V: A Place Called No Return

“Sheeeit!!!…” Cursed the voice at the other end of the line. Lenana quietly hung up on the deranged lunatic without a word. Shanni watched him from her spot in the living room. She knew instinctively who it was. It was her younger brother, Crush, and she wasn’t about to ask questions. Not now. Yet it disturbed her that Lenana always kept such a calm whenever crack-head Crush called. But then again, he kept such a calm over everything else. The battlefield in his head remained an enclosed area. Whatever casualties suffered the venomous arrows of his thoughts died and were secretly buried right in there. Shanni shuddered at the thought that her husband’s mind was a cemetery of suffocated thoughts.

Shanni’s own thoughts danced on the tip of a pin. This man… he never cries, never curses, never goes into tantrums. Once he was loving, but that was before he acquired the green card from marrying me… And just then, Lenana spoke. He clenched his fists ever so subtly and looked hard at a spot suspended somewhere in space, his eyes narrowing with silent venom.

“One day I will kill him,” he announced. He turned slowly to face her, and spit the venom right in her eyes, “What’s wrong with you people?”

The sting did not bounce off her skull, neither did it dissipate somewhere in mid-air. It went right through, searing its course into the chamber where she filed all insults she was too afraid to deal with. But the chamber was full, jam-packed with archived disrespects. There was no more room, like a slave ship bursting at its seams with stolen humanity. Their weight tittered on the point of a pin, swaying back and forth, unable to maintain their balance, threatening to come crushing upon an impervious husband who had just added the last straw.

Shanni let out a primal scream. Lenana ran out of the house in mortal fear; he didn’t know what just hit him.

In the silence that followed, the door to that chamber mercifully started to close again. She sat back and calmly allowed the peace to return, breathing evenly as the thump-thump of her heart slowed its pace. She wondered if that is what they called “a moment of insanity”, that split-second window of time where the most gruesome unmeditated murders happened. She quietly turned her attention to an afternoon movie on TV, and stared at it for long without seeing it.

She had no idea how much time had elapsed before the first contraction came. She waited to see if it was just a false alarm. But they only increased in pace and intensity. She knew it was time. She called Lenana on his cell phone.

Lenana looked at the caller ID, saw it was Shanni, and hung up. He will accept apologies when he got home. What was that mad scream all about? The woman is nuts. She was getting to be as cuckoo as her brother. Aagh… the thought of Crush made him sick all over. At twenty-five, that man had a rap sheet a mile long. There was always the one person that fulfilled the stereotypes and pulled everyone’s reputation down with him. Shanni had class, he will give her that. Now that Crush was a vagabond in Minnesota, he kept calling to ask his sister for money, and more often than not, she obliged him, asking her brother to come by the house. She would give him a long mama-lecture, he would promise he needed the money for food or rent. Foolishly, Shanni would send Crush off with enough to give him a good fix for the night. Whenever Lenana answered the phone and heard Crush’s drunken “whazzup bro”, he would ask him curtly, “what do you want?”, and Crush would open a tirade of insults on him, calling him a penny-pinching African who saw money for the first time when he came to America. That insult never added up because Crush would yet again accuse Lenana of having bookoo money because he came from some Lay-bon Kingdom that financed his way to America and “Shanni done tell me all about it and she ain’t fuckin’ lyin’ coz she got a education and she knows shit like that.” Shanni knew Crush blew a lot of things out of proportion, but that secretly, he admired Lenana. Lately, Lenana had begun to find a soft spot for liquor.

His cell phone rang again. It was Shanni. He hung up. He was enjoying his imagined perch of power. Let her keep calling. This should teach her to keep her brother out of their lives. He did not come all the way from Africa to be insulted by other black people. Not even in his Maasai language did they have such low-down insults that included your mother’s this-and-that. Such perverts, he thought, self-righteously. He never could respond to Crush’s tirades because he always felt too incompetent against his brother-in-law’s foul mouth. But today, Crush went overboard when he included Lenana’s mother in insults that spewed out like bullets from a high-powered assault rifle. Crush didn’t exactly mention Lenana’s mother by name, but he said yo’ mama this and that. Somewhere in his mind, Lenana knew this was not a reference to his mother, but that didn’t matter, he needed it to be so that his festering anger had moral justification. Did this idiot know he had killed a lion with his bare hands? Did he know he was a certified moran? It seemed the liquor had kicked in and Lenana couldn’t quite tell the difference between the lies he had once told and reality. Or had he told the moran lie so many times he had come to believe it himself? Still, his ancestral blood boiled in him, and he ordered another blood… milk… no beer. He smiled sheepishly at the very generous bosom of the bar tender across the counter. She leaned forward to peer into Lenana’s slowly glazing eyes, her Ngong Hills erupting from her small blouse and spilling all over his face.

