whispers (a literary short story)

(Were wa’Shitseswa)

We first heard the boots on the street downstairs. We knew what would follow. Everyone knew. Father was still sitting on his mat after completing the ishaa prayer and it would have been moments before food was served. Even as he counted the beads and supplicated, it was no longer secret that the face concealed behind that whitening beard and pair of glasses had developed permanent contours from worry and fear. Of late, the aged man had reintroduced the long forgotten tradition of reading us parts of the scripture every evening after such prayer, a thing I had enjoyed in my childhood, but now found so dull, so plain.

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We heard them turn by the petrol station and begin to approach the building. Then for some time the thuds of their dragging boots were swallowed by the walls as they passed through the corridor to the stairs. Then they came again, this time louder and terrifying. Fauziah, who was suckling the baby, wore a tense face, but did not deprive the baby of its peaceful feeding. Aisha and Aden were in the kitchen finalising the cooking, but from the silence that engulfed the house, it was clear that if they were still in that kitchen, they too were drowning in their sweat and fear.

Father looked at me. There was something uncomfortable in that look. It was a disturbing look, especially from a father to a son. I avoided his eyes for the next few seconds that I could, but the look had already had its kill. The message was clear – at twenty six, I could not protect the family. I could not protect the old and the womenfolk of the household. That makes you feel small. I dropped my gaze to the floor and bit at the lower lip in submission. I was shaking and sweating, perhaps from the fear of the approaching boots, or for the feeling of self-belittlement.

When the boots reached our door, they proceeded to somewhere three or four doors right. Today they would begin from the last door. This was some relief, but what is relief if it keeps you waiting for the worst? Trying to run away would be ridiculous, for to be killed in a warm house was more honourable than to be sprayed with bullets on a street owned by hungry hounds and scavengers of the air. There was also hope in remaining indoors: you had chance to see another day if you kept some chai for them. So we sat, even after Aden brought the dishes. Fauziah said the aroma from the kitchen had killed her appetite. Aden whispered that he had some college assignment to work on. Aisha was on her phone struggling to explain to her boss why she had gone AWOL that long. Apparently, father wanted to talk to Aisha before he could touch the food, and the distant eyes kept staring at her as she made pleas to a boss who thought people could be in concentration camps for seven weeks and still attend their jobs.

But that is a thing of the past now. I am at peace. I shall guard my peace. There are no wars here. There is no betrayal. There is neither Ebola nor tetanus vaccines that end up in the fallopian tubes. No prejudice. No television to teach me to hate or to be hated. No fear. No football stadiums. No academic smiles from friends who hide stigma under their lips. No more bullet sprays on the streets. Peace is all there is, and knowing its worth, my resolve is to nurse and protect it.

I live with three wonderful people. Shaba and Mtu are very close. They play with me and I play with them quite often whenever they come around. Most of the day, these two rascals are away. But when they come back, we whisper to each other and share the secrets in this home of man’s origin. We sleep next to each other and dream of days when love shall raid the world. The third is Joi, who is not any less friendly. It’s just that she has had some hard time since the demise of her husband three weeks ago.

When I came here, straight from the city, I met Has, Joi’s late husband and friend. He was at first scared to see me. And I would have killed him had I gotten the chance to execute the first intent. But there I was, missing my strikes and eventually Has managing to sneak into some hiding. He was away for the night and for the next day. But on the evening of the second day, home proved best, and he was back with his family and his demands. I lit the candle the moment I heard the scratching on the gourds. Someone else ran into hiding, but Has remained even as I raised my shoe to strike. I looked at him for a good aiming but he looked back, fearless yet so helpless, and squeaked, showing his dental formula. The guy was pleading, requesting; yet accusing and commanding. He pleaded for food and life, yet in that plea claimed that the crumbs and the life I was taking away were not mine. This realisation scared me, and for some time I doubted I was not running crazy. However, it was the helplessness in his look that took me back to the days we had been arrested and left in the heat of the day in a football stadium – no food, no water, and no humanity. Beneath the furs of his body, beyond the whiskers, I saw my heart – a heart that had not chosen to be born there. I saw a heart that longed for love. I saw a heart that could feel pain when beaten and joy when pleased. I saw a heart that had feeling. The raised hand eventually came down slowly as the shoe dropped to the floor. There, someone else came from hiding and stood next to her husband. I looked at the couple and decided that though I would be paying the rent, we were going to share the house. Family for now and family for eternity.

