“Jadwong” by Sydney Mugerwa


When you’re seven and Jadwong tells you, “Galamira wansi!” you do as you’re told. You drop to the floor like a Mvule tree felled with the axe. Wherever you may be, stay down. Play dead or else things won’t end well. Brace yourself as a smoke-stained man-sized hand claps some sense into ‘that stupid head of yours.’ Steal a few gasps of air as he swigs on some of that zombie liquor and then brace yourself again as more sense is knocked into you. Count the seconds as the grandfather clock casually leaning against the peeling wall ticks away into the stillness of the night. It’ll be all over soon. Zombie mode any moment from now and then he won’t be able to hurt you anymore, verbally, physically or otherwise.

When your drunken father orders you: “Sooka ogende ondeetere omuggo!” you better hit the ground running. You better get a sturdy cane that won’t snap and break lest the next thing to break will be your ribs and your thick head. You don’t need to be seven to know that boots and fists can break bones faster than a cane and not even your mum will come to your aid. She’ll only break your heart, locked in her room praying for Jesus to come and save her children. She’s terrified enough as it is. Your brother and sisters are even more terrified, crammed into their tiny beds feigning sleep. What they don’t know is there won’t be any saving tonight.

And a stick won’t pick itself.

Get a cane that won’t deteriorate into splinters that might stab into your tender flesh in a moment of blind rage. You’re not seven; you don’t know the rage of a drunken father with a broken cane; with a lot of pent up frustration and a seven year old mirror image of his young self staring back at him in stark terror.

Pray you never find yourself out during a particularly nasty storm with thick heavy raindrops roaring furiously as they collide head-on with the corrugated iron sheets. You won’t even hear yourself howl in pain as Jadwong repeatedly dents your skull with a yellow Tumpeco jug in the process of giving you a late-night punishment shower. Worse still is that you won’t even feel the tears and the blood running down your face. The cursed rain simply washes away your hard-earned evidence. At least the bitter cold burrowing into your fragile bones will numb the blows when they come, for come they will right after Jadwong sucks the life out of his Sportsman cigarette. That’s any moment from now.

Mummy told me to pray that Jesus would come down from heaven and save us. I looked again at the grandfather clock and the second hand just ticks on in the aftermath. Jadwong has left to go waste himself some more and Jesus hasn’t yet come to save us. For someone Mummy says is the Son of God, I don’t think his daddy taught him well to keep time. I wouldn’t have this swollen red eye or this cracked lip. My head wouldn’t feel like it has a heartbeat too.

Last night, Jadwong came home in a good mood. He came bearing gifts but to claim them, we had to each give him a hug to welcome him home. When it was my turn, he sat me on his lap and enveloped me in a bear hug, prickly beard and all, the likes he only gives when he’s scared he’s punished me too hard.

It seems like Jesus came at last to save us and took my father’s form. He brought bread from Master Bakers and Jam to go with it. He brought matooke and meat, and rice for us kids. “Tulya omuceere ng’obunyonyi,” he’s fond of telling us—we feast on rice like chickens.
He didn’t notice the dirt under my fingernails. He didn’t ask for the remote when it was time for news on UTV but instead let us continue watching Wild Rose on TV Africa. His eyes were clear and warm with crow’s feet which means he felt amused by our tentative movements around him. There was no beer that night. There was no slurred repetitive zombie talk and no smoking monster to send me out into the night to fetch a cane. He instead let us have second and third helpings until our tummies were stretched like drums.

Mummy was right when she told me to pray. Jesus came to save us and He came in style. I am seven years old and God’s Son listens to me. I try not to think about him dying though. I quickly push it out of my mind.

I’ll be sad when Jesus has to leave again and Jadwong returns. We’ll have to call him Yaamo again and scamper off for cover when we hear his zombie talk and heavy footsteps announcing his arrival.

We’ll have to be as quiet as possible and eat as little as possible and be clean as only Omo detergent can make us. Then maybe he won’t notice we share a roof and he won’t get mad and bark at us. Then maybe he’ll have to leave and Jesus returns. Jesus will make new mummy’s promise that we’ll be alright, that we’ll be safe and happy with enough to eat.

I can’t wait for Jesus to come again.

Sydney Mugerwa (@ToySoldierBoy) was born in Kampala into a reading family. Exposed to both Western and African Literature at an early age, it was not long before he tried his hand at writing himself. He found he liked it. Reading and writing has been his passion ever since. He keeps an amateur poetry and prose blog. Sydney attended the 2014 Writivism workshop in Kampala, and was mentored by Okwiri Oduor.

“Nightmare” by Nnedinma Jane Kalu


Uju watched her husband, Ikem, hunched over his laptop Facebooking and reading stupid tweets, activities he’d call ‘job hunting’ when Uju accused him of frittering away time. She sat on the couch in front of the TV with their son’s head resting on her lap. Ikem was at the dining table, his eyes were fixed to the computer screen and his eyeballs darted from side to side as he read. Uju wondered if he even knew she was in the room, he barely spoke to her or even looked at her. He had more fun giggling at his computer than he did talking to her. When she tried to make conversation, she got curt nods or silence in response. Uju spent more time with her son, Junior, instead and sometimes out of loneliness told him things a five-year old had no understanding of.

As Uju tucked Junior in later that night, she couldn’t help but think how much his sleeping face looked like his father’s. She used to call Ikem my handsome man in the days they had been in love. What had happened that brought on so much coldness between them? What went wrong? She had even on occasion considered quitting the marriage but had only stayed for fear of what people will say, how her mother would have to cover her face in shame at the village meetings and how much her father’s heart would break. She smiled sadly at her sleeping son and drew the blanket up to his neck, kissing him a little longer than usual on his forehead and wiping the tear that slipped from her eye to his cheek.

The sex that night was as usual. She only felt a tingle when he penetrated her but nothing more than a tingle. He rode her fast and rough. He didn’t see her, his eyes were closed the whole time probably lost in his fantasy. His pig grunts grew louder as he climaxed and Uju was glad it was over when he lay limp, heavy on her.

She lay awake in the dark listening to his snore and wondered how much longer she could live that way. She should have heeded to her father’s warning that day many years ago in his shop at Enugu. Uju had gone to tell him about Ikem’s marriage proposal and was sure her father would be ecstatic, he worried that her bank job made her appear too expensive for any man, but Uju had been greatly surprised by his response.

“Don’t marry him Uju” he had said while ironing a customer’s white-washed brown shirt. He worked on a rickety table that took most of the space in the tiny room with one window.

“You haven’t even met him, papa”

“My spirit does not accept him. Asim mba

Uju had gone crying to her mother who was unperturbed by her father’s disapproval and encouraged Uju to ignore him. She wasn’t getting any younger; she should grab the husband she was seeing now. What did her father know? Uju had gone back to Lagos and told Ikem he could bring the palm wine and dowry to her father, for the old man had said yes. Her father had accepted the items without a word and had barely spoken to Uju since the marriage.

She didn’t care, at first, about her father’s aloofness. Ikem loved her and they were happy. He treated her well. He left her chocolates and love notes at work. He served her breakfast in bed and massaged her feet when she came home after work. She excused his joblessness and always answered “he’ll get a job soon” to her colleagues when they inquired. But Ikem hadn’t made any attempt to get work; He changed like a green leaf in the harmattan season and started complaining about everything. I don’t like this bank job, he would say, it keeps you away too late. Who do you expect to take care of our son? You are neglecting your family. Once, Uju had had enough and told him she would quit if he got a job and he had responded with a shrug. Then he stopped talking to her altogether. He simply climbed on top of her every night and rode her like a slave.

The next day Uju came home and found Ikem in the sitting room laughing at something showing on TV while Junior lay on the rug in front of the TV asleep. She murmured a greeting and bent to carry Junior.

“Leave him. I want to speak to you first” Ikem said and Uju stood and stared at him surprised.
“Sit down” he said pointing at an armchair.

Uju sat and observed him suspiciously.

“Since you have decided that your job is more important and have neglected your duties as a wife, I have decided to marry a new wife. She will arrive tomorrow, I need you to move into the guest room because she will move into the master bedroom.” He waved offhandedly and turned his face to the TV.

Uju chuckled “You must be out of your mind” She rose to her feet as she spoke: “What rubbish, in my own house. You are mad!”

