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We are delighted to announce the latest two writers in the New Voicesseries, which showcases emerging authors from around the world: NoViolet Bulawayo and Lillian Li. You can read an extract here from NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names (forthcoming from Chatto & Windus), and a story, ‘Blue Jay’, by Lillian Li, along with interviews with these two unforgettable writers.
Okay, it’s like this. China is a red devil looking for people to eat so it can grow fat and strong. Now we have to decide if it actually breaks into people’s homes or just ambushes them in the forest, Godknows says.
That doesn’t even make sense. Why does it need to grow fat and strong if it’s a devil? Isn’t it all that already? I say.
We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game; it’s important to do this so we don’t get tired of old ones and bore ourselves to death, but then it’s also not easy because we have to argue and see if the whole thing can work. It’s Bastard’s turn to decide what the new game is about, and even after this morning, he still wants it to be about China, for what, I don’t know.
I think China should be like a dragon, Bastard says. That way, it will be a real beast, always on top.
I think it must be an angel, Sbho says, with like some superpowers to do exciting things so that everybody will be going to it for help, like maybe pleading or dancing to impress it, singing China China mujibha, China China wo! Sbho says. She is dancing to her stupid song now, obviously pleased with herself. When she finishes she does two cartwheels, and we see a flash of her red panties.
What are you doing? Godknows says.
Yes, sit down, that’s just kaka, who will play that nonsense? Me, I’m drawing country-game, Bastard says, and he picks up a fat stick.
Soon we are all busy drawing country-game on the ground, and it comes out great because today the earth is just We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new gamethe right kind of wet since it rained yesterday. To play country-game you need two rings: a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands. You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this. Each person then picks a piece and writes the name of the country on there, which is why it’s called country-game.
But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country countries, but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in. Who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?
If I’m lucky, like today, I get to be the USA, which is a country-country; who doesn’t know that the USA is the big baboon of the world? I feel like it’s my country now because my aunt Fostalina lives there, in Destroyedmichygen. Once her things are in order she’ll come and get me and I will go and live there also. After we have sorted the names we vote for the first caller. The caller is the person who stands in the little inner circle to get the game started. Everybody else stands in the bigger circle, one foot in his country, the other foot outside.
The caller then calls on the country of his choice and the game begins. The caller doesn’t just call on any country, though; he has to make sure it’s a country that he can easily count out. It’s like being in a war; in a war you don’t just start to fight somebody stronger than you because you will get proper clobbered. Likewise in country-game, it’s best to call somebody who is a weak runner so he can’t beat you. Once the caller calls we scatter and run as if the police themselves are chasing us, except for the country that’s been called; that one has to run right into the inner ring and shout, Stop-stop-stop!
Once everyone stops, the new country in the inner ring then decides who to count out. Counting out is done by taking at least three leaps to get to one of the countries outside. It’s easier to just count out the country closest to the outer ring, meaning whoever did not run that far you just do your leaps nice and steady; the other country is counted out and has to sit and watch the game. But if you are the new country in the inner ring and cannot count anybody out in three leaps because you were not fast enough to stop the other countries, you pick the next caller and leave the game. It continues like that until there is only one country left, and the last country standing wins.
We are in the middle of the game, and it’s just getting hot; Sudan and Congo and Guatemala and Iraq and Haiti and Afghanistan have all been counted out and are sitting at the borders watching the country-countries play. We are running away from North Korea when we see the big NGO lorry passing Fambeki, headed toward us. We immediately stop playing and start singing and dancing and jumping.
What we really want to do is take off and run to meet the lorry but we know we cannot. Last time we did, the NGO people were not happy about it, like we had committed a crime against humanity. So now we just sing and wait for the lorry to approach us instead. The waiting is painful; we watch the lorry getting closer and closer, but it seems far away at the same time, like it’s not even here yet but stuck somewhere else, in another country. It’s the gifts that we know are inside that make it hard to wait and watch the lorry crawl.
This time the NGO people are late; they were supposed to come on the fifteenth of last month and that month came and went and now we are on another Eyes look at us that we cannot really see because they are hidden behind a wall of black glass.month. We have already cleared the playground because it’s where the lorry will stop. Finally, it arrives, churning dust, like an angry monster. Now we are singing and screaming like we are proper mad. We bare our teeth and thrust our arms upward. We tear the ground with our feet. We squint in the dust and watch the doors of the lorry, waiting for the NGO people to come out, but we don’t stop singing and dancing. We know that if we do it hard, they will be impressed, maybe they will give us more, give and give until we say, NGO, please do not kill us with your gifts!
