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“The Grave Diggers of Mashin” by Nyasili Atetwe

“The Grave Diggers of Mashin” by Nyasili Atetwe

It was now three months since the last burial happened in Mashin village. Luka was penniless but somewhat happy. Some evenings he staggered back home drunk, and instead of stony silences, Hannah received him calmly and asked if he would eat.  The other day, she even asked him what he thought about their crumbling cowshed, and who was the best fundi to repair it. This never happened. It sweetened his heart but he knew it would only last until some death occurred in the village.

Hannah wanted the best for Luka, for her own sake. She hoped to occupy him with something respectable and meaningful before the next villager died. She had a cooking job offer at Mashin Primary school where she worked as a teacher. The job had been open for weeks now, specifically waiting for Luka. It was the best she could offer. She couldn’t get him back where he was financially when they married—many things had happened in between, including a stint in jail after losing his senior accountant job. He then returned home and found solace at Mangele’s place where chang’aa brew became his diet of hope. The cooking job would be a game-changer. She preferred “the wife of a cook” better than “the wife of a gravedigger”. That was what people now called her.

As they sat around the dinner table one evening, Luka smiling at anyone and anything with his breath reeking of chang’aa, Hannah laid before him ugali and fried ants, his favorite meal. 

“The headmaster said he is keeping the job for you. When are you starting?” she said. Time was running out and the job would not wait for him forever.   

Luka had cleared his plate and was now picking his teeth with his tongue.

“You want me to come and cook for school children?” He smiled, shaking his head. 

Before she answered, he picked his dark Panasonic radio from the table. He had turned it full-blast but the dying cells only emitted moderate volume. Mpongo Love was on the chorus of Ndaya, and seemed to follow him as he strode into the bedroom.

“That is your father!” Hannah turned to Kasali and Gade, who sat across the table wiping their plates with lumps of ugali. 

“If he comes people will laugh at me. I don’t want that!” Kasali said. Hannah scoffed at Kasali’s teenage pride. 

“Just like your father, you only think of yourselves,” Hannah said. 

“I want him to come,” Gade said, “we will eat more at lunch. Isn’t it mum?”

“Isn’t he also just thinking about himself?” Kasali glared at Hannah.  

It couldn’t be selfish coming from a five-year-old. Hannah smiled and patted Gade’s head. 

Hannah ordered the children to go to sleep after Kasali cleared the table. They retreated to their bedroom, which doubled up as the kitchen. She remained alone, seated at the table in the sitting room. She sat facing the bolted door, and giving her back to their bedroom where Luka’s radio was now wheezing because of the powerless batteries. On her right was the open doorway into the children’s room and she had to order them to turn off the lamp and stop chatting before she had the silence she needed.  

She had exam papers to mark that night and wanted to finish doing so before she turned in. But for a while her mind couldn’t get into it. Her thoughts lingered on her man: the disgrace he had become. The other day, Mama Ambaka, a neighbour, had come to her whispering:

“You know what Mama Amali said? Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you.”

“You already started. Finish!” Hannah demanded. “Or are you trying to annoy me?”

“She said ‘this grave-digging business must be paying her man well,’ and then asked ‘you saw the yellow-yellow dress she came wearing to our last meeting?’” Mama Ambaka mimicked their absent friend’s strained soprano. 

“She said that?” Hannah asked, stewing.

“Those were her words. I told her no – with your salary what can’t you afford? People are jealous, I tell you!”

A few hours after Mama Ambaka had gone, Mama Amali visited.

“That Mama Ambaka laughs with you but be careful. She was asking ‘How can a whole teacher share a bed with someone that never takes baths for days?’” 

Hannah could have folded Mama Amali like an ironed dress and packed her away with a few slaps.  She sulked but let it pass. The thought of it rankled her even now. For long, her friends taunted her so she would leave Luka. With her salary, she could fend for her children without much struggle. But leaving Luka scared her. People would say she left him because she had money; because she wanted the freedom to become a prostitute. She wouldn’t let them have the last laugh.

The children were now snoring and Luka’s radio was dead. The chirp of the crickets outside filled the moment with a stirring silence. She scratched at a pimple-like swelling growing on her thigh, next to the entrance of her other world beyond. The sweet scratch drew her mind to the boil, which was no different from Luka – choosing to grow here to embarrass her, and soon she would not be able to walk before people with pride. But the boil was better than Luka because it had a known cure. The chemist has given her antibiotics that would stop its spread to other tissues in the body. Now her urine smelled of the antibiotic, a smell that she likened to the promise of healing. If Luka was a boil, she would swallow all antibiotics in the world to cure herself of the shame he had brought her.

