Call For Submissions – Issue V

The Will This Be A Problem Anthology is back this year for its fifth issue, and we are once again looking for works of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy and horror by authors from the African continent.


Submissions open on midnight, 16th of February, 2024 (12:00AM GMT +3) and close on midnight, 16th of April, 2024 (12:00AM GMT +3). Stories submitted after the submissions deadline will not be considered nor will the writers be contacted.

The anthology is eligible only for African writers, 18 years and above. We define an African writer as:-

  • someone born in Africa,
  • someone whose parents (at least one) are African,
  • Africans in the diaspora.

Your story can be speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy or horror. Genre-mashing is completely fine, however your work must contain strong elements of these genres. We strongly encourage character-driven narratives and rich worldbuilding tied together with heavy African influences.

While we tend to gravitate toward the weirder and darker side of things, our aesthetic is always in flux. Our editorial team values risks, surprises, rude shocks, and voices that linger with us long after the story is done. We strongly encourage submissions from women, members of the LGBTQIA community, and members from other underrepresented and marginalised communities. 

We only care about the quality of the writing, storytelling ability, plot and ideas, not whether you are new or established. Only send us work you are proud of; if you don’t like it, our readers won’t! If you’re not sure whether your story is suitable, don’t query; please just submit it and let our editors decide.

Our target length is between 2500 and 5000 words. However this is just a baseline, if the story is strong enough it can be longer or shorter.

We are open to receiving stories around many themes, but we will immediately reject stories that feature any of the following:

  • Graphic depictions of rape or sexual assault.
  • Needless brutalization of women and children.
  • Depictions of brutalization or abuse of people with (physical and mental) disabilities.
  • Graphic abuse of animals.
  • Themes of necrophilia, paedophilia and other extreme taboo topics.
  • Casual, benevolent or blatant misogyny, bigotry, racism, or any form of decontextualized insensitivity.

We will not consider any of the following:

  • Simultaneous submissions.
  • Multiple submissions.
  • Stories above 10,000 words, including serialized novels or novellas.
  • Partial or incomplete stories. Please don’t send us part of a story and ask us to request the rest if interested.
  • Poetry, non-fiction, fan fiction, reprints, including anything posted on the internet and blogs.
  • Work that has previously been published.
  • Stories written, co-written, created, or assisted by AI and machine-learning languages such as ChatGPT. 

After you submit a story, we strongly prefer you don’t withdraw it. However, if you need to withdraw a story, please send an e-mail telling us that you need to withdraw, and let us know why. If you withdraw a story, we will not consider any version of that story in the future.

Send your work to as a single Word (doc, docx, odt. or rtf.) document. PDF’s are not allowed. Do not send it in the body of the email. The subject heading should be “WTBAP Issue Five Submission by <YOUR NAME>”.

Attach a short bio about yourself (100 – 150 words), what country you’re from and what name you would like the work to be published under.

Submissions should primarily be in English, though pieces of dialogue and the text may contain other languages.

If your piece is accepted, we will contact you 30 days after our submission deadline via email to confirm your interest in being published. Stories selected for the anthology will undergo editing, copywriting, and proofreading as necessary.


There is NO submission fee.

For this issue, we will be paying KES 12,000 or the dollar equivalent of the same for writers outside Kenya, for every short story accepted for publication. Money will be paid via M-PESA, PayPal or other viable money transfer platforms.

Payment will be 30 days after publication.

We look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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.”


Pieces of Wood by Peter Nena

[The below is an excerpt from Pieces of Wood, A novella by Peter Nena, available in 2020 from Will This Be A Problem]


Mary had a strange dream in which a man was standing over her. It was a large man of disproportionate size and shape, and whose shadow was as wide as the bedroom. His shadow was completely covering her and she could feel its weight pressing down on her. She was unable to move, to breathe. She woke up shuddering and choking, needing to cough but unable to, her lungs feeling dry, powerless. When she opened her eyes, she saw the shadow lifting itself from her and moving away towards the door. It was a nebulous monstrosity that might as well have been giant wings, gliding on the walls, on the floor, and on the ceiling, pulling itself along like a large sheet of cloth.

Mary sat up at once. She sprang up like a mechanical trap, all the sleep suddenly driven from her mind by conquering panic. She reached for the light switch beside the bed, but the light did not come on. She flicked it off and on, off and on again, but there was still no light. A blackout? she wondered. Now? How strange! She reached further beyond the switch to the stand that was there and groped for the torch which she kept for emergencies. She found it and flicked on its switch. The room flooded with sudden blinding light. The beam was powerful, the batteries new. The shadow had vanished, though. Mary was alone.

