Counting Heads by James Kariuki

“It seems to be working,” the man’s voice said. It sounded distant, with the reverberation of his voice echoing down a long empty corridor. The room was completely dark. Apart from the sounds of a few murmuring voices and the beeps and whirs of unseen machinery, everything was still. The air smelled unnaturally sterile and he had no bearing on whether it was cold or hot in the room. Maybe it was just perfect, like the little bear’s bed and porridge in fairy tales he had read as a child. So why did he feel like everything was terribly wrong?

“Is it working or does it seem to be working?” a woman’s voice asked, sounding further away than the man she was addressing. She sounded familiar. Her accent was very distinct and Koyo racked his brain to try to remember where he knew her from. He couldn’t think straight and his head hurt as he tried to remember where he was. The man’s voice was getting excited and the sound of frantic typing on a keyboard punctuated every other sentence he spoke.

“The computational mechanism is working at full capacity now, but it’s unstable,” he said, his voice sounding raised, as if he was shouting at a person a long distance away. “We may need to reboot and adjust a few things but I think we have it this time,” he said in a softer tone, almost a whisper, as if to somebody standing next to him.

Koyo tried to open his eyes. They stayed firmly shut and the effort needed to open them seemed to be impossible for him to muster. He tried to take a deep breath but his diaphragm did not move. He felt like a floating bubble of thoughts completely disembodied from his physical self.

“Where am I? How did I get here?” The more he tried to remember, the more the voices echoed in his head. They reverberated louder in the room he was floating in.

“What’s happening?” the woman with the familiar accent asked. She was closer now and he could sense the anxiety in her voice.  It started coming back to him. She was short and wore her hair in a tight bun. She was foreign. A white woman he had met in the past. How long ago he could not remember.

“It’s shutting down,” the man answered, all his previous enthusiasm suddenly gone from his voice.

“Switch off the power and put it on stand-by. Don’t let it melt down like you did all the others.” She had introduced herself as an American, Koyo remembered. His train of thought suddenly halted. He felt lightheaded, and panic set in shortly before everything went silent again. There was only darkness and silence and he could feel his individual thoughts fading into the distance.


Three and a half years of unemployment had been taking its toll on Koyo. He spent most of his time thinking about the path his life should have taken. He would have been head of the IT department at the bank by now, enjoying all the perks that would have brought; a big house and a comfortable car rather than squeezing into a shared apartment and risking his life in rickety matatus and speeding bodabodas. Things turned for the worse, however, when the theft happened. An inside job resulted in the loss of ninety million shillings wired from customers’ accounts. It cost him his job and sullied his reputation; his face was plastered in the news and collective memory for months, even surpassing the public interest in the serial killer known as the Head-Hunter who had been dumping headless bodies across the city for years now. The criminal case against Koyo was eventually dropped, but he knew he would never go back to his former career.

“Wake up or you’ll be late for your interview,” Jose said while dragging Koyo halfway out of the bed by his feet. Koyo’s head was pounding from last night’s drinking. He wanted to go to bed early but his room-mate insisted that they should go out for one drink. It would bring him good luck and give him a confidence boost before the job interview.

“Fuck you,” Koyo mumbled as he kicked Jose and tossed himself back into the bed. “This is your fault.”

“How is it my fault?” Jose laughed. “You really need to learn how to think for yourself my man. Get up and go get that job. I’m sure it pays a lot if they’re willing to take a chance on a famous bank robber.”

“Falsely accused bank robber,” Koyo corrected him and pulled the covers back over his head.

“Whatever. Get up my man, before this ship sails and you’re stuck here for another year selling drugs to your tourist friends.”

“Ah shit,” Koyo groaned as he sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. “I’m never drinking with you again Jose. I’d rather die of thirst, I swear to God.” He threw his blanket to one side and eased his legs out of bed. He held his head in his hands and closed his eyes, hoping the nausea would go away soon.

It was finally the day when he would have a chance to get a real job. Three years of selling skunk weed to tourists in seedy clubs had earned him enough to make a living, but his nerves were frayed. He was always on edge, looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him. He never picked up phone calls from numbers he didn’t recognise. He was turning into a paranoid recluse who only kept the company of strung-out junkies and the untrustworthy tour guides who brought them to him.

Bosco was the guide that had told him about this employment opportunity. He was unattractive in Koyo’s opinion, but his medium-ugly looks seemed to endear him to  waspy women who believed his promises of decadence and followed him blindly to Club Jay’s, where Koyo was waiting to fuel their nightlife experience. Bosco was loud and rude most of the time, but Koyo tolerated him for bringing him most of his business. He often demanded free weed in return for bringing him buyers, and Koyo obliged only because he couldn’t stand the self-serving woe-is-me tirade that he would have to sit through if he didn’t pay the kickback.

“I have someone who would like to talk to you about a job,” Bosco had told him that night.

“I already have a job. Are you forgetting who works to provide your white girls with something to help them ignore your ugly face?” retorted Koyo.

“It’s not time for your stupid jokes right now. There’s someone looking for a guy like you to work for them. You used to be a computer science guy didn’t you? Very smart with a big brain?”

“Yes, I did, and I don’t think my brain is bigger than whatever is inside your own massive head Bosco,” Koyo said. It was unusual for him to indulge Bosco, but he could sense that this conversation seemed to be headed somewhere, for once.

“Good,” said Bosco, relieved that Koyo was taking him seriously this time. “She was supposed to meet me here tonight but something came up at her job and she couldn’t make it. I’ll give her your number and tell her to get in touch.”

“Okay, no problem.”

“How about a little weed then, in exchange for me bringing you another wonderful business opportunity?” Bosco asked with a broad smile that Koyo thought was quite menacing.

“You’d ask for weed even if you brought me bad news,” Koyo sighed as he pulled out a bundle of joints from his shirt pocket and handed it over to Bosco. “Thank you. I’ll be waiting for that call.”


Koyo arrived at the office building ten minutes early. The hangover was still intense even after a cold shower and a bodaboda ride. His eyes felt heavy and his mouth was dry. He cursed his decision to go out drinking with Jose for the tenth time that morning. He stood at the gate for a moment to catch his breath and let the heavy pounding in his head pass. The office building was a shiny behemoth of a structure, covered in glass that reflected the morning sun onto the pavement, blinding anyone who was walking by. A group of security guards in black uniforms sat on the other side of the gate looking suspiciously at the scruffy young man standing there on the roadside staring at the upper floors of the building.

“I’m here to see Janet from GigaCloud,” Koyo said to the guard. The guard began walking towards the gate the moment Koyo started approaching it, and their movement eerily reflected one another’s.

“Oh, you’re very welcome,” said the guard. His initial hostile face softened suddenly, breaking into a wide smile.

The gate slid open a few feet, just enough to let Koyo in and slid back shut immediately he was inside. The guard began walking towards the front door of the complex and gestured at Koyo to follow him. A short flight of steps led to a high glass door that automatically slid open as they approached it. A blast of cold air-conditioning hit Koyo in the face and made him aware of how dusty and polluted the city air outside was.

“Have a seat, Ms Williams will be with you in a short while,” said the woman seated at the receptionist desk. It was a high wall of glossy wood behind which he could only see her hair tied into a bun. The reception area was furnished with a few leather seats and a small wooden table right in front of the receptionist’s desk. Multiple glass doors led into corridors where Koyo could see a few people walking past in a hurry, as if they were late for some unknown meetings or behind their schedules.

Janet Williams had called Koyo the very next morning after Bosco had told him about the job opportunity.  He had asked what the job that she had available was and her answers had still left him unsatisfied.

“Well, we need a person with a good knowledge of how computers work. GigaCloud is looking to improve our current remote computing service and you might be the person for the job,” Janet had said over the phone. “If you are interested in this opportunity, I would love to meet with you and let you know more about our current project, as well as interview you for the job.”

Several failed deals and undercover drug busts had left Koyo with a keen sense of distrust for deals that sounded too good to be true; but he reluctantly agreed to the meeting. He had been sure that no employer would be willing to risk giving him a job ever again, and the doubts still clawed at him as he accepted Janet’s invitation. Sitting in the waiting area, waiting to meet Janet, his mind wandered to the possibilities of this new job. GigaCloud was famous worldwide for providing high capacity digital storage, and was rumoured to be creating the biggest storage capacity servers of the smallest size the world had ever seen. Maybe he could finally get his career back on track and become a respected computer engineer he always dreamed of being.

“Please follow me, Ms Williams will see you now,” the receptionist’s voice interrupted Koyo’s daydream. He followed her through one of the glass doors and into the corridor where he had earlier seen people rushing about their day.

Janet Williams was waiting at the entrance to a boardroom. She was a tall white woman dressed in a lab coat and high heels that reminded Koyo of a cartoon character. She looked up from the papers she was reading and smiled warmly at Koyo. “Welcome to Gigacloud. I have been looking forward to meeting you Mr. Okello.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well,” replied Koyo with a wide grin, one that he wore to mask the discomfort of being formally addressed. Ever since his troubles with the bank, he felt a lump grow in his throat whenever he was referred to as Mr. Okello.

Janet and Koyo sat across from each other at a round conference table. She placed the papers she had been holding on the table and smiled at Koyo before speaking to him in a voice that was even more excited than she had sounded over the phone. “I want to get it out of the way. Your previous employment history is of no concern to us. We only look out for skills and I think you will be a good fit for the work we are doing here.”

“I appreciate your confidence in me, but I must also admit that I have no experience in building high capacity storage systems,” said Koyo, shortly before his inner voice cursed at him for talking too much.

“That is not a problem. Most of our staff are trained in-house anyway,” said Janet. “What we see in you is the potential, and from what Bosco told me about you, I knew you would be a great candidate for this job.” Janet saw the perplexed look on Koyo’s face and continued, “he simply mentioned that his friend was a highly qualified IT professional with a level-headed personality. That is the kind of person we’re always looking out for.”

After half an hour of interview questions that were, according to Janet, mere formalities, Koyo was asked to go to the door end of the corridor. “That is the human resource office. You will find your contracts and you can go over them. Welcome to GigaCloud,” she said as she stood up and firmly shook Koyo’s hand. “We are happy to have you.”