“You alright, boo?” She asked. Lenana’s stupid smile slowly folded up into a forlorn look.

“I went to see a friend in Chicago some days back,” he began, looking into his glass.

“And?” the one with the Ngong Hills waited for more. She sat on a stool facing him. It was afternoon and business was slow. She had time to listen to this Mandingo who had become a frequent customer since she first saw him come in about three months ago.

“I waited. And waited. And waited,” Lenana laughed at his pathetic self.

“Never showed up?”


“You in love with this… friend?” His listener enquired.

“She does something to me.”

“Woooo! The Mandingo’s in trouble!”

Lenana was silent.

“She call to apologize?”

“Nooo no,” he replied, a little ashamed at his weakness.

“Ha! You gotta snap out of it, honey. Ain’t nobody worth your thinking time if she don’t keep her word! You never heard of integrity? Seems to me like she has none of that!” She brought down her opinionated gavel in final judgment, with the mighty hills on her chest making a rapturous rise and descending to a sudden halt, a befitting exclamation mark. For a moment, Lenana wanted to free their captivity. How could they possibly breath in there squeezed up like that? But he knew to behave respectfully especially with Makeba. She was young, barely in her thirties, and the owner of this spiffy enterprise he had begun to call his second home. She had told Lenana her story in bit and pieces. A former marine biologist who ditched her job and went back to the exotic dancing that had made her so much money during college years and later bought this place, Makeba also carried around a matriarch’s whip and wit so no one messed with her.

“I’m the fool,” murmured Lenana, looking utterly defeated.

“Hmmm!” She peering into him with genuine compassion. What a sad man. “I gotta show you a place… this lady, she’s a good psychic. A wonderful listener. She can help you get your heart back, baby,” she offered. Lenana looked at her long and hard, unable to comprehend how the mind of a scientist-turned-tavern-owner also had room for psychic gobbledygook. He toyed with his glass and prepared to speak.

“I know a place too where you could find your heart,” he said, holding her gaze.

“M-hm?” She raised an eyebrow coquettishly, thinking he was beginning to flirt with her.

“Bagamoyo,” he said.

“Burger who?” Now a puzzled look replaced the raised eyebrow.

“Bagamoyo. It’s a place off the coast of Tanzania. A little village frozen in history.”

“What I gotta do with an African village, honey?” She asked, almost upset. “Oh, they have Sangomas there who can find me my African king, huh?” she laughed.

“No, it’s where you came from,” said Lenana, his face still dead serious.

“Haaa!!” her laughter came suddenly like the loud crack of a whip.

“When they brought you to Bagamoyo from the hinterlands of eastern Africa, they kept you in this massive fort built by the slave masters, right by the sea shores of Tanzania. There, they stashed you in the thousands in dark and dingy rooms until the traders’ boats came ashore. On your shipping day, they brought you out and you walked the last hundred feet or so between the Fort and the seashore. Such a short distance, yet it felt like a lifetime’s journey. There, waiting boats would take you across to Zanzibar where you got displayed at the main market. With every step you walked towards the boat by Bagamoyo’s sea shore, your heart sunk lower and lower, the shackles around your ankles singing with you your song of distress, the waves taunting you with their zealous rush towards the shore to save you, only to retreat in whispered gales of sadistic laughter. There was no way of escaping. As you took the last steps, the truth sunk its darkly blade in you, and you knew that this, this was the point of no return. At that moment, hundreds of miles away, the roots of the baobab tree under which your grandmother had planted your umbilical cord released their grip from the earth’s centre, shook the soul of humanity with thunderclaps of rage, and the anguished cries of a thousand spirits split the heavens and reached the throne of God as you groaned with your final drop of strength, ‘Ole wangu! nimeubwaga moyo wangu!'”

“What does that mean?” she asked, gripped by the story.

“It means, ‘Woe is me! I throw my heart to the ground!’ Kubwaga moyo is a Swahili for total despair, literally means, to throw your heart to the ground. So they called the place Bagamoyo. To me, it is not the place of total surrender; it is the place called Hope. It is the place where many consciously left their hearts behind, refusing to have anyone place a price tag on them. The breathing bodies of my brothers and sisters were sold and shipped across the seas only as empty shells. If you go to that place today, only another few feet from that very Fort, and right by that very sea shore where many hearts were left behind, you will find a vibrant theatre space where the villagers meet, sing, dance, and perform in celebration of life.” Lenana’s listener was hooked, waiting for more, oblivious of the growing din in the bar.

