by Binyavanga Wainaina
Monday. The hot dry breeze is lazy. It glides languorously collecting odd bits of paper, they tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground. Every so often there is a gathering of force and a tiny tornado whips the paper into the air, swirls dust around, dogs lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between their forelegs as the wind collapses, exhausted.
Children are in school, long lines of spittle reaching their desks as they try to keep awake. From the roof of the town, the giant hum of Menengai crater, it looks as if the flamingos are a giant cloth rising from the lake in a hot shimmering line and revealing blue, and falling and turning the lake pink again.
Vishal is at the library. His brother in school. Mr Shah at work.
Idi Amin Dada is hunched over Mrs Gupta Shah like an insistent question mark, jabbing. She is chewing hard at a bit of blue-gold and red sari, trying to keep from screaming out loud; they had put on a movie video and set it loud to muffle the sounds.
On the screen Idi can see a pouty maiden at the edge of a cliff, and a man with a giant quiff of hair and sideburns sings in a shrill voice. She leaps off the cliff, and he follows her in a few seconds. They lie draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their fingers touch and they die, then the Hindi music escalates in intensity, goes beyond drama, beyond melodrama, and achieves genuine Bombay Belodrama.
This is Idi’s room, is also Idi’s afternoon workplace. Has been for fifteen years. This morning, every weekday morning, Idi drops Mr Shah at the Nakuru Grain Millers, the family business; then he drops the petulant Maharajah at school: The Shah Preschool Academy.
The Maharajah’s mother begs him to get into the car. Mr Shah remains silent, fingers tap the steering wheel. If Vishnu was around, he would have something sarcastic to say. You going to cry now, Maharajah? The Maharaja starts crying.
As soon as the car leaves the factory gate in Industrial Area, yes sir, afende sir, Amin smiles at Mr Shah. The Maharajah wriggles to the front passenger seat of the Peugeot 504 fuel injection, eyes dry and happy.
Once or twice a week, if they have a few minutes, Idi stops at the kiosk near General Hospital where his Ugandan friend, Simon sells sweets, and buys 10 goody-goodys for the boy.
Simon punches Idi on the shoulder and announces his fame, as the crowds of sick look on, all waiting for some kind of attention at the hospital. Or the groups of young men who wait for somebody to park a car and pick out labour for a day of heaving things around for ten shillings, or slapping cement, or digging a pit latrine. It is a good place to have a kiosk. Somebody always needs a loaf of bread, or some milk. There are schools nearby too. And a church. The nurses. The railway. The path across the hospital, past the cemetery, and into town.
‘You see this man, you see this man, you know he was the Boxing Champion of Uganda, this man.’
They would get back into the car, the boy flushed with excitement. Sometimes Idi put his mouth on the boy’s stomach and made burping noises. Rajesh would laugh, and laugh until he would start to cry with joy.
Piles of freshly ironed clothes sat on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed, clothes Idi had ironed the night before. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this room after he left for Oxford: the top shelf was full of Louis L’Amour cowboy thrillers; the bottom shelf held a copy of Heart of Darkness, scribbled all over with A-Level notes, and next to it sat V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
Mrs Shah gave a low gnashing response that blew soft cardamom-flavoured wind into Idi’s ear.
He loved ironing. Every afternoon he would put on some Bollywood film, and turn the Shah family’s washing into crisp battalions of soldiers. He loved shrugging shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching them stand at attention. They were his to command. A Natural Leader, his sergeant had called him. The room was once a stable, but was now a Servant’s Quarter. At 6 pm exactly he would go to the shower, and smoke some weed mixed with loose tobacco.
Sometimes he dreamed of the embrace of a Luganda woman – sucking at his nerve endings like a fish; turning and twisting him around; smelling not of ginger but of steamed bananas and Nilo beer. Once he blew his whole salary on a woman he met at a bus-station who told him she was a sega.
The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British Administration screeched to a halt those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab hold of them were left stranded.
Everything changed for Idi. He had considered going back to Uganda, but he did not know what to do without a new commander. Sergeant Jones had died. Idi had enemies there. Akol – his junior – was close to Obote at independence. From the same village. He had hoped to get word of some opening, a friend in the right place. None had come.