At the end of the corridor was a door with a keycard lock that the receptionist unlocked with the badge hanging around her neck before gesturing at him to walk in. Koyo walked into the brightly lit white-walled room and was taken aback by the complete lack of furniture. As he looked back to the two women, the door quickly shut between them and a thick cloud of gas filled the room, knocking him to the ground within a few seconds.

“The new subject is ready for preparation,” he heard Janet shout as he slowly drifted into unconsciousness.


Koyo woke up again, still feeling as if he was floating in empty space, aware of his existence but unable to move a single muscle. A bright light seemed to shine through his eyelids and made his eyes hurt. He struggled to open his eyes and could see a spotlight shining at his face through the narrow slit he was able to force open.

“There’s something here,” a voice said excitedly as Koyo saw a human figure block the light in front of him.

The shadow gave relief from the bright light and enabled Koyo to open his eyes a little wider. The effort it took felt like his eyelids were tied down by solid iron weights. He could make out the figure of a man wearing a white lab coat over a dull grey suit. His gloved hands were fiddling around Koyo’s chest area, though Koyo could feel nothing of what he was doing. With the man right in front of him, Koyo suddenly realised that he was somehow upright, though he could not tell whether he was seated or strapped to a wall. The man stepped aside and once more Koyo’s eyes forced themselves shut to shield from the bright spotlight.

“Move him to the main lab and connect the cables,” said the man and Koyo felt himself suddenly moving out of the spotlights glare and once again half opened his eyes to see walls of polished glass dimly reflecting his image as he was being pushed quickly through the corridors. He was able to get a good look when they stopped in front of a door with a sign that read ‘MAIN LAB.’  It was his face for sure, but he looked expressionless, as if he was dead or in a coma. His head was the only thing he could recognise. The rest of his body was missing. In its place was a mass of tubes and wires going into his neck and temples. He was just a head, attached to a trolley full of electronic components and machinery.

“Here we go young man,” said the man as he pushed Koyo’s trolley body to the end of the room. “It’s time to plug you in. Don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any of this much longer.”

Koyo drifted in and out of consciousness as the man fiddled around with the wires and tubes. Each time his mind drifted away he felt like he was waking up from a bad dream, only to find himself in another nightmare. He was constantly thinking about things that made no sense. Random numbers seemed to flash through his mind and an infinite river of information made him feel like he was drowning in some kind of space that no human had ever been in before.

“Don’t panic. Let your mind stay open to whatever it is you are seeing. Most people die immediately but you’ve been fighting it for two weeks.” The man spoke as he plugged in cables and flipped switches on Koyo’s mechanical support structure. Koyo’s eyelids fluttered in panic and he finally managed to feel his lips tremble in fear. His mind jumped from the information river and he felt himself returning to his physical head. His eyes saw clearly and there was Janet talking to a group of people, standing among  four other heads just like his.

Janet looked away from her colleagues and made eye contact with Koyo. She walked over to him and inspected him from head to trolley wheel. “He is fully conscious now?” she asked the technician who had been with Koyo.

The man nodded and moved away to work on the monitor on a desk right beside them. Koyo tried to speak but his lips could only flinch awkwardly. The only thing he had control over was his eyes and his thoughts. Janet wrote in her notebook before closing it and leaning in to speak to Koyo.

“Mr. Okello, you have been quite difficult to work with but you are stable now. You will be sedated so that your brain can do the work we need without exposing you to unnecessary torture,” she said with a giggle.

Koyo’s pupils dilated in horror as the technician took a syringe and injected it into the tubes at Janet’s command. He felt the sedative taking effect, and watched as Janet leaned in once more, her face glowing with pride at the success of her project. She whispered into his ear as he slipped into a darkness that he now knew would be eternal, “You are providing a great service to the future of technology. Not many brains are wired like yours, but we were lucky to find you. It would have been a shame to throw you out like the others. Rest now, we only need the part of you that works best in silence.”


Where The Gods Go by Kevin Rigathi

The door is old. You can see it in the flaked black paint, rusted metal and in the design that has been out of fashion for nearly 15 years. Whenever anyone opens it, it is loud with creaks and groans and rattles. It is like an old man yelling at people who bother him long past when he should have retired. The door does not like to be disturbed, I know that. I also know how to work with it. How to slowly turn the handle in three movements, a second’s pause between each one. How to pull it open, stopping a mere inch before the noise starts and how to wiggle through the small opening without letting it move. I know how to hold the handle at its lowest point and to pull the door shut slowly and carefully before letting it go. I do it all perfectly and the only sound it makes is a click so low that only I could have possibly heard it. No mistakes. Still, my father sees me.

I sigh softly at the sight of him standing there in his crumpled suit, looking at me. I was trying to spare him this encounter but luck has betrayed me. He chose this very unfortunate moment to walk by and now here we are. He knows the door is loud, how can he not? He complains about it almost as much as he promises to fix it. And so he knows, by the sounds he did not hear, that I was trying to avoid him. This only makes things worse. His wide eyed, open-mouthed expression of surprise collapses into the closed eyes and tight lips of guilt, of shame. He forgot to collect me from school – again.

I walked home alone, a thing the school does not ordinarily let 11-year-old girls do but they make an exception for me. The one time they insisted I wait to be collected, I had spent the night on school grounds with no one but a put upon security guard for company. The next day, my teachers had been horrified to find me still there. So now, when it is clear that no one is coming for me, they let me walk. They often discuss reporting the matter to the police or the department of child services but they dare not actually do it. That would likely mean losing another paying student and in these days of dwindling enrolment, they choose to mind their own damn business. Besides, they charge my father a fee every time he does not come.

“Wangare…” he says my name and stops, struggling to find the right words. His mouth opens and closes silently and for a moment, he looks like the goldfish we used to have. The one he let die.  I remember a time the English teacher asked the class for examples of similes and someone said, Wangare’s father drinks like a fish. Everybody laughed. Now, even from where I stand, I can smell the whiskey on his breath.

“Wangare, I…” he tries again and fails again. Finally, he turns away set to do what he always does. Ignore everything, try to pretend it isn’t happening and of course, find some liquor to help him forget that he is a bad father. Perhaps that he is a father at all.

Ordinarily I would let him wallow in his self-pity, it is easier that way for both of us. We have learnt over the years that words are dangerous and that silence is more forgiving. But today, I need to talk to him. It is why I was trying to preserve his mood. “Daddy…”

“Yes?” He says, surprised to hear me say something. Surprised that I want anything to do with him right now and a little wary of what might come next.

“Can I ask you something?”


I think about how I want to start this. How to phrase it, how to make him understand that it is important. “You know how we’re having cultural week at school?”

“Yes…” he says, hesitating. He forgot.

“Today we learnt about the gods. The traditional African gods, the Kenyan gods, the gods of our ancestors.”

“Yes…” He says again, a perplexed look on his face.

“I asked the teacher this and she didn’t know…” I pause, working up to the question that has plagued my mind all day. I don’t know what sparked it but it will not leave. Hour by hour, it has grown and its tendrils have spread into every thought I have had. The question will not let me rest until I can answer it.  “What happened to them?”

“What?” he scrunches up his face. “What happened to who? God? Nothing, nothing happened. What are you talking about?”

“No!” I hear the desperation in my voice like a distant thing, disconnected from me, and even I do not understand it. “If nothing happened, then where are they?”

He is silent for almost a minute and I shuffle uncomfortably because of the way he is looking at me. That look in his eye, is it – suspicion?

“Wangare, look, I don’t know what your teacher told you but I believe she has you under some kind of misapprehension. You see, there is only one God. One god and many ways to look at him. The Jews call him Yahweh, The Muslims call him Allah and our ancestors all had different names for him. We are Kikuyu and so we would call him Ngai. But in the end, it is all the same. Do you understand?”

He says it all so silently I can barely hear him and he looks different as he does it, different but familiar. Not like the empty shell that I’m used to but like the lawyer he once was. The man who raised me, the man who faded the day my mother disappeared. Who, sometimes I think, followed her so quickly to wherever she went that he left his body behind. I feel sad. This hint of my father has only appeared to tell me what I do not want to hear.

“But they’re different!”


“No, they are. They did different things, they wanted different things. Don’t you see? They are different!”

“Stop yelling…”

“Daddy! They were there and they were different and then we just forgot them, we abandoned them. We stopped praying and worshipping and – and we just moved on and now we don’t even remember that they were different. And they left. They left because we didn’t want them. But where did they go, daddy? Where did the gods go?”

“No!” he shouts so loudly that I actually jump back. The suspicion he had looked at me with before has returned and it is panicked, manic even. “You will not do this! You will not do this to me, not you. Never. I will not let you go following gods!”


The woman frightens me. I don’t know why, and in truth I am a little embarrassed by it, but there is just something about her that puts me on edge. Something hidden in that calm smile, in her laid back poise and even in the approachable attitude she is careful never to drop. It’s like everything she does is calculated to put me at ease and that makes me suspicious of all of it. Her name is Dr. Kahiu and this is the second time I’ve met her. We sit in her office which, while similar to a doctor’s office, does not actually feel like one. It doesn’t have that hospital feel of perpetual cold or even the overpowering too clean smell. You see, Dr Kahiu is not actually a doctor, at least, not in my mind. She is a psychiatrist and my father is forcing me to see her. That stupid man.

“What is your relationship with your father like, Wangare?” she asks as if she hears my silent insult.

“It’s good,” I lie.

“Just good? Nothing else?”


“I see,” She frowns slightly and scribbles something into her notepad “You know that you can tell me anything Wangare? I won’t tell anyone. I’m only here to help and you can trust me, I hope you know that.”

“I know,” I say, though I know nothing of the sort. Help me with what? Both times I’ve met her, she’s expected me to tell her everything about my life like we are best friends or something. She wants me to trust her though neither her nor my father have explained what they really want. They are up to something and I will not trust any of them.

“Okay. How about when you were younger, how was your father then? What do you remember?”

This question surprises me for some reason and memories rise unbidden. I was too young to ever have seen my father in court but I remember that he was a lawyer and that everyone said that he was brilliant. I remember being proud of him and I remember my mother tell me that his trick was in his low voice. How he spoke gently, almost indiscernible, so that people were forced to lean forward and concentrate on his words just to hear them. That was how he made them pay attention, how he put them under his spell. He was happier then too, I remember that clearest of all. He laughed all the time and had a story for everything. Even then he was a heavy drinker, always keeping a few bottles in the house, but it was different. There was a little restraint, a little control keeping him from the edge. When my mother disappeared, he lost that control; he lost everything he had been. The day he accepted that she was never coming back, it was like something broke inside him and he started to unravel. I remember how he refused to leave his bed for a week and when he finally came out, he was just a shell of what he had been once. The mere husk of a human being.

