The world is broken, son of the lake. Add me a little chang’aa as I tell you this story. Min Apiyo, add us patila here. Life is short my brother, let me eat your hand today.
One day we set out for a funeral disco. We were young and our blood was hot. It was already dark, but we tightened our buttocks that we had to go and dance. So we set off. It’s raining like Satan but we insist that once a journey has begun there is no turning back. We go and the rains beat us. We go and the rains beat us. Omera we were rained on like sugarcane. By the time we reached the disco, we are as cold as a dog’s nose.
We find mothers asleep on mats, lesos over their fetal bodies on the verandah. Old men sit around the camp fire roasting chicken, oseke does not leave their lips. A disco plays. Omega One. Speakers blast like thunderstorm.
It’s a big home. We ask a grandmother who has passed with the wind. She tells us, it’s the foundation, Ochieng Soja, the only son, a son who knows the stomach of his mother, a leader of the people. It is Ochieng, son of NyaSakwa, who has slept. The mourning was so intense it could only be compared with the mourning we mourned when Jaramogi died.
I see a lady dancing in the light. Otoyo sends me to call her. I go. I’m Odhis, the brown one, the man with a razorblade tongue. The disco is full like reeds on the river bank. Dunia Mbaya is playing, Princess Jully is killing us with music. Waists move, and boys gulp chang’aa like water. Marijuana smoke covers the home like a fog.
I go to the dance floor to call the woman. She is wearing a short skirt and tumbo cut. I call her and she comes, not even a little pretence at refusing, but that was even before I saw her face. Omera, let me tell you this story today. An ugly woman likes seduction. She held me so close in the dark, yet I had not even taken her to Otoyo. My uncle used to tell us that you eat where you work. Never trust go-betweens. They will take your woman even if you are their best friend. She is not very beautiful, that I agree, but the way she move her waist, Omera you cannot leave her.
I ask her whether we will go but she flashes her eyes like a cat’s in the dark. She gobbles sweet potatoes like a squirrel. Who gobbles potatoes at night yawa? I’m appalled that such a big woman does not know how to talk. This world is a labyrinth Omera, even a baboon does not know the redness of its buttocks. I’m tired of her. I tell Otoyo that the woman’s mind is cold like a metal bed, but Otoyo does not agree with me. He says that I boast like my mouth is a razorblade, but seduction has defeated me. I tell him that even an ugly woman does not just agree like that.
Those days we were the people. Nobody could cross our path. Our name was disaster and disaster was our name. We used to walk around with machetes hidden beneath trench coats. But that day, we met what was bigger than us. A bald man talks of shaving even if no one has seen him at the barbershop. That day, we knew what it meant to be shaved.
An old man was seated on the verandah, singing “Obiero Jalego” – an old Nyatiti song by Ogwang’ Lelo. Have you ever listened to it? In the song Ogwang’ Lelo narrates the adventures of his friend Obiero Jalego, travelling from Ukwala to Nairobi by train during the days when the white man sat on our heads. You were not born then, but if you want to learn Luo culture, you must listen to nyatiti. Find Oguta Lie Bobo and listen to how he works the flute.
The old man had a bottle of chang’aa in a small basket next to him. An elder’s handbag is never completely empty. The bottle was corked by a maize cob. Otoyo stoops and pulls the bottle, without the old man knowing, and we proceed to drink the chang’aa. What we didn’t know is that we had pinched a wasp’s buttocks. We didn’t know this old man, seated there looking like a homeless man, was the owner of the homestead.
Omera add me a little alcohol as I finish for you this story. Before we emptied the chang’aa, we see men surrounding us. I tell Otoyo that things are hard. They are so many. We can’t even risk unsheathing our swords.
You do not beat a drum with one finger. We are just two and these people are the whole world, Otoyo says.
Once the mushroom has sprouted from the earth, there is no turning back, I say.
Before they know what we are up to, we sprinted from that homestead like warthogs. They took after us, barking like dogs, with tall spears like Lwanda Magere. The path was bad but you don’t wait for death. We ran like antelopes being chased by hunters. It was dark and our feet bled from sisal thorns.
I cried for my mother, the misfortune I have brought NyaGem Koremo, a mother who has dedicated all her life to keeping her home intact with two hands. Today your son Odhis is being killed because of a bottle of chang’aa. Omera we ran. We ran. We ran. The way those people chased us, I have never been chased like that my entire life. And they were many. They were many. They chased us. Barking like dogs behind us. That day I knew there is no place the feet cannot pass. If death hangs on your head, you can pass your bare ass on hot coal.
I tell Otoyo that we cannot pass Nzoia bridge. If we do, those people will close in on us. I tell him that I know a shortcut that ends on the banks of the river. Let us take this corner and hide in the reeds, then when the pursuers lose us, we can look for a boat and cross the river.
We are lucky. So many boats are moored on the banks. We unmoor one and push it into the water. It is written: BEWARE OF GO-BETWEENS. Oars are heavy at night, so we rowed slowly slowly. We cannot hear the barking of those who were chasing us and our hearts return slowly slowly.
Today we have stepped on a snake’s head, I say.
We get midstream and I notice a bush surrounding us. What kind of disaster is this again yawa? Where does a bush come from in the middle of the river? As the boat moves, so does the bush cover us with darkness. I’m dead with fright and numbed all over. Otoyo, for some reason, is sleeping.
What disaster is this?
We are being killed by a night runner and you are sleeping Otoyo, I shout.
Otoyo wakes up.
Odhis where are you taking the boat? Why have you brought me to this bush? Otoyo asks.
The bush disappears.
What is happening here Odhis?
We are struck and engulfed by the night runner’s powers. We fall, head down, on the boat. My oar falls on the water and sinks. Our buttocks are hot like iron. We diarrhoea on our trousers like children who spent the whole day eating unripe mangoes. The boat is covered with a bush and moving to I don’t know where. It is very dark.
The boat stops. I turn and realize we have reached the banks. The bush has also gone. We pull the boat to the bank. Our legs are heavy like rocks. I tell Otoyo that we run and escape before the night runner comes back, but as we wade through the marsh, we are struck by new fright. I look up and I can’t believe what my eyes are seeing. Omera, that woman was big. She stands in front of us. Her legs are the size of the mango’s trunk. The head is a sycamore fruit. The cheeks are big like a mangoose bitten by bees in the guava field, and the buttocks are huge. I look at her closely and she resembles the woman I seduced at the disco. She is the woman I seduced. My God but how has she become so big? I, Odhis, son of NyaGem, the brown one, the one with a razorblade tongue, yawa, today I seduced a night runner?
She clasps our four hands using one hand. We look like kids before her. She pushes us on the mud. Omera, there are women with bad behaviour in this world. That woman caned us seriously! Heheheee even my mother NyaGem did not cane me like that when I was a child.
Owls hoot, a new day has began, and finds us lying on our stomachs on the marshes of River Nzoia. I cannot believe I was canned like that just for hunting Patco sweets in a disco. I will never forget that day.
Min Apiyo add wuod NyaGem patila.
You want to kill me, son of the lake? Chang’aa is not vitamins.
Originally written in Dholuo as “Masira Mar Sero Jajuok” by Richard Oduor Oduku
Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology at Egerton University. He works, as a Research Consultant, and lives in Nairobi. His work has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja, San Antonio Review, among others. He also writes for #MaskaniConversations in the Star Newspaper. He is also working on a novel and a collection of poems and is a member of Jalada Africa (a pan-African writer’s collective) and Hisia Zangu (a writer’s and art society).
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