An extract from ‘Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction’, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Wasafiri is delighted to feature a second exclusive extract from the exciting new anthology Safe House: An Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. Published by Cassava Republic Press on 26 May 2016 in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, the book’s editor, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, says:
‘In their individual expressions, the contributors to Safe House define a specifically African genre of creative nonfiction, one inflected by the geography and politics, the cultures and histories, of this continent.
‘Their pieces represent as wide a range in experience as they do in subject and form. There are seasoned nonfiction practitioners, writers who are beginning to make their mark in their home countries and those established in other genres who are trying nonfiction for the first time.’
The Mission at Verona
Today, my father has returned early. I see him on the road, coming home on his bicycle. Sing:
Ligi ligi Baba oo [Ligi ligi Daddy has arrived]
Ligi ligi Baba oo [Ligi ligi Daddy has arrived]
This is the song I sing with my half-sister Adyero, who is one year younger than me. Father always brings something home for us all: lagalagala, boiled maize, sim sim melted with sugar.
The path leading to our homestead is wide, so you can always see whoever is coming towards the house and anyone on the path has a clear view of our home. My father brings seedlings and the seeds of different plants. We have giant pine trees, bamboo and eucalyptus. Fruit trees – mangoes, avocados, banana, oranges, lemon, jackfruit, jambula, durian, adunnu – and flowers — frangipani, jacaranda, cassia, jasmine.
The trees surround our homestead and we are woken every day by the loud chirping from the trees. Sometimes we incorporate our words in the bird’s song:
Agakakak meni otedo ngo? [Raven, what has your mother cooked?]
Boo boo boo boo boo, the bird answers.
My mother has planted boo as well as eggplant, malakwang and otigo around our home; vegetables she sends me to pick whenever she needs them. Our farmland is a kilometre away. That is where we grow sweet potatoes, maize, lapena, beans.
In 1986, when Yoweri Museveni became president, he brought peace to Uganda. During the coup there were rumours that he was going to kill all the Acholi because Acholi had killed people in Luwero, a stronghold for his rebel activities. But since we don’t hear of any killings or reprisals, we have begun to relax and hope there will be no retribution.
That evening when my father returns from work, he seems tired. There are no patients waiting for him with their chickens or goats, so I bring his chair, rwot onino – the chief is sleeping – and unfold it under the mango tree. He brings his radio from his room and sits listening to the news.
‘Lamwaka, go get me water,’ my father says. I was going to get his water even without him asking, but he always asks anyway.
My mother is cooking lapena with sweet potatoes. The smell of the food wafts across the compound. The kitchen is full of smoke from the burning wood and I don’t want to stay in there for long. Our kitchen is directly at the end of the path leading home, only blocked by a metre of the main road. I look up and I can see men walking on the road but, because of the smoke I don’t pay much attention.
‘There are men coming,’ I tell my father when I bring his water.
‘Are they carrying a patient?’ he asks.
Before we can say more, the men arrive and walk straight to my father. My mother comes out of the kitchen.
The men have guns slung over their shoulders. They are wearing lacaka caka trousers but no shirts. They wear sapatu, not shoes or boots, on their feet. All the soldiers I have seen before wear lacaka caka trousers and matching shirts with heavy boots.
When we see them we sing:
Lacaka caka meno bongo lweny [Camouflage clothes are for infighting]
Lacaka caka meno bongo kolo [Camouflage clothes are for provoking]
The men who come today to greet my father as he sits under the mango tree are friendly; they greet us as if we are old acquaintances. My mother offers them water to drink and chairs to sit on. They refuse the seats but accept the water. My mother goes back to the kitchen, but I am sure that she is following what is going on. I sit on the ground beside my father. I want to know what is going on here.
The men stand around as if their mothers never taught them that when you stand around someone seated, you suck their blood. My father begins to look uncomfortable in his chair.
‘Mzee, itye maber?’ They ask over and over again as if they have not just greeted him.
There is a play on the radio. If these men were not around, we would have listened to this play without interruption. The men introduce themselves: Okello from Laliya, Otim from Anaka, Larem from Koch Goma, Nyeko from For God and Mwaka from Lacekocot. Although it was years ago, I remember the names of this first group of men. Their faces have never faded from my mind.