You cannot be a killer forever, I whisper to myself. You can finish your physical enemies but you cannot finish what they stand for – it always reincarnates in new bodies, and after those, newer ones. But these bodies are nothing but victims of collateral damage whenever invisible ideologies, beliefs, stereotypes, sins, or civilisations fight. Like that day when she slithered the dagger into the neck of the soldier, it was not him the dagger intended to finish but the evil she saw resting in his body. That evil did not go with that body. It simply changed home. What if the soldier had had time to pick another understanding of his world, like what healed Has and Joi into noble companions?

When they eventually commanded that we open the door, we did so. Father was still transfixed on the mat. First thing, they roughed him up and pulled him by his beard in greeting. They then yelled at us to produce our identification documents. Then they said the IDs were not enough. Father showed his expired driving license and documents of pay slips. They said those appeared forged. I produced my certificate of birth. They said it was not enough yet. Aden and Fauziah showed their college cards. They pointed at Aisha. I produced our marriage certificate. They said that was not enough. We got them the letter we had been given after clearing from the football stadium. They became even harsher. Father brought his bank statements. They threw the papers at him. Then five to seven of them began ransacking the place. One slapped me when I offered to walk them around the house. Few minutes later, they came carrying a handgun, two round things which I guessed were to go as grenades, and some packets of powder which, they told us, was very dangerous and which, they said again, we had been using to make home-made explosives. I protested and pleaded with them not to do what they were doing. They ignored me and went for the old man. They asked him what we were doing in their country. Father swore we were not refugees. They asked him why we were terrorists. The old man said we were not. They asked why we kept dangerous weapons in the house. Father said he was seeing them for the first time. The commander, now red eyed and angry, shouted him quiet. Another hit him on the head with the butt of his gun. He fell to the ground. He groaned. They beat him with their large boots. They beat so hard his glasses broke and the mouth went red. Another pulled him by the beard and said we were paying for what we had done at the shopping lodge. Then they asked who my wife was, and they held her hands, legs and head and pitched her onto the floor. Two of them unzipped and began working as we were forced to look. Aisha wailed. I burnt in my heart. They changed turns. She cried in pain. Eventually, one of us came to her senses and told the leader that there was some chai in the house. Perhaps afande could take it? That is what saved us. It was not much, but we bought our freedom with two thousand shillings. They packed the ‘deadly weapons’ in a bag, called us good citizens, promised to visit the following week, wished us a goodnight, and left.

Shortly after, one of them came back in a hurry. The door was still open. He demanded for more money or else he surrenders us back to the stadium. Fauziah, sleeping baby in arms, closed her eyes in pain. Aisha offered to go bring the money, and the officer pointed at Aden to make them three. It was the kitchen they went to. Before we knew it, it was ending, and the rest became history. We spent that night in the toilet, flushing human flesh down the system until there was nothing left by dawn. Aisha, after her work, sat sobbing in a corner, and not even father’s scripture could comfort her.

I met Mtu some two weeks after becoming family with Has. He came condoling with Joi. That was the day Has lost his life. But the way he now walks around Joi, the guy hides some of his secrets somewhere under his loins. Not that he is bad. For the record, it was Mtu who made Joi start eating again, for when Has’ funeral was over, this girl simply sat in a corner of our establishment and refused to take anything despite my continued offering of grain pellets and water. She would lose her pregnancy, perhaps the only one that could continue Has’ name across generations. But Mtu came to the scene and for the first time in many hours our Joi managed a walk and a bite.

Life here is simple and tranquil. In this heat are souls that have not learnt hate. I hope that soon the family will come over. I want to hold my baby when it is finally born. I want to be around the family again. Now I understand better what it means to have an intact family. Each day after the ishaa, I yearn for the readings from father. I want peace and love. I pray for this land – that humanity rethinks itself; that everyone be looked at for what he is and not for what television says; that there be hands to hold babies and embrace neighbours; that people unhide their voices and use them to laugh and to love.

In my fear for the men of national security, fate hid me here. To find a house was not easy. There was the language problem and the suspicion. Having rent was one thing; being trusted among law-abiding citizens was another. With these landlords, these two live north and south of each other. But I finally got through on the third day. I spent the following day out in the scrub and dunes, inquiring and locating the network for my cell phone. Then I called home, the first opportunity to send my soul over, beyond the captivity of these forgotten hills where once lived the founders of the human race.

