Before. Punctuation. After.
Over the radio chatter that morning as we moved through traffic, Peter told me we were running late. He always did things like that, stating the obvious, pre-empting problems. Six-foot tall Peter, with his purple black skin and pale grey eyes, was my right-hand man, bodyguard and driver. But I was never sure who he truly served. Was it the government, to keep an eye on me? Or my wife, Ang’e?
Peter was a good man though. He handled my delicate financial matters, an interest here or a cut there, that are the very blood and soul of this city. He ensured, with his threat of violence or my authority, that all went well and all that was mine came to me.
“Handle it,” was all I needed to say.
It is naïve to see corruption everywhere. It is crass to think of everything as a bribe. At first, I never much cared for it. Then I noticed that not accepting pay-offs imbalanced the system, grinded its gears and threw everything into a tailspin. I realised that not taking payo-ffs would halt the machine of state only until it found a way of disposing of you. That would be suicide, and I did not want out. Then, there’s Ang’e.
My job is to deal with scandals that lose one head and grow two others. I would carry out sporadic public decapitations of people who had grown too big or fallen out of favour every now and then. I see these as pawn sacrifices to protect the king, very necessary. I vanquish and validate, believe it or not. Fortunately, I live in a nation of amnesiacs. My work is easy.
So, we arrive at the hotel. It is an old feature of the city, bought, sold, resold and remodelled each time. I do not like the place, a dreadful echo of the past, each renewal leaving it uglier than the last. But the Caprice Hotel is a bricks and mortar party. Close ties to this His Excellency and the three before him guarantee it patronage.
The stink of journalists hits me from the lobby. The free press makes our fiction of governance look authentic. The conference room is crammed with them, along with government officials and NGO types.
“My apologies, ladies and gentlemen. Shall we begin?”
A hand shoots up.
“Honourable, the Tenema Port scandal is the fourth major one that has rocked the government since re-election. Several billions. The public thinks the prosecution is a farce. Witnesses are even now disappearing. What do you say?”
“As Attorney General, I assure you we will bring those behind these schemes to book. You have my word,” I say, “but investigations take time.”
Light bulbs flash. Some coughing. A boy, scarcely ten, in an outlandish school uniform, pulls out from behind the bank of cameras. He just stands there. His skin seems as if dusted with ash. I feel bone cold.
“Boy, should you be here?” I ask, then scan the crowd. “With the serious business we have here today, a press conference no less, I would appreciate if we kept schoolchildren from these proceedings.”
“Oh, for goodness sake! Look at that boy there. And his uniform needs to be washed, a shameful exhibition of parental neglect.”
Everyone cranes their necks to where my finger is pointing. The boy, about ten years old, wears a school uniform — a garish red shirt untucked over threadbare blue shorts.
Peter appears and signals that the press conference is over.
“Peter, I wasn’t ready to leave yet.”
He sighs. “Sir, there was no child.”
“I am not blind.”
“Sir, the footage will be confiscated. I assure you this matter will be dealt with. I am taking you back home for some rest.”
We arrive at an empty villa. The gardens are showing signs of neglect from the days Ang’e has been gone. The gardener fears my wife, not me.
She travelled four days ago. Our abattoir business has two new branches out of state. We are now the biggest supplier of meat in the country.
I undress, swallow two pills and fold myself into her side of the bed.
Peter is right. I am tired. The room swallows me.
Morning light spills in and softens the bedroom. The grey curtain on the left has been pulled open by some busybody staff. The sun is up through the picture window, the enclosed garden and pool is an image of vibrant colours. The gardener is back. I catch something at the corner of my eye. An animal? Had I left the front door open? Once, a troupe of monkeys had invaded the house. My eyes adjust with my glasses and I sit up.
The same boy is standing at the corner, very real.
“Who are you? What. . . do you want?”
My voice is unsteady. I am hit by the smell of rotting meat and a biting cold that spreads up my spine.
“My mother,” he says.
“No. . . no one can see you. You are a figment of my imagination.”
“You can see me, Eustus. Where is my mother?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know who your mother is!”
The thumps I hear is my heart pounding.
“You are lying. Liar! You took her.”
His arms are folded across his chest. He is looking away from me, profile, petulant. His uniform is dirty, like a child at the end of a school day who has been hard at play.