I remember it all but I say none of it. “He was good.”

Dr. Kahiu sighs, trying and failing to appear patient, finally betraying a crack in her mask. It feels like a victory. “Alright Wangare, I can tell that you still don’t want to talk about your father or your past. Let us move on to something different, shall we? Would you prefer to try the ink blots instead?”

“What are ink b…ink…”

“Ink blots. They’re images with patterns in them. I show them to you and you tell me what you see in the pattern. Would you like to try?”

“Okay.” I don’t care but it sounds better than listening to her stupid questions.

She pulls up a stack of cards from her table and holds one up so I can see it. I squint at it for a long moment before deciding that it doesn’t look like anything. It is just a random spray of black splatters on paper.

“It’s a face,” I say, not entirely sure if I am lying or not.

“A face? Interesting. And this one?”

“A bird.”

“What about this one?”

“Another face, an old man.”

“This one?”

“That one is…” I pause. Something about it jumps out at me and when I realise what it is, I start laughing. “That is a caterpillar.”

“A caterpillar?” She looks at the inkblot and back at me. “Why is that funny?”

I want to say that it is funny because of my father. Because of the day we learnt about the life cycle of a butterfly in school and how it had reminded me of him. You see, butterflies are always looking for a mate. It’s why they fly. My father had already found his mate and then he lost her. Because of that, the colourful man who floated gracefully through life had cocooned in his blankets for a week and when he’d come out, all he wanted to do was consume and consume and he would not stop until he shriveled away into nothing. He had taken the butterfly’s journey but he had taken it backwards. He was a caterpillar and he would never fly again.

“Because I like caterpillars,” I say. I hate caterpillars.

“Wangare,” Dr Kahiu takes off her glasses and looks at me with such intensity that I can tell she knows I am hiding something. “What about the gods? Do you want to tell me about the gods?”

“Who told you about that?” It takes everything in me not to stand and scream. How can she know about this?

“Your father told me.”

“No, he didn’t! You’re lying. Why are you lying?”  I have only spoken about the gods to him once, a long time ago, and I never said anything after his reaction. He wouldn’t remember. He couldn’t. It is not like him to remember things.

“Of course he did. He told me you’ve been asking about them for a year, all over the school. Your teachers are worried about you. They say you have an unhealthy obsession with gods.”

She is still lying. My teachers would never tell my father. They never tell him anything, what would be the point? And they promised, they promised they wouldn’t tell. They promised! How can she know? I look at her expectant expression and it is in that moment I realise why this woman scares me. Why something seems so wrong with her. She has been digging into my secrets from the moment I met her and I think I know why now.

Is Dr. Kahiu one of the gods? Have they found out that I have been looking for them? That I know they went somewhere? The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Doctors. People respect doctors, they revere them. My teachers always told us we should work hard and become doctors one day. And isn’t that what a fallen god would want? To be that which we still look up to? To have people consult with them, to tell them their secrets and ask them to bring healing?

“What do you want with me?” Perhaps I am in danger here. How far would a god go to preserve a secret?

“What is this about? What are you ask…”

“What do you want with me?” I repeat myself, separating every word sharply.

“Wangare,” Dr Kahiu leans forward and I flinch. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“No. Tell me.”

“Very well. I will be honest with you, you deserve that. You are here because your father thinks you are sick. He thinks there’s something wrong with you. Something in your mind.”

“That’s not true. You just want me to stop looking for the gods. That’s what you both want isn’t it? That’s it, right?”

“It’s true and yes, it is because of how you talk about gods. Because…” she pauses, as if considering if she should go on. “Because you are saying the things that your mother once said.”

“What?” What is she saying? What is she talking about? Is this a trick?

“Your mother. Before she disappeared, your father tells me she was obsessed with God. She wouldn’t stop talking about him. Every day, she was more interested, more relentless in her quest to find him. Then one day, in the middle of preparing dinner, she walked out of the door and left her only child alone with the gas still on. She was a sick woman. No one saw it and so no one helped her and now no one knows what happened to her. Your father just doesn’t want the same for you. It’s why you’re here.”

“My mother…” This is a story I have never heard before.

“Yes. She…”

Dr. Kahiu keeps talking but I am not listening anymore. This confirms everything. My mother knew, she knew about the gods. She knew about all of this. She knew they had to be found and she went looking. Now, now it is my turn. I will find the gods and maybe, just maybe, I will find my mother there with them.


For years, I have tried not to think about the day my mother left. My thoughts have circled and worked around it, careful never to get too close; never to let it burn. Now, knowing what I know, I can approach the memory and walk around it. I can look closer and finally see.

She is in the kitchen wearing that kanga she likes so much. The one with little words at the bottom that read, Hodi hodi naikome mwaka ujao naolewa. Stop your knocking, I’m getting married next year. She wears it when she wants to be comfortable, when she’s not planning on going anywhere. It must be building up inside her even now. Rising, bubbling, ready to explode. One moment she is stirring a sweet smelling stew, the next, her back stiffens and she walks to the window.  She leans so far outside it that I think she will fall. Like whatever she sees out there is so full of wonder, that even to fall outside into it, would be worth it.

“Wangare, I need tomatoes.” It is a strange thing to say, especially as last words to her five-year-old daughter; but that is it. She walks out the door, not even closing it behind her and that is the last I ever see of her.

When my father finally comes home to find an open door, a burning meal on the stove and his child playing alone — he stands there for a long time, not saying anything. I think he knows what has happened, knows and refuses to accept it. “Wangare,” he says trying to conceal the panic in his voice, “where is your mother?” Not understanding the gravity of the moment I nonchalantly provide the summarised answer, “tomatoes.” It all fades away.

I think I’m beginning to understand my mother. To understand how she felt then. She had found her purpose, her vision. That must have been the moment she realised that this big secret was real and that she had a part to play in it. I understand now why she had to leave my father. If one is to find the gods, they cannot be around him; he can be nothing but an obstacle. I know this all too well. He has tried everything in his power to stop my mission and he has been relentless. I believe he knows that the gods are real. He knows and instead of seeing the beauty, it just scares him.

Right now, we have left our home in Nairobi because of his fear. In a few minutes, we will be in Kigumo or as my father calls it, the village. It is where he grew up. In his mind, a new environment will help me. He says I need to start over and so he has sold our failing house with its grumbling door and we are going to live in the village. A calm and quiet place to allow me to think, where I can get away from the madness of the city; that way, I will get better. This is his new plan to stop me.

Dr. Kahiu was his first try, but they had both underestimated my resolve. Once I knew she was not a god, I knew how to defeat her. All I had to do was bring her my silence. You see, what is a psychiatrist without your words? Where is their power if you deny them knowledge of yourself? I simply sat there and I watched her in every session, saying nothing. Eventually, her calm fell away. She squirmed in that seat like I am sure she has made many others squirm. With silence alone, I broke her.

My father, however, was not so simple to undo. I tried silence on him but he was too used to it. He had become more comfortable with my silence than with anything else, and so I was forced to turn to words. I threw them all at him. Words to bite and to cut deep, words to shame and to tear down, all the words I knew could make him cower and back away. They all failed. You see, for words to truly hurt you, they must linger and race in your mind. They must circle through your thoughts and haunt you. But my father is a man of the moment. He drinks and he forgets, that is all he does. Words can only bother a man like that for so long. He can always escape them.

But he also knows that not losing to me does not mean that he has won. That is why we are here. Driving down this dusty road and hooting at the crowd of people in front of us. He thinks here, I will break. I will be somewhere only familiar to him and he will have the advantage. I look outside the window at this place. Why are there so many people here, I wonder? What are they looking at? Then – then I see it. I see what they see, why they gather, and I struggle not to laugh. My father, in trying to stop me, has enabled me. Outside my window, somewhere past the crowd, finally, I see a god.


Today, my father thinks I am in the market, which I am. I did not lie; I just did not tell him why I was going. I have been very good of late. Keeping my search to myself, letting him think that he has tamed me. That I am his perfect little girl so that on the day I need him not to be watching, I can do something like this.

As everyone said, he is in the market today. He is a big man. The kind that takes up space in every direction that he can. It is not just how tall and fat he is, but how he pushes people out of the way when he walks. How he spreads his legs and takes up more room than he needs whenever he has to sit with anyone. How he talks, loudly and over people, dismissing what they have to say and replacing it with his own useless words. Whatever he does, he wants – no, he needs someone else to give way. So this is the way of a god.

I cannot believe I did not realise the obvious until I saw this man. The journey of the gods should have been clear to me from the beginning. If you can no longer be a god, where do you go? If you need people to worship you, you need them to look up to you, to ask you for things, if you need to rule them, where do you go? It’s so obvious, isn’t it? You go into politics.

This politician, this god, has been around a lot lately. Elections are near and so must he be if he wants to be president again. Today he is walking in the market, accepting gifts of food and vegetables and speaking with everyone he encounters. Everybody simply calls him God Papa, after the large cowboy hats he’s always wearing. God Papa, not subtle at all.

“God Papa,” I call out.

He turns towards me. He was talking to a market woman and the crowd stands a distance away from him so he is surprised to see me approach unbidden. Still, he breaks out in a giant smile as I expected. I have seen him on TV often and he likes to lift and hug the children that come to him. I notice something about him now that I am this close. His many gold rings look ready to disappear beneath mounds of rising flesh from his fat fingers. His silver belt buckle is barely visible as his belly extends over his waist, obscuring it. His trousers are bunched up at the groin, rising so they expose his ankles. It is like his body is trying to eat even what he is wearing. And there, in his fat fingers, he is holding a tomato.

“Little girl,” he says lifting me up, “how are you?”

I look up at him and whisper, “I know what you are.”

He looks confused by this or he acts it, but that is fine. I did not expect him to admit it. I have put a lot of thought into this, into how this should play out. How I will reveal he is a god. The gods have not stayed out of sight just to reveal themselves because a child wills it. They must be forced to. Given no choice in the matter. Only then can I ask them where my mother is.

“What…” He cuts short because I pull out a pocket knife and stab him with it.


