We lived in the forest and cooked enough to still be standing. We gathered firewood and went down into Farkhana to buy fish, or to pretend to buy fish in the hope that some charitable soul would give us some. Of course, if they did, it would always be the least substantial part, such as the head or the bones. But it would provide a little nourishment and warmth, and it was cold in the residence, much colder than on the banks of the River Ruo, where I was born, and saw others born, those I left behind to go in search of new rivers, different riverbanks. After eating, assuming there was anything to eat, we warmed our hands over the fire, curled up on our cardboard, or under our blankets, and settled down to listen to people’s stories. I always acted as though I had no story to tell, as though I had nothing to say. The fact of the matter was that if I’d started to talk, if I’d started to tell of all the things I’d seen and the tales I’d heard, I’d never have stopped. People would have thought it was custom among my people not to allow others to talk and besides, they’d have heard my voice tremble and thought me an artist trying to mislead them. So I kept my mouth shut and listened to those who were kind enough to share their stories.
There was nothing to be cheerful about in the residence, so anyone able to step outside their immediate reality and speak of something other than the day-to-day was considered a hero. Yes, a hero, because we had ample cause to complain, to curse our luck from morning till night, and yet when the time came to stick hands between thighs and try to get some sleep, a few good folk always found the strength to speak of what their lives had been before coming to the residence.
Good folk like Peter. He had a beard from never shaving and he told us that in his village he’d been known as Ngambo. He said he’d once been a porter, though he didn’t say what of or who for; it was enough that he’d agreed to share his story. Ngambo told us he never intended to leave his country, he’d only done so because his father had been discriminated against. Whenever he mentioned his father he sat up, to make sure the details were understood, to make sure the man’s extraordinary good character was never in doubt. He didn’t want to overemphasise his father’s importance, he said, but he did want to make sure the details were properly understood.
Peter’s father first cropped up one night after dinner had been served and the remains cleared away. You, lad, keep an eye on the fire, and be careful because if it gets out of control, we’re all doomed, but if it goes out, the wolves will come and steal our babies: the fire represents our present and future.
‘What present and future?’ one of the residents asked.
‘The babies, of course.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said someone else, ‘there are no wolves left on this mountain.’
‘No wolves left?’
‘If there were any wolves left, do you think we’d be wasting our money on frozen chicken, eh? Have you seen any sign of animal life in this forest?’
‘You can’t eat wolf, brother. As for chicken, I appreciate the sentiment, but in all my time here I’ve only ever seen a pair of chicken feet being barbecued, although I never got to taste them, so I assume you mention buying frozen chicken just to brighten up our day, for which I thank you.’
‘You can eat wolf, just not in a residence like this, with no water or electricity. As for the chicken, that’s in God’s hands, but if I’ve brightened up your day, my pleasure.’
‘I’m still not convinced. How do you even catch a wolf, eh?’
‘If you have to ask that question, brother, you’ve never known true hunger.’
‘Look, never mind all this. Peter was about to tell us the story of his father, the reason why he’s here among us. Go on, brother Peter, thank you for your patience.’
‘Yes, go on, Peter,’ someone else cut in, ‘tell us why you’re here and not in an embassy somewhere, somewhere without a dictatorship, working as a sports attaché or whatever.’
‘I want to make it clear, first and foremost, that it was not my father’s fault, it was envy, the envy of everyone around him. The envy and ignorance that exists in all black people. Whenever I hear a white person talk about the ignorance of black people, my heart aches, this heart I have right here, and I close my eyes so as not to have to listen to what they are saying. But I also know that we have given them reason to say it, and until we show them any different, what is written in books will be what continues to be read out on the radio, day and night.’
That’s how Peter started his story, having been prompted to do so by a fellow resident. He waited for a few seconds, to see if there was any resistance, and then, once he was confident everyone was listening, even those with their eyes closed, he began.
His father had been a pupil in a French lycée. He’d been born in a country with English-language customs, a country where they even wore grey wigs in court, the better to uphold ancient traditions, but where it was the fashion to send children to French school, and so there he’d been sent, and there he’d learned canon law, which would suggest he was being prepared for the priesthood. If he had become a priest, there would have been no story to tell, for there would have been no Peter: his father would have led a life of celibacy and avoided all women. Or maybe not all of them, but we would never have known about it, for his story would never have reached the residence. But that’s to speak of what might have been and what might have been was turned on its head by a poem. Yes, a simple poem, for while attending that school, the French lycée, Peter’s father found himself immersed in a culture that allowed him to declare himself a poet of the Conceptismo movement. Or maybe there was no such cultural dynamic, maybe Peter’s father took it upon himself to launch and join his own cultural movement, but no matter, the important thing is he wrote a poem, and, according to what Peter remembered, it went something like this:
Charon, bring hither that boat,
we’ll away to the lake’s end,
reach the exact point of femininity,
door-knocker of revolution above.
