Mama is grief, the one clinging onto a portrait size photograph. She is the photograph’s cold eyes, the dimness of its cold hunch, the smile hanging in other photograph encasings under thin films of dusty layers gathered over the years on glass coverings. This grief has sprouted a withering, a sheave of crunchy petals in the carcass of defunct bliss, roasted like the dust on the glass.
Mama is the remains of despair, the soft dirge in her breathing, the dying flames of a flickering lantern, and the death of her husband in the photograph.
She lets this photograph drop from her hands.
The photograph finds itself in my aunt Amulioto’s hands. Those hands with a heart the size of big footprints, the empathy you gulp from a glass of water when you are thirsty. My eyes follow the hands up the owl rimmed bespectacled face in the photograph. From it, I unstring a memory. The one he bought me my first ever Kaunda suit and taught me how to tie shoelaces. I was then just a boy and he was this prodigy cracking the cryptic codes of all my curiosities, boyhood curiosities, the wonderful curiosities of happy years with papa. The photograph is rested on the coffee table beneath my sigh.
“God gives and takes.”
“Very true, on this earth, we came naked.”
“And we shall return naked.”
“You must stand in his memory, our son.”
“Like the cornerstone of the home.”
I breathe in. So what is, to be the cornerstone, isn’t it the darkness I’m floundering through, standing stiff and no wrinkle on my face, only smiling for strength, making sure I drop no tear from weakness so that mama doesn’t rise in despair and my sister sitting beside her doesn’t sink deeper into sobs over papa’s death. And how does one balance being a man and burying a lost estranged father so that they don’t look the parody that I am: a pale shadow of mourning and the grief in weeping beside his grave, the prodigal son, the unostentatious, and the estranged. In my anxiety, this air of grief breaks into tiny bits of memory.
So, my thoughts flounder. Achando sobs. My sister’s stern voice is in her sobs: go back to that forsaken pit where hermit of the blackened hearts, you crawled from. After all, you and papa never walked a mutual path. Who have you become? No longer do we identify you in our faces, not even in the yellowing old family photos where in some you are in tiny shorts nibbling at your school tie; cobwebs in the house corners have come and gone and here you are; the blot in the mirror of grief, the itch on our conscience, the wild cactus in dandelions; the stench of a strange city. Who are you? The sobs fade in my guilt.
I was the prodigal son. I went to South Sudan after the silencing of guns: the scraggy haired young dreamer with a Kodak camera, I jumped on the wagon of dreams. I left without anyone knowing where I had gone. I undressed from apprehension and went to Juba, that city dressing me in its dust, unpacking its silenced guns in my anxiety; denuding from years of deafening gunshots. I am the fool that phoned Achando on my arrival in Juba.
“You have a death wish,” my sister had blasted me.
“I’m safe,” my reply had been stiff.
And papa, if only his photograph could speak. In those days he told Achando I had made a mockery of logic and signed my life away. He was certain I had become a living corpse. If I had craved for suicide with such bravado; he owned countless ropes, enough rafters in the cowshed and there had been no heroism in draining a sugar free coke, crunching ginger biscuits from airport duty-free shops, ogling at air hostesses in some KQ Boeing, only to plunge into dragging the family pride through the muck of war statistics; he jested. I presumed he had imagined me returning headless, and my incomplete body stuffed in a makeshift coffin, my head decapitated by a Kalashnikov or my limbs hacked by an IED. Who could blame him— famine, bloody deaths, groaning tanks ramming through buildings, rasping rockets stinging into motorcades, Apache helicopter gunships rumbling in the skies and relentless civil bloodshed in that oil-rich parch over the great Sudan of Khartoum flourishing, filled the international press stories which had been for years our staple diet. Many fathers would have sold their souls to buy sense and pump it into their sons that they should never peep into such uncanny misadventures as the one in the popular war stories I had delved into, even at the prospects of a peace deal, or the Juba economic boom.
My leaving had incensed the patriarch but nothing like the undisciplined cactus that had once pricked him when he was picking weeds from his dandelion garden. Or neither as my unimpressive wearing Sanyo watches on the right wrist and not the left wrist had wrested peace from him. Or my combing hair forwards and not backwards which he claimed effeminate, whereas looking in the mirror, I cherished the image of emancipation. All these were incomparable to the great sin of opening the smoky door into juba.
