Footsteps in rubbish town

Surumani Manzi

The receding night was still alight with a few twinkling celestial lights, like a reversing twilight, when you ambled from your crumpled bed and made for the road.

 

You looked up and tried to count. You got to seven and gave it up. You're not an astrologer, and the exercise makes your head ache.

 

Life had began to stir, with those queer morning sounds that reminded one of a convalescing man regaining some semblance of health, or an old cripple that suddenly begins to totter like a toddler outgrowing the crawl.

 

In the rusty and dusty confusion of makeshift shanties, misshapen shadows fall across the narrow footpaths, dappling the mists as you lumber through the dark, constricted alleyways of rubbish-town.

 

You stretch yourself recklessly and attempt to suppress a long yawn. Hunger doesn't let you.

There is a brownish arthropod crawling on your arm; you squint at it suspiciously. A bedbug? 

 

You dismiss the thought.

 

Rubbish-town is your home. No, it is home to your family of seven.

 

And your body. 

 

But your heart lives in Kabinda. Your mother once took you there on a market-day, many years past; yet your childish memories still linger on that long-gone ember. 

 

She's dead now, buried in the over-crowded cemetery behind the government high school, you remind yourself. 

 

And your soul refuses to leave Gabole, where Chaddu said the lights glow bright as moons on steel sticks, and the houses are like the amputated feet of stone giants, planted in the ground.

 

You can't quite recall what Kabinda looked like, but for some reason, you are sure it is a good place; much better than rubbish-town. 

 

So you sit under Mzee Sula's tamarind tree on sultry afternoons, when the school-term is on break, and regale Jacinta and Maria with the constructions of your imagination.

 

You make up the people of Kabinda - you say they walk in ways that are gawky, and wear clothes that are gaudy. You say that the shops serve goods without money, and the crops are all grown in pots of honey.

 

Maria believes you. You see it in her eyes, and the way her dimpled cheeks brighten her face when she giggles at your lies. 

 

But Jacinta is more wary; her mouth tightens and knots to one side of her face - her eyes narrow, as if sizing up your words. 

 

You don't blame her. Her father beats her mother. And when he's drunk and can't fight back, he gets beaten by her brother. She lives in a home rife with quarrels, and a world full of cruel-faced shadows.

 

Sometimes voices talk in your head too, and you lend them your silent thoughts, unbidden;

 

'Why does death never die?'

 

'Who killed all the dead men?'

 

'Is life really alive?'

 

Hurried footsteps fall upon your ears, like someone running from their fears. So you stop - afraid of the animate darkness, fearful of its living sounds. 

 

You know the alleys like the back of your hand, like a crofter that's spent years on the land. 

 

The shady streets are etched on your mind, like a set of familiar beats. You and Toppu like to call them boulevards - it makes you think of bullion vans, and growing up to be vanguards in an imperial army.

 

You know the footsteps are headed in your direction. You can tell they belong to a stranger.

 

The clumsiness with which he walks is uncharacteristic of women, so you know it's a man. His footfalls splash about in the shallow puddles of foul-water thrown from behind closed doors.

 

You slip into a black gap between two houses, afraid of being spotted, and crouch low, so your shadow appears like a small round dome upon the cracked earth.

 

Footsteps comes closer and stops. Closer, stops again. You catch a quick glimpse.

 

It's a woman. You curse yourself for your wrong presumptions. 

 

Footsteps has a sack slung over her shoulder which she keeps suspended with her left hand, and holds an electric-torch with a dim gleam in her right.

 

You can see a half-brown face peering from under a starchy shawl, with a pug nose, beady eyes that seem to look everywhere at once, and a thin upper lip with a hint of wispy fuzz.

 

She flashes the torch about, its narrow yellow beam scuttling over the cluttered ground like the orange fishes you often see in glass water-boxes on the red television at Mama Somba's.

 

The beam stops upon a dented brown tin. Footsteps puts it in the sack. Then a stained old sweater, she stuffs it in as well.

 

'Ahem!' she coughs, a little too loudly, and raises her jacket-sleeve to muffle the sound. She doesn't seem to think of it too proudly, looking around worriedly.

 

Too late. A muttered hiss from inside one of the hovels signals danger, and she ducks just in time to avoid a broken brick thrown from behind a scraggy house with a fallen roof.