“Are you a ghost?”
“I am a boy.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Where is she, Eustus?”
His voice now sounds deeper, with fire beneath it.
“I don’t know, I don’t know.”
But I am crying. Why am I gulping back tears?
“Eustus! I want YOU to leave me!”
He disappears, leaving the smell of putrefaction behind. I find my phone and call the only person who can tell for sure whether I am losing it.
“I need you here,” I say, “something is happening. . .”
Ang’e returns from her trip. She deflates on finding my mother in the living room, sitting beside me.
“Good morning, Mama,” she says flatly.
My wife bows, exaggerating her cultural background. I am reminded of the Ethiopian saying she first told me: When the great lord passes, the peasant bows deeply and silently farts. That is the relationship between these two, a civil intolerance, mutual detestation. My mother ignores the performance. Ang’e rolls her eyes and enters the house only to reappear after a few minutes.
“I will see you later, Eustus, sorry to rush out like this. Today is production day, as you know.”
She slams the door behind her.
My mother says not a word until we hear my wife’s car drive off.
“So, why is this happening, Mother?”
“Well, my son,” she says, her eyes brightening. “Do you remember when you were in school and you were called ‘The Trickster Hare’? You would lead your friends on adventures that brought all of you nothing but beatings. Then you would study through the night! Look at those thick glasses.”
She pinches them off my face. She spits at and cleans them with the corner of her print wrapper of yellow butterflies on a green field before placing them on the bridge of my nose. It’s a reflex action.
“Everyone envies the big house you built for me in the village. Even though these same people are broken by debts that this world demands we pay. There are things I never challenged you on, my son, but the truth is you stole someone else’s life when you left the university and joined these people.”
She looks at me. Same complexion as mine but wrinkled, her eyes still retaining all of yesterday’s fire. They are layered now with — is it disappointment?
“Mama, poverty leaves stains on everyone. Nothing is free. Nothing.”
She nods. “True. Look at you. . . at her,” pointing at Ang’e’s portrait. “All these people taking care of you, I will be surprised if you remember how to wipe your own buttocks. This house is a tomb, my son, a store of countless dead things.”
“Now we must bury ourselves with you, all of us that have eaten from your table. I birthed you and carry all your sins.”
She shakes her head. “The ghost you see, Eustus, comes by to have a chat. What do you owe him, my son? Think. Think!”
I do not know what to say.
“Live with it. I live with what you are.”
Her smile is weathered, her tone resigned. She raises her small body from the chair.
“I need to go back to my farm. My workers must be across the border with my cows by now.”
There is nothing to say. I walk her to the car and watch her driver make a three-point turn. She doesn’t look back as the vehicle drives away and I can’t quite muster the energy to wave her goodbye.
How did I end up at the abattoir? Had I come to look for Ang’e? But there I was, screaming at Peter.
“Give me the gun!”
I was growling, charging at that gorilla of a man. Peter moves away and my arms flail. He extends his leg and I trip. I did not see that. We wrestle but he subdues me easily. While my head is bent over, I catch a glimpse of my prize in his waist holster. I make a second attempt. He anticipates this, grabs my arm and twists it behind my back. I am undeterred.
Peter slams my chest onto the ground so the air is expelled from my body. Why is this so strange? He leans a knee on my back, keeps me down. He is trying not to hurt me. I am not a fool and know this. But I want the gun damnit. He presses down too hard and there it is, the popping sound of my shoulder detaching from its socket. My body is encased in pain.
My mother, who caused all of this, stands not too far away.
“Eustus, my son, help me,” she says with sad bovine eyes, “they want to kill me, help me!”
“Mama,” is all I manage to say, “I am beaten. Forgive me, Mama.”
She says nothing. I remain on the ground.
“Sir,” Peter says finally, assessing that my fighting spirit is indeed broken. He gathers me up, allowing me some dignity as I hobble to the Mercedes, taking my back-left seat. He clicks the seatbelt as though he is a parent and I am a child.
Peter’s cell phone rings.
“Yes, Madam. I am with him,” he says, moving out of earshot.
The manager must have called Ang’e. Peter nods, pauses to glance at me. He hangs up and goes around to enter the car.
“Peter,” I say, clearing my throat. “Peter!”
The effort makes sweat roll off my forehead.
