“A Swahili love in 10 Fragments” by Idza Luhumyo
Sule, this is my memory of our love.
A memory of how to love.
And this, too: a memory of how not to love.
This is how I came to love you, Sule: through Fatu. Your sister.
Whenever I gifted you wonderful things – things I’d collected on my back and forths, things that reminded me of you, made me miss you, made passing those quiet afternoons away from you a little easier – I had to think about her too.
I would later come to tell you of those long and weary afternoons that I passed in some kind of frenzy because of this one thing or that other thing, sometimes simply because I could not conjure up the smell of your perfume, or remember the sound of your laughter, no matter how hard I tried, and no matter how deep into my memory I rummaged.
So whenever I put gifts – gifts of love, we began to call them – in a box and sent them to you in a bus headed for home, I would have to send a separate box for Fatu too, sometimes filled with colours and colours of scarves, sometimes with tiny jars filled with gold-coated trinkets and sometimes with tiny vials of perfumes, all smells: vanilla, strawberry, cinnamon.
And when I came back home, breathless, restless and eager to see you Sule, it is her I talked to first and it is her I pulled aside, out of your hearing, to ask after you, to ask about you, to ask her to tell me how you were doing, how you were really doing, you who knew how to hide your pain well, couched in quick smiles and easy laughter.
When the sun began setting and evening rolled in languidly, as evenings in Majengo are known to do, Fatu would pass by Make Rita’s and place her order for viazi karai before coming to fetch me from my mother’s house, and we’d sit on the stools Make Rita provided for her customers, and we’d sip lemon tea in tiny cups whose insides had become darkened due to long use, and we’d make holes in our viazi karai and add ukwaju and we’d talk and talk and talk until the night came, and Make Rita started closing up.
Sometimes I’d ask her to come to my mother’s house for tea, which we’d have to wait to cool down because of how hot Majengo was, and we’d talk about anything and everything until, finally, she was the first to ask: “Umemuona Sule?”
And I would laugh quietly, pretending not to have heard her, and perhaps I would look for more sugar, or more tea, but always I would be careful. I knew Fatu was watching me. She was your sister after all, Sule, and Fatu believed that one of a sister’s duties is to guard her brother’s heart.
Later, only later, would Fatu arrange a meeting between me and you and we would go, first, always, as if it was written, to that spot on the beach; the one we’d claimed for ourselves, and we’d sit on a leso and we’d ask each other questions and we’d answer each other’s questions and we’d watch people and we’d watch the waves lapping gently against the sand, over and over again like some kind of pattern and we’d be lulled and soothed so that we felt ourselves to be one with the water, the sand, the wind and the whole expanse of the sky and Sule, this is how I like to think we came to fall more and more in love with each other.
Sometimes you’d ask me to give you my hand – ask quietly, and politely – and you’d study it and then ask for the other hand and after a while I’d ask: “Nini Sule?” and you would say nothing, only gift me a smile, as you always did.
Later, I would take Fatu aside and she’d say to me: “Alikuwa yuajaribu kukusoma. “
You were trying to read me.
Sule, where would this thing we judged worthy to call love be if not for Fatu, who would wait for two, three days after you and I had a fight, after we were no longer speaking, to call me, and then to say: “Dadangu, umemfanya nini mwenzako? What have you done to Sule?”
And she’d draw me out of my anger with her low quiet words, cajoling, soothing, interceding for you who had made me bleed and asking, always, for me to speak with you, for me to speak to you.
She’d say: “Hata sisemi mrudiane. Mi nasema muongee alafu basi…”
And I’d call you, and somewhere in between speaking with you and speaking to you, I’d forget my pride, and the pride of my girl cousins, and that of all my feisty aunties, and I’d forget it, this pride of mine, wouldn’t I Sule, and you, you’d be waiting with Kiswahili in your mouth, which you’d return for my English, in that slow, careful and colourful way, and your voice would be pure longing so that at the end of it all I’d have to convince myself not to get on the next bus home to be with you, to give myself up in your arms, and to give you the parts of me that you had broken so that you could put them back together.
Afternoons were our favourite.
This is what I would do: I would steal away from my home and come to yours when your bibi was asleep in her room at the back of the house and your mother stretched in the sofa in the TV room watching El Clon. After locking ourselves in your room, you’d put a CD into the Hi-Fi system your cousin lent you.
And we’d lie still on the bed, each of us lost in our heads, our bodies barely touching; a rehearsal of what was to come. You liked letting the music fill the room, like lighting a stick of incense and letting the scent pervade an entire room.