She listened for any intruders in the house but the only sounds were that of the clock in the living room which was clicking louder than usual and that of her own heart which had run amok in her chest. She had a moment to question herself about seeing the shadow, wondering how she could have seen it in a lightless room and if it wasn’t possible that it had been merely a crossover from her nightmare, her mind playing tricks on her. She switched off the torch to test her visibility and remembered that that the moon was full outside. Some light had somehow found its way into the house and was reflected on the white walls and ceiling, affording her a little visibility. She could distinguish dark shapes . . . which meant that the shadow had been real!

She got out of bed at the speed of light and went flying into her children’s room.

To her relief, however, her children were fine. They were all fast asleep. Esther had kicked away her blanket and was lying on her right arm which was folded in a manner that was likely to cut off blood supply. Mary turned her over and pillowed her head on the fold of her left arm. She covered her. Peter was lying on his back, breathing in spasms. If he had been any older than eleven, his mother suspected he would be snoring like his father used to. Mary turned him over too and drew up his blanket from his waist where it had slid to his neck. Morine was sleeping peacefully, being only six and a half years old.

Mary stood in the room without moving for several minutes after tucking in her children. She stood over them, said a prayer for them in her heart. Let God watch over them, she said. She was only a human being of flesh and blood, a woman in a male world, a widow. Let God watch over them. She thought of her husband, Lucas—whom she had loved dearly and whom she still missed with all her heart—thought of the horrible way he had died, thought of what her friend, Molly, had said about his death. She shivered. She felt a mixture of grief and dread, of longing and loneliness. Her face tightened and her eyes began to water. She let the tears roll down freely.

She returned to her bedroom and met with a strong presence. Somebody was in there. She froze at the door, suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of being near something too dark and too wicked to be contemplated. She could feel the hair on her head slowly rising; those on her arms and legs, too. They tugged at her skin as they rose, twitching, as if plucking themselves free. A cold thing with a million legs—like a millipede—snaked its way up her spine towards the back of her neck. Her heart descended to her stomach and started beating with frenzy. Her knees were melting.

Somebody was in her bedroom. The shadow was back, cast all over the place, the living shadow that could move by itself, as wide as the wings of some ancient flesh-eating monster.

Her mind firing like a crazed machine, insufferable terror upon her, Mary started retreating. She made only two steps before stopping. Where was she going? Where could she go? This was her house. She belonged here. Her children were here. She could not run and leave them. She had to defend them against enemies and intruders, seen or unseen.

Mary gathered up all her courage but found that she still could not move her legs.

When she could, after an eternity of immobility, she went a few steps past the door and flashed the torch into the room. The beam of light made a crazy, circuitous arc across the walls and the ceiling and finally landed on the bed. There was nobody that Mary could see with her eyes. She made a zigzagging motion with her hand, the beam bouncing unpredictably off surfaces, illuminating most of the room in no time, but there was still no one. Mary went inside.

“Our Father who is in Heaven,” she started. Her voice was quavering. It was dry and it hurt to speak. She swallowed in vain. She needed water.

“Hallowed be your name.”

She stepped further into the bedroom. The presence did not dissipate. It grew stronger. It pulsed around Mary, and the room was charged with it. It was an enormous thing in her house, judging by its force. The further Mary went into her bedroom the stronger she could feel it. She felt surrounded by invisible people, sought by invisible hands.

“Your Kingdom come.”

She flashed the torch behind the door. Nothing. Under the bed. Nothing. Behind the chest of drawers. Nothing. Inside the closet. Nothing. Along the corners. Nothing. She pushed aside the window curtains. Nothing.

“Your Will be duh . . .”

There was a man outside the window.

Mary saw him face to face, lit his horrid features with her torch. She drew back with a violent screech and almost fell backwards. She was quickly benumbed with terror and the torch dropped from her hand. Her gaze was held by the thing at the window and she lost her will to fight back.

The thing at the window was, and was not, a man. It had the bearing of a man, a big African man with a full belly and a broad face, except it looked wooden somewhat. Its body and lower parts of its face including its mouth and jaws seemed to be made of wood. Its stomach was not wood but its arms and legs were wood. Its head ended in a flat cylindrical shape just above its eyebrows, like the top of a stump that had been cut with a power saw. From the flat top of its head, Mary could see that the back of its head was wood. Its eyes were alive and bright, shining yellow in the spotlight’s beam. They stared unblinkingly at Mary, boring coldly into her, and she wished to shut her gaze from those heartless pits of hell into which hard, glassy orbs glittered with diabolic energy.

