I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

The man_Betty Anne Ndwaru

acqua6_Africa Teller 2000.


He had been lying there since the previous afternoon. At first no one

had paid any attention to him, after all, a man lying down under a tree

on an idyllic Saturday afternoon was not an uncommon thing. In fact,

in these harsh economic times, a man lying down under a tree in a

public field was not likely to draw any attention, if he was, it

probably meant that he was tired of walking around looking for a

non-existent job and in the bid to silence his hunger pangs had lain

down and gone to sleep. The man was lying under the last jacaranda

tree in the row of trees that separated the dirt path from the sports

field in Nyumbani estate. He was partly hidden by the long grass in

that corner of the field but he was not completely invisible. A person

with normal vision could easily have seen him. No one however, had

taken any notice of him. He had managed to draw a few curious

glances on account of the bad coughs that had wracked his body, but

they had all ignored him and walked on, minding their own business.

It was Sunday morning. Pastor Mwema walked hurriedly along the

dirt path. He glanced at his watch. It read 6.30 a.m. He quickened his

pace. He was going to be late for the service again if he did not hurry.

He had been late the previous Sunday and although his congregation

had seemed to understand he knew that if he made it a habit, he

would revert to preaching to a half empty church which had been the

situation when he had first joined the Church. However, his

popularity had grown quickly when the people had discovered that he

was always punctual and his ability to speak to them in a practical

manner, straight from his heart. Soon the 7.00 a.m. service, in spite of

being the earliest service of the day, was drawing the largest crowd.

Pastor Mwema did not want that popularity to wane, especially not

now when there was an opportunity to fill in for the senior Pastor,

who was leaving on a one month vacation to his home in the

countryside. Pastor Mwema decided to use the shortcut through the

field which would save him five minutes. It was too early in the

morning for the football team that trained in the field to be out so he

was not be likely to be knocked unconscious by a flying ball or a

charging player. As he stepped into the field, he almost trod on the

man who was lying in his path.

I am sor… He started to say, and stopped. The man looked very

strange. He was very stiff.

He cannot possibly be… thought Pastor Mwema. He dismissed the

thought. He was probably just another unconscious drunk man. There

were many of them nowadays. Pastor Mwema looked at his watch

again. It was 6.40 a.m. If he did not hurry, he would definitely be late.

He looked at the man again. He could not possibly be dead he

concluded. “Besides, there is nothing I can do now”. He thought of

the waiting congregation and the waiting post. I am pressed for time.

Someone else is bound to come along who will have time. He said a

prayer to this effect. He hurried on across the field.

Doctor Juma kicked his car in frustration. The car had given out five

minutes after he had left his home, just next to the sports field. He

looked at his watch. It was fifteen minutes to seven. He would be late

for church if he did not hurry. Trying to fix the car or calling someone

to fix it would take too much time, and he would soil his new suit, the

one he had bought just a few weeks ago for today’s occasion. Today

was the day he was going to be dedicated as a church elder. He could

not afford to appear in front of the congregation with black specks of

grease on his shirt, or be late. He felt he owed that much to the church

elders who had found him upright enough and respected him enough

to bestow the honour upon him. He could not embarrass them by

looking dishrevilled or coming in late. He decided to use the shortcut

across the field, it was dusty and his shoes would bear the full brunt

of it, but it was better than oil specks anyway he thought.

He saw the man as soon as he passed in between the two trees. He

was lying face down, his arms limp by his side. He was dressed in

patched brown trousers and an old grey sweater. He had a dirty black

hat on his head and old canvas shoes that had no laces. He was dead.