The NGO people step out of the lorry, all five of them. There are three white people, two ladies and one man, whom you can just look at and know they’re not from here, and Sis Betty, who is from here. Sis Betty speaks our languages, and I think her job is to explain us to the white people, and them to us. Then there is the driver, who I think is also from here. Besides the fact that he drives, he doesn’t look important. Except for the driver, all of them wear sunglasses. Eyes look at us that we cannot really see because they are hidden behind a wall of black glass.
One of the ladies tries to greet us in our language and stammers badly so we laugh and laugh until she just says it in English. Sis Betty explains the greeting to us even though we understood it, even a tree knows that Hello, childrenmeans Hello, children. Now we are so excited we start clapping, but the other small pretty lady motions for us to sit down, the shiny things on her rings glinting in the sun.
After we sit, the man starts taking pictures with his big camera. They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.
Then the cameraman tells us to stand up and it continues. He doesn’t tell us to say cheese so we don’t. When he sees Chipo, with her stomach, he stands there so surprised I think he is going to drop the camera. Then he remembers what he came here to do and starts taking away again, this time taking lots of pictures of Chipo. It’s like she has become Paris Hilton, it’s all just click-flash-flash-click. When he doesn’t stop she turns around and stands at the edge of the group, frowning. Even a brick knows that Paris doesnt like the paparazzi.
Now the cameraman pounces on Godknows’s black buttocks. Bastard points and laughs, and Godknows turns around and covers the holes of his shorts with his hands, but he cannot completely hide his nakedness. We are all laughing at Godknows. When the cameraman gets to Bastard, Bastard takes off his hat and smiles like he is something handsome. Then he makes all sorts of poses: flexes his muscles, puts his hands on the waist, does the V sign, kneels with one knee on the ground.
You are not supposed to laugh or smile. Or any of that silly stuff you are doing, Godknows says.
You are just jealous because all they took of you are your buttocks. Your dirty, chapped, kaka buttocks, Bastard says.
No, I’m not. What’s to be jealous about, you ugly face? Godknows says, even though he can be beaten up for those words.
I can do what I want, black buttocks. Besides, when they look at my picture over there, I want them to see me. Not my buttocks, not my dirty clothes, but me.
Who will look at your picture? I ask. Who will see our pictures? But nobody answers me.
After the pictures, the gifts. At first we try and line up nicely, as if we are ants going to a wedding, but when they open the back of the lorry, we turn into dizzied dung flies. We push and we shove and we yell and we scream. We lurch forward with hands outstretched. We want to grab and seize and hoard. The NGO people just stand there gaping. Then the tall lady in the blue hat shouts, Excuse me! Order! Order, please! but we just laugh and dive and heave and shove and shout like we cannot even understand spoken language. We are careful not to touch the NGO people, though, because we can see that even though they are giving us things, they do not want to touch us or for us to touch them.
The adults have come from the shacks and are standing slightly to the side like they have been counted out of country-game. They don’t order us to stop When they look at my picture over there, I want them to see me. Not my buttocks, not my dirty clothes, but me.pushing. They don’t look at us with talking eyes. But we know that if the NGO people were not here, they would seize switches or pounce on us with their bare hands, that if the NGO people were not here, we would not even dare act like we are doing in the first place. But then the NGO people are here and while they are, our parents do not count. It’s Sis Betty who finally gets us to stop by screaming at us, but she does it in our language, maybe so that the NGO people do not understand.
What are you doing, masascum evanhu imi? Liyahlanya, you think these expensive white people came all the way from overseas ipapa to see you act like baboons? Do you want to embarrass me, heh? Futsekani, don’t be buffoons zinja, behave at once or else we’ll get in the lorry and drive off right this minute with all this shit! she says. Then Sis Betty turns to the NGO people and smiles her gap-toothed smile. They smile back, pleased. Maybe they think she just told us good things about them.
We stop pushing, stop fighting, stop screaming. We stand in a neat line again and wait patiently. The line moves so slowly I could scream, but in the end we all get our gifts and we are happy. Each one of us gets a toy gun, some sweets, and something to wear; I get a T-shirt with the word Google at the front, plus a red dress that is tight at the armpits.
Thank you much, I say to the pretty lady who hands me my things, to show her that I know English. She doesn’t say anything back, like maybe I just barked.