The day I am checked into the mental health care facility, my father cries. This is the first time since all of this started that I doubt myself. I have never seen him cry. Not even when my mother left. He says that he is sorry. He is also sober.

God Papa nearly bled to death. I stood there with his blood dripping down my hand and my only thought was how I had to start looking again. My only feeling at that moment, was that of disappointment at his not being a god. Still, I asked him about my mother. He just cried. As I watched his blood spread on the ground, I thought about how they said gods drank what was poured into the soil. Maybe I really have lost my mind.

I don’t remember much of what happens next. I meet doctors and nurses and they say things that I don’t pay attention to. They change me, and show me to a room and I just go with the flow of everything. What does it matter now? Something is wrong with me.

When I am alone, I think a lot about abandonment. How we abandoned the gods and where they went. How my mother abandoned us on a journey to find the abandoned. How my father abandoned me without going anywhere, but by letting his mind wander instead. And then there’s me. Where have I gone? Who have I abandoned? I think of all these journeys we have taken and it occurs to me that I know where the gods are. They are like me, like my father, like my mother. We are all of us lost.

And none is more lost than me. Time just seems to disappear and I find myself in places not knowing how or when I got there. I find myself sitting in the cafeteria, looking at unappetising food. Everything feels weird, fuzzy. I can hardly think. Is it the medication? Or worse, is it me? Is this what has been happening to me? I look at my plastic fork, stabbed into a slice of tomato. The juice reminds me of the blood on my hands. Gods – God – I am insane.

“Hello young lady,” says a voice and I look up to see an old man sitting there, across from me. He wasn’t there before, was he? Was he?

I ignore him.

“Why are you crying?” he asks.

He is right. There are tears rolling down my face, I hadn’t noticed. Still, I ignore him.

“Are you a mute?”

“What do you want?” I snap. Why is he bothering me now? Can’t he tell I want to be alone?

“What do I want?” he seems puzzled by the question. “I want many things. I want to hear old songs, I want the anticipation of smelling a slowly roasting goat, I want to return to the mountain. But here, now, I want to know why a girl so young has been brought here to us and why she cries.”

“Will you leave me alone if I tell you?”

“I might,” he doesn’t sound like he means it because he smiles widely, mischief dancing in his eyes.

“I am here because,” I pause but decide I will not be ashamed of it. It was my purpose, it was what I chose, it was me. “I am here because I was looking for the gods.”

“Oh,” he says and nods to himself. “Did you find any?”


“Gods. Did you find any?”

I look him over, he is a patient, a crazy person. But then, how can I judge him for that? It appears, in the end, that I am one too.

“No.” I say bitterly. “I am done with them.”

“Why would you say that?” he appears very shocked by my words, offended even. As if I have said something truly terrible and unforgivable.

“They can’t be found. I understand that now.”

“You shouldn’t give up so easily. If you go looking for gods, you will surely find them eventually. Gods like those who seek them. They like dedication … and sacrifice.”

“I looked,” I wipe away my tears. “I looked and I looked and I found nothing.”

“Are you sure about that?” Something about how he says it makes me look up at him again. He doesn’t look crazy. There is a clarity in his eyes, like he knows many things that others do not.

“Where are they then?”

“If you were a god, if you had known and felt love like nothing before and then lost it. If the only people who once loved you left you without explanation or forgot about you, acted like you didn’t exist. What would you become? What would happen to you?” This man is mad, there is no doubt about it now. The clarity in his eyes is gone and the sheer intensity of the insanity that lies there now shocks me. He motions around the room. “If all that happened to you would you have to go?”

“I don’t know!”


“How do you know my name?”

“Is there anyone who does not know the name of the girl who sheds the blood of presidents?”

I snap my mouth shut at that.

“Wangare, in this new world, if the gods told anyone who they were, the things they have seen, there is only one place they could be taken. I am saying that maybe, just maybe, you are in the right place to find gods.”

I understand. Finally, I understand. I look at this man. He is amused by my reaction, he is toying with me, but is he wrong? He said that it takes dedication to find the gods, I have been dedicated, that it takes sacrifice, I have spilled the blood of presidents for the gods to drink, haven’t I?

“Are you a god…or are you mad?”

“What do you think, Wangare?” His smile cuts across his face slowly, showing all of his teeth. It is a frightening and wild expression,  It is an expression that says…why not both?

The old gods are not doctors or politicians. They are abandoned, dismissed and forgotten and it has broken them. They have lost their minds. I see now how this was the only way to find them, the gods have always demanded emulation from those who seek them. The gods are mad and it appears that even in this, their believers must follow. To the promised land through the asylum.

“Where is my mother?” I do not want to ask, but I must.

The old man, the god, raises his palm before his face and studies it as if he has never seen it before. He closes it into a fist and says, “Have you looked for her?”

I am about to reply, and then I see a woman behind him. She is standing at the window, looking outside. I am not sure I recognize her figure, she is bigger and fatter than my mother, but the way she stands..she stands there, leaning so far outside the window that I think she will fall. Like she sees something out there so full of wonder, that even to fall outside into it, would be worth it.

It is like seeing the past repeat itself, but it has gone the long way round and it carries the burden of time and the journey openly. Is it her? My breath is slow, almost wishing, almost praying but I am too shocked to do either. Can it be? Seekers know there are few things more frightening than almost having an answer. The unknown burns but is a pain carried with the knowledge that it can be healed. The known, once grasped, can never become unknown again.If it burns, it must be carried forever.

The sun bursts into the room brighter and blinding, as the woman leans back from the window — and turns around.




Manes & Dandelions by Kevin Rigathi

[The below is an excerpt from Manes & Dandelions, A novella by Kevin Rigathi, available in 2020 from Will This Be A Problem]


I. Unexpected Trespasses

Nairobi City, in the year 1992

The first thing I learned about my master was not to question him, however tempting it might be, until it became absolutely necessary. You see, Master Zalo was an eccentric. He had cultivated a deep and intimate relationship with strangeness and it was best not to come between them. Questioning his behaviour was simply an invitation to get swept away in the bizarre. It was better to spare your questions, pick out the right one and deploy it at just the right moment to learn what you needed to.

It was for this reason that I said nothing when he woke me up in the middle of the night and demanded that I make myself presentable. I even held my tongue as I was bundled into the vehicle and throughout the long drive into the city. As we climbed onto the street outside the McMillan Memorial library, I will admit to a growing curiosity but I did not submit to it. I kept my questions in check, my will steeled and my patience sharp — but even I had my limits.

“Are you trying to break into the library?” I hissed, suddenly alarmed.

“That started like a question,” Master Zalo said while tugging at the lock, “but I would bet my left testicle that it was just an observation. And not even a good observation, just one of the obvious ones.”

“Why are we breaking into the library in the middle of the night?”

“As opposed to  in the middle of the day?” He shook his head, “honestly Lihanda, What would be the point of that? It wouldn’t even be locked.”

“That’s not w…you’re just being evasive.”

“Another obvious observation,” he took a step back from the gate and motioned vaguely in my direction. “Behold, Lihanda the great observer, announcer of all in plain sight. Tremble ye with work on thy hands for his interruptions knoweth no end.”

I seethed but it brought me back to my senses. Asking anything now would do no good. Instead, I looked out for any passersby and wondered what this would look like if anyone actually showed up. A twelve year old boy standing awkwardly on the street and a truly peculiar old man who was now picking the lock to the gate. I made up half of this little spectacle and even I didn’t know what to make of it.

“Unbelievable,” Master Zalo clucked his tongue. “Someone actually used magic to get past here. How frivolous. Probably Omare, he was always impatient.”

My ears perked up at the mention of magic. My master spoke of it so rarely that it was easy to forget that he was one of the last Great Magic Keepers.  Or so he claimed anyway. I believed him on most days but in truth, I had only seen him perform magic once and I had barely been six years old. It was hard not to question what a child’s eye had seen so long  ago on such a traumatic day. And Master Zalo, well, he didn’t do much to inspire confidence in the idea that he was an agent of secret and ancient powers. Even looking at him now was enough to shake faith in that idea.

As always, he looked ridiculous. While the dark fabric of his suit was striking, with the embroidery on his waistcoat in particular being exceptionally fine, it was all poorly tailored. The sleeves were too big, the hem too long and it was far too tight around his extended belly. This was not an exception, every one of his suits was made of prime materials but was uniquely awful in its own way. I suspected that he had found a way to deeply and irreconcilably offend his tailor. His most striking feature though, was his hair. As was his habit, half of his great afro was combed and styled  backwards while the other half had been left to its own devices. Today he had even dyed the unruly half into a rich black but had seemingly got bored with the process and just left the rest as its usual blend of grey and white.

“There we go,” whispered Master Zalo when the lock gave a satisfying click and popped open. He returned his lapel pin turned improvised lockpick, a lovely golden thing in the shape of a dandelion, to his blazer. It was one item he always wore and seemed to have endless uses for. “Step in boy, we’re already late.”

As I walked towards the building, Master Zalo placed a hand over my shoulder. “Now, as we go inside, I think it’s important for you to know why we’re here”

“Really?” I said not even trying to  conceal my suspicion. “Just like that?”

“Of course. Do you think I would keep information away from you just for the sake of it?”

I gave him a flat stare.

“Fair enough,” he smirked, “ But there is a reason this time”

We stopped before the great doors of the library and he turned to face me.

“You are to be  my apprentice but you are not yet a Keeper. I can speak secretly but…” Master Zalo pinched my earlobe, “your ears do not yet know how to hold information so that no one else can hear it.”

It would have sounded like his usual nonsense except that he actually seemed serious. “Here, I can speak openly. There are magics at work to hide my words from eavesdroppers.”

I could only think of one thing that could require this level of secrecy and excitement flickered to life in my chest. “Is this where you actually start teaching me magic?”

“No but also yes.”


“Don’t look at me like that; I’m not being evasive. No I will not teach you magic tonight but this is about you learning magic. So, yes, it is finally time.”

My master had taught me much but it had little to do with magic. My lessons had been on rhetoric, philosophy, history and music. Especially music. Everything from musical theory to obscure facts of trivia and the ability to play ten, soon to be eleven, instruments had been drilled into my head. I had always secretly resented all of it. I had wanted to believe that the wait was for a good reason but it had seemed too much like a way to keep me under control. Knowledge withheld simply because he knew I wanted it and would do what he wanted to get at it. But at least it seemed, the wait  was now over.

