garden but he saw no one. He knelt on the ground to see if anyone was crouching there. Satisfied that there was no one around, he set off thrashing through the garden.
A few minutes later, he was at the edge of the garden, panting from sudden bending, getting up, and dodging the cassava fronds that seemed to spread towards his face. He let out a long sigh, and using his hand as a visor, regarded the tarmac road that seemed to fall away from both sides of him. He hitched his army green trousers higher up and tightened the banana fibre holding them in place. Then he turned to the left, setting off on the slope towards National University.
Zinu paused by the roadside to pick up bits of gravel. He sifted through them. Occasionally he looked up and waved at boda bodas that whizzed past him. He shook his fist at a rider who almost ran him over.
“Crazy fool! Can’t you see I am doing important things? May that thing bring you death! Don’t think I’ve cursed you, I am only hoping the obvious thing happens faster!” Soon he was at the university’s main gate. Arms crossed, and one foot drawing circles on the ground, he stood opposite it, watching the students going through. Then he shook his head ten times and continued at a brisk pace down the road, all the while counting.
“One, two three, four …” and when he got to ten he started over again. After the tenth set of ten he stopped, and spun to the left on his heel, like a policeman at a parade. He matched straight to the gated entrance of Mercy Hostel. He peered through the metal bars and gazed up at the building, pausing at each floor as if he was looking for something. On the tenth and final level, he stopped, kissed his teeth and said,
“Ten is a good age to be. Only ten and he already speaks English. This boy of mine gives me great pride, not so Zinunula?” Then he scratched his chin and continued his journey along the road.
Two girls were walking towards him: a dark skinned one with braids pulled back the other one light-skinned with red curls that fell to her cheeks and red stained lips. The latter wore a second-skin blue dress, knee length.
“Aren’t you girls lost? School is down there. Come with me, you will be late if you first go to shoot mangoes from Muzamiru’s garden. You will be late. Don’t you children of these days know anything? Don’t your parents tell you? Doesn’t your teacher slap your hands with a hard ruler?” Zinu stopped to scold the students who rushed past.
“Hurry! That guy’s messed up. You never know what he’ll throw at you,” Gold-red curls said as she pulled at her friend who had stopped to listen to Zinu.
“Don’t you wonder what his story is?”
“Like how he got that way? Sure. There, must be a back story.” Gold-red curls said and shrugged.
“He must have people, maybe they miss him,” brown braids said, “I mean, he sounds intelligent.”
“Haven’t you heard? We are all mad, only the degree matters.”
“Yeah. He was probably an intelligent guy before he lost it.”
“Yes, I am sure there’s a difference between ‘dull-madness’ and ‘intelligent-madness!’”
“Huh! Funny you! But seriously, there must be. I mean, he sounds more reasonable than some of our classmates.”
“And his sense of style is original and eco friendly; banana fibres for a belt, that takes a lot of creativity to pull off!”
“Well, creative types have been known to go crazy; people say it’s all the intelligence that makes them go mad.”
“Yeah well, even too much of a good thing turns out bad.”
As the two girls walked up to the university, gold-red curls kept looking over her shoulder. Zinu was in the same spot they’d left him. He was in deep conversation with people who were visible only to him.
“Don’t be like those girls, you have to go to school. Else you will never be like Obote. You will be like Amin. He failed. You work hard, dig all day. Grow things, sell them. So I will go to school, I will go. Then I can build a big house for you and Ma. And buy a car for you. We can go to Kampala together. There are nice things there. Sweets of all colours, Bicycles… I will have a lot of money to buy them all. Off to school. Don’t go to Muzamiru’s garden for his mangoes, you know what he said last time, he has charmed it. So don’t go there, Zinu. That man’s charms are pure evil. If you jump over them you will be cursed forever. Cursed forever.” Zinu’s mouth hung open on those last words and his eyes clouded over with tears. Then he shook his head ten times and started off down the road once again.
The tears forgotten, he glanced at the clear sky as a bird flew from a eucalyptus tree across the road.
