of teeth on the man’s face is a splendid brown. I have
never seen such teeth before. Refusing all instruction, my
eyes focus on dental contours and craters. Denuded of any
superficial pretence; no braces, no fillings, no toothbrush,
it is a place where small scavengers thrive.
“Evidence!” The man giggles.
A flash of green and my US$50 disappears into his pocket.
His fingers prod: shirt, coat, trousers. He finds the worked
snake skin wallet. No money in it, just a picture or Agnethe-mama,
Lune and Chi-Chi, elegant and unsmiling, diamonds in their
ears, on their necks and wrists. The man tilts the picture
this way and that, returns the picture into the wallet. The
wallet disappears into another of his pockets. The man’s
“Souvenir.” Afterwards, a hiccupping “Greeeheeereeehee”
not unlike a National Geographic hyena, complete with a chorus
from the pack.
“Please…its…my mother…all I have”.
His eyes become thin slits, head tilts and the veins on his
right eye pulse. His nostrils flare, an indignant goat.
A thin sweat-trail runs down my spine, the backs of my knees
tingle. I look around at the faceless others in the dank room.
His hand grabs my goatee and twists. My eyes smart. I lift
up my hand to wipe them. The man sees the gold insignia ring,
glinting on my index finger.
The ring of the royal household. One of only three. The second
belonged to my father. Agnethe-mama told me that when father
appeared to her in a dream to tell her he was dead, he was
still wearing it. The third …no one has ever spoken
The Policeman’s grin broadens. He pounces. Long fingers.
A girl would cut her hair for fingers like his. He spits on
my finger, and draws out the ring with his teeth; the ring
I have worn for 18 years - from the day I was recognised by
the priests as a man and a prince. It was supposed to have
been passed on to the son I do not have. The policeman twists
my hand this way and that, his tongue caught between his teeth;
a study of concentrated avarice.
Gargoyles are petrified life-mockers, sentries at entry points,
sentinels of sorrow, spitting at fate. I will try to protest.
“It is sacred ring…Please…please.”
To my shame, my voice breaks.
Cheek: nerve, gall, impertinence, brashness.
Cheek: the part of my face he chose to brand.
Later on, much later on, I will wonder what makes it possible
for one man to hit another for no reason other than the fact
that he can. But now, I lower my head. The sum total of what
resides in a very tall man who used to be a prince in a land
Two presidents died when a missile launched from land forced
their plane down. A man of note, a prince had said, on the
first day, that the perpetrators must be hunted down. That
evil must be purged from lives. That is all the prince had
meant. It seems someone heard something else. It emerges later
on, when it is too late, that an old servant took his obligation
too far, in the name of his prince.
We had heard rumour of a holocaust, of a land haemorrhaging
to death. Everywhere, hoarse murmurs, eyes white and wide
with an arcane fear. Is it possible that brothers would machete
sisters-in-law to stew- meat size chunks in front of nephews
It was on the fifth day after the Presidents had disintegrated
with their plane, that I saw that the zenith of existence
cannot be human.
In the seasons of my European sojourn, Brussels, Paris, Rome,
Amsterdam, rarely London, a city I could, then, accommodate
a loathing to, I wondered about the unsaid; hesitant signals
and interminable reminders of ‘What They Did’.
Like a mnemonic device, the swastika would grace pages and,
or screens, at least once a week, unto perpetuity. I wondered.
I remembered a conversation in Krakow with an academician,
a man with primeval eyes. A pepper-coloured, quill-beard obscured
the man’s mouth, and seemed to speak in its place. I
was, suddenly, in the thrall of an irrational fear; that the
mobile barbs would shoot off his face and stab me.
I could not escape.
I had agreed to offer perspectives on his seminal work, a
work in progress he called, ‘A Mystagogy of Human Evil’.
I had asked, meaning nothing, a prelude to commentary:
“Are you a Jew?”
So silently, the top of his face fell flowed towards his
jaw, his formidable moustache-beard lank his shoulders shaking,
his eyes flooded with tears. But not a sound emerged from
his throat. Unable to tolerate the tears of another man, I
Another gathering, another conversation, with another man.
Mellowed by the well being engendered by a goblet of Rémy
Martin, I ventured an opinion about the sacrificial predilection
of being; the necessity of oblation of men by men to men.
“War is the excuse.” I said. I was playing with
words, true, but, oddly the exchange petered into mumbles
of ‘Never Again’.
A year later, at a balcony party, when I asked the American
Consul in Luxembourg to suggest a book which probed the slaughter
of Germans during World War II. She said:
Before I could answer, she had spun away, turning her back
on me as if I had asked “Cain, where is your brother?”
What had been Cain’s response?
To my amusement, I was, of course, never invited to another
informal diplomatic gathering. Though I would eventually relinquish
my European postings - in order to harness, to my advantage,
European predilection for African gems - over après-diner
Drambuie, now and again, I pondered over what lay beneath
Now, my world has tilted into a realm where other loaded
silences lurk. And I can sense why some things must remain
buried in silence, even if they resuscitate themselves at
night in dreams where blood pours out of phantom mouths. In
the empire of silence, the ‘turning away’ act
is a vain exorcism of a familiar daemon which invades the
citadels we ever change, we constantly fortify. Dragging us
back through old routes of anguish, it suggest:“ Alas,
human, your nature relishes fratricidal blood.”
But to be human is to be intrinsically, totally, resolutely
good. Is it not?
Nothing entertains the devil as much as this protestation.
Roger, the major-domo had served in our home since before
my birth thirty seven years ago. He re-appeared at our door
on the evening of the fifth day after the death of the two
presidents. He had disappeared on the first day of the plane
deaths. The day he resurfaced, we were celebrating the third
anniversary of my engagement to Lune. I had thought a pungent
whiff which entered the room with his presence was merely
the Gorgonzola cheese Lune had been unwrapping.
“J’ai terminé. Tout a été
nettoyé.” It is done. All has been cleaned.
“The dirt.” He smiles.
The bottle of Dom Pérignon Millésimé
in my hand, wavers. I observe that Roger is shirtless, his
hair stands in nascent, accidental dreadlocks. The bottom
half of his trousers are torn, and his shoeless left foot,
swollen. His fist is black and caked with what I think is
tar. And in his wake, the smell of mouldering matter. Roger
searches the ground, hangs his head, his mouth tremulous:
“They are coming…Sir.”
Then Roger stoops. He picks up the crumbs of petits fours
from the carpet; he is fastidious about cleanliness. The Dom
Pérignon Millésimé drops from my hand,
it does not break, though its precious contents soak into
the carpet. Roger frowns, his mouth pursed. He also disapproves
In our party clothes and jewellery, with what we had in our
wallets, and two packed medium-size Chanel cases, we abandoned
our life at home. We counted the money we had between us:
US $ 3723. In the bank account, of course, there was more.
There was always more. As President of the Banque Locale,
I was one of three who held keys to the vault, so to say.
Two weeks before the presidents died, I sold my Paris apartment.
The money was to be used to expand our bank into Zaïre.
We got the last four of the last eight seats on the last flight
out of our city. We assumed then, it was only right that it
be so. We landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
in Nairobi, Kenya at ten p.m.
I wondered about Kenya. I knew the country as a transit lounge
and a stop over base on my way to and out of Europe. It was
only after we got a three months visitor’s pass that
I realised that Kenya was an Anglophone country. Fortunately,
we were in transit. Soon, we would be in Europe, among friends.
I am Boniface Louis R. Kuseremane. It has been long since
anyone called me by my full name. The “R” name
cannot be spoken aloud. In the bustle and noises of the airport,
I glance at Agnethe-mama, regal, greying, her diamond earrings
dance, her nose is slightly raised, her forehead unlined.
My mother, Agnethe, is a princess in transit. She leans lightly
against Lune, who stands, one foot’s heel touching the
toes of the other, one arm raised and then drooping over her
I met Lune on the funeral day of both her parents, royal
diplomats who had died in an unfortunate road crash. She was
then, as she is now, not of earth. Then, she seemed to be
hovering atop her parents’ grave, deciding whether to
join them, fly away or stay. I asked her to leave the corps
ballet in France where she was studying - to stay with me,
forever. She agreed and I gained a sibylline fiancée.