Someone knocked as she buttoned up her skirt. She glanced at the time on her phone. It was ten-twenty. 

“It is who?” she asked. 

“Tenje!” bellowed a low garrulous voice. 

Tenje was one of Luka’s four-man grave-digging gang. To Hannah, they were a gang. At thirty-nine, with no eyes for women, Mashin people joked that Tenje’s thorn could not prick.

 “Go away!” Hannah snapped, “we took our supper long ago!”

“Is Baba Gade there?” Maiko interjected dryly. “He is the one we want.” 

Maiko too was of the grave-digging gang. He was a stump of a man with an elephantine temper. He caught fire as quickly as dry kindling and was always getting himself in fights, always losing his teeth. 

“Who has died?” Hannah stopped short of asking. 

The two couldn’t be looking for Luka that late to go buy him a drink. But there had been no screams to announce a death. 

“Go away or I will shout thief!” 

Tenje laughed. 

Hannah glared at the door helplessly. The men would not leave until they woke up Luka. Unknown to her, Luka was already out of bed. He coughed from the bedroom and said.

“Open for them!”

“There is no door that is being opened here!” Hannah thundered with some sense of finality. 

Luka knew better than to start a mouth battle with her. He soon strode across the dimly lit room and opened the door. A burst of cold air gushed in, instantly chilling Hannah. 

“I’m freezing!” Hannah snapped. 

Luka stepped outside and pulled the door shut. She then heard their footsteps and heavy jovial voices recede in the night. Luka must have been waiting for them, judging from his swift response after they had knocked. Hopefully, another grave digging job had not come up. But she would have known, even if the death was in the next village. Perhaps he thought that she was still on her periods. The way he had been touching her the past few days only to reach down there and find her padded up. Poor boy! But today she was good to go and was looking forward to it. He helped her complete the fantasies about her colleague, Mr. Mbati who loved ogling her every opportunity he got. Mr. Mbati was a handsome bachelor but no, she wouldn’t trade Luka with anyone. 

She was relieved when he returned in the morning enveloped in fumes of chang’aa and soaking in dew. At least they had just gone to cut down their thirst, not to dig some grave somewhere. 

She was wrong. 

The next morning while she was in the staffroom scribbling notes for her next class, Mr. Mbati came to greet her at her desk. 

“One of our pupils have lost their parents,” he said though his gaze was dead frozen on Hannah’s chest. 

“Which one?”

“Mbakaya, you know him?”

“The son of Nyanji. Who has died?” 

“His mother!”

“Lord, Adisa is dead! When did it happen?” 

“Yesterday evening!” 

Hannah gazed into space and when Mr. Mbati told her that she looked great in her chiffon top, she just nodded absentmindedly. 

Later in the evening, Mama Ambaka told her what had happened. Adisa had died of pneumonia in a store at the backyard of their homestead where she lived with her three children after Nyanji had married a second wife. When she died, Nyanji had ordered no one to cry. 

With Adisa dead, a job had opened up for Luka and his gang. Digging graves and burying the dead was not everyone’s job. The graves were dug at night at a spot preferred by the bereaved family. Luka and his gang hollowed the ground with hoes and shovels. They worked by the faint orange brightness of a lantern, singing and smoking until a rectangular box caved beneath their feet, dark and six feet deep. The song and smoke kept them going, because this was not a hole for people to come and shit in but one where someone would be put to rot for eternity. 

For songs, they had Mwale, their soloist, whom Luka referred to as Voice Number Ten. His chang’aa-soaked tenor would crack a Luhya gospel tune, and the rest joined in a babbling chorus. Once through with the digging, they were handed a chicken, which they slaughtered at the graveside—as custom dictated—and roasted instead of frying. They were the only ones allowed to eat the roast. In case the deceased family was rich and not very Christian, the roast was accompanied by liquor, which they imbibed after the meal. The next day, during burial, the gang become the pallbearers and they interred the deceased. Their work was cut out for them, and no one who was not part of them from the beginning could jump in at the middle. Some families wanted the graves plastered and a tombstone erected. The gang had Ngulu, whom they entrusted with the writings on the wet tombstones. He summarized the lives of the deceased in names, dates, and Bible verses. His hand was so neat that Luka joked that the tombstone imprint looked like love letters to the dead. The gang did a good job on the graves; they were always considered whenever someone died in Mashin. 