“What did you say?” Ikem asked and stood up.

“You heard me,” Uju replied close to tears.

Ikem stood up and grabbed her shirt collar. A pain tore at her cheek at the impact of the first punch and she couldn’t scream even though she wanted to. She heard her son cry as the other punches struck her cheek, neck, breast, arm and other parts of her body. She fell to the ground and her groans grew smaller and smaller with each kick he sent to her belly.

The beating finally stopped but the pain stayed with her. She couldn’t move a muscle, she lay there on the floor with Junior curled up by her side. She felt his tears on her breasts and she wanted to rub his head but her hands were too heavy. She wanted to tell him that they could leave now, with a reason that was visible to the world, but all she managed were laboured groans.

Nnedinma Jane Kalu (@nnedinmajane) studied Biology but works as a freelance scriptwriter. She lives in Enugu from where she sees the world in the pages of books. She participated in the Writivism workshop program 2014 and is an Alumini of the 2014 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop.

“Bead Work” by Caleb Adebayo


You are crazy. You are very crazy. You must be completely crazy to sit in that chair, so prim in this little office and listen to that woman hurl insults at you and your mother and do nothing. Just because you want a job? I am not crazy like you. I’m not. So I stand up to the woman sitting at the desk.

“Don’t you ever try that again. What nonsense! Who gives you the right to insult this woman and her mother?”

The woman shifts sideways to face me. She must wonder where I come from to be so daring. We have been sitting here for two hours. We’ve been waiting for this woman to check your file for a job at the Ministry of Environment.

You tug at my arm. You urge me to sit down, to let things calm down but I am not crazy like you. I won’t.

“How dare you?”

By now I have the attention of everyone in the room; some staff are sitting at the other end of the room in front of a computer and there are other people who have been waiting along with us. None of them interrupts. All eyes are on us. The woman stands up abruptly. She hurls fire with her eyes.

“Come on, onyeocha, who do you think you are? Are you the one looking for job, enh? I na nu kwa trouble!”

She claps her hands in mock excitement and lets out a short laugh.

“Now get out of my office. Get out!”

She looks over my head.

“’Next person, o!”

You are torn. This was a chance. At least you have gotten into the office. You plead. I hate that you are pleading. I hate that you look weak. You did nothing wrong. She was the one who hurled insults at your mother. Your mother Maami, the poor woman in the village who works so hard while you played hide and seek. You seek and government hides. You search and government jobs don’t come to you. I am infuriated. I’m angry at you and mad at the woman who can’t see us for what we have to offer.

“Anyway, that is how you all are.”

I’m trying to dismiss the woman by challenging her authority, by masking the fact that we are being kicked out.

“It’s my friend here that lets you insult her mother who should be blamed. Let’s get out of here, Temi.”

I take your hand and pull you, with your file and jacket and everything.

“Let’s go. You don’t need this.”

I hate government jobs. I hate government people. I hate thinking about the encounter I had at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was no day I wasn’t at the ministry in those days, lugging files with me, pleading, making calls, sitting and waiting, sitting and waiting. And every moment I thought something positive was going to happen, someone would say there was an oga who had an oga whose hands would need to be greased before my file could move. My file never moved and I never got a study leave for Dada. But you say a government job is what you want so as to have time for your bead work. In the hallway, I pull you aside.

“You are crazy, you know that, right?’

You look at me like I am insane.

“Me? Did you have to shout like that? If anyone is crazy here, it is you. I’m the one who is looking for work, not you!”

You stop walking and face me.

“Do you know what you just did? You are just too…”

You sigh. You seem to be lost for words.

“Think, Temi. Think! Are you not the crazy one, sitting there and letting that woman insult Maami?”

“Those are just words. I don’t have to swallow them. Sometimes there are things you can take…sometimes. Just so you can get…”


I try to shut her down. It never works that way. If you don’t stand up to it one time, it just goes on. I just couldn’t let it go.

A woman approaches us, walking briskly. She is one of the other staff from the office.

“Excuse me!”

She is shouting after us.


I wonder if she’s talking to me.

“No, not you.”

She waves me off. She is addressing you.

“I like that jewellery … the bead thing … the necklace, everything. Who does it for you?”

You speak up.

“Me. I make them myself.”

The woman’s eyes widen.

“All of them?”

“Yes. All of them.”

“Wow! So what are you doing looking for a job here?”

You look at me and then back at the woman who is now standing at arm’s length from us.

You laugh a small laugh. The woman smiles.


She sticks out her hand for a handshake.

“Sorry about my co-worker.”

I feel I should reply, but she focuses on you.


“Temi. I’m Temi.”

“Okay, Temi. I’m Ugochi. I think you have a job already, if you want one. Do you know Curion House?”

You nod.

“My sister owns it. She’s been looking for someone to head up the bead-craft section. I think and I hope that I just found the person she needs. I mean, you’re good. That stuff is good.”

She points to the bead necklace that is shimmering with dignity.

“Here’s my number. Call me tomorrow morning, before nine. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

She turns to leave, then turns around again to face us.

“And I love your calm spirit. It will help you a lot.”

“Thank you,” you respond.

You turn to face me.

“It seems like I may just get a job. It seems like I will be doing bead work. And I didn’t have to shout at anyone for it. So who’s the crazy one now?”

Caleb Adebayo is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He hopes to explore the world of screenplays soon. He participated in the 2014 Writivism Workshop in Abuja and was mentored by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo. He was also recognized by the Nigerian government as the fourth best national essayist in the National Orientation Agency Essay Competition in 2014. In 2015, he won the Awele Creative Trust Prize for fiction. He is the founder of Creative Writers’ Niche, a campus hub for writers in Nigeria. His works have been published on Hackwriters, Miracle literary magazine, Bukrepublik and Muwado. He is a law graduate from Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.

“Inside-Outside” by Lydia Kasese


My addictions often look like my mother. I am three years old and they are holding me away from her. They are saying my weak eyes will be the reason my father won’t make it back. I am five and in my dreams my father is running. Away. Almost as if something in my direction is chasing him. I am seven and my father comes to steal me away. I am a confusion growing like a cancer in the head inside my head. My mother is a sorrowful flower garden full of gardenias no one is allowed to pick. My sister is a dozen prayers knitted together from the gardenias inside my mother’s head. She is the reason our pastor won’t let us into church anymore. She is the reason our prayers are stuck to the ceiling. We are a montage of otherness.

It is 1998 and minding our own business is what my sister and I do best. We are hopscotch, hide-and-seek kids. We are adventurous, searching, finding. We are storytellers, composers, writers and dreamers. We are five and twelve years of age and my golden bush of curls runs all the way down my spine and sometimes I am called muzungu. I have come to love this alienating name. I have come to associate it with betterness. Otherness.

My father despises it. He says it gives him nightmares he would not talk about in the brightest of lights. We believe him. There are some things that happen in the darkness of our house in spaces that no light is ever supposed to enter. There was a secret once that lurked in the floorboards of our house. On my fifteenth birthday it grew wings and flew out of my parent’s room with such violence that there was an earthquake within our minds and a tremor within the palms of our hands.

Once upon a time, I am unborn. Uncreated. And my mother has not conceived. She is married two years and the in-laws are talking. They are demanding their mahari back because they were sold “damaged goods”. My mother works as the personal assistant to the white man living at the bottom of their street. Mr. Aspen they called him. My father is the man people refer to as teacher. I have never known him to teach. But he is a learning man.

My mother is not a small woman. She is a mountain that moves things. On other days, she is a volcano. Erupting. Setting things and people on fire without meaning to. My grandmother says that’s what happened that night at Mr. Aspen’s house. She says my mother set Mr. Aspen on fire and he forced his fire inside her until it turned to ashes and there was me. I was fifteen when I found this out. I knew nothing of forest fires then, knew nothing of how they could burn through whole generations of families. My father went looking for my mother that night. He found her sitting in the dark street, her face an army of fallen soldiers who even years after I was born had not risen.

I am five years old and my father is leaving. He does not know how to communicate with fallen soldiers. For four years he was trying to build victory into their spinal chords, attempting to bring life back to them. When I was born my father, knowing I was not his own, held me to his heart knowing I came from his own and therefore I was his regardless of how I came to be within her. He did all he could to make a queen of her, to rid her of the rags and dirt she thought she wore. I am five years old and my father has given up turning paupers and beggars into queens. He walks away in the night and my mother holds me away from her saying my weak eyes will be the reason he will not come back.

