A Free Man

He makes his ways through the dusty pathways of Bula Adaan to the house where she had lived, hoping to find her. Since he came out of Garissa Prisons a month ago, she has been gnawing at his sanity like termite at wood, as though the lifetime he had already spent mulling over her and what had happened was not enough. His able right leg carries most of his weight and stomps the ground. He lugs the shorter left leg, and it scrapes the ground. Stomp, scratch. Stomp, scratch. The raspy call for dusk prayer rips the windy August evening. In the semi-dark, he comes upon the familiar orange gate.

Inside, there is a house with the lights on. A hose snakes around the compound, choking small trees, coughing up water like a sick cat. The blunt wind blows hard. He walks towards the house. He stands at the open door. Sees her.

Sh…Sh-Sh…Shukri, he stutters. He walks inside.

Sharmaarke? She covers her mouth with her hands. How did you…? How did you find me?

Y-y-you still live in the s-s-same place.

I didn’t expect to see you.

T-twenty years is a l-l-long time.

She sits on the edge of a chair.

The room is sparse. It has a small red cupboard and an old sofa set. A torn linoleum is stuck to the floor. The air inside is musty. Dust clings to surfaces. On one wall, a moth is trapped in a spider’s web.

He realises she is a woman now. It hits him, this realisation, hard. In his mind, she’s always the young, dark-skinned girl with the narrow eyes. He had come seeking that girl. But now he finds a thin and angular middle-aged woman. He was only a boy of sixteen when he’d last seen her. He is no longer that boy.

 

When she first came to the bula, Sham was taken by her. He would sit by the window of his room and watch her pass by in the evenings on her way home from school. Every day at five. Clad in white uniform. A few kids trailing her, shouting names after her: madhoobey! Turkana! Sudanese! Her skin was dark as the hanqaas the kids used to write the Quran with.

Then on a rainy August day, he met her. He was in the town centre sitting inside his uncle’s car, watching the raindrops pelt the windscreen and the flapping of the wipers. He was waiting for the Canter that delivered the jerry cans of milk his aunts sent daily from Bura town, the milk that his mother sold near their home. He saw her walk towards the car. Her wet dira clung to her—the outline of her brassiere showing—trying to contain the contours of her body. She jumped into the backseat thinking it was a taxi. He forgot about the milk and started driving her home.

I know you, she said. You are that boy from my bula, aren’t you?

Sham nodded without turning to look at her. He was glad she recognised him.

He was amazed by the ease with which she spoke. She doled the words out of her mouth in a steady sequence, the way the beads turned in his mother’s rosary. Her voice was husky, breaking every now and then, lending her speech a languid lewdness, like the voice of the musician Saado Ali whose cassettes his grandfather used to listen to. When they arrived, she sauntered into the orange gate.

He sat outside the gate, dizzy. He recalled the boys teasing him at school. His anger. And his mother saying, What, do you have a vagina plastered on your forehead? Talking was difficult for him. No matter how much he tried, it felt awkward, like driving a car with the hand break on. Since he was a child, he had been uncomfortable around people. But all he ever wanted was to feel recognised, to be comfortable around people, to be free.

 

Sham paces about the room.

Stomp. Scratch. Stomp. Scratch.

He removes a pack of Sportsman and a matchbox from his pocket. There are only two sticks left inside the matchbox. They are like little heads on little sticks. In a little cage. They remind him of he and his cellmate Shire lying in their tiny cells. They remind him of prison: human heads on sticks of bone walking about, dead inside, yet carefree. His hands shake and he drops the matchbox several times before it lights up. He draws in the cigarette and his hands stop shaking. He blows smoke rings into the air between him and the woman. Her face becomes invisible behind a cloud of smoke.