“Finally,” I pushed a finger into his chest playfully. “I was beginning to think that this was all just a crazy plan to turn me into a musician.”

“That is not as far from the truth as you might think,” he chuckled. “The distance between magic and music is but a small one, a fact you will see in time.”

“I honestly can’t tell if you’re being serious or you’re just being odd.”

“More serious and more odd than you can guess.  As for why we’re here. I have been preparing your mind for magical thinking but, before you can proceed to practical magic, there are forms that must be observed.  I must seek permission. ”

“Permission? From who?” I could not imagine Master Zalo asking for permission from anyone. He generally did whatever he pleased regardless of what other people thought.

“Who else? The other Keepers. This is important enough that every single one  of them must weigh in.”

I blinked. He had told me that magic was an endangered art and that few could do it. Including Master Zalo, there were only six Great Keepers left in Kenya. He used to say seven but some years ago, he changed it to six without explanation and ignored every question about it.

“Now you understand the secrecy. A gathering of the Keepers in one place can be a dangerous thing for us. So much can be lost so quickly.”

“So there are things that can threaten even the Keepers?”

Zalo frowned and I had to keep myself  from stepping back as the grooves and wrinkles on his face twisted into a dark expression.

“A Keeper disappeared without a trace and so it would seem there are.” His face slowly inched away from the frown. “But that is a tale for another day. For now, we must complete the test and formalize your apprenticeship.”

I felt the prickling smell of kerosene and burnt rubber that always came with my anxiety and panic fill my nostrils.  A test? What did I need to know? What if I failed? Were there consequences to knowing about magic if you failed? “You haven’t taught me anything. I don’t…”

“It’s not a test for you,” he laughed. “You know nothing worth testing for. The test is for me. I must prove that I have earned the right to teach you.”

“How can you not have the right? You’re one of the Great Keepers. Doesn’t that mean you can do whatever you want?”

“Whatever I want? Power does not mean that one should just do whatever they want Lihanda,” Zalo chastised. “In this case, doing magic only shows that I can learn it. I must show why I should be allowed to teach it. As you can imagine, a poor teacher can be a dangerous thing in this. I must prove that I don’t just do magic, I understand it. They expect me to demonstrate new magic…or lost magic. It must be a discovery.  Something that can only be accomplished by tireless work and true understanding of the ways.”

“So you have to put on a magic show and wow them?”

“You actually manage to make that sound blasé. But yes, I have to wow them with magic, but it is not just magic. It is also control, it is presentation, it is character. It’s kind of  like a job interview actually. ”

“That seems like a lot to go through every time someone wants to have an apprentice. Isn’t it a bit…much? What if there were a hundred or a thousand Great Keepers, they would all have to come?”

“Maybe this is why we don’t have a hundred Keepers in the first place,” Zalo smiled. “It is a necessary inconvenience. Magic can be a dangerous art and we have to make sure it is in the right hands. Because the students are young, and they can change who they are, the best way to be certain is to make sure the teacher is right. The teacher is often more important in determining the outcome than the student. ”

“Alright,” I said. “And what happens if you don’t pass then?”

Master Zalo smiled wickedly. “For your sake, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“For my sake? Not for yours?”

“I’m a Great Keeper. I can call upon the powers of Old Zimbabwe and the Kingdom of Benin at a whim,” he said opening the doors. “You on the other hand, are a prepubescent with the power to endlessly point out the obvious. In a pinch, I like my chances, yours….”

He trailed off and the walls of the library echoed and amplified his laughter.


II. A SemiCircle of Keepers

McMillan Library, in the year 1992

We were in an expansive room somewhere inside the library. Somebody had moved the shelves and shaped them in a large semi circle, spacing some wooden chairs to match the shape. The rest of the room had been left bare which only served to emphasize just how much space there was. The room was unsettlingly tall, almost like two rooms had been stacked upon each other, and ornate patterns were carved into the ceiling. Chandeliers hanging from fraying ropes dropped halfway down the too tall space and they glowed with the lustre and inconsistency of  especially bright candles. Like the other Keepers, Master Zalo was already seated and I was standing behind him listening to his whispers.

“You see her? That’s Bibi Kivoi.”  He nodded his head in the direction of the oldest person I had ever seen. I would never have believed that so many wrinkles could sit on a single face had I not seen it for myself. If her eyes were open, it was impossible to tell. “No one is brave enough to ask how old she is but I suspect she is the last of the true Keepers. Before much was lost.”

“That one is Sach Ooraan.”  I tried to think of it more generously but in truth,  this man looked homeless. His clothes were torn, more than a little dirty, and he seemed to be a few bad days from being malnourished. “If you speak to him he would prefer you not use any titles like mister or master or even sir. He hates that. It’s just Sach Ooraan. It means, where the two roads meet.”

Zalo paused and considered the man distastefully. “What a pretentious boob. You can’t pretend mister is too formal and then name yourself after a cryptic phrase. If you do speak to him, make sure you call him Master Sach Ooraan Sir.”

I stifled a laugh poorly and everyone turned to look at me. Master Zalo for his part looked as serious as he was capable of seeming, abandoning me to bear my shame alone.

“The woman is Madame Sita,” he continued when the room had settled again. She was a large, middle aged woman in an elegant blue and gold tunic dress. Every single one of her fingers held at least one golden ring. “Great woman, always good for a laugh, and she can drink anybody under the table. You’ll like her.”

Almost as if she could hear, Madame Sita smiled at him and shot a wink at me.

“The young man is Master Omare.”  I had been interested in Master Omare because he was the youngest person in the room besides myself. He looked no older than thirty. “Youngest to attain the rank of Keeper in generations, they say he’s a prodigy, but I think he’s just impatient. I mean, look at him, even his shadow is restless.”

I had not noticed his shadow until now. What I saw had me holding onto Zalo’s chair to keep from falling over. The shadow  was moving on it’s own. No, not just moving, it was trying to run away. It struggled against a thin chain around its neck that trailed across the floor and up the chair, where it stopped being a shadow, rising from the wooden surface as a black, wispy, half solid thing that Master Omare was gripping.

Zalo chuckled at my shock. “I would love to know what kind of magic would make your shadow try to flee from you. I’ve tried to chase mine away you know, and I’ve not yet cracked it. I wonder if he can make it do tricks.”

“Why don’t you just ask him?” I watched as the shadow stopped moving for a moment, turned and then ran in the opposite direction as far as the chain would let it. It did not seem to be sentient, everything about it was more like a wounded and frightened animal. I had been afraid of the thing at first but the more I watched the more I kind of felt sorry for it.

“He’s awfully secretive. Always has been, even when we were brothers.”

“He’s your brother?” This got me to look away from the shadow. “You have a brother?”

“Not brothers brothers but brothers. Apprentices who have the same master. He came to us when I was nearly already a full Keeper myself.”

I was about to ask where his master was but the look on his face made me think better of it. The seventh Great Keeper he never spoke of? Instead, I said “And who is the last one?”

“That is Laibon Mpesha. He is chairing the sitting of Keepers today. He’s the one we’re waiting for to start us off.”

Laibon Mpesha was a stern looking man and was the complete opposite of Master Zalo. He was bald, kept a precisely cut goatee and his suit was simple but a perfect fit. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be humming softly and holding a large leather case almost as tall as he was sitting down.

“Keepers,” he spoke without warning, his eyes still closed. His voice was low but it carried across the room with a distinct clarity. “It has been a long time since we have gathered. I hope the fates have been kind to you. May the echoes of the old songs find you.”

“And may your songs long carry echoes,” the Keepers said in unison.

“We do not meet lightly on this night, a matter of great import is before us. Master Zalo seeks to achieve the rank of teacher. He wishes to present new knowledge among us and plant the seed of a new keeper.”

“Boy,” Mpesha’s eyes opened suddenly already pointed in my direction.  “Please share your name with those gathered here.”

One of his eyes was milky white and seemed to have a worm swimming in it. The creature was only visible for a few seconds before it disappeared into the whiteness. I was so taken aback by the sight and had not even been expecting to speak that, for a few seconds, I forgot that I had been addressed. Master Zalo cleared his throat.

“Li..Lihanda. Leonard Lihanda.” I managed to get out.

“Young master Lihanda, how did you come to be acquainted with Master Zalo?”

“I…I was a street child,” I said, wondering if they already knew or this was new information. I felt the smell of kerosene and burnt rubber rising again. “Master Zalo saved my life from…he saved me and he took me in.”  I didn’t like talking about that day and quite frankly, even if these people were Keepers, they were still strangers. I would not share more than  I had to.

“Lihanda, your Master does you great honour to bring you and propose that you join our order. I do not know if you understand the gravity of it but it is a vote of true belief in you. No matter what happens here, you must become worthy of the faith that has been shown in your person. Do you understand?”

I gulped and nodded respectfully.

Laibon Mpesha nodded back. “Before we begin, let us hear from the other Keepers. They shall express their desires and expectations for Zalo’s performance..”

“For what?” Zalo snorted. “I have considered and worked on this for months, and I know you don’t honestly expect me to alter it because of some opinions that you are just now voicing.”

“It is tradition,” said Mpesha.

“Why should we maintain a tradition if it serves no purpose?”

“Tradition,” said Mpesha, some steel creeping into his voice, “is never pointless; or it would not have become tradition.”

Zalo lifted his hands in mock surrender and Mpesha, accepting that it was the most concession he was likely to get,  turned to the other Keepers inviting their opinions.

“From him,” croaked Bibi Kivoi after all the keepers had looked to her, “I expect something that I have not seen before. For one of Zalo’s potential,  I will accept no less.”

“Old as time and she says she wants something she hasn’t seen.” He was complaining but even whispering I could hear the excitement in his voice. He thought he could do it.

“This humble one’s expectation is only this,” said Sach Ooraan. “Something that will fuel the desire in all of us gathered here to better ourselves.”

Zalo grumbled under his breath but I caught the words pretentious and codswallop in his silent rant.

“There’s magic and there’s magic,” Madame Sita shrugged. “I’m here to see magic and I’ll know it when I see it.”

She nodded at Zalo and he nodded back.

“I would like to see…”

“Something that can tame a shadow!” Zalo loudly interrupted Master Omare.

“No.” Omare expression did not change with the practiced patience of someone used to dealing with master Zalo. His shadow however was staring at Master Zalo and was now slowly inching towards him.

