Comrade Lemma and the Jerusalem Boys Band
by Parselelo Kantai
1st Runners up Caine Prize Award 2004
Last night I had the dream of fish again, in which my departed mother Petrobia is a young woman throwing a party in the afternoon. All the people of God are coming to our house in Jerusalem estate, and she is a whirlwind of movement, shouting get-ready get-ready, how can the visitors find you so dirty as if there is no woman in this house and you are orphans, washing and ironing and scrubbing the courtyard with soap and water, brandishing the broom of my childhood, the long thin sticks tied together with strips of tyre from the abandoned lorry that leaned drunkenly against the outside of the courtyard wall, its axles resting on crumbling construction bricks. The smell of frying fish on the fire in the stone-slab stove in the corner tickles my nostrils. Then the guests begin to arrive, the men of the church and their wives in their stiff Salvation Army suits with their black Bibles, propping their bicycles against the courtyard wall in the hot afternoon sunlight. The only place the sun does not intrude is our small living room, crowded with new wooden chairs, their backs draped with crocheted vitambaa, Jesus on the wall, his hands extended in blessing. And there is singing and clapping, the fried fish sizzling in the centre of this circle of the people of God and all of them, all these people who died so long ago, are calling me by my childhood name, smiling and saying, eat, Sylvanius, eat, and Petrobia my mother picks up the fish and holds it out towards me and I am ravenous and radiant like her in my spanking new clothes and I reach for it. And then, suddenly, I am an old man again, my face sagging and creased, my guitar-playing fingers gnarled and bent, and there are blue-bottle flies buzzing over the fish, and Martha is sitting next to me. The people of God are still smiling kindly and saying eat, Sylvanius, eat. Then their faces melt, become skeletal. Even in the dream, it is at this point that I know I am going to die soon.
I was woken up this morning, the eve of our nation's 40th independence anniversary, with the gift of an old jacket and a song of freedom. A delegation from the community arrived at my front door, surprising me with a long-forgotten song I had composed in my youth as the leader, lead vocalist and lead guitarist of our neighbourhood group, Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band. They were singing Joka, a song I stitched together from sleepless nights spent with my ear against my departed mother Petrobia's shortwave radio, when the shrrr-shrrr of static would part like clouds after the rain and allow some music through, the little transistor shivering at the forbidden sounds coming from a thousand miles away with the shaky faraway voice from a sad, sweet heavenly place singing: “Ayeee Afrika-e/Ayee Afrika-e…” Then you couldn't hear the rest because of the shrrr-shrrr of radio quarrels and the announcer's Queen's English interrupting them in an in-out whisper, like a man calling out from a well that is being opened and shut.
Among those forbidden faraway songs called up by my mother Petrobia's transistor radio, there was one in particular that had me in fits and sweats of how can this be? Who is this god of music whom I have never heard of? Every night at the same time, the transistor clouds would part for long enough to allow a voice from the pits of hell to cry out in the accents of the damned:
There is a train from Beira!/
There is a train from Namibia!/
There is a train from Zimbabwe!/
And then the voice would make the choo-choo sounds of a train and the clouds would close again, the train's shrieking whistle fading into shrrr-shrrr-shrrr-you-are listening-to-shrrr-shrrr. As the train sounds faded, I would close my eyes tight and travel to lands I had only heard of in my geography class in Primary 6, from which I dropped out because Mr Clarke, the headmaster wanted to separate me from my departed mother Petrobia and send me away to a boarding school, and then who would take care of my sickly departed mother who had already lost so many children to small-pox and influenza? I would soar over the clouds and find myself riding in a train of doom from Beira, the wailing voice chasing behind, like so many demons escaped from hell.
It was a time when words were heavy as stones and could get you into trouble. Certain words especially, certain names, were only whispered. Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, General Mathenge. But most of all it was Comrade Lemma, the founder of the liberation struggle, who strode into our boyhood games of war, carrying away the children, the cowards, the irritating little girls who wanted to play boy games on the street on which our dusty, pink mud-brick flats were located in Nairobi's African quarter. Our mothers used his name as weapons against us, as in if you don't come in now Comrade Lemma will come and take you to the forest and eat you up. At night he would invade my dreams wearing his long, brown leather jacket, his shaggy knotted hair obscuring his face.