“Chéri, que faisons-nous maintenant?”
What do we do now?
Lune asks, clinging to my mother’s hand. Her other
arm curved into mine. Chi-Chi, my sister, looks up at me,
expecting the right answer, her hand at her favourite spot,
my waist band- a childhood affectation that has lingered into
her twentieth year. Chi-Chi, in thought, still sucks on her
“Bu-bu” Chi-Chi always calls me Bu-Bu. “Bu-Bu,
dans quel pays sommes-nous?”
“Kenya” I tell her.
Chi-Chi is an instinctive contemplative. I once found her
weeping and laughing, awed, as it turns out, by the wings
of a monarch butterfly.
Low voiced, almost a whisper, the hint of a melody, my mother’s
voice. “Bonbon, je me sens très fatiguée,
où dormons-nous cette nuit ?”
Agnethe-mama was used to things falling into place before
her feet touched the ground. Now she was tired. Now she wanted
her bed immediately. Without thinking about it, we checked
into a suite of the Nairobi Hilton. We were, after all going
to be in this country for just a few days.
“Mama, such ugliness of style!” Lune’s
summation of Kenyan fashion, of Kenyan hotel architecture.
Mama, smiles and says nothing. She twists her sapphire bracelet,
the signal that she agrees.
“Why do I see not see the soul of these people? Bonbon...are
you sleeping?” Chi-Chi asks.
“Shh”, I say.
Two days later, Agnethe-mama, visited the jewellery shop
downstairs. Not finding anything to suit her tastes, She concluded:
“Their language and manner are not as sweet and gentle
She straightens her robes, eyes wide with the innocence of
an unsubtle put down.
“Mama!’ I scold. The women giggle as do females
who have received affirmation of their particular and unassailable
advantage over other women.
A week has passed already. In the beginning of the second
one, I am awakened by the feeling I had when I found my country
embassy gates here locked and blocked. The feeling of a floor
shifting beneath one’s feet. There is no one in authority.
The ambassador is in exile. Only a guard. Who should I speak
to? A blank stare. I need to arrange our papers to go to Europe.
A blank stare. A flag flutters in the courtyard. I do not
recognise it. Then I do. It is my country’s flag, someone
installed it upside down. It flies at half-mast. An inadvertent
act, I believe. Shifting sands: I am lost in this sea of English
and I suspect that at five thousand Kenya shillings I have
spent too much for a thirty kilometre taxi ride. Old friends
have not returned phone calls.
The lines here are not reliable.
Lune is watching me, her long neck propped up by her hands.
Her hair covers half her face. It is always a temptation to
sweep it away from her eyes, a warm silk. When the tips of
my fingers stroke her hair, the palms of my hand skim her
face. Lune becomes still, drinking, feeling and tasting the
Soon, we will leave.
But now, I need to borrow a little money: US$5000. It will
be returned to the lender, of course, after things settle
down. Agnethe, being a princess, knows that time solves all
problems. Nevertheless she has ordered me to dispatch a telegram
to sovereigns in exile, those who would be familiar with our
quandary and could be depended on for empathy, cash assistance
and even accommodation. The gratitude felt would extend generation
Eight days later, Agnethe-mama sighs; a hiss through the
gap of her front teeth. She asks, her French rolling off her
tongue like an old scroll.
“When are we leaving, Bonbon?” A mother’s
ambush. I know what she really wants to know.
“Soon.” I reply.
“Incidentally,” she adds, folding Lune’s
lace scarf, “What of the response of our friends in
exile …ah! Not yet…a matter of time” she
says, answering herself.
“Agnethe-mama,” I should have said, “We
must leave this hotel …to save money.”
It is simpler to be silent.
A guard with red-rimmed eyes in a dark blue uniform watches
me counting out fifteen 1000 Kenya shilling notes. The eyes
of the president on the notes blink with every sweep of my
finger. The Indian lady in a pink sari with gold trim, the
paint flaking off, leans over the counter, her eyes empty.
My gold bracelet has already disappeared. Two days from this
moment, while standing with Celeste on Kenyatta Avenue, where
many of my people stand and seek news of home, or just stand
and talk the language of home or hope that soon we will return
home, I discover that fifteen thousand Kenya shillings is
insufficient compensation for a 24 carat, customised gold
and sapphire bracelet. Celeste knew of another jeweller who
would pay me a hundred thousand for the bracelet.
I return to confront the Indian lady, she tells me to leave
before I can speak.
She dials a number and shouts, high-voiced, clear; “Police”.
I do not want trouble so I leave the jewellery shop, unable
to speak, but not before I see her smile. Not before I hear
her scold the guard with the red-rimmed eyes.
“Why you let takataka to come in, nee?”
Outside the shop, my hands are shaking. I have to remind
myself to take the next step and the next step and the next
step. My knees are light. I am unable to look into the eyes
of those on the streets. What is my mind doing getting around
the intricacies of a foreign currency? I have to get out with
The newspaper on the streets, a vendor flywhisks dust fragments
away. A small headline reads: ‘Refugees: Registration
commences at the UNHCR’.
The Kuseremanes are not refugees. They are visitors, tourists,
people in transit, universal citizens with an affinity…well…to
‘Kuseremane, Kuseremane, Kuseremane’…unbeknown
to me, one whisper had started gathering other whispers around
The Netherlands, the Belgium, the French, the British are
processing visa applications. They have been processing them
for three, four, five...nine days. At least they smile with
their teeth as they process the visa applications. They process
them until I see that they will be processed unto eternity,
if only Agnethe, Chi-Chi, Lune and I could wait that long.
There are other countries in the world.
Chi-Chi’s ramblings yield an array of useless trivia:
“ In Nairobi, a woman can be called Auntí or
chilé, a president called Moi, pronounced Moyi, a national
anthem that is a prayer and twenty shillings is a pao.”
“But Bu-Bu…So many faces…”
So many spirits gather here…”
We must leave soon.
The American embassy visa section woman has purple hair.
Her voice evokes the grumbling of a he-toad which once lived
in the marsh behind our family house in the country. One night,
in the middle of its anthem, I had said;
“Ça suffit !” Enough!
Roger led the gardeners in the hunt which choked the croak
out of the toad. At dawn, Roger brought the severed head to
me, encased in an old, cigar case which he had wiped clean.
I cannot believe what this purple hair woman has asked of
“Bank details…bank statement...how much money.”
My eyes blink, lashes entangle. Could it be possible another
human being can simply ask over the counter, casually and
with certainty of response, for intimate details of another
I look around the room. Is it to someone else she addresses
“And title deed. Proof of domicile in country of origin…
And letter from employer.”
Has she not looked at my passport in her hands?
“I’m not Kenyan.”
She folds her papers, bangs them on the table and frowns
as if I have wasted her time. She tosses my passport out of
her little window into my hands that are outstretched, a supplication
on an altar of disbelief.
“All applications made at source country...next!”
Woven into the seams of my exit are the faces in the line
winding from the woman’s desk, into the street. Children,
women and men, faces lined with…hope? I must look at
that woman again, that purveyor of hope. So I turn. I see
a stately man, his beard grey. His face as dark as mine. He
stoops over the desk -a posture of abnegation. So that is
what I looked like to the people in the line. I want to shout
to the woman; I am Boniface Kuseremane, a prince, a diplomat.
I stumble because it is here, in this embassy that the fire-streaking
spectre of the guns which brought down two presidents find
their mark in my soul. Like the eminent-looking man in a pin-striped
suit, I am now a beggar.
We have US$ 520 left. My head hurts. When night falls, my
mind rolls and rings. I cannot sleep.
The pharmacist is appealing in her way, but wears an unfortunate
weave that sits on her head like a mature thorn bush. Eeeh!