The thing had no clothes on except a ragged pair of shorts, so old that it seemed to have been dug up from a farm on a wet day. Its feet were bare and so wide that they gave the impression of being webbed. They were not wood but his ankles were wood. The thing looked like something that might have climbed straight out of a bottomless pit, giving off a foul, revolting force, a thing of consuming corruption and decay, of death and states worse than death.

Behind it, in the moonlight, Mary saw more wooden things standing there.

Overwhelmed, Mary started falling backwards in a faint. The thing put its right hand through the glass and quickly grabbed her left hand. The most unusual thing about this unexpected move was that the thing’s hand passed through the glass without breaking it, as though there were no glass. It held Mary’s hand for maybe one or two seconds and released it. Mary felt as if her hand had been gripped by savage jaws, clamping down on her bones with cannibalistic fierceness. She felt a quick sting on her wrist. The thing’s hand was too long and too cold, too stiff and unyielding. Like a piece of wood. Mary felt its rough edges, its crooked, broken form, its bark. It was wood.

Mary passed out.

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.

Book Review : Tropical Fish

The African short story is an established art form, as is the African storyteller. It is a comfortable format, requiring less commitment from both the writer and reader, but still delivering an engaging experience. In the case of Tropical Fish, an anthology from Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, eight stories are woven together into a satisfying whole. The premise: three sisters – Patti, Rosa and Christine Mugisha – come of age casually and normally in Entebbe, in a post-Idi Amin Uganda. He does not make a personal appearance (unlike the cleverly named President Munino) but his shadow looms long – Indians forcibly expatriated, roads unrepaired, universities descendent.

Tropical Fish

Against this background different moments are lifted from time to map the departure from childhood worlds invented for the fun of it to worlds invented for survival – the worlds in which adults take refuge. This larger scope is neatly encapsulated in the very first story, “Green Stones”, using Christine’s voice. The most introspective sister, Christine can be considered the main character, and in her memories we find the moments when sunlit motes turn from floating molten gold to signs that someone somewhere didn’t dust well enough.

The short story structure does leave a few moments of discontinuity – Christine’s later travels, for example, are of uncertain motive. Rosa and Patti are only a year apart and apparently attend the same high school, but seem bafflingly oblivious to each other. Certainly a sister’s presence in the same school would have had an effect on Patti’s suffering and Rosa’s experiments – whether helpful or not. Formative events also have no cumulative effect – once an episode is closed it is closed, with very little reference to it later.

Considered on their own, the short stories are all of good quality, varied enough in tone that different readers are bound to have different favourites. Special mention must be made of “A Thank You Note”, Rosa’s declaration of life and war. In this story as well as “Passion”, her voice is deliberate and bold in its determination to experience life through sensuality. “Thank You Note” in particular is wonderfully written, evocative and cynical and eminently self-aware. Talk about a refusal to go quietly into the night! It is defiant life screaming refusal at the abyss, Edith Piaf singing about regretting nothing, nothing at all. A life measured and accepted as hers, chosen deliberately and whose consequences are accepted with dignity. Against considerable odds, Rosa chooses her way and is satisfied.

This attitude is a key illustration of how calmly sex is handled in these stories – as something to be explored, tamed and ultimately owned through consent, experimentation and reproductive health. The tone is never preachy, and so natural curiosity and exploration co-exist comfortably with a  “lifelong training to catch a suitable mate.” It is treated with as much consideration as religion, something which takes much deeper hold with Patti than her sisters. Patti is not mocked or made out to be a fanatic, except perhaps by her less enlightened classmates. Ms. Bangaina, it seems, is commendably capable of allowing for multiple ways of being.

Indeed this multiplicity, a prime component of the immigrant’s arsenal, is something Christine struggles to gain when she leaves Uganda. Questions of identity and home arise in the final tales, where the romantic turns prosaic.  Christine dabbles in white men and goes abroad, and after a long sojourn as a foreigner, truly becomes one on her return. She is caught in the classic trap for those who try to carry home within them – the realization that this is the only place the home they visualise exists. Beyond this, then, what is one todo? Accept reality or change it?

When it comes to her questions of identity there seems to be the same self-consciousness present in much of African literature: an avoidance of the Western gaze so deliberate it sketches out a negative space that still identifies it. Here we are, Africans reading and writing about Africa, not anybody else.  The search for representation that we all feel consciously or not – is this what creates characters who search for missing connections in the novels they read? It grows into the self-conscious irony seen in the mild derision Christine feels for  Zac, who has convinced himself he is black American,  or in the crowd of bayaye  who yell insults at a white man in a language comprehended only by his black, female companion.