My father has been back for seven years. He is now a learning man. We are fourteen and seven years old. There is a knock on our living room door. My father’s shame stands in our doorway in the form of a ten-year-old boy. I am told he is my brother. This news is fed to us like leftovers thrown out to the dogs. We take no offence and receive this news with as much grace as one can muster at the age of fourteen. We have lived long enough to know when not to ask questions, when to disappear in a room full of awkwardness and potential death from falling secrets.

My mother is unaccustomed to falling secrets. Gravity possesses her and her body is a limp noodle. My father is a storm of fear and worry. My grandmother is the avalanche that started it. She is seventy-five and will not die without a son to carry her husband’s name. She is a detective that finds what she is looking for even if it may not exist. She is a wolf that locates the scent of her family’s seed in the city my father inhabited when he left us. She is the tidal wave that pours this awkward boy into our living room at an ungodly hour.

The boy that is my brother is a vessel of strangeness. Otherness maybe. We tiptoe around him for the next few days as he tiptoes around my mother, aware of the heaviness he has become in the semi-lightness of our house. The neighbors give him a name that means “bastard”. He likes that he has his own room, with his own bed. He likes that our bathroom contains a toilet that is not a hole in the ground. We know this because we see the look on his face. Also, he tells this to my younger sister. They have become friends. I conclude that he is the child of a woman with breast milk for ammunition and a welcoming vagina for armour. A struggling but perhaps a surviving woman.

A great man dies and my grandmother sits in the ashes of our second kitchen as she attempts to explain his greatness without breaking. The brother who wasn’t my brother until a few months ago points out that greatness needs no explaining. Somehow he dares to have a voice in a place that is still shifting and making room for his accommodation. He dares to assume the position of someone whose opinion, let alone whose existence, matters.

My seven-year-old sister punches him in the stomach and tells him to be quiet. At her age, she understands the holiness that outlines storytelling, great or small. She sits by the ashes with our grandmother, comfortable enough with discomfort. She will be the one to later narrate this story to her dolls and cats as she plays school with them.

My brother, who is now referred to as my brother, is friends with boys who sell little gods that come in sachets you can buy from someone who knows someone. I know this because I have seen them in the midst of their “temple” at the back of the schoolyard bent over in a tight circle as if in prayer. I should report this temple to my parents. I should tell them of the incense burnt there and the lack of godliness in my brother’s eyes as he attempts to make his way home.

But I do not say anything to my parents. He is a boy embodying intelligence. He is an aspiring mathematician. He is nice to my sister. Also, I am old enough to understand the dull ache that comes from being the one brick in the wall that does not fit right. I understand the need to be rebellious. The hunger for importance.

My sister walks home one day like falling crescendos. The music in her voice box is at an octave so low only my mother can hear. She holds her close to her chest and lets her body move to the sound of music only she can hear. I accidentally walk in on this dance and I immediately know a war has started at the meeting of my sister’s legs. Eleven months later my sister evolves into a poem I find underneath her pillow and confuse for a suicide note.

There are no pictures on the walls of our living room. My father says they look like bloodstains on our white walls and sins should never be put on display like that.
And so my brother isn’t really my brother.
He is a photo that we put down so the neighbours would not feel embarrassed when they come to borrow some sugar.
He is a full stop to a sentence no one has the courage to finish,
so it just hangs there.
My mother is a praying woman who understands that her eldest son is a preying man,
so she knows God will understand if she chooses to omit his name over prayers,
or if she chooses to kill him in conversations with the neighbourhood women.
I wear his shame like a loosely fitting maternity dress,
like abortions have been chasing me all my life.
And I have nothing but pictures of pregnancies that I cannot hang on walls to prove this.
And my youngest brother isn’t really my brother,
he looks like my father,
but so does my older brother.

I have known people to kill themselves over a bar of soap. I have known people to kill themselves with a bar of soap. The man next door attempts to fix leaking water pipes with his adulterous wife’s bra straps. The man next door to the man next door walks out to find the bra straps he once bought his mistress being tied to leaking water pipes. He confuses them for her tears. This is the randomness that is my mind.

My brother does not come home that night. Or the night after. He shows up two weeks later looking like one of the thieves on either side of the lord’s cross. He was away long enough for my mother to piece two and two together in order to get betrayal. She knows a thing or two about math, my mother.

My grandmother was the wind that shook the family tree that dropped my brother. Her need for a grandson has made a battlefield of our house. She walks along the shadows of our house at night and fakes illness that requires her to be asleep or alone in her room in the daytime. My father starts searching for gods that will explain life to him. I do not know if he ever found them. I doubt he ever did.

Yesterday the phone rings at three in the morning and I am in a dream where it is three o’clock and it is the devil’s hour and he is telling me of how my brother just died. I am awake and I am attempting life. I am attempting movement and questions. I am asking questions I know answers to, like “What do you mean my brother? Which brother?”

I attempt lighting a cigarette to calm the tremor within my fingers. I am failing. And I now understand how earthquakes can deactivate whole bodies of land. I am calling airlines to book the earliest possible flight back home. I am on a flight home.

I am home and my brother is not there to receive me. My sister is here instead. She appears to be a rock in a land where everything is sand or liquid or fluid. She hugs me tightly and I hold on maybe a second too long before I let go and throw my bags in the back of her car. No words have been said in the time it takes for me to appear at the airport and disappear into her car. I believe there are none. Until she parks at the side of the road and faces me.

“Dad killed Twazi. It was an accident. He was sneaking back into the house late at night and dad thought he was a thief.

Did they tell you how he died?”

“No. I did not ask. How did he die?”

“It was a panga. He was jumping in through the windows at the back. I figure he was out hanging with those sinful men at their temple. The alarm went off as soon as his head was in.

When dad got there he only saw a head and a body attempting to make its way into our house. So he took a panga and cut the head off. I didn’t even know we had a panga. But you know these house robbery things. They robbed us a couple of months ago. They scared the living daylights out of ma. Papa thought it was them coming back again.”

She does not wait for me to respond. She starts the car and we are driving through once familiar roads and streets and houses. I am silence. I am nothing that can make a sound. I am calculating, finding averages and percentages on the chances of my sister being wrong. I am a mathematician after all. I believe in the validity of numbers when it comes to assessing a situation.

In my parents’ house there is strangeness on top of the strangers and gossip-searchers disguised in the clothes of mourners. The media holds no respect for our family as they try to sell tabloids of the man that mistakes his own flesh and blood for a thief, and the radio anchor on the evening show wonders, “Is it not our flesh and blood that steal from us?” I turn off the radio and focus on the mourners that are mourning for a man they never knew.

I stumble upon an argument amongst the relatives. The question of where to bury Twazi’s body is somehow contingent on whether he died inside or outside the house. My father’s eldest brother argues that his head fell into the house and the head is the source of all functions, therefore he died inside. My father’s second eldest brother counters with “the heart is more important”, so he died outside because that is where his body fell.
My father’s silence is an argument he is having on his own.

“Inside-Outside. That is where he died. Inside-outside”, I say and evacuate the room.

I have dared to have a voice in the presence of men. I have dared to have an opinion. The silence that is their voices, or shock, follows me as I make my way to our little orchard at the back of the house to have a cigarette and maybe some peace of mind. Some numbers. Some calculations. Just anything solid and unchanging that I can rely on and hold on to.

The family pastor requires a member of the family to say a word or two before the burial. My grandmother surprises everyone including herself by hobbling up to the front of the room. Her voice box has been missing for years and we sit up in our seats anticipating the mimic of a mime. She turns to face the rest of the room and says, “There is something about hope that resembles a game of Russian roulette”, before she breaks into song.

We are sitting in my kitchen the night before your wedding. We’re a happy mess filled with wine and dreaming of the future you are going to have with a man no one understands why you love. Maybe you have had one too many. Maybe I have too. But it doesn’t matter.

You say to me, “Remember the night Twazi died?”

Of course I remember. No one forgets. But I do not say this to you. I nod my head instead.

