Home

when he leaves

even if for only half a day

there’s a feeling of a door left open

of windows wide

and the air freezing the curtains

the walls shiver

and fail to whisper to each other

the floors mourn

and the air is in a mood

there’s a thing about  him leaving

it reminds me of dried up grounds

where wells once swam

but the sun bids farewell

and i hear the tap of his shoes

the door shuts

and the windows clasp their hands

the rain sweeps into the soil

life re-enters the spaces within me

around me

he, mine, returns

and once again

wrapped in his warm breath

i’m home

Distorted Portrait (Taken from Poetically Ghetto)

I’m an unsightly beast

My sooty countenance is hideous

Features so obtrusively horrid

The mirror says I’m too repulsive

 

It’s been written in the ancient scrolls

Pale skin is the engraved custom

The colour that’s painted the accepted effigy

Our colour is but an unwanted stain

 

Hair as coarse as an ageing sheep

Appalling noses squatting on black faces

Bloated cushions of coal lips

The swarthy appeal’s no alluring indeed

 

How marvellous do their features pose?

Poking swords of pointed noses

Skin as milky and white as snow

Green and blue crystal eyeballs

 

Our thick thighs bulging and pouring

Bloated bellies deliberately protruding

Bulky bosoms tripping the knees

Bouncing bottoms wobbling like jelly

 

A spectacular frame so organized

Each slim attribute tenderly placed

Figures so gracefully emaciated

Nothing hefty and obese; all’s well-carried

 

To find beauty is to obey this creed

Our grisly dark skin will be blemished

This coal colour will be bleached

Under fake coiffures, our mops are hidden

 

Isn’t it how beauty’s always defined?

Pale faces and lean shapes

What a distorted image they’ve painted

Veiling our dark beauty we still submit

 

A Journey on a Slave Ship with The O’Jays

Title: Ship Ahoy

Artist: The O’Jays

Date: 10 November 1973

Label: Philadelphia International Records

Length: 9:41

The O’Jays are known for their smooth love songs, funky and groovy jams and soulful sounds. What some people don’t pay attention to are some of the songs that have at their core political and social relevance. This R&B group has been speaking to their audience and using music as a teaching vehicle through some of their hits. Ship Ahoy is one of these wheels that carried a heavy message and lesson on it.

The song begins with the crack of whips, a strong cold wind blowing and the sound of crashing waves. “…the motion of the ocean…” as they point out in the lyrics. There’s an eerie quality wrapped around the song but they did it so without leaving out the powerful and sweet voices of this remarkable trio. It’s dark and spine-chilling.

Ship Ahoy brings awareness to the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade when Africans were captured and shipped to the New World. Some of the slaves died at sea while those who survived remained alive in unimaginably horrific conditions. Diseases and starvation accompanied them on the voyage to the so-called land of Liberty.

It’s quite a long song but with not as many lyrics, with the repetition of “Ship Ahoy” more than other lines. However, they didn’t need to write out a full, long sermon of lyrics to make a point. The combination of those few lyrics, the slavery theme sounds of the ship and the waves, and the honeyed vocals create a grim yet pleasing gem.

The song is the second track on the track-titled album. The album cover itself produces the clear image of slaves, including the members of the group in the slave hold. The artwork successfully registers with the listener and adds accuracy and support to the song and the title of the album.

This is what I love about music, the ability to speak beyond the written lyrics, to educate, to entertain, to reach out, to bring the hidden or unknown to the surface and to touch us in new and meaningful ways. R&B lovers, people with an interest and social and political consciousness, history lovers, those who die for golden oldies and just anyone who has an ear and a heart for smooth soul or fans of The O’Jays will definitely dig this.

Enjoy.

The Final Arrangements

She usually stares at the trees dancing with the wind but tonight they’re still and tense. There are shadows in the room that stare at her in disapproval of what she has done.