He had started smoking when the man first came. The one that did not like the boy. The one that whispered bad things into his ears. The man that came that gusty August night in his fourth year in the hole. Sham was cowering in the corner of his cell, beneath the charcoal sign no woman no cry a previous occupant had scribbled, sobbing into the wall. He had just been beaten by a prison bully for refusing to wash his clothes and clean his shoes. Little boys wash after real men, the bully had told him. Sham had lost it and lunged at him, the anger of a lifetime flaming within him. But the bully had smashed him onto the ground and beat him senseless.

The man had said that he had come to teach him how to be strong. If you want to survive here, the man said, you need to get rid of emotion; emotion is a dangerous thing. But first, the man continued, we need to get rid of the boy. Sham agreed. He fucking hated the boy’s guts. It was all the boy’s fault: his imprisonment, his fear, his misery, everything. The man ordered Sham to kill the boy as the first ritual to celebrate his new life. So Sham procured a pocket knife from the man and limped across the yard—stomp, scratch, stomp, scratch—dragging the boy behind him. He stabbed the boy in the gut, the blood flowing all over Sham’s body and onto the ground. The more the blood trickled, the more powerful he felt. He limped back, leaving the boy seething, scarlet sap seeping into soil, under the moon.

The following morning, Sham took a cigarette from Shire’s hands and started smoking. He liked the cigarette’s draw, its buzz. His heart kicked like the engine of the rickshaws that choked the town. Shire, (a man convicted of armed robbery, who was drowning in his own ego and spoke through his nose with a sardonic tone and who did not like people in general) smiled. The man smiled too. Sham noticed a stark resemblance between Shire and the man. A real man must have a vice, Shire said. As the roofs creaked in the wind that morning, Sham was reborn.

He carried the knife with him after that, tied a red bandana around his head, dangled a toothpick between his teeth, walked with a jailhouse swagger, gained some muscle and formed a gang with Shire. They became the merchants of khat and cigarettes and other contraband that would sell in prison. But the boy never died; he would come whenever the man was not around and would lurk in the background, pale and blood-stained, like a zombie. But Sham never let the boy come back.

 

Sham runs a finger down the woman’s thigh. I ha-ha-haven’t touched a woman in t-t-two decades, he says. He reaches for the loose wisp of hair framing her face and tucks it behind her ears. He runs the back of his fingers down her cheek in tender strokes, all the while looking into her eyes. In prison, he jerked off compulsively.  It started as a way of feeling alive when the kick of the cigarette wore off. Then, like the smoking, it became another tight fetter around his ankles. He would masturbate at night, in the mornings; sometimes he would do it in the ferment of noon. He’d do it on the mossed floors of the latrines. His core, his essence, trickling out.

I’m sorry, she says. But you are a free man now. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to hurt me. You have your whole life ahead of you.

 

On the day he was freed, his mother was the only person who came for him. (She was also the only one who visited while he was inside.) She had stood outside the prison gate, looking pale and wrinkled, too old for her fifty-five years. When he embraced her, she smelled of heat, incense and decades of loneliness. She spent most of her time by herself, except when one of her sisters visited from Bura; her in-laws hardly ever came since Sham’s father died. (The father had been killed in South Africa three years after Sham’s conviction, in one of those waves of attacks against foreigners and their businesses.)

Once, Sham decided to start selling in his mother’s makeshift grocery stand next to her milk shade, wanting to keep himself productive and useful. By the second day, the women stopped coming altogether.

A few days later, Sham boarded a bus to Mombasa. His cousin who had a store there had asked him to go work for him. When the bus came to the bridge that hopped over the Tana River, people got out and lined up in the sun. They held their identity cards and passports in their hands. The police officers checked them one by one and scrutinized their fingerprints. (The officers hardly glanced at the documents of the non-Somalis, the ones from ‘down Kenya,’ the real Kenya.) When it was his turn, Sham produced his birth certificate and a copy of his identity card. You are joking, my friend, one officer said. They hoisted him by the waist and shoved him onto the back of a navy blue police Land Cruiser. They also rounded a few other people—teenagers who looked like high school students, people with waiting cards, those with copies of IDs, those who had forgotten to carry their documents, those who had IDs but couldn’t speak fluent English or Swahili. Most dug into their pockets and paid for their freedom in kind.