The delegation from the community was chanting in rapid verse, their younger members cutting the air like those exponents of martial arts in the makeshift cinema halls in my neighbourhood, cutting the air and chanting ‘Nairobi Kambi ya Utumwa', and in doing so, taking me back to a long time ago.
We heard of other places that people went to; and they would return dispossessed of the gift of speech during the day so that only during their nightmares could they tell stories of the quicksand torture of the prison camps, of how the earth had swallowed them, them and the stranger next to you, Prisoner Number 1234 - No Afande Sir I am not belonging to the proscribed group otherwise known as Mau Mau, Afande - and all you saw was an acre of heads and eyes, heads and eyes, and all the time the earth sucking and swallowing, like shitting in reverse. One night my father failed to come home and my mother started to grow old.
So I became a musician, leader, lead vocalist and lead guitarist of Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band, and composer of Joka, the song that the nation has long forgotten after so many years of its being banned. And now I wake up to hear my neighbours singing it as if to mock me first thing in the morning after my premonition of my own death. Franco and Stish, the grandsons of Martha, my next door neighbour and friend indeed over these gruesome years, are a pair of teenage poets whose rapid verses of our life here beneath the bridge, beside the river, regularly bring tears to my eyes when I remember my own youth of saying heavy things from the side of my mouth. I usually treat the sounds of their rapid verse with the contempt they deserve because it is a parody of music and to encourage it is to repudiate all those years of my youth. And so I am especially wounded by their mannerless mistreatment of Joka:
Kutoka Kwale hadi Kampala/
Mwendo wa Joka siyo halaka/
Kutoka Kisumu hadi Kisauni/
Joka linanyonya nyinyi wahuni/
Linatambaa, hili gari la moshi/
Linasafisha Reserve,linakausha ardhi /
Linawabwaga wahuni jijini/
Huku Nairobi kampi ya utumwa
I remember how I became a musician as clearly as the evening of our nation's independence day, when my departed mother Petrobia was ex-communicated from the Army of God for forgetting herself and simulating the tribal dancing of her people from the west of the country, thus forcing us to leave our one-roomed Jerusalem flat in disgrace and begin our journey to the banks of the river where I buried her. But that was much later, when my musical career was already flourishing. My career began on the same day that we saw Comrade Lemma for the first time. A photograph on the front page of the East African Standard, showed a man of about 40, his head resting peacefully beside his bullet-riddled torso in the Ngong Hills, the victim, said the report, of a group dispute over dinner.
As usual on that night of my adolescence, I had my mother Petrobia's radio glued to my ear, my borrowed Salvation Army guitar cradled in my arms, a tentative Ten Cent cigarette drooping from my mouth and pen and paper at the ready just in case the clouds parted long enough for me to decipher the music beyond. The god of music began speaking in my ear in that terrible voice of there is a train from Zimbabwe. But he was not taking me to the mines of Johannesburg. Instead, as he chased me through the clouds, his voice ripping through the heavenly peace, and I watched down below my fellow Africans from Kisumu to Kwale and Kampala to Kisauni climbing into train carriages. Regard them, said the voice, with their life's possessions wrapped in bedsheets, arriving in the city for a better life. But that was not yet a song. But my heart damn near burst out of my chest.
Then I was back in my room writing to the music coming from the transistor, the strident church voices of Southern Africa accompanied by the penny-whistle tunes that evoked so much sadness. I also wrote to the hypnotic guitar rhythms of Dr Nico and Le Grand Kalle, those Congolese gentlemen who were especially favoured on the transistor. I wrote a chanting chorus from the drumbeats of my childhood spent under the umbrella of the Salvation Army, which promised hell on earth and victory in heaven. My words burned with blasphemy. I woke up in the morning full of the joy of a religious conversion and the realisation that my voice had been transformed overnight from the lilt of puberty into the deep tones of my lost father's Salvation Army choir's voice.