The women of this land! I frown. The frown makes the girl
jump when she sees me. She covers her mouth with both her
hands and gasps. I smile. She recovers:
“Yes, sank you. I not sleep for sree nights and I feel…”
I plane my hands, rocking them against my head. She says
nothing, turns around, counts out ten piritons and seals the
envelope: “Three, twice a day, 200 shillings.”
These Kenyans and their shillings!
It is possible that tonight I will sleep. The thought makes
me laugh. A thin woman wearing a red and black choker glances
up at me, half-smiling. I smile back.
I cannot sleep. I have taken five of the white pills. Lune,
beside me, in the large bed is also awake.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est? ” What is it?
Silence. Her voice, tiny. “I am afraid.”
I turn away from her, to my side. I raise my feet, curling
them beneath my body. I too am afraid. In the morning, the
white Hilton pillow beneath my head is wet with tears. They
cannot be mine.
The sun in Nairobi in May is brutal in its rising. A rude
glory. My heart longs to be eased into life with the clarion
call of an African rooster. Our gentle sunrises, rolling hills.
Two months have passed. A month ago, we left the hotel. I
am ashamed to say we did not pay our bill. All we had with
us was transferred into and carried out in laundry bags. We
left the hotel at intervals of three hours. We also packed
the hotel towels and sheets. It was Lune’s idea. We
had not brought our own. We left our suitcases behind. They
are good for at least US$1500. Agnethe-mama is sure the hotel
We moved into a single roomed place with an outside toilet
in River Road. I have told Agnethe-mama, Lune and Chi-Chi
not to leave the rooms unless I am with them. Especially Chi-Chi.
“Bu-Bu, when are we leaving?”
Soon Agnethe-mama. Soon Lune. Soon Chi-Chi.
Chi-Chi has learned to say “Tafadhali, naomba maji.”
She asks for water this way, there are shortages.
We must leave soon.
Every afternoon, a sudden wind runs up this street, lifting
dust, and garbage and plastic bags and whispers.
Kuseremane, Kuseremane, Kuseremane.
I turn to see if anyone else hears my name.
Sometimes, I leave the room to walk the streets, for the
sake of having a destination. I walk, therefore I am. I walk
therefore I cannot see six expectant eyes waiting for me to
pull out an aeroplane from my pocket.
Ah! But tonight! Tonight, Club Balafon. I am meeting a compatriot
and friend, René Katilibana. We met as I stood on the
edge of Kenyatta Avenue, reading a newspaper I had rented
from the vendor for five Kenya shillings. Four years ago,
René needed help with a sugar deal. I facilitated a
meeting which proved lucrative for him. René made a
million francs. He offered me fifty thousand in gratitude.
I declined. I had enjoyed humouring a friend. I am wearing
the Hugo Boss mauves and the Hervé handkerchief. I
am hopeful, a good feeling to invoke.
“Où vas-tu, chéri ?” Where are
you going ? A ubiquitous question I live with.
I stretch out my arms, Lune flies into them as she always
does. She wraps her arms around me. Her arms barely span my
I tell her; “I am hopeful today. Very hopeful.”
I still have not heard from the friends I have called. Every
night, their silence whispers something my ears cannot take
hold of. Deceptive murmurings. This country of leering masses
- all eyes, hands and mouths, grasping and feeding off graciousness
- invokes paranoia.
My friends will call as soon as they are able to. They will.
I realise this must be one of those places I have heard about;
where international phone calls are intercepted and deals
struck before the intended, initial recipient is reached.
A contact, Félicien who always knows even what he
does not know, tells me that a list of génocidaires
has been compiled and it is possible a name has been included.
Kuseremane. Spelled out by a demure man, an aide he had said
Soon we will be gone. To Europe, where the wind’s weight
of whispers do not matter; where wind, and all its suggestions
have been obliterated.
Even as she stays in the room, Chi-Chi leaves us more often
than ever, a forefinger in her mouth. She has no filters.
I worry that the soul of this place is soaking into her.
The city clock clicks above my head into the Two a.m. position.
Rain has seeped into my bones and become ice. My knees burn.
The rain water squelches in my feet. My Hugo Boss suit is
ruined now, but I squeeze the water from the edges.
Club Balafon was a microcosm of home and the Zaïroise
band was nostalgic and superior. The band slipped into a song
called “ Chez Mama”. The hearth of home. The women
were beautiful and our laughter loud. It was good to taste
good French cognac served in proper glasses. We lamented the
fact that Kenyans are on the whole, so unchic.
And then René asked me where I was and what I was
doing. I told him I needed his help, a loan. US$ 5000, to
be returned when things settle down back home. He listened
and nodded and ordered for me a Kenyan beer named after an
elephant. He turned to speak to Pierre who introduced him
to Jean-Luc. I touched his shoulder to remind him of my request.
He said in French: I will call you. He forgot to introduce
me to Pierre and Jean-Luc. Two hours later, he said, in front
of Pierre, Jean-Luc and Michel:
“Refresh my memory, who are you?”
My heart threatens to pound a way out of my chest. Then the
band dredges up an old anthem of anguish, which, once upon
a time, had encapsulated all our desires. Ingénues
Francophones in Paris, giddy with hope. This unexpected evocation
of fragile, fleeting, longings, drives me into an abyss of
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenue/La
table ronde, ils l’ont gagnée…’
Indépendance Cha-cha, the voice of Joseph Kabasellé.
Then, we were, vicariously, members of Kabasellé ‘s
“Les Grand Kalle” . All of us, for we were bursting
with dreams encapsulated in a song.
Now, at Balafon, the exiles were silent, to accommodate the
ghosts of saints:
I remember heady days in Paris; hair parted, like the statement
we had become, horn rimmed glasses worn solely for aesthetic
purposes, dark suited, black tied, dark skinned radicals moving
in a cloud of enigmatic French colognes. In our minds and
footsteps, always, the slow, slow, quick, quick slow, mambo
to rumba, of Kabasellé’s Indépendance
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenu…
La table ronde, ils l’ont gagnée…’
I dance at Club Balafon, my arms around a short girl who
wears yellow braids. She is from Kenya and is of the opinion
that ‘Centro African’ men are soooo good. And
then the music stops. There can be no other footnote, so the
band packs their musical tools, as quietly as we leave the
small dance floor.
When I looked, René, Pierre, Jean-Luc, Michel and
Emanuel were gone. Perhaps this was not their song.
“Which way did they go?” I ask the guard in black
with red stripes on his shoulder. He shrugs. He says they
entered into a blue Mercedes. Their driver had been waiting
for them. He thinks they went to the Carnivore. It is raining
as I walk back to River Road. Three fledglings are waiting
for me, trusting that I shall return with regurgitated good
I am Boniface Kuseremane. Refresh my memory, who are you?
There are places within, where a sigh can hide. It is cold
and hard and smells of fear. In my throat something cries,
“hrgghghg”. I cannot breathe. And then I can.
So I hum:
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenue…
It is odd, the sounds that make a grown man weep.
I sleep and dream of whispers. They have crossed the borders
and arrived in Nairobi. Like many passing snakes. Kuseremane.
Kuseremane. Kuseremane . Kuseremane. Kuseremane.
But we left on the fifth day!
Now whenever I approach Kenyatta Avenue, they, my people,
disperse. Or disappear into shops. Or avert their eyes. If
I open a conversation, there is always a meeting that one
is late for. Once on the street a woman started wailing like
an old and tired train when she saw me. Her fingers extended,
like the tip of a sure spear, finding its mark.
Kuseremane. Kuseremane. Kuseremane . Kuseremane. Kuseremane.
The whispers have found a human voice.
I can tell neither Agnethe-mama nor Chi-Chi nor Lune. I tell
them to stay where they are; that the city is not safe.
Agnethe wants to know if the brother-monarchs-in-exile have
sent their reply.
“Soon.” I say.
One morning, in which the sun shone pink, I found that a
certain sorrow had become a tenant of my body and weighed
it down on the small blue safari bed, at the end of which
my feet hang. The sun has come into the room but it hovers
above my body and cannot pierce the shadow covering my life.
A loud knock on the door, so loud the door shakes. I do not
move so Lune glides to the door.