In Juba, after all, the bloody war was dead. Life pulsed in a peace treaty. I took a perfect Kodak shot of a freedom fighter’s statue. The tallness of its height was a post-war nation taking shape. The freedom fighter’s sons considered my immigration a preying on their blood and sweat. Blood and sweat they had paid for with his death. I the emigree from decades of potholes, dysfunctional public libraries, dead factories, overrunning sewerage, water cuts, power cuts, egregious sores of affliction, mountains of insurmountable debt, bread stolen from my craving hands; I was endowed with the reality of my predicament; I knew I was sticking my dreams out and stories from Johannesburg and other South African tales of the Makwerekwere convolutions were summoned into my heart.
Fear wasn’t my heart but the new world I added to the shots of my Kodak camera, the world of decaying smiles, khat chewing taxi drivers and scraggy market women. The blanket of war’s darkness peeling off, atrocity’s aftermath scattered all over in bonnet yawns of bullet-riddled car leftovers, and rundown buildings; the dingy cigarette smoke of hallucinating ex-rebels, spies and hawkers’ scar-splotched faces. And dreams found eyes in the photographs, the tree of a new life. It remained a beautiful memory. I took shots of the White Nile shimmering in the hot sun, and traffic crossing the Bailey Bridge; and the vintage hotels with mostly thick accented American tourists lounging in their luminous blue cigarette smoke; diplomats; the loud-mouthed UN military expatriates; self-righteous journalists sticking out their stained reputation of noisy patrons wastefully drunk on Heineken cans and whisky punch in their Ozymandias pomposity: headlines soaked in hubris. These reflections I arrested in numerous shots opening up the starry sky of my new world.
“You’ll not be returning to Juba I hope,” Amulioto plucks me from my wavering into the past. It is late in the afternoon, three hours after papa’s burial.
“He knows his mother needs him,” my uncle her husband beside her emphasises. He is playing with a skullcap rolling it in circles. I’m certain he is not speaking his heart. He is no imperfect squirrel. He is one of those camouflaging animals that flourish in enrobing themselves with a benefactor’s sheepskin.
“Mama is a widow now, she requires protection,” Amulioto out of nothing else left to say, offers audacious wisdom. And consensus swings around it in the nodding of everyone’s head. Papa’s photograph stares at me. Nobody needs to say it. The photograph says as much. I am the man supposed to offer the protection.
And mama, Amulioto, her husband and I finally huddle over late lunch, some chicken stew and millet flour ugali. Mama is silent. But in the way she scans me, her eyes dilated and expectantly still, I can smell that her appetite for the food has been made cold in her conscientious poring over Amulioto’s question sterilized in between us. I smile and circumvent her expectations. I grab a bottle of mineral water from a tray and gulp its iciness down my throat. There is an overwhelming chance I will not give a straight answer. How can straight be birthed from crooked, how? I allow the water to wash the saltiness from my thoughts. I have bitten my lower lip.
There is solitude in pain that has to crust in the wound, and my lip needs to heal. I can’t bear my tongue licking over it. From mama’s eyes, in my attempt to distract from the wound’s solitude, I meet vacuity sprouting in her gaze. A diversion into papa’s memories from dusty photographs—as I flirt with the stark presence of his immortal absence, running away from that vacuity of mama’s vacant gazes and lengthy silences that indict me—unearths darkness. I sit my thoughts in the ambivalence of a troubled mind.
Pity and terror jump over each other in my head. Achando is arranging photographs in an old album. Why isn’t anyone thinking about her; or the carnations on the grave that have turned colour; or papa’s funeral photograph that today lies on its stomach, seven days after the burial. Or mama, who will have to undergo widowhood’s final rituals like —esiinini. She will have to send papa’s relatives away with some gifts then offer tokens of his clothes to the households in this ritual of the ghosts.
I decide to take a stroll into the vast tree groves enclosing the front courtyard beyond a cluster of geraniums in papa’s courtyard. It’s in the late afternoon. The sound of crunching chocolate joins me; it’s my sister, a chocolate bar in the grasp of her fingers.
“What shall happen?”