You say, “Well, it was me. It wasn’t dad who killed him. It was me. It wasn’t an accident either. I hadn’t planned it. But I saw the opportunity and I took it.”

Lydia Kasese (@Ms_Lilly_Py ) is a Tanzanian poet in her early twenties. Having been raised in four other African countries, she is multilingual. She studied Industrial and Economic Sociology at the University of Rhodes. She currently works as a writer and journalist, among other things, in Dar es Salaam. Her Writivism mentor was Clifton Gachagua, and wrote On Skeletons and Tea and Inside-Outside under his guidance. Inside-Outside was longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and included in Fire in the Night and other stories: the 2014 Writivism Annual Short Story Anthology.

“Day After Tomorrow” by Paul Ugbede


In the year 2032, exactly two months after President Makari heard clearly from God that Abuja should bomb Washington on the day of the blood moon, I heard the knock. Bekky was sleeping on my lap and I think she heard the knock before I did. She was already at the edge of the sofa, her eyes, two large saucers, her lips, a badly written ‘O’. Those lips always got me and I wanted to push my breast in her mouth. She liked that, she called it impromptu harassment. She would suck at my nipple and clasp her long fingers around my arse.

The knock came again, this time sharp, brittle and hard on my chest. Mama was sitting on that single chair by the window, not flinching, her face chiseled out of stone. That moment, I knew I shouldn’t have told her.

“Why?” I asked her. She just stared above my head, above my question. I wanted to ask why she had to call the Soja Allah and not her friend who was supposed to get us the train tickets to Ghana. Instead, I focused on how much I looked like her, how much of her long hair I had … How much of her dark skin colour … How much we had shared for twenty-three years.

“Why, Mama?”

“You need a cure Hajarat …” Her thin fingers clamped on the edges of her seat. “Root Camp is for your own good.”

The door crashed open and they spilled in. Twelve Soja Allah – their blue uniforms giving a sad hue to the dark room. “Salam Alekum, Salam Alekum!”

Bekky dashed to the door but two of the men grabbed her mid stride and pushed her to the floor. She fighting and screaming, they pushing and shouting Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! I felt sorry for her, hating myself for not listening to her, for thinking that my mother was different from hers, that she would understand and help us escape. Her scream clutched my intestines, turning them round and round in a tight knot. My knees buckled but strong arms held me and pushed me to the floor. A sharp needle pierced through my neck. Bekky’s scream now sounded like a dull drum and Mama was now a fiery ghost. I think she was saying ‘I love you Hajarat’ but I was not sure as I was any longer in the room.

“Stand up! Idiot! Nyanch banger! Toto licker! Up on your feet!” The voice sounded from somewhere inside my head. Gradually it became real, a male voice. I scrambled to my feet and bumped my head against something.

“Bekky!” I called softly, peering through the darkness. “I’m here!” Her hand found mine and she held me. Her fingers were cold and she was trembling. “Where are we?”

Strong light hit my face. I squinted and held Bekky’s hand tightly. The light left my face and my eyes followed it. We were in the back of a truck and we were not alone. The truck was filled with young boys and girls.

“Oya bigin come out one by one!” The male voice barked again. “One single line! See them! Nyanch banger! Toto licker! Gerrout!’ Bekky came down after me. Her hand found mine again and I held her. A stick hit my hand, making me wince in pain. I quickly let go of Bekky’s hand.

“Dirty girl!” The voice barked. “You still wan lick toto for Root Camp? Oya forward marsh!

How many were we? Fifty? A hundred? I didn’t really know, but we all marched for a long time, through tall shadows of caricature trees hugging the dark night. Once in a while, the male voice hit someone on the head with his stick and shouted, “why you dey look me? Why you dey look me? You wan fuck my nyanch? You wan fuck my nyanch?

We came to a high-fenced building with a mighty blue gate and bright lights. There were blue uniforms everywhere.

“Straight to the gate! Straight to the gate!”

Root Camp comprised two tall white warehouses with little windows high up in the sky. We were huddled between the two buildings, trying to melt into one another, trying to get away from the Soja Allah who were moving around us, ogling us, weighing us with their eyes, touching our breasts, squeezing our buttocks. Bekky was seven girls behind me. Was she limping on her left leg?

A tall woman walked briskly from one of the buildings towards us. She was so tall that her uniform hung on her like a question mark. Her fair face reminded me of onions and she had an oily smile. The men quickly stood to attention.

“Welcome to Root Camp, God’s healing Project!” she said huskily. “I am Aunty Caro, spiritual head. All the men please go to the right and all the women to the left.”

No movement.

“Una no dey hear? Toto lickers to the left, nyanch bangers to the right!” That now familiar voice barked. Aunty Caro glanced at him, her smile not wavering.

We quickly made two lines. The male line was shorter than the female line.

“All the males follow this man and all the females, follow me.” She turned round and headed back towards the building from whence she had come. A blue uniform opened the metal door and we all went in. It closed with a loud clang behind our backs. The building was in darkness and a light came on.

“All of you will sleep here.” Aunty Caro’s oily smile became wider. “This is the last night you shall spend together for the next six months. This night is called silent night because whatever you do, God will not be watching you.” She turned around and disappeared with the light.

Through the darkness, we began to search each other out, creating pockets of worlds within the walls. I found Bekky and she held me tightly.

“It’s going to be alright.” I stroked her corn ridge.


Someone was kissing someone in the darkness, a noisy, slippery, sloppiness.

“Are we really sick?” Bekky’s whispered question scratched my silent mind.

Are we really sick? It was a painful question, one I had never thought about. The freshness of it bled down my heart, trailing the crevices of my mind for answers, answers that were not really there. Are we really sick?

Bekky fell asleep, curled in my arms. Capsules of snores rose from different corners. The kissing was still going on, the slippery sloppiness accentuated by gentle moans.

I did not know how many minutes I’d closed my eyes for before the scream tore through the night. It came again, a loud soul-rendering wail. Everyone must have heard it too because the snores were gone, kisses stopped.

“What is that?” Bekky asked. Her fear visible in her question. She was sitting up now.

It was the scream of a woman and it was coming from somewhere inside her, from somewhere under her bile, somewhere in the nest of her life. How old was she? Twenty? Forty? Can one tell age through pain? Does pain have an age?

“It will stop soon. Try not to think about it,” I said. But it did not stop, it kept on and on, torturing our senses, tearing through our souls until it became a part of the night, a block in the wall…a thought in our minds. By the time I found sleep, the scream was in my dream and this time, it was Aunty Caro screaming in my ears through her oily smile.

“Get up! Get up!”

Morning had come unnoticed. It came with three guards, Aunty Caro and her oily smile. The morning light lent a little moisture to her onion face. There was a pile of white clothes on the floor.

Aunty Caro’s voice was a husky blue. “The world out there belongs to God’s servant, President Makari. But Root Camp belongs to me. After God, it is President Makari, then me, in that order. Your parents don’t know where you are so if you want to get back to them, you must cooperate with me. Is that alright?”

“Yes Aunty Caro,” we chorused.

“What is happening to you is evil. For a woman to have feelings for another woman is evil. For a man to have feelings for another man is evil, but God will heal you. There were others here before you and they have been healed and gone home. God will heal all of you!”

“There was a scream last night …” I said though it was meant to be a question.

‘The scream … It is coming from those undergoing the spiritual therapy. It is the only music you’ll hear in Root Camp, so get used to it.’ She stared at me, a spark in her eyes. I turned away. I knew what that spark meant.

“Each of you will be allotted a room. Please get into these clothes and enjoy your stay at Root Camp.” As she left, she threw a glance at me. Her oily smile was beginning to make me feel queasy.

My room was a smaller version of where we slept last night, nothing except for an empty bucket. The odour of urine was masked with Izal. I went to the corner of the room, away from the bucket and sat down. As I examined my new white overalls, my door opened. A Soja Allah pulled me up by my arm and pushed me out of the room. Still holding my arm, he dragged me to a door at the end of the hall. He knocked, shoved me into a room and closed the door behind me. The room was furnished with a red bed and a red rug.

Aunty Caro stood in a corner of the room, smiling. “So this is the intelligent girl that asked a question?” She was close to me now, her hot breath fanning my face. I took a step backwards and was against the door. She smelled like a newly washed cat. Her eyes undressed me, her onion face overwhelmed me.