It was Humphrey, one of those bullies from my childhood who, together with Tairero and Solomon now constituted the popular neighbourhood band known as the Black Jerusalem Boys Band, saw the possibilities of my song Joka. In fact, he intervened when Tairero threatened to beat me up when I suggested that I join the band. Humphrey was the vocalist, both Solomon and Tairero played guitar in the frenzied high-pitched tunes of those days.
“Hold on,” he said lazily, leaning against the old lorry next to our courtyard wall. Humphrey and I were neighbours. Our mothers detested each other. They waged a never-ending war over which religion was superior and you Salvation Army people are so primitive, marching about like a herd of sheep and you Catholics pray in unwashed clothes, we are God's true army, we wear uniforms.
“Let him sing his song at the end of our show tonight,” Humphrey said. “The crowd will laugh him out of Jerusalem. That will teach him.”
Mr Ben's bar in the shopping centre had the dubious reputation of staying open long after the beginning of Curfew. Mr Ben was partners with a police sergeant who made sure that his men went deaf to the noisy bands that played in the bar after 6.00 pm, the onset of Curfew. Mr Ben was a respected member of the community, being the only African licensed to sell beer.
I was quite nervous. The small bar was packed. There were customers squeezed on the narrow, wooden benches, standing and smoking at the dimly-lit counter, leaning against the dirty windows, blocking the corridor that led to the toilet at the back. I gagged on account of the pungent scents of Ten Cent cigarettes and Roosters, and the odours that blended with the flavours of beer and urine. The fat barmaids sweated as they delivered orders, and would scream dramatically when the drunken men reached for their breasts. Behind the counter, Mr Ben was yelling orders to his skinny assistant, his balding head glistening.
People were calling out Francisca, another round here, and don't forget my change this time, Anna. Nobody saw how uncertainly I held Humphrey's guitar. I closed my eyes and went to Beira.
It was the sound of a man weeping that made me realise that something strange was happening on that night in Mr Ben's bar. My fingers were racing over the guitar strings like a reckless soldier on the run. Then I was in Nairobi there were people weeping and clapping, weeping and clapping and I was singing Joka again. After that night, Joka was always the last song we played because, as Mr Ben, whose paunch grew steadily bigger, once said, it keeps the customers drinking.
Humphrey disappeared after that night. We heard he had got a job as a music librarian at the Voice of Kenya.
I took the name Comrade Lemma, not so much to honour that man with the burning eyes in the newspaper photograph, but to prevent my mother Petrobia from hearing that her son was a bar-room singer on Saturday nights. Every Saturday people came to Mr Ben's to weep, people from all over the African quarter, from Pangani and Kaloleni and Ziwani and Bahati. Mr Ben continued to insist that it was a mortal sin, boys, a mortal sin, to pay musicians any more than they could reasonably drink on a single night.
Rumours about me grew. I was a Mau Mau leader disguised as a musician. No, no, no, he is actually a South African who sailed to Mombasa where he learned Kiswahili from the ghosts in the Old Town and come to Nairobi to steal the souls of respectable city residents, like us. And on and on. I wore my black cap lower, fearing my mother's wrath.
When we began to smell freedom, Joka was being seriously discussed as a contender for the new national anthem. By this time, however, I had been cut loose from the song.
Within the first year of the new independent government's life, the song was banned. It was said that the song's disturbing lyrics had annoyed the new leader.
Mr Ben became uncomfortable with us, and paid us off with enough money to launch Tairero's career as a drunk, and finance Solomon's trip back home to Uganda, and transform me into a vegetable dealer who, during those slow times in between customers, would read anything he could get his hands on and especially the classics of Charles Dickens. Then my mother Petrobia danced in church. We moved to the empty land by the river.