 

For one heartbeat, the torch catches a mousy fellow with a blood-streaked shirt and matching eyes, before he vanishes into the waiting blackness. Footsteps chortles audibly. She picks up a half-eaten maize-cob and shambles on.

 

You let your breath out in a long desperate gasp, and try to stop the hammer in your chest. You count to twenty, wait a little, then count to twenty again, and emerge like a squinting mole from your temporary cove.

 

Chaddu always mentioned the night-collectors, but you hadn't known what, or who, they were; or if they were actually people.

 

Now you do.

 

Scavengers that rout about rubbish-town like rabid hounds, sniffing in garbage mounds, eating dead rats and running from cornered cats.

 

Chaddu also said that they had pointed teeth and did not need to breathe. That on some nights, when two moons were in the sky, and on days when no sun lit up the sky, they gorged on human flesh.

 

Chaddu seemed to know a whole lot of things. Everything, in fact.

 

'But why not ...?' you think to yourself, 'he's older and a little bolder.

 

He had also gone to the city for a few years and returned with two new shirts, a radio receiver that worked twice a month, and a brown gown for Senga.

 

You are scared but afraid to admit it to yourself, for fear you might turn into one of the gnomes of Mzee Sula's occasional lore - luckless creatures that were ensorcelled with midgetry for giving in to fear, and worse, admitting it to themselves.

 

Heroes never confessed they were afraid.

 

You pat your pocket to affirm if Senga's coin is still in place. It's intact. Your mind falls at ease.

 

The blanket of stars has now almost fully retreated. The dawn is still young but you can already hear hungry babies squalling, men's rough voices commanding, and women's shrill voices demanding.

 

You dart right to avoid a flush of syrupy fluid suddenly flung in your path by a hunched vixen with a haunted look in her restive eyes. 


She reminds you of some small furry animal, and its restless ways. 

 

You trip on a jutting paw of rotted wood, stagger for an endless moment before regaining your balance.

 

'Caaaw ... Caaaw!' a crow with jet plumage and a milk-white neck flies overhead, perching atop the cardboard roof of a slanted shack with shutter-less windows and a plastic door.

 

A black hat on a dead head, you think. It bobs its head and reminds you of a somnolent priest.

 

Your stomach roils. You know it's because of last night's supper; stony maize, sandy peas, and a mug of mustard-colored porridge with slimy white things floating on the top.

 

You feel sick, but you know the minutes continue to tick-by. Senga expected you back hours ago, and tales of your unexpected encounters shall only make for terrible excuses. 

They're also likely to earn you a fine beating.

 

'Amina, where's my khaki coat?' A craggy man with a wild, grizzled beard pokes a bald head through a poorly-patched window with a gaping hole, talking to no one in particular. 

 

He clears his throat audibly and ejects a viscous gob of moss-tinted phlegm onto the evidently weary ground.

 

He notices you and frowns, perhaps irritated that you aren't Amina.

 

You turn another corner and careen sharply to avoid running over a naked little girl with something hairy and dead in her hand. She sees you and starts crying for her mother.

 

You try to step around her, but suddenly slide in something gelatinous. You stagger about clumsily. 

 

My God! What did I step in?  The thing looks brown but the light is poor, so you aren't too sure. 

 

You refuse to dwell on the thought. 

 

You fall to her right, reaching for the ground with both your hands.

 

The smell around is horribly nauseating. Desperately, you kick your foot about in the dust and rub its sole frantically against the ground. You sniff it apprehensively, then turn and bolt.

 

You wince sharply as a thousand needles surge through your left foot, and a slitting pain slices through to your heart.


You almost cry for your dead mother.

 

Whimpering, you try to stop the red spurt from the gash in your sole with a thumb. You notice the culprit lying nearby, a crooked nail with a bloody smear. 


You curse the damn thing!

 

You can't squat for long. Every time you do, the tear at the mid-lining of your shorts grows wider. Senga always warns you against spoiling your new clothes.

 

You swear bitterly, saying something that would drive Senga into a fit if she heard you. That Senga and her prudery! As if she expected you to wash your mouth with soap, and scour your mind with a toothbrush.

 

You know Senga will shout herself hoarse, try to wring your ear off your head, and likely do worse, but you need to stop the blood.

 

So you tear a strip from your brindled shirt. The grey cloth soaks up the blood thirstily, turning crimson in the morning light.

 

You pull yourself up, and limp on. 

 

The pain is unbearable, but you know you must go on, even when you feel you can't hold on.