Luka loved the job. It was a calling, the last thing that made him feel important in Mashin. People sought him out when they wanted the services of his gang, and the mourners waited respectfully as he directed his boys in the burial process. He felt alive at these moments, a kind of aliveness that denied him the desire to be anything else than a gravedigger. These moments helped him accept the uselessness of life. He had put some of Mashin’s richest into holes seemingly tinier than the lives they had lived, where they were left to rot and be forgotten by a busy world. 

Hannah knew she had lost. With Adisa’s death, her plan to engage Luka in the cooking job wouldn’t go far. She didn’t give up though. When she returned home from work that evening, she prepared tilapia and ugali, Luka’s other favorite. She had bought new battery cells for his radio and tonight it was clearer and louder, filling in the gaps between their clipped chatter as they munched and sucked on fish bones. Hannah made her next move.  

 “I was thinking I should buy a bicycle when I get paid this month.”

“Yes!” Gade exclaimed, throwing his fists up. “I will ride it to school.”

“Ah –aa!” Hannah shook her head. “This is for your father to help him start the maize trade he has always wanted to start.”

Luka stopped chewing and gazed at her in shock. Whatever had entered her was like rain coming straight from heaven. 

“That’s what you’ve always wanted,” Hannah said, looking at him. 

“But for how long have I asked for this?” He feigned annoyance to mask his excitement. 

“But at last it is coming now.” 

“Yeah, at least now we won’t need to borrow from neighbors every time we need to go to the posho mill,” Kasali said. 

The banter at the evening table rotated around the coming bicycle. Hannah marveled at how Luka and the children were excited about it. She scaled up her plot.

“Adisa’s death is so disturbing.” She turned to Luka. “She died like a dog.”

“Oh, that one – yeah!”

“Something tells me that something will go wrong about Adisa’s burial. When a man kills his wife like that . . .”

But Luka looked absorbed with the white soft flesh that he was sucking from the fish bones. 

“If I were you I wouldn’t take that job.”

Luka glanced at her and then went back to sucking the fish bones. 

Later, when they were in bed she told him she would not only buy the bicycle but also give him the money he needed to start the business. In return, she needed him to keep off the grave-digging business. 

For the next two days before Adisa’s burial, a serious dilemma grated Luka’s mind. He could act sick for his gang to excuse him from a job they were already booked for. But he couldn’t leave his gang without a shepherd. They would be lost without him. 

After the burial he returned home drunk every evening, ready to sleep and escape Hannah’s hostile eyes and demented silences. Her loathing had soared to crazy heights, and she no longer bothered to keep food for him. He didn’t buy any, anyway. At least she left the door unlocked so he could let himself in when he came home late. He woke up very hungry on the third day after the burial. Everyone had left and the tea kettle on the table in the sitting room was as empty as his stomach. He sat down on a folding chair and contemplated what to cook. Then Nyanji knocked. At first Luka thought it was just the plastering of Adisa’s grave that Nyanji wanted. 

“I need her spirit bound and if you and your men can help, I will give you whatever you will ask.” 

“Adisa has been returning?”

“Yes!” Nyanji said, “You are asleep, you hear her walking, calling people. Yesterday we found the sitting room rearranged. And the child who sleeps on her mat in our room, was sleeping in the sitting room.”

“Your second wife’s daughter?”

“Yes. She was there on her mat.” 

“She didn’t hear anything?” 

Nyanji shook his head. 

Adisa’s grave needed to be dug up and her remains burnt. That would bind her spirit. Luka asked for ten thousand and Nyanji agreed without haggling. Then Luka realized he had asked for too little and regretted it, but too late.  He should have asked for more so that after paying his gang he could be left with enough to buy himself the bicycle that Hannah was trying to bribe him with. 

Later in the evening, the gang arrived at Nyanji’s home, high on nguli (bhang), to steel their nerves against the delicate assignment ahead of them. Nyanji handed them shovels and hoes and they began moving the dirt out of the grave. They worked fast, their tools crunching the wet soil even as they ensured the loose soil didn’t spread far so that nobody would later on sense the grave had been tempered with. As they worked, Nyanji paced about in the dark, from one end of the compound to another, watching out for any unwanted eyes that may be passing. 

Halfway to the coffin, they began to focus on the end where the head lay. They now entered in turns, one person at a time. They scooped and scooped and puffed nguli to numb their tensed nerves. At last, Maiko scrapped soil off the coffin’s surface. He found the handle of the wooden lid and slid it back. The darkness beyond the glass mortified him; he stopped. He couldn’t stand the thought of Adisa’s decomposing face glaring at him. This was the eighth grave they were invading for such a mission but tonight’s tension was different. He hopped out of the grave. 