After we get our things, it’s the adults turn. They stand in their own line, trying to look like they don’t really care, like they have better things to do than be here. The truth is that we hear them all the time complain about how the NGO people have forgotten them, how they should visit more often, how NGO this and NGO that, like maybe the NGO are their parents. Soon the adults get small packets of beans and sugar and mealie-meal but you can see from their faces that they are not satisfied. They look at the tiny packages like they don’t want them, like they are embarrassed and disappointed by them, but in the end they turn and head back to the shacks with the things.
Its MotherLove alone who does not join the line for food. She stands there like a baobab tree, looking at everything from the side, in her bright gown with the many stars. There is a sadness on her face. One of the NGO ladies takes her sunglasses off and waves to MotherLove, but MotherLove just stands there, not waving back, not smiling, not anything. Sis Betty holds out some packages.
Hawu, MotherLove! Sis Betty shouts in a silly voice like she is coaxing a stupid child. Please come, bantu, can’t you see we’ve brought you gifts? she says. The NGO people hold out more little packages to MotherLove, and the two white women even bare their teeth like grinning dogs. Everybody is waiting to see what MotherLove will do. She turns and strides away, head held high, the bangles on her arms jingling, the stars on her dress shining, her scent of lemon staying in the air even after she is gone.
When the NGO lorry finally leaves, we take off and run after it; we have got what we wanted and don’t care how they want us to do. We wave our toy gunsThe NGO people hold out more little packages to MotherLove, and the two white women even bare their teeth like grinning dogs.and gifts in the air and shout what we want them to bring us next time: shoes, All Stars, balls, cell phones, cake, underwear, drinks, biscuits, US dollars. The groaning sound of the lorry drowns our voices but we continue to run and shout regardless. When we get to Mzilikazi, we stop because we know we cannot get on the road. Sbho screams, Take me with you! and we’re all screaming the words, screaming and screaming, like somebody said the lorry would turn around and take whoever screamed the loudest.
We watch the lorry get smaller and smaller until it’s just a dot, and when it finally disappears we turn around and walk back toward the shanty. Now that the lorry is gone-gone, we do not scream anymore. We are as quiet as graves, sad like the adults coming back from burying the dead. Then Bastard says, Lets go and play war, and then we take off and run to kill each other with our brand-new guns from America. ■
This is an extract taken from We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which will be published by Chatto & Windus on 6 June.
An Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo
Where do you think you learned to tell a story?
I was raised on orature – all around me people just told stories like it was breathing, but it was really my late grandmother, Gog’ NaEdeni who sat us down to stories every night as kids, and my pops, who shared his mother’s love for story, who really made an impact. Without those two I doubt I’d be the kind of writer I am today.
Have you ever stolen a book?
No, not a book, I stole like, books as a kid. I know how it sounds, but how else was I supposed to get them, through prayer? I mean nobody was trying to buy me books, and the libraries, besides being far, had a lousy limit of two books at a time, which didn’t work for me at all coz I was a voracious reader. Thankfully my thievery stopped around high school but of course by then my love affair with books had turned into a marriage.
Where was the last place you went that changed your perspective on travel?
This past summer I visited Arusha, Tanzania, where I was fortunate enough to connect with a local My love affair with books had turned into a marriage.who saved me from doing the usual touristy thing. I hung out with locals my whole time there and I saw a different side of the country that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. I didn’t need the use of my camera for instance, but I heard real stories from real people and it was special connecting on that level. When I travel I want to be able to tell stories about the people I met, not just describe the things I see.
If you were in a band what would it be called?
What’s your favourite bookshop?
Buffalo Books in Ithaca, NY.
If you could cross over into another artistic genre, what would it be?
Do you know why you do it?
For humanity, always.
What are you working on now?
Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 will be published on 15 April. Here we bring you a story from the second list, which appeared in 1993, by Ben Okri.
One morning, more golden than yellow, I went outside to our house front and saw that the beggars had gone. I scoured the street and asked everyone I met. I went to Madame Koto’s bar-front. I searched for them along the edges of the forest, where they scavenged for food and slept in unfinished houses, but I simply couldn’t find them.
Late in the afternoon when Dad returned from work, reeking of the bags of fish he had been carrying on his head all day, I told him that the beggars had gone.
‘Gone?’ he asked incredulously. ‘How can they go? I’m going to build them a school. I’ve even started asking about the cost of a plot of land. They haven’t really gone, have they?’
‘They have,’ I said.