‘Intelligent and beautiful,’ she whispered into my ear.

‘You’re mine. I chose you.’

Then she kissed me. She kissed like an angry bat. I was dazed, not from the kiss but from the fact that we were in Root Camp, the house of God and this was Aunty Caro our healer.

She peeled off her uniform and stood before me, naked. Her breasts looked like two deflated egos.

“Suck my breasts.” She threw her head back, eyes closed.

“Squeeze them.”

I squeezed.

“Harder.” She let out a little moan.

“Harder, you bitch!” My hands were numb with pain but she kept urging me to squeeze. I was sweating now and the pain was surging through my brain.

“Squeeze harder, bastard!” she shouted.

“My hands…”

She gave me a sharp slap, cutting my sentence. “I say squeeze!” Her eyes were animated and the oily smile had melted into molten desire.

And I squeezed, crying now. The more I cried, the more she moaned until I crashed on the bed in painful exhaustion. “Please!” I cried.

She was on me, tearing at my overalls. Her head went between my thighs. Her tongue felt like a slimy snake darting in, oozing venom. As the snake probed deeper, I thought of Bekky, of what she was doing, of whether she was still limping on one leg. She came back the following night. And every other night. The cycle became familiar; she would come in, satisfy herself, flop into a thunderous snore and by first dawn, she would rap on the door thrice and be gone, leaving me scratched and broken. I began to dread the nights, the sound of her footsteps, her onion face, her oily smile, her touch … What kept me sane was that scream.

I selfishly longed for it. It was better than Aunty Caro’s moan. I noticed it was not just one scream. There were many of them, from different girls, each one with its own octave…each one with its own story. I could tell when a scream was repeating a cycle, when a scream died. I envied them, those screamers. At least they could scream. I longed to be a part of that scream too, to scream my heart out and stop myself from falling into darkness.

She noticed I was dying silently and I think she was genuinely concerned. “You can ask anything and I’ll grant it,” she said one morning after she had woken up and was putting on her uniform.

“I want to see my friend.” It tumbled out of my mouth.

Her oily smile slipped a little but it was back again.

“Bekky?” My eyes opened wide.

She smiled. “You’re surprised? It is my duty to know about my patients.” She looked at me. “Tonight.” And she was gone.

The thought of seeing Bekky after four months overwhelmed me. Had she grown lean? Was she eating at all? That night, I took my bath and waited on the bed, wearing the gown Aunty Caro had bought for me. For the first time in four months, I unstrapped my desire from the window where I had hung it and put it on.

At night, the door opened and she was there, a little frail, a little smaller.


She held me close. Sniffing my neck, letting out a soft sigh. I missed her so much, her lips, her eyes, her hands …

“You are living better than the rest of us,” she said, when we sat on the bed.

“Aunty Caro …”

“I know … We all know … We hear it every night.” She stared at me. “I was angry at first but I understand now.”

I wanted to say I was sorry but I was looking at her instead, thinking of how thin she had become, how distant her eyes were …

“She told me I have not gone for therapy because of you … Thank you.” She quickly stood up and was out of her overalls. Bekky was gaunt and her fair skin had become white.

“Stop staring and come here. We have this night alone.” My gown slipped down my legs. A cold sadness hung somewhere inside my soul. Have we finally lost each other?

When her mouth found mine, I realised this was what I wanted … Who I wanted. The tension between us melted with the kiss and we were moaning, squeezing, climbing higher and higher … Then the door opened and they were upon us, blue uniforms shouting Innalillahi! in horror. We quickly disengaged, screaming in fear as they dragged us up. Aunty Caro stood in the doorway, smiling her oily smile.

“Have you ever seen what makes those girls scream?” She asked me, her oily smile glistening. “You will come and watch.”

They dragged Bekky along the corridor. She was screaming and calling on me to help her. I ran after Aunty Caro, begging, crying but she just kept smiling her oily smile. The therapy room had a single six-spring bed and the Soja Allah threw Bekky onto it. Eight men crowded the room and began to remove their clothes. Bekky struggled, thrashing her legs in the air and screaming in fear. Two blue uniforms held her legs and spread them wide.

The first man thrust into her, a long, vengeful thrust. I had never heard such screams before, loud animal screams that were tearing into the night, wrenching my brain apart. I was crying and begging, lunging towards Bekky, but powerless against the hands holding me. Aunty Caro kept smiling. When the sixth man was halfway, Bekky passed out. But they continued.

Becky came to and started screaming again, a cow-like scream that seemed to ooze from the pores of her skin. After an eternity, the men left and another eight entered. I threw up. By the time they had finished, Bekky was lifeless.

They buried her that night in a fenced-out yard in Root Camp, among thousands of other graves. That same night, Aunty Caro came to me.

“I don’t share, you should know that,” she said, still smiling. As her snake went in and out of my thighs, I thought about all those graves at Root Camp, all those people who have ‘been healed and gone home.’ Did they wear white hand gloves? I thought all dead people wore white hand gloves so they could become angels in heaven. My father wore white hand gloves when he was buried. Bekky did not wear any.

Aunty Caro lay face down on the bed snoring louder than ever. I watched her back rising and falling and I made up my mind. This is the night I must kill her. I had thought about it every night, how I was going to do it, what can kill her faster than sixteen penises.

I stood up and put on her uniform. It was a little tight on the bust but it fitted. I rapped thrice on the door and it opened. I walked down the corridor, past open gates, past saluting blue uniforms saying, Allah ya taimake Makari!

Outside, I paused to breathe in the fresh night air and stared up at the sky. The blood moon was up. The sign President Makari was waiting for. Everyone was chanting Allah ya taimake Makari.

I ran through the forest, away from Root Camp, from the chanting, from Aunty Caro … Mama. To somewhere? Anywhere? Nowhere? I didn’t know. I just kept running.

It will be a while before the blood moon goes down. President Makari will direct his nuclear missile at Washington, his face to us … And nothing will ever be the same.

In 2007, Paul Ugbede attended the Royal Court International Residency Programme for emerging Playwrights in London, United Kingdom. He also attended other creative writing programmes: British Council New Writing in Drama programme (2007-2008), Chimamanda Adichie/Fidelity Bank Creative writing Workshop (2008), BBC Radio Trust writing for the Radio Workshop (2010) and the Writivism Short Story writing workshop (2014). His works have appeared in the British Council Anthology of new plays, Writivism 2014 anthology and wosa online. He is the author of ‘Mr Chairman Sir!’ a play and Director of International Centre for Playwriting Development in Africa and resides in Lagos, Nigeria.

“The Gift” by Michelle Preen


I sit on an upturned plastic milk crate and wait, just as I did every evening before today. Now I have nothing to wait for, so I count the chickens in Mrs Xingashe’s backyard. Seven. The skinny one with the nearly-bald head seems to have disappeared. Maybe it died or maybe she ate it.

I look at the watch. It is five minutes to six. If this was two weeks ago, I would have seen my father walking down the dusty road towards me. But not today. Not ever again. I try not to cry when I think about it, but I am so angry and so sad, all mixed together, that it’s hard not to. But I have to stay strong for my mother and my little sister.

I see Mr Rhadebe coming towards me, so I sniff hard and sit up straighter.

“Molo,” says Mr Rhadebe.

“Molo Tata,” I say.

“How is your ma, my boy?” I am counting the feathers in his hat and he has to repeat the question.

“She is okay, thank you, Tata.”

“Nice watch,” he says.

I smile. “Thank you, my father gave it to me a few days before… before he left us.”

I rub the glass with my thumb and he pats my shoulder and walks on.

“Hamba kakuhle,” he says.

I look at my watch again. I like knowing what the time is. It makes me feel in control of my life. Lately, it feels like things have been falling apart and moving faster than I can keep up with, and this watch makes me feel better. It tells me that no matter what happens, time will remain the same. Well, not that it won’t change, but it will keep on ticking along at exactly the same pace every day.

“Whatya doing?” My sister, Babalwa, bounces up to me and kicks the crate.

“Hey,” I say. “Just looking at my watch.”

“Let me see,” she says, stretching out her hand.

“Just be careful,” I say, undoing the strap and handing it to her.

“I will, silly.” She holds it in her hand then turns it over.

