“An Akefest Memoir or an Arm over Warm Buttocks” by Mehul Gohil


For Binya.
In the language of writers.

EPILOGUE

 
Absence means I can forget. I could not forget and so could no one else. His presence was the ghost roaming everywhere. He was the weight of every book I lifted; He was the whispers hiding inside the whiskies we had after every bookchat. He was Hear Word, He was Lola Shoneyin, He was Gorilla, He was Novuyo, Wanjeri, Oris and Dami. He was the ‘pepe’ stinging tongues. He was all the BeerHunger WineHyena we drank; Palm Wine was him. He was the most beautiful sentence — that sentence carrying and unspooling all future. Matter.
 

No.1 - Epilogue

CHAPTER 12 – HEAR WORD

 
I sat there in the dark hall now understanding I had never looked at any woman properly. The applause for the set piece had died and the stage lights had dimmed. But the air conditioner continued humming. So I sat there in the chilly air of the hall…no jacket, crossed arms nestling on my chest, thinking of…
 

CHAPTER 11 – THE MAP

 

MAPS E
The PARK INN reception lobby at the times 11pm-12pm was always crowded with writers. They had streamed in from the June 12 Center and had now come to rest. Some had come maybe to fuck each other and then chat through the warm Abeokuta night and then sleep and snore gently, an arm over warm buttocks. Others had come to just be alone somewhere in the many tunneled Park Inn.

It is a cave carved out of darkness. CINEMA HALL. I walked into the place early every morning, before the start of events, found a seat and became the only man inside the vast space, the world cloaked in dim primordial light, and listened to the vast acres of silence. The early morning slipped away and the world changed. People came. It then became a cave sculpted around the dance of light. People came, the hall packed up. I had to see it differently now. A harsh spotlight was hidden behind the dancer, he moved, and in the terraced aisles we were revealed to him. A hall enwombed in body heat. Ball pens in pockets.

The important thing was the lack of neatness. Books on the floor, people stepping on them. Books spilling out of boxes. Books hidden behind other books on the shelves. Books piled high at the cashiers. Writers came and rearranged stacks so that their works stood out. Books were left open on the shelves and I read a paragraph. Just because I was passing by. The BOOKSTORE gained something being this way, I thought. In the fractured order of things I saw something of myself and this was reassuring.

Upstairs. Dislocated. There was a bar counter with an assortment of Nigerian beers, choice of vodkas and whiskies. Coca-cola cans and bottles of mineral water in the cooler. The VIP LOUNGE existed separate from the rest of the AkeFest. It was the other AkeFest. Buffet lunch and dinner, all the tables laid out with cutlery and folded napkins. But the main thing was the lighting. Dim orange. Candlelight and romance. How these writers liked being with each other, talking across tables, squandering the hours of the afternoon and night. There was food and drink, there were writers, there was whisky, there was Oris and Dami and Wanjeri. I let my ears collect the conversations. It was enough just to sit somewhere and realise how shit Nigerian beer tasted.

MAPS D
The BOOKCHAT HALL was another good place to arrive at early and experience solitude. The place was indeed best seen without other people. White chairs, carpets, big Bookchat poster behind the stage. But that was not what I wanted to see. On either side of the hall were heads of Nigerian Chiefs. Heads with serious faces, creases of warriors’ anger.

MAPS C
THE CITY OF ABEOKUTA. Where the novels are the people who take the ‘taxis’. Where the novellas are the old ladies who sell the catfish in the blue-plastic-tubs. Where the short stories are inside the greasy bottles of palm wine. Where the poems are this old man saying “Oyinbo” when my shadow polishes his shoes.

MAPS B
MAPS A
 

CHAPTER 10 – THE ADVERTISMENT

 
“If a WORD can change your life.”

“Imagine what a BOOK can do.”

IMAGINE WHAT A WRITER CAN DO
 

CHAPTER 9 – THE HADITHS

HADITH A - Abani...photo by Akefest
ABANI SWIMMING IN THE OGUN OF KNOWLEDGE – Big. Very big. Dangerous tattoo bleeding across the length of his right forearm. At the pavilion, the muggy Abeokuta atmosphere smothering anyone standing there, Abani is ready to talk to readers who stop him. Stray dog book fanatics. He talks to them like a friend, like the reservoir, nay, Ogun of their knowledge.