“Look, I heard my mother asking not to be killed and. . .”
“Sir, it was a cow. You tried to grab my gun and we are in your abattoir.”
“Sir, you chased the workers with the chainsaw.” It is a berating tone.
“I know very well what I did, Peter. You wouldn’t help me. I had no choice.”
He starts the car. It hums, starts to move.
In the early days of my marriage, my wife insulted my mother covertly. Seeing Mama at last manifest in a skittish defecating cow would have delighted Ang’e. Peter glances at me through the rear-view. He is a spectre. I shudder.
“Sir, we are going home. The doctor is waiting and so is Madam.”
We drive past the panicked faces of the workers. They stand like gnomes in blood-speckled overalls. I look down at my muddied Italian suit. Ang’e bought it for me.
She is a beauty, my wife. Ang’e is a slow revelation that I unpeel every day. An enduring seduction, offering me small hints of herself, little trails of kindness and crumbs of cruelty but never too much at once. We met at Addis where this continent comes together. She was the daughter of a general from one of the wars in the Great Lakes. Educated, aristocratic, broke, shopping for an out. And I then? Until recently a political science professor. I was Senior Special Assistant to the President, thirty-five years old, suitably unmarried.
Ang’e is tall, skin almost Mediterranean brown, brown eyes that gave an illusion of innocence, her nose aptly pointed in the air. With her by your side, you understood why some people are conquerors and others are serfs. I was on my way up, I had money, I had connections. We needed each other. We married eight years ago. I was named Attorney General after the change of government in the last elections and Ang’e steadily began knowing everyone who was anyone in the country. She knew who was where, who was up, who was down. So much so that only a few people knew her true ethnicity.
We cross the city and enter the suburbs with roads spooled through leafy lawns. Pampered pedigree dogs are walked by gardeners. Here and there, an expatriate jogs in the shade of old jacaranda and eucalyptus trees. What time is this? What time is all this.
“Home, sir,” Peter says.
He toots the horn. The gates slide open, but the guard is not standing on the inside. Ang’e, I assume, has let us in. The doctor’s grey Audi sits in the driveway. It’s a late model that betrays how much he earns. Peter escorts me inside to meet the eyes of my glowering wife. She is striking, even in anger.
“Ang’e, where is everyone?”
Doctor Almas Ghari is a corpulent Indian in his mid-50s. He has stained teeth from that nut he is always chewing. He has been known to carry a silver spittoon. He announces his presence with a laugh, a man constantly bemused. He is standing when I enter the living room. If he takes a step, he will limp, a man assailed by gout. He smells, always, of garlic. The sort of man who insists on carrying ancestral smells across continents. But he is a very good doctor, with an ability to minister to power in the necessary obsequious way that keeps egos intact.
“Honourable, the stress of work is getting to you. There is just too much on your plate and even Solomonic wisdom is tasked eventually,” he says. “Even kings have bad days, heavy is the head, heavy is the head.”
I think he will tip over as he lifts his walking stick for emphasis. He recovers. Why does that stick never snap, supporting this heft of flesh?
“Sit! Sit!” he says. In my own house.
He abandons the stick, perches on the arm of the white sofa.
“But Honourable, must I only receive calls from you when you are under the weather?” He laughs alone at his joke.
Why else would anyone want to see you, I almost say, but I sense Ang’e hovering and this is not the time for quips.
“This will only take a minute.”
Doctor Ghari proceeds to examine me.
“I can expect your discretion?” Ang’e asks.
“Of course. Now, sit up, Honourable. Off with your shirt.”
Peter, not Ang’e, helps me unbutton my shirt. She just stands in the corner of the room watching me. The doctor’s bald brown head reflects the natural light entering the living room. I think about my hairline and ponder if it’s time to shave. The room is silent as Ghari sets my shoulder.
Done, he crosses the room and whispers to Ang’e.
“Same time next year, Eustus?” he says, chuckling again.
Ghari waddles out, followed by Peter.
“Eustus,” Ang’e sighs.
We are alone. She paces the living room, her high-heel shoes sinking into the beige carpet. Is she taller than I am? Her shoes only come off when she is in bed.
I am trying to focus on her, but the boy is standing beside her. He must have entered when the doctor left. His socks are pulled up to just under his knees. The chill that pairs itself with his visitations plays along my spine.