“What’s this say?” she asks.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the writing engraved on the back before. I knew my father had bought it second-hand. He could not have afforded a new watch for me. But now it somehow seems more important, so I read it out to her.

“It says the gift of time”.

“What does that mean?” she asks. She crinkles up her nose and tilts her head on one side, waiting for my answer.

“I suppose it means that someone gave the watch to someone else as a present.”

My father died twelve days ago. He worked in the kitchen at a fish and chips restaurant in the nearby shopping mall. I was seven years old when he started that job, so he must have been working there for about five years. Everyone who ate there liked him, or that is what the story in the local newspaper said anyway. I never met any of them.

He sometimes used to bring home a piece of fish for us. Once, he told us, he had even tried a prawn. I am not sure if I would have been that brave. Prawns are strange creatures, like pink sea insects, and I have heard that they eat the rubbish off the ocean floor.

“I grew up eating red meat,” my father used to say, embarrassed that he was bringing us fish. Red meat is expensive, so to make him feel better I told him that our teacher had said that too much red meat could be bad for your heart. But he wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s good for you, my boy,” he always said. I loved my father.

Twelve nights ago, it was a Saturday night. He was working night shift at the restaurant instead of during the day as he usually did. My mother had allowed my sister and me to stay up and wait for him because it wasn’t a school night, but he never arrived home when he was meant to.

At about 11:35 – I knew this because I checked my watch – we heard shouting in the street and my mother peeped out of the door of our shack to see what was happening. It isn’t safe to just step outside in the middle of the night, especially if there is a commotion. I heard her cry out and I ran out behind her. I saw my father covered in blood and being helped along by a neighbour. His head was hanging, just lolling around as if he had no control over his neck. His blue and white check shirt was torn and soaked in blood and some of it had even spattered onto his beige pants. He loved those pants and took such great care of them. All I could think about was that he was going to be upset when he saw that they had been stained by the blood, his blood.

I can’t remember much about what happened next because my mother was crying so much, and I was trying to stay strong and comfort her and Babs. That’s what I call my sister. The neighbour called an ambulance on his cell phone and we waited and waited. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my father because my mother said he needed his energy to stay alive. So I just sat there, with my arm around Babs, and prayed my father would live and that we would be able to get the blood stains out of his pants.

The ambulance took a long time to arrive so I counted the second hand on my watch while we waited. It could have been an hour, but it may have been more. They put my father on a stretcher and took him away and that was the last time I ever saw him. They didn’t put the sirens on and I remember wondering if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It seemed to suggest that they weren’t in a hurry.

The newspaper said he was a hero and so did my teacher. They said that he had tried to protect a young girl who was being attacked by a bad man with a knife, that my father had come between them and been stabbed by the man. They said he had saved the girl. I felt proud of him, but also cross with him because he had risked his life for a girl we didn’t even know. And now what about us, his own family. This is wrong of me, I know, but I can’t help feeling like that. I miss my father.

The newspaper people asked my mother and me if we would like to meet the girl so that they could take a photograph, but I said no. All I would see in her eyes would be my father’s face. My mother was much more understanding. She agreed to meet the girl, who wanted to thank her, but she refused to have a photograph taken. My mother is superstitious about photographs and believes that they steal away a little bit of your soul.

People in our community talk and some of them know lots of things. By now, we all know who killed my father. But he probably won’t be arrested. And even if he is, I am not sure if he will be properly punished. People are scared to be witnesses and so he would more than likely just spend a night in jail and then be let out again to attack another young girl and steal someone else’s father from them. I pray that it will not be my sister that is attacked.

He’s called Ithoba, the man who killed my father. That means nine. He’s mean-looking and doesn’t talk much, they say. I don’t know if he was given that name because he has nine lives like a cat or if he has taken nine lives, like a murderer. Maybe it’s both.

I kick the gravel with the toe of my shoe. I now own two pairs – this pair is a black leather lace-up that I use for school, and a pair of rubber flip-flops. My flip-flops are blue. I would rather have had red ones but a lady who felt sorry for me gave them to me after she heard my father was killed, so I couldn’t choose the colour.

We were also given food and some blankets by a charity when my father died. They usually give people blankets when there is a flood or a fire and you lose all your things. I guess maybe they had some blankets left over or didn’t know what else to give us. My mother is always grateful for anything though, and now that winter is coming the blankets will be useful. There was a pink and purple checked one, which my sister liked. She asked if she could have it and now she takes it everywhere with her, even to school. My mother is worried about that but I said that I think she just needs comfort after losing my father.

“Hey,” says Babs, “who did the watch belong to before you got it?”

I had forgotten she was standing there. Her hair is tied in three neat bunches, one on each side and one in the middle, and she is holding her blanket, which doesn’t look as bright as it did ten days ago.

“Dunno,” I say. The busy sounds of a weekday evening fill the smoky air around us. Dogs bark, taxis rev their engines and people talk and shout to one another as they come home after a day at work or school. Many people crowd around open fires trying to warm their chilled hands. It feels like I am on the outside looking in on their world.

I struggle to sleep that night. For some reason, my sister’s question keeps running around in my mind, going round and round in circles. I begin to feel that maybe I need to find out who the watch belonged to before me. It will also be a way to find out what my father was doing those last few days before he died. I know he sometimes bought presents for us from the animal shelter’s second-hand shop quite close to my school.

So, after school the next day, I decide to go there and ask.

The old lady in the shop looks at me suspiciously when I ask if a handsome black man bought a watch there about two weeks ago.

“Why do you want to know, sonny?” she asks.

“Because it’s important to me,” I say.

“I can’t go about telling you other people’s business, now can I?” she says. She walks off with a feather duster in her hand to dust the bookshelves, but I follow her.

“Excuse me,” I say, “this is the watch.” I hold out my wrist to her. “Can you at least tell me if you sold it?”

She turns around slowly and peers at me. It looks as if she can’t see that well, so I hold it up closer to her face. As she’s about to answer, a young woman runs in through the door.

“Sorry I’m late,” she calls. “Still struggling to get up in the mornings.” She looks sad and her hair is messy. She comes over to us and says: “So what do we have here?”

“He’s asking about the watch,” says the old lady.

“Let me see,” says the young one with messy hair.


“What?” I say. “Do you recognise it?”

“Uhu,” she says.

I look from one to the other, hoping for more information.

“Why don’t you come through to the back with me,” the young one says, “and we’ll have a nice cup of tea? You don’t mind, do you Mrs Maytham?” She doesn’t wait for an answer and takes my hand.

I sit on an old wooden chair while she makes a cup of tea for each of us.

“Two sugars?” she asks, but before I can answer she pops them in and hands me a mug. She wraps her long skirt around her knees and sits cross-legged on the floor in front of me.

“Yes, that watch,” she says.

“Would you like to sit on the chair?” I ask. There is only one.


I can see her ankle peeping out from under her skirt. There are three flying swallows tattooed on it.

“So, who owned this watch?” I ask.

“Me,” she says. “Well, not really me. I gave it to my husband.”

“Why did he sell it, then?” I am starting to worry that maybe someone stole it and now she might want it back. I rub the glass with my thumb.

“He didn’t,” she says. “I did.”

“Oh,” I say, “why?” I hope he didn’t divorce her and now she’s going to be sad and cry and I won’t know what to say.

“He died,” she says. Now I definitely don’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting that. She is so young.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t cry.”

She must have read my mind.

“Someone shot him,” she says. “He was a policeman and he died in a shoot-out. I had given him the watch a few days before as an anniversary present. I had those words engraved on it because I thought we had so much time ahead of us, that we were still so young. We’d only been married for a year.”

Then I see a tear run down her cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” is all I can think of to say.

“Get rid of it,” she says, “it’s cursed. If you don’t get rid of it something bad will happen to you or your family.”

“It already has,” I say. “My father was killed twelve days ago. He gave me the watch.”

“Oh my goodness!” she says. “It is true.”

Mrs Maytham is now peering around the floral curtain which separates the back room from the front of the shop.

“I need a break,” she says to the young woman, whose name I still don’t know.

She gulps down the last mouthfuls of her tea and jumps up.

“Get rid of it,” she says once more, before patting me on the shoulder and disappearing through the curtain and into the shop.

