Jacob Had A Brother. The last part of Christmas


Jacob had a brother. Long before this. A brother named Roger. Roger was taller, had tougher arms and legs, like thick rope, and a voice that spit words sharply. Roger was a mean kid and had a group of other mean kids around him. A crew of scowling thugs who bullied the neighbourhood.

This was long ago, when they were still very young. Jacob was seven and had just received a football for his birthday from an aunt visiting from Germany. She did not understand these things. She gave Jacob the ball and it was appropriated by Roger as soon as they were alone.

Because it was a rare thing in those days, a real football, one from Europe, leather pentagons stitched in place. So pneumatic. It bounced like magic. Roger and his gang organized a game and called up Jacob and the other smaller kids.

This was how football in large teams was played back then: there were attackers, defenders and the big boys. The defenders hung around the back, near the goal to make it less easy to just stroll up and score. It was usually the fat kid and the slowest kids. Attackers were the scrappiest ones, the ones most eager to get at least some chance of touching the ball and the ones who could take the most pain. They were sent to throw themselves at the other team and harass the ball away from them. If they succeeded, they would pass the ball to the bigger kids, the players. The ones who actually played. It wasn’t fair. But by the age of seven, a boy in this part of this city has learned that life isn’t fair. Between school, bigger kids, parents, and so many other things, you would be a fool to still think a boy was anything more than just the victim of whatever decided to assault him.

So Jacob accepted the invitation to play with his own football. He was chosen to attack. This was good. It meant a chance to actually kick the ball. If you grew up kicking sisal or plastic or paper balls, then finding real leather and rubber, it’s narcotic. It will make you mad. You will forget yourself. The way it bounces when your foot taps it, that you caused that, that thrill will take you away from yourself. Jacob dove after the ball, now a flailing maniac.

These games did not stop for fouls, but Jacob did not stop for fouls either. He wanted the ball. Stevo, Krinye, Osondo, they broke rank, let the ball slip away from their feet and Jacob barreled toward them. The speed in his mind was greater than the speed in his feet. Thoughts and sight were blurring. It was just the tip of the ball and the tip of his foot. That was where clarity was. They found that moment, met, and with all his might he kicked. The ball sailed up and it took his breath away.

It did not go to the goal. Jacob was not a good player and he had not bothered to even aim when he kicked. Close to the square where the boys played was the fenced home of an old man called Dinga. He had black dogs. This was a long time ago. They were much younger then. Back then fear treated us differently. It was in things like black dogs.

“Wewe ndio uli kick. Wewe ndio uta go uka get.”

“Manze na doggie? Kuna doggie jo.”

“Na ball? Wacha aende a get ball. Yeye ndio ali kick kwa doggie.”

“Doggie ziki ni get?”

“Wewe! Enda u get ball!”

“Wewe! Enda u get ball!”

“Wewe! Enda u get ball!”

The circle of boys surrounding him converged on that last chant. It was a command. Everybody told us that black dogs were fierce and dangerous. They didn’t tell us how fierce and evil, but we believed them, so we had to understand for ourselves how deadly they were. This means that all the things we properly understood to hurt and destroy, we took those notions and laid them upon the shanks of the black dogs. Black dogs, humiliation, black dogs, pain, black dogs, being hated and rejected, black dogs, sour and bitter things in the mouth, black dogs, teachers who caught you, black dogs breaking glass, black dogs, ends, destructions, shames.

So Jacob walked up to the gate and knocked like a kid going to ask for his ball back. But when it creaked open, he turned and ran, like a kid who heard the opening of a gate that held dogs. The path inclined upwards, and Jacob ran it furiously. His eyes were already watery, distorting his sight, but he could see Roger ahead of him. Maybe there is an instinct in us and that is what lead him to run to Roger. We run to our family. He was screaming.

“Doggie! Madoggie zina come!” His feet pounding the ground hard. He got to Roger and through the wetness in his eyes he saw Roger’s foot stretch out into the path he was running in. He heard Roger shout, “Ngwata!” Then his feet let go and he was in the air.

Then his whole body was on the ground. His face was in the dust. The dust turning into a film of thin mud on his face where his tears were and around his groin where he had urinated on himself. Roger was laughing loudly and the other big boys joined him. The other kids, the smaller ones, kept away. Jacob lay down long enough to hear and understand that there was no dog. Nothing had chased him.

Everyone was laughing. “Roger bratha wako ame kupiga ngwata.” Ngwata in those days. It meant a tackle, or a trip.<<< Jacob went home, wet soil on his clothes and cheeks. Like all of us he grew up and grew out of his fear of black dogs. But he never grew out of the way he felt about his brother.


Christmas Tale Part V


It started when she was eighteen and he was seventeen. So he told her he was nineteen. It started with him lying and proceeded with her letting him lie and it went on the way that type of adolescent romance does. Fumbling along through uncertain awkward, clumsy moments. Lost footholds, accidental brushes, misplaced hands and glances caught in the wrong place, lingering looks, laughter held too long. Anxiety adds weight to trifles and gestures and words made and said and maybe not so well understood. Love is a foreign language to everyone who speaks it. It is never properly understood. So that is how it started. Maybe it started later. Maybe it started to end there.

I want to tell you how they would meet. I have been carrying this notebook around for two months trying to write it. I wanted to show you the whole thing: the sloping path down to her home, which he would walk down in the evening after school. How the sun would fall while they were talking, then he would point at stars and tell her their names and she would repeat them, and he didn’t feel dorky about it because she would not let him, and then the hour would turn again and the nightflowers from the hedge around her neighbour’s house would explode and the air would be fragrant… I wanted to show you all that, step by step, word by word, how everything … but I have failed to. I don’t know why. I know the story so well, but I can’t tell it. Maybe because I have already seen the end. I know there is hatred in the end so I cannot tell you about love.
Maria doesn’t believe in love. He is why.
I can’t tell you but I can tell you what they said. Not what words they spoke, but what they said.

