UNCLES AND CROOKS
Uncles and Crooks, a short story, by Abbas Zaidi
The Ngong Hills, a short story, by Rasik Shah
From: Trinidad and Tobago
Jamaica Karma, a personal journal, by Anthony Milne
From: Trinidad and Tobago
Singing in the Wind, an enthusiasm, by Keith Smith
From: The United States of America
Samaki Kubwa (The Big Fish), a reminiscence, by Jeff Cooke All GOWANUS works are Copyright © by their respective authors. Issues may not be archived on any machine and may not be used for any commercial purpose without written consent of the publisher.(c) Copyright 1997, GOWANUS
THE NGONG HILLS'Uncle Mian is coming next week', Niki said. 'He comes home every year, richer than ever. He must be the richest man in Manchester. I heard this time he is coming with his wife and will build a mosque here.'
'Go ask your mother to make me tea,' Uncle Khizar shouted back in his usual way. Niki stole a look at me and smiled in the usual way and I gave her the usual, stealthy smile back. Uncle had been a hot-tempered man ever since he returned from England fifteen years ago, but his recent kidney problems and confinement to a wheelchair had made him even more irritable. Diabetes, his latest problem, had affected his eyesight as well.
No one resented his outbursts.
'The last time someone wanted to build a mosque, you told the head of the rival group that it would create sectarian tension, and the plan was abandoned. But this time you don't seem bothered,' I said to him.
'Ah, but this time my great friend Mian is providing the moolah.'
'But, Uncle, if you are against something, you don't let it happen,' I persisted.
'What is in the news today?' he replied, ignoring me.
I started my daily ritual of reading from the Lahore Times.
'"General Zia says democracy is a sham; Pakistan's salvation lies in Islam alone. He also said that the reason he hanged former Prime Minister Bhutto was because Bhutto headed a corrupt, unIslamic government...."'
'Next story,' Uncle commanded.
'"The Lahore High Court has ordered release of Haji Usman who chopped off his sister's and her lover's heads when he found them in a compromising situation. The learned judge said that Usman did the right thing because no honorable brother could tolerate..."'
'"A man cheated his widowed mother-in-law out of all her wealth and then kicked her out of her own house. She is begging on the streets now. She has requested that the authorities..."'
'"An old lady claims her brother got her house transferred to his name through fraud...."'
'Why do you read me such stories every day? You have no shame. I will tell my sister that her son reads me offensive news every morning only to spite me.'
'But, Uncle, I don't make the news.'
'Stop barking, and start reading the international news.'
I never complained about Uncle Khizar's outbursts. Apart from being an invalid, he had been like a father to me. He brought me up when my real father passed away before my birth, kept me and my mother in his house, took charge of the vast properties my father owned, and engaged me to his only child, Niki.
I read him the international news, ignoring any item about Britain. He hated news about Britain, where he studied in his youth.
'"Nigerian Crooks Having Field Day in Southeast Asia,"' I read from the headline of a news feature, then went on to another. Uncle Khizar cut me short, 'Go back to the other one.'
'"Rich Southeast Asians have become the target of Nigerian crooks. These crooks write them letters on behalf of 'officials in very high government positions', offering commissions as high as 'a few million US dollars' if the latter allow them to transfer huge amounts of money to the Nigerians' accounts...."'
'That's enough for now,' Uncle interrupted. 'What animals human beings are! Well, nothing new about that.'
He lit a cigarette, took a few pulls, exhaled and began staring into space. I stood up to leave, but he stopped me.
'Listen up,' he said and resumed his seemingly trance-like state. After a while he said, 'You know who is the perfect nemesis of a greedy man, even if he is an evil genius?' Without waiting for my answer, he said, 'It's a crook. A crook promises everything, even the moon, to the greedy man. You can go now.'
I left him, assuming I would not see him again until the next morning. But that evening my mother said, 'Go downstairs. Your Uncle wants to see you.'