Doctor Juma’s trained physician’s eye could determine that much. He

had been dead for at least 24 hours. He was in a dilemma over what

to do. A dead man in a public field was probably none of his business,

but as a man who was about to be dedicated as a church elder, as a

good man, he felt that he ought to do something. His conscience

dictated that he put the man in his car , drive him to the nearest

mortuary and then call the police, or at least call the police. On the

other hand, putting an unknown dead man in your car, touching him,

had great complications, as did calling the police. He could already

see in his mind’s eye the long bureaucratic process that he would

have to go through if he went to the police with such a story or even

if he just called them to inform them of the death. He thought of

something that had not crossed his mind before. The man was dead

and lying in a public field. That really narrowed down the guesses as

to what the cause of his death was. People had been murdered and

dumped in fields especially people who walked alone in the dark in

deserted fields, people who had a lot to lose. Dr Juma looked at the

sky. It was not dark, but the sun had not yet come up. The field was

deserted and he was a man with a lot to lose; car keys, a new suit, a

wallet packed with wads of notes, a gold watch, his life which at the

moment was at its peak. He looked at the man again. He was sorry for

him, but there was nothing he could do. He hurried on across the


John stubbed out his cigarette and looked at the Doctor’s retreating

back. He had been watching him ever since he had seen him get out

of his car and kick it in frustration. He had seen him leave his car and

decide to walk across the field. He had seen him disappear between

the last two trees in the row and not reappear for quite a while. Then,

he had seen him emerge with a troubled expression on his face and

walk off shaking his head. Earlier on, he had seen Pastor Mwema, the

pastor of the church that he went to do the same thing. Neither of

them had known that he was watching them. John had been sitting up

in one of the trees smoking and thinking about his life. He was home

on suspension from the University for inciting other students and

leading a strike. He was a law student in his second year at the

university who had had the misfortune of leading a demonstration

against non-teaching by lecturers. A demonstration that had turned

into a violent riot that had resulted in a lot of property being

destroyed and all the law students being suspended indefinitely. It

was now two weeks later. The last two weeks had been unpleasant,

beginning from the moment he had arrived home, suitcase in hand to

explain to his disappointed father that he had been suspended from

school for striking. His father who had sold the family’s piece of

land to ensure that his first born son’s university fees were paid. The

days that had followed had been full of tension. He and his father

were barely speaking to each other and in that atmosphere he had to

put his life back in order. However at this moment, his greatest cause

of misery was Stella, his girlfriend. He had gone to see her yesterday

and had arrived at her home just in time to see her walking off in the

opposite direction, hand in hand with Muiruri, his best friend. Today,

he was going to confront her. He knew she always went for the

morning service and that she passed through the field on her way to

church. He was waiting for her to show up but in the meantime, he

decided to go and see what had caused the Pastor and the Doctor

who were both his neighbours and good friends of his father, to act

in such a strange manner. He jumped down from the branch he had

been sitting on.

There was something lying under the last tree. At first he thought it

was a dog but as he got closer, he could make out the distinctive

figure of a man. He moved closer. The man was lying deathly still.

The rhythmic rise and fall of the chest that characterises sleep was

missing. He leaned over to get a closer look. He shook the man.

There was no reaction. The man was dead, John was certain of it.

He wondered how long he had been lying there. Probably not very

long because someone would have notified the police if he had, or

would they? He thought. The Pastor and Doctor had walked on and

left him there. If they had wanted to notify the police, they would

have gone back the way they had come, to their homes or to the

telephone booths at the shops because these were much nearer than

the Church phone. As it was, they had just walked on. They probably

do not want to get involved, he started to think but then checked

himself. He should not judge because he did not know the full facts

he thought. Still someone ought to inform the police. The body could

not go on lying there. Soon, children would come out to the field to

play and they would see the body. He knew he had a lot to risk if he

called the police himself. To begin with, he was a student on

suspension, that did not say much for his character, if he identified

himself, they might even think he had killed the man. There were a

myriad of excuses to walk away, but he could not in good conscience

leave the body there without doing something. He suspected that most

people would walk off in the opposite direction and hope that someone

else would inform the police because, they felt it was none of their

business. There was another reason why he could not leave the

responsibility of informing the police to fate, the man looked a lot like

his father. The build was the same and if it were not for the fact that he

had left his father asleep at home, he would have been convinced it

was him. He walked back along the path and called the police.

“If you people are not ready and out of the house in five minutes, I

am going to leave you and you will have to find your own means of

getting to church!” Mrs. Mwenda heard her husband call from the

front yard honking furiously. She was upstairs trying to change her

five year old daughter Mary’s dress which was soiled after Mary had

split dark brown chocolate on the white chiffon. “Mary, stop

squirming and put this on or daddy will leave without us”, she

reprimanded, trying to force a green dress over Mary’s head.

“I don’t want this dress, I want the pink one” said Mary pulling away.