No self-respecting human being should belch like this while they sleep. Mavis tries to shift his sleeping position but his massive body is too heavy for her weak arms. The moon laughs at this spectacle and she walks over to draw the curtains even though she prefers to leave a slit that allows the light of the night sky into the room. She usually stares at the trees dancing with the wind but tonight they’re still and tense. There are shadows in the room that stare at her in disapproval of what she has done. It’s too late, she tells them through her thoughts. There’s usually something calming about the stillness of the night, the silence and the dark mask that veils the imperfections of human existence and activity. She debates between opening the windows to let the foul odour of his roaring farts out, and letting the mosquitoes in. Let them bite her even though the air in the room is insufferable.

The night, the perfect companion that she’s become reliant on to share her deepest thoughts with. However, this time the night is judgmental and it turns her back on her. This is the final round of the game, if a game it is. After this all will be reborn and recreated, all the dimness will be swallowed by a light of newness. The shadows in the room mock her. What if things do not go as planned? There’s a possibility that Kgotso could refuse to take part in her arrangements and that would be the end of it all, of her master plan, the end of what she thought would be the genesis of a solution for her broken family.

The baby breathes so peacefully, her nose oblivious to the corrupting smell that her father’s body emits. The baby is unaware of the world around her changing, the tide rising and falling and the possibility of calm waters that its mother believes will be for the best.

“You know what your problem is? You have succumbed to these popular words like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ and you’ve attached yourself to them because, I don’t know, the Internet and your fancy books told you to. Being a little upset or sad doesn’t mean you should embrace these dumb terms,” Kgotso had said.

He will never understand. That’s why the plan needs to fall into place. Tomorrow things will change. Mavis had finally decided to tell him about the diagnoses that had been made every year for the past three years by different doctors. Denial and fear of society’s inability to understand set her off on a journey of collecting different opinions from doctors, but they had all come with the same answers. She had to find help. She hadn’t. Instead she had spent years waiting for the ones close to her to see through her and sense that something in her was melting away and maybe they would reach out. They hadn’t, she had forgotten that they too had lives to live, demons to fight and their own dark places to wake from.

She puts on headphones and listens to music on her phone. What is it about people that makes them listen to sad music when they’re feeling down? Perhaps it speaks on their behalf. Society just makes too many rules on what people should communicate and what they should keep in, in case they are judged or appear to be undesirable to their audience. So these songs speak to them, about them and for them.

Good God! How much gas can one human being contain in them? It must be the bitterness in his soul. The bitterness of not having a son but two girls. The bitterness of having a wife who always seems to have excuses not to attend to his manly needs, “I have thrush”, “My back and neck hurt”, I’m too tired, the kids have worn me out.” “Not tonight because of this and that.” That’s what he keeps saying, that she always looks for excuses to avoid intimacy.

She doesn’t remember the last time it was intimate. Before he fell asleep he had mounted her with the ferocity of a long-starved beast and the urgency of one impatient to get the job done. In, out, release, off. She hadn’t bothered to make a sound. All she wanted was to have him release the tension that was polluting his character, his heart and his behaviour, release and leave her in peace to get on with her final arrangements.

It isn’t midnight yet but it’s a bit too late to text Sophie. She decides to send her a message, if she is already asleep she will see it in the morning. She needs to reassure Sophie that all would go according to plan and to make sure that she won’t change her mind. They were too close to the finish line to back out now.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow.” She sends the text.

*

Things weren’t always so bad between Mavis and Kgotso, in fact, they were the model couple. Best friends who always knew how to fall back on friendship whenever they fell out of love. When those days came, they were able to face that storm with ease and allow friendship to fence out any form of rot that could potentially ruin their marriage. It all started when she decided to stay at home to raise children. It wasn’t helping that she could see his disappointment of having girls only. He did love them but he wasn’t entirely satisfied and she was surprised that he could be the type of man who would allow society and its traditions to dictate his heart based on the sex of his own flesh and blood. She had left her job, family and friends back in another province It seemed like an adventure at first but as time unfolded she discovered that staying at home, caged and her everyday life consisting of running errands and being continually exhausted from mothering, was suffocating. She needed to breathe and three years down the line, two children later she was still trying to grasp the air for something to open up her lungs and free the chains within. He didn’t understand.