If you are a strong willed adventurer interested in getting to the cradle of mankind, you will definitely find yourself in Ngamiatu. The headquarters of Ngamiatu are at Ngamiatu, a market five and half days from the capital aboard a weekly bus, a bicycle, a donkey and a panting camel. Five and half if bandits hidden in the bushes do not suspect you for their antagonist neighbours – otherwise two weeks are good for a starter’s planning. The people of Ngamiatu do herding, cattle rustling and human butchering. In the country’s seven decades of independence, government representation here has never gone beyond a manager at the Ngamiatu International Museum in the caves and the tax collectors. And with the morans’ intense vigilance, Ngamiatu becomes an original of a fortified settlement. So when you finally reach the market, on a camel’s back, you will be easily taken for another tourist and directed further into the caves where live human fossils. However, if you want to settle, you will stop at the centre of the market, next to the big baobab, and take the winding path on your left, through the heat and the stares of women selling spears and milk gourds. One hundred metres and you reach structures erected from wood, rock and red earth. Among those structures you may want to ask for the block of the senior market tax collector. If they understand your language, they will bring you to this block, one of whose partitions I now call home.

And so when I called home, we whispered in the entire conversation. She told me they were doing well. Father had been rearrested and detained awaiting investigations. Aden had gone to shop the day after I left and had never come back. Fauziah had gone back to her husband but the baby was very ill. Critical condition, she whispered, and no hospital could admit them. I felt her smile from the other end, but beyond that mask of warmth I could hear tones of grief and disillusion. I whispered the request: please pack and come over immediately. It is safe here. She whispered it was now impossible to move in public and still not be arrested. That they would come over as soon as things cooled down. I asked how Baby was fairing; she whispered that perhaps Baby would never see Mummy and Pappy. I told her to spit the bad saliva in her mouth. She said she was being realistic. I whispered her name and then again. Beginning to sob, she told me that perhaps we would never meet again. That she loved me. Then she broke into wails and the line went dead. I have since tried her phone without success.

That first day, we were taken to the open field of the city’s sports complex. We were left to fry in the heat of that December of God. In about a year, the country had turned into a violence field, escalating by the day. A shopping lodge had been attacked by criminals, and the death toll had come to six hundred and ninety nine by the fourth day. Bombs had been dropped left right. A grenade had exploded outside the embassy of a friendly nation. More explosives had ravaged public service vehicles. Gunmen had raided a temple and killed indiscriminately. Then the media had gone awash.

The shopping lodge attack had been the worst. I visited the scene and could not control the wells in my eyes. It was very bad. How inhuman could humanity get? There was a hand, with a ring on one of the fingers, resting aside the street. There was a man whose head had been cut into two, and the merciless piece of metal had stuck somewhere around the jaws. Pools of blood. Bodies of children, women and men were scattered all over, torn and dismembered. Survivors – at least for the moment – lay with the dead, writhing in pain as paramedics dashed here and there. Children cried, and the adults cried more. The air smelled death and pain. Somewhere in that debris, unknown to me then, rested bodies of two cousins who had gone to buy a wedding gown. Only a stone would not have cried.

When the Prime Minister and his Minister for Internal Security gave spirited speeches, the country drew the lines. This is the handiwork of the international terrorist group, a group that unfortunately has internal sympathisers here. You are either with us or with them, said the government. All the children of God must come out now to defend themselves, for the enemy now lives in our midst. They have overstayed their welcome. We shall root them out wherever they hide and….

People in the neighbourhoods thus became God’s children or Terrorists, now that our city is one where ethnicity, religion and social class dictate where one lives. People were arrested and jailed. People got shot dead. Young men and women were beaten up by young men and women. A curfew was introduced in our estate and no one went out at night. Daily house-to-house police patrols were introduced, and you either slept in your house or in the police cell depending on the size of your pocket and generosity of your hand.

That first week I lost my job. The students avoided my classes and, fearing loss of revenue, the principal had no otherwise, he said, but to dismiss me. About twice, while on a bus, passengers had alighted claiming they had picked the wrong route, and realising that I was the only passenger for their routes, the drivers had asked me to ship out. While on a lift to a charity organisation meeting, a child of around eight had cried, terrified by my curled hair; everyone had had to get out on the next floor. Security checks turned to something else, and I remember being frisked thrice before being allowed entry into a shopping mall, and while there, being frisked again. Fauziah was once denied entry into a hospital and told to try another one. You were either with them or with them.

Like sheep being taken to the slaughter house, masses continued flowing in, and by eleven that morning, the whole stadium was filled to the brim, including the terraces where we had previously sat watching the beauty that was football. Dry perspiration dictated the smell, and having no place to go dispose our scanty wastes, children, old women and men made art with the grass amid the beatings from roaring soldiers who manned the masses; guns corked beside their dark shinny bats.