“Ah! My friends! Flying like you would be good. I would fly to school. Every day, I would be early, without tearing my shoes. But see now,” he stopped to look down at his dirty toes sticking out of what used to be white sports shoes, “teacher will call me a dirty boy. But Zinu is not dirty. He washes at the well in the sky. Zinu needs new shoes. New shoes. Father will give him new shoes when he sees these ones are old from all this going to school. Going to school. Those girls were not going to school, they were not hurrying like me. They will be late, they were walking like this.”
And, holding an imaginary bag, he held out his right wrist, palm upwards with fingers folded. His other hand was held to one side, fingers spread out, pinkie and thumb at odd angles, like he had seen the two girls do. Then he stepped into an elaborate walk, swaying from side to side on the balls of his feet.
“It looks like dancing, the way they walk. Like dancing. But with no music. Very strange, no music. I need music.”
Zinu started whistling and clapping his hands in tune to his whistling. A group of young men playing ludo at a makeshift tarpaulin bar shook their heads and laughed at him. The woman seated outside the veranda of the next shop peddling away at her sewing machine stopped the wheel to watch him for a while. Two men in grey greasy overalls lost grip of a tyre they were removing from the old truck as they gave in to laughter. A little ahead was a one storeyed building. A toddler stuck out its head through the veranda rails to point and gurgle with glee at him.
“See! Everyone is happy! They know girls walk like music. So funny how they walk.” He stopped at the edge of a culvert and sat on the cold concrete. Then he crossed his legs and scratched his chin, mumbled, smiled and shook his head in amazement, “They walk like music, but they are not going to school. I am going to school.”
He shot a quick look to his wrist and looked at his imaginary watch, “So late, so late. Good pupils punctual. Bad pupils always late. Zinu is a good pupil.” Then he shot up and sprinted down the road.
He was panting when he came to the roundabout at the bottom of the hill. He stopped and bent forward, his hands on his knees, as he tried to catch his breath. He flagged down a taxi but the driver rushed past him. “Take me to the city. I went to school. Take me there, I need to buy things. Sweets, cars …” he mumbled as he counted the items off each finger, “… and new shoes. See,” he held out his foot, “torn, because of walking to school every day!”
“Good pupils are clean. Zinu is the cleanest boy in class. Pick a leaf, a leaf,” he repeated as he picked the maroon leaves of the Canna lilies that grew at the roundabout. When he gathered a bunch, he threw them in the air and watched as they fell on the green grass.
“Pick all the leaves. Sweep the compound. School compound is clean. Very clean,” he chanted as he picked up the leaves he had just strewn about. He gathered them in thick clumps in his fists, then packed them into the thick shrubbery to hide them from plain sight. He examined his dirt-filled hands and wiped them against his brown trousers. When the dirt failed to come off, he dashed to the fountain in the middle of the roundabout, dodging traffic.
“Only Kings can wash themselves in the sky,” he said as he let the water sprays fall onto his hands. He rubbed them clean then picked up a small stick and traced the curves beneath his nails to remove the dirt.
“Clean and short. Clean and short,” then he promptly stuck his fingers in his mouth and bit the nails until he tasted blood.
By the time he finished, Zinu was drenched from the chest upwards, so he unwound the head wrap and washed it. He wringed it three times before he could squeeze out trickles of clear water. He took off his torn shirt and washed it the same way. As he lay the clothes out on the grass to dry, a light-headedness overcame him and before long, he was lying next to the clothes he had just spread out.
When he awoke he was hungry and hot from the sun beating down on his body. He threw on his shirt inside out and missed the first button at the top. His face contorted and his body jerked as he grabbed a hold of his stomach.
“The red ants in my stomach are complaining. Time to feed the red ants,” he mumbled as he rushed across the road. A speeding trailer jerked to a halt as the driver hit the breaks to avoid knocking Zinu. He leaned through the window and shouted at him,
“Cursed mad man! Do you think trucks have a brain to know when you’re crossing?”
Zinu turned and glared at the driver, “The mad man is the one who doesn’t use his brain when driving. Cursed fool! You need to go to school and learn to do things the right way. No shame in knocking down a schoolboy! How dare you! Hopeless fool! Can’t you see I am going to school?”
The driver’s jaws swelled and unclenched before he sent spittle flying towards Zinu, which missed as Zinu was already hurrying away, beginning the climb back up the hill.