Beneath the bridge, the bronze river ran free.

Sham was back home to a cell again. He realised how close the distance between freedom and imprisonment was for him. The idea of being back in a cell so soon shook him. He paced about the tiny cell, head bent low. His head spun. His hands trembled. Three days later, his mother found him, and had to give up a week’s worth of milk sales to get him out.

He walked downtown Garissa, and the heat was like a breath from hell. Scorched sand steamed in the sun, giving the illusion of a floating water mass. The residents, clad in gray kanzus and leather sandals that slapped against their cracked heels as they walked, clustered in the shacks and shops, where hennaed girls served juice and tea. All over, people were glued to their phones. A man lay outside, shackled by the iron chains of insanity. A corpulent man lumbered nearby. He sloshed and wagged, weighed down by his weight. Young men on eccentric motorbikes and creaky rickshaws were bound to the lure of a dream. As Sham walked through it on his way to Bula Adaan, Garissa seemed to move between myth and reality, between devout asceticism and capitalist consumerism, between freedom and imprisonment.

 

Sham looks out the window of the house into the night. He watches the people walking about. He wonders whether these long dusty roads are just another version of the prison yard.

Look at this prison sahib, Shire once told him. (Shire liked to address people as sahib even though he did not consider anyone as his friend.) The two of them were sitting on a bench in the prison yard, watching some inmates watering small trees. The guards, all of whom were non-Somali, hovered in the background. Shire had talked with his characteristic drawl, waving one hand about, the other holding one of those musty philosophy books he gorged on, the preacher delivering his sermon, facing away to stare into the distance, narrowing his eyes to a contemplative, sardonic chink. Look at this, Shire said, hundreds of Somalis being ordered around by a bunch of Kenyans with rifles.

Y-you d-d-don’t consider yourself K-Kenyan? Sham asked.

I don’t know sahib. I mean you are born in this arid, far-flung corner of the world. You grow up to a staple of camel-milk tea and anjeera and the music of Hassan Aden Samatar which your parents danced to when they made you. You grow up around uncles and cousins chewing khat. You grow up wearing a kikoi pulled back to the knees, a wooden miswak in your mouth. You grow up listening to the BBC Somali, hearing of Somalia and Somalis, of civil war, famine, immigration, refugees and TFGs. You speak only Somali, you eat Somali, you dream Somali and you fart Somali. You are Somali. And then you are a bit older and you realise Somalia is your biological mother and you were yanked out of her breast by your adoptive mother. But your idea of this adoptive mother is distant and unpleasant.

Sham nodded with recognition as Shire spoke. He felt as though Shire had expressed in words what had always been going on in his mind. He had always had a strong connection to Somalia and everything Somali. But he could not understand where this connection came from, aside from the fact that he was Somali. But after Shire’s speech, it seemed as though he finally understood, because he did not know that this region was once part of Somalia. He did not know the effect the BBC Somali had had on his identifying with Somalia and Somalis.

For Sham, Kenya was nothing more than the Kikuyu teacher who had a weird name: Mr. Wang’ombe. Or the Kamba construction worker. Or the paunchy Luo civil servant who rode around town in a G.K. Land Rover, and called his people “waria” with a sneer. Or the men with the big boots and military insignia, who often torched his people’s houses and raped women, who killed their camels, who once slaughtered his people in an airstrip in Wajir and in Garissa Primary. He knew his adoptive mother did not like him and for that, he did not like her either. But he knew he was a part of her. And it was all confusing because he did not know what or who he was.

You are the man on the margins, Shire said. A man destined to live in two places, two opposing cultures, and whose conscience is the crucible these two cultures crash or fuse. That’s what this American called Robert E. Park says anyway.

