EXCERPTS FROM BLACK MAMBA BOY
To see his knees bucking under the weight of his thin body hurts me, but I respect those knees for walking across continents, for wading through the Red Sea. I will sing the song of those knees. I am my father’s griot, this is a hymn to him. I am telling you this story so that I can turn my father’s blood and bones, and whatever magic his mother sewed under his skin, into history. To make him a hero, not the fighting or romantic kind but the real deal, the starved child that survives every sling and arrow that shameless fortune throws at them, and who can now sit back and tell the stories of all the ones that didn’t make it.
Shidane…Light the torches for his flight to heaven. Let his shadow always haunt his tormentors.
Like his mother before him, he sharpened his spirit on the knife edge of solitude, stylites on their pillars, they saw loneliness, aloneness, oneness as divine states. The mother of all sailors is meant to be the sea, but Ambaro was more powerful, more tempestuous, more life-giving than any puddle of water. She gave life to my father over and over again…she took his paltry little life and molded it into something epic…She was all that he needed in life and he remains here testament to what a mother’s love can do, it turns wax into gold.
My father is an old sea-dog who sailed to freedom on a prison ship.
Those fortune men like my father who set their footprints in the sand, fifty, sixty, a hundred years ago, are the prophets who led the Israelites out of the wilderness. Whatever Pharaoh says, they will not be tied down, they will not be made slaves, they will make the whole world their promised land.
Despite the beauty of her words, Jama felt his mother was threading pearl after pearl of expectation into a noose that would sit loosely around his neck, ready for her to hang him one day.
“The one thing that woman is good at is breeding, she must have a highway between her legs, she gives birth to litters of two and three…”
“No wonder your poor uncle is so deaf! You have taken enough ears for both of you,” said Jama grabbing hold of Shidane’s flapping ears.
Izra’il, the angel of death, had barged down Ubah’s door fourteen times to decimate her legion of children, spiriting them away with diarrhea, petty accidents, hunger, coughs that had wracked tiny rib cages until they had cracked.
Returning to Islaweynes’ house was too bitter a fruit for Jama to stomach; the bloated, pompous pig of a woman treated Jama and his mother like flies hovering around her heaped dinner plate. He had grown tired of making his small body even smaller so that false queen could feel like the air in the room was her sole reserve.
Shidane picked on people the way he picked at scabs, desperately trying to get to the red, pulpy stuff underneath.
“They turned their gaze too when Abyssinians stole our Ogaden, if they can take our ancestral land then let the Ferengis take theirs”
It still seemed incredible to him that his mother, a woman who had so devotedly tutored him in pride, self-respect and independence, could allow herself to become subject to the petty dictatorship of a fat woman and her overfed family.
“Listen to me Goode, I am not leaving you. I will live in your heart, in your blood…”
No-one paid any attention to the market boy, this was a town accustomed to a tide of newcomers; Yemeni’s, Afars, Somalis, Indians, French colonials, all felt this town belonged to the. There were clashes, love affairs and friendships between the communities but there was also just plain indifference.
“When you go to Eritrea, you will see even more clearly, there are Ferengis who think that you don’t feel pain like them, have dreams like them, love life as much as them. It’s a bad world we live in, you’re like a flea riding a dog’s back, eventually you will end between its teeth.”
Jama counted seven small islands and realized happily that they were the seven wicked brothers. Idea had told him that they had been evil pirates who God had caught in a raging storm and turned into islands, to be forever whipped by the violent winds of the Bab el Mandab Strait, the Gate of Tears.
“They want you to step into the gutter when they approach, say master this and master that…That’s the way here, it’s not a life but it’s better than death…the longer you stay, the less of a man you become.”
Millions of mosquitoes congregated in the camp, moving in battalions from body to body, they colonized the bloodstreams of men while they innocently slept…
Jama felt like something evil had entered him, as if a jinn was pounding his head with a club, alternately roasting him on a spit and plunging him into ice cold water. He shivered and sweated, sweated and shivered until his mat felt like a bucket of water had been sluiced over it….Malaria pounded at Jama’s body and made him feel like he had been attacked by a madman, without painkillers or quinine, he had to wait and see if this unseen madman would manage to cause enough harm to kill him. Far above him his mother realigned the stars, bartered incense and beads with the angels so that they would spare her son, and browbeaten they reluctantly complied.
Unfortunate civilians and askaris carried the livid geography of lashes on their backs. The Italians used hippopotamus skin because the tough hide cut through human skin like a razor. One hundred lashes were enough to kill a strong, healthy man, and they were generous with the blows. Jama felt that one stroke of the whip would probably send him to jannah in his delicate state.
