I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

Skwota_Thadeus Obadha Odenyo

uva sul tavolo_Africa Teller 2007.


“My mama, my mama”, Skwota cries for help. An earth-moving monster

is in the neighbourhood and is wreaking havoc on the helpless plastic

and carton houses that the humble residents of sweet valley have called

home for more than thirteen years. The residents received eviction notices

a week ago. In spite of the timely notice, most of the residents had

nowhere to go and opted to wait for the bulldozer to wrench them out.

Still some of them hoped that a miracle would happen and that the eviction

notices would go away. “Here, here and here”, she tries frantically

to gather all her possessions. The bulldozer can be heard groaning

less than fifty yards away. The weak houses succumb to the heavy machine

as the owners flee to safety. The chickens can be heard squawking

as they scamper away from the jaws of the dreadful monster.

Outside the house, club wielding, grimfaced policemen are on standby.

They are a symbol of oppression and brutality against the weak.

They stand in a mosaic of emotion and authority watching the evacuees

make any attempt to resist eviction. The occupants of the valley

escape out of their unstable houses. Their animals and children are at

a great risk of being trampled under by the heartless monster. In the

first house, a five year old boy was crushed to death as he went back

to pick his toy. The policemen thought that it was a dog and ignored

it all together. The boy’s mother had gone upcountry and left him under

the charge of a cousin who left the previous evening to attend a

disco in the neighbouring slum. Little did he know that the monster

would strike at midnight.

“Father in heaven, why me, why is this problem never ending?”, a

neighbour two houses away can be heard cursing. As the bulldozer finally

begins to wrench Skwota’s house, she has bundled together her

assets into a sisal sack. “I have saved my house, I am lucky to have rescued

my house from the government”, she sighs with relief watching in

anger as the iron monster swallows the home she has known for eighteen

months. Skwota, a teenage woman struggles with the vicissitudes

of modern life. Having barely cleared primary school she was impregnated

by a boyfriend who fled home after discovering that her uncle was

in pursuit. Even after carrying the pregnancy for a full-term the infant

was born underweight and succumbed to the motley childhood illnesses

inherent in Africa.

The doctors said that malaria had caused foetal anaemia that devastated

the infant before birth. When her mother later died of AIDS, Swota

suffered stigma and could not find peace at home. With the prospects

of better life beckoning her in the city she left home one early morning

and boarded an empty cargo truck that took her to the city in exchange

for a sexual favour. At the time of her arrival in the city, she had nowhere

to go and was taken in by the church. She lived with one of the Christians

for two months before abandoning them one early morning. She

had met Bahati, a quarry miner who used to deliver stones for the construction

works at the church. During their first meeting, she was timid

and terrified because of her past experience but Bahati reassured her that

he was mature and would never disappoint her. On the day she disappeared

from Mlokole’s house, there was rumour that she had eloped with

one of the boys in the neighbourhood. After two weeks things returned

to normal and she started going to church with the other Christians.

Skwota’s husband was working at the chimba quarry until he met his

untimely death. The day was ominous from dawn and Skwota even told

her husband that she had a bad feeling about the fortunes of the day. She

had dreamt that bees had stung her husband. Her dream was so vivid

that she was able to narrate the details of what colour of apparel her husband

was wearing. “You see why you should go to church instead of

going to work today”, she had insisted on that day in the morning.

“Dreams are the babies of idle minds”, her husband dismissed her with

a light touch. Bahati proceeded to work hoping that he would return home

in the evening to be with his wife. Wrong place at the wrong time, he

had finished work early enough and was at the marketplace buying

food when gunshots began to fill the air. Skwota cannot forgive the bullet

that fatally wounded her husband.

As she struggles to pull her sack uphill, tears begin to glide down her

cheeks, “if only Bahati were alive…”, she sighs deeply and a cascade of

raging tears pour down her cheeks. “…Perhaps this load would have been

lighter”, she mumbles. As she wrestles with her thoughts, the sack finally

accepts to glide gently against the opposing gravity. “We are the

children…, we are the children…”, she sings a Michael Jackson song.