MUDDY OGUN COLOUR BACK BELONGS TO TAIYE: Her wide mouth. Smile comes easy to her. The smile eats her cleft whole. Her mother seated besides pours water into her glass. This slinky thing between bottle and glass. A clear river rushing into the glass. I look into the glass, I see a refracted bead or something, a part of Taiye’s dress magnified — the polished rocks are there, and the fish are there.

And I smile too, but not with a wide mouth, I can’t, because I am not used to that. My lungs drop. I keep my wide smile hidden under table-level, in my stomach, where nobody can see, and the fish are just swimming, some design in her dress backstroking in the glass now full of swirling water. It’s probably just the dim orange light in the lounge that makes me see it all this way, everything refracted, the polished stones bigging and smalling in the fast and clear moving water, and she asks me…

…wears this dress, long, right-down-to-her-toes…back is bare but for this strip running down her spine. I stand next to her, or sit next to her, or behind her, or see her on stage, stalker walker follower. Taiye’s shoulder blades. The muddy Ogun colour back. This slim diva. Most beautiful back in the continent of West Africa, yeah. I want to peel away that strip and count the cubed bones making her spine, how many, a finger to tap each one.

HADITHS B - Taiye..photo by Akefest
“Is that name North Indian?”

Clear moment, the others on the table have become the plates, the beer bottles and Coca-Cola cans.

“I love gujrati food.”

That I don’t understand. I have to reply quickly. What time is there to think? The others are the plates and beer bottles for only these few seconds in this suddenly reassuring world, a lounge warmed by writerly body-heat. There’s nothing to say. I am the one with a lifetime behind me of folding the rotlis and masticating the dal bhaath and crunching through the farsan. Lifetime has a time-frame infatuation cannot decipher.

WHAT OGUN WATERS SOOTHE SEUN’S THROAT? – I am down with flu as I write this so I pick on Seun. Shaayy yoon. What fire rages in her throat? What sleep does she fight with to stay awake and work? What antibiotics? I harass her. Change me 100 dollars. Give me Naira. Everything here is speed. So I see nothing, I only move. I only see the fire in her throat now, when I am thousands of kilometers away in rainy Nairobi, overcome with the same. Seun, I forgot to buy you Fishermen.

OGUN IN THE ORIS OF TINY WORDS – Friend. Brother? At Palm Wine Poetry he takes out his notebook. A poet with the mic has said something. Oris writes it down. The size of his written alphabets is tiny. Tiny words. Tiny phrases. He wants to accommodate as much as he can on the page. Then I remember at the VIP Lounge he had instinctively raised his left leg and folded it on his chair. An odd pose for a seated man. An un-European move. Too Nigerian a reflex. But the lithe beauty seated next to him had sparked that.
 

CHAPTER 8 – THIRD TOT

THIRD TOT
“Why is it always the same writers I see at every litfest?”

Overheard. Re-filled glasses of whisky dotting the table.

“If Boko Haram is foolish enough to visit Ake Festival, it will be the end of Nigerian Literature.”
 

CHAPTER 7 – AN EAR FOR AN EAR

 
The period of waiting. The air conditioners start humming, there is not yet a chill in the hall. The stage is lit but empty. Writers are filing in. I can see but I can’t hear. I have plugged-in my ear holes. The writer next to me says something, I only see her lips move. Baba, rara, dhada, she says. Backlight on my Samsung reveals EMIL GILELS “PIANO CONCERTO NO. 5” BEETHOVEN (2.MOV.) 1976. This is how I am waiting. She points at my screen. I unplug an ear-hole. She would like to listen a little. I show her the rubber tips of my ear phones. I show her. The edges are sticky with my ear wax. As I turn the earphones a little, little finger rolls, the ear wax catches the stage lights and glistens.

“You can’t hear it. My ear wax will mix with your ear wax.”
 