Stinking of fish, his forehead glistening with iridescent scales, his boots thick with mud, he bustled out into the street and went looking for the beggars. He didn’t even stop to change from his work clothes. I hurried out with him. Great energies swirled around Dad. His spirit was fiery. He walked with enormous strides, and I tried to keep up with him as he erupted into a torrent of fantastical ideas and schemes. He was going to build a unique school for beggars. He was going to supervise the education of all poor and illiterate people. He said they needed education the most.
‘That is how the powerful people keep us down,’ he maintained. ‘They keep us illiterate and then they deceive us and treat us like children.’
He swore that he was going to teach the beggars mathematics, accountancy, law and history. He said I would teach them how to read. He talked of turning all the ghettos into special secret service universities where the most effective knowledge in the world would be made available.
We went up the street and got to the main road. Crowds of people all over the place were talking about politics. They talked about the forthcoming rally and the famous musicians who would be performing. And they also talked about those who had died in the political violence. We happened to notice a few beggars up the road and Dad went and talked to them as if they were old friends. I heard him asking one of them about Helen, a beautiful beggar girl with a bad eye. I heard him pleading with them to come back to our street and help with the building of the school. He was so fervent and earnest that he must have struck everyone as being quite mad. The beggars were frightened by him and they fled. Dad went after them, pleading, and they kept running: they must have thought that he was trying to steal what little money they had. Exasperated, Dad turned to me and said: ‘What’s wrong with them? Why are they afraid of me, eh?’
‘They are not the same beggars.’
‘Not the same beggars?’
‘These are different beggars. They are not the ones from our street.’
Dad glared at them. Then he said: ‘Let’s go back.’
We pushed through the crowds, past bicyclists ringing their bells, cart-pullers groaning with their loads of garri and cement, past the tight throng of traders and market women. At the arena where the great rally was going to be staged carpenters were constructing a mighty dais with a zinc roof. Hundreds of artisans were working at the site, hammering away, sawing up wood, climbing up ladders, carrying thick planks, singing, shouting and arguing. Petty traders sat around selling soft drinks and ready-made food. Dad met some of his fellow load-carriers and engaged them in lengthy political disputations. And when we got back to our street we were astonished to find our beggars sitting round the broken vehicle, as if they had been there all along, and as if we had just re-entered their alien reality. Helen wasn’t with them.
The beggars looked at us with dull eyes. They didn’t move from their positions and their faces didn’t light up at the sight of Dad. It was clear that they had reached a decision. Dad felt excluded from the closed circle of their resolution and he tried to regain their trust and inspire them with his lofty schemes. But they had heard his promises a thousand times and their faces registered no response. He joked, and laughed at his own jokes, but they remained sullen. He asked about Helen, but they made no reply. He became unaccountably desperate.
‘Where has she gone? Has someone touched her? Did she run away? Has she deserted our cause?’
The beggars were silent. Dad stared at them for a long time, apparently confused. Then, muttering something, he hurried back to the house. I went after him. When I got to the room he was taking off his boots. He told me to polish them till they shone. He went and had a bath and washed the fish smells off him.
While he bathed, Mum returned from her day-long hawking of cheap wares. She seemed leaner, her eyes dulled by the yellow dust, her face darkened by the fiery marigold sunlight. After dropping her basin of provisions on the cupboard, she sat on the bed. She did not move. She did not speak. She stank of profound exhaustion.
When Dad came in from the bathroom he did not seem particularly happy to see Mum. In fact, he ignored her altogether. He sat on his chair and proceeded to anoint himself with coconut oil. He combed and parted his hair. Then he put on his safari suit, which used to be white but which had turned brownish with age. He applied cheap perfume to his face. Something odd had happened to Dad after his great dream: he had become more susceptible to invisible presences in the air. It was as if holes had opened up in his spirit through which wisps of malevolence could enter.
When he saw that his boots had not been cleaned or polished, he exploded into a short burst of rage. He chased me twice round the room with a thick belt in his hand. He caught me at the door, dragged me in and was about to lash me when Mum–in a deadly voice–said: ‘If you touch my son, you will have to kill me.’