All her immediate neighbours left in time but she could not leave, as

she had not a place to go. “They were good people because they had

helped her inter her husband’s remains, may be they would have helped

with this problem as well”, she thinks aloud, as cacophony fills the air

and a storm formed by the wrestling monster drives the dust airborne.

There is mixed smell of putrefaction and food as well as perfumes as

the manmade monster flattens the houses in sweet valley. The ground

is shaking sending chills of fear down the spines of onlookers. The men

in helmets move in unison as they watch out for rebels. The somnolence

has humbled all the residents and the policemen expect no resistance.

Then suddenly a man comes running claiming that his goat has been trampled

by the monster.

“No, no way… no way”, he cries repeatedly. The loss of his only possession

is too much to bear. The policemen have difficulty subduing the

man, as he knows the terrain like the back of his hand. He skips from

left to right sending the policemen into a running frenzy. When they finally

catch him, they club him senseless. He lies down in a pool of blood,

writhing in agony. He was the only dissenting voice and now calm returns

and the cauldron can continue unabated.

The memories of the day are still fresh in her mind and events like this

demolition invoke feelings of sorrow and agony in Skwota’s heart. On

that day, she had to bribe the security guard at the cemetery. The grave

had to be dug at midnight and the burial took place at three o’clock in

the morning. The night was overcast and one could barely see a glowworm.

Infernal stillness engulfed the air casting a sepulchral tempo

around the mourners.

“Please take this and let us bury my husband”, she recalled with tears upwelling,

drenching the wells formed by the previous bouts of lacrimation.

“No, no, no… Skwota, I will not take anything less than two thousand

shillings, you know that I am only the collector, this money all belongs

to my boss”. Solja asserted as he paced into the darkness. Skwota had

collected four thousand shillings and had used half the amount to pay

the driver. Yeye the driver had asked for more money but when he saw

that Skwota had a second option he accepted to steal the car from his

boss to ferry the mourners to the cemetery. “I am risking my job because

you are my neighbour and a good person. I wish I could do more”, Yeye

said as he pocketed the money.

“Solja, you have been a good neighbour to me and I will not do anything

to make you unhappy. I will make it eighteen hundred, please accept

this amount”. As the undertakers pulled out the eighth foot of the

loose earth from the pit, they encountered the carcass of another man.

“Let us not stir those that are at rest, for we do not know what they might

smite us with”, the lead undertaker stated. He signaled at his cohorts to

cover the bones with a layer of earth and prepare to lay Bahati to rest.

The undertakers were used to these encounters and were not perturbed

at all. The grave had to be distorted to appear like a flower garden to

evade detection by the city council guards. The deceased was carried

on a pickup truck disguised as a building company truck. The body was

wrapped in several layers of shroud and concealed beneath a heap of

manure and flowers.

“Ok, ok Skwota, I know that you are a widow, I can come for the remaining

amount later”, he said as he did the money in his socks. “Where

is Kago?”, he said referring to the corpse. From this point on, it was Solja’s

onus to dispose the body surreptitiously.

“Over there, near the Mugumo tree”, she said holding Solja’s hand and

pointing with his arrow. “Go, tell the mourners to leave and I will do

the remaining work”, he said.

As she walked to the pickup she stumbled on a tombstone and almost

fell. “Uugh”, she woke up from her slumber. It was just a dream, a very

sad dream. The bulldozer was on the southern side of the valley, groaning

as a trail of destruction graced the landscape. The bats could be heard

chirping as they ambushed nocturnal moths dancing in the earthmover’s

headlights. It was barely one o’clock in the morning and the wind was

gently dragging clouds towards the acme of the valley. As the air temperature

dropped, light showers began to fall.

“Where is the government? Where is the government?” Jirani shouted

as she covered her baby with an extra layer of blanket, “my son is sick

and the government is killing him”, she said as tears rained from the top

of her open mouth. Jarani’s husband had died of AIDS two months ago.