You, Charon, ready that boat’s reins,
we’ll cross swiftly and tap
the point whence the jealous wail and cry to the heathen
eunuch, enclosed in the palace in false faithfulness.
For if you bring it, Charon, the drooling
eunuch will break his troth, a thousand
and one gilliflower virgins will succumb to his charms
and godly battle will wage on high.
That’s where the poem ended, at least the version we were told. And that should have been the end of the matter, except that Peter’s father had declared himself a Conceptist poet and so he’d included a gloss to unlock the poem. That should still have been that, but the poem, which he’d written in French, keen student that he was, and the gloss, which he’d written in English, fell into the hands of the prefect, as the dean in charge of discipline at that school was called. The prefect was local, a native of that country where English was the chosen language, or the imposed language, imposed by rich whites, but he knew how to be very French, very dry and pronounced of nose. So the poem, in all its flourishing virginal inspiration, came to the prefect’s attention and the prefect immediately demanded to see its audacious author. Peter was summoned and the meeting lasted two hours, two hours in which they spoke of nothing but the contents of the poem. Another hour was required for Peter’s father to explain why the poem had been written, and two more hours for the prefect to explain the terrible evil that it contained, an evil that had to be punished, punished severely.
A great student of the Bible’s literary exegesis, the prefect could not believe that such a young head could harbour such categorically diabolical ideas, ideas that could easily spark a revolution of unpredictable consequences. So he went through the poem line by line, a poem that on the surface seemed so inoffensive, or at best made modest allusions to risqué ideas, and he uncovered the treacherous intentions that lurked at the bottom of the author’s soul. There was much beard-scratching, for it beggared belief that a stripling like Ngambo could conceive of such manifestly devilish concepts. ‘Do you understand what this poem and its ideas could lead to?’ demanded the prefect. The boy made no reply and those who knew of the affair assumed his silence was a way of admitting that the prefect had unravelled the thread of his argument and that the reprimand was therefore justified. Or it could be that young Ngambo assumed guilt to raise his own sense of importance. Such things happen with those who aspire to greatness. Whatever it was, there were serious consequences, devastating consequences.
At this point Peter Ngambo interrupted his narrative, saying, ‘I will go on to tell more of my father’s story and the reasons why I am here, but only after another brother has had the chance to tell his story.’
There was a pause as people digested what Peter had said so far, and then another resident spoke: ‘I am happy to pick up where Peter left off and tell of why I am here, far away from my country and my people, though I will not mention anyone or anywhere by name. And when I say I am far away from my people, I do not mean that you are not my people also, that you have not helped me and that we cannot become one big family.’
‘Amen, brother,’ said a man who must have been a born-again Christian according to the new sources, as preached in many an African city after liberation from the colonial yoke.
‘Please do tell us your story,’ added someone else. ‘But before you get started, I’d like to arrange an acoté with you, Peter, if I may. Not now, so as not to hold up the other stories, but soon.’
‘An acoté about what, brother?’ asked Peter. ‘Please specify, otherwise I will forget.’
‘About what you said earlier, what gets read out on the radio day and night. About the state of mind of black people. It’s no small thing to hear someone say that in a place like this.’
‘OK, fine,’ said Peter. ‘We can talk about it whenever you like.’
‘Thank you, friend, but not now. On with the storytelling.’
‘Thank you,’ said the man who’d offered to tell his story next. ‘I lived in my quata and every day I made the same journey to the mouth of the river looking for work. A man would sometimes show up there in an old wagon and unload a huge pile of hides that needed cleaning. We never asked where the hides came from, nor even gave much thought as to whether the animals they’d once belonged to even existed in our country. All we knew was that we had to take them into the river, scrape off any remaining flesh and scrub them clean. After a while, I decided this was not the job for me: why should I, Peter, for I too am called Peter, although I also go by the name of Darb, get up every day and go and wait for a man to maybe show up, a man who claimed not to be a hunter, but who had piles of hides that needed cleaning. All in all, I only did it two or three times, when there was hardly anyone else there and I was among those selected. The man made us unload the hides, and they stank worse than you can imagine, and then we set about cleaning them. To do so you had to strip down and plunge into the river up to your waist. When I say strip down, I mean down to your pants. At least that’s what I did, although some people did strip totally naked.’