“Really?” said Zalo making a poor attempt at seeming put down. He held his hand out to the shadow, beckoning for it. “But I made this for you I thought you would really li…”

“Please treat this matter with some seriousness Master Zalo.” Mpesha sounded weary. “Try to remember that we are here at your request. Carry on Master Omare.”

“I would like to see purposeful magic,” said Omare. “No spectacle, no cheap extravaganza, magic with a clear and meaningful application to better the world. It is the only way for Keepers to avoid the traps of selfishness.”

“Taming a shadow you have to keep on a leash seems purposeful,” grumbled Zalo but not loud enough to carry beyond my hearing. “And what the hell kind of expectation is that? Talk about trying too hard. When did he become so boring.”

“Very well,” Laibon Mpesa stood and propped the large leather case beside him.  “Zalo already knows what I  expect from him in this matter.”

“I do,” said Zalo.

The worm reappeared in his eye and started spinning in a circle until it had formed the broken outline of an iris. “Then let us begin.”


III. The Making of A Song

McMillan Library, in the year 1992

From the very first time I laid my eyes on one, the kora spoke to something deep within me that I could not explain. Even Master Zalo, in one of his meandering drunken rants, had called it the greatest of all musical instruments and West Africa’s gift to the world. It was a beautiful, complicated thing that was punishing to learn but rewarding to master. And so it was with utter fascination that I watched as Mpesha opened his case and revealed the largest kora I had ever seen. The round soundboard alone would have almost made it almost to my waist.

“He keeps his in the original form,” whispered Zalo, admiration in his tone. “See how there are no pegs to tune the strings. It uses konso,  those leather bands spaced along the neck, you move them to adjust tension. And he made it himself, you know.”

Zalo’s kora had been magnificent but Mpesha’s seemed to radiate with a grandess and dignity that could not be ignored.  It emphasized one of my favourite things about the kora, how it’s form defied the easy categorization of the western instrument classes.

You see, it’s general shape was at first glance somewhat in line with a lute or a banjo. It  was made from a large calabash gourd cut in half and wrapped tightly in antelope hide with a long  hardwood neck rising from it. However, it’s twenty one strings were divided by a bridge into two ranks, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right, more reminiscent of a double harp. But also, because of the bridge and its relation to the strings, it had the properties of a bridge harp. And further — well,  safe to say that it defied easy comparison. Academics had awkwardly classified it as a  ‘double-bridge -harp-lute.’ In other words, the kora was the kora.

Laibon Mpesha motioned to the instrument and said, “As you requested, Master Zalo.”

“It’s for you?” I asked. “Is this part of the test?”

“I told you music and magic are more closely related than you’d imagine.”

“You’re going to do magic with a kora?” Feeling I had not adequately expressed my incredulity, I decided to add, “a kora?”

“Music is the greatest known conduit for magic and there are very few keepers whose craft is not founded  on music.” Sensing my skepticism, he added. “ Music has always had power. The power to touch the soul, to move the heart, to lift the spirit and for those of us who know how, the power to transform the world itself. What is music but an attempt of man to imitate the language of gods?”

The idea of musician magicians was odd to me but Master Zalo was already standing before I could ask more questions. He carried his chair with him, placing it in the middle of the room before reaching for the instrument and holding it with great reverence.

“Thank you Laibon Mpesha. You can trust I will treat this with the seriousness it deserves.”

Laibon Mpesha nodded and stepped back. Zalo ignored the chair he had carried and sat on the floor, positioning the wide instrument between his knees. He trailed his fingers across the wood delicately before positioning his hands to play. The room fell silent and you could almost feel everyone’s attention falling onto Master Zalo and the kora.

Master Zalo’s fingers hovered over the strings and stopped. He breathed in deeply closing his eyes and then — there is no other way I can think to describe the feeling except — the silence came alive. It poured out from the kora, filling the room until it was suffocating. My body tensed and I dared not breathe or make even the slightest sound in the face of this overpowering silence. It felt like a warning. The silence had reserved itself for the music that was to come and it wanted us to know that we should not dare sully it with any other sound until then.

Finally, when it felt like I couldn’t stand it any longer, when the growing tension was unbearable, Zalo strummed with his left hand. The vibrations crossed into the silence and crashed into me, moving past like a wave in the ocean. His fingers carefully plucked at the strings and the notes fell all around us like sharp, melodic drops of rain.

It was like nothing I’d ever heard. The song twisted and flowed around me in ways that felt tangible and before I knew it, I was lost in it. I felt adrift in time unable to find my bearings between the seconds and minutes and finding that I didn’t care. I thought I’d heard music before but this was music. It was like listening to a child trying to learn words and thinking that was speech your whole life and then for the first time hearing a master orator speak. Learning the true depth of a thing when all you had ever known was a pale impression of it .

Master Zalo’s words echoed in my mind.

Music has always had power. The power to touch the soul, to move the heart, to lift the spirit..

I’d heard such sentiments before and accepted them, but now I felt them. You could not listen to Zalo’s song and doubt that you had a heart or spirit or soul because you could feel it as the music held and shook them.

…and for those of us who know how, the power to transform the world itself.

The sound stopped. Do not mistake me, the music continued to play but the sound disobeyed the laws of physics and stopped.  Sounds normally started at a point and moved outwards fading the further they  got away but not these ones. Zalos’s sounds stopped spreading further than the edge of the room, they did not fade, they simply lingered in the air. It is something that must be heard to be understood but I will try my best to put it into words. It was the auditory equivalent of seeing the flow of a river slow and still before your eyes. Motionless sound.

Master Zalo switched melodies and this had a strange effect on the song because the new sounds found older sounds waiting for them and they merged and compounded. With every addition, from strums to plucks to strikes of his palm on the soundboard, it was like a new artist was playing with him, each one a master musician. Some sounds he released and let fade replacing them with an improved version of what had previously seemed like a perfect tune, and I was staggered by his virtuosity.

It was like there were two opposite forces clashing and blending to form his performance. On one level he surrendered to the magic and the music and let them use him. He gave them his dedication and acted as a vessel. It was submission, it was devotion. But on another level, he was still in command. The magic submitted to him and obeyed his will. It served under his control. It was  — domination. He was devoted to the magic and it was devoted to him in return, he dominated it and it dominated him. Control and surrender, domination and devotion, opposites and reflections circling back on each other to create.

Finally satisfied, Master Zalo  stopped playing and adding layers to the beautiful tapestry of music he had created. For a moment, he enjoyed the music along with us, taking it all in without the burden of creating it. He nodded and smiled contentedly. Whatever combination he had been seeking, it seemed he had found it. With a slow beckoning motion, he gathered the sound to himself; the music moving and fading towards him…no, towards the chair in the middle of the room. I could hear the music now  as if from a distance but I could tell that it had coalesced into something like a ball above the chair Zalo had placed there.

Zalo looked around at all our stunned faces, delight clear on his face. I was glad to know that I was not the only one bewildered by what we were witnessing…hearing…feeling. I had long lost track of what sense was being tugged at.

Making a whistling sound, Master Zalo plucked a single string on the kora and it felt like the ball of music popped. I know I did not blink, even with all that was going on, I can be certain of that. Even so, it felt like I had blinked and missed a precious second because there was now a woman sitting on the chair, staring at the rest of us with an amused expression on her face.

To be continued




Nyembezi’s Funeral By Jerà

The verandah steps were too steep for a safe passage. I sat with elbows propped on the armrests of my wheelchair. I was grateful that the drizzle had abated. From the foot of the raised verandah, I could hear the gentle throb of an African drum, counterpointed by the chook-chook of rattles and the sombre singing of female voices inside. Hatina musha panyika, this earth is not our permanent home, they sang.

Father entered alone through the front door. A moment after he had vanished into the house the women broke into screams, wailing with a renewed feeling of bereavement. He returned, some minutes later, with a thickset woman in a maid’s uniform. I recognized her as the Bhebhes’ housekeeper. She bent her knee slightly and held her arm at the elbow in deference, as we shook hands. She led us round the back where, she assured us, the kitchen entrance had a single shallow step.

Beneath the steel cover of the carport, there was a log fire ablaze and two young women, both wrapped at the waist with java cloths, one of them a dark-skinned buxom lass of about 20 and the other of a slighter frame, slightly younger-looking, stirring sadza in a sooty three-legged pot. Flames rose against its black sides like a yellow-red glove, igniting mental images of witches and cats around a hearth and gnarled occult fingers tossing into the sooty cauldron an eye of a newt and the wing of a bat. It was a most inappropriate choice of cookware, I thought, for the burial of one whose life had been lost to sorcery.

The brows of the two girls were speckled with perspiration and the upper incisors of the bigger girl were resolutely sunk into her lower lip, as she laboured to stir her stick in the hissing sadza. A gentle breeze caught their colourful wrap-over cloths, blowing them against their ankles. A bag of mealie-meal, with the pull-string hanging from its open rim, stood near the crackling fire. A bovine head, a young bull, by the length of its horns, sat in a large steel bowl, with a glazed look over its unblinking eyes. Its sandpapery, grey tongue dangled from between its clamped jaw. Another bowl held the fingers of tripe, with intestines wound tightly; a girl of about thirteen hovered over the bowl, wielding a small tree branch, swishing at the buzzing flies. Four, five, six heads of cabbage, the standard relish for every Zhimindi funeral meal, peeped from open supermarket plastic bags.

A man dressed rather like he could have stepped out of a pub – scotch wool paperboy cap, leather jacket, bristly salt and peppered chin, paunch overhanging the belt of his blue jeans, worn with incongruous white-toed black formal shoes – approached the girls.

Nyama yevarume iripi?” (Where is the men’s meat?)

The bigger of the two cooks, running the back of her wrist over her sweat-sheened forehead, pulled her cooking stick out of the sadza and balanced it over the rim of the cauldron, compelling her cohort to pause stirring. The moment the stirring stopped the sadza hissed like air from a punctured tyre – pfffff. She bent her knees, in that awkward sideways manner a tightly wrapped java cloth sometimes imposes, and picked up a bowl, heavy with bull testicles still in their furry scrotum.

Genuflecting courteously, she handed him the dish. He nodded.“Right. We’ll skin the meat and grill it with the boys after the burial.”

According to Zhimindi custom, only the men can eat animal testicles.

