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Nov 27, 2020

Indigenous Speculative Black

Olupayi is 35 years old and looks much taller than his 173cm, thanks to his lean frame. Had he been born in Las Vegas, he might have been a bantam weight boxing champion.

 His face is a midnight hue that cracks to reveal an unlikely perfect set of white teeth when he smiles. Close up, one can see that his hands are calloused and his rough fingers bent. The veins on his sinewy forearms stand out like so many chords hidden under the deeply tanned African skin. 

His face tells a few hundred stories, and the smile lines running down his cheeks to his chin give an involuntary, if false, snarling impression to his face.

Olupayi's grass thatched, rounded mud hut stands near the entrance to a compound hosting several others built after a like fashion in an arc formation, some a little larger, others much smaller. A food store made of meshed sticks and that resembles a giant reed laundry basket stands proudly in the middle of the bald-swept red earth court.

A goat bleats suddenly, behind the furthest hut and is answered by several others in a cacophonous rapture. Olupayi’s thirteen year old son emerges from a smoky log fire kitchen rubbing his eyes and coughing to investigate. He throws some shrubs he had cut the previous evening into the feeding trough and the noisy herd quietens. He will be driving the goats out to pasture soon, but not before he has eaten the cob of maize roasting in the fireplace.

‘Dumbo!’ Olupayi calls from his hut. The door is ajar, and from where he sits, he has the doors of all the huts in the compound in his line of vision.

‘Aye, papa', the son answers, standing in the door of the thickly smoking kitchen.

'Bring me a cob'.

‘Aye, papa, when it’s ready', Dumbo answers, turning.

‘Just the way it is, Dumbo', Olupayi says.

Dumbo is not happy, but he obliges. His father plucks at a few seeds from the hot golden brown cob and gives it back to his son.

'Tastes good, very good', he compliments, throwing the seeds into his mouth one at a time, in a practiced ritual.

Back to his roasting, Dumbo wonders at his father. Does he ever eat.

The compound is deserted but for the two and Olupayi’s father, who is still sleeping in the oldest hut. He often only gets to bed at the wee hours each night, after checking on his industry down at the river running below his property.

Other residents of the homestead are at the riverside at this time, the younger girls babysitting their siblings while their elder sisters wash clothes and clean pans and crockery.

Mature women mould clay pots, their experienced hands working deftly to produce near perfect handiwork, while boys bring in the moulding clay and the best loams in gunny bags carried on barely formed shoulders. Older boys attend to a homemade kiln drying the pottery.

A group of men can be seen stooped further upriver, engrossed in the intricate science of making bootleg. Olupayi would ordinarily be leading them, but today he has delegated the duty to his younger brother. If the young man proves competent, he intends to fully hand the job over to him.

Overhung clouds part and a shy sun peeps through to cast long shadows in the deserted compound. It is a fair weather day, and Olupayi drags a three footed stool out to the shade of a long-suffering tree in which the children play tree climbing, bird catching, hide and seek, swinging and sniping in the afternoons.

Just as he settles in his thoughts, Luka and some three workmen make a beeline into the compound. The four athletic men are Olupayi’s age mates, a gang of odd jobbers who sink a pit latrine here, hew up a tree there and drive ox ploughs and donkey carts. On request, they will fetch water and firewood, or carry cereals at a fee, as the season may demand.

Olupayi now fetches a plank of wood from behind his hut and tugs at some three stones, pulling them into position to make a bench for the visitors to sit on. He ventures into his hut and brings out a plastic jerrycan of bootleg gin and several glasses.

‘No!’ Luka protests as Olupayi hands him a glass. ‘We only came to visit, but we won’t mind if you will not be charging for it'.

Olupayi ignores him studiously, and with the keenness of a master decanter, pours out a glass for each of the four visitors then sits in his stool, the jerrycan securely at his feet.

‘Are you not drinking?’ Luka asks.

‘I don’t have the money', Olupayi answers, feigning helplessness.

'Pour yourself a glass, on my account', Luka says, pointing at a spot on his chest. Luka is a round faced, bushy-bearded stocky man of indeterminate age, who talks in a raspy manner, like the words fight in his mouth to be the first to emerge.

'Actually, I am not well', Olupayi explains.

‘Do you expect us to drink what you dare not?’ Luka demands.

It is a rule cast in stone; the person offering a drink must first partake of it. Nobody knows who made the rule, but like many others, it is adhered to.

Olupayi stands and leisurely picks Luka’s glass, emptying it into his mouth in a long swig before belching loudly. He places the empty glass at a spot in front of his friend and refills it.

'The chief sends greetings!’ Captain, the rapacious bully that is the chief's aide shouts as he charges into the compound.