“You can go out the back door,” says Mrs Maytham to me.

I think about it all the way home. I love this watch. It’s the last thing my father gave me. It’s one of my only links to him. But what if it is cursed? What if something bad happens to my mother or sister? Crime is so bad in South Africa though. People get shot all the time, so maybe it’s just a co-incidence. He was a policeman. But what about my father? He just tried to save someone. I love my watch. I loved my father. I love my father.

Just before I go to sleep that night, I say aloud: “What should I do, father? Please help me.” I am not sure if he can hear me, but I hope he will put an idea into my mind. When I wake up the next morning, the radio is on. It’s playing a song which goes ‘there are nine million bicycles in Beijing’.

“Nine,” my sister shouts, “nine million? Is that true? Where is Beijing?”

As my mother puts down my porridge on the table in front of me, I know what I must do. My father has spoken to me through the radio. I cannot concentrate at school. I am nervous, but excited at the same time.

At midnight when I am sure most people are asleep, I throw off my blankets and sneak out of our shack. The door hinges squeak but neither my mother nor my sister move. I stand still for a few seconds just to make sure. Then I start to run, down our road, then left past six shacks, then right, then right again, down the next road, past the Spaza shop and the shebeen, then here I am. I planned this all in the afternoon during daylight so I would know exactly where to go. It looks different at night, but I have a good memory.

I stand in front of a shack. It looks like all the others, but this one has the number ‘9’ painted in black on the door. But this isn’t just any old nine. The round part of the nine is a skull. I am breathing fast and I can feel my heart in my chest. I place my right hand over my watch. Then I undo the buckle. I hold it in my left hand so that my right hand is free to open the door. I am sweating. They told me the door would be open because he is afraid of nothing. I am frightened. I walk towards the door, being careful to step quietly. I can hear someone snoring inside. At least he is asleep. I reach out to the handle and turn it slowly, then push the door a little way. It doesn’t creak and he is still snoring. I push it further then just stand there and look at him. I want to scream or hit him, sleeping so peacefully while my father is dead. But I know that would get me nowhere. It would probably get me killed too. I have another weapon. I tiptoe over to the small round table next to his bed and place the watch on it next to the empty quart of Black Label. I smile, no longer afraid.

“May you be cursed with the gift of time,” I whisper, and creep out into the dark night.

Michelle Preen (@mpreen) lives on the southern tip of Africa in the coastal village of Kommetjie, in Cape Town. She is a graduate from the University of Kwazulu-Natal and currently works in the field of environmental communications and media. She has had short stories shortlisted and published in various anthologies and magazines, including Black Letter Media’s anthology entitled The Short Story is Dead. Long Live the Short Story!, the Short Story Day Africa 2013 anthology and the Writivism 2014 anthology. She attended the Cape Town Writivism workshop, and was mentored by Monica Cheru. You can follow Michelle on Twitter @mpreen or http://www.michellepreen.com.

“The Wound of Shrinking” by Melissa Kiguwa


I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother committed suicide. She’s insinuated doing it since I was twelve years old. She’d say, Oh Solo…you know I’m not good at anything. I’m not even a good mother. If I died, it’d be a blessing I think.

At thirteen I tried to birth her desert roses, those impossible kinds that even bloom on land- locked islands. But she couldn’t see the roses springing from the openings in my body. The roots coming from my eyes, the stems from my nose. At fourteen, sinewy fibres vined their way down and porous mucous sapped from the inside of my ears. But she couldn’t see any of it.

Perhaps that is where my woundedness was born, from constantly trying to push something from my womb that wasn’t mine to carry. I would think, there must be something I can do – should do – to make the noise around us less shrill.

I felt maybe if I were better behaved and quieter, maybe then she would realize her place was with me. I tried to be quiet. I’d pull my lips in real tight so that I couldn’t say a word … But ten minutes in and my motor mouth would rev its engine.

At eighteen I felt like a weary dark-skinned Atlas. So I let it go, dropped the wound on its head and watched it roll away. I decided to focus on her brighter parts instead, those disorienting dissonances housed in one body. How she could weave the spiritual into the theoretical. How she lived in a room of moving colours and how the muses housed in her brain would craft beauty from the mundane. I always secretly wished she would give in to the artisan that sat inside her fingers. But she would get discouraged and pieces of majik would sit a dusty kind of lonely in the back of her room.

The first year of Moses’s and my relationship, whenever I spent the night I would ask him to tell me when to leave so that I didn’t bother him. He would sigh and ask why he would be in a relationship with someone whose presence bothered him. But how could he know I had started carrying it again? The wound of shrinking. And even though I told myself to believe him when he said he wanted me around, I still felt that tapping sound. The knock that whispered, you have overstayed your welcome, it’s time to go.

So I would watch him. The curvature of his mouth. The patterns of his footsteps. Any ritual that signified he was ready to be left to his solitude. And if you are looking, you will always find. I would find it, there inside the curvature when I said something he disagreed with. His lips would turn downward as though I had squeezed pili-pili on the insides of his mouth. And when I saw it I knew it was time to leave before I broke something I didn’t know the shape of.

But somehow he convinced me that perhaps, yes, with him is where I should be. I mean he even knew about the years I fell in love with a radical politic and other women. He eroticized it I think…the musky smells that at one time were my North Stars signaling me to realizations away from this one. But even though he knew of sexual acts, I knew he couldn’t understand that I had been desperately searching for life in the crevices of those women’s bodies. And today that Solome, the desperately searching one, is far away for him. But that Solome understands today’s one. The one who no longer searches for life, but for purpose everywhere … And can’t find it anywhere.

At twenty-five, I realize purpose has left me. Stretched along Moses’s bed, I prop myself up with a sigh and dial my mother’s number. I want to talk about the tunnel that seems to stretch into nothingness…how it could be hell, a purgatory limbo, or even heaven itself. The stoic nothingness that chills its way into my body until even my heart doesn’t want to pump anymore.

Instead, I tell her about Ngenyo.

I think the name Ngenyo does not make sense for me at this point in my life, I say into the mouthpiece. I don’t know what it means or where it comes from! And I get so embarrassed when people ask, where is your name from? What does your name mean? And I have no answers. I can’t be this old still dealing with identity shame!

Ngenyo, Ngenyo … We’ve real tried and tried to get a name or a number … Anything to give you some kind of an anchor, she says.

I know, I croon. I wish jaajaa gave us something! This whole thing has been so tiring … Stalkers masquerading as cousins … Clan meetings held without me to resume some long-standing ritual … Realising jaajaa disowned everybody, except me, with the last name Ngenyo! I didn’t realize how stubborn he was until he consistently refused to give us any information.

Moses’s phone rings and my mother, laughing, asks, mafia girl, how many phones do you have?

I pick up the phone facing downwards on the table next to the bed and see the letter T. I silence the ringer quickly. Sorry about that … Anyway, mom, even Joseph …

You mean your father?

Yes, him.

She sighs. You’ve always been a writer Solo. I remember all the stories you wrote when you were a teenager … Even after you went to university. There would always be one character … Let me see if I remember the wording correctly … You wrote about a quiet man with glasses that reminded you of pictures of Patrice Lumumba. No matter how many times you wrote it, it always caught me unaware.

What caught you? I ask, a bit irritated that she cut me off.

The way you could do that … Capture the essence of a man in a sentence.

I smile, flattered. Well memories split. There is him, with the glasses, and then there are other patchy memories, the ones after the separation. Was it really him, flighty and hostile, banging on our door in London with police officers behind him?

Yes, she replies slowly, each letter suspended between the receivers next to our mouths. I visited with Joseph about five times after they separated, each time in a new residence. Once in someone’s garage, another time in a friend’s guest room, the other three locations silhouettes I can never place. The pictures of my mother during this time show a shell. Her cheeks sunken, her legs the size of twigs. She laughs when she sees I carry them in my wallet. You surely are a weird child, Solo. Why would you want to keep pictures of such an ugly woman? Look, you can even see the bones under my eyes!

I don’t know when we stopped referring to Joseph Ngenyo outside of family reunions. We learnt not to grieve over people who leave. I learnt, first from my mother, to fill the memory of emptiness through one-way tickets to places further away from the cradle of betrayal.