Ang’e tells me I scream at night. The boy joins me in a demented chorus. His voice echoes mine. Twins. His agony crawls under my skin. I watch the brown hue of my skin move up and down, pores widening into small volcanoes. My fear pushes its way up, surfacing as blisters that burst into weeping sores. I have tried showing Ang’e my wounds, but she sees nothing.
Ang’e’s voice falters. “Eustus, are you listening?”
Ang’e kneels, her hands clasping mine.
“Stop telling everyone about this infernal boy ghost.” Her lips tremble. “This tribunal submission is important for the government, there is so much at stake. His Excellency needs to know you have it all under control. You UNDERSTAND?”
Her nails are digging into my wrist.
“They came to my office to ask about you. The same people who protect you tell him everything. Eustus, look at me!”
The boy is startled. He snarls at her with canine teeth.
“You will ruin us, these people. . .” she trails off, closing her eyes. “These people.”
The boy is making faces. Of course, Ang’e does not see him.
“If they suspect you are turning away from them, they will finish us both.”
She looks into my eyes, as though I were profoundly stupid. Ang’e never cries, until now. Her tears are rivulets that rest as diamond pendants on the thin gold chain around her neck. I force myself to hold her gaze. Her cheekbones embellish the darkness of her pupils, but the ever-present cunning is now clouded by tears.
It is said that genetic markers of trauma can be inherited by offspring. I am grateful we have no children. No descendants will roam the earth possessed by our unfinished business. She has always wanted everything. Now she has it. Now she fears the loss of this everything she has always wanted and now has. I can sense her fear.
“My love. I have overextended myself,” I say, “Give me the pills Ghari gave you. We will not lose it all.”
I enclose her hands in mine. She gets up and removes the pills from their blister pack, pressing two into my mouth, handing me a glass.
“Doctor Ghari says it’s fine. It can be mixed with alcohol. It will help you sleep.”
I think she is lying but, at this point, I don’t care.
She presents me a weak smile, then saunters out of the room with the half-drunk glass of vodka. The boy remains, doubled over with laughter, holding the door jamb for support. I feel like a sibling taunted after being scolded.
My weighted eyelids close.
I embrace the respite that drug-induced sleep provides.
I hear his soft child voice telling me to wake up. Is it morning already? Ultimately, the copper taste in my mouth nudges me to. Whatever I have swallowed has left a chemical trail. I must find water.
My stomach rumbles and I move to the en suite bathroom and vomit into one of the ivory coloured sinks. He is waiting in the sitting room. His small hands rest on the cushion my mother had been sitting on. He looks displaced here, amidst the thoughtfully arranged decor.
“What is your name? Who was your mother?”
“James. You took her. You smell of her, Eustus.”
The torment in the child’s eyes engulf my innards like soldier ants. I feel them moving within me, irritating my insides with fiery feet. I am still thirsty. The folds of skin at the side of my mouth seem to have neat cuts on either side. I try to open my mouth but wince instead. I lick the sides of my mouth, but my tongue feels like sandpaper.
“You are thirsty, come with me,” James says.
I follow him to the swimming pool. Water; looks good. Beside me, a serene bird dips its beak into the water, tail bobbing. He catches me staring.
“Eustus, I will show you something. You can be like that bird. Why don’t you drink?”
His eyes are pointing at the water, gleaming, “Try?”
“I will fall in. I am scared.”
“No, you won’t, Eustus. It is easy.”
I stand at the pool’s edge; I stand on one leg like a flamingo. I feel magical. My head dips in and out of the water. My throat has found a salve as the water cools something abominable in me. I am a magnificent bird. I stop to ruffle my wings, but this simplicity and ease is interrupted. A strong force pulls me back. My wings flap against the force determined to keep me from the water. But the wings do not make effective contact. My wings are wet and are soon bound.
Peter’s hand is quick, the slap reverberates. His eyes are wild and my head snaps back. Stillness settles in the enclosed garden poolside. The gardener is making self-soothing sounds. He stares. I peck the air to warn Peter off. The urge to attack him subsides with the gardener’s prayers. The bird spirit releases me. Peter returns with a syringe and I don’t resist. My skin swallows the needle and soon there is only darkness.
Ang’e looms over me when I wake.