“We are making money now, a lot. I don’t see why you are always complaining. You’re starting to have rich people’s problems,” he said when she had asked to at least re-do the plain and tasteless house they lived in. It had never been a home to her, there was nothing that said home. There was nothing that said she could at least lay her troubles down and breathe. He was always working and she learned that money was not happiness if it meant staring at the stained walls all day and feeding off disappearing memories.

*

Sophie is her last hope. Mavis loves her husband dearly and her children even more but it’s proving difficult to be what they need and so she has to find something to create a happier life. The girls are still too young and to them she is the universe but Mavis fails to keep being the universe when inside she only feels like the blade from the grass that is drying up and dying from the cruelty of a heartless winter.

Sophie arrives at seven in the morning, the time that Mavis estimated would be perfect. She is a slim woman in her thirties, healthy and beautiful, a cleaner at a children’s hospital and single. She hasn’t had much luck with men; “too clingy” is what they call her. It had taken Mavis a few months to convince Sophie to leave her job and to work for her. They were already friends and equals and so to be her employee had the potential of ruining the special relationship they had. Mavis had pleaded, increased the salary and eventually she won her over.

Standing at the door she faces the man who does not know that his wife has been dying right next to him, each tick of the clock has been the approach of the end for her. He doesn’t hide the red eyes and with a note in his hand he knows who she is. They stand in silence, different thoughts swimming in their heads. While Kgotso is boiling with confusion and a source of blame before him, he does not know that the woman before him was never told she was being asked to be a replacement, instead she had been told she would be coming to start her day as a live-in housekeeper. Little does she know that all along Mavis had given up and was making arrangements for a new wife to take her place.

Engraved in Stone (Originally published in Afreada Magazine) 

Kandake’s dead, her body was found hanging from a tree, blood streaming between her thighs and cuts on her pale breasts. It was Kumkani, her twin brother who discovered her and after untying her rigid body, letting it slump onto him and holding it for a long time, he finally let out a piercing cry that woke the village. It was early in the morning before the sun had risen and before the cock had smoothed its throat to crow. The two pale bodies appeared as one, as if death had swallowed both, blood stained on their skin like a red pattern finding its position on a clear canvas.

Their mother, Mira fainted and their father Baba Kifeda stood far from them like one of the observers who distanced themselves from the ordeal. It was their uncle who jumped in to detach the young man from his sister. Anticipating a fight from the clinging boy, he was surprised to feel the lightness and limp body of Kumkani when he separated him from the dead body.

“Let go, my son,” said the middle-aged man who had been more of a father to the boy than his brother had ever attempted.

There were no tears in the light brown eyes, their brightness were misplaced in a face that sank from the gravity of misery and pain. His eyes rested on his father whose own fell to the ground in shame, yet he stood rooted to the spot unable to embrace his only son or mourn the death of his only daughter.

Kumkani was prepared for the verdict of the elders, they had already made up many of their lives’ decisions, especially with their father recently joining them as a junior who was allowed to sit in on their meetings but not yet qualified to have a voice. A forty year old treated like an errand boy. It was an honour to his father, his whole life had been a collection of efforts to get to that place, to be one of the many who made all the decisions for the whole village. The minority that had the majority on a palm.

The body was left for the local grave diggers who also worked as morticians, to carry it to isolated huts where dead bodies where prepared for burial. However, there was confusion as to where that particular corpse would be placed considering the sensitive issue that was attached to it. The girl was past her marriage years, she had committed the virgin’s crime, she had committed suicide, and the biggest two were that she was a twin and she an albino one at that. The matter was delicate. The elders whispered in one of the grave-digger’s ear and the body was carried towards the deserted fields on a hill where an old half-burnt hut was banned from use or visit. She would be buried the same night.