In 1970, he was about to give up; was about to hitchhike to Uganda and sell illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he found a frail Indian man being pulverised by a 10-year-old parking boy outside the wholesale market, with market women cheering the boy.
He had rescued the man. Mr Shah. And he had got a job. It wasn’t bad. Mrs Shah was the same as Sergeant Jones: insistent, fanatical about time, a goddess of routine. Mr. Shah was polite. Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of a life that seemed aimless. His mother had sold liquor, was a camp follower, had had several army officers. At thirteen, he had beaten up a thirty-year old Acholi private who had slapped his mother.
At fifteen he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones had seen him walking in Arua he had offered him a place in the army at once. Jones would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills. He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe sweat off Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles. Always gruffly.
Idi loved to catch Mau Maus. One day, after winning a boxing match, he got drunk and came to the barracks with a prostitute. The sentry refused to let him in. Amin left him unconscious on the floor. Jones found him in the barracks the next morning. He slapped Idi twice. Hard.
Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after he had won the Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back, and Idi grinned widely and said:
‘Now I am the bull afande.’
‘You’re a good lad, Idi. A good lad.’
Mr Shah liked to spend the morning working on his novel:
CONQUERORS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
He was already 1 000 words into the preface: It is the only way to make a National Profit from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more we can dictate the cost of raw materials, the final profit will be manned by our rupees, our shillings and our guns. Mother India should be Lords of the Commonwealth. Why let the English carry us on their backs! Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there? The Desais will keep the books, the Amins will manage the farms. We can take the skills the British brought, and add them to the world.
His first-born son, Vishal, is disdainful of the book.
‘Xenophobic polemic Daddi-ji. V.S. says the Indian industrial revolution is petty and private. We are greedy. V.S. says we are ‘a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society that has not learned ‘rebellion’. Maybe you need to read some real literature before writing this. The Russians…’
Since he came back from England, Vishal had treated his parents as if they were trinkets: colourful mantelpiece trinkets who chimed once in a while, could only be treated with contempt.
Last year at a birthday party, Vishal had composed a song which he liked to sing at birthday parties to scandalise everybody (except the Marxist Habajan Singh, who liked his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a Kookaburra.
Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree
Merry Merry King of da Street is he
Run Dukawallah run
Dukawallah hide your cash and flee
It started with small things. She would scrub her heel with a stone, until it bled. It was better when they had had the shop. Ramesh did not come home any more for lunch. He ate fruit. They took turns. Now, she woke with a surging panic, as her days could not fill up. The house extensions were finished. At night it seemed, sometimes, that the earthworms were coming. They were shifting everything, turning up the earth, dark and whispering. The previous month four families on the street had left. Ramesh would not hear of it. Start again where? Then Vishal was gone. They sat there, on her wall, the certificates. For hockey. First place in Biology and Art. Duchess of Gloucester school, Pangani.
When she was twelve, she had wrestled her bigger brother to the ground. Her mother had found her pounding his face. She had stayed in her room for days, dreaming of becoming Sally, an Air Hostess. Jane, a Trauma Nurse.
Sitting for tea at Nakuru Sweet Mart with friends some days, she pinched herself under the table, harder and harder, and a satisfying tingle ran up her back as she dabbed her tears and said, they are so strong, these onions, fresh, as they talked about ways to hide gold.
Between 2 and 4 pm you can find Idi Amin at Nakuru Boxing Club. For years he has been the Nakuru Boxing Champion. He is getting older now, and some young bucks are challenging. Modesty Blaise Wekea is short. Very short. It is said he once lifted a plough over his head while working as a casual in the wheat fields of Masailand. He is copper-coloured to Idi’s black. It is his speed – the unbelievable speed of those bowed legs with thighs the size of a grown man’s waist. But there is something else. When Amin first exploded onto the Nakuru boxing scene people saw a future world champion, ‘Aii Alikuwa kama myama!’ he was like an animal: the discipline of the army added to his natural ferocity to make him unbeatable.