“Reo ni Reo, ni siku ya maripo. Sixi hundred ant sevente
shirrings.” Kenyans and their shillings! The proprietor
scratches his distended belly. His fly is undone and the net
briefs he wears peek through. I want to smile.
Lune floats to my side, looks down at me. I shut my eyes.
From the door a strangely gentle, “I donti af all dey.”
I open my eyes. Lune slips her hand into my coat pocket.
How did she know where to look? She gives him the money, smiling
as only she can. The proprietor thaws. He counts shillings.
Then he smiles, a beatific grin.
I have shut my eyes again.
And then a hand, large, soft, warm strokes my face, my forehead.
Silence, except for the buzzing of a blue fly. Agnethe-Mama
is humming ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’. I used
to fall asleep wondering how it was possible to dance on the
Avignon bridge. Soon, we will know. When we leave.
I slept so deeply that when I woke up I thought I was at
home in my bed and for a full minute I wondered why Roger
had not come in with fresh orange juice, eggs and bacon, croissants
and coffee. I wondered why mama was staring down at me, hands
folded. Lune looks as if she has been crying. Here eyes are
red rimmed. She has become thin, the bones of her neck jut
out. Her fingers are no longer manicured. There! Chi-Chi.
Her face has disappeared into her eyes which are large and
black and deep. I look back at Agnethe-mama and see then that
her entire hair front is grey. When did this happen?
“ We must register. As refugees. Tell UNHCR we are
Now I remember that we are in Kenya; we are leaving Kenya
soon. Am I a refugee?
“You slept the sleep of the dead, mon fils.”
Agnethe said, lowering the veil from her head. If only she
knew how prophetic her words were. Being a princess once married
to her prince, she would have been more circumspect. I have
woken up to find the world has shifted, moved, aged and I
with it. Today I will try to obtain work. There cannot be
too many here who have a PhD in Diplomacy or a Masters in
Geophysics. The immigration offices will advise me. In four
days we will have been here three and a half months.
The sun is gentle and warm. The rain has washed the ground.
Kenyans are rushing in all directions. A street child accosts
me. I frown. He runs away and pounces on an Indian lady. Everybody
avoids the child and the lady, rushing to secret fates. Destiny.
Who should I meet at the immigration office but Yves Fontaine,
a former college mate. We had been at the Sorbonne together.
He was studying art but dropped out in the third year. We
were drawn together by one of life’s ironies. He was
so white, so short, and so high voiced. I was so tall, so
black and deep voiced. We became acquainted rather than friendly
because it was a popular event to have the two of us pose
for photographs together. It did not bother me. It did not
“Boni-papa”. His name for me. Boni-papa. We kiss
each other three times on either cheek.
“It is inevitable we meet again?”
“It is inevitable.”
”What are you doing here?”
“A visa renewal…I am chief technician for the
dam in the valley.”
“Ah, you did engineering?”
Yves shrugs, “ Pfff. Non. It is not necessary here.”
The sound of a stamp hitting the desk unnecessarily hard.
Yves changes his posture, his nose rises, he whose nose was
always in the ground avoiding eyes so he would not be carried
off by campus clowns.
“Ouais?” It is an arrogant Oui. The type of Oui
Yves would never have tried at the Sorbonne.
“Your resident visa.”
Yves grabs his passport, swivels on his feet and exits. But
first he winks at me.
“Next!” The voice shouts. I am next.
From outside the window of a travel agency, on Kaunda street,
a poster proclaims:
“Welcome to your own private wilderness”.
At the bottom of the poster; Nature close at hand: Walking
safaris available. The picture in the foreground is that of
a horse, a mountain and a tall, slender man wrapped in a red
blanket, beads in his ears. It is all set within a watermark
of the map of Kenya. I keep walking.
Beneath the steeple where the midday Angelus bells clang,
I sit and watch the lunch time prayer crowds dribble into
the Minor Basilica. The crowds shimmer and weave behind my
The immigration officer demanded papers. He would not listen
to me. I told him about my PhD and he laughed out loud. He
“Ati PhD. PhD gani? Wewe refugee, bwana!”
He whispers that he is compelled by Section 3(f) of the immigration
charter to report my illegal presence. He cracks his knuckles.
‘Creak’ Crack.’ He smiles quickly. Fortunately,
all things are possible. The cost of silence is US$ 500. I
have 3000 shillings.
He took it all. But he returned 50 shillings for ‘Bus
“Eh, your family…where are they?”
“Gone” I say.
“Si I’ll see you next week? Bring all your documents…eh
write your address here.” A black book. Under ‘name’
I write René Katilibana. Address, Club Balafon. He
watches every stroke of my pen.
A resumption of knuckle cracking. His eyes deaden into a
“To not return…is to ask for the police to find
you.” He turns his head away. He calls:
I have used 5 shillings to buy small round green sweets from
a mute street vendor. Good green sweets which calm hunger
grumbles. A few more days and we will be leaving. I have resolved
not to bother compiling a curriculum vitae.
I join the flow into the church, sitting at the back. Rhythm
of prayer, intonation of priests; I sleep sitting before the
altar of a God whose name I do not know.
“They laugh at themselves…
“They are shy…they hide in noise…but they
We must leave soon.
We woke up early, Agnethe, Chi-Chi, Lune and I. walked to
Westlands, forty five minutes walk away from our room just
before River Road. We reached the gates of the UNHCR bureau
at 10:00 a.m. We were much too late because the lists of those
who would be allowed entry that day had been compiled. The
rest of us would have to return the next day. We did, at 7:00
a.m. We were still too late because the lists of those who
would be allowed entry had already been compiled. We returned
at 4:00 a.m. But at 2:00 p.m. we discovered we were too late
because the lists of those who would be allowed in had already
been compiled. I decided to ask the guard at the gate, with
long, black hair and an earring, a genuine sapphire.
“How can list be compiled? We are here for sree days.”
“New arrivals?,” he asks.
“A facilitation fee is needed to help those who are
compiling the list.”
“Yes. That’s all.”
“And what is zis facilitation fee?”
“US$ 200 per person.”
“And if one…he does not have US$200?”
“Then unfortunately, the list is full.”
“But the UN…Sir?”
He raises his brow.
I told Lune and Chi-Chi. They told Agnethe. Agnethe covered
her face and wailed. It is fortunate she wailed when a Television
crew arrived. The Guard saw the television crew and realised
that the list was not full. Five UN staffers wearing large
blue badges appeared from behind the gate and arranged us
into orderly lines, shouting commands here and commands there.
Three desks materialised at the head of the queue as did three
people who transferred our names and addresses into a large
black book. After stamping our wrists we were sent to another
table to collect our Refugee Registration Numbers. Chi-Chi
returned briefly from her spirit realm to say:
“Is it not magical how so full a list becomes so empty
in so short a time?”
“Toa Kitambulisho!” I know this to be a request
for identification. A policeman, one of three grunted to me.
I shivered. I was standing outside the hotel building watching
street vendors fight over plastic casings left behind by an
inebriated hawker. I was smoking my fifth Sportsman cigarette
in two hours.
“Sina.” I don’t have an identity card.
“Aya! Toa kitu kidogo”. I did not understand
the code. Something small, what could it be? A cigarette.
One each. It was a chilly evening. The cigarettes were slapped
out of my hand. I placed my hand up and the second policeman
A fourth one appeared and the second policeman said:
“Illegal alien…resisting arrest”.
They twisted my arm behind my back and holding me by my waistband,
the trouser crotch cutting into me I was frog marched across
town. Some people on the street laughed loudly, pointing at
the tall man with his trouser lines stuck between the cracks
of his bottom.
“Please…please chef…I’ll walk quietly”
My hand is raised, palm up. “Please.”
Someone, the third one I think, swipes my head with a club.
In a sibilant growl.
A litany of crimes.
“What’s your name?”
“I….I….” Silence. Again, I try. “I…I….I…”
“Aaaaaaa….aaaaii….eee.” It amuses
What is my name? I frown. What is my name?
I was once drinking a good espresso in a café in Breda,
in the Netherlands with three European business contacts.