“You’ve broken the glass?” Luka asked.

“No.”

“You’ve left it for who?” Ngulu asked. 

“You go break it!” Maiko snapped. 

“You think I am a coward like you?” Ngulu said and jumped inside. His feet landed squarely on the glass, crashed it and his shoes skidded on some fleshy slippery surface. 

Vayayi!” he exclaimed and jumped out. 

Soon a rotten stench hit their nose and Maiko spat. 

“Who spat?” Mwale asked, pinching his nose, and followed the rest as they fled the stench. 

They stood a distance away, near the gate where they watched Nyanji accompany a limping old man to the half-open grave. Luka felt uneasy and wondered why the nguli he smoked wasn’t relieving him as it had done during similar assignments. Perhaps Hannah was right. If he had had not taken the job he would be in bed next to her, asleep with her bum pressed to his groin.  

The limping man by the graveside pelted stuff into the hole and mumbled a strange language. A crying feminine voice rose from the hole, answering the old man’s rants. 

“That’s Adisa’s voice alright!” Maiko whispered. 

“Shhh!” Luka elbowed him, suppressing the urge to bolt away, go to Hannah and tell her that she was right: he shouldn’t have taken this job. But for the gang’s sake, he couldn’t back out. Not now. 

Nyanji emptied a jerry can of petrol into the grave. Soon, its smell pervaded the still air of the dark evening. He then threw a lit match stick into the grave. An instant fire blazed from the hole, its orange flame illuminating the darkened compound. Nyanji and the old man disappeared as the fire ate the coffin wood in pop sounds and hisses, its tongues gushing in and out of the grave. 

“That’s who crying?” Maiko asked. 

“Where?” Luka turned to him. 

“At the grave.”

“I’m hearing it also,” Ngulu said. 

“Tenje, are you hearing anything?” Luka asked. 

“No.” 

Before the fire died down, they returned to the grave and began refilling it. They worked fast in silence, with rolls of nguli dangling from the edges of their mouths. They tried hard to restore the grave to its fresh looks; such a daunting task considering the darkness they worked in. Thereafter, they hobbled to Mangele’s place to drown the rest of their night in chang’aa before each man went to his home in the early morning hours. 

Hannah woke up early to help the children prepare for school. The boil on her groin had swollen to its ripe fullness but had yet to break. It was now much harder to walk properly, and she had taken the day off. She couldn’t go back to bed though because of Luka’s snoring and the overwhelming stench of chang’aa. She resigned to warm herself by the fireside as she waited for the sun to fully come out.

Shrill screams from the east of Mashin plucked her from her seat. In that quiet morning, the wails sounded as if they were from the next compound. Hannah was among those who followed the cries to Ngulu’s homestead. Everyone was headed there, alarm wrinkled on their face. “Who had died?” everyone asked the other. Nobody seemed to know better until they reached Ngulu’s home. A crowd stood around the mango tree in the backyard where Ngulu dangled from a rope that stretched from a branch. 

As people mused the meaning of it all, news flowed in from across the village. Maiko had gone mad. Hannah joined half of the crowd, which left the dangling Ngulu to go and witness the spectacle of a deranged Maiko. They found him bound with a nylon rope, which he struggled to bite loose, but it had instead torn the edges of his mouth and now his lips were bloody. He cursed the onlookers in demonic tongues and occasionally called the names of villagers long dead. 

The two incidents had shaken Mashin out of its daily groove. But what happened an hour later made everyone believe these incidents were not coincidental. Many suspected it was the grave digging job they had done for Adisa. It wasn’t wise to take it considering Nyanji was blamed for the death. Nyanji must be the one deflecting his deceased wife restless spirit to Luka’s gang.

After Mwale’s wife returned home from Maiko’s place, she found her husband hiding under their blanket, and when she pulled the blanket from him, he was shaking. He gazed about with the frightened eyes of a cornered rat, then he dashed out, wearing only his pants. She caught up with him at the banks of River Nzoia, hiding behind a bush.

When Hannah heard of this, she ran home but stopped at the door of her bedroom, scared that waking the slumbering Luka would produce the same results. She left him asleep and sent for Amakombe in the distant Mtoni village. The renowned Amakombe would know what to do. As she waited for Amakombe, she locked her door and sat outside where she kept hordes of nosy neighbors away from her man. 

“He is fine. He has gone to check on Maiko,” she lied, so at to shoo them away. 