Now Joi has come back. She first moves to where I am. If she doesn’t give birth in the next three days, this tummy of hers will burst – Joi, do I lie? She stops near my feet, and I pick her up. I tenderly hold her in my hands and run the fingers on her silky body. She still has the nostalgia of Has. I whisper to her to be strong. I tell her Has is fine where he is. I ask her if she is hungry and the look she gives me says everything. I take her to the kitchen part of the house. Soon she is playing with maize grains that I left on the floor. As she feeds, we look at each other and nature whispers.

Why did I want to kill them that first day? Why do creatures kill? Why did I want to kill?

At this point, Joi stops eating and stands looking at me. Is she again going into the melancholy over her husband’s death?

I am the one who discovered Has’ dead body. My brother and friend lay stiff and cold at the back of the house. His head looked like it had received a knock, and indeed there were blood spots on the ground near where he lay in his ultimate rest pose. The pain he had gone through before finally succumbing ran in me at that time, and I felt pity for the chap. He died coming back to the community he trusted. He died coming back home, coming to his wife and unborn child. He died coming back to me – to us. Perhaps in his last breath he had cried, calling on us for help. I saw where guilt lay. And swallowed.

Whoever killed such an innocent soul! Whose law was it that sentenced souls to death undefended? What is the sole purpose of law if not to promote life? And what is life if not that it be lived through flaws and strengths, evil and good, white and black?

Six years ago, we were in the city. After the general elections, war broke out. One ethnicity said they had won the premiership and took to the streets rejoicing. The other said they had retained the thing by landslide. The first day turned to a sequence of run and chase games between the police and the citizens. The second day it was between two factions of youths divided across ethnicities, and fire caught fire. When the police came in again later, they were coming in not to take sides, nor fuel the violence, but to participate as a third force with the elaborate weapons of mass correction. That’s when I learnt the phrase ‘shoot-to-kill’. They shot to kill – and they shot and killed many. People were beaten, cars were torched, neighbour turned against neighbour, and the price of machetes in the market escalated. Shops were looted and business halted. Travellers were ambushed and questions asked in local tongues. By the third week, unclaimed bodies with bullet wounds littered the city roads; and pigs, vultures and slum hounds clicked their glasses and said cheers.

So when your Aisha breaks down wailing, what do you do? You cannot fight a government. You cannot revenge a government. A government has weapons of mass correction. A government has poison and mercenaries. A government has a well-trained army and solid masses feeding on its word. A government has power. The people who unbelted and found merry with my expecting Aisha are the government, and their song is what is sung by the independent media and by the mouths of unquestioning faithfuls called patriots.

My wife is somewhere out there now, waiting for the guns to quieten. She sits hoping that very soon travelling will be easy. And then she will follow me. Then we shall reassemble the family. But meanwhile she sits alone, perhaps still crying. She could be in a dungy room somewhere acting as wife to our men of security. She could be in a football stadium. She could be in a shallow grave on the street. Aisha could be dead! I wish I had not heeded her word. I should not have come alone. Guilt is a very bad companion.

It was merely two weeks after we had left the concentration camp. We were among the first few families to be released. Mother never made it; her body was whispered to have been flown to the country they said was our country. A sister of my wife’s, who had been living with us awaiting college opening dates, had disappeared at the stadium and never returned – red card. Many people got red cards; they never returned. If she was lucky, she had been ‘deported’, though beautiful young women were rarely flown into that war-torn country. She could be somewhere in a cell, in a rented house deep in the city, playing common wife to men securing the country, and quietly hoping that one day she shall again taste her freedom.

We had expected the rights activists to help us. With the rising and the setting of the sun, however, this hope had slowly dwindled until we lost the count of time, and days and nights became a measure of flogs, hunger pangs, and electric-chair experiences in the investigation chambers. We did not count, but reflecting back, we must have lost not less than thirty in the first one week. One woman died in labour. The baby, too, succumbed as we pleaded with the soldiers. A family friend, in his fifties, collapsed in front of us – the poor soul never even kicked. The hushed wails of children crying for food and of mothers mourning their dead, coupled by looks of men pretending to be strong and indifferent, would nauseate. Flies hanged around, waiting for the opportunity to perch on our noses and eyes and mouths.

Joy is now through with the maize grains. She moves to the second corner, where there once was a hole connecting the inside to the outside. She looks at me satisfactorily and pushes herself into the hole, tail first. It is time for the daytime nap.

My phone rings. It is an international code. I have a friend in the North, two in the Middle East, and another in the Far East. This code is from none of those. As I ponder whether to answer it, it abruptly comes to an end and the screen remains with that image where, from behind, I am embracing a smiling Aisha. I look at her face and I see love. Her curves and complexion and hair and dressing go well with the peaceful heart that lives in her. There is something lovelier in those eyes. They spark with warmth and glow with an openness that pulls hearts to her. Not to love this woman is to be very unfair.