Gem dealers. We were sipping coffee at the end of a well concluded
deal. A squat African man wearing spectacles danced into the
café. He wore a black suit, around his neck a grey
scarf, in his hand a colourful and large bag, like a carpet
bag. Outside it was cold. So easy to recall the feeling of
well being a hot espresso evokes in a small café where
the light is muted and the music a gentle jazz and there is
a knowing that outside it is cold and grey and windy.
The squat African man grinned like an ingratiating hound,
twisting and distorting his face, raising his lips and from
his throat a thin high sound would emerge:
“Heee heee heee, heh heh heh.”
Most of the café turned back to their coffees and
conversations. One man in a group of three put out his foot.
The squat African man stumbled, grabbed his back to him. Rearranged
himself and said to the man:
“Heee heee heee, heh heh heh.” He flapped his
arm up and down. I wondered why, and then it dawned on me.
He was simulating a monkey. He flapped his way to where I
was, my acquaintances and I.
Sweat trickled down my spine. I think it was the heat in
“What is your country of origin?” I ask him.
Actually, I snarl the question at him and I am surprised by
the rage in my voice.
He mumbles, his face staring at the floor. He lowers his
bag, unzips it and pulls out ladies intimate apparel designed
and coloured in the manner of various African animals. Zebra,
leopard, giraffe and colobus. There is a crocodile skin belt
designed for the pleasure of particular sado-masochists. At
the bottom of the bag a stack of posters and sealed magazines.
Nature magazines? I think I see a mountain on one. I put out
my free hand for one. It is not a mountain, it is an impressive
arrangement of an equally impressive array of Black male genitalia.
I let the magazine slide from my hand and he stoops to pick
it up, wiping it against the sleeve of his black coat.
“Where are you from?” I ask in Dutch.
“No, man…your origin?”
“Have you no shame?”
His head jerks up, his mouth opens and closes, his eyes meet
mine for the first time. His eyes are wet. It is grating that
a man should cry.
“Broda.” he savours the word. “Broda...
its fine to see de eyes of anoda man…it is fine to see
Though his Dutch is crude, he read sociology in Leeds and
mastered it. He is quick to tell me this. He has six children.
His wife, Gemma is a beautiful woman. On a good day he makes
200 guilders, it is enough to supplement the Dutch state income
and it helps sustain the illusions of good living for remnants
of his family back home. He refuses to be a janitor, he tells
me. To wear a uniform to clean a European toilet? No way.
This is why he is running his own enterprise.
“I be a Business Mon.”
“Have you no shame?”
“Wha do ma childs go?”
“You have a master’s degree from a good University.
Business man picks up his bags. He is laughing, so deeply,
so low, a different voice. He laughs until he cries. He wipes
“Oh mah broda…tank you for de laughing…tank
you…you know… Africans we be overeducated fools.
Dem papers are for to wipe our bottom. No one sees your knowing
when you has no feets to stand in.”
He laughs again, patting his bag, smiling in reminiscence.
“My broda for real him also in Italy. Bone doctor.
Specialist. Best in class. Wha he do now? Him bring Nigeria
woman for de prostitute.”
Business man chortles.
“Maybe he fix de bone when dem break.”
I gave him 20 guilders.
“For the children.”
It was when Joop van Vuuren, the gem dealer idly, conversationally
asked me what the business man’s name was that I remembered
I had not asked and he had not told me.
In exile we lower our heads so that we do not see in the
mirror of another’s eyes, what we suspect: that our
precarious existence rests entirely on the whim of another’s
tolerance of our presence. A phrase crawls into my mind: 'Psychic
Oblation'. But what does it mean?
“What is your name?”
I can smell my name. It is the smell of salt and the musk
of sweat. It is…surprise…surprise…remembered
laughter and a woman calling me “Chéri…”
I want to say…I want to say Yves Fontaine. As Yves Fontaine
I would not be a vagrant immigrant, a pariah. As Yves Fontaine
I would be ‘expatriate’ and therefore desirable.
As Yves Fontaine I do not need an identity card.
The sibilant hoarseness of the Superintendent:
“Unco-oparatif. Prejudising infestigesons.”
Agnethe-mama saw it happen. She had just raised her shawl
to uncover her face so that she could shout at me to bring
her some paracetamol for her headache. At first she thought
she was reliving an old tale. Three men had arrived for her
husband. She crawled up the stairs, lying low lest she be
seen. Lune told me mama had sat on the bed rocking to and
fro and moaning a song and whispering incantations she alone
knew words to. In the four days I was away, making an unscheduled
call on the Kenya Government, my mother’s hair deepened
from grey to white. We did not know that her blood pressure
began its ascent that first day. Time, as she had always believed,
would accomplish the rest.
It was at their station that the policemen found all manner
of evidence in my pocket. All of which they liked and kept.
After three days I was charged with ‘loitering with
intent’. At the crucial moment the proprietor turned
up with my refugee registration card. My case was dismissed
and I was charged to keep the peace.
Lune paid the Proprietor with her engagement ring. Whatever
he had obtained from the sale of the ring caused him to put
an arm around me, call me brother and drag me into a bar where
he bought me three beers. He said, “Pole.” Sorry.
He said we did not need to pay rent for three months. He
wanted to know if we had any more jewellery to sell. I said
no. He bought me another beer. He slides a note into my pocket
before he leaves. A thousand shillings.
The UNCHR are shifting people out of Kenya, resettlement
in third countries. Soon, it will be us. Agnethe-mama now
wakes up in the night, tiptoes to my bed. When she sees it
is me, she whispers:
“Mwami” My Lord.
Sunday is a day in which we breathe a little easier in this
place. There are fewer policemen and diffident laughter hiding
in hearts surface. It is simpler on Sunday to find our kind,
my people in an African exile. We visit churches. Agnethe,
Chi-Chi always go in. Lune sometimes joins them and sometimes
joins me. I am usually seating beneath a tree, on a stone
bench, walking the perimeter wall and if it is raining seating
at the back of the church watching people struggling for words
and rituals indicating allegiance to a God whose face they
do not know. The hope peddlers become rich in a short while,
singing, “Cheeeeessus!”. Even the devastated destitute
will tithe to commodified gods, sure in the theatrics of frothing
messengers, hope is being dolled out. Investing in an eternal
future? I do not have a coin to spare. Not now, maybe later,
when all is quiet and normal, I will evaluate the idea of
a Banker God created in the fearful image of man.
After church, to Agnethe’s delight she found Maria.
Maria and Agnethe used to shop in Paris together. Once they
by-passed France and landed in Haiti. Maria’s brother
was an associate of Baby Doc’s wife. They returned home
unrepentant to their husbands and children; they treated their
daring with the insouciance it deserved. It was fortunate
Agnethe met Maria here because it was from Maria we learned
that the Canadian government had opened its doors to those
of us in Kenya.
Chi-Chi, emerged from her sanctuary to say “Bu-Bu…patterns
of life…somewhere lines meet, non?”
A statement of fact. I am hopeful.
Maria was living well. Her brother had settled in Kenya years
ago. His wife was from Kenya. Maria was with them.
“Is Alphonse with you?”
Agnethe, being a princess, had been unaware that after the
two presidents had died, one never asked one’s compatriots
where so and so was. If one did not see so and so, one did
not ask until the party spoken to volunteered the information
of whereabouts. Alphonse was not with Maria. That was all
Maria said. Even if Agnethe was a princess, because she was
a princess in exile, she read nuances. She kept her mouth
shut, and looked to the ground.
Maria’s brother, Professor George and his wife and
his two children were going to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage.
Did we want to visit animals with them?
“Oh yes. Unfortunately...as you imagine…money
“Don’t worry, it is my pleasure,” Professor
So we went to meet animals. We met Langata the leopard who
did not want people staring at him while he slept. Langata
felt the intimacy of sleep is sacred and should be recognised
as such. Apparently, he told Chi-Chi this. So Chi-Chi told
us. Professor George glared at her. Chi-Chi refused to look
at the animals. Lune said animals lived behind fences to protect
them from humans. Agnethe-mama was surprised to find that
her dead prince did indeed look like a lion. She and Maria
stared at Simba who stared back at them as if he knew he was
being compared to a prince and the prince was increasingly
found to be lacking.