We proceeded past the fire to the kitchen door where the housekeeper, with palms clasped, respectfully stood aside and allowed Father to lead the way. She went behind me and took hold of the push-handles of my wheelchair before easing me over the single step. We entered a small vestibule which held a table on which there was a telephone with a rotary dial. Ahead of us was a half-open door which, I surmised, led to the living room.

Through the open door, I saw two women, wreathed in black shawls and head wraps, leaning into each other’s chests, ear-to-ear, weeping, shoulders shuddering. Another’s face was crinkled with grief, wailing as she shook her head. Father’s entrance had the effect of making the womenfolk, in their doeks and java wrap-around cloths, mourn louder and hold the backs of their heads in apparent grief. From the vestibule, the drumbeat was louder, the chook-chook of rattles much crisper and the singing of women even more sorrowful. The housekeeper let go off the push handles of my chair and I propelled myself towards the partially open door which I nudged with the front of my shoe.

As the front castors of my wheelchair led the way into the living room, around which elderly men sat on sofas and plastic rental chairs pushed against the walls, with hats on knees and, in front of them, women seated on the floor, several eyes swivelled inside sockets towards the door and then came… silence.

A man hunkered down on the carpet with a drum between his knees stopped beating his mournful monotone. His hands froze midair above the shiny, tightly stretched skin, with thick brown fur on its circular edge and a shiny bald spot at its centre. Next to him, sat two middle-aged women, the rattle shakers, in Evangelical Lutheran grey and purple, with their rattles silenced. Like flaming arrows from the bows of archers, their stares stabbed into me. It was the awkward silence that, since I began using the wheelchair, preceded all my entrances into rooms filled with strangers.

The room had the odour of humans kraaled into a small space for too long and the floor was thickly carpeted, which made movement a muscular feat, as I went around shaking the hands of the mourners. Sweaty hands, calloused palms, powerful fingers, painted nails. I went from person to person, stretching out my arm to shake their hands, muttering my condolences – “nematambudziko, nematambudziko” – with each handshake. The words sounded increasingly hollow. As hollow as the little drum that had earlier beat the sombre tune. After my fifth-sixth handshake, the drummer resumed his mournful tune but the women did not resume their song. I dithered at the drummer, not sure whether to skip him. I feared that if I offered my hand I would disrupt the tune that was so vital to the song. Before I made up my mind he seemed to decide for me. He thrust out his hand, instantly killing the throb of the drum. I muttered the same words of condolence – “nematambudziko.”

After I had muttered the increasingly empty condolences over forty times, the housekeeper who, during the handshaking, had hovered at the door, leaned down to my ear and informed me that Mr Bhebhe was in his study, helping the junior reverend in preparing the burial sermon and would welcome my call.

She led the way and, as I wheeled around, I saw in the periphery of my vision, previously mournful heads turning, doek-covered foreheads leaning into one another and pointing with curious eyes, no doubt in speculation about my condition. As my rear wheels exited the living room, the singing resumed. The little drum, accompanied by the rattles, regained its throbbing momentum.

As I followed behind, I surmised that the housekeeper who had been in the service of the Bhebhes for a lifetime remembered me from 7 years ago when Nyembezi, who was 5 years old then, returned home, bruised, teary-eyed and hatless in the baking October heat. I was watering the plants outside the gate, it must have been the time of Sixpence’s annual leave when Nyembezi ran past me in tears. Behind her was a swarm of school children, one of them, a lardy little gremlin, triumphantly waving Nyembezi’s hat while leading a chorus of chants:

“White girl! White Girl! Musope!  Musope!

As the chanting mob gained ground on her, she let go of her bookcase and pumped her little arms as she ran. Some forty metres up the road, she frantically tried the gate at the Bhebhe home but it would not open. As she rattled the padlocked latch, the swarm of children, metres behind her, chanted even louder. “White girl! White girl! Musope! Musope!

My baby sister Angelica, also crying, walked behind the group, carrying Nyembezi’s pink bookcase, which she had earlier jettisoned in her flight from her tormentors. The chanting mob reached me. I turned the hose on them, before snapping a long slender branch off a munhondo shrub which whistled and swooshed down mostly on the fat kid who failed to outrun me, even with my diminished mobility. When I ended my pursuit, because the munhondo branch had snapped to an ineffectual  stump, I stood with the chunky boy wailing at my feet, where he was curled up in a foetal  position, with his chubby arms shielding his face, beneath a shower of angry saliva that fell on him as I spat out, “And let me ever catch you teasing her again!”

As the boy rose and bolted, screaming for his absent mother, I turned to see Angelica kneeling to pick up Nyembezi’s hat. Up the road, Nyembezi was still crying and pounding her little fist against the gate. When, eventually, the gate opened, a woman in a maid’s cap stuck her head out.

“What’s all the commotion?” she said, in a loud voice.

Without reply, Nyembezi stepped into the gateway. A moment later, she reappeared outside the gate and looked down the road where I stood, hosepipe in hand. She ran down the road and threw her arms around me, almost knocking over. She smelled medicinal, I assumed from her sunscreen. Still crying, she held onto me tightly for what seemed like a minute. Then she pulled away and ran back home, leaving wet spots on the front of my T-shirt.

The following day I waited at quitting time some distance from the school gate. I watched as the children filed out of the little pedestrian gate that Bright and I had walked through in our junior school years. I recognised two of the kids who had taunted Nyembezi the previous day. The startled looks on their faces suggested they had recognised me too. They scurried behind a hedge. Immediately after, Nyembezi emerged through the gate.

I spotted a boy whose blazer had the same braided prefect sleeves that I had worn in my final year at the school. I summoned him with a hooked finger. He ran over to me and tipped his hat as he approached. His face was rife with pimples.

“Good afternoon sir,” he began.

I did not return his greeting. The process of intimidation requires some degree of rudeness. I pointed out Nyembezi standing with a hand raised as though she was shielding her eyes from the sun.

“You see that girl over there?”

“You mean the Albino girl, sir?”

I scowled and the boy recoiled sensing my annoyance.

“No, I mean the girl carrying the pink bookcase. Is that what your parents taught you? To refer to people by offensive descriptions?”

“No, sir.” He said, shaking his head.

“Okay then,” I waved a finger over his acne covered forehead. “Pimply boy or boy in prefect’s blazer, which description do you prefer?”

He scratched his pustulent forehead and suddenly found something to gaze at between his feet.


He half looked up. “Prefect’s blazer, sir.”

“I’m glad we understand each other. Now…” I clicked my finger and the boy jerked his neck straight. I pointed to Nyembezi.

“That’s my little sister.”

“I’m sorry sir. I didn’t–.” I raised a hand demanding silence.

“You heard what happened to her yesterday?”

“Yes sir, I did. But I wasn’t part of–.”

My hand went up again. “If she ever comes home crying, whether out of being bullied or even from a bee sting, I will hold you responsible. Got it?”

The boy’s eyes bulged. He nodded twice. “Yes, sir. I’ll make sure she isn’t bothered.”

That evening, Nyembezi’s parents came to our home. They thanked my parents and congratulated them on “having raised such a wonderful young man.”

Reverend Bhebhe almost jerked my hand clean out of its socket as Mrs Bhebhe, with a dainty palm crushed against her heart, looked on.

When we entered the study, with its walls lined with neatly stacked ecclesiastical books, a thirtyish man, in purple Lutheran shirt, whose dog collar emphasized the narrowness of his neck, stood at the shoulder of Reverend Bhebhe, seated behind a desk with an open Bible before him. At one corner of the desk stood an easeled photograph, half turned towards Reverend Bhebhe. In it was the Reverend, his petite wife and a smiling Nyembezi, squinting, as she always did, with her grey-blue eyes asymmetrically focused.

The demeanour of the junior pastor, standing beside Reverend Bhebhe, was more manservant than clerical. His lanky frame was set into a butler’s dignified stoop. Only the Lutheran shirt and collar betrayed his pastoral position. His pronounced Adam’s apple, at the centre of his scrawny giraffe neck, was freakishly large, like he had swallowed Adam’s entire apple.

There is a Zhimindi proverb that goes “n’anga haizvirapi.” A healer cannot treat himself. Too grief-struck to preside over his daughter’s final service, the man who had probably read the last sermon – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – for many departed parishioners could not trust himself to speak at this funeral.

At the sound of the housekeeper clearing her throat, Reverend Bhebhe and his assistant looked up.

“Ah mwanangu!” Reverend Bhebhe said. “You have come to bid farewell to your little sister!”

He removed the steel-rimmed spectacles from the bridge of his nose, allowing them to dangle around his neck on a silver chain. His glasses left a depression on either side of his nose. He raised a solitary finger in the direction of the junior reverend, as though indicating that he needed a moment. The young clergyman politely mimed a “yes Reverend” and left the room, walking sideways to squeeze into the space between the door frame and my rear wheel. Bracing myself for an arm wrenching handshake, I wheeled forward and extended a hand across the desk to offer my condolences. He shook it feebly, like the obligatory handshake of a defeated boxer. His large hand felt limp, a dead fish inside my palm. It was a shadow of the bone-crunching handshake that had almost torn off my arm seven years earlier. His broad rounded shoulders sloped dejectedly. In his narrow eyes, where there was once a twinkle, the fire had been extinguished.

He held my hand longer than necessary, as though he had either forgotten to give back my arm or perhaps holding a familiar hand somehow strengthened him.

Nematambudziko,” I said.

Finally, those words took on meaning.

“Thank you Strive,” he replied feebly. “We are God’s clay pots. He can smash us if he wishes.” He shrugged his beefy shoulders. “What can we do?”

I didn’t think it was a question to which he expected an answer.

“Mother sends her condolences. She says you and Mrs Bhebhe are in her prayers. Grandfather is unwell so she couldn’t leave him alone.”

It was not a wholly truthful statement. Mother did not travel because she didn’t think she could bear the proximity of her home, in which another woman now lived.

“She telephoned earlier. Thank you for conveying such kind words.”

Then came a sharp intake of breath before he emitted a weary sigh.