Dad lowered his belt and sat in his chair. He retreated into the barely contained whirlwind of his fury. He poured himself a generous quantity of ogogoro, lit a cigarette and, in between smoking, The demon-girl moved into Dad’s spirit and sat comfortably, and then I couldn’t see it any more.proceeded to decrust his boots. While he cleaned his boots his spirit boiled, and I watched as a strange demon in the form of a beautiful girl with green eyes entered him. The demon-girl moved into Dad’s spirit and sat comfortably, and then I couldn’t see it any more. As he cleaned his boots with fiery vigour, smoking his cigarette with a grim intensity, his spirit rising and swirling, Dad lashed us with accusations. Sweating through his suit, his temper seemed to burn around him. His forehead became an agitation of wrinkles. Mum sat very still, listening. While Dad was shouting at us an evil spirit went right through our room, on its way to the preparations for the great political rally. The evil spirit, passing through our spaces, made all of us edgy. It awakened deep irrational passions in Dad’s brain. Fuming, he scraped the dried mud off his boots angrily. His face swelling, his chest heaving, his big muscles bristling, he accused us of betraying him, of not caring enough for his ideals. Mum, he said, only cared for herself. He complained that we had no respect for him, that we didn’t even see the importance of carrying on his schemes while he recovered from his fight.
He harangued us as if we were failed members of a government cabinet. He was angry about the fact that we had not supervised the beggars, had not encouraged them, had not fed them, and had not looked after Helen the beggar girl, whom he said was a princess from a distant and devastated kingdom. He rounded on me because I had stopped spying at Madame Koto’s bar. He rounded on Mum because she had not been keeping in touch with political developments and had done nothing to recruit women to his political party. And he turned on both of us for failing to keep alive his dream of a university for beggars and the poor.
Mum said: ‘You spend all your time talking about this university for beggars, but what about us, eh? Are we not beggars? Don’t you hear how cracked my voice is? From morning till night I walked this ungodly city, hawking my provisions, crying out, while you slept like a goat for seven days.’
Leaping to his feet, Dad vented his full fury at Mum. Blindly he hurled his boots at the cupboard. The cupboard door flew open, revealing the pots empty of food. Cockroaches were sent scampering everywhere. Stamping his feet, lashing the air with his big fists, he went quite beserk with shouting. He said Mum was entirely devoid of vision and spent all her energy counting her wretched profits, while he tried to improve the condition of the people.
‘Improve our condition first,’ Mum replied.
Dad was momentarily stunned at the boldness of Mum’s interruption. She continued.
‘Where will you get the money to build a school for mosquitoes, talk less of beggars, eh? Will you steal, eh? Do you think money falls out of dreams, eh?’
Dad stopped in the beginnings of an antagonistic gesture.
‘But what about all the money I won?’ he asked, staring at us in utter disbelief, his bewilderment tinged with rage.
We were silent. We had completely forgotten the huge amount of money due to Dad for winning the fight with the warrior from the land of Battling Ghosts. Worried about his injuries, awestruck by his fabulous sleep and distracted by his recuperations, we had not remembered that Sami, the betting-shop man, owed us what amounted to a sizeable fortune.
‘WHAT ABOUT MY MONEY?’ Dad cried again.
‘We forgot,’ I said.
Mum shot me a furious glance. Dad sat on his chair and kept staring at us alternately, as if we had committed acts of unbelievable criminality.
‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, pressing such menace into every word, ‘that you people haven’t YET collected my money, eh?’
We dug deeper into our silence. Mum started to fidget. Then Dad, jumping up, sending the three-legged chair flying from underneath him, truly unleashed his mistral rage.
‘You are not on my side,’ he bellowed at Mum. ‘You are clearly my enemy! You want me to fail! You want me to be destroyed by the world! You go around in dirty clothes and ugly shoes and a disgusting wig of a he-goat, when I have hundreds of pounds sitting just across the street! You starve me, you starve my son, you obviously feed yourself in secret and meanwhile you don’t even bother to secure my investments! I carry loads that would break the neck of Hercules. I fight with giants and monsters and thugs. Yes, I fight and get beaten and manage to win–and I win only because of you two–and yet, through all this agony, you don’t even bother to look after the fruits of my victory?’
Dad paused. Then he drew a deep breath and, thrusting his raw face at Mum, he shouted: ‘GET OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU USELESS WOMAN WITH YOUR STUPID WIG! GET OUT! Go and sell your stupid provisions from morning till night! YOU ENJOY SUFFERING–YOU ENJOY POVERTY! Fine! GO and enjoy your poverty somewhere else and DON’T COME BACK! I will not kill myself for an UNGRATEFUL WIFE!’