I was therefore in a furious mood this morning by the time I had put on my usual trousers, my brilliant white kanzu from those days of Rehema, an old flame of my active years who had come to comfort me as I mourned my poor departed mother Petrobia's death from tuberculosis and shame, and who had left a few months ago convinced that my mourning period was over, and my sandals which I designed myself from strips of abandoned lorry tyres to accommodate the crisis of my twisted feet. I have a distaste for mimics as I have suffered greatly because of them, and I therefore intended to reprimand these young men. I was instead met by cheers of ‘Comrade Lemma! Comrade Lemma!' and Martha herself staining the newspaper page in her hand with her tears.
“Look at you!” she exclaims accusingly, her voice quivering with an emotion I have never witnessed in all these years of our friendship. She brings the page close to my eyes as only she and a very select few know of the special problems of my eyes. There is a grainy picture of three young men, dressed in the band outfits of my youth. Next to it, incredibly, is a passport-sized photo of myself with my Comrade Lemma locks and all the stains and distortions of my advancing years. The headline reads: COMRADE LEMMA FOUND! And then there is a sentence below that takes me a moment to decipher because of the special problems of my eyes and the fact that my spectacles have been missing ever since the mysterious early morning departure of Rehema some years back. I am just able to make out the sentence below: ‘Independence Musician and National Hero Lives In Nairobi Slum Squalor'.
Around me are the shining faces of my neighbours, regarding me as if I were a stranger, even after all these years of our collective struggle for a better life. I was once told, in private, that when reading, an amused expression comes to my face, as if I were laughing at a private joke. I can feel Martha's gaze boring into me, confusing, like she always does, my squint for a smile, because why else would you be smiling if you were not staring at that picture and recalling the heroic years of your youth.
There is a long pause. They peer at me. I squint my way across the tear-stained page, recognising, in one paragraph the lyrics of Joka that I wrote those many years ago, and how my poor departed mother Petrobia, on discovering that I was Comrade Lemma on the day of our country's independence, had begun her retreat into shame and silence.
“Ni yeye!” It's him, declares Martha, her voice quivering, fading eyes alight with something I shall have to investigate later. There is a roar of approval. Franco and Stish, her poetic grandsons, are already chanting, in their youthful rapid verse, Joka! Joka! and it is soon answered by the feminine response of ‘Mwendo wa Com-ra-dé siyo halaka' and an impromptu festival of cheering and rapid verse takes over the normal morning noises of my narrow street. Another young man has taken up a tin and a stick and is beating out a rhythm, and I find myself hoisted up in the air, on the shoulders of my neighbours, my kanzu flapping ridiculously about me like a flag that is looking for an anthem.
They put me down long enough for Martha to hold an old black jacket against me. “It fits you,” she says. Inakushika. The way she undresses the word provokes a stir in me that I experienced last with Rehema.
“It's from Marehemu George, a present for you.” She is dressing me with her deft housewife's hands and undressing me with her look. “He says you must look presentable for today's meeting.” Her faded eyes sparkle in the morning light, and take her back to the days when, I now strongly suspect, she was the unintended tormentor of young men. I am hoisted up again.
And so I begin a new journey with my old song.
Marehemu George has pulled out another miracle from his little bag of imported hand-me-downs. A year ago, he arrived on foot in our neighbourhood with a bale of second-hand clothes. They were a donation, he said, from a rich, departed American named George, for whom he acted as a special local agent. And so we took to calling this young man Marehemu, the late George, who provided us with dead people's clothes at a discount price. But a resurrection has taken place in Marehemu George's personal circumstances in the months since he embarked on a new project to dispense free condoms to poor people. He is now an evangelist of new afflictions and beware the next victim could be you, you are never too young or too old to die.
Marehemu George has pulled out another miracle from his little bag of imported hand-me-downs. A year ago, he arrived on foot in our neighbourhood with a bale of second-hand clothes. They were a donation, he said, from a rich, departed American named George whose organisation he worked for. And so we took to calling this young man Marehemu, the late George, who provided us with dead people's clothes at a discount price. But a resurrection has taken place in Marehemu George's personal circumstances in the months since his organisation embarked on a new project to dispense free condoms. He is now an evangelist of new afflictions and beware the next victim could be YOU, you are never too young or too old to die.