Mrs. Mwenda sighed. She knew they would get nowhere if Mary did

not get what she wanted and wear her pink dress. It was Mary’s

birthday and such an occasion called for a pink dress in Mary’s

opinion. Mrs. Mwenda had no doubt that the chocolate incident had

been intentional. Mary had been in a highly excited state all morning

and it had taken all of Mrs. Mwenda’s arguing skills just to convince

her to sit down and have her breakfast. Now Mrs. Mwenda was still

in her rollers and bathrobe and Mary was in her petticoats and neither

of them was ready for church. She went down the stairs and out the

front door to the yard where her husband was leaning against the car

and scowling at the dog.

“Marcus, you will have to go without us” She said to her husband. I

have to change Mary’s dress and get dressed myself and I know I

need more than five minutes for that.” “Are you sure? I don’t mind

waiting. I have just remembered that Mary can be quite a handful on

her birthday” he said.

“No. You go and save seats for us. If you wait, we will all be late and

we won’t get a good seat” she said.

“All right,” he said getting into the car but please hurry up or you will

miss the elders’ dedication service.

Mrs. Mwenda went back into the house.

“Waithera!” she called to the maid who was in the kitchen cleaning

the breakfast dishes.

“Would you iron Mary’s pink dress and help her get into it please?

We are running late” she said.

“Yes mama” said Waithera.

Mrs. Mwenda noticed that she looked sad, her eyes were bloodshot

and she looked like she had been crying.

“Waithera are you alright?” She asked concernedly. Waithera burst

into fresh tears, alarming Mrs. Mwenda and making her wonder what

could be upsetting the 20 year old girl who had been working for her

for the last two years who was normally cheery and bubbly. She took

her arm and led her to a seat.

“Waithera, what is wrong?” She asked.

“I am sorry for alarming you mama, but it is my father. I received

news yesterday that he has been sick and that he had travelled from

Nyeri to Nairobi to look for me so that I could take him to the

hospital. He started the journey on Monday and should have been

here on the same day seen a doctor and gone home by Tuesday. When

he did not return, my mother became worried and sent a neighbour to

come and find out what was wrong especially since my father had

insisted on travelling to the city alone” she said.

“And you haven’t seen him?” Asked Mrs. Mwenda.

“No, I did not even know that he was sick until yesterday” she said.

“Oh dear, that is distressing” said Mrs. Mwendo. Look, I’ll tell you

what we’ll do. Get Mary ready for church while I go and get dressed.

When I get to church I will discuss this with Mr. Mwenda while you

stay here and wait in case your father turns up. If he is not here by the

time we return from the church, Mr. Mwenda will drive you to the

Police Station where you can file a missing person’s report. Is that

alright with you?”

“Yes mama, thank you” she said.

At 7.30 a.m. Mrs. Mwenda left the house propelling a finally subdued

Mary ahead of her. They would have to use the short cut through the

sports field.

“Mummy there is a dead man over here” said Mary who had run

on ahead.

Mrs. Mwenda’s heart gave a lurch. She ran to the place where her

Mary was kneeling on the ground staring at the body of a man.

“Mary get away from there” she said snatching her up. She stared at

the man. He did indeed look dead, but one could not be sure, for all

she knew, he could be feigning death and then when an unsuspecting

concerned person moved closer to inspect, he would jump up and do

God-knew-what. If he was dead, there was nothing she could do, at

least not right then. She had to get to church. She could call the police

later on, she decided. She hurried on across the field.

The small church was packed almost to capacity . Pastor Mwema

stood at the pulpit. He had been dreading this moment ever since he

had entered the church and remembered what the day’s sermon was.

He had been early, with ten minutes to spare. He had practised the

sermon for the whole of last night and had forgotten the lesson, until

he had entered the church and gone through his notes.

He opened his bible;

Luke 10:25-37: The Good Samaritan.

He covered his face with his hands. In the congregation, Dr. Juma

squirmed uneasily in his seat. John, who had just walked in, walked

out. Mrs. Mwenda had a sudden revelation.

A large crowd had gathered by the time they got to the field after the

service. In the middle of the crowd, two policemen carried the body

on a stretcher. Two more held the crowd that was pressing closer to

look at the man, at bay. The man had been covered in a white sheet

but a gust of wind blew it off the man’s face exposing it. A girl’s wail

came from the back of the crowd. Mrs. Mwenda saw a girl push

through the crowd, run to the stretcher and launch herself on top of

the body, sobbing wildly. It was Waithera.