“..by decree of Emperor Vittorio Emanuele, all possessions held by the natives of Italian East Africa are deemed to be held only in trust and their true ownership will be adjudicated by colonial legislators. All hunting, fishing, and trapping is prohibited without permission from colonial authorities. Oh people, hear me, they are telling us we own nothing, and we cannot kill a thing for our mouths without asking them first.”
It’s hard to avenge yourself on someone you fear, when everything about them, their height, power, possessions, confidence, imposes a sense of your own inferiority. Even a child’s imagination shrinks in the presence of terror. Jama returned every day to be bullied and shamed despite the humming sickness in his bones, he was like a moth drawn to the harsh light of the Italian’s omnipotence.
Jama studied the way the Italian operated; he learnt that neither physical ugliness nor moral weakness mattered in the world of men. A man was respected if other men feared him, and the Italian had somehow cracked the mystery of manufacturing fear in people. He was unpredictable and uninterested in the camaraderie of his peers, he reminded Jama of a wild boar, always on the verge of attack.
Jama staggered to work the next day…he had to approximate the time from the sun and the events around him, he did not understand the Italian’s insistence on arriving at a particular minute. He thought it stupid of the white man to place so much importance on portioning up time into little meaningless fragments rather than following the fluid movement of the sun as rational people did.
In Rome, Mussolini the opportunist, the failed primary school teacher, that syphilitic seller of ideas fallen from the back of a lorry, that gurning midget, calculated how many hundreds or even thousands he would need to claim dead before Hitler would deign to cut him a slice of the victory cake.
It seemed that many languorous Italians had only made the arduous journey to east Africa because they had been promised that they would find there Abyssinian lovelies, it was fascistic sex tourism, all sun, sex, and laughter.
Jama wrapped Abdi in his new shirt and lay down, nearly on top of the fire, afraid that the chill inside him would freeze his heart.
As he paced around…his feet gained feeling, they were like the hooves of a racehorse…they were not happy unless they could feel miles of earth passing underneath them every day. “The only thing that comes to you if you sit around is death.” That was his family’s only philosophy.
Jama went to the river…he tied weights to the images of the dead corpses, burning men and lost eyes lodged in his mind, and plunged them to the bottom of the river.
He felt no joy or misery just a deep yearning for all things he had lost. The war was over but it had taken everything with it, and reduced his world to an island of peace surrounded by a sea of blood.
There were no titles in Gerset, no masters, or lords, not even misses; respect was given freely, equally, generously, all were descendants of Queen Kuname.
Her giant, black thicket of hair earned her the name Bighead, and she wore it like a crown of thorns…Her mother would sometimes put an afternoon aside to laboriously braid it, laying it down into manageable rows like their crops, before like a rainforest it burst out of its manmade boundaries and reclaimed its territory.
Overlooking, however, was Rumor, she that flits between sky & earth, who never declines her head in gentle sleep, and with swift wings she took flight to disturb the peaceful repose of the villagers.
Bounty could be reduced to penury in the blink of an eye.
As Bethlehem tried to tie Jama to her, the urge to escape grew stronger and stronger; despite his love for her, he resented the way she had laid claim to him, as if he didn’t have a past or a future without her.
Surrounded by his father’s belongings, Jama began to imagine himself as his father’s sole legacy, everything that once had been his father’s was now contained in him. It was up to him to live the life his father should have lived, to enjoy the sun and rivers, the fruit and honey that life offered.
“However good I am to you, you still feel you can wipe your dirty feet on me.”
“The world has been broken open for you like a ripe pomegranate and you must swallow the seeds.”
“..you will ride the waves of all the seas and leave your footprints on every corner of the earth.”
“I thought my life would be long. I expected so much from it and wanted to come back when I could lay it at your feet, but I was merely a puppet with fine strings holding me up.”
“If you want to make every decision for me, what’s the point of being alive? You might as well live both our lives for us.”
Bethlehem put her hand on his heart. ‘This is mine now, your heart is my dowry, understand’?
In this society you were nobody unless you had been anointed with an identity by a bureaucrat.
Alexandria was like the ancient harlot mother of Aden and Djibouti, she had grown rich and now put on airs and graces but in dank, cobwebbed corners her truest colors were revealed.
In Egypt, Ajis would share cups with Liban, eat with him, befriend him because there was no one to judge them but their acceptance was a vapor that would evaporate under the Somali sun.
Like Aden, cosmopolitan Alexandria was not an easy place for poor Africans. People looked through them as if through vapor or stared at their bodies dissectingly, commenting on their teeth, noses, backsides. Alexandria belonged to the pashas who walked down streets cleaned for them, past doors held open for them, into hotels and shops where people quivered and fluttered around them.
The whole carriage was full of Somalis who had also entered Egypt illegally, all roamers who had only known porous insubstantial borders and were now confronted with countries caged behind barriers.