Jacob: This sucks. Why is everything so empty? Why does the air feel empty? The air. It feels empty. As if something isn’t in the air that should be there. I hate this, this feeling that you are not there. You make things empty even when they shouldn’t be. It is just being without you and it is being without anything. I hate this. Leave me alone. Let me walk streets the way other men walk streets, without the streets feeling endless and the walking in vain because it is not to you or from you. Leave me alone. Can’t I just walk a fucking street?

Or don’t leave me. Come to me. Come to me. Fill these spaces.
Maria: You know what I need? Just one thing. A single, polar, absolute. An axis. Just there to mark the centre. Everything will revolve around it, everything will emanate from it, and it will always be there, like the certain unchangeable meaning, the answer, that thing. I need that.

There has been too much chaos, too much, even now, so little of what I am or what the world is blurs and whizzes around me and I can’t hold onto it.

I dreamt once, maybe more than once, maybe I keep having this dream then forgetting it when I wake up because I cannot remember when I dreamt it, but I remember it vividly. In this dream I was in a pitch black place. Pitch black. Total darkness. But I was moving. Really fast. I think that dream lasted for like just a few seconds, but I remember it often. Pitch black, not even knowing whether I am falling or flying.

That’s what you were to me. You came in like this light. You were so sure of the things you said to me that I believed you. I believe them still. I believe them about me, and I believe them about you. You will be my pole star. you will be my anchor. You will be the light I fly up to, or fall down to. I will believe you.

From The Wreckage


African cities move so fast. But they would have to—to have all the shit of western urbanization with hardly enough money, with hardly enough space, in hardly enough time, it squeezes everything and makes it so tense. African cities are tense. People talk rapidly, eyes dart, fingers are nimble and agile and clay and cement piles upon ground casting shadows that slide from one side of a highway all the way to another in just one sudden rapid day. So fast, gone so soon, hardly enough to remember.

But nights are different. Nights are eternal. You can sit down and stare in silence at night. You can believe that night is the same way it has been under these hills for hundreds of years, wild, full, completely itself, giving a fuck about you.

You can sit in a small, cheap, bedsit, alone at midnight and fuck yourself up. No one would care about you.

So Duncan Mugalu, as midnight gathers, in turn, gathers his equipment before him. Continue reading



You can’t go home again. You never can. Because every day you are away, home moves further back from where you left it.

You can have your small cargo of Samsonite bags wound tight and tagged at Heathrow. You can watch them with an abrasive hint of suspicion as the broad-shouldered man in the uniform grabs first one, then another and then whisks them off into the secret airport cargo hold. You may not trust their secrets, but there is nothing you can do to stop the bags vanishing. You will turn the suspicion of your gaze to the woman at the ticket counter who shall parry it away expertly by smiling a very pretty smile, the kind of smile that makes you want to love aunts, and observing that you have very little luggage for a person with a British passport and a one-way ticket to Africa.


Continue reading

This Christmas


What do you want for Christmas was being discussed at the back of the pickup. A hilux doluble cabin that had been specially customized for this journey. This was their feat of engineering: a set of old tyres had been placed on the pickup’s bed and a sofa had been placed on top of these. The tyres absorbed the shakes from the road. On the sofa two men sat, smug and proud of their ingenuity. They were not worried about rain on the journey because it never rained on Christmas. On the topic at hand, that is, what each would want for Christmas, the leaner one replied, “Maria.” He said it again after a pause.” I think I will get Maria back.”

“Why?” asked his paunchier friend in the attitude of one who did not believe a satisfactory ansnwer to the question was even possible. “Because she’s an idiot?”

“She will take me back because she is an idiot. But I want her back…I want her back, because, in spite of everything, she is better than this, this hole of wind, this what is left without her. Maybe I hate her, but maybe that is what love is. Someone you can’t live without because life without them is so much worse.”

Continue reading

The Home Of My Rival


Does he have blood in him?” asked the first one.

“They all do,” said the second one. He did not wait for me to answer. He spoke for me.

“Then we shall bleed him,” said the first one. His face was made of a hard flesh that looked like wood. It was a face set in that shape. That mouth, that brow, those lines running down from temple to cheek, knowing none of the things that soften other men’s faces, that make other men’s skins ripple and shake. “Then we shall bleed him.”

After I gave them their money I returned to my home. I left them in that part of life where such dark things writhe and smoulder and I stood once again in light and saw colour. My television set was on and my family was watching it. The children were eating from plates on the carpet before them. They sat cross legged and their knees formed a triangle of space for the plates. They carried spoonfuls from the plates to their mouths without looking down. They watched only they screen. The perfection of television’s white men and women. They laughed in unison with the crackle and rush sound from the TV. They did not know what I had done.

Continue reading

Blue Light


On Saturday night, when the rest of our clan leave their homes to hunt down the yellow and red lights of a young city on a weekend night, the four of us, Kaijenga, Awana, Rom and myself turned down another direction. Wa had said that he knew where we should find another light. A pale blue light. And we followed him. There are people like that: when you put people like us next to people like that, we slip from ranks adjacent to them into files behind them.  We spilled out of a taxi on the edge of the fine blacktop and let the van curve back towards the towers of the city, and we dove after him into the narrow, crooked, cracked mudroads into the slums. Ragged walls and rusty tin and rotting planks, deeper and deeper into the slums.

It was darker here at this hour than it would be uptown, and the flashes that were caught in the slimy puddles beneath our sneakers were fugitive; they darted away from our eyes as we approached. We padded through with our puffy sneakers firmer than the ground and Kai laughed. Tuli mu ghetto! he proclaimed.

Continue reading