Mum bore his tirade in a dangerous and stiff-necked silence. When Dad had exhausted himself, Mum stood up. With the movements of one who was enacting a decision she had reached long ago, she began to bundle her possessions. She gathered her faded wrappers, her moth-eaten wig, her undergarments, her old blouses, her slippers, her cheap jewellery, her tin-can of money, and dumped them all into an ancient box. Having almost reached the end of her forbearance, she took Dad’s words extremely seriously.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
She screamed at me, deafening me with the full volume of her life-long frustration. Dad stamped on his boots, downed a shot of ogogoro, and stormed out of the room. I followed him, but I kept a careful distance between us. The demon-girl was growing in him, becoming more luminous and ecstatic.
Outside, green moths were thickening in the air. No one seemed to notice. Dad was striding furiously to Sami’s betting shop when he saw Helen. Her beauty was more hypnotic than ever. Her blind eye was darker, her good one more jewelled and she was sitting on the bonnet of the burnt political vehicle, surrounded by the moths.
As if magnetized by the force of her astonishing serenity, Dad changed direction and ran over to her. He was about to speak when she turned her strange eyes to him and said: ‘It’s time for us to go.’
‘Why?’ Dad said.
‘When the time is right we will be back,’ she replied, turning away from him.
Dad pleaded with her to stay. The more he pleaded, the less interested she seemed. After a while she jumped down from the bonnet. The other beggars appeared mysteriously with rotting corn-cobs and mouldy bread in their hands. They gathered round Helen, awaiting her command. The moths had concentrated about them as if their poverty and their wretchedness were a unique kind of light. Without uttering another word Helen led the beggars up the road. The moths went with them, their clattering wings sounded oddly metallic.
Dad stood still for a long moment, watching the beggars leave. His face was disconsolate and it seemed his dreams were deserting him. The beggars had gone a short distance when Dad broke the trance of his abandonment and ran after them. The street watched us. The moths clicked in our faces. Thickly gathered around the beggars, they seemed a kind of shield. Was I the only one who saw the moths? Dad didn’t seem to, for he had launched into an impassioned plea directed at the beggar girl. Staring deep into her gem-like eye, he begged her to give him one last chance to fulfil his promise. He blamed his neglect on his recuperation, on me and Mum; and swore that he was going to build a school for them as soon as he had collected his money from the betting shop man.
‘I will prove it to you,’ he kept saying.
But the beggar girl, deaf to his entreaties, carried on walking. Glowing in a new delirium, Dad began to praise her beauty and her elegance, her face of a yellow moon, her limbs of a blue gazelle, her eyes of a sad and sacred antelope. He completely amazed me with his declaration of fearless love. In a burning voice, robust and insane, he said: ‘I dream of you every day, my princess from a strange kingdom. Everyone else sees you as a beggar, but I know you belong to a golden throne. You are so beautiful that even these butterflies . . .’
‘Moths,’ I corrected.
Dad glared at me, tapped me on the head and proceeded with his bizarre, passionate courtship.
‘ . . . that even these butterflies cling to you as if you are honey. You have the head of a spaceship, your eyes are like those of the wonderful maidens of Atlantis, you belong to the angelic kingdoms beneath the sea. You are a moon-woman come to brighten the earth. Your skin looks like flowers from another planet. You are the mistress of beauty, princess of grace, queen of the road. Let the flowers of the earth see you and weep . . . ‘
Dad went on and on, pouring out a stream of contradictory praises. The beggars ate their mould-encrusted bread and laughed at Dad’s ridiculous words. Helen remained indifferent. Unable to bear her indifference, his face twitching under the assault of the moths, Dad finally blocked her path, just before we got to Madame Koto’s bar-front. He astounded me by saying: ‘I want you to be my second wife. Stay and marry me. I will take care of your people.’
The beggar girl went on as if she hadn’t heard anything. Then Dad–his spirit swirling in the new yellow delirium–boldly declared his intention to honour his promises. He said Helen should come with him to Sami’s betting shop, and if all he was saying wasn’t true, if he didn’t have the money to build them a school, to feed and cater for them, then she was free to go. He made a solemn oath, loudly and with dramatic gestures.
For the first time Helen acknowledged his persistence. She stopped. Dad’s face broke into a triumphant smile. Turning to the rest of the beggars, he told them to wait for him. Then he seized Helen’s hand and set off with her towards Sami’s shop. Pestered by the moths, he strode defiantly through the rumour-making stares of the street.