Chwora had suffered for two years, sapping all the family savings. A

month before he died, they owed the shopkeeper five times the household’s

total income. Dukani, the shopkeeper had sympathized with

Chwora’s family as they came from the same village back at home. As

the credit levels went up he even had to borrow to keep the shop stocked.

Dukani respected Chwora for having invited him from the village and

assisting him to establish in the neighbourhood. One day before Chwora’s

death, Jirani came to the shop for milk and Dukani was very saddened

by the poor prognosis that he began to cry. “I know that only our

father in heaven gives and takes life”, he said with tears soaking his overgrown

moustache. “I have never known a brother and I keep praying

for his recovery”, he added, as tears helplessly invoked mucus to stream

down his noses trills. “I hope that you will be strong enough to accept

the final verdict, he has lost his will to live and all that is left is emptiness”,

Jirani stated with a melancholic tone as she took the packet of

milk. “May a better tomorrow be our hope against the ravages of today”,

Jirani would say taking home an extra unit of milk owed on credit.

While lying on his deathbed, Chwora knew that his wife was approaching

delivery. His face sickly and sallow with death. His cheek

bones protruding and eyes sunken in the sockets. He attempted to

mutter a word “mmm…”.

“Chwora, please rest”, she said with sympathy. Little did she know that

he was saying goodbye. When Jirani came to the hospital the next day,

there was an ominous cloud of melancholy in the air. Her husband had

died at three o’clock in the morning. She believed that at the same time

the spirit of death visited her in a dream and she could see her husband

ascending to the throne of the departed.

The cold air slapping her scarf repeatedly, she was barely twenty-three

years old and had already learnt very much from the school of life. Jirani

moved to the slum to stay with friends after her aunt’s death. Unlike

Skwota, Jirani had been in the city from childhood. Hardened by

the vagaries of city life she was resilient and strong.

“Poverty, AIDS and the government, all are my enemies”, she spat. “If

only my family weren’t poor, AIDS wouldn’t have stolen my husband”,

she explained. Jirani was aware that death had robed her and she wasn’t

scared of it anymore. “Toto you will be all right, I will take you to

the doctor and all will be well”, she said holding the baby much closer.

As dawn approached, the Turaco could be heard squealing and the owl

hooting ushering in a new day. The night was particularly long and a

new day was eagerly awaited. Skwota had sat on the sack containing

her possessions for an hour and she was already feeling tired as the sack

had jard protruding objects. At three o’clock in the morning she wanted

to relieve herself as was routine. She walked down the valley to the

trench and relieved herself. The way down the trench was littered with

human waste, it was even worse in the darkness. Every two steps that

she made landed on top of festering dung.

May the new day come for I slept on an empty stomach, so the sages

say to acknowledge the arrival of a brand new day. For the residents of

Sweet valley, the new day was dressed in gloom and death. The littered

landscape defined the remains of their home. If the laws were for the

poor, if only the laws favoured the poor then they would live in peace.

The livestock that survived the nocturnal ambush were sickly and limp

with open wounds bespeaking the commotion that attended the previous

night. Like Egypt after the firstborns were murdered, sweet valley

was bleeding and writhing in pain. Skwota dragged her sack to the

neighbouring slum. The journey was long and winding and each step

brought the promise of victory and hope. The landscape was picturesque

with green water and massive garbage dumps. The ground was moist

with fresh urine and the sidewalks dotted with human dung. “In this world

full of wars, I cannot afford to lose”, she said to herself. “My will to live

is much stronger after every encounter with the bulldozer”, she said smiling

with tears dropping on her sack. She clutched her hands around the

sack in a hugging poster. Looked back at the distant sweet valley where

she had overcome an encounter with death. When midday came pangs

of hunger gripped her evoking her tears to flow free. If only the bullet

did not take his life, we would have struggled together”, she said as sleep

brought her to a peaceful rest.