“Who is Agatha Odongo? Is this the reason you are running mad? One of your sluts?”
She is in full accusatory mode, my beautiful, sterile wife with the always-scheming eyes. Her words punctuate me like stiletto heels on soft earth.
My body feels heavy. In a flash and then a flood, I remember the boy’s mother. A name I noted as quickly as I discarded it. I remember sanctioning the clearance of informal settlements to make way for luxury apartments owned by the Minister of Defence, Chief Sentago. There had been a fire. The name of a woman who clung to her bacha as the settlement burned. There had been outrage in the newspapers. There had been an inquiry. The family, trapped inside their home, were incinerated and then bulldozed along with all else. The inquiry assured all it had been their fault. The fuss soon evaporated. They were poor, the settlement was a slum. But I remember her name.
“I killed her, Ang’e.”
“Shut up, Eustus!”
She doesn’t want to be my confessor.
She points. “It’s your guilt, Eustus, your whoring guilt!”
“He is following me, look!”
The boy and Ang’e share an expression. Disgust and shock.
“There is no one there, you are mad. Mad!”
Ang’e covers her mouth and leaves the room. The air is thin, and I am wheezing because guilt does not allow you to breathe, it chokes everything. I am alone. I go to the bathroom. Ang’e has had all the razors removed. Little red dots appear on my palm, forming neat lines, becoming innumerable. My palms turn a deep red and then purple. They burn, I am burning, like Agatha Odongo and her three children. My body consumes itself.
“Please, please, I am sorry!”
The boy is by my side on the bathroom floor. I reach out to cradle him. He collapses in my arms. He is only a child, a ghost child.
“I am sorry, I am sorry for what I did to your family.”
There is a gurgling sound, from him. His small body starts to shake, but we comfort each other. This is what it would have felt like if I had a son. It feels cleansing and pure. I rock him and together we weep for a long time.
I wake up the next day on the bathroom floor. Where is everyone? Where is Ang’e? I have a shower. I find her in my study. She is as surprised to see me dressed up as I am to see her holding rosary beads. She tucks them in the pocket of her white trousers, embarrassed.
“Can I make you breakfast.”
“Of course, my love. I feel like myself now.”
She walks so deliberately. Her face is damp with tears. I am moved by her emotion and distrust it all at once.
After breakfast, the phone rings as though on cue, demanding and frenetic. I pick it up. The voice that speaks is privileged. It starts right away.
“Eustus! I hope there will be no problem. I hear you have been unwell.”
“Your Excellency, I assure you I am back to form and have reviewed the details again. The tribunal ruling can only come from examining the evidence. Fortunately, as you know, there are no witnesses to testify and the only two left who did have recanted their testimonies. Ultimately, Your Excellency. . .”
“Yes, yes, I want to make it clear there should be no problem, or you will go back to driving that Volkswagen. I gave you this job because you saw things my way. I don’t want to hear any more stories.”
“Yes, your Excellency.”
“Play your part,” he barks.
His Excellency has been unhinged these days. He too is paying the price for the bloodshed of our victories. Everything revolves around the final submission, which I will make to the tribunal. It will set out the government’s position, while the opposition and the international community circle like wolves. His Excellency is nervous, and this has made everyone tetchy. But I was not a professor of law for nothing. My submission will change everything.
James is back, opposite me. He sits with feet propped up on my desk.
“What are you going to do?”
“Tell me, James, is there hope for me? Is this hell? Whatever I do now, will it make a difference?”
We talk as friends.
“Do you think you deserve hell, Eustus?”
“I don’t know, boy. I don’t know.” I shake my head. “They will kill me, the system.”
“You killed my family, Eustus,” he replies.
“I am living with what I have done, you little. . .”
But I can’t swear at him. He is a child.
“I have seen what he does to people. More importantly, I have hidden what His Excellency does to people. So, you tell me now, is there hope for me or are all of you waiting to haunt me? If so, I would rather enjoy my life.”
“I can’t make that decision for you. I only came to ask you about my mother. It is you that bound us together.”
“The day you walked on our ashes to inspect the destruction of our community; you made your home mine. You brought me home with you on the soles of your shoes,” he says. “I am sad for you, Eustus, it’s sad to be around you. So, I am leaving. Truth is, I can’t smell my mother around you anymore. And I didn’t like this world much anyway. Too many people like you.”