CHAPTER 6 – THE BAPTIST GIRLS SCHOOL

 
If you leave out the hills and Olumo Rock, Abeokuta is a short town. One storey, maximum three storeys. And this town, if you leave out the rocks, the river, the trees and the soil, is four colours: Grey for the one storey buildings, red-blue-yellow for everything else, everything billboard, everything women wear, dresses, head-scarves, everything kids kick around, footballs or torn slippers. Even a blue goat (its curved horns knocked over a bucket of paint), even yellow bibles, even for everything I wear, red Maputo shirt, blue jeans. These primary colours don’t loom large over the everything grey, they are just specks here and there, blue bucket with catfish inside, bottle of palmwine with yellow stopper, all mixing in the blur created by our moving van. The van moves into the BAPTIST GIRLS SCHOOL.
 
Earlier: Ainehi tried to plan with Gloria and I what we will present to the girls. None of us had carried any of our stories with us. Gloria had micro-booklets (self-published, on cream manilla paper) of some of her poems. Ainehi had a children’s story book written by someone else — I cannot recall the author but it was a story built around hair, some americanah-lite thing. Ainehi said we read from this book. We planned just as the van left the June 12 center. We were part of a convoy: Vans spreading out across the town, writernauts going into orbit, planets of schoolkids awaiting the arrival of the gods. At this point I already knew I would be useless in this adventure. I am a loner. Shy. I go into orbit to find uninhabited planets.
 
I saw the crowd as I stepped off the van – High school girls wearing green berets, arranging chairs in rows, trees shading them. A breeze in the air, and the shadows the trees cast on the girls changed shape as the trees bent with the breeze. White skirts and green tops, the girls looked like cakes with feet. And I did think of the aroma of cakes, (sweet, powdery, creamy), a fast moving thought that quickly blew away.
BAPTIST GIRLS B
I saw the crowd and narrowed to a form smaller than a writer. I became a cornered rat.

Chairs were brought and Ainehi, Gloria and I sat down. A desk was put in front of us. We saw the stage, a pebbled ground. Beyond the stage was the crowd. To our left were the classrooms, lessons ongoing. Teachers at blackboards. Girls looked away from the teachers. They crowded at the windows, they got up from their chairs and crowded at the doors and spilled out of the classrooms and the shadows of trees changed shape over them too. Everywhere there was a distance between us and them. The stage was not just pebbles but also the small shadows the pebbles cast, such that the stage looked like the spotted skin of a sleeping leopard. This was the beast keeping us apart from the crowd.

A teacher came from behind a classroom and told the girls who had spilled out to get back in. He showed them what discipline was, waving his hands. Go back into the classroom, sit down and look at your teacher and the blackboard. How did I feel looking at him doing that? What was I seeing?

What was this teacher? What was he? What thing? This was maybe the headmaster?

This teacher, like a human, wore a white shirt. His sleeves were not rolled up. Abeokuta was hot. His shirt was buttoned to the neck. His face was an oval rock. Not oval like Olumu rock which has the caves in which the ancient warriors hid and spoke in stories in the dark of the cool nights; not oval like Olumu rock which has cracks, squeezed spaces just wide enough to let me step step step and reach the top, almost touch the sky (and looking down there is the whole world filled with armies of enemies and villages of friends). This teacher had no such cracks in his oval rock, no caves with histories. He had let himself be sculpted differently.

Now it was our turn to introduce ourselves to the crowd. They needed to know who we were. Ainehi went first. She stood on the spotted beast.

Ainehi cut a classic figure, the kind easy on the Hindustani eyes. She locked on to the energy of the crowd, told them about stories, that we, her-Gorilla-Gloria, wrote stories, how we can take Abeokuta and make ghosts hang off every tree branch like leaves. She held up the book of hair, mic in the other hand, and told them the autobiography of the hair author in two-three sentences. She was the new teacher, she beguiled this crowd, asked them which Nigerian gods they knew. They loved her. They knew Chimamanda. In the breeze, Ainehi’s skirt flapped around her knees. I saw Ainehi’s back turned toward me; Ainehi’s face had been all stolen by the crowd. Long-legged she stood facing the crowd. Ainehi told them about stories and the reality of Maya, and something some other Maya told came to me, Phenomenal, yes. Ainehi is a woman, phenomenally, that’s her, it’s in the reach of her arms, mic and crowd, it’s in the stride of her step, striding over the spotted beast, leopard asleep, it’s in the curl of her lips as she bites mic. Ainehi’s own shadow slanting a little right, and when she tells they don’t think she lies.