 

*****

 

There's a brave blue fly sitting at the right edge of the musty, tattered calendar that hangs in the front of the class, just above the form-master's desk.

 

There's a big red circle around the number seven, to mark the date, with the letters of the word July printed cursively at the top of the calendar.

 

It's the last day of the school week, but the throb in your foot is still palpable. The bitter memories of the past Saturday's morning in rubbish-town, when you cut yourself, are also still vivid and redolent.

 

As you waited in line outside the privy to urinate this morning, you saw that the perforation in your sole had covered up, but the skin around it was distended, engorged with custard-colored pus that moved about under the skin when you pressed on it.

 

You didn't know pain could last so long. Seven days!

 

You've been watching the fly intently for the past seven minutes, your attention distracted from the explanation about Appalachian rice growing that the Geography master is laboring with.

 

A gecko lifts a padded-paw and edges in, its pale eyes fixed on nothing else. It pauses for what seems like forever. You notice you're holding your breath. 

 

The gecko lifts another paw, and you hear someone hiss your name, 'Nyiko, what are you looking at?' 

 

You turn around and it's Karim; the loquacious muchotala boy, with the Africa-shaped head and the yellow-framed spectacles. His father works at Ganga's butchery, and rides a bicycle with an awfully loud bell and yellow pedals. 

 

'Don't disturb me, pay attention to Mr. Mbavu!' you whisper back, both ironically and irritably.

 

You turn back to the fly but it's gone. Where? Perhaps flown off. Likely bitten in half.  


Your eyes scan around for the victorious gecko. 


You give up the futile exercise, turning your mind back to the babbling Geography master.

 

'So kids, that's why agricultural mechanization is a slow process, even where capital is available ...' he is saying.

 

You wonder what mechanization could mean. You toy with it for a while, grappling with its length and complexity, and finally conclude that it must be related to the geography of Appalachia.

 

You aren't too sure you've been learning much in school.  

 

Seven years and you still can't tell Uncle Bando the difference between a molar and a canine every time he parades the children before the family and asks questions from school, on the night of Christmas Eve.

 

One time, Auntie Munema asked how you could scientifically tell a glass of un-boiled water apart from a boiled one.

 

You'd said it was by drinking. The one that made you cough would be un-boiled. Everybody had been convulsed with laughter.

 

You often nurse thoughts of dropping out like Chaddu, and getting a job at the ice factory, or asking Mano to teach you how to mend shoes. You could mend shoes all your life and not want for anything, you think. 

 

There's a girl with a blue bag and braided hair on the bench in front of you. Shimo, she's called.

 

You've been trying to talk to her since Monday, but you'd thus far had no chance. When you almost did, she, after a fashion, found ways of ignoring you. 

 

The first day, you'd wanted to show her an orange caterpillar you'd discovered crawling near the boys' latrines and kept in a tin, but it had died before lunch break. 


Chaddu always said it was bad luck to show off dead things. 


That the deadness could come back and bite you, or one of yours. So you'd had to bury it under the hedge behind the headmaster's house, and put a crucifix made from raw twigs fastened with some pink string on top of the place.

 

You are jerked out of your reverie by the sonorous bong of a bell. School is at an end for the day; for the week.

 

You recall some unfinished business with the gateman from yesterday evening, grab your rucksack and sprint for the door, Shimo forgotten for the nonce.

 

You are eager to reach the gate before Ojangole, the hirsute, brawny boy who likes to bully new pupils and tease novice teachers. He's a form above you and likely to use it to his advantage.

 

You reach the gate in a stumble, panting from the run. 

 

Inside the gatehouse, you espy two figures seated across from each other and bent over a draughts-board on a small stool perched between them.

 

You tut in frustration and groan audibly as your hopes for a quick weekend-buck come crushing. The rule was clear; first come, first play. And only the first game had stakes.

 

'Ah - Nyiko! You late rascal! Did you imagine you'd beat me to it, eh?' Ojangole taunts, looking up for a moment.

 

'Leave the boy also you, he'll come before you next Friday,' consoles Ikama, the lanky school-guard who'd worn the same shabby brown overcoat since he'd first come to the school three years past.

 

You sneak in and latch the door behind you, aware that gambling on school premises was severely punishable.

 

A familiar record plays from the old cassette player in the corner. You slump into a dusty, creaking armchair with torn upholstery, humming the tune to yourself and mulling over the weekend ahead; and recalling Footsteps.