“That’s deep.” She said, shifting herself comfortably on the small stool. “Are you telling me part of me never came across the seas?” Lenana smiled. His beer now lay there, untouched for quite a while.

“Yes. You left part of you behind. You and I left our hearts in the same Motherland, even if I came centuries later quite voluntarily. You may never return there, in fact, I know you will not, but you will always be in search of what you left behind.” Lenana lowered his voice with this one, as if delivering a personal message from God.

She looked at him, then suddenly released that loud crack of laughter like a whip again.

“Haaa! You, Mandingo, you! You go too far. All I’ve been looking for all my life is some tender love, sweet. The good lord just hasn’t seen fit to bring my man around yet. I’m not looking for anything in the Motherland, unless you got me some good-looking Mandingo like yourself!” Her laughter crackled now like the sound of dry wood in a roaring fire, its infectiousness causing Lenana to laugh with her. “You’re a fool, Mandingo, a good fool!” She said, turning her attention to the next customer.

The evening sun was slowly pulling away from the face of the earth, stretching the shadows in its goodbye trail as if it dared not go down alone. The bar was getting busy as the twilight hours drew nigh. Lenana joined some friends at a table and went on to water his new found happy mood some more.

After serving a few customers, Makeba’s mood begun to shift. Lenana had done something to her. She started pouring a glass of beer for the man who took Lenana’s seat and felt a strange urge to let it continue to flow. She watched as the froth poured over its crystal edge, the golden liquid making a slow fountain that watered her fingers. How many times had she filled up a glass for a customer? She thought. Her life before she opened up this tavern had been easy. She simply earned the money and banked it, no matter the employment. She remembers how terribly proud her parents after she graduated and joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But she had quickly grown restless and took to the night life at Seeds as a dancer. Seeds was a gentlemen’s club that taught her things no college could teach you. There, she bumped into the minds of men and women far more mature than her. She found wisdom and guidance where no one thought to look. She observed the restless dreams of damsels who came searching for something they did not know. After a while, she knew what she wanted – her own kingdom. She didn’t care to rule other humans; all she wanted was the excitement that came with building something all her own. Now that she had made a wild success out of her business, she was beginning to experience that feeling of disquiet again. She wasn’t bored, not at all, but there was something around the corner calling out to her. What was she looking for? What was that emptiness that was beginning to gnaw inside her? Had she come to a place of no return in her life? The golden fountain poured steadily, the excess disappearing into the grills beneath. Her customer watched her, fascinated.

“Hey, beautiful, are you OK?” the customer finally asked.

She slowly turned off the liquor, took a clean glass, filled it up, and turned to face the man. She made eye contact with him, smiled, and said a little wearily, “Yeah… I’m good.” He nodded.

Several hours later, she saw Lenana get up from his table and walk unsteadily to the exit. She moved to block his path.

“You are not driving home that way,” she stated. He squinted at her through glazed eyes.

“I’ll drive slowly,” he assured her.

“Tommy!” She called out to her assistant, an eccentric eighteen year-old white boy working to pay his way through medical school. “Take care of the place for a while. I’ma be back in a hour or so.” She trusted him with the trust shared between a mother and son.

She helped Lenana to his car, took the keys from him, and drove him home quietly. If this Son of an African doesn’t stop drinking, she was thinking, he’ll end up in the streets. This was no country for folk without roots. She had witnessed many an occasional drinker take their journey into the floods of alcoholism, a place where only the grace of God could wash them back to shore. She knew too that she was in the business that helped them get there, while at the same time giving them the ear no one gave them. She carpeted their road to hell with one hand, and served them the fruit of compassion with the other. Her life was like a trick question. She steered into Lenana’s driveway, parked his car, and called a cab to pick her up.

“Thanks,” Lenana said as he opened the door, “You are a true friend, Makeba.” She liked it when they remembered to call her by name, even though Lenana insisted on saying it his own way. He had told her it was actually Miriam Makeba’s father’s name, that it wasn’t “key” but “keh”, and that African Americans had turned it into a girl’s name. Not that Makeba cared for any of that. She was smart enough to know that names had their own journeys, and nobody could do a darn thing about where they chose to travel and what they would become.

“Take care, baby. Your wife needs you,” Makeba said. Lenana nodded, gave her a hug, and stumbled towards his door. Before he disappeared, Makeba called out. “Hey!” Lenana turned around. “Is it true? About that place?” She waited for an answer. He grinned at her like a little boy, pushed his door, and disappeared without a word. Her cab soon came along. Inside the house, Lenana headed straight for the couch and went to sleep immediately.