“It was my mother’s idea to name her Nyembezi. I know now that names are prophetic. Some of my parishioners have asked me, ‘Reverend, how come there aren’t any more miracles like there were in Biblical times?  The feeding of the five thousand, Christ walking on water, the raising of the dead daughter of Jairus, with a simple Talitha cumi…’ But names are the modern-day miracles. Your brother Bright, such a shame.” He shook his head. “I pray for him daily. Is it not prophetic that he turned out to be an immensely gifted child after they named him Bright?  Nyembezi…” he sighed. A moment later he continued. “Tears. I wish I had named her Joy.”

He bit his lower lip and quickly looked away.

“My wife is inconsolable.”

When he turned back to me there was a watery film in his eyes.

“She blames herself. Grief and guilt. Never an easy mix to deal with.”

“Why does she blame herself?” I asked.

“She believes it is her fault that our little girl was butchered.” He bit his lip. “Hung on a hook, like meat, and had her beautiful eyes poked out of her face.”

“Hung on a hook?”

“Yes, the autopsy report says she was hung on meat hooks”. He looked up to the ceiling and sniffed loudly, holding back tears. “They hung her on meat hooks.” He stabbed a finger into his collarbone to demonstrate.

My hand instinctively went to my shoulder as if it were my own clavicle beneath which the cold steel hooks had entered. Then he shut his eyes as if trying to build a dam against the river of tears or to disappear from his painful reality.

“The albinism is from my wife’s side of the family. ‘I killed my daughter,’ she cries. My wife has cried since the afternoon that Nyembezi went missing. She cried when the police arrived, with their caps in their hands, to tell us that they had found her in the maize field. She is still crying. If my eyes are dry it is because I am out of tears. I preach Heaven and eternal life every Sunday.”

He laid his hand on the open Bible and stroked it, as if seeking a crutch to lean on.

“I cannot continue to mourn when, every week, I tell the flock that death for a believer means Heaven. Fibroids took away my wife’s fertility years ago. That is why Nyembezi is an only child.”

I couldn’t help but register that, despite her death; Reverend Bhebhe spoke of his daughter in the present tense, as though she was still living.

“My wife and I have mourned for a child we love, cried for a womb that is sealed, we have cried for grandchildren we will never see. We have cried for a graduation ceremony at which my wife will not ululate from the front row and a wedding at which I will never give her away. The flock, the parishioners –”

He paused and bit his lower lip.

The flock. Strange phrase, isn’t it?”
I did not think he expected a response. I sat in silence.

“A flock of birds? A flock of sheep? When birds in flight lose one of their own, they fly on, untroubled, not even checking for the bird that lies on the side of the road, with bits of it splattered on the car windscreen and its feathers floating gently down to earth. If only humans saw death through the eyes of a flock. It wouldn’t hurt at all. The parishioners look up to me and I must remain strong.”

Silence hung between us, only filled by the sombre song from the living room.

“Do the police have any leads?” I enquired pointlessly.

He shook his head with lips pursed before resting both elbows on the desk and placing the tips of his fingers to his temples. He had greyed a little since that visit to my parents’ house, seven years ago.

“Nyembezi spoke about you a lot you know – as much about you as she did your sister Angelica”.

He managed a feeble smile. I smiled back. Then he replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose before wheeling around in his swivel chair. I heard the squeal of a metal cabinet opening and shutting. He swivelled back to face me before placing a brown file on the desk. On it, in capitals, was the name NYEMBEZI.
“Every milestone moment of my daughter’s short life documented…” he placed his large hand over the file, as though he could feel her pulse beneath the brown paper. “Birth certificate, immunisations, catechism, school reports, none of them lower than second place, and now the file closes with this–”.

He lifted a sheet of paper which appeared to be a Photostat copy, then slowly stretched his arm out, like his elbow hurt, and handed it to me.

“It’s the pathologist’s report?” I glanced up at him. He nodded and looked aside.

My eye ran over the scientific prose:

“Chloroform present in body tissue. Two identical puncture wounds below each clavicle,entering trapezius muscles and exiting above scapulae. Toxicology report shows trace amounts of iron oxide present in both puncture wounds, suggesting victim was suspended by two iron hooks. Wounds occurred pre-mortem. Arms and legs severed at glenohumeral and acetabulofemoral joints respectively.  Incisions suggest cutting implement with serrated edge, e.g meat saw. Right clavicle has a stress fracture. Arms and legs severed post mortem. Eyes gouged out. Maggots present in eye sockets. Stomach contents are lettuce, bread, tomato. Consistent with contents of school bag found at scene. Based on size of larvae, body was dumped within approximately the last 72 hours. Hymen intact. No sign of vaginal or anal penetration. Cause of death was exsanguination.”

I re-read the autopsy report, seeking meaning, looking for logic in those cold, detached medical euphemisms – “puncture wounds… pre-mortem… hymen intact – and found none.

“Holes above each collarbone?” I asked, placing the sheet of paper back onto the table.

He pursed his lips, evidently suppressing emotion.

“The police think she was drugged and, while alive, hung on meat hooks…”. He paused, ran an index finger behind one spectacle lens, to wipe his eye.

“She was drained of blood while alive, but most likely unconscious, they assume to use the blood for muthi, along with her eyes and limbs. Police think the killer thought if he bled her out while she was alive, with her heart still pumping; it would be easier to drain the blood that way. Her body was discovered by a boy whose football had bounced off the road into the maize field. A pack of stray dogs was sniffing and yelping at her body from a distance.”

He removed his spectacles and wiped a hand over his face as if attempting to wash away the grief. Then he pinched the broad bridge of his nose, either to erase the grief or the twin indentations made by his glasses.

“Even hungry street dogs were too horrified to approach. No legs, no arms. In the eyes that held the most beautiful, prettiest smile, maggots squirmed and crawled.”

He shut his eyes as his voice trailed away on the final words of the sentence. His lower lip was caught between his teeth, as though biting down on the grief inside of him. Behind tightly shut eyelids, I sensed a battle raging between bravado and gravity. He unclamped his lip and it quivered. A heartbeat later, gravity triumphed over bravery. A tear squeezed through his eyelid and rolled down his cheek. He inhaled, and then his broad, sloping shoulders shook. A hand rose to his eye. His face twisted as jerking sobs seized him. I attempted to wheel around his desk to place a consoling palm on his shoulder. But there was no room to fit my wheelchair in the area between the wall and the desk.

He continued his speech between sobs.

“The undertaker has done a wonderful job. It would have been a closed casket funeral but he…” He paused. His Adam’s apple shuttled up and down, as though he had swallowed, then he continued. “The undertaker, after washing out the maggots and the grit, placed a metal ball in each eye hole before lowering the eyelids. To everyone who sees her at the body viewing, it will seem like she is sleeping peacefully.”

I watched him cry and I whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Sorry that those monsters slaughtered Nyembezi and hung her like she was a dead cow. Sorry I couldn’t fit my chair between that damn wall and his desk so as to comfort him. Sorry I wasn’t there to hose the kidnappers, chase them and beat them black and purple with a munhondo tree branch. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Nyembezi.

Will This Be A Problem Anthology 4: Announcement

Will This Be A Problem is proud to announce that issue 4 of the Will This Be A Problem Anthology will be released  in April 2020. Eight new stories from writers across the African continent. There will be singular dystopian worlds, chilling horror landscapes, sprawling urban fantasy and mind bending science fiction concepts.

We’ve put together some wonderful anthologies in the past but this one is certainly our finest and we can’t wait for you all to read it.

For now, we will be sharing the stunning cover art from Peter Marco and the table of contents — Including our winning story, Nonchalant by Cheryl S. Ntumy.

Nonchalant by  Cheryl S. Ntumy

The Sacrifice by Lauri Kubuitsile 

Counting Heads by James Kariuki

Nyembezi’s Funeral by Jerà

Where The Gods Go by  Kevin Rigathi

Asylum by  Olivia Kidula

Pieces of Wood by Peter Nena

Manes & Dandelions by Kevin Rigathi

Speculative Fiction: The Final List

It’s about that time of the year where we here at Will This Be A Problem present our annual anthology. This year, we tried something a little different from the usual. For the 2016 anthology, we opted to incorporate an open call for submissions. The theme was Speculative Fiction and we received stories from across the continent.

And so, I present the stories our judges picked for the anthology.

“The Mortuary Man” by Mark Lekan Lalude (Nigeria)
“What Happens When It Rains” by Michelle Angwenyi (Kenya)
“Future Long Since Passed” by Lausdeus Otito Chiegboka (Nigeria)
“The World is Mine” by Kris Kabiru (Kenya)
“The Real Deal” by James Kariuki (Kenya)

A bonus story from WTBAP:

“The Last History” by Kevin Rigathi

And the prize winning story –

“Rise of the Akafula” by Andrew Charles Dakalira (Malawi)

The 3rd issue of our anthology will be released in the coming days. For now, see this beautiful cover art by Peter Marco, based on the winning story.



Speculative Fiction Call Out

This time, we’re doing something a little different for the Will This Be A Problem Anthology. A public call out.

The theme this year is Speculative Fiction set in African countries and we will be accepting short stories from any African citizen.


Here are the submission guidelines.

  1. Your story can be Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Magical Realism, Alternate History or an unholy mash of any them.
  2. While your story must be set in an an African country, feel free to place it in any timeline you please. You may also set it in alternate versions of these countries. i.e. A Kenya that was never colonized.
  3. Our target length is between 2000-5000 words. However this is just a baseline, if the story is strong enough it can be longer or shorter.
  4.  Send your work to submissions@ in doc, docx, odt or rtf formats. Do not send it in the subject of the email.
  5. Send a small bio about yourself, what country you’re from and what name you would like the work to be published under.
  6. Only submit your original work.
  7. By submitting a story the author allows Will This Be A Problem to include it in the WTBAP Anthology should it be selected.
  8.  Submissions should primarily be in English though pieces of dialogue and the text may contain other languages.
  9. The submission should be previously unpublished.
  10. If your work is published somewhere else after the Anthology is released we request that you mention Will This Be A Problem as the first place of publication.
  11. Submissions close on the 1st of November, 2016.

The WTBAP anthology is provided for free. We do not make any money off it and thus we do not (as of yet) pay for submissions. However, this year, there will be prizes for our favourite story.

  1. If the winner is from Kenya, the prize will be:  Ksh 3,000 and the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology edited by Billy Kahora delivered from the Magunga Book Store
  2. If the winner is from any other country: 30$ paid via paypal and a kindle (or kindle app) book gift of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar OR Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

We look forward to seeing what you come up with.