A little later, after you were satisfied that the room was drenched in music, that we were really in the heart of music, and not just distracted by it, you’d take my waist – a question – and I’d take your hands into mine –an answer –and with your eyes fixed intently on my eyes –a yearning – you’d show me how to move my feet in time to the rhythm of songs by Offside Trick.
You said there was only one way to dance with someone you loved. And I was eager to learn, I who had previously taken dance to only mean dance, unaware of the hidden language of it, the method to it, the many ways in which it stubbornly wriggled itself into the spaces that silence left bare.
Your method: first, let the music play. An emissary: let it go ahead of you. Second: douse yourself in it. When you are done, that is – if you can ever be done with dancing, there should be music dripping from your body, a witness to your immersion in it.
After the music, and the dancing, and the consequent tender touch of our bodies, tender touching of our bodies, I became a witness to love, to having being loved, to a kind of love that went beyond language, surrendering itself to movement. Only to movement.
Then the laughter.
When my memories carry me back to those afternoons, it is the laughter I remember most.
We were always laughing.
Me, simply because there was nothing else to do when I was with you; nothing else to do when I was around you, and you, you’d be laughing too, laughing at me for not knowing how to dance chakacha, making me jealous by counting on your fingers the number of girls in our mtaa who knew how to squat and make their waists move, on their own accord, without involving any other parts of their bodies.
Not to be outdone, I’d carry my own record the next time I snuck away, and it would fill the room with the sounds of Bango, sounds that have always reminded me of good and happy times. To listen to Bango was to be filled with the laughter of birthdays, of weddings, of love. And up to today, I carry these sounds with me. It is these sounds that I reach for to heal me, to soothe me, to ground me.
Sule, these sounds, they still remind me of you.
In that room, in those days, I’d teach you how to dance; how to sway to Mzee Ngala’s crooning over the horns and the trumpets. And at the end of it there’d be this: a vow, from both us, to only ever dance with each other.
One day, while sitting outside my mother’s house with my cousins, all of us wearing cotton dresses and matching lesos, laughing loudly and laughing long, you came to us, do you remember Sule, and surprising me, and surprising my cousins more, you sang:
Kama kweli wanitakaaaa
Kama kweli wanitakaaaa
Kama kweli wanitakaaaa
Nenda kapime ukimwi
And my cousins, not knowing that we had a private world of our own making, and not knowing that we exchanged touches in dark alleyways, laughed loud, and laughed long, because they only knew you as Sule, and only referred to you as: “ah Sule yule mvulana wa mtaani?”
Not Sule the boy who taught me how to laugh at Taarab lyrics, not Sule the boy who promised to send me to his cousins for chakacha lessons, not Sule the boy who bought me my first waist beads and definitely not Sule the boy who, eventually, helped to bring me out of myself, for me – first -, and then for you, and then for us.
If you will say my memories are lying, I will not blame you – for memories often lie. But there is something else I have kept all this time, as a memory aid; as evidence of our love.
And this letter is now tearing at the folds – the effect of time – but I still have it Sule, even after all these years.
There was once an evening, and the whole mtaa was seated in front of their houses, on benches and verandas, to enjoy the going away of the sun; to feel the moving air on their faces, to enjoy the brief respite from the heat before night came.
And I wound my leso around my waist, like I’d been taught to, and I made for the fish market, making sure to pass past your house, an act of courage, because outside this house was a long veranda and on this veranda there you were, seated with your male cousins. Your cousins were known especially for their smart mouths and so they were cousins to be feared.
All conversation stopped when I passed and I knew all of you were staring at my waist, staring at my behind and chanting in your heads:
Hamsini hamsini, mia
Hamsini hamsini, mia
Then someone shouted: “Suleeeeee!” and you stood up and walked towards me, and then fell in step with me, saying nothing, as if all of that had been a prearranged performance of our love, involving even your cousins.
And then later, after helping me choose the juiciest tomatoes and potatoes and fried fish, you folded something into my hand and said: “Hii zawadi yako Tatu. Na usiisome mpaka usiku.”
But I had never been one to know patience, and so I went home and immediately read it: not once, not twice, not thrice, but over and over and over again thinking: “I have a boyfriend I have a boyfriend I have a boyfriend…” until I fell asleep.
The letter read:
Nikubali mahaba, tufkuze msiba, tule raha baba!
“Kizungu kilikuja na meli…”
And this English, it came to us on the tongues of men and women with white skins who having disembarked from ships, used it to hire with, plead with, and when that did not satisfy them, to covet with, and then to begin nursing hopes with, and then later, as if according to carefully laid plans, to hoard with, to deny dignity with, to torture with, to rule, to rule, to rule with, and then finally, to overrule with in more ways than can be counted on hands.
And this English, it is what I used to write my response to you Sule, wondering the entire time what you possibly could have meant when you said: “Nina zawadi yako.”