I go down to my knees and then retire on the beddings, falling with the buttocks. I try to ponder who this could be. Somehow, I hope whoever the caller is shall call again. I am now on my back, one hand holding the phone above my eyes while the other pillows the head. Because of the day’s heat, I am remaining with only my shorts on, and as I wait, I spread my legs to cooler parts of the mattress. A breeze penetrates into the nether parts of my thighs. What else is good life?

When the phone rings again, I am half awake. The person on the other end is talking amid loud noise that swallows the words. I cannot detect whether it is a man or a woman. The earpiece brings high pitched screeching, a few bangs and loud booms. Please hang up and call again, I whisper. The person does so, but as the second call comes, it is noisier than the first and my ears ache. I hear my name, then more screeching that kills everything else in the conversation. I decide to hang up myself and swear not to pick another call. I am feeling sleepy and thinking about the people in the city.

Was that a knock at the door? I listen again, working my brain from the sleep. Someone is there. I see colour and shadows moving across the crevices in the door joints. As I listen, there is another knock. I do not yet have friends these sides. Who is there, I ask sleepily, mixing Swahili and the few local words I have grasped. Open, commands a voice from outside. It is clean Swahili. I don’t like the attitude. I don’t seem to know you, please say who you are, I charge. Open this door, commands the authoritative voice. I say I can’t open to a person I don’t know. Hushed voices. I am now sweating in the armpits. They sure cannot be robbers, for what will they find here other than a naked man on the run and his pregnant companion in the hole? Then I see shadows retreat, and when they come back, almost immediately, they come with speed and the door bangs open. In enter four heavily armed soldiers. They all direct their muzzles at my forehead and their commander shouts that I raise my hands. My hands, however, do not reach there. The commander has already barked an order to the other three, something which I do not understand until they descend on me. They do it with their heavy boots, bats and fists. I try to cover my head with the hands but a rib breaks and the head is left unguarded. I groan, first silently, and then follow this by wails. They have mistaken me, I cry. The boots pick more rhythm. I cry loud. One boot gets my open mouth and I lose a tooth. They keep beating.

After some decade, the commander orders they stop. He has discovered something. He is holding my phone. He beckons them, and goes on to show some discovery on the screen. They all nod. I am pleading they stop. I am saying I have done nothing wrong. The leader groans another command and they start the beating again. They kick my back. They punch my stomach. They kick my face. They kick my testicles. They kick the head. I feel pain. Every time a boot lands, pain cuts through me like a razor. And I cry like a child.

By the time I am handcuffed and bundled out to the waiting anti-terror police truck, my left side has lost consciousness. The hazy images of bystanders and the dusty shanties are coming in red. I hear people shout in chorus. Terrorist! Terrorist! The dizziness in the head is no longer dizziness. The nerves have become lazy on the right side too. Stars cloud my sight and my mind, and everything blurs into an abyss.

To Our Fallen Hero

You died in the line of duty

In the name of the motherland

What a noble cause you were on

You died at the filthy feet of the terrorist

Who deserved not the right to life

Nature looked on as you succumbed

To the crime of the heartless

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We shall engrave your tombstone

In pearls of diamond and pearls of gold

With the most touching romance

Here lies the rumbler of the jungle

Owner of a million stars

Conqueror of battalions

Pride of our courage

Most beloved of our hearts

Son of our most beloved

We the living have nothing short of praise.

If our hairs were pens and our streams wells of ink

And the leaves paper and forests multiplied

Time unlimited and energies granted

We would run out of ink and paper

Booking down your deeds now gone.

Your symbol of courage and strength

Your sojourn that was glory

Shall forever be our story

That if white and black die and its narration undone

Our children and those of them shall

Keep you in song and speak of the legend

To their children to the world’s end.

If the sea valleys were baskets

Our tears would still be orphans of space

As we mourn you departed hero.

Miles and miles you went

Past the border of the land

Into the jungle of the devil

In the scorching sun and tiring sand

Wails of their children and women

Did not freeze your feet

You weren’t deceived by the quiet of their villages

You marched on and on

Trouncing, torching, rumbling in true spirit

The pride of the land

No order given did you belittle

Even when you saw in it pain


And you let metals talk


And you remained patriot


You remembered your hunger

You will forever remain our hero.

We shall name our children after your name

You whose life was to himself a souvenir

And were slaughtered by the terrorist

Cutting short your hunger to slaughter.