“Why the name ‘Professor George’? I said
to Professor George.
“They find it hard to say Georges Nsibiriwa.”
‘They” were his wife’s people. I sensed
the “and” So I said:
Professor George walked quietly, he pointed out the difference
between a Thomson gazelle and a Grant gazelle. Something about
white posteriors. At a putrid pool, in which sluggish algae
brewed a gross green soup, in between withered reeds and a
hapless hyacinth, Professor George sighed and smiled. A dead
branch, half-submerged, floated on the surface of the pool.
“Ah. Here we are...look…in the place you find
yourself…in the time…camouflage!” A glorious
Surreptitious glance. Professor George then picks up a twig
and throws it into the pond. From within the depths, what
had been the dead branch, twisted up a surge of power. Its
jaws snapped the twig in two; a white underbelly displayed
before transforming itself, once again into a dead branch,
half-submerged, floating on the surface of the pool.
“Ah! See ! Camouflage… place dictates form, mon
I start to tell him about the police.
Professor George nods; “Yes…yes…it is the
time.” And he asks if I have heard word from Augustine,
a mutual friend who lives in Copenhagen.
“Augustine has changed address, it seems.”
Professor George says: “Yes… it is the time.”
I need to ask something. “You have heard about the
list?” He looks up at me, his face a question.
“ Les génocidaires?”
“Ah yes…but I pay no attention.”
The relief of affirmation. A name’s good can be invoked
again. So I tell him,
“Ah! It’s difficult, mon ami, and …Agnethe-mama
“Our name is on the list.”
With the same agility that the crocodile used to become a
log again, Professor George pulls away from the fence. He
wipes his hand, the one I had shaken, against his shirt. He
steps away, one step at a time, then He turns around and trots,
like a donkey, shouting, looking over his shoulder at me:
“Maria! We leave…now!”
The first lesson of exile - camouflage. When is a log…not
a log? When a name is not a name.
On Monday we were outside the UNHCR at 4:30 a.m. We hope that
the list is not full. It is not. Instead there is a handwritten
sign leading to an office of many windows which says ‘Relocations,
Resettlement.’ At the front, behind the glass are three
men and two women with blue badges which say UNHCR. They have
papers in front of them. Behind them, four men, a distance
away. They watch us all, their bodies still. I straighten
my coat and stand a little taller.
We are divided into two groups, men and women: The women
are at the front. The women are divided into three groups:
Young Girls, Young Women, Old Women.
At the desks, where there is a desk sign which says “Records
Clerk” they write out names and ages, previous occupation
and country of origin and of course, the RRN- refugee registration
number. Those who do not have an RRN must leave, obtain one
in room 2004 and return after two weeks.
Later, flash! And a little pop. Our faces are engraved on
a piece of paper. Passport photograph. Movement signified,
we are leaving.
“Next”, the photographer says. Defiance of absence.
Photographer, do you see us at all? Inarticulation as defence.
Let it pass. Soon, we will be gone from this place.
The Young women are commanded to hand over babies to the
Old Women. Young Girls and Young Women are taken into another
room. A medical examination we are informed. We are told to
wait outside the office block, the gate. Perhaps we will be
examined another day.
Agnethe-mama and I are sitting on a grassy patch opposite
a petrol station. Agnethe, bites at her lips. Then her tugs
“Bonbon…do other monarchs in exile live in Canada?
Chi-Chi and Lune emerge, holding hands. It is two hours later
and the sun is hovers, ready to sink into darkness. They do
not look at either of us. We walk back, silently. Chi-hi has
hooked her hand into my waistband. Lune glides ahead of us
all, her stride is high, the balance of her body undisturbed.
A purple matatu, its music “thump thumping” slows
down and a tout points north with a hand gesture. I decline.
It speeds off in a series of “thump thumps”. Agnethe
frowns. We walk in silence. Long after the matatu has gone,
Agnethe says, her face serene again:
“The reason they are like that…these Kenyans…is
because they do not know the cow dance.”
When Lune dipped her hand into my coat pocket while I slept
and took out eight hundred shillings, returning in an hour
with a long mirror, I should have listened to the signal from
Chi-Chi used Lune’s mirror to cut her hair. She cut
it as if she were hacking a dress. She stepped on and kicked
her shorn locks. Agnethe-mama covered her mouth, she said
nothing as if she understood something. For Lune, the mirror
evokes memories of ballet technique. She executes all her
movements with her legs rotated outward. Agnethe-mama looks
to the mirror so she can turn away and not look.
Two weeks later, I kick the mirror down. I smash it with
my fists. They bleed. Agnethe screamed once, covering her
mouth. Silence enters our room. Silence smells of the Jevanjee
Garden roasted Kenchic chicken; one pack feeds a frugal family
of four for three days.
On the third day, I find Lune looking down at me.
“It was mine. It was mine.” She smiles suddenly
and I am afraid.
From across the room, Agnethe-mama; “Ah Bonbon…still…
no word from the Kings in exile?”
The anger with which the rain launches itself upon this land,
the thunder which causes floors to creak sparks a strange
foreboding in me. That night, while we were eating cold beans
and maize dinner, Lune pushed her plate aside, looked at me,
a gentle, graceful crane, her hands fluttering closed, a smile
in her eyes.
“Chéri, we can leave soon, but it depends on
“A condition from the medical examination.”
Agnethe looks away. Chi-Chi clutches her body, staving off
in her way something she is afraid of.
“How do we co-operate?” I am afraid to know.
“By agreeing to be examined”, she laughs, high,
dry, cough-laugh,“…examined by the officials at
their homes for a night.”
I don’t. Silence. Agnethe is rocking herself to and
fro. She is moaning a song. I know the tune. It is from the
song new widows sing when the body of their dead spouse is
laid on a bier.
Annals of war decree that conquest of landscapes is incomplete
unless the vanquished’s women are ‘taken’.
Where war is crudest, the women are discarded, afterwards
for their men to find. Living etchings of emasculation. Lune
has not finished yet. I sense I am being taunted for my ineffectuality
by this woman who would be my wife.
“Now… it has been discussed with family, it is
not a question of being forced.”
A recitation. I lower my head. The incongruity of tears.
A persistent mosquito buzzes near my ear. The food on my plate
is old. Lune leaves the table, pushing back her chair, she
places her feet in a parallel arrangement, one in front of
the other, the heel of a foot in line with the toes of the
other. Her right arms extends in front of her body, and the
left is slightly bent and raised. She moves the weight of
her body over the left foot and bends the left knee. She raises
her right heel, pointing the toe. Her body is bent toward
the extended knee. She holds the pose and says;
Conscious now, I read the gesture. She will perform as she
must, on this stage. I can only watch.
Now Chi-Chi raises her head, like a beautiful cat. I know
the look; tentative hope, tendrils reaching out and into life.
Lune closes her feet, the heel of one now touching the toes
of the other; she pushes up from the floor and jumps, her
legs straight, feet together and pointed. She lands and bows
before me. Then she cracks and cries, crumbling on the floor.
Outside, the window, the drone of traffic which never stops
and the cackle of drunkards. Creeping up the window a man’s
“Chupa na debe. Mbili kwa shilling tano. Chupa na debe”
Bottle and tin, two for five shillings, bottle and tin, Kenyans
and their shillings.
I stood on the balcony staring at the traffic, counting every
red car I could see. Nine so far. Behind me, Agnethe approached.
In front of my face she dangled her wedding ring.
She let it fall at my feet.
We used the money to leave the room on River road. We went
to a one roomed cottage with a separate kitchen and an outside
toilet. It was in Hurlingham, the property of a former Government
secretary, Mr Wamathi, a drinking acquaintance of the proprietor.