“Kiswahili pia kilikuja na meli…”
All you were giving me, gifting me, were words. A letter filled Kiswahili words – and a few English words thrown in for good measure. And so here was Kiswahili, a language I was not completely comfortable with, and there you were, setting yourself in it, using it, stretching your hand to me, saying: “Nina Zawadi yako” as if words or language could ever be gifted.
Was it possible that these words, these words that me and many others threw about, could be moulded and redone and reimagined in such a way as to make them giftable?
So I wrote my response to your letter in English, the language that these white men and women left behind when they left the country, as if sure of their return.
This language, having been left behind, had entered me and possessed me, not unlike a demon. And it had grown roots in me so that it eventually became what I used for thinking, for believing, for living and for loving.
English was the language I used for loving you, Sule.
I remember what I wrote to you. I said:
Thank you for your letter, it melted my heart with happiness and I hope we’ll always be friends forever. Just know you hold a special place in my heart.
The first gift you ever gave me, which was also the first of many lessons in love that you taught me, was this: words are gifts.
And so I wrapped my letter to you in red wrapping paper and placed a ribbon on it. My gift, to you.
Fatu, our deliverer of letters, looked at the package and said: “Eh una mambo lakini! Uzungu!”
On one of the evenings I was spending home before going back to school, you sat quietly next to me, and listened to me talk; going on and on and on about this and that, rolling my tongue around English words, occasionally reaching for Kiswahili words where an English one did not come readily to my tongue, punctuating my words with laughter and silence until finally, not uncruelly, you said: “Eh Tatu! Mbona Kizungu kingi lakini? Unakuwa mzungu?”
And I went home and cried, wondering how one even began unpacking and undoing themselves so as to be capable of being loved by you, Sule. I wondered: how was I to remove myself from English, and from my English ways, and my wrapping letters in wrapping paper ways and my eating food using forks and knives ways?
Sule, how was I to strip myself of a language I had been taught to think of as the key to life itself, as the key away from here to elsewhere, so that embracing it became a way in which one could ‘go places’, or – at the very least – always have the potential to ‘go places’.
To embrace English was to have proud parents; parents who would point their fingers towards me and say: “My Tatu speaks English so well, you should hear her speak!”
Sule, how was I to love you in my Englishes, when to your first “Nakupenda” I could only respond with “I like you” and you got annoyed with me because to you “Nakupenda” was to be “I love you”; a pure, unsplintered, unfragmentized love that I was supposed to give to you wholly.
And you sneered at my love, and you sneered at my kind of loving, a love which splintered itself so that loving you in English became a two-step process. In English, “I like you” would always preface “I love you”. In Kiswahili, “Nakupenda” would always be “Nakupenda”.
So lost in these translations, you found yourself to be in a prison of prefacings and conditions so that my liking you, a step away from loving you, as my Englishes had taught me to do, became inadequate and tiring to you, a completely foreign experience.
To think in English is, first and foremost, to separate. And when I kept practicing this separation, meeting your many insistences of “Nakupenda” with my “I like you” I began to see this: we were lost in translation and we were slowly losing our love.
Sule, this is my memory of the end of our love.
A memory of how to end love.
And this, too: a memory of how not to end love.
This is how I started to stop loving you, Sule: through Fatu, your sister.
I was away in school when we started forgetting how it felt to love each other.
And the phone calls – when we had them – would be filled with hard solitary words, words hanging in the air, as if suspended from time, unable to coalesce into significant meaning. At the end, when I realized that even Fatu could not salvage this, I would be unable to remember who said what because we were saying many of the same things.
“I love you but…”
“I like you…”
At the end, Fatu sent me a text message: “Usilie Tatu. Kila jambo lina mwisho; kubwa au dogo.”
But you, you had other ways to the end.
First, you sent your sister Fatu – Fatu, with all of her goodness – with all the gifts I ever sent you, and all the gifts I ever sent her, all fit into two big boxes and delivered to my mother’s house so that a surprised phone call from her was the first to show me that you had not just started going, you were already long gone.
And then you refused to pick up your calls, a habit you had hated in others, saying: “Mtu akikataa kushika simu yako ni kama yuakutukana.”
And when I insisted to talk to you, wanting to hear you say the words, you stopped responding to my text mesages, messages that I sometimes sent you at three o’clock in the morning, when all my will had been depleted and all that was left was longing, loneliness and a feeling I have been unable to name; that feeling that one gets when someone finally realizes that what was once firmly in one’s grasp is gone, gone, gone.
Idza Luhumyo is a writer-becoming, a lawyer-becoming and a woman-becoming. She is a founding member of Jalada African Writers’ collective.
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