It is only from my perch on the shoulders of friends and neighbours that I realise how my neighbourhood has grown in the years since I moved here to bury my departed mother Petrobia near the river so that her soul would be carried away from this city of misfortune. We head deeper into this valley of cardboard walls and tin roofs and the greenish sludge of sewers running like snot-nosed kids on a Saturday morning. It occurs to me that all these years, my world of narrow streets and afternoon chats with Martha about how are your late daughter's boys doing, that is a good colour for a growing boy's cardigan, have been this neighbourhood that is Kwa Lemma, where the city's newest immigrants have always settled.
I was the first one here, so they named it after me. Now I can see at least eight distinct Kwa Lemmas, collapsing against each other like a completed game of dominoes. There is the bridge, belching with the arrogance of city traffic, the old stadium in the smoky distance where all those years ago they played the first football match of an independent nation. We are singing Joka, and the women with their clutched babies hanging from them like an extra, cheering hand, are peeping out of their tin-roofed shacks. Spirals of charcoal smoke rise in the early morning air. In my present mood of a conquering neighbourhood hero and without my spectacles, I see a phoenix rising from the ashes. For the first time in many years, I welcome the chemicals and plastic stench of the river.
Parked by the smart wooden office at the end of the street, I recognise the immaculate four-wheel-drive vehicle that Marehemu George has taken to driving. Then I see other vehicles, untidily parked. Suddenly, my narrow street has become a cul-de-sac: unmarked saloons and pick-ups, dark blue Government of Kenya vehicles block off the side that leads to the open field where we have our football matches. A small horde of journalists brandishing biros, notebooks, cameras and complicated electronic equipment. This unexpected sight has the quite embarrassing effect of making me fart, briefly and pungently, on my new porters.
I realise Marehemu George has a hand in this morning's unexpected events. I had mentioned to him on several occasions that while condoms were very much appreciated, we must also bring to the attention of the authorities that many people here also fall victim, often even die, to the hidden diseases of our polluted river water. That it is not enough to dispense rubber for the protection of our people during their nocturnal embraces when the same prophylactics end up clogging our already overworked drains in the morning and floating on our river in a most unacceptable manner, especially as this is the same river we all depend on for our domestic needs. It is a subject that I have, in fact, written extensively about. Being one of the more literate individuals in our community, I took it upon myself some time ago to agitate, through the press, for external assistance to help us resolve this problem. Curiously, and it might have something to do with the deteriorating handwriting of an old man with special problems of the eyes, these lengthy articles were never published.
We were seated in my darkened parlour, Marehemu George and I, sipping his mineral water on the evening of our potable water discussion when his attention was diverted to the collection of framed photographs by my bed honouring my departed mother Petrobia. Among them is a misplaced photo of the band outiside Mr Ben's bar and it is the one that has Marehemu George's attention.
“Who are these people, Mzee?”
“Oh, nobody really. It's just an old picture.”
“Yes, a very old picture. Is one of these young men you?”
I wanted to get back to the subject at hand so I told him impatiently that, yes, I was one of them.
“Which one?” Marehemu can be very persistent.
“Isn't it obvious? The one in the middle, with the guitar and the hat.”
“That's you? Mzee, I never would have…”
“What was the name of your band?”
“Comrade Lemma and…”
“… The Black Jerusalem Boys Band! My God, I've found you!”
Marehemu George is a big, imposing figure, a man of quick ideas. He has put on a lot of weight since he joined us. Now he is excited like a little boy. He is gesticulating hugely, so that his fingertips brush the walls, telling me how till the day he died, Mzee, my late father always talked about your band.
“Especially that song of yours, remind me, Mzee what it was called…”
“That's it!” He snaps his fingers. “He said Joka had changed the way he looked at the world. My family owes you a debt, Mzee. Which one were you, if I may ask?”
“I am Comrade Lemma.”
He looked at me intently for a few moments, then, I am afraid, he removed his scented, white handkerchief and carefully wiped a waiting tear at the base of one of his eyes. Then he said in the voice of a man in a Charles Dickens novel: “And so, this is what it comes to.”