When she speaks again, her voice sounds like a faraway lighthouse beckoning me back, will you change your names into something more traditional and African-y? She asks. I laugh.

No seriously Solo, she says quickly, I know it’s what’s hip with the Pan-Africanists … I’m just waiting to read a poem by Olumide Ngenyo formerly known as Solome.

I laugh again, this time from somewhere deep and ringing. Olumide is so far from my reality! If you ever read a poem by Olumide Ngenyo formerly known as Solome, please give me a nice big mstcheeew slap over the phone!

She giggles. You haven’t answered my question. Are you going to keep Solome?

I mean … I’ve definitely thought about changing it. Especially when I first began going to these Afro events. Man, the way they Malcolm X us all into believing anything that seems relatively mainstream, read white, is somehow a false consciousness. But I think some things are a bit deeper than that. When you named me Solome, you did so with intention.

And what intention was that?

Well … The skin of sound is sometimes thick and taut, veiny and melanin rich. And I have fallen into the sound … Or rather the skin.

My God, she interrupts, where did you learn to become so melodramatic?

I ignore the question and continue. From me, Solome, to you, Sarah, whose mother named you a Biblical skin, to your mother, Juliet, who was grafted a skin of Latin derivatives. Three generations laden in a grip so tightly wound only we can see a reflection of something other than oppressed. I see it: the whiteness, the syllables that pray difficult on relatives’ lips…but still how can I change my name? As though I am ashamed of your decisions …

She interrupts me again, but it was Malcolm X who said he does not know his name because it was a slave name, hence the X. That his father did not know his name either and his father’s father because they were given names of the white man. There’s that story too Solo, the story of erasure.

I tell her, my story lies in you naming me. While it may not speak to nativity the way some would like to romanticise it, it does speak to our reality of passage, of conversion, and yes, of too much luzungu in our mouths.

She is quiet and I wonder if the international package on the phone I bought has finished. You know I was just reading about a tribe, I do not remember which but they have a practice that is so interesting … She pauses and sucks in air before she continues, well before a mother gives birth she goes to a tree. I’m not sure how the tree is picked, but it is picked and she goes to the tree and listens. Inside the tree plays her child’s song and as she listens she memorises it. When the baby is born, she sings the song. And that is how it is … Anytime the child covers a milestone or a rite of passage, the child’s song is sung … I read that and thought, my goodness! Maybe if I had a song life wouldn’t have turned out this way for me you know? If only… well, anyway, even when the child messes up, you know maybe becomes a thief or something, the family gathers and calls the child. They sing the song and it is up to the child to choose whether she or he wants to return to goodness…

She finishes her story and I sigh again, that is so beautiful.

Yeah, I thought so too. I remembered it when you told me the reason you wanted to keep the name Solome.

I smile into the phone. I want to sing her a song or offer her a gift of re-birthed desert-roses, but we never say the words that are most honest.

She interrupts my thoughts. Well … It is getting quite late your side and I know your credit is about to finish, love you.

Love you too.

We get off the phone and I climb off the bed and stretch a bit. I decide to check on Moses and walk downstairs.

He is asleep on the couch; I watch him sprawled like an unending question and try to figure out where I can squeeze myself in. I slide next to him, now the both of us curled into a pair.

Skin to skin the only thing clearly distinct between us, heartbeat and even the rhythm harmonises after some time.

With his mouth open the way it is, I imagine a dark hollowed tunnel where steam-engines get lost. Destination: beyond the limitation of boundaries and borders. But even I know it is never that simple. He shifts and sighs while snuggling me closer. Babe, I can hear you thinking.

I fall asleep snuggled next to him but his phone rings upstairs and I wake up with a start. I look at the lighted clock on the desk and ask, it’s past midnight and your phone is ringing?

Probably a silly telecom or something, he mumbles half asleep slowly nudging me off the sofa so we can go to bed.

The next day, I have lunch with a colleague. Moses is really a catch, she says as though I asked her opinion. Handsome, educated, successful. I mean … Every educated Ugandan woman is trying to meet such a guy … Perhaps if we all had that American accent of yours we would have a chance.

You really believe the only reason Moses is attracted to me is because of my accent?

She looks at me incredulously. Honestly the only reason you were able to meet him is because of your diaspora privilege!

I never know what weight to give such comments because to her, all things I do and say are viewed within the lens of diaspora privilege. But the nuances within desire and power are too mired for me to examine during lunch on a Friday, so I joke instead: Honey, with this face and booty, regardless of which country I’m in, I never have a problem getting successful, handsome dates!

She smiles at the joke in a fake kind of way.

Moses makes his pili-pili face when I tell him about the conversation. We are home from work lying on the sofa. He is seated upright and my head is on his lap, my torso foetal- position curved and my legs stretched across the rest of the couch. Miles Davis is playing and he slowly uses his index finger to tap elongated time signatures on my forehead.

He looks at me and stops tapping, privilege is a heavy word. I think these things have more depth than whatever she is jealous about. I think the real underlying point to take away is that you need to have lunch with other people.

I remind him it’s not just this person. That we are immersed in a global culture that values some bodies more than others. Valued bodies, if not white, tend to speak a certain kind of English. They tend to be groomed bourgeoisie in a certain way, and when you can play the game, the playing field is completely different. It’s important to know the ways in which cultural power structures position one’s body and experiences as valuable because it does so at the expense of others.

Oh my god, he says rolling his eyes. Edward Said called, he wants his thesis back.

I smile and roll my eyes back at him. As he smiles at me, I search to find it in his face. The rescue boat that will pull me away from an inherited depression and closer to a grounded shore.

Later that night, I revel in his tight grip. In the middle of making love, his phone rings. Because I’m on top, I see the flashing phone on the drawer. The letter T flashes and I’m suddenly un-aroused.

Moses looks at me with a face I don’t recognize. Why the hell would someone call me three o’ clock in the morning?

I look him in the eye, I don’t know …. It’s probably important. Pick it up.

Nah, they can call tomorrow. By this time I’m climbing off of him. Baby, come back, he pleads. Where you going? I walk to the toilet and bang the door shut.

Babe, I hear his voice a few minutes later. You’ve been in there for a while. I miss you … You left me hanging. Come back to bed.

I shake my head, I’ll be in here for a while.

I hear his footsteps moving back to the bedroom. I somehow muster the strength to walk out of the bathroom and crawl back into bed. With my back turned to him, I curl into myself. Wrapping himself around me, he begins kissing the nape of my neck. Not right now, I say into the pillow, my voice drowned but still audible.

That’s alright, baby, that’s alright. Let’s get some rest then, he purrs in my ear.

My mother calls me in the morning to check in. Our conversation is brief because it is one in the morning her time.

Right before she says bye I ask, Mom let me ask you, what is better to use, the head or the heart?

She pauses, Solome … I’m surprised you have to ask. Remember when we were in the storm … The belly of the beast I guess you could call it? We went through those tough times together and you know better than I do that the head is what led us to better places. If I followed my heart, we would not be where we are. We would just be … Confused, I guess. It is always the head, Solo, always the head.

I want to joke that we are still confused, that she was right all along … We could end chasing all of this vanity by not waking up the next morning, but it seems today I have learnt to pull in my lips.

I have dinner with a close friend later in the evening. But Otieno, why are you single again? I ask mischievously. It just doesn’t make sense!

He smiles. You know I am married to my work.

I understand that it is easier to be accountable to something that does not demand an emotional investment, but to be thirty and accountable to nothing? What are you running from?

He looks at me. I should be asking you the same question, Solo.

How do I say that I searched everywhere for the wound to stop throbbing, but that it refused? How do I say I am running from the cradle of betrayal?

Melissa Kiguwa is a poet, thinker, and radical feminist. She received her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Arizona and her Msc in Media, Communications, and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work is rooted in acknowledging and giving praise to diverse afro-experiences. Her work focuses on imperialism, love, sexuality, spirituality, and trauma. Her debut collection of poetry, Reveries of Longing, was published in 2014. Melissa attended the 2014 Writivism workshop in Kampala and was mentored by Yewande Omotoso, under whose guidance she wrote The Wound of Shrinking. The Wound of Shrinking was longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and included in Fire in the Night and other stories: the 2014 Writivism Annual Short Story Anthology. She is now a mentor on the 2015 Writivism programme.