I know Achando is asking about mama. I snap at an overhanging guava branch laden with yellow-green ripe mapera.
“I don’t know,” I mumble, as I dig my teeth into a juicy mapera.
“You don’t have to return,” she says. I chuckle as some mapera juice trickles between my fingers. I lick it away.
“I don’t know.”
“Think about her.”
“There is nothing I can do,” I take another bite, “you know there is nothing I can do.”
“She is scared that ethnic factions are forming again and there’s another fermenting war, the festered of them all which will break out in Juba and you will not return alive if you go back. She is afraid you are the soul of a wild cactus on foreign soil. She is afraid she will bury her only son and be left with a bottomless hole in her twilight dreams. Don’t they say that war can never stop in Juba? The curse of black gold is the famished owl that has perched on an old acacia to wither the cactus of that land. That the Americans, the Russians, Saudis and Iranians like vultures intersecting in their greed, are interested in the direction the wheel of fortune rolls.”
“I never knew you to ever have been that seriously geopolitical.” I attempt tact from magnanimity’s hand, the offer of another juicy mapera. She blatantly ignores my bribe.
“Has Juba chopped to pieces a brilliant sensitivity?” She rolls her eyes in the way she does whenever she catches the sight of a crawling caterpillar, the beast which spikes her heart into a strange beat and sometimes thunks it into the pit of her stomach.
I haven’t forgotten her allergy. I stray my eyes to her chocolate bar. There is in my head a ploy to avoid the probing twist her conversation is turning into; a figuring out the best approach to vaporize her fears.
“Look, siz,” I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand, “mapera gives you stomach cramps but papa’s death manufactured an endless migraine in me. There’re heavy fetters around my neck and over the blades of my grieving shoulders pulling against my desire to live free. Remember how I left. I hadn’t properly reconciled with the patriarch, I shoulder the burden of a twisted prodigal son, now that he is cold meat and rotting bones in the earth. And there is a life in full blossom, beyond resetting, I have planted elsewhere. My teeth are dug in ice, frozen. And even if I die, or retrieve my teeth from the ice, mama will not be left with an empty sky. In my place, there will be the gleaming Venus of a strong woman. I can’t see a returning home for me.”
“Cheap, nonsense, you are talking cheap nonsense. God made you the son. Only a son shall return and build mama’s years of good fortune and love as her youthful days of marriage and love did. Why are we even arguing over this? You are the embodiment of papa’s continuity. Mama can only live seeing her husband in her son and not her daughter. Hasn’t she told you he forgave you, he understood you had to go make a living, become a man, and that he was once young and had made some foolish decisions in the process of himself becoming.”
“It’s not about his forgiveness. You know I hadn’t had the privilege of a proper atonement for my transgressions. A stiff neck planted on my shoulders for the three years denied me life. I first must transplant the stiffness with forgiveness. But do I have room for redemption? Can anyone ever pay my ransom? After papa’s first visit to the oncologist mama called, I remember I heard her tears groan in the pit of my stomach when she dropped the bombshell and that was it. I felt sorry but you see I didn’t talk to him. I didn’t even make a trip as she wished. I did nothing. I should have done something more for mama’s sake. I should have been a man. After staying away for years, staying away from him, it would have been better I had stayed away.”
“Rubbish! You sent W.U money. The dollars helped relieve the monstrous chemotherapy bills. And don’t talk such chicken pooh, such nonsense again because we have all seen your great dedication in this funeral. There’s no better atonement. You know our Amuliotos kept their eccentric appetites out of papa’s funeral because you stood firm like a son otherwise they would have called for the land title deed. Sooner or later I see them trudge their greed here. And you must be here to chop off the feet and the heads of their greed. Mama is proud of you, all this time she has been talking about how you stopped uncle Amulioto the senior from enforcing a burial date in their favour until she gave her date.”
“My place here is an echo in a valley.”
“Bro, there must be frogs croaking in your ears, why are you listening to the song of amphibians and not listening to me? Don’t you realize you are the cornerstone, mama’s song of comfort?”
I take an implausible bite into the third mapera. We are now facing papa’s gate on the right of the vast tree groves: the guava, the crotons, the scarlet flowered fountains, the cypresses and the yellow-flowered olusiola trees, our feet thudding into our thoughts. I sweep my eyes over these trees before I turn to Achando. A party of hornbills flaps overhead, trailed by the echo of their guttural cries.