He kept on repeating, “So you are the Comrade Lemma?” and standing up and sitting down, trying to catch up with his accelerating thoughts. By the time he was leaving, he had the look of a man who has found his destiny.
Next day, in the afternoon, when the light is especially good by the river at the back of my house, Marehemu George took me to meet a straggly-bearded man with dead eyes, a bush-jacket and a camera. You must look broken, Comrade, Marehemu George had said, with all the years of suffering etched on your face.
Marehemu George appeared at my door the following evening with a copy of the newspaper under his arm and a knowing smile. As we sat down to our drink of mineral water, Marehemu George spread out the newspaper. On one of the inside pages was a photograph of me the day before, the shimmering river hiding its dirty secrets through a trick of sunlight so that we appeared to be in a better part of town, out in the countryside. Above my name was the question of ‘Who is this Man?'
“Even as we speak, Comrade, the nation is scratching its head in bafflement. Who is this man, indeed, Comrade, indeed,” said Marehemu George, tapping the photograph with his hand of shiny rings. Underneath the photograph, there was the hint of amazing prizes to be won, and you could be the lucky winner of a year's supply of Careful Love condoms, a donation from the American organisation Marehemu George represented.
The next day, I was visited by an overweight and sweating young woman clearly experiencing difficulty with her luggage. She spoke with a strange accent, a little like Marehemu George in those first day when he was explaining “No folks, you just don't get it, I've just come home from America. I've been living there for the last two years!”. She described herself with the curious statement that she was “in radio”. I invited her into my house where she took out a complicated array of electronic gadgets, attached one to my kanzu and asked me to laugh. I finally managed to emit a long drawn out croak. She said thank you and left.
A little boy woke me the following evening with the message that Marehemu George wanted to see me. The big desk in his office had been cleared of everything but a big radio, from which a young lady whom I thought sounded like my visitor of the previous morning was shouting as if her house was being robbed, saying you are listening to Clouds-Aif-Aim-Ninety-Eight-Point-Five and reporting on the chaos of evening traffic. Marehemu George told me to sit down, Comrade, our plan is taking shape.
There was a pause in the music. Then a machine voice said, “Whose laugh is this?”
And the woman said: “Okay-so-it's-the-moment-you've-all-been-waiting-for. It's time for ‘Whose Laugh is This?” There was the sound of clapping and cheering from the audience. “For two-thousand-five-hundred-shillings, a year's supply of condoms from Careful Lurve condoms, two bottles of Count Pushkin Vodka, a Coke and a Smile, can you guess which celebrity is laughing?”
There was a drum roll and then the sound of a frog in distress.
“That's right, folks. Call me on foar-foar-foar-foar-double-foar and tell me ‘Whose Laugh is This'” Again there was the sound of clapping and cheering from the studio audience.
Moments later, there was a telephone call and an uncertain voice said: “Could it be the President?”
A sheep bleated and the audience laughed mockingly. Then the disembodied voice of the machine said: “Kondoo! You-are-as-dumb-as-a-sheep.”
And the young lady said dismissively: “Wrong! Next caller, please.” I had the impression of a long line of people at a telephone booth, waiting patiently for their chance to call in and become sheep.
The next caller suffered the same fate when he suggested the laugh belonged to the Minister of Finance. The prize went up to for five thousand shillings tomorrow, a year's supply of Careful Lurve condoms, four bottles of Count Pushkin Vodka, a Coke and a Smile, whose laugh-is-this?
Marehemu George's teeth flashed in the evening gloom, like a block of white flats in a run-down neighbourhood.
“Comrade, you outdid yourself!” he said. “Even I wouldn't have recognised that laugh as yours.”
“Is that me?”
“But of course, Comrade. You remember laughing for a pretty lady yesterday morning?”
Marehemu George informed me that I was now officially on the nation's celebrity list. For the modest sum of ten thousand shillings, which he had personally pledged, my laugh of a frog in labour would be identified in a few days when he, Marehemu George, made a call to the studio and became the surprise winner of ‘Whose-Laugh-Is-This?'.