‘This is a very strange job, brother, if you don’t mind me saying,’ said someone from under their blanket.
‘Let me tell the story!’ Peter Darb said, rather excitably. ‘This was no ordinary job. The stench of the hides, the fact that none of us knew what animals the skins came from, and also that when you went nude into the water tiny river fishes would be attracted and come to nibble your toes – all these things made it a strange job indeed. And if tiny fishes came, then bigger fishes might come too and peck at something else . . . I don’t know if our sisters are yet sleeping.’
‘Don’t worry, brother, if they’re not, they’ll play dumb. It’s a good story, carry on.’
‘And I haven’t even started yet!’ said Darb, clearly encouraged. ‘So, you stripped off and you plunged into the water and the blood and the flesh remains from the hides attracted fishes, big and small ones. Some went for your feet, maybe just for fun, but who was to say they wouldn’t go for the other thing? Anyway, it was an awful job.’
‘But brother, you said you left your pants on, no?’
‘So, assuming those fishes had come for that other thing and not the flesh from the hides, they’d have had to take your pants off first, and done so without you noticing and jumping out of the water, no?’
‘Look, brother, there are women present and I don’t really want to go into the precise details. All I’m saying is that the job was unpleasant and dangerous, so dangerous that after doing it three or four times, I never went back again. I would take a different route when I left home of a morning and go and see if there was any work at the old beer factory, where the Chinese unloaded their wares and sometimes needed a hand. So anyway, I lived in my quata in a house with a zinc roof and wooden panel walls, and across from my house was another house whose owner I never saw. Sometimes I heard a radio that must have been his, but he either kept himself hidden or hardly spent any time there. I thought I’d eventually see him when he opened the back or bedroom window, but he never did, or if he did, I didn’t notice. What I will say, though, is that just looking at the house you could tell the invisible man had money, for the house was firmly built and had raised foundations. Opposite his house were several other houses, houses like mine, owned by people I did see but had very little to do with, and in one of those houses was a little girl, or a baby, and whenever something bothered her she screamed her head off. It was actually quite amazing that so small a creature could make such a noise, as if she was enraged. And in the same house there was another little girl, who was old enough to walk and who would go out into the narrow passageway between the invisible man’s house and mine. Or maybe it was the same girl, I never did find out.’
‘This is getting interesting,’ someone said. ‘Carry on, brother.’
‘I was at home one day doing something, I don’t remember what, fanning myself because of the heat probably, when that curious little girl came up to my door going ta tata, which was her way of talking. There was nothing of interest in my house for her, so I half-opened the door and shooed her away, Go on, back to your own house. Whether she was the one who was always crying or not, I don’t know, maybe there were two strange little girls in that house, but in any case, although she didn’t yet know how to talk, I assumed she’d understood me for she went away, back to her own house or off to explore somewhere else. But the visits started to become regular and every time she’d come to the door with her ta tata, I’d do the same thing, tell her to go away. Until one day, after I’d told her to go back to her own house, I peeked through a gap in the louvres in my bedroom window, to make sure she was leaving, and what I saw was amazing: truly extraordinary. To recap, I’m in my house, let’s say I’m cooking, or fanning myself, or sewing up my trousers, whatever, I hear a ta tata, which was like her way of saying, Hi, Anyone home? She was a girl who’d learned to walk but couldn’t yet talk, and she also, if it was the same girl, cried her head off whenever something bothered her, cried like a grown-up. So, I hear her coming, but I don’t want any visitors and I’m not friends with her mother or father, though I did know them, so I open the door and gesture with my hands for her to go away, Go on, back to your own house. But that day, after she turns away and goes back round the corner, because like I said, she liked to go in the passageway between my house and the one in front, the invisible man’s house, I close the door and go and look through a gap in the louvres of my bedroom window, and in the exact same place where the girl should have been, I see an old woman, a lot older than the little girl’s mother even, with a scarf tied over her head. In other words, instead of the little girl, I see an old lady, a woman I’ve never seen before in my life, calmly walking back down the path.’
‘Unbelievable!’ someone exclaimed.
‘Are you sure you weren’t mistaken?’ asked someone else.
‘I’m going to repeat the story, so there can be no room for doubt. The girl came to my door, but I didn’t want her visiting me, so I sent her away, back to her own house. She turned the corner and, from inside the house, I looked out to check she’d gone – I didn’t go outside, take her by the hand and lead her away, no. But exactly where that little girl should have been, there was an old woman instead, an old woman with a headscarf covering her hair. This happened not once, but twice, and I don’t smoke or drink, I know what I saw: a little girl came to the door, ta tata, but when she turned her back and thought I wasn’t looking, she turned into an old lady, and she walked calmly away, so that anyone watching would have thought she’d just been to visit me.’