Just as we were going past our house, Mum emerged with her tattered wig on and her ancient box under her arm. Dad didn’t notice her. She looked so unlike herself, so wretched and haggard, as if she were a tramp, or as if she were fleeing the compound in shame, that even I nearly didn’t recognize her. She followed us a short way and then, loud enough for the whole street to hear, she shouted: ‘So you want me to go, eh? So you are throwing me out because of that stinking beggar girl with a goat’s eye, eh?’
Dad looked back, saw her through the eyes of the demon sitting comfortably inside him, made a dismissive irritated movement of his hand and carried on, dragging the unwilling but mesmerized beggar girl with him. The demon that had entered my father had moved in for good. The occupation was complete. I could see his spirit whirling with grand dreams of love. For as he went, oblivious to the terrible changes he was bringing into our lives, I realized how much Dad was brimming over with love, possessed by its secret madness, bursting with love for everything, a wild unholy indiscriminate love, a love so powerful that it made him feel like a god, so vast that he didn’t know how to contain it or express it. The love in him had become a double demon and it propelled him towards chaos.
Mum began weeping bitterly, cursing all the years of her privation and suffering; cursing the day she set eyes on Dad in the village, during the most beautiful years of her life; swearing at Dad for having drained the life out of her in so profitless a marriage. And between them both I didn’t know who to choose. Mum went off, wailing, in the direction of Madame Koto’s fabulous bar. Dad marched on to Sami’s place, unmindful of the destruction he was sowing behind him. I started after Mum, but she screamed at me, as if she perceived that I was in alliance with Dad. And it may have been because of the moths (which I alone saw as moths), because of Helen and her tattered yellow dress, her emerald eye; or because of Dad’s polished boots and his bristling demonic love, or because I didn’t really believe Mum would disappear from our lives, that I chose to go after Dad–for with his mad passion lay the greater magnetic adventure, the curiosity and the rage.
And so, watching Mum grow smaller in the distance, a slouching figure, wailing and renting her wig, I reluctantly stuck with Dad’s story, and suffered the choice I made for many nights to come. ■
I recently read the short story The Winner by Ugandan writer Barbara Kimenye. The story is included in the collection Modern African Stories edited by Charles R. Larson, published by Fontana Books 1971.
About Barbara Kimenye
Barbara Kimenye was born in 1929 in England but considers herself Ugandan by birth. Kimenye began writing at an early age and put together her first newspaper when she was 11. Kimenye studied nursing in London. She married a Tanzanian and returned to Uganda in the early 1950s.
Kimenye became the private secretary of the Kabaka of Buganda, Mutesa II. Kabaka is the title given to the king of Buganda. Buganda was once an independent kingdom in what is now called Uganda. Uganda is actually the Swahili term for Buganda that was adopted by the British. Buganda is the largest traditional kingdom in Uganda and is inhabited by Uganda’s largest ethnic group the Baganda or Ganda people. The Ganda speak Luganda. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is located in Buganda.
Kimenye was encouraged to pursue a career in journalism by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya (Barack Obama’s godfather). Kimenye went on to become a columnist for the Uganda Nation and Kenya’s Daily Nation. Kimenye is considered to be the first Black female journalist in East Africa and is one of the first Anglophone women writers to be published out of East Africa.
The short story The Winner comes from Kimenye’s collection Kalasanda(1965). The stories in this collection and Kimenye’s later collection Kalasanda Revisited(1966) follow the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of the village Kalasanda in Buganda.
Kimenye has gone on to become a prolific writer of African Children’s Literature. Her most popular series is about a boy named Moses who attends a school for boys who have been kicked out of more reputable schools for misbehaving. Moses and his friends get in to all kinds of trouble but are not really bad, just mischievous.
The elderly Pius Ndawula has won the football pools. This has totally disrupted his quiet life. Now swarms of distant relatives have converged on his home and reporters want to talk to him about his good fortune. Pius’ closest friend, Salongo, also wants Pius’ money, but for the restoration of the tomb of a great Bugandan hero, of which he is the custodian.
Pius is particularly irritated with Cousin Sarah. He doesn’t really know her or the exact nature of his relationship to her (We later learn that she is the widow of a stepson of one of his cousins, hardly a close relationship). She has begun taking over his house as if it is hers, and remarking that Pius’ needs a woman to take care of his home. Salongo warns Pius that Cousin Sarah might want to trap him into marriage.