I observed that his gardening manners were undeveloped; he
had subdivided his quarter acre plot, cutting down old African
olive trees and uprooting the largest bougainvillea I had
ever seen, on the day we arrived. He was going to put up a
block of flats. Mr. Wamathi was delirious with glee about
selling the trees to the “City Canjo” for fifteen
thousand shillings. His laughter was deep, rounded and certain
He laughed and I felt hope joining us.
Agnethe started tending a small vegetable patch. Her eyes
gleamed when the carrot tops showed. Lune made forays into
a nearby mall, an eye-fest of possibilities satiating her
heart, extending her wants. Chi-Chi, over the fence, befriended
an Ethiopian resident who introduced her to his handsome brother,
The day Chi-Chi met Matteo she slipped her hand into my waist-band,
looking up at me she said:
Every day I tried to contact home, seeking cash for four
air tickets on a refugee pass. Word appeared in dribs and
drabs. Detail gleaned from conversations heard, strangers
approached and newspapers slyly read.
The bank? Burned down. The money? Missing from the safes.
And once, the sound of a name accused, accursed:
But hadn’t we left on the fifth day?
The day flows on. I sit in different cafés, telling
the waiters that I am waiting for a friend. Thirty minutes
in some cafes. In the more confident ones, the ones which
are sure of their identity, I can wait for a full hour before
I make a face, glance at my non-existent watch, frown as if
tardy friends are a source of annoyance and I exit.
Whispers had floated over the land of hills and nestled in
valleys and refused to leave, had in fact given birth to volleys
of sound. Now tales had been added of a most zealous servant
instructed by an heir to sluice stains.
“Ah! Roger. Mon oncle...”
Excoriating women’s wombs, crushing foetal skulls,
following the instructions of a prince.
Today I woke up as early as the ones who walk to work manoeuvring
the shadows of dawn, crochet covered radios against ears,
in pockets, or tied to bicycle saddles. Sometimes music, Rumba.
And in the dawn dark I can forget where I am and let others’
footsteps show me the way. I hear Franklin Bukaka’s
plea, pouring out of so many radios, tenderly carried in so
‘Aye! Afrika, O! Afrika...’.
I return from so many journeys like this and one day, I find
Agnethe-mama lying on her back in her vegetable patch. At
first I think she is soaking up the sun. Then I remember Agnethe-mama
never let the sun touch her skin. An African princess, melanin
management was an important event of toilette. I lean over
her body. Then, head against her chest, I cannot hear a heartbeat.
I carry my mother and run along the road. The evening traffic
courses past. Nairobi accommodates. Room for idiosyncrasies.
So to those pass by, it is not strange that a tall, tall man
should carry a slender woman in his arms.
At the first hospital. “My mother...she is not heart
“Kshs 12,000 deposit, Sir.”
“But my mother…”
At Kenyatta, they want a four thousand shilling deposit and
I will still have to wait, one of about three hundred people
waiting for two doctors to see them. I do not have four thousand
“Where can I go?”
“Enda Coptic.” Go to the Copts.
“Tafadhali…please, where are they?”
Agnethe sighs, opens her eyes and asks:
“Have the monarchs-in-exile sent our reply yet, Bonbon?”
She has suffered a mild stroke.
I return to the cottage to pack a bag for mama. Exile blurs
lines. So a son, such as I can handle a mother’s underwear.
Agnethe-mama told Chi-Chi once, in my hearing, that all in
a woman may fall apart, may become unmatched, but never her
underwear. I place sets of underwear for Agnethe; black, brown
and Lacy purple.
Kuseremane, Kuseremane, Kuseremane.
It seems that the whispers have infringed upon the place
where my tears hide. I cannot stop bawling, snivelling like
a lost ghoul. My shoulders bounce with a life of their own.
Lune watches me, her eyes veiled in a red, feral glow.
At six p.m. I rejoin a river of workers returning to so many
homes. To be one of many, is to be, anyway, if only for a
moment. The sun is setting and has seared into the sky a golden
trail; it has the look of a machete wound bleeding yellow
light. It is an incongruous time to remember Roger’s
Agnethe has taken to sitting in the garden rocking her body,
to and fro, to and fro. She does not hum. But sometimes, in
between the fro and to, she asks:
“Have the brother sovereigns sent a letter?”
At night, Chi-Chi shakes me awake, again. My pillow is soaked,
my face wet. Not my tears.
The next morning, I left the cottage before sunrise. I have
learned of hidden places; covered spaces which the invisible
inhabit. The Nairobi Arboretum. The monkeys claim my attention
as do the frenzied moaning of emptied people calling out to
frightened gods for succour. Now, it starts to rain. I walk
rapidly, then start to jog, the mud splattering my already
stained coat. The other hidden place is through the open doors
of a Catholic Church. Hard wooden benches, pews upon which
a man may kneel, cover his eyes and sleep or cry unheeded
before the presence that is also an absence.
My return coincides with Mr. Wamathi’s winding his
way into the house. He rocks on his feet:
“Habe new yearghh.” ‘Year’ ends with
a burp and belch.
“Happy New Year.” It is July and cold and time
Agnethe outside, uncovered. Rocking to and fro. She clutches
thin arms about herself, shivering.
“Aiiee, mama!” I lean down to lift her up.
“Bonbon, il fait froid, oui?’ It is cold.
“Lune? Chi-Chi? Lune?” Why is mama sitting out
in the night alone.
“Oú est Lune…Chi-Chi, mama?”
Agnethe stares up at the sky, from my arms.
”Bonbon… il fait froid.” Two anorexic streams
glide down, past high cheekbones and nestle at the corner
of her mouth. She looks up and into my eyes. The resolute
eyes of an ancient crone. Now…now the cold’s tendrils
insinuate themselves, searing horror in my heart.
Chi-Chi returned first. She stumbled through the door, her
body shuddering. She is wiping her hand up and down her body,
ferociously, as if wiping away something foul only she can
“Everything has a pattern…Bu-Bu, non?”
She gives me the folded papers.
Three laisses-passez. Tickets to rapture. Let them pass.
It favours Agnethe, Boniface and Chi-Chi Kuseremane.
I am not there.
I watch from afar, the ceiling I think, as the tall man tears
the papers to shreds. I am curious about the weeping woman
with shorn hair crawling on the ground gathering the fragments
to her chest. I frown when I see the tall, dark man lift his
hand up, right up and bring it crashing into the back of the
girl who falls to the floor, lies flat on her belly and stops
crying. She is staring into herself where no one else can
reach her. A sound at the door. The tall, tall man walks up
to his fiancée. Who bows low, the end of a performance.
She too has a clutch of papers in her hand. The tall man sniffs
the girl as if Lune as if he were a dog and he bites her on
the cheek, the one upon which another man’s cologne
lingers. Where the teeth mark are, the skin has broken. Drops
of blood. Lune laughs.
“We can leave anytime now.”
“But I shall live, Chéri…we shall live…we
shall live well.”
Agnethe-mama heaves herself up from the bed and brushes
her long white hair. I return to the body of the tall, black
man whose arms are hanging against his side, his head bowed.
He sees that Lune feet are close, the heel of one touching
the toes of the other. She slowly raises hands over her head,
paper clutched in the right, she rounds her arms slightly,
en couronne-in a crown.
Paper fragments, a mosaic on the floor. I stoop, the better
to stare at them. I pick up my sister. She is so still. But
then she asks, eyes wide with wanting to know: “Bu-Bu…there’s
a pattern in everything. Oui?”
“Oui, Ché- Ché.” A childhood name,
slips easily out of my mouth. Now when she smiles, it reaches
her eyes. She touches my face with her hand.
That night, or more accurately, the next morning, it was
three a.m. Agnethe went to the bathroom outside. Returning
to the room she had stepped into and slid in a puddle. She
stepped out again to clean her feet and then she screamed
and screamed and screamed.
“Ahh! Ahh! Ahhhee!”
She points at the rag upon which she has wiped her feet.
It is covered in fresh blood. She points into the room, at
the floor. I return to look. Lune is now awake. Lights in
the main house are switched on and Mr Wamathi appears on the
doorway, a knobkerrie in his hand.
“Where, where?” He shouts.