Ten minutes later, he stopped at the university main gate and stood staring up at the huge pillars that supported the swinging metal gates. He appeared to be thinking deeply about something but changed his mind. He walked on, leaving the road to skirt the perimeter of the fence, until he came to a part where the brick wall lowered. He jumped over onto the university grounds and headed straight for the garbage heap behind the dormitories. He tossed cans and plastic bottles over his shoulder until he dug out two yellow buns from the rubbish. They were soggy and spotted with several moulds, but he bit them off bit by bit and ate the buns anyway.
He was stuffing the buns into his mouth when he noticed gold-red curls. He was about to tell her to go back to class when a boy came up behind her. They embraced and giggled. Then he pulled her and led her towards the front of the dormitory. Zinu hurried after them but stopped at the corner of the building. He turned back and began peeping through all the windows from the back of the building. He was nearing the last one when he heard voices. He moved closer and raised his head cautiously.
Gold-red curls was there, seated next to the boy on the bed.
“We need to show these Baptist University chaps how to make some real porn,” the boy said.
“Yeah I mean, what do they know? Their video was crap. It didn’t show anything,” the girl replied.
“They think they can beat us at our own game! SMH.”
“Adjust the camera properly and we get this show on the road. And who knows, maybe I will be the next Kardashian to make some money from showing what my mama gave me.”
As the boy moved toward the window to adjust the camera on the tripod, he saw Zinu.
“Shit! Some pervert is spying on us…”
“What?” the girl moved towards the window where the boy was standing looking at Zinu.
“Why are you here? You didn’t go to class. I knew you were not going when I saw you this morning”, Zinu shouted at the girl.
“Shit! I told Joy this guy was crazy! We saw him this morning. Has he been stalking me? Oh God!”
“Indeed! Call God. He’s the only one who can save you. Your parents send you to school and this is what you do? Nonsense!” Zinu shouted at them.
“Who does this idiot think he is? Telling us what to do?” the boy shouted in disbelief.
“I am the king of this land. Don’t you see my crown? I am king because I went to school like my father told me to. I read books like Obote, now I am the king. But you, you will come to nothing.”
In a swift movement, the boy leaned towards Zinu and spat in his face. Zinu threw a punch that connected with the boy’s nose, which began bleeding.
“How can you fight me? I am your father! I sent you to school to study. Not to play with boys!”
Zinu walked away, shaking his head and kicking imaginary things out of his way. He had just jumped over the wall near the rubbish heap when two security guards came up from both sides towards him.
“You attacked a student. You trespassed onto university grounds. We are arresting you.”
Zinu stopped and looked from one man to another.
“Why don’t you tell them to go to class, eeeh! And her, I knew she was not going to school, wasting father’s money!”
“You think you’re very intelligent? You attack a student for nothing!”
Zinu shook his head ten times, “I knew you would get me. Like Muzamiru caught me climbing down the mango tree. Thieving scoundrels like you amount to nothing! May you never find your way to school. Red eyes,grey, bushy beard Muzamiru. Did he send you? Did he send you to stop me from going to school? I can return his mangoes; just let me go to school.”
“We are locking you up, crazy fool.”
As they tied his hands behind his back with a sisal rope he shook his head ten times and said, “Mad men really walk this earth. How can you arrest me? I am only ten years old, thank you.”
About the Writer:
Lillian Akampurira Aujo is a poet and fiction writer based in Kampala Uganda. She is the winner of the Jalada Prize for Literature 2015 for her story ‘Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell’ and the BN Poetry Award 2009 for the poem ‘Soft Tonight’. Her work has been featured online in Prairie Schooner Shoes issue, The Revelator Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Sooo Many Stories Bahati books in ‘Your heart will skip a beat’, Jalada Afrofuture Anthology, Jalada05/Transition123, and Omenana. Her work also appears in print in ‘A memory this size’ Caine Prize 2013, Femrite anthologies Wondering and Wandering of hearts, Summoning the Rains, Talking Tales, and a BN Publication ‘A thousand voices rising. More of her work is forthcoming in the Kenyan publications Kwani? Her poetry has been translated to Malayam, and is also set to be taught to Grade 8 students in the Philippines as part of a Contemporary African Poetry class. She has been a mentor in the WritivismAt5 Online Mentoring program. She is a 2017 fellow of the Ebedi Residency in Iseyin, Nigeria.