BAPTIST GIRLS A - By AkeFest
Think of night. A city-less night. No neon. Even take out the stars. Take out the moon, the quasars and super-novae. A total night. Now see a candle. There is a hand holding the candle. Just the fingers are lit. Then the fingers move and the candlelight moves, the flame curling, touching something we cannot see, then touching something else, and now we see so many fingers lit. Then, one by one, flames light up the night, filling it with stars, quasars and super-novae. Now see the smiles of the girls, the curl of their lips, the dynamo of their sharing.

Does Ainehi wear nailpolish? I did not look. Did the girls wear nailpolish? Did some of them keep long nails?

(Ainehi now introduced me to the crowd. She told them I was an ‘Africa39’. I nearly did susu in my jeans when I heard that big word. The crowd eagerly waited for the oyinbo on the otherside of the spotted leopard to cross over.)
BAPTIST GIRLS E - By akefest

It’s a moment I did not like. Stood in front of them. I felt so alone and watched. I had to talk. I didn’t want to talk. The girls were too powerful. My mind just shut down. My cranial capacity halved. I had devolved to the level of Turkana Boy. Maybe not even that. Turkana Boy may have been braver, sharper, more clear-headed and loving of this chance for a communion. I talked some crap about what a writer is. Something about “imagine dragons and ghosts all over Abeokuta!” Age. I am older but they are younger and wiser. They were just looking at me, cutting me up, wondering what is this? They were expecting something. To build on Ainehi. But this oyinbo is lost for words. Gender. It’s how the girls sit. Legs stylishly crossed over, how a hand rests on a chin, how some sit leaning on other fellow girls. All of them looking at me, dead focused, what can I even do when it’s like this? I quickly bring my performance to a close. Sunshine is hot. I put my hand with the mic down, turn, and look at Aiheni, who has seen I have been eaten alive by the leopard.

Gloria then came. She tamed the leopard. A short lady, but in front of the crowd she was a giant. From her palm size home-made manilla paper chapbook, she stunned the crowd with her poetry. An energetic delivery. And the girls in the crowd caught the energy and threw it right back at her and that’s how it went. This was power. Gloria can change lives.

The world had changed. The girls staged a play for us. They were the new form of human. Much brighter. Much more intelligent. I felt like a man who should be extinct. It was not the play I saw. I saw the work that went into the staging. The acting. The hours spent on getting the act right. The facial tics. This was a play staged by a new, more evolved species of hominid. The logic would be to now feel threatened. No. I felt humble before something holy.

At the end I got a chance to walk into the crowd. Stand next to them. Sit next to them. And the girls talked to me. Asked their questions. Tried to unravel who I was. I was forgiven only because the girls existed in the present whilst I vacillated between past and present, cause and effect, the laws of Karma. And I felt at home. This is where I always belonged. Like a child, a school boy, with other fellow school people. I didn’t need to stand on the leopard, this is where I should have been all along. With the school girls. Sitting next to them, melting away in their presence.
BAPTIST GIRLS D - By Akefest

CHAPTER 5 – HEAR WORD II

 
It was a rare night. I wasn’t being crushed by the spray of thoughts. Peace in my head. Almost silence. My mind was like an ear, and only an ear. Just hearing. No processing what was heard. Just hearing. Light and nice.

In the middle aisles, the young men, all seated together. In the front aisles, the writers. I sat in the second aisle from the front. The stage empty and lit. The rest of the hall blanketed in darkness. Air conditioners breathing out cold air.

Hear word. Comes tells me I beat her. Shiny makeup. Spotlights. Has big feet. Six women on chairs. One girl at the end of the line. I remember moments when the dialogue was waiting. The lit stage made the silence feel strange, like the spotlights streamed out unseen noise. In the dark where we were, it would have been seen. And the girl got up and walked away from the aunts mother friends seated on the chairs and her big feet slapped the stage as she moved and that was the sound of dialogue waiting.