B-but don’t you th-think we can be these t-t-two things?

Maybe only superficially. Listen sahib, think of it like this chip of glass. If I break it into two with a stone I can bind it together with glue or something but I can’t make the fracture disappear. You get me?

Sham nodded. Moist leaves sparkled in the sun.

H–how did we g-g-get here anyway?

I don’t know sahib. Why does bad shit happen? Why did a teacher pinch a child in the shin so hard he severed an artery and gave the child a wound that would later disable an entire leg and leave him limping like a sick hyena huh? Why can’t you get the rights and freedoms you are entitled to? Why is it that you resemble your crime before you commit it? Why did Hiroshima happen, or Rwanda, or Somalia? Why is Iraq happening right now?

I d-d-don’t know. I g-g-guess fate. Or p-politics maybe?

It’s not fate sahib. Bad shit doesn’t just happen to good people because of fate. God’s omniscience is not the absence of human free will. And it’s not politics either. Politics is just licence for bad behaviour. It’s because we are animals. We hate or attack anything that does not look or speak like us. The human is infinitely individualistic and his mercy and good will rarely extends beyond his kin.

Sham was not surprised at Shire’s view on human nature.  Shire was a self-confessed misanthrope. But somehow his assertion made some sense in explaining misfortune. Yet, he could not refute God because he was brought up a Muslim. To be a Muslim is to believe that both good and evil are from Allah and that both happen through His will.

From over the wall, Sham could hear the movements of people. And when the gate opened to let cars and people in, he could see the people on the streets. He wondered what it would feel like to walk free again.

D-d- you t-t-think we would be more f-f-free out there than w-we are h-here?

Shire had talked about a man called Isiah Berlin and the two concepts of freedom. About negative freedom being the absence of restraints on the individual. He talked about Rousseau and positive freedom being the freedom of the individual and his or her community to have the tools they need to determine their own affairs and achieve self-actualization; he talked about how independence is not necessarily equivalent to positive freedom, how freedom entails having a strong civic feeling so that one’s individual interests conform to ‘the general will.’ He talked about how, otherwise, one is not free because one is forced to live by laws one does not affirm. There is no real freedom out there sahib, Shire concluded. These people walking out there beyond these walls are not any different from us. What they have is prison yard freedom too.

Sham had sat silent for a while.

But you know what? Shire stared into the distance. His forehead creasing. There’s freedom here.

H-h-how?

Think about it sahib. This place is designed to kill power and subjectivity, and where there is no power there’s no responsibility. There’s freedom in that sahib, a twisted kind. The happy soldier is the one who doesn’t fight.

 

Stomp. Scratch. Stomp. Scratch.

Sham hobbles about the room, his hands in his pockets. Circling the woman. He pulls a knife out of his pocket.

She gasps. Please Sharmaarke. Don’t do this. I know you are a good person.

Y-you don’t know m-m-me, he says.

You don’t have to do this. Put the knife down. Please Sharmaarke.

I r-r-really have to, he says. If I d-d-don’t do it, he will k-kill me.

Who will?

The m-m-man. He has helped me in p-p-prison. He helped me chase away the b-b-boy because the boy is not s-s-strong but the boy is good but b-b-bad and the m-m-man is b-b-bad but g-g-good.

Listen Sharmaarke. It’s just you and me here. No one is going to kill you.

Sh-sh-shut up! He waves around the knife. Just sh-sh-shut up! You d-don’t know the m-man. I know him.

Sham squats in front of her. The man squats in front of her. He runs the knife down her face. Stops at the neck. He places the tip of the knife in the cleft where her pulse thumps. She sits still. Her pulse stops. For the briefest of moments. His hand shakes. The knife chafes her neck.