“It is all about knowing people, Comrade. But I digress. At that point, Comrade, the whole nation will be asking, ‘Who is Comrade Lemma?' On that very day, my friend the editor assures me that your identity in the photograph competition will also be revealed. Then the action will really begin.” Later, as we sat there on his veranda, he wondered aloud what it would take to mobilise the community, Comrade, you know these people better than anyone else, then reached into his pocket and presented me with some money, saying, no please accept it, Comrade, as a small token of my respect for a figure of national importance.
Things started to happen very fast from the time we got back to my street. The newspeople moved quickly towards our party of throbbing, gyrating youths honouring an old man in his hour of glory. For a moment, I forgot my aching back, twisted feet and fading eyesight in the flash of lights, the click and whirr of cameras and rapid-fire orders, of stop there so that we can take a picture, sir, no right there so that these shacks form a backdrop for your remarkable face, isn't it remarkable, and more calls of exactly like that, Comrade, yes, that's right, that's perfect, sir. The years of heaviness, and the price paid for saying heavy things, fell away as I recognised that I, Comrade Lemma, was being honoured, finally, for services rendered to the republic. I stood alone, in this broken down neighbourhood that had been my home for all these years, in my old kanzu and my morning gift of a black jacket, and shed tears.
When I opened my eyes, I was alone in the middle of my narrow street, the glorious vision replaced by dust, screaming and chaos and the throb of a helicopter overhead. I could dimly discern that the crowd, as well as the newspeople, had diverted their attention to the helicopter landing in the dusty field next to our neighbourhood.
“Marehemu George said he was expecting a Cabinet Minister.” I was startled by Martha's voice behind me. I turned to face her. She was smiling.
“I wonder which Minister. I lost track of them in the late `60s.” I must admit, I was putting on a brave face. I had not expected that my moment of glory would be so brief.
“Marehemu said maybe the Minister of Culture. But it doesn't matter. You are the man of the moment. Even the Minister is here to honour you.” I found her hand in mine for the first time in all the years I had known her. I was astonished to discover how tender her eyes could become, how they could, in moments like this, defy her grief of burying your own daughter, this world can be cruel.
“Don't forget your neighbours now that you are famous. I will cook your favourite meal tonight. Come.” And she was gone. In front of me, the surging mass of people were trying to get a glimpse of the Minister and meeting instead the solid resistance of the police, who were clearing the way for the Minister with threats of whipping and shouts of ‘Ondokeni! Ondokeni!, and arranging the crowd into a wave of placards in front of Marehemu George's office.
Our veranda of the radio broadcast had been turned into a museum in my honour. The photograph of me by our shimmering river taken the other day was a huge poster covering the main window of the office and overlooking the table, now draped in a brilliant red cloth. The poster said in big, bold lettering: ‘Careful Lover presents Comrade Lemma, a genuine Kenyan hero. Careful Lovers Last Longest'. Then there was a line at the bottom: ‘Careful Lover Condoms Supports the Search for a National Hero'.
There were smaller posters on the walls and windows, all with ‘Careful Lovers Last Longest' emblazoned beneath my photograph. This irritated me because I have sometimes suspected that Rehema of my active years left out of frustration at my impatience in these matters.
The Minister of Culture is a gentleman of the first order. To the utter astonishment of Marehemu George and others, he refused to take the high chair reserved for him and instead left it for me, saying that this was my day and besides, I was the older man.
I was unsure of how to behave after so many years out of the limelight. I was the hero, the man of the moment, and yet I had the distinct impression of being a servant to this event amid all the clicks and whirrs and like that, mzee, right there, and the attending minister and the welcoming flash of teeth of a grave and resplendent Marehemu George, more spectacularly dressed than ever. My face felt tight and dry with the effort of suppressing my need for the toilet. His ease around all these strangers and their gadgets acted like an anti-laxative and I relaxed beside him. I was, however, struck by the unnecessary thought that his lips were so close to the cluster of microphones that he appeared to be performing unspeakable acts to several men at the same time, without the protection of Careful Lover condoms.