Hear word. There were complaints the day after about men laughing in the dark. Complaints should think deeper. I was one of them, laughing in the dark. This was a reaction to the power and the moment. The dark hall keeping aloneness intact and it felt womb-like despite the cold air. I let go and laughed. It was a gesture of respect to the play on the stage. The young men in the middle aisles laughed too. They were my echo, call it kinship. Our manners — rude, horse-laugh, proving manhood, slapping thighs, or, like me, alone and calm and just laughing and hearing all in the rare night – were the millimolar creep toward the inevitable truth being played out on the stage.
 

CHAPTER 4 – CAISSA

 
The world of the Akefest is enclosed. There are security fears, writers being kidnapped by Boko Haram and Lola then negotiating ransom terms. Stay within the official areas, the Park Inn hotel, the June 12 center. Daylight mugging is a fear, Nigeria is a criminal country. Corrupt police, targeted foreigners, poverties of scale and gangs prowling countryside towns like Abeokuta. There is Ebola and Yellow Fever in the streets. If I am to venture out, it must be in a group. It must be an outing that the organisers have scheduled. A designated limousine, an official volunteer accompanying.

The world of the Akefest is narrow. Co-mingling with same types, writers, all the time, gets fucking boring. There is something wrong with writers, something very fake about them, something disgustingly monotonous about them. They are not the real world and so there is this pull, this longing to break out of the enclosure. The world is outside the Akefest, it is there.

I was on an okada, on my way to a chess club. Saturday morning and the okada drove west. My Nairobian spirit felt relaxed on the roads of Abeokuta, sensing people were keeping their distance. I was an oyinbo on an okada, a white flotsam lost at land, but the sight is something Abeokutans wanted to keep a distance from, even the okada-pilot tried to separate himself from our inevitable ‘motobike hug’, inertia, speed limits of the highway and all that. There was none of that feeling of being hunted. Nairobians see oyinbo lost at land and it’s hunt down oyinbo and eat him. The okada drove west, to a quiet suburb.

And quiet did not mean absence of sound. There was birdspeak and windwhisper here. Family chatter stealing out from houses. All the peaceful music that made earth more spacious for the spirit. Udo, shalom, shanti. Another hot Abeokuta morning. The earth will not release me from her sweaty hug.

It was a rooftop chessclub. I saw the blitzers from the gate and when I was up with them I found a breeze to cool my sweaty skin and Abeokuta was splayed out under us. The rooftop was not so elevated like Olumu rock but this seemed like the more correct height to look down at the town from — nothing looked small yet everything was there.

Funmi Akiola is my host. She is one of the top lady players in the country, having played in three Olympiads. The rooftop chessclub is a part of the hostel she owns.
Ositelu is rated Elo 2100. He is the best player in Abeokuta.
A slip into present tense.

Within a few moves of playing my first blitz game in Nigeria, I am home. How quickly did the phoney world of the Akefest slip away? I could now grimace, flare open the left side of my mouth, curl lips outward and expose my canines in disgust because I was playing a slow burn Trompovsky. The Trompovsky craves for speed.

“Think Julian Hodgson, think of the English Attacking School of the nineties, make it faster, Kenyan.” says Ositelu.
CAISSA A
Eighty seconds into game one and how swiftly have I fit back into my normal shape? Curved back, shoulders and arms pressing into body, feet tapping the rooftop floor, head bowed, eyes locked on board, fingers clasped together, the shape of an animal that is a cross between a monk and a bird of prey.

I push a bishop and wait for his rooks.

One minute, twenty four seconds into this game. He grasps my bishop and tosses it off the board. The bishop bouncing on the table, the knocking sounds it makes. The violence is cartographed here on the board — the backward on g6 and b6, the hole on d5 — the entire world is here, home and everything. I push my other bishop, slam the clock.

“Is this how you play in this small town? Is this how small your plan is?”

Some acrid comment in local speech by Ositelu in response to my trash talk. I don’t need the translation, the hate in the comment is enough for me to know what he means. He starts picking the pieces, puts them back on the initial squares, let’s start a new game.