When I entered the living room I saw Uncle sitting on the sofa with a newspaper in his hand.
'Read the rest of the news about the Southeast Asian gulls,' he said, handing me the same newspaper I had been reading to him that morning.
'"The impression left--and left deliberately--by the Nigerian crook is that the money he has in his possession has been illegally obtained from the Nigerian exchequer. The greedy gull goes along with the scheme. Within a few days he receives an envelope from the crook that contains some documents, 'originals' and photocopies. He is then asked to deposit a substantial amount of his own money into a given account number which will 'cover the initial transfer/taxation fee.' Which he does happily and hopefully...."
'We will read the rest later,' Uncle said. 'I have to go for dialysis.'
Next morning Uncle Khizar was in a rage and did not want to see me. He was sitting by himself out on the lawn.
'What is the matter?' I asked Niki. As betrotheds, this was one of the few opportunities when Niki and I could sit alone together and chat. Auntie did not mind such meetings, but Uncle would never have allowed them.
'Mother just told him about Mian's arrival next week. You know, Mian has married and is bringing his wife along. Since she is coming to Pakistan for the first time, Mother thought we should invite them for dinner. But Uncle became furious.'
'But Auntie has never shown any liking for Uncle Mian before. He comes home to Pakistan every year, but she has never invited him to the house,' I said.
'Yes, but she says that this time he is coming to build a mosque in the village. She still thinks he is a rotten egg, but this time he is going to do a good deed. We don't have a mosque in our village.'
In the afternoon my mother sent me down to see Uncle Khizar.
'Read the rest of the story about the Asian gulls.'
I began: '"The money transfer is followed by a correspondence between the victim and the crook. In every letter, the victim is asked to put more money into the designated account. Sometimes he is asked to visit Nigeria for 'final discussions'. He is provided with a complete itinerary for his visit, which includes meetings with 'important Nigerian officials' and prospects of future 'co-operation'. Upon reaching Nigeria the victim is received by uniformed 'government security persons' at the airport and taken to a high-class hotel for 'negotiations' with 'interested parties.' The result: the victim loses whatever money he has left, and even his passport. All the 'officials' disappear after the victim is literally penniless.
'"One victim reported that he sold everything in his house in order to receive huge 'commissions' from a Nigerian crook; another borrowed a fortune from a bank, etc., etc. The governments of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have used mass media to inform their people about the Nigerian crooks. Yet people continue to do business with these unsavory characters."'
When I finished Uncle said, 'You remember I was telling you about a crook's promising the moon to a greedy man?'
'You know what happens next to the greedy man ? I will tell you what happens. A disaster happens.'
I decided to broach the topic that had created such a fuss that morning. 'Your friend Uncle Mian is coming as usual. But this time I think it is different. You know about the mosque....'
Uncle Khizar glanced toward me, then quickly looked away. His eyes were moist with feeling. He said, "You know my friend Mian is doing well in Manchester. He started as an assistant manager of a nightclub. Now he has his own."
It was not the first time that Uncle Khizar had become reverential at the mention of Uncle Mian.
I said, 'But as far as I know he could not pass even 'O' Levels, and his English is terrible. I don't know in what capacity he was even allowed to enter Britain. He had no future, even in Pakistan. How come he did so well in Manchester?'
It was the first time I ever took the liberty to speak my mind about this subject to Uncle Khizar.
He gave me the look of a full-grown adult who is talking to a toddler. 'Why don't you ask the Asian gulls?'
I did not understand, but I continued, 'You did a BBA in Manchester. It should have been you who stayed, not Uncle Mian. Mother tells me that you wanted to return to Manchester, do an MBA and get a good job. I'm sure you could have done that. Britain at that time was a good place for us. It was still well before Thatcher's time.'
'Yes, I wanted to,' he almost whispered.
'What happened, then?'
'I wanted to leap ten years ahead. I wanted a job that I would have only got after ten years' hard work,' he said with a sad smile.
'But why?' I persisted.