He had no wife; many lovers: yellow Gikuyu women desperately looking for a man with some skills – they complained that Gikuyu men were disdainful of frills, saw sex as a quick efficient drill; wira ni wira – work is work. Idi’s size, his soft and gentle eyes and wicked smile.
He has a son, in Ronda. Twin daughters in Naivasha. In ’57, in Kamirithu, a woman once came to the barracks, screaming. She unknotted her baby-kanga, and put the baby on the ground. She stood at the gates, tearing her clothes off, and screaming in Gikuyu as the men laughed. One of the guards tried to stop her, and she slapped him. Where is he? Where is he? Idi was away, in Kabete Police Post, drinking. The woman walked away, leaving the baby crying. She got to the fence of the forced village, was just about to walk through the ditch that surrounded it, dug by her and other women, when she turned and ran back. She picked the baby up, and walked away, past the village probably, they speculated, to Nairobi, where the orphans, the rejected, the divorced, the accused all disappeared. The city was now sealed by barbed wire and police posts, Gikuyus all but banned, but people got in, and people got out.
After his sparring session with a nervous young man with even larger limbs than his, a young man so scared he could probably kill in fear, Idi had a soda with an old friend.
Godwin, the only fellow Kakwa in Nakuru. Godwin Pojulu was a tailor for an Indian family: the Khans. Idi speaks his language badly; he spoke better in Luo and Acholi and Kiswahili, army languages. Here in Kenya, all of them were Nubians. Sudanese were only Nubians.
But when he was six or seven his mother had taken him to Yei town in Sudan – and he had fallen in love with the mango-lined avenues. Children were generally a nuisance in the colonial Labour Lines of Arua; in his maternal grandfather’s home, just off Maridi road, five miles from Yei was heaven. He was free to run and play as far as he wanted. Adults would swell to accommodate him – he would eat in the homes of strangers.
Godwin speaks to him about Sudan. About Inyanya 1 – the war. About old heroic days; about rumour and gossip coming from Yei town. They would eat soda and mandazi and talk till the people left their offices and the surge of workers coming from the factories set Godwin to work.
At five-thirty, before the last sun, Idi heads to Eunice’s for supper. He loves that walk – the railway, with its long straight one-roomed homes, reminds him of his childhood in various labour lines, near various railways stations.
One-roomed homes – with kei apple green doors looking across at each other. He arrives at Eunice’s. Clothes flap on the line directly above him, and other clothes are being washed at one tap by young girls and wives.
The buildings are very old, some of the oldest in the country, as old as the railway – the origin and spine of what we now call Kenya. Green fungi well on the open pipes, and green tears stream down peeling walls. A toy safari-rally car leans by a wall streaked with the scribbles of children: OTC =Onyango Twende Choo.
Wire is shaped into the frame of a car and held together with thin strips cut from the inner tube of a car tyre, complete with a long steering wheel for a child to grip and run in any direction, making hooting and growling sounds. Railway children make the best wire cars – crouched and snarling, with steering that makes the wheels turn; with paper mudguards, number plates and springy aerials thrust from the back of the car.
In some of the ceilings, under the old corrugated iron roof, young men keep carrier pigeons and feathers are clustered in the roof drains.
Eunice is sprawled on the grass, elbow crossed over her eyes, sleeping and her whole body receiving the sun. The smell of fish, dry fish, cooking fish, and boiling, bitter green vegetables is everywhere. Two women are getting their hair plaited on the sparse patch of grass between the parallel single-room buildings. Both their heads are held at the knee by their hairdressers, legs wide open. There is a pile of discarded pea-pods, sukuma-wiki stems and potato peels next to the tap, covered with a large web of slime. Brackish, soapy water glides out into an open drain where ducklings swim. Ducks with mossy muddy bellies wander about. The women are talking, and don’t stop when they see him standing awkwardly near the tap. Eunice is still napping.
‘I have never seen someone like that one. Chu chu chuuu…all the time. Hizo piston zake hazikwisha.’
‘Ah – huyo hana brakes.’
They all laugh.