Then Sham catches a reflection of his face in the broken mirror attached to the cupboard behind the woman. He sees his face for the first time in years. He sees the boy. The blood-streaked ghoul. He looks away. Then he looks back again. I’m s-s-so sorry, the boy says to the woman. He doesn’t look at her in the eyes. I s-shouldn’t d-d-do this. The boy looks at her and recalls how she had once swabbed a kiss on his neck where his pulse throbbed. How she’d breathed life into him. But the man says to the woman, you deserve this, you need to pay for ruining my life. He doesn’t stammer. He stares cold into her eyes. The knife chafes again. He presses hard. It was all a lie, the man says, what we had. You didn’t love me. I k-know you l-loved me, the boy says. The man presses the knife harder. The man is furious. The boy is scared. The man wants to slit her throat. The boy feels as though she is the only one who had ever known him, who had ever truly seen him. I hate your guts, the man says. I l-l-loved y-you, the boy says.

Images flicker in the boy’s mind. The boy’s reflection becomes clearer. Ruddy ground. Open fields. Sunsets. Little hills. They grow clearer and clearer, images and thoughts the man had forced the boy to repress. He recalls those evenings after school when they would walk to the outskirts of the bula and sit on the ground where the land lay prostrate, where the sand was deep as the shades of dark on her skin, where dried sticks and crunchy foliage clothed the red earth.

She would talk. He would nod and smile, avoiding her eyes. She would talk about her life back in Gilgil. About the good schools and the nice weather. Oven of a town, don’t you think, she’d ask. He’d smile and nod, even though he’d never been out of Garissa his whole life, never crossed the bridge. I miss my life back in Gilgil, she would say. I feel trapped here.

She would talk about her father serving in the military. How he’d developed PTSD and had spiralled into precipitous whorls of alcoholism, how the state discharged him from service instead of giving him psychiatric help even though he had served his country. How he’d been abusive to his wife and his children. Here, her voice would break. She would stare into the distance, where the setting sun threw golden glitter on the soil. He could almost see the tears threatening to break out. Like a sea of raging waters almost cracking open a filmy layer of ice.

Then one day, he started talking to her. The words caged in for so long poured free, unrestrained. He told her that he liked biology. That he had always loved trees; that he wanted to study botany. That he would get out of this town and do marvellous things.

He told her about a time in his childhood when his mother would take him with her to their farm up in Sankuri, on the steep, winding banks of the river. The mother would walk; he would ride in the donkey cart. On their way back from the farm, they would rest under this large oak. She would pray in its generous shade and he would crack open a watermelon. When the oak’s bark had gathered some dead skin, he said, Mum would run her hands down the length of its bark. She called this ‘shaving the oak,’ he said. She laughed. Apt, she said.

He laughed too, as he’d never laughed before. He thought she was tempering the oak of his psyche, getting rid of the dead skin and with each movement of the hand bringing out the shine within.

For the first time, he looked at her, and realised he had never seen a creature more breath-taking. He caught small details about her in the evening glow and his eyes watered with pleasure. (He was, except for his bashfulness, something of the Byronic archetype—contemplative, unlucky in love, yet sizzling with intense affection.) He cried over the small birthmarks that freckled the slope of her nose; her neck: its differential nature, the little downy hairs glimmering on her skin, the tenderness of her hands, her delicate fingers.

She leaned over. Swabbed a kiss on his neck, where his pulse throbbed. He reached over and squeezed her hand. She laid her head on his shoulder. Behind an acacia, a red murram traced a queue of shrubs and then stopped. They made love. A dust-cloud rose amid a returning herd of goats. A tall shepherd moved in a shadowy speck. Later, lying on her lap, he glanced up at her face. It was dark but he could swear he saw a glimpse of the future in there. He felt as though he had, like a snake, shed his old skin and was born anew.

The following evening, he was sitting at the same spot waiting for her when two police officers approached. A moment later, he was in a police car, handcuffed. On the way out, he saw her. She was standing next to a man. Her face was swollen and bruised and beaten. The man was shouting, You raped my daughter you filthy bastard!