‘My daughter is Lamwaka. She was born on the first. What about you?’
‘Lamwaka, you must give me chicken, since you are younger,’ Mwaka tells me. Then, to my father, he says, ‘I don’t know when I was born, my mother never told me.’
I am not allowed to stand around my father or any adult. I am afraid to suck their blood. If I want something from him or if my mother sends me to ask him for something, I have to kneel and then ask. Seeing the men standing there makes me wonder what they are really saying.
‘Lamwaka, come into the house,’ my mother calls to me.
I quickly follow her voice into the kitchen.
‘Why do you want to listen to adult conversations? This child of mine!’
I am not in the kitchen for long when my father calls me to catch one of the chickens walking around the compound. My father has never asked me to catch any chicken; that is my mother’s responsibility. She is the one who knows which chicken is ready to be eaten.
I go straight to the bamboo trees where I know there will be more chickens and I can sneak up on them. They all run in different directions. I have always hated running after chickens because they never stay still when you need to catch one. My brother Richard joins and finally he is the one who catches one.
‘Why are we giving them a chicken?’ Richard asks.
‘I think the men with the guns want it,’ I tell him.
‘I saw some men at Korina’s also getting chicken.’
‘Eh.’ I do not know what else to say.
When we return with the chicken, my father’s friends Apa and Orub are seated with him. The other men are still standing. Now they seem anxious to leave. Richard hands the chicken to one of the men and the bird squirms as the man holds it away from his body and gun. It defecates on the ground.
‘Apwoyo,’ he says. The men thank my father and then they are leaving, walking back along the path before turning to the left towards Bwobo.
Richard and I stand there for a moment, neither my father nor his friends saying anything.
‘Things might be getting bad,’ Apa says after a while.
My mother appears from the kitchen. She is excited. Earlier in the day, the women at the well had said there are many men in Bwobo and many more are joining now. We must be careful now.
(c) Beatrice Lamwaka, republished by kind permission of the authors and publishers
Beatrice Lamwaka is a recipient of the 2011 Young Achievers Award. She was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing and was a finalist for the South African PEN/Studzinski Literary Award 2009. The anthology of short stories Queer Africa: new and collected fiction (2013), which includes her short story, won the twenty-sixth Lambda Literary Award in the fiction anthology category in 2014. She was selected as one of the Young African Scholars for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s special programme in 2009. Her stories have been translated into Spanish, Italian and French.
Read an extract from Isaac Otidi Amuke’s title piece ‘Safe House’ below.
Isaac Otidi Amuke
Saturday, September 18, 2010
That Saturday morning I wore faded blue jeans, a pair of well-worn but still in vogue brown suede loafers I’d bought from the flea market outside City Stadium on Jogoo Road and a black long-sleeved shirt tucked into my pants. The thing about the City Stadium loafers was that, as much as they were pre-owned by someone in either Europe or America, they were still in pristine condition, and whenever I wore this particular pair, which I had owned for over a year, I got the same feeling of comfort and self-assuredness I’d felt the first time I put them on.
I had obsessed about owning a solid black shirt for a long time and when I bought this particular one I’d spent more time admiring it in my wardrobe than daring to put it on, fearing it would wear out. But that morning I didn’t worry about any of this. All I wanted was that fitted-shirt-fitted-jeans-leather-lined-loafers feeling, one that made me feel ready for the weekend. That’s what I went for.
It was that rare time of the month when I had money on me. I had received my $300 stipend from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights a few days earlier, which was supposed to cater for my monthly groceries. The commission was housing me in a $1,200 furnished and serviced one-bedroom unit at Ler Apartments on Chania Road in Kilimani, where I had now lived for over five months, starting in April 2010. I had struck a deal in which they had offered to house me on condition that I didn’t let anyone know about the arrangement. If anyone got to learn of it, I was told, the deal would be off, immediately, with no room for renegotiation.
Technically this was supposed to be a safe house, for which the commission was willing to pay an arm and a leg, since one had to pay ‘neighbourhood tax’ in Kilimani — the go-to neighbourhood for young Kenyans who wanted to show social arrival, some announcing their new middle-class status, real or perceived, and others working to maintain whatever status had been handed down to them by their parents. The price of this middle-classness was paying exorbitant rents for apartments with wooden floors and sliding French windows leading to balconies with ashtrays placed on garden tables, where they’d come out to have a smoke after a long day of chasing money to keep themselves living in the neighbourhood.