***

Mira refused to eat or speak to anyone. She oscillated from blackouts to raw consciousness that replayed the image of her children slumped under a tree, one dead and the other clinging on to her as if by doing so long enough death would accept the offer of a bonus body. The traditional healer was called, an old woman who claimed the spirits spoke to her and to her only. She claimed her back was bent so that her ear could be closer to the grounds to listen to the voices that vibrated under the earth’s skin, that her one blind eye was so because to see what everyone else couldn’t see required a different kind of vision, and that her arthritic hands were done so by the burdens that she carried from all the maladies that she had cured. She was to visit the mourning room three times; she had already smeared red mud with cow dung on Mira’s feet while she had passed out, at noon she arrived to soak the feet in a nasal burning concoction that was a mixture of different roots that were picked only at midnight, and she was to later wash the feet in clean water and smear hot oils on them.

“Why is all of this necessary? Will it bring back my child? Huh? Will it spit her out from the belly of death?” Mira spit near the old woman’s feet.

Low incantations drummed from the old woman’s throat.

Without looking at her she spoke in a calm voice, “This will help you walk away from the path of grief, in no time your heart will have forgotten the burden.” With that she left, leaving behind a heart insulted by the belief that a few roots and oils on her feet would mend her broken heart. Her husband was not allowed in the mourning room because men and women did not grieve the same way, he was to carry on with the logistics of the burial and show no weakness by crying. It was the woman’s job to cry on behalf of the whole family, it was her burden to carry.

In the opposite hut, Kumkani sat on a grass mat in an empty room with thick black blankets covering the windows. He was to sit in there until the burial. No one was to approach the room lest they wanted to inherit the curse that he carried. The great curse; Kumkani thought about the illogical meaning of it and how they had been told they would live until the age ten and thereafter the curse would come collect what belonged to it through death.

The curse. The twins were born on a strange afternoon – the day the moon passed between the sun and the earth, interrupting the normal course of life. The old healer was the one who had explained their skin colour with the eclipse and that because of the strangeness that had come with their birth, one child had become two. It was said that albinos were bad luck and that they would carry the curse of death with them until they reached ten, and by then only death would take away the curse. Their isolated upbringing had been decided upon by the elders, the only thing that their mother had been allowed to do was name them. It was a mother’s duty to name her children so that if she gave a bad name the burden of its consequences would fall into her hands.

Kumkani – her king. Kandake – her queen. She said she had gotten the names from a dream where a part of her travelled the world and she had come across Kandake while in the neighbouring lands and Kumkani when she travelled to the South. Baba Kifeda detached himself from the children from the very moment he saw two pale bodies wrapped in sheets, their orange hair resembling the sun and their eyes a colour that he had never seen on any one before.

***

“Gentlemen, the gods have thrown a challenge at us but if we put our heads together and agree to what we know must be done, this will be a simple procedure,” a croak from one of the oldest men in the village spoke. A ninety-year old man with eyes too youthful to belong to his wrinkled face addressed the congregation of ten decision-makers of the village.

They all wore bright white kangas around the waist and green and yellow striped ones to cover the upper body. Long fabrics were used to accommodate spilling bellies that came from large pots of traditional beer and roasted meat. There were murmurs and coughs all around. Baba Kifeda was not allowed since the delicate matter concerned him and his family and they did not want his interference with the decisions that would be taken. Although kept out of the large round room where important matters were discussed, he knew what they were discussing and what the outcome would be. While they chose when and how the arrangements would be handled concerning his daughter he sat under a mango tree, deep in thought, regret picking at his thoughts like a vulture does at the discovery of an unfinished carcass.

There was a law against virgins spreading their legs before marriage. If a girl was found to have broken that law she would be confined to a far off place for a month without seeing her family, only the elders knew what was to be done to her. No girl who had ever been there had ever spoken of her punishment, there were people who had their suspicions but no one dared challenge or question the elders. Kandake was a rebellious child and chose to do as she pleased with her body, at eighteen she and a boy from another village had been discovering intimacy in the bushes until they were caught and she was brought before the elders. When she returned a month later she spoke up but no one would believe her, her own father thrashed her for speaking ill of the most respectable men throughout the whole region.

“But Baba, they took turns…”

Thrash!

“I’m begging you Baba you have to believe me, those rapists…”

Thrash!