When he started speaking, the veranda went quiet. Even the crowd on the street strained to hear what he was saying.
“There was once a young man who wanted to change the world through music. At the time, there was a war on and his people were dying in their hundreds and being detained for their opinions and their defence of a struggle for national liberation. Yet this young man ignored the dangers of subversion and sang his heart out…”
The exertion is affecting me. Look at me, the hero of the nation, the old warrior battling to stay awake. My eyes won't remain open and my mouth hangs embarrassingly as Marehemu George weaves his way in and out of my story.
And I can see Humphrey that night so long ago when he surprised me after so many months of being away, in that suit of the new, upcoming African manager, made to measure by the Indian tailors on Biashara street.
“Comrade Lemma,” he announced grandly, “I am going to get you on radio. You will be a national hero. I will make you rich beyond your dreams.” As he was leaving, he asked me for the words of Joka. “It has become my favourite song. I hum it on my drive to work. Now I want to be able to sing it.” I wrote them down for him. And he was gone. And then later, on that first morning as an independent nation, putting on the radio to hear: “And now the song the nation is dancing to, Joka, by Humphrey W. Gatonye, the man of the moment…”.
My eyes jerk open to find Marehemu George killing off all my old friends and band members.
“…Save for Comrade Lemma, who survived death on numerous occasions, all the other members of the Black Jerusalem Boys Band died heroically in the service of the nation. For two years he was a detainee in Hola…”
He talks of my long and traumatic experience in several detention camps, where quicksand torture was liberally applied (I was considering suing the British Government for the crimes of torture and illegal confinement), of how Tairero Omondi died at the hands of thugs after a Comrade Lemma concert in the City Stadium; of how Solomon Olimba died trying during a Colonial police interrogation after his arrest for subversion; and Humphrey W. Gatonye, in a British Army bombing raid in the Aberdares as Mau Mau soldiers wept with sheer joy at his vocal talents.
“Now on the eve of our 40th anniversary as a free nation, and under the new leader of a truly democratic government, Careful Love condoms is proud to return a national hero to his rightful place in society!”
The smell of fish begins to invade my nostrils.
I have difficulty recalling in exact detail what happened when I stood up during the question and answer session on Careful Lover condoms' role in the search for a national hero, and went looking into the eyes of the seated newspeople, of the Minister for Culture, for the owner of the fish, my muttering growing louder and louder until I was screaming in my hoarse, old man's voice, I am not Comrade Lemma, Comrade Lemma is dead, over and over and there was a roaring in my ears like that of the doomed train from Beira. And I was seizing one of the microphones from Marehemu George and I could see them as if they were written in the air in front of me, those words of the last verse of Joka, which had eluded me for all these years and the sound of an old man who is speaking out after so many decades of silence, was fading in and out as if from a well that is being opened and shut. And I was saying kifo ni rahisi, death is easy, it is living in silence that is difficult, which one will you choose my brother, in these days of bondage, don't be an old man who can't explain why he didn't die young or why his children walk in chains. And I remember seeing Martha's eyes so clearly in the middle of that surging crowd, please understand why I have to do this, and hearing the commotion of chairs falling over and the smell of gunpowder and asking why were you there, Martha, in the dream of fish.
My own understanding of the riot, Inspector, is as follows: as the event wore on and the people began to tire, Martha's grandson, Franco, decided to check that his money from Marehemu George's early morning payment was still intact, and realised that his pocket had been picked. It is therefore incorrect to assume that the ensuing cry of ‘Mwizi' ‘thief' and all the commotion had anything to do with accusations levelled against me on the podium by Marehemu George that why did I want to wreck his event after he had paid me such a large advance. The late Martha, being an elderly woman and ignorant of how to get out of the way during a stampede, was therefore a victim of circumstances.
Yes, Martha is dead, and I, I am still alive. But the stench of rotting fish is everywhere now.
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