‘He is an engineer – a Goan. He has women all over the railway line. Here he has three in Njoro, and you know this is not even a proper station. So – he was here last night, and he brought a Burnt Forest malaya here – she looked Indian or ShellyShelly. They kept us up the whole night. Chuuchuuu. Even my son woke up, and came to my bed and asked who was screaming, and I said, ah, Daddy, that’s the train screaming. Can’t you hear. Choo chooo!’
All the women laugh.
Eunice. She is not young. In her fifties even. Straight, and lean with sharp buttocks outlined against her lesso, and very short gray hair, cut like a boy’s.
Her head is the pot gently placed on a long straight neck, where it rocks slowly from side to side; chipped and fading gold loop metal earrings wobble; hips and buttocks are a pendulum of tight flesh. Her back is perfectly straight.
She catches Idi’s eye and slips past the open door, where four quarters are carefully divided by old sarongs into four rooms.
The only person in the household who threatens Idi’s job is Vishal. Since Vishal came back from England, with a cockney accent and black power talk.
‘Daddi-ji, you need to read V.S. Naipaul. He understands the black man. He is a Supermasculine Menial Daddi-ji. Read Cleaver.’
That night, Mrs Gupta surprised her husband by defending Vishal. She was bent over, head between her thighs, hair over her face, brushing the back of it, metres long, as Ramesh railed, ‘Are we sending him to Cambridge to become a black man?’
Idi has been with the family now for fifteen years. Two years ago he cornered three thugs and beat them all up, and left with a knife-wound in his belly.
He is afraid of only one thing. The market. Those women. Whenever he is shopping there, for the Shahs, he can see their eyes measuring, and whispers surge when he turns his back to leave. One day, he heard Thief! Thief! And he started to run. The whole market, a moment ago, was a puddle of fast-moving ants, now it was an arrow, chasing to kill, an arrow surrounded by cheering crowds. He turned into the road to Section 58, and knew himself to be safe. He could see women in saris walking, gently gossiping and laughing. The invisible boundaries of colour still stood, fifteen years after independence.
Later, he wondered whether they were chasing him, or somebody else. He sends Godwin, when Memsahib is too preoccupied to go to buy vegetables.
Every Monday, at 5 pm, Mr Shah stops at George Karanja’s office near the Town Hall. George is an old friend. Karanja’s father arranged shelves for the family shop for many years. Ramesh’s father paid George’s school fees for primary school. George and Ramesh studied at Kenya Institute of Administration together. Ramesh left afterwards, to study economics in England. George entered the civil service.
They have tea, and talk about the old days. Kenyatta’s portrait is on the wall, red eyes burning and a flywhisk in hand. He leaves an envelope with the secretary, with four thousand shillings. George is a sleeping partner in the business.
They say George meets with the Mzee every Sunday, in that pavilion that faces the flamingos near Lake Nakuru, that place Kenyatta likes so much. Old women sing and dance for him, and he watches the sunset every Sunday. Ramesh does not know whether it is luck or George’s intervention that has kept his stock coming through the port, his business running, nobody walking in to claim it all. He does not ask.
They will rule this country one day, he thinks, those old Gikuyu market women, the singing women, with their coin-counting ways, so frugal.
‘In a subsistence economy,’ his father had once said, tugging his long beard, behind the shelf of the shop, as he received as barter a tin can of milk from an old Tugen man, who took away some tobacco and a tin whistle, ‘you can save everything you earn. Keep your spending subsistent,’ he said, ‘and your earning modern. Do you know what brought them all to the shops? Sugar. Sugar and tobacco. The missionaries used to give them free tea with a lot of sugar. They left home to look for work, first, to afford sugar, and tobacco.’
It had started recently with Memsahib.
Idi was on his way from the kitchen with a big mug of sweet tea, and had caught her wailing in the living room, a day after Vishal had gone to Oxford. He had tried to slide backwards slowly out of the room; but she had leapt at him and grabbed him and wept on his shoulder, leaving long snail-trails of snot on his khaki shirt. Her mood had changed abruptly, and she had attacked him: teeth and nails; her body incoherent.
This change, this new erratic thing to deal with troubles him. Most times, he does not mind being a House Boy.
This piece was first published in Chimurenga Volume 14 – Everyone Has Their Indian (April 2009). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.