As Musa continued to talk he could see the remnants of what had been a sharp witty mind, but it had been pickled in gin and blunted by isolation.
…they could not read or write but they memorized everything with a skill only found in the illiterate.
Only later in life do we see tugs of fate with clear eyes, the minute delays that lead to terrible loss, the unconscious choices that make our lives worth living…
The hospitality was usually brisk and business-like but very generous…No questions were asked of the strange boys and no one reported their presence to the police, they treated Jama and Liban as otherworldly spirits who would report their compassion or meanness to a higher authority.
Sunset came and they scuttled out of the sandbank like crabs, the moon lighting the way forward and the crash of waves applauding their progress.
The hot red dirt of Africa, scintillating with mica as if God had made the earth with broken diamonds, would not be found anywhere else. But like the Somali women in Aden, Africa struggled to look after her children and let them run in the wind, giving them freedom to find their own way in the world.
If he had not bent with circumstances he would have been broken by them, but these people seemed to want to be broken or at least did not care.
These babies were prisoners of the British, but also of their parents’ dreams.
The refugees had been treated like animals, had been mocked, beaten, degraded by men reveling in their power, as had Jama, and that humiliation never left anyone. It sand on their backs like a demon, and these demons would intermittently dig their talons into their flesh and remind them of where they had been.
“I have lived through Polish hell, Russian hell, German hell, and now British hell but I swear y God that I will not condemn my children to Palestinian hell. I have lost my husband and son already, watched their ashes blow out of Nazi chimneys, I want peace, just peace, give me a little wasteland as long as my children can eat and sleep in peace. My father was a philosophy teacher but my daughters cannot even read, you think they can learn while you are fighting and smashing heads? Take your violence and murder to people who had had enough of comfort and peace. I want nothing from guns and bombs. You think you are David from the Bible but we are not your worshippers or subjects. In Palestine there must be no war, if there is war we may as well stay in Poland, or go to Eritrea, Cyprus or wherever the British want to send us.”
Jama barely understood what she said but he was moved by her…He had seen how strong women were better leaders than strong men. With the Italians he had learnt how to destroy but the women of Gerset had taught him how to create and sustain life.
He now understood that the war that had ravaged Eritrea had blazed across the world. Jama stared at the photographs of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Dresden. Naked children screaming with hollow mouths appeared in all the photographs calling to each other like Siamese twins who had been torn apart. African, European and Asian corpses were piled up in the pages of the magazine besides adverts for lipstick and toothpaste. Already the world was moving on, from somber black and white to lurid color.
“..they have a saying in this country, all fur coat and no knickers, understand? On the outside everything looks grand and pompous but underneath…” “Underneath it’s just abaar iyo udoo-lullul, hardship and banditry, yes I understand.”
Machines dedicated to fun and excitement had never existed in his word and here was a whole field of delirious mayhem…Rides to frighten, to elate, to compete in, every emotion was for sale…
All of this became a kind of philosophy passed on from Abdullahi, that grey seas would be their goldmines, seagulls their pets, hairy blue-veined Britons their companions. Women and Africa were not a part of this brave new world. Beyond the rationing, the bomb sites, the slumlike housing, the angry dungareed men, Port Talbot was still the Promised Land, with every new technology obtainable, gas cookers, vending machines, top class radios, picture houses.
On the ship his love for her had been like a dove in a cage but it now stretched out its wings and soared.
“…after he told me my father was dead, I sat there until nightfall unable to move, but I promised myself something. I might have been a scrawny, snot-nosed little boy but I promised myself something, that I would never abandon a child of mine, never.”
“Then you became a man that day.”
“London’s beauty is not in its buildings, Jama, but in its people, you go to Piccadilly Circus and it’s like walking through the crowds on Judgment Day, people flee from all over the world with bits of their villages hidden in their socks and plant them anew here. Just in Leman Street we have a Somali barber, a Somali mechanic, even a Somali writer amongst Jewish grocers, Chinese cooks and Jamaican students.”
They laughed over the things they could speak about, the rest was left to rust in the locked chambers of their hearts.
“I think that there are more Somalis at the bottom of the sea or lost in the desert than there are left in our land. They leave to become drivers, askaris, sailors, whatever, anything as long as it takes them far away.”
“It’s because we are nomads, land is the same to us everywhere we go, we only care if there is water and food to be found. When I was farming in Gerset I felt this patch of land is mine, this tukul is mine, I planted this tree so I want to see it grow, now I think wherever my family is that is where I belong.”
..his father’s tattered suitcase somehow still holding together, even with the many dreams and fears squeezed in amongst his clothes.
Jama let his legs move to the swinging jazz, let his hips whine a little, his shoulders shimmy, anything to free the music trapped within his soul.