‘Let me sit up in order to hear you better, brother. The girl turned into an old lady, a total stranger. She didn’t say anything to you, no?’
‘She didn’t see me, she didn’t know I was watching, I doubt she ever knew I’d discovered her secret. Once I’d assured myself that my eyes weren’t failing me and that I hadn’t got mad, I decided to leave the quata and in fact leave the country. That’s why I’m here, so far away from home.’
‘Brother Peter,’ said the man who’d sat up to hear better, ‘Where to start? I don’t think anyone here can say what you did or didn’t see, but your story does raise a number of questions. You’re saying that on the way back to her own house the old lady turned back into a little girl again and carried on with her ta tata, no? Now was her house close to yours? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.’
‘Look, brothers, I’ve told you the story as I experienced it. You may have your doubts, and every man is free to think whatever he likes, but it’s not right to call me a liar.’
‘No one’s actually calling you a liar,’ said another resident who’d also sat up to better digest the story. ‘That girl, tata tata, ta, came to your door, but you didn’t want her to come in. Off you go, there are no toys here, go on, on your way, I don’t want you pissing yourself on my doorstep. So you sent her on her way and you immediately went back inside your house. Now, she was just a little girl, so she obeyed you and she went away, but because you were afraid of her, or because you didn’t want the responsibility of having a little girl in your house or on your property, you followed her with your eyes, whereupon she actually turned into an old woman, only to then turn back into a little girl. So what we need to know is whether there was an old woman who looked like that who lived in the little girl’s house. Did you recognise the old woman or was she a total stranger? Because what this actually boils down to, brother, is the distance between your house and the girl’s house.’
‘I don’t want to say much more about it, and anyway, I’ve never thought the distance between the girl’s house and my house was of any importance.’
‘Know what, brother? I believe you,’ said another resident, ‘I believe your story, I don’t know why, but I do.’
By now several residents had sat up and they all had something to say.
‘Me, I’m the curious type, if such a thing happened to me, I’d follow that girl until I saw exactly how she transformed herself and how she converted back to normal.’
‘You have spoken well, but remember, it’s not actually your story,’ said the man who thought it boiled down to a matter of distance. ‘Do you think the same thing could have happened to Peter Ngambo? He probably lived in a district where newspapers came to the door every day and neighbours discussed the latest goings-on over cups of tea. Anyone wanting to turn themselves into a little girl there would have had to do so in front of everyone, or else gone to the bathroom so that no one could see.’
‘Don’t change the story, oh. It was a little girl who turned into an old lady, not the other way round.’
‘But that’s my point. Our brother has been looking at this the wrong way round: he actually should have begun by thinking of a woman who lived nearby who might have wanted to visit him. I say this because in my experience it’s easier for a woman to turn into a little girl than for a little girl to turn into a woman.’
‘Ah, this one will solve the mystery of the chicken and the egg next!’
‘It’s no joke. If we go on considering the story as being about a little girl, we’ll never get to the bottom of it. I just don’t actually think a little girl would have the expertise to perform such a wondrous feat. An adult woman on the other hand, well that’s a different matter. But brother – what did you say your name was?’
‘You see? Darb is a great name for a story like this. Anyway, what I was saying was that brother Darb had his own issues to deal with, he couldn’t actually just drop everything and follow a person just because they turned into a little girl and then back into an old woman again. Besides, in the moment between brother Darb seeing her turn into a woman and him getting out the door to unravel the mystery, she’d have had time to turn herself back to normal again, assuming, that is, she didn’t want to be discovered. No, the thing is we tend to think all eyes see the same things, but that’s not in fact the case. Furthermore, if you have to worry about finding someone to pay you to clean dirty hides, you don’t have time to play detective. The whites aren’t actually so dumb that they pay people to go around investigating any old thing. If brother Darb had focused his attention too heavily on this matter, he’d have died of hunger, because he’d have been too busy detecting to go out and find work. Especially if he lived in a neighbourhood where witchcraft was rife.’
‘You’ve spoken a great truth,’ said the born-again Christian, ‘but I’d still like to know how that little girl would have responded to a good smack, because I’m convinced she was the same child as the one who cried all the time. She knew her life’s secrets, brother, it’s not your fault that you did not. God bless you.’
Translated by Jethro Soutar. This excerpt appears courtesy of & Other Stories. Learn more about The Gurugu Pledge here.