He suddenly sat up straight and snapped, 'Why don't you ask the Nigerian crooks?'
Uncle Mian arrived. The news spread immediately, and the villagers came out to see the 'Mem Sahib' who had married a Pakistani. Ours was a village of no more than six hundred people. All of them were proud that a white woman had married one of us. Except for Uncle Khizar and myself, no one in the entire village could speak English, but they nevertheless wanted to tell the Mem Sahib how happy and honored they were to have her visit their 'old and small' village so unworthy of her presence. I also went to pay a visit to Uncle Mian and his wife, but they were too tired to receive anyone. Before I could turn away, the prayer leader of the neighboring village appeared; his son would be heading Uncle Mian's new mosque.
'Allah be praised,' the prayer leader said. 'Last night I saw Prophet Muhammad in dream. He said that Mian's wife had converted to Islam and both of them would go to paradise after death.'
'Allah be praised! Mian be blessed!' some villagers shouted. Before letting us leave, the prayer leader made all of us offer special thanksgiving prayers.
Next morning I found out that Uncle Khizar had left the house early to preside over a village meeting at which a compromise candidate was to be chosen for the city council election.
In the afternoon our house-cleaner arrived in a clearly agitated state. She asked Auntie, 'Are there any blacks in England?'
'No. At least, I have not seen any in my husband's photos from Manchester,' Auntie replied.
'But Mian's wife is black! And we thought she would be a fairy-like white woman like the ones on the TV.'
'Then, she is not from England. Mian is a liar. She must be from a jail.'
'The milkman says she will become white because she has converted to Islam,' the housekeeper added wistfully.
A week passed, but Uncle Mian had still not visited us. Neither had Uncle Khizar been to Uncle Mian's house. It was the latter who would have to pay him a visit. Apparently, Mian was busy with plans for the new mosque. Uncle Khizar did not even mention his name, though he did have a private conversation with the would-be prayer leader of the mosque.
One morning when I was reading him the Lahore Times, Uncle Khizar said, 'Find me more news about the Southeast Asian gulls.'
There was a small item about a Singaporean who had committed suicide after losing all his money to Nigerian crooks.
'A brave man', Uncle said. 'He has rid himself of shame, embarrassment and worry.'
'But it's wrong to kill oneself. Anybody can be duped. Why don't Asians get together and work out a strategy to beat the crooks at their own game?'
'You,' Uncle replied, 'believe in nothing-succeeds-like- success. But I believe in nothing-fails-like-failure. If you fail, even though you are a genius and your failure is just a pure coincidence, you are finished and everything you have achieved through hard work is finished.'
Next day Uncle asked, 'Is there any more news about the Asian gulls?'
To which I replied, 'There is no news today. But why is it you never ask about the crooks? You seem interested only in the gulls. If your greedy-man-and-crook theory were spread throughout Southeast Asia, many poor souls could be saved and you would be canonized,' I said only half-seriously.
Uncle Khizar gave a hearty laugh, the first I could ever remember. 'Don't you know God's mill grinds slow, but sure?'
Next morning mother told me that Uncle Khizar had gone out early to attend a meeting about which he had not said anything to anyone in the house. I rushed down to have tea with my fiancée. Afterward Niki went to have a look at the bed of roses she had planted in our garden, and I went to visit Auntie who was busy in the kitchen. I started talking about Uncle Khizar's friendship with Uncle Mian. Suddenly she said, 'I have never told you this before because I did not want to hurt your Uncle or Niki. But if he had listened to me he would be a successful man today.'
'What mistake did he make?'
'After passing BBA from Manchester, your uncle wanted a job that was possible only if he had also done MBA. He decided to return to Pakistan because his childhood friend, this cunning Mian, had written to him that he would find him a very high position in Pakistan's Ministry of Finance through his own uncle who was a very highly placed officer there. Obviously no such uncle existed. Mian took your Uncle's passport, which still had a valid visa in it, replaced it with his own photo and went to Manchester. The result is before you,' she said.