The inclusions of local language and games and food in the books we read are regularly recognised and remarked upon. And so for a book that chronicles the early experiences of young women – a description that would fit many of the books I loved when I was younger – I wonder what my reaction would have been to these inclusions if I read it then. Would I have so obviously appreciated them? Would they still be felt as a homecoming? Before I ever listened to Chimamanda and others wryly comment that Blyton gave no explanations for lacrosse or snow, before I ever met Achebe through curriculum-mandated set books – would I have just enjoyed the stories, free of the burden of analysis? And yet –  would that same self have picked this book off the shelf at all, or ignored it in favour of other options simply because it was written by an African and so probably not my thing?

In any event, meta analysis aside, I’m glad I read Tropical Fish, and would recommend it to anyone looking  for a good, quick read that is equal parts thoughtful and entertaining.

(Nairobi-based readers may buy a copy of Tropical Fish online  from

Book Review : Born On A Tuesday

“There is no moral. I just felt like telling you a story.”

Before narratives became a Buzzfeed-era buzzword, they were made of music and prose and poetry: vehicles of information as old as humanity itself. The world as we know it has amply provided certain types of narrative that as consumers we then modify with our own nuances. But the world is becoming both bigger and smaller and modification of a larger [mostly Western] narrative with a local flavour is no longer enough. We need to know about the other cultures that exist, islands like our own in a sea of Made-In-China-For-America pop culture. For this reason there are increasing calls for stories from the marginalized for the marginalized.


Born On A Tuesday by Nigerian author Elnathan John is one such story. Through its narrator Dantala we sit in on seven years in the life of a Hausa boy as he deals with challenges both ordinary and extraordinary. Dantala’s growing pains and joys take place in a radicalizing state in Northern Nigeria – a place arguably less fictionalized and explored in mainstream Nigerian literature than say Lagos or Enugu.

Elnathan John has been quoted as saying Northern Nigeria has no demand for nuance, which may explain the almost bare style with which he handles language and plot. Descriptions are perfunctory, deaths are banal, and violence is so casual that you can be halfway through a paragraph before realizing the people in it are under attack. It makes it hard to deeply engage with the events and characters, most of whom are sketched in broad strokes. Despite this a layered complexity is still present, especially in the depiction of the religious and political landscape.

As a reader with a Christian background in an increasingly Islamophobic world, it seems unusual to encounter a novel where the milieu is entirely Muslim, and positively so. There is a pervasive sense of community, especially in the calls to prayer and rhythms of life wherein resides the comfort and security that remains one of the chief attractions of organised religion. Questions of fate and the existence of evil, difficulties of interpretation and the resultant frictions are tackled in conversations  between characters as well as Dantala’s own inner voice. Thus, beliefs and tenets are explored that would otherwise be mere stereotype, or banners around which the non-Islamic world is called to rally in fear.

The mosque is a natural refuge for Dantala, one to which he often returns and finds succour.  His life is rooted in it, and while religion seems to hamper for him the excitements of his peers, he is perfectly happy to think himself above pursuits such as football and pranks. However, it also complicates his relationship with sex, which is very tainted in this book – the only sex that is described as worth a happy giggle is in an illicit affair, which is a shame. It is commendably inclusive, though, with sodomy being treated no more or less haram. Dantala is just as anguished by and afraid of homoerotic wet dreams as he is of his first sexual encounter with another person – a hand job from an unnamed female prostitute.

Perhaps it is these difficulties that lead him to treat women with none of the compassion we come to expect from him, and it is frustrating to read. It is hard to decide whether this is a reflection on the narrator, the society he lives in, or the author. Female characters in the book play one of two roles:  either mother/provider, or whore. Interestingly,  Aisha, the main love interest, manages to be both. While still in her dimpled, big-breasted maidenly bloom, she reminds Dantala of his Umma, but once she is married sports a gold Mecca tooth, as last seen in – surprise, surprise – the prostitute’s mouth.  Women suffer in the sidelines of this book, which in itself is not unusual as everyone does. However, they are denied any means of survival apart from being long-suffering and enduring. In a book already short on levity there is painfully little female laughter.

To describe this as a coming of age story is inaccurate, as everything Dantala will become by book’s end he already is when we first meet him under the kuka tree. He is unhappy with the world as it exists but his fatalistic acceptance of it allows him to move through time and space with resilience. It is this resilience and instinct for survival that make sure there is a story to tell at all. His escapes from peril mean there is always a new episode in a rather circular repetitive life, and against considerable odds the book manages to end on a note of continuity – life goes on, if and as Allah wills it.


Overall this scores a ⅗, and would probably score higher if it passed the Bechdel.
(Nairobi-based readers may buy a copy of Born On A Tuesday online  from