Pius has his own dreams for the money. He wants to add a new roof on his house or perhaps build an entirely new house out of concrete blocks. He would also like to extend his coffee shamba (garden) and invest in raising hens.
Pius was initially delighted when his close family members came to visit him after hearing the news about his winnings but was overwhelmed when relations he didn’t even recognize flooded his shamba. Salongo convinces Pius that he shouldn’t tell anyone what he wants to do with his winnings-including reporters. A reporter with a Ugandan radio station attempts to get an interview out of Pius but Salongo orders him to say nothing. Cousin Sarah ends up coming to the rescue and gives an interview on Pius’ behalf. Much to his horror, she states that she plans to stay and look after him for as long as he needs her.
Pius’ friends Yosefu Mukasa comes to visit him in the evening and is shocked to see how tired Pius looks and is also surprised to be greeted by Cousin Sarah who behaves as if she is mistress of Pius’ house. Yosefu offers to have Pius stay at his house and Cousin Sarah agrees that is it a wonderful idea and packs his bags. Salongo also thinks it is a good idea so that Pius isn’t left alone over night with Cousin Sarah.
Pius spends two days with the Mukasas being taken care of by Miriamu, Yosefu’s wife. While at the Mukasas, Pius gets the unfortunate news that there has been a mistake and he has not won all the prize money but must share the original amount he thought he won with 300 other people. Much to everyone’s surprise, Pius is not that upset.
Cousin Sarah ends up clearing all of Pius’ relatives out of his house but his shamba has been wrecked by them. When Pius returns to his house he finds that Cousin Sarah is still there and has plans for the repair of his house with his winnings. She also plans to bring over her own hens. By this time, Pius has begun to like Cousin Sarah but wonders why she wants to live with him. She tells him that both her sons are married and she doesn’t feel comfortable having another woman in the house. After seeing the news that Pius had won the football pools, she remembered Pius from her wedding when he had been very helpful. She decided that he needed her help to keep away greedy relatives and to take care of his house.
At the end of the story we learn that Pius gives Salongo some money for the tomb but, much to Salongo’s chagrin, Pius has decided to marry Cousin Sarah.
The Winner is an enjoyable read. It is a simple story but Kimenye manages to weave a few references to some dramatic changes in the social life of the Ganda peoples in post-Independence Uganda. For example, we learn that certain taboos around what women can and cannot eat are being challenged:
“Salongo and he had always said that there was money in hens these days, now that the women ate eggs and chicken; not that either of them agreed with the practice. Say what you liked, women who ate chicken and eggs were fairly asking to be infertile! That woman Welfare Officer who came round snooping occasionally, tried to say it was all nonsense, that chicken meat and eggs made bigger and better babies. Well, they might look bigger and better, but nobody could deny that they were fewer! “
Pius and Salongo, as representatives of an older generation of Ganda, are not happy about such changes but that won’t stop them from trying to profit off them.
The change in women’s eating habits reflects the changes in women’s position in Ganda society in the modern era which also relates to the “take-charge” character of Cousin Sarah. Initially, Cousin Sarah’s assertiveness is seen as threatening by Pius but eventually he warms to her and realizes that he needs her. Her assertiveness actually seems to rub off on him because at the end of the story Pius is able to stand up to his friend Salongo in a way we have not seen him do before.
On a side note, I wonder if Pius’ friends Yosefu and Miriamu are meant to be Muslims. These are Muslim names and there is a Muslim population in Buganda. In the mid-19th century, under the rule of Kabaka Mutesa I, a small but significant minority of Ganda were encouraged to adopt the practice of Islam from Swahili missionaries, particularly as it was seen to be advantageous to the Buganda Kingdom to have people who could read. However, as there is no other indication that Yosefu and Miriamu are Muslim it might simply be that they have taken the Swahili versions of the Biblical names Joseph and Mary.
To learn more about the origins of Islam in Buganda I recommend reading Buganda: Religious Competition for the Kingdom in Muslim Societies in African History by David Robinson.
The old jailhouse on the hilltop had remained uninhabited for many decades, through the construction of the town’s first grammar school and the beginning of house-to-house harassment from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls, but fortunes changed for the building with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard.
Before Bombay’s departure when everything in the world was locked in its individual box, he could not have believed such metamorphosis was possible. A man was still a man and a leopard a leopard while the old jailhouse was a forsaken place not fit for human habitation. A white man was the District Officer who went by in an impressive white jacket and a black man was the Native Police constable who saluted as the white man passed. This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise. But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became… read more.