The neighbourhood dogs have started to howl. The sky is clear
and lit up by a crescent moon. I remember all this because
I looked up as I carried my bleeding sister, my Chi-Chi-Ché-Ché
into Mr Wamathi’s car, cushioned by towels and blankets
while her blood poured out.
At the hospital emergency wing where we had been admitted
quickly, a tribute to Mr Wamathi’s threats, I watched
the splayed legs of my sister, raised and stirruped. My sister,
led to and stripped bare in the wilderness of lives altered
when two presidents were shot to the ground from the sky.
I remember a blow bestowed on a back by a defenceless brother-prince.
How can a blow be unswung?
A doctor and a nurse struggle to bring to premature birth
a child we did not know existed. Chi-Chi’s eyes are
closed. Her face still. When she leftus moment she went. I
felt a tug on my waist band as in days of life and her body
lost its shimmer, as if a light within had gone off for good.
She left with her baby.
The child’s head was in between her legs. A boy or
girl, only the head was visible and one arm, small fists slightly
open as if beckoning. Skin like cream coffee. The offspring
of African exiles. An enigma solved. The Ethiopians had abruptly
disappeared from the radar of our lives and Chi-Chi had said
nothing. The dying child of African exiles in an African land.
I stroked the baby’s wet head. Did baby come to lure
Chi-Chi away? A word shimmers into my heart; fratricide. I
douse it with the coldness of my blood. I am shivering. A
“Leave them...leave the children.” Keep them
together… the way they are.
Landscape speaks. The gesture of an incomplete birth. Of
what have we to be afraid? Metamorphoses of being. There must
be another way to live.
“Is there a priest?” Even the faithless need
a ritual to purge them off the unassailable scent of mystery.
‘What shall we do with the body?”
A body…my sister. When did a pool of blood become this…absence?
They let me cover her face after I have kissed her eyes shut.
Agnethe and Lune are outside, waiting. Islands in their hope.
I open the door to let them in, gesturing with my hand. They
step into the room and I step out. I let the door close behind
me and try to block out the screams emanating from within.
Staccato screams. Screams in a crescendo and then a crushing
A nurse offers forms to be filled in.
“Nairobi City Mortuary.”
It will cost Eight thousand Kenya shillings to rent space
for Chi-Chi. I do not have eight thousand shillings. Its OK,
the nurse says. I can pay it tomorrow at the mortuary.
Eeeh! Kenyans and their shillings.
Nurse turns;“Pole.” Sorry.
But Mr Wamathi makes an arrangement with his wives, and they
find 35,000 shillings for Agnethe.
Is this it?
Later. After all the bluster of being...this? A body in a
box, commended to the soil.
A brother’s gesture: 12 torches alight in a sister’s
cheap coffin. Chi-Chi and her Nameless One will see in the
It is a challenge to match paper fragments so that they match
just right. It is fortunate there are words on the paper,
it makes it easier. Three laisses-passez’s. Chi-Chi’s
is complete, almost new.
Lune returned to my bed. Agnethe’s resumed her rocking
which accelerated in both speed and volume. Her eyes are brown
and a ceaseless rivulet of tears drips onto her open palm.
But she smiles at us, Lune and I, and does not utter a word.
Sometimes her eyes have a film of white over them as if she
had become a medium, in constant communion with the dead.
Sometimes I imagine that they look at me with reproach. I
look to the ground; the quest for patterns.
I have lost the feeling of sleep. I will not touch Lune nor
can I let her touch me. It is the ghost of another man’s
cologne which lingers in my dreams and haunts my heart. I
am bleeding in new places. But we are leaving.
“Bu-Bu, everything has a pattern, non?”
We will be leaving for Canada on Saturday night.
Agnethe shocked us by dying on Friday morning in my arms as
I entered the gates of the Coptic hospital. On the streets,
as before, no one found it strange, the idea of a tall, tall
man carrying a slender woman in his arms. A pattern had been
established, a specific madness accommodated.
When Agnethe-mama left, the energy of her exit made me stumble.
“Ah! Bonbon! Ah !” She says.
At the Coptic gate, “Mwami!”
She leaves with such force, her head is thrown back against
The Copts cannot wrench her from my arms. They let me sit
in their office and rock my mother to and fro, to and fro.
I am humming a song. It is the melody of ‘Sur le pont
d’Avignon” where we shall dance.
At the cottage, old bags with few belongings are packed.
On the bed, a manila bag with Agnethe’s clothes, the
bag she was packing when her body crumbled to the ground.
“Oú est maman?” Lune asks. Where is mama?
I stretch out my arms and she, lifts her hand to her long
silk hair and draws it away from her face. She rushes into
my arms and burrows her face into my shoulder.
We do what we can to live. Even the man whose cologne stayed
on her face. I have no absolution to give. So I tell, her,
instead that Agnethe has just died. And when Lune drops to
the ground like a shattered rock, I slap her awake, harder
than necessary on the cheek upon which another man’s
cologne had strayed and stayed. She does not move, but her
eyes are open. Arms above her head, hair over her face.
She smirks. “I’m leaving. I am living.”
She grabs my arm, a woman haunted by the desire for tomorrow
where all good is possible. “I am leaving.”
Lune covers her ears, shuts her eyes.
For the most fleeting of moments, I enter into her choice.
To slough the skin of the past off. To become another life
form. I look around the room. Agnethe-mama’s slippers
by the bed. What traces have they left on the surface of the
earth? The gossip of landscape. It is getting clear. I stoop
low and kiss Lune on her forehead. In the pattern of things,
there is a place in which the body of a princess may rest.
A Coptic priest, a Coptic doctor, Lune and I, Mr, Mrs and
Mrs Wamathi- the sum total of those gathered around Agnethe-mama’s.
Lune’s airplane bags are over her shoulders, her plane
ticket in her purse. In four hours time she will be in a plane
taking her to the Canada of her dreams. We forgot grave-diggers
must be paid, their spades attached to Kenya shillings. So
I will cover my mother’s grave myself, when the others
A plane departs from Nairobi. Kenya Airways to London. From
London, Air Canada to Ottawa.
I have been laughing for an hour now. True, the laughter
is interspersed with hot, sour, incessant streams of tears.
Squatting on my mother’s grave. The unseen now obvious.
Life peering out of lives. Life calling life to dance. Life,
I will start dancing now.
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenue/La
table ronde, ils l’ont gagnée…’
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenue…
Who can allay the summon of Life to life? The inexorable
attraction for Fire. The soul knows its keeper. Inexorable
place, space and pace. I see. I see.
Life aflame in a fire- gold sun. And dust restoring matter
to ash. The ceaseless ardour for life now requited:
‘L’indépendance, ils l’ont obtenue…'
La table ronde, ils l’ont gagnée…’
Thus begun the first day of my second life.
One day, a letter made its way to Kenya from Canada. Its first
"Cheri, please let me know the date of your arrival."
A tall, tall man straightens the lapels of a fading Hugo
Boss jacket. He cradles a shovel, listening to the sighing
sentences of dust fragments filling a new grave. In his heart,
an old phrase bubbles to the fore:
Another week, another letter:”….when is your
And another week after that, and the next until a year has
gone and then six months more.
I have joined the sentinels of the cemetery; an assorted
collection of life’s creatures, through which life gazes
at life. Devoted dogs, gypsy cats, two birds which perch over
certain graves, an hundred unobtrusive trees and of course
spirits caught between worlds. Living gargoyles guarding entry
points through which humans pass, dreaming in the day about
shy, wise, night shadows with which conversations broken off
at dawn can resume.
The discovery of listening…
Catching landscape in its surreptitious gestures -
patterns which point to meaning…
Waiting for the return of a name set ablaze when fire made
dust out of two presidents’ bodies…
I live in the silence-scope and perform the rituals of return,
for life. Where I am, the bereaved know they will find, if
they visit, that the reminder of their beloved’s existence
-the grave - is safe, that life watches and leaves signs on
tombs; mostly flowers, sometimes trees.
I prefer trees.
Soon now, the wind-borne whispers will fall silent.