This is my nadir, to be pitied by a ghost.
But James is gone. The chair of polished hardwood is empty and pulled in, as though he had never been sitting there. My papers and books are arranged neatly on the desk. I get down to writing and after a few hours, my submission is ready. I make ten sets of copies. The tribunal sits tomorrow.
The next morning, I call in Peter and tell him to call on a few people, local and foreign desks. When he returns from the errand, I hand him the draft. He scans through and asks me if I am sure. Twice. He looks unsettled when I tell him I am. He knows it’s no longer the madness. This is all me. I tell him I will be driving myself.
“It has been a pleasure serving you, Sir.”
I find Ang’e reclining on the sofa when I return just after noon. She holds a whisky glass in her hand and twirls it. The TV is tuned to a local news channel and the volume turned off. When you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times and today, there is only one item on the news in this country.
“The TV presenter looks constipated,” she says. I sit beside her. Is she angry?
“They replay clips of your tribunal submission and press statement every few minutes. There are people on the streets chanting for change in several major cities.”
“Whisky?” I say.
The bottle is on the side table. She pours me a glass. I sit beside her and gulp it.
“I am cooking you lunch. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Eustus. I am not that hopeless. Though, no interruptions. Put that phone away.”
She is flirtatious, takes the phone from my inner jacket pocket. Ang’e places it on the table. But there it is, the hint of something that I will never comprehend. She licks her lips and I am surprised the flash of pink isn’t forked at the end.
“We have turned a corner. I thought we would lose everything. The people are on the street, some are even calling for you to be president. You have started a revolution, Eustus. President. My love. By. . . public. . . demand. Can you believe it?”
What is she saying? Ang’e shakes her head.
“This is a country of shape-shifters, Eustus. That is why my father loved it so much when we moved after the revolution in my country. In this country, we are one thing and then, just like that,” she clicks the fingers of her free hand, “we are something else. In this country we can weave anything, Eustus. The devil takes care of his own.”
She raises her glass to me. “You never lied to me. We always were so pure with each other.” Her eyes roll, “Well, whatever we were pure of.”
She leans over and presses my lips. My tongue searches for hers. I’m in a trance, but she pulls away, whispers, “Later. Now, sit still.”
In under half an hour, there is a feast before me. She summons a meal steeped in spices. I eat with my fingers, finding cutlery cumbersome.
I feel a tickle at the back of my throat.
She pours me some and watches me drink. When she snorts, I look up.
“Is this what we are to be, chérie, rebel leaders marching shoeless in the streets or jungle, having bitten the hands that fed us?”
The tickle is now a persistent scratching. Air is being sucked out of my lungs; I cough to retrieve it. Ang’e hasn’t moved. Is she blind? I try to signal that I am choking. I reach out to her, but my hand grazes only fabric. I try to get up, but my feet are concrete. I lose my balance and fall over with the chair.
“My father killed people, Eustus, for an idea. A poor man’s revolution is exactly what it was. Malnourished. Deficient. When it was all over, we crawled our way from refugee camp to refugee camp. At last settling in this country. New papers, the right ones, a new story. I am not going back to that. This isn’t just about you.”
Her voice is hard. She is standing above me, long legs in heels, towering.
“It is hard to swallow, isn’t it, Eustus? I too find this hard to digest. If I wanted a rebel leader, I would have married one of my father’s illiterate lieutenants.”
What is she saying?
“I am not going anywhere, Eustus. You are though.”
She pours herself a drink.
If I could reach the telephone. But it sits useless in the next room. Where is Peter? Peter is gone. I could overpower her, yes. I wave, hoping something will touch her conscience. I would beg, if my throat wasn’t swollen shut.
But my mind is clear. I understand everything.
I am being expelled from the system. I smell the rot that the boy’s presence brings. It emanates from Ang’e. My eyes blur and just like that I have sunk into darkness. She owns the largest supplier of meat in this country. In a day or two, my ground up remains will feed, be digested and nourish some witless citizen who will be none the worse for it.
Alison Ojany is a writer and poet. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and has presented her work in various public fora. Her works have been published by Kwani?, Farafina, Wajibu magazine and Forward Press, in the anthology Through Different Windows. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Abuja with her husband and two children.
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