‘Take a seat', Olupayi invites cordially, standing to greet the chief’s emissary. He knows the man wants a bribe, but it’s still too early and he hasn’t made a sale yet.

Luka and his men are fidgety at the presence of the chief’s intelligence gatherer. There’s no love lost between them and the chief or his messenger, Captain. They each have suffered the misfortune of either spending a night in his cells or the ignominy of a few lashes administered to their backsides for some misdemeanour or other. They secretly respect their host, who never gets into the chief's bad books, despite selling contraband.

Olupayi hands Captain a glass of gin but Captain pretends to decline the offer. Olupayi regards him quietly and Captain pretends to grudgingly accept the drink. He takes it down with all the ceremony of a thirsty cock, and hands Olupayi his glass back, his eyes screwed shut as the fiery ether courses down his throat.

‘I’ll pass by later', Captain says rising, his voice husky from the stinging sensation in his throat. He dusts his khaki pants self- consciously then whistles merrily as he marches stridently out. His beat for the day has began.

A lone man, probably in his fifties pushes at the ramshackle gate and creeps in, his step guarded, his eye wary. He’s a teacher at the local elementary school. Luka looks up and their eyes meet in an uncomfortable moment.

‘Hello all, he has gone, right?’ teacher says, looking around and peering with his beady eyes at each of the men before bending to take his seat in a move that seems to pain and tire him.

'You know Olupayi too, teacher? Please give the teacher a drink on my account', Luka teases.

The teacher looks tired and nervous. His lips are cracked and charred, the lower one a sickly bright pink. The tremor in his hands is visible and he clasps them together to hide them unsuccessfully between his knees. He is dressed in an old dusty tweed suit that he bought upon promotion to acting Deputy Master, a position he still holds much to the chagrin of his younger, more ambitious colleagues. On his feet is a pair of brown leather shoes that are past their best days.

Olupayi goes into his hut and brings out a stool which he places in front of the teacher before pouring him a glass of the latent beverage.

'Where is your father?’ the teacher asks authoritatively, his voice tremulous as he looks about him anxiously, licking his lips compulsively in anticipation.

Olupayi pretends not to hear the question and Luka stands up to settle his bill.

'Thank you young man, say hello to your father', the teacher says.

‘Teacher you did not teach me well enough, see me now!’ Luka says jokingly moving his hands down the front of his tattered shirt in mock disgrace.

‘Luka, you had a big head, but it was useless', the teacher retorts. The two always end a meeting with a nasty, well meaning altercation.

Olupayi calls Luka aside and they engage in a low pitched talk as they walk together towards the makeshift gate, Luka's men leading the way.

 The teacher takes advantage of the distraction to quickly pick his yet untouched drink with both hands and down it fitfully. His Adam’s apple heaves under the scraggly skin on his neck and a vein protrudes as if in protest on the temple of his largely bald head. He breaks into a sweat and retrieves a crumpled brownish handkerchief to wipe his brow.

He then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and gazes down at his shoes. He is embarrassed to have to share bootleg with his former pupils. His dignity weighs down on him like a gigantic wooden yoke.

Olupayi’s father saves the day for teacher when he comes out to stand at the doorstep of his old hut, furthest from the entrance.

'Teacher, I am happy to see you, come this way, please', he pitches.

Waagi slips into his hut and retrieves some boiled arrow roots, carrying them on a straw tray. He invites the teacher to breakfast.

'Last time I passed by your farm, I noticed some well fed Frieshian cows grazing in your front yard', Waagi says.

'Yes, Waagi, they are good, but expensive to rear, I sold two recently', the teacher says.

‘What a shame! You didn’t let me in on it, I might have taken one,' Waagi says.

‘They were sick, my old man, no use', the teacher lies easily.

As the equatorial sun shortens the shadows, the inhabitants of the homestead start to troop in, children in the lead carrying pans, pots and newly washed laundry.

Nyaago, Waagi's wife, carry's a small bundle of firewood on her back.

The young men deposit newly brewed bootleg in Olupayi’s hut and go to sit by the homestead's entrance on sentry duty. Should they notice the police, or the chief coming, they will whistle conspiratorially or send one of the smaller boys running home to raise the alarm.

Meanwhile, newly baked pottery is brought in by the womenfolk led by Olupayi’s wife and is packed in a store in the middle of the compound behind the granary, where there are more items awaiting the market day sale.

A large mat made of conjoined gunny bags is now spread out in the middle of the compound where everyone will sit to eat from any of the several service trays. There is boiled cassava, sweet potatoes, arrow roots, yams, ripe banana and porridge. The little ones sit with their mothers while the boys harangue in their corner, often making a mess of everything. The adults exchange easy banter, jokes interspersing serious discussion. A few whacks from sisal lashes mark disciplinary sessions when the wayward child missteps, probably keeling over a mugful of fermented finger millet porridge.