Meanwhile, after a frantic attempt to get to Lenana, Shanni had given up and called her vagabond brother. In less that ten minutes, Crush had arrived with a cab, hauled his sister into the back seat and barked orders at the Ethiopian driver.

“Take a left right there, bro! Oh fuck! Jump the fucking lights. We got no time, bro!… wow wow wow, Shan, girl, keep it in there, do that breathing shit they teach yoo… hey, hey, Hailasalasie! Shoulda taken a fucking right there, bro! Shit, jus’ keep going! Shan, you jus’ pee on me?? Holy shit! Water broke! O Lord Jeeezus!! Get this fucking jalopy to the hospital, bro! Don’t you dare let my nephews get born in this shit here with everybody fart in it, you hear me? They go’ be birthed like kings. Yeah! You hear me Hailasalasie?

“My name is Tesfaye,” the elderly cab driver was tired of being called Haile Selassie. He tapped with authority on the dividing panel for Crush to read the name on his license. Crush respected a man who stood up for himself.

“Tesfaye. That’s a cool name, bro. My nephews they go’ be birthed like kings!” The driver had kept his eyes steadily on the road while Shanni kept the breathing going at her brother’s command until they came to the hospital.

Still in charge, Crush grabbed Shanni’s handbag, took out some bills and paid the cab driver. Then gave him a ten-dollar tip, of Shanni’s money. “There, Mr. Tesfaye. You the man! Peace and love!” And then another bill, of Shanni’s money. “Wash the stink off the cab!” he was finished with him, and Shanni’s money.

He quickly rallied the nurses and saw his sister into the labour ward.

At precisely seven in the evening, the identical twins were born.

“Which one come first?” Crush asked the nurse who kept her fascination with this Crush to herself.

“This one right here with the blue band,” she answered.

“I got jus’ the right name for this here first one. Tesfaye!” he declared. He took a pen from the nurse, grabbed her pad, scribbled Tesfaye on a piece of paper, and placed it on the first born like a bib.

“Tesfaye?” asked Shanni weakly, she seemed to remember hearing the name from somewhere… “What does it mean?”

“It mean King!”

“How do you know it means King?”

“It jus’ feel like it mean King, girl! Now you just go on and get some rest. You gone and birthed two whole kings with they full fingers and toes and they ain’t even stinky like they mama,” he turned to speak to his first king, “I shared a bed wit’ yo’ mama when we was li’l and I tell you she got some stinky feet that could kill you dead. She gon’ killed dead all o’ them roaches in the house jus’ with the stink in her feet. She went on and got a education and them feet jus’ didn’t stink no more!” Shanni just couldn’t hold the laughter, weak as she was.

“Go on and rest, girl. I’ma sit right here and watch the little ones.”

“Please, call home and leave a message for my husband. Tell him I’m at the hospital,” Shanni asked the nurse.

“Sure,” said the nurse, noticing that Crush was already dosing off on the chair. So much for watching the little ones.


In the wee hours of the morning, Lenana walked in to his wife’s hospital room with a splitting headache. It was after he had woken up that he realized his wife was not at home, found the nurse’s message on the machine, and dashed to the hospital. Now he was staring at his sleeping wife, his newborn sons, and a snoring Crush. He sat by the foot of the bed and just stared at those tiny bundles. He read the paper bib and wondered which ancient African royalty called Tesfaye his wife had discovered and honoured.

Slowly, he took the sleeping boys in his arms and stared at them some more. Lenana began to sing to his boys. It was a rich voice with the feel of warm loam soil after the rains.

Run, run, run, and catch the breeze

Catch the breeze that bears the smell

The smell that knows where Lion hides

Lion who hides with stolen children

Run, run, run, and catch the breeze…

Lenana sang in Maasai, a song his mother had often sung to them when she narrated his favourite story. It was the story of Lion, who took his best friend, Cow’s children for food because on that day he was too lazy to go hunting. Lenana’s voice filled the room with a certain comfort that strangely stopped Crush’s snores without waking him up. But as he got engrossed in his narration, Shanni woke up. She had perfected the art of observing Lenana without him knowing it. From the slit of her half-shut eyes, she watched intrigued, spellbound, as this storyteller, her husband, wove his tale to the audience that rested peacefully in the grove of his arms. And once again, his voice took off with natural ease as he sung the song that led Cow closer to finding her stolen children. Shanni was wide awake now, rid of all pretenses of sleep. Lenana became aware of the additional member to his audience, smiled at her without breaking off, and finally came finished his narration.

“Hey baby,” she said.

“Hey,” he responded. He returned the little ones to their mother’s side, bent down and gently kissed the softness of his wife’s lips.

Continue – VI: Hems on Shredded Pavements

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