“Tell me about that doktari.” Her resilience fades in a blush.
I push, “Has he proposed?” Her blush fattens into dimples.
“When are bulls and cows squelching into this compound? Should I prepare to break my legs with lipala, our indomitable dance, and prepare uncle Amulioto to light grandfather’s old Optimus lamp in the night of your party, drink himself into a piss with busaa as he gyrates through the mwana wa amberi rhythms and Kalwoto guitars, a dust devil, walking around with the lamp like some fraudulent Diogenes, reincarnating his Afro gramophone heydays in the gyration, and of course the uninvited crows will show up to indulge, do I?”
She shakes her head looking straight into my eyes. She crumples the emptied brittle wrapper of the chocolate bar into a ball and hurls it in her next words.
“Not yet. Doktari is still weighing his options—”
“Weighing? He better be urgent with his stethoscope before he ends up with his heavy heart in empty hands to weigh.”
“You sound so convicted about dotari’s chances.”
“Lawyers and doctors, you have too much book sitting in your heads and no life running in your hearts. And that is why you should get a new boyfriend before uncle Amulioto dies with the blessing of his saliva for your bride price.”
A short but heavy curtain of awkward silence falls between us.
“With all those teeth out of his mouth, and still he has great saliva and a big dog’s appetite. Take me to this market selling hot boyfriends,” she rips into the silence, “I am hungry.”
I chuckle, “A girl should never put her legs in the still part of a river and her eggs in a basket with holes, the timeless fermented wisdom of river Nzoia?”
She chuckles, “I don’t mind the man’s tribe. Big bro, leave that basket to me, you three wise men in one stereotype. And since when were you in a girl’s body to understand.”
“I don’t have to be in a girl’s body to understand a girl. And yeah, you are iron. Red and hot, let it be remembered. I hope you take my wisdom seriously though.”
“What’s wrong with you? Return home. Please return. I see nothing in that Juba photograph you gifted me.”
“You see nothing? I see so much. I see lots of constructions in a man’s dream. That youthful metropolis is not the shadow of death or a dingy slaughterhouse splurging with rivers of blood. On the contrary, it is a magnificent haven with people toiling for their lives like the hawkers and their trays, the tailors and their rattling sewing machines, the cobblers and their mending tools, the newspaper vendors and their rolls of paper, the teachers and any everyday person. It is just like Nairobi, Johannesburg or Lagos, a city, a haven for me. It is not the thrones of lords of war, and it’s not a city of dogs of war. It is the light of great beauty in its flocks of wild pigeons, in its stray dogs, in its cats and its sultry heat and bountiful hauls of tranquillity. It is not an industrial-military complexity of Mujahedeen Taliban proportions as we read in our newspapers, listen over the radio and watch on TV to fill our empty days. It is not the hollow eyes of a hungry child scrapping from a bowl with his ribs sticking out, flies buzzing around him and hordes of vultures waiting in the wings for his carcass. It is not a paradise neither the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon. It is the fishing boats of the Nile. It is the wild cactus that pricks yet is still adored beyond its pain. It’s the ubiquitous hibiscus found in every eye that seeks repose. I call it freedom. It is me finding myself a shadow in the valley, watching the miracle of flesh joining onto bones. It is me, the cactus, grafted in the rich fertile soils of peace by God’s mercy. It is Invictus.”
“Something about this Juba has sprouted you into a mystical plant.”
She is right. But there can’t be bitter fruit. I have a wife and twins back in Juba: Omaya and Ajuma: ones I named after papa and mama.
On papa’s first death anniversary, I’m looking at their photograph, thinking about home. It is raining in Juba. I’m thinking about mama standing beside him. I lied to her that I was coming here to resign from my English teaching post and return. I have made three trips back home and piled stacks of empty promises.
During the last trip, I learnt that papa’s final wish was for me to return home and build a house for myself. And he wanted Achando to find a man, a man like this man in the photograph; a man with a Volkswagen beetle, a big smile and a bungalow. On this anniversary I have made up my mind. I will take a photograph of my wife, my two children and carry it with me on my next trip home.
First published on writingisonthewall