In the evening Uncle Mian dropped by to invite us to participate in the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the new mosque. I was not home at the time.
Next day I pushed Uncle Khizar's wheel chair to the ceremony. Uncle Mian looked very solemn and saw to it that Uncle Khizar sat beside him during the proceedings. After a recitation from the Koran, Uncle Mian made a long speech about his struggle in the faraway land where Islam faced a number of threats. Then he praised General Zia and his Islamization policy. Looking at Uncle Khizar, he concluded, 'I am building this mosque from money that I have saved after working day and night for the sake of this village. Allah is kind to me and I am a lucky man. Throw me into a river and I will come out with a fish in my hand and a pearl in my mouth.'
After the ceremony Uncle Mian invited his childhood friend to visit his house and meet his wife. He embraced me affectionately and offered to help me find a job in Manchester when I had finished my degree, and then added, 'Even if you don't finish your degree, I can get you into England. There are many Pakistani girls there who need a suitable match like you.'
I thanked him and glanced toward Uncle Khizar, whose expression betrayed nothing but indifference.
There were seven or eight other guests sitting in Uncle Mian's living room, including Uncle Mian's wife Julie, who seemed a very lively and sociable woman. We all sat and talked for a while. Then Julie and Uncle Khizar got together and conversed in low voices. Uncle Mian was sitting at a distance from them but was constantly looking their way. Both she and Uncle seemed very pleased, especially Uncle. Soon the other guests left and the two uncles went to one side of the room by themselves.
'Uncle has done a very noble deed,' I said to Mian's wife, without believing a word of it.
'Yes,' she said, 'but, you know, the credit really goes to me. His nightclub has been doing great business. He wanted to do something for his village that could win him respect. We calculated that the mosque would cost Khizar more money than he was willing to spend. And then I told him what to do and the result is before you.'
'What was it you told him to do?'
'That,' she laughed, 'is a trade secret.'
On our way home I told Uncle how Julie had referred to her husband as "Khizar" instead of "Mian."'
He chuckled and said, 'Mian has left Manchester for good. You know why?'
'He has been evading his taxes for quite some time. Unlike in Pakistan, tax evasion is a big crime in Britain, and one is punished severely. So, he has said goodbye to Britain. He wanted to set up a business here, but since the Pakistani government has started deducting Islamic zakaat, he has put his money into his wife's account over there. She is going there tomorrow, and Mian is expected to follow her some time next month. You know, she is an income tax lawyer. He is extremely nervous about all this, but he has been assured that his money, when pooled with some other peoples' over there, will benefit him to the extent that he will be a very, very rich man.'
'Where is "over there"?' I inquired.
Uncle turned toward me, trying to hide his glee behind a look of false circumspection. 'Don't you know Julie is a Nigerian?'
'You mean she...'
'Why was the cunning fox killed?'
Before I could reply, he supplied the answer: 'Because he bought a ticket to Nigeria!'
He looked up from his wheelchair, chuckled, winked, then gave out a roaring laugh, his shining eyes full of triumph.
(Abbas Zaidi (firstname.lastname@example.org) was editor of The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine, published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Multan University and worked as assistant magazine editor for The Nation, Lahore.)
By Rasik ShahThere were three of them in the cab of the jeep. The vehicle was what they called a boxbody, the back having been enclosed. Ramesh used it to make deliveries during the week. The shop made no deliveries on Sundays, except for "urgent" orders--meaning simply that the customer was of long standing and had good credit.
Ramesh usually had two men, called "turnboys", with him. These were full-time employees of the business, beasts of burden who carried two- hundred-pound gunny sacks of flour or sugar on their backs, one bag at a time, the bags held secure by holding onto the sack's "ears", arms extended backwards from raised elbows, legs hobbling from warehouse to vehicle. When offloading at the retail shops in Pumwani, Majengo or Shauri Moyo, one man stood the sacks up at the edge of the platform and then helped load the other man. They took turns loading and carrying, causing Ramesh to wonder if this was the reason they were called turnboys.