By eleven, Hannah feared for the worst. However drunk Luka was when he returned home, he never stayed in bed beyond eight. He woke up and went looking for more chang’aa to unlock his hangover. But she let him snore on. She wasn’t ready to face a mad husband. A grave digging husband was better. 

He woke up before midday and vomited beside the bed. Hannah rushed to the bedroom, opened the wooden window, and studied him. He wiped his mouth on the blanket and lay his head next to the bed’s edge. He began to doze off. 

“Amakombe is coming and we have to cook you in herbs,” Hannah said. 

He fluttered his eyes open and pinched his face, straining from the light. 

“Cook herbs for me why? To stop me from doing my job?”  

 “That, I can’t stop you. Have I not failed all these years? Perhaps you should be happy that your next job is on your friends’ graves.” 

Luka sat up, swung his feet off the bed but froze when he felt his trouser and shirt were wet. He had peed on himself. It had never happened before. 

“And I don’t know who you will do the job with because Maiko and Mwale have gone mad.” 

“And Tenje is where?” He sprang up, scrubbing his face with his hands as he started out.

“You’re going where?

“To find Tenje!”

“Looking this way?” Hannah followed him into the sitting room. His crinkled shirt and trouser had a huge wet map of urine. 

“You’re going nowhere!” She grabbed him, shoved him out of the way and planted herself at the door. 

Then Amakombe knocked. For a grizzled old man, he was still very strong for his age, cycling all the way accompanied only by his youthful apprentice who had also cycled here. The apprentice carried a dark, brown leather bag containing the tools of their trade. 

“Sit down young man!” Amakombe ordered, entering. Luka wouldn’t have obeyed had Tenje not burst in at that moment, crying like a woman. He indeed paced about the sitting room like a woman in labour.

“Luka, Luka,” he cried, “why did you do this to us. Why have you finished us like this!”

Amakombe ordered them to sit down. Tenje sat next to Luka, writhing on the seat as if he had a stomach upset, while Luka gazed ahead, trying to ignore him. 

“You’ve finished us. We are done with!” Tenje mourned.

Hannah heard him from the kitchen where she fussed in the hearth to get Amakombe some boiled water. Shortly, a neighbor stormed in, panting. She announced that Mwale had died with a froth of blood foaming at his mouth. Tenje flew out. Luka attempted to follow him, but the apprentice held him back.

“Let me be!” Luka yelled, struggling to get loose. 

“Look at you!” Amakombe snarled. “Smelling of urine like an uncircumcised boy.”

“Makwata,” He called his apprentice but glaring at Luka. “Let him free and we shall see who he will blame when he walks back here mad.”

The apprentice released Luka, but Amakombe’s words held him. 

“Get your clothes off,” Amakombe ordered, as the apprentice locked the door. 

As Luka unbuttoned, Hannah brought in a covered pot of hot water and placed it where Amakombe pointed with a finger. Luka was incensed at the sense of triumph that shone on Hannah’s face when their eyes met. After Luka stripped naked, Amakombe showed him where to sit on the floor.

The apprentice opened the leather bag and pulled banana wrappings from it and arranged them on the floor. He then plucked a blade from a side pocket and passed it over to Amakombe. The medicine man picked one of the banana wrappings, smelled it, and ripped it open with the knife. He crawled next to Luka and asked. 

“You ready?”

Luka stared. 

“Be a man. Lift your arms.”

Luka bared his rib cage to him. He jerked with every cut Amakombe made along his ribs and winced as Amakombe rubbed the medicine into his flesh. The seven cuts took a lifetime to complete. Amakombe then pulled the pot next to Luka’s feet, uncovered it, and threw a blanket over Luka. No fumes escaped the blanket trap. Luka sneezed and coughed and struggled to lunge out for fresh breath but Makwata was too much for him. 

“Good,” Amakombe smiled, “the struggle tells you the medicine is entering.”

Hannah couldn’t believe it was happening. And as she stood there watching, she felt some sticky wetness in her pant, between her legs. The ripe boil had broken loose. It must have happened as she ran about preparing the hot water. Tears of double relief streaked down her cheeks.


Nyasili Atetwe is a Kenyan-born story teller. His mediums of expression include fiction, photography and film. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a graduate of Nairobi Fiction 4 Workshop (a short story masterclass by Onjerica Makena). His short fiction works have appeared in Writers Space Africa – Kenya (a blog), and Writers Space Magazine (online). His short film A Winter of Goodbyes is available on YouTube. He is currently working on a Swahili novel and his second short film.

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