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.