I lived in apartment B2, which was the door on the right as one came up the stairs on the first floor of the block of one-bedroom apartments. The sliding door leading to the balcony gave a view of the other apartment block within the property, with its office, kitchen and gym on the ground floor.
A huge abstract painting and a mirror mounted in wrought iron were all there was to the walls of the small lounge area of my apartment, where a 45-inch flat screen TV set sat in the corner next to the balcony. Two couches covered in orange linen seat covers formed a 90-degree angle facing the TV set, with one of the seats leaning against a wall. A stout, brown, square wooden table placed on a beige rug sat at the centre of the lounge, with a round four-seater dining table adjacent to a fully equipped open plan kitchen. The bedroom had a huge bed – which I’d comfortably share with my three cousins whenever they visited – and on the side was a floor-to-ceiling mirror mounted on a wooden frame made of driftwood.
To some, this would be the life. To me, life was in limbo.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
My journey to the safe house began on the slow-moving Thursday evening of March 5, 2009.
I was standing outside the Yaya Centre, the imposing shopping mall and high-end apartment tower block at the junction of Argwings Kodhek Road and Ring Road in Kilimani, waiting for my friend Zoe, with whom I was to watch Notorious, the newly released biopic on the life of American rapper Notorious B.I.G. We had both watched Redemption, the life story of B.I.G.’s main rival, Tupac Shakur, and we’d spent many evenings talking about it over coffee. When I got tickets for Notorious, Zoe was my natural choice for company.
She was taking too long to get from Westlands to the Yaya Centre, where we were to proceed to the movie theatre at Prestige Plaza, Ngong Road. She called and said she was running late. There was no public transport and so she’d had to take a cab. Between wondering how Zoe would be dressed and speculating over how the evening would unfold, whether we’d enjoy the movie as I hoped and possibly grab a meal thereafter and wander into deeper conversation about anything and everything – as we always did – my thoughts were interrupted by a phone call from our friend Wachira.
‘Amuke, GPO amepigwa risasi,’ Wachira said.
Our friend George Paul Oulu, known as Oulu GPO, had been shot. Wachira sounded out of breath, panting on the other end of the line as if he was being chased. We had always felt invincible as student activists, imagining that the worst that could happen to us would be getting kicked out of school.
GPO had been suspended from the university by the time Zoe, Wachira and I were freshmen. He had led a student protest against fees increments, and the university had slapped him with a three-year suspension. He had been barred from student politics upon readmission and used us as proxies in fighting the repressive administration. GPO had been shot on State House Road, next to the University of Nairobi, alongside Oscar Kamau Kingara, a civil society benefactor we had befriended. Wachira had been having a beer at Senses, the pub at the student centre a few metres away, when he had heard the gunshots. It was 6:00 p.m.
GPO was dead.
(c) Isaac Otidi Amuke, republished by kind permission of the authors and publishers
Isaac Otidi Amuke lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. He was selected to participate in the 2014 Commonwealth Writers creative nonfiction workshop in Kampala, Uganda, and the 2015 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. He has written nonfiction for the literary journal Kwani? since 2012, and his literary journalism has appeared on the Commonwealth Writers website. He received the 2013 Jean Jacques Rousseau Fellowship from the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, and is working on a two-part memoir on student activism and life as an asylum seeker.
Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
In a collection of creative essays that ranges from travel writing and memoir to reportage, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey brings together some of the most talented writers of creative nonfiction from across Africa.
A Ghanaian explores the increasing influence of China across the region; a Kenyan student activist writes of exile in Kampala; a Liberian scientist shares her diary of the Ebola crisis; a Nigerian writer travels to the north to meet a community at risk; a Kenyan travels to Senegal to interview a gay rights activist and a South African writer recounts a tale of family discord and murder in a remote seaside town.
This anthology contains a range of unforgettable stories by authors from across Africa and presents personal views of contemporary issues in an accessible and thought-provoking manner.
Publication Date: 26th May 2016
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