Her father had beaten her until raw flesh showed and her pale skin turned blue, black and green. A week later and he was sitting there begging the gods for forgiveness. The image of her daughter with the message she had left for him to see; the blood between her thighs – “They did this to me,” she was reminding him. If only he had done something. He had always been a follower, always nodded to the things that his heart asked him to disagree with but what could he have done? Go against tradition? He would have had dire consequences to face. Now he was to face another decision taken by the elders, a decision picked from the unwritten laws of tradition, not to be twisted or changed in any way, he would have to agree for that’s how things had always been done.

He watched the men pour out in different directions, to drink and rest before the burial. It had been decided, he could tell by the way all of them ignored his presence and avoided looking at him. He sat there in silence and defeat, as always.

***

The women’s voices could be heard from a distance as they led the burial to the grave. The grave was dug in an isolated place, away from the rest of the dead. The elders followed in mud red robes, carrying calabashes and ahead of them was the elders’ mouthpiece who delivered their messages, promoted their propaganda and spoke at funerals. Behind them came a group of large, rock-hard men who were the guards of the village, guards of the elders to be exact. Seven of them carried shovels on one side and machetes on the other, while six of them carried the cheap box that had the deceased. Behind them was Mira, her husband and Kumkani in the middle, holding his mother’s hand. His uncle couldn’t be found anywhere.

As soon as they reached the grave the singing came to a halt and an eerie silence swept over them. The sun said its last goodbyes and darkness was dressing the sky. The speaker, in a long white robe, beads around his neck and a long thin stick in his hand, asked everyone to bow their heads. He spoke to the gods in a language no one knew, so fast that his tongue could have been caught between his teeth.

When he finished his invocations, his voice unsure and shaky, “Er…we all know that the twins are born attached to the same umbilical cord.”

Behind him, on a grass mat sat the family. Mira’s shoulders trembled but her cries were quiet. Baba Kifeda didn’t blink. His Adam’s apple moved up and down his throat, so sharp it looked as though it were about to pierce his neck. The veins on his neck were of serpentine shape, his jaws were hard and his fists clenched in his lap, nails digging the flesh of his palms.

There was a heavy silence, the wind swept the soil and a brown cloud rose in the air.

“People, the gods cannot be kept waiting,” the speaker said as the body was lowered into the grave. There was only the sound of the box hitting the sides and the men’s grunts as they made effort not to drop the coffin. The grave was much deeper than they had anticipated, unusual for a burial but given the circumstances they understood. The elders looked towards the family and an old man with a white beard, known to be feared by all waved to the boy to stand up. Kumkani trembled.

“It’ll be okay,” came the words of his father, his large hand on his shoulder. The first time he had ever spoken that softly to his son. Mira held on to him and pleaded to her husband with her eyes but to no avail. Two men came and freed the boy from his mother’s grasp.

“Young man, if you do not touch your sister’s grave, the cord will remain intact and soon she will pull you to join her in the land she now dwells in. Get in there, stomp your feet four times to leave the dust of your bond with her and then you shall live in peace.”

Kumkani was helped into the grave, he stomped his feet four times and stretched his hands towards the men to help him back up.

The old man with the long white beard nodded to one of the men and as quick as lightning the men had their shovels and were thrusting soil into the grave. The boy screamed his mother’s name but she and her husband were held back with machetes. The people of the village stood back in horror, their bulging eyes asking questions towards the elders but the set, hard faces of the elders dared any of them to interrupt. No one did, especially with machetes drawn in front of them. The boy screamed, the mother’s screams could have raised the dead on the other side. Deep in the grave, Kumkani was overpowered by the weight of the earth, and was finding it hard to breath and before anyone could swallow what was taking place, a heap of soil covered the grave. It was done. The only sound that penetrated the air was Mira’s agonised howl. Some of the women of the village let their tears fall but they knew nothing could be done.

In darkness, long after her wife had been carried away after her attempts to unearth her son, after everyone had returned to their homes to have their meals and pretend nothing had happened, Baba Kifeda sat under the tree where his daughter had died. His jaw was in a twist, the side of the face contorted and numb. His eyes looked as though they were permanently staring at a ghost and his ears rang as he listened to the piercing sounds of his screaming wife. There was nothing he could do, tradition had spoken.