Funmi and Ositelu are the only names I remember. The only two who spoke to me. The other four players in the club were shy, they silently asked who I was. I was too caught up in myself and in the pleasant experience of playing in a home away from home to ask them their names. Or even talk to them. This was a mistake. I should not have brought the writer-self to this home, I should have left the writer-ego behind. The chess ego is different, it is a chess family ego, a more natural ego. Gens una sumus is the motto of this home.

CAISSA B
Faces made it a real world, a real Nigeria.

Ositelu’s has tight features – his facial muscles are at one with his emotions. A move can trigger anything in him and I can see it. Eyelids flickering, middle of lower lip squeezed to form a ‘v’, left cheek suddenly sunken because he is trying to breathe it in, molars most certainly eating the backsides of the left cheek, eyeballs now staring at me, nostrils narrowing and sucking in air with noise, he is losing Naira to me (we are playing for stakes, not fun) and I was supposed to be oyinbo to make money from.

And Funmi Akiola’s – repose and peace, a smile ready to burst into the ripeness of a laugh, eyes satisfied with all they see, her victories she has already achieved, No.5 rated lady in Nigeria, an Olympian, owner of this Ladgate Hotel.

No chess swadhyay is complete without a BBQ. We had B for Blitz, we had Q for Queen is the form of Fenu our host, we didn’t have B for Beers.

“Funmi, you serve beers here? Let’s have beers for everybody.”

We have beers. Now everybody is smiling. Now we are a more complete family. We all see the moves better with a cold beer nearby.

“So, Gorilla, what happens at the writing festival?”

“Nothing much.”

“No chess there? No one plays anything?”

“No.”
 

CHAPTER 3 – THE TRANSLATIONS

 
My translator went mad. I got a facebook message from her telling me she was sorry she could not continue working on the Farah Aideed translation and she wished me best of luck in the afternoon.

My translator was not picking up her phone in Nairobi.

In my panic I reached out to a primary school teacher in Machakos. Mrs. Ancellah Cherotich. I begged her to translate for me the cinema paragraph. Any Swahili would do. I bribed her with autographed novels of Abubakar and Igoni.

TRANLATIONS B
The lunchtime launch of the Jalada Languages issue happened on the ground floor of the Bookchat Hall. No chairs, we were all seated on the borders of a carpet, bums down. It felt like being inside a famous mahal in 14th century Lahore, a white columned hall, large paintings strategically placed on clean walls, emptiness given a shape, a depth.

Novuyo sang in Ndebele. Oh, she sang. Her nomadic twang evaporated. Her voice became the food we all wanted to have for lunch, the voice we did not want to stop eating. Her voice was right there changing our lives. We were ready to sit on the carpet for two, four, six hours, six days, just to hear Novuyo sing in Ndebele. Don’t stop, Novuyo, don’t stop.

Novuyo stopped.

My translator had gone mad somewhere in Nairobi. What I spoke in Swahili was no song. It was the quick and best effort of a Machakos teacher. It was no song. I finished reading and didn’t like what I had read. I wanted the Swahili of the mad woman.
TRANSLATIONS A - By AkeFest

The afternoon drifted. Palm-wine and poetry came and the night came. I stayed a while at Palm-wine. But I felt lonely with all those writers and poets there. I left and went back to the hotel. In my room, I lay on bed and read Abubakar deep into the night. And I felt allright.
 

CHAPTER 2 – OLUMU ROCK

 
OLUMU ROCK E
Blood was splashed on the door and feathers of hens thrown at it. The feathers stuck to the door.
I saw this as a Brahmin ritual, calling the gods to come protect us from the rakshases down in town. I thought of Nigerians as Hindus, Wanza bloodlines dripping down the door, down the rock of Olumu.

Olumu rock A
Ainehi took off her short heels. Now she was standing on stone, really. I had my shoes on but saw her bare feet and felt what she felt. Felt the texture of the stony ground on the soft middle part of my feet, rough stone, smooth stone, toes pressing into stone, curling to grip stone.
The hot sun, sweat beads rolling down my bald head, the hot sun obliterating individuality. We are all together in this heat, so I became what I saw.