In the early evening, Olupayi makes his way pensively to his father’s hut.

‘Papa, are you sleeping?’ Olupayi calls, standing outside the door.

‘What do you want, Olu?’ Waagi asks, shuffling towards the door.

‘I want to ask something of you', Olupayi says. 

'I know that tone, Olu. Take out the seats and call your mother', Waagi says and pats his son’s shoulder warmly, looking him in the eyes.

Waagi is in his mid sixties, stands at 6ft and walks deliberately, the walk of a strong willed man. He has a junior secondary education and served in the military for nine years. 

For all his wilfulness, he is a calm man, converses easily and snaps just as easily. By the time his army contract expired, he was tired of the job and came back to his village where after several failed projects, he came to the end of his money.

Nobody had trained him on how to live out his retirement, so like in the many years he had spent in the bushes serving his country, he improvised. He started by fishing in the river at the foot of his land and sold the fish in town. After several futile trips to town and with a young hungry family waiting at home, he realised that he just might starve from fishing.

One evening, he brought home a large tin drum, a hose pipe, a bag of sugar, a bag of molasses, yeast and several empty twenty litre jerrycans. His wife, Nyaago had hoped her husband would bring in some entrails for supper but reading his countenance, she had shut up her disappointment. She was secretly amused, though.

Don’t touch anything, and don’t tell anyone that I am back, he had warned, before disappearing again into the night with half his baggage.

Nyaago had spent her late evening in the outdoor kitchen boiling cowpeas for the following day's communal meal before turning in, sleepless.

At midnight, Waagi had knocked on the door and she had pulled it open, beside herself with worry.

He had then lugged jerrycan after jerrycan of stuff into his hut as his wife stood watching in bewilderment.

'Listen, I will not watch us die. At dawn I am going into town and deliver this stuff. If I am not back by 10:00 a.m., look for me at the police station', Waagi had said grimly before hitting the sack.

Waagi had snored like a well fed boar all night. At dawn he had risen, grabbed his hat, army jacket and sword and gone out with one full jerrycan in hand, another on his shoulder.

As promised, Waagi returned home while the shadows were still long, a kilo of meat in his satchel. His wife was not home. She had gone to church on the rare Sunday to exorcise the demons wrecking her home and to pray for divine providence.

Waagi ran his luck in full saddle. He became the supplier of the best bootleg in the bigger town thirteen kilometres away. Later he diversified into pottery, mainly to cover his clandestine operation.

‘Speak, son, what is the matter?’ Nyaago now urges, as she sits facing her son, a worried look dampening her ageing face.

‘I feel I must go into town and seek a job, mother', Olupayi says.

Now Waagi regards his son and feels a mixture of pity, wonder and exasperation. He has painstakingly walked Olupayi the ropes, and has thus far been pleased by the way he has turned out.

'Who will be doing your job?’ Olupayi’s mother asks, looking at her son quizzically.

She has had complete trust in her son’s good judgement for a long time, and she cannot help feeling betrayed.

‘Polumai is competent, mother, I could find someone to assist him', Olupayi replies.

'You each already have your roles, Olupayi, don’t you think this will be hard on your brother?’ his father chips in.

'I intend to tip my friend Luka to assist him', Olupayi states evenly, determined to push his case.

'Olupayi, what do you intend to do in town, eh?’ his mother asks.

‘I’ll find a job, you see, mother, my son will be joining high school next year and I need to have money for his school fees ready', Olupayi says.

'Aha, is that it? Olu, my son, suppose I pay for his school fees?’ Waagi interjects.

'You have many responsibilities, father, please allow Dumbo to be mine', Olupayi says with some finality.

'I see your point, Olu, but go sleep over it, we need to talk again. Come around tomorrow morning and let’s see what we may come up with', Waagi says, the sadness in his voice giving away his disappointment.

'Alright Papa, I will think again', Olupayi promises and rises to leave.

Olupayi will not let his parents know what fears reside in the pit of his stomach. Fears that deprive him of an appetite for food and deny him a good night’s sleep.

Foreboding that a fateful day may dawn and end his freedom and income, and force him to leave his young family to go and work at a government farm for free.

He worries about Dumbo, his son. He wants for his son a better shot at life than he has had.

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2 comments

Jiya Chawla
02:05 Dec 04, 2020

Fascinating story. The screenshot you have provided of the surroundings is beyond lovely. But I feel like the story does not touch much upon the topic. It’s hard to guess the prompt from just reading. Good luck! I look forward to reading more of your work.

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Ayub Mbugua
14:00 Dec 04, 2020

I am happy that you took the time to read, Chawla, and thanks for the feedback. Your input is important as I seek to improve in future stories.

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