 

Sham squats before the woman, the boy does. He looks up at her face.

All I wanted was to b-belong, the boy says. To a-a-a-a place I could call my own. All I wanted was s-s-someone who understood m-me. I f-found that s-someone when I f-f-found you. But you b-b-banished me to prih-pris…

The remainder of his speech dies in his mouth. He raises his head upwards, his mouth agape, as if to catch the words out of the air. Instead, he loses his balance and stumbles backwards to the floor.

I’m sorry, the woman says. I’m really sorry.

B-b-but w-why? he asks after a while. Why do it? W-why? W-w-why?

She remains quiet.

Maybe there is no reason, he thinks. Maybe Shire was right. Maybe the world is a place not governed by justice or moral order but by cruel selfishness, by the instinct for self-preservation.

It was my father, the woman says. Back when we were living in Gilgil. After he was forced to retire, he was a total mess. He’d fight all the time. He’d beat us. And he’d drink like he breathed air. Within a couple of years, he’d drank away all of his pension. When my sister was fourteen, she had befriended this boy. He used to come over to our house and they would study together. One day Dad claimed he saw the boy rape her. The boy was arrested but soon the elders of the two families did maslaha and settled the matter. Dad received twenty camels.

Sham sits still.

Soon as my sister finished high school, she ran away with another boy. She wanted out, away from Father. They got married and they went to live in another town. I was left all alone with him. And then the moving began. Nairobi, Thika, Isiolo, Wajir, Hola. A new town every few months. We had just moved here when I met you. My father saw you with me several times. A great opportunity, he’d said. You must do it now. Or soon, we’ll have nothing to eat. You are a loose girl anyway. I’d told him to go to hell.

A sheep bleats in the distance.

When I came home that night, he was sitting outside. He scared me more than ever, not for myself but of the thought that he could hurt you somehow. I had been unhappy all my life. But you sparked something in me. For the first time, I felt happy. I told him I wouldn’t do it. That I’d rather starve, that I’d report him. Then he threw me down and pinned my hands on the ground. I’ll actually do it to you myself if you don’t, he’d said’. Said I deserved it for being a stupid, stubborn girl. For destroying him by killing his wife when she was giving birth to me. He beat me. The following day, he dragged me to the police station, got some cops and we came looking for you. It’s just to scare the boy’s family to settle the matter, he’d said. But the cops wouldn’t let it go. I couldn’t say anything or visit you because he’d hurt me if I did. My father kept me here all these years. I tried running away several times… but he’d find me every time and beat me.

The moth has untangled itself from the spider’s web on the wall. It’s flying and buzzing around, free.

Sham notices a framed picture of a young man sitting on the cupboard. The young man has an exact copy of his small nose and thick brows.

The k-k-kid, Sham says, looking over at the framed picture. Where’s h-h-he n-now?

He is around. Everyone calls him the village bastard. Says he wants to be a refugee and run away to Europe.

D-d-does he k-know I’m his f-father?

No.

Your f-father, what h-happened to h-him?

He died two months ago. Liver problem.

Her voice breaks off. For the first time tears trickle down her cheeks, like waters down a waterfall. And she weeps like she had not wept in twenty years

 

Out on the main road, hardly anyone walks. The shops have closed. Sham walks down the road. He realises he does not fear the man now. He throws away the knife onto a pile of garbage and walks home.

The following evening, he walks to the outskirts of the Bula looking for the place he and the girl used to sit. The field is not there anymore. Just a little thorny clearing surrounded by houses. There is a little opening at the western end through which the sun is visible. He sits down on a little rock in the middle of the clearing. The setting sun burns behind little brown hills that look like a wave of camel humps. Where the sun used to throw golden glitter there is a small shopping centre in front of which women sell milk and motorcyclists wait for customers. The sun gives way to a filmy half-moon. Sham hobbles back home.

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