***

The fear of falling is felt as a current in the middle of the stomach and in the temple (where the third eye is). Standing atop Olumu, above the whole of Abeokuta, I felt no such current. I jumped and looked at the falling world. I danced on the rock. I walked on the rock.
 

CHAPTER 1 – OLD FRIENDS

 
Rachel said she needed a whisky too now that I had one in my hand. With whisky we sometimes drink the aroma. We went upstairs to the VIP lounge. We talked about old times. We had changed over the three years. I was now a more unsure and fragile writer, she was a battle-hardened novelist and SSDA organizer. Rachel still smiled with one side of her lips pursed and the other side open, showing teeth. And battle-hardened was right there in her eyes. We talked about books, some of them on our table, I told her how good Nikhil was and gave her a copy of Taty.

Yewande was having lunch when I went to greet her. Chicken with pepe, jollof rice on her plate. All these big dog and big lioness writers around her at the table. I put a hand on her back and she turned, got up and gave me a good hug. I didn’t expect it, I hardly give hugs myself. Her hello was a half-note, she wanted the hello out of the way. She asked me “Where is your book?” I said something and she asked me again “Where is your book?”
 

PROLOGUE

 
…he was the most beautiful sentence, that sentence carrying and unspooling all future…

  1. Nairobi went retro.

  2. Jamia Mosque was re-incarnated and city scrapers were chopped to 21st century heights.

  3. So there’s so much sky in Nairobi now, so much feel real light, so much capacity to see.

  4. It has been a long time since I’ve seen clouds and there’s a grey nimbus over the city today. It rained like long time, long time since I’d seen rain. I’d seen only those five kilometer scrapers. And that meant nothing ever trickled down because every drop got collected on the harvest-floors.

  5. Now I stand in the shadow of McMillan Library, that old Britsh protectorate architecture, mouldy brown bricks.

  6. My tutu is rain-soaked, I like that, wet clothes, wet legs, wet hair, two lions by my side, lions used to be real, unfossilised.

  7. Then comes a rattling, smoky, multi-coloured matatu, and it’s got spray on it – BEER HUNGER WINE HYENA. There’s spray on every retro car, but no harrier cars, they’ve been banned, because no flying today.

  8. Smoky hair, here she comes, her tutu’s neat, systematic frills, colours on it changing with her strides.

  9. And I’ll mention, the roads were bombed to make, in old forlorn city language, ‘potholes’. All rain-filled, many skies in the road, and many of her now walking toward me. I’m learning to look at the real her, learning to look — and she comes.

  10. She comes stands next to me, she puts her fingers into mine, and how do I look?

  11. We look at the ‘potholes’, the skies are in them, the Nairobis are in them.

  12. Us are also in them, in the ‘potholes’, it’s so many, of her fingers into mine.

  13. Your legs look, umm, hairier, she says. We are together in all, she says what she sees.

  14. Some drunk writers at a litfest lost their way in a Nigerian ogapolis called Abeokuta. They saw some rocks and decided to climb over them, so they climbed, one rock over another. Until they came to a big rock, Olumu, and they looked down and saw they were very up. They saw a cave under Olumu, decided to spend the night there, and they started digging up dreams. Even they don’t know what motivated them, and they didn’t have to dig deep or sleep deep. They just wanted to dig dreams and grind some ‘pepe’ they found inside their pockets. They dug, and a few inches into the dreams, they found a god’s ancient tome. The tome had BEER HUNGER WINE HYENA sprayed on and this was the giant name under Olumu. They took what pages of the tome they could carry, they jumped over lesser rocks, skidded and came down. And spread the news across Africa. In every pothole, us, we. And then Nairobi went retro.

  15. I like you when I forget you, she looks at my tutu, looks at my hairy legs.

  16. Your legs look like umm, like not a part of you, I now say what I see.

  17. I say, we are together in all.

  18. It’s only a matter of acceleration now.

**
All Images Courtesy of the author and The Ake Arts and Book Festival


Mehul Gohil is an Africa39 writer and a founding member of the JALADA collective. A Don DeLillo fanatic and an MJ disciple. He is also a chess addict and a member of the Kenya national chess team. Born and living in Nairobi.