Shauri Moyo was one of the "locations" where the city's black population lived. Shauri meant "matter" in Swahili, as in "shauri ngani", "what is the matter?". "Moyo" he found out years later meant "heart". "A matter of the heart". Shauri Moyo was not a place he would have associated with matters of heart. It was where the poor of the city lived. To its north were the mud and wattle houses of Pumwani and Majengo. The railway line to Mombasa cut across Shauri Moyo. On the south side of the line were ugly industrial installations, oil tanks of Shell and Caltex, flour mills, shoe factories. Chimneys spewed out thick black smoke all day.
The three of them, Ramesh and his buddies, had decided to go the Ngong Hills this Sunday afternoon. Ramesh had completed Form VI just two months earlier. The results had come in from the Overseas Examination Board in Cambridge, England only a week ago. Ramesh had failed his science subjects. If he had passed, the family would have sent him to Britain or India for a professional degree. His buddy Narinder, sitting between him and Amichand in the jeep's cab, had just scraped through all his own subjects and had already started classes at the Asian Teachers' Training School.
The red jeep had just reached the unpaved leg of the climb up the first of the seven Ngong Hills in the range overlooking the hot Rift Valley to the west. The jeep would have to manage this hill all the way to the top in four-wheel drive, for they were getting close to the summit, eight thousand feet above sea level. The sky was pale blue, with a scattering of white clouds sailing over the horizon. Ramesh leaned back further from the steering wheel and took in the scene. These hills, he thought, were a majestic dividing line. The hot, dry plains of the great Rift Valley to the west, the lush highlands in the north. In the south and east was acacia country, arid and thorny, rolling all the way down to the coast. The Maasai roamed with their livestock in the plains below, sharing the land with lion and giraffe, buffalo and bushbuck. The Kikuyu used to farm the best part of the highlands, now occupied by the white settlers. What a splendid country it seems from up here, he said to himself, looking at Nairobi, a couple of thousand feet below. The strife there -- Mau Mau, arrogant settlers, repressive elders seemed very distant.
At the Maasai Store in Ngong Village they had brought three big bottles of Tusker and some chips. Amichand had stayed in the vehicle, although he was the one who had dished out the money. Amichand always had money. He had been helping out in, and was now virtually running, his father's wholesale produce store for more than two years, having failed the Cambridge School Leaving Certificate Exam at the end of Form IV. He remained in the jeep because he was afraid he would be recognized by the Maasai Store people who were his father's old customers. All three of them could be in trouble then if word about the beer got out.
Ramesh had been in a foul mood all afternoon.
"Motabhai is being difficult, eh?" said Narinder in Hindi. Narinder, being Punjabi, did not speak Gujarati, though he understood it well enough. Motabhai itself was a Gujarati word, though, a term of respect for "Elder Brother". There were times the three of them used words from five different languages during a short exchange.
"He refused to give me the jeep's keys. In the end I took them from his coat pocket and just took off. He was so startled he couldn't say anything. It has been a bad day. In the morning I got into an argument with a customer in the shop. This fellow said he had given me a five shilling note for the miserable three cigarettes he was buying. He hadn't paid a cent. He was going on about the colour bar -- calaa ba."
"Calaa baaa---" repeated Narinder, contorting his face.
"I told him to go away, but he just stood there accusing all the wahindi of practising calaa ba. Speaking of colour bar, the other day I met Tom Mboya at Tirlochan's father's tailor shop. Mboya's office is next door. He does not have a 'phone of his own, so he uses theirs. I tell you, that fellow is a born leader."
"Tirlochan's going to India to study medicine," said Narinder.
"He got a letter of recommendation from Tom Mboya," answered Ramesh.
"Too bad he can't get one of those scholarships Mboya is organizing for African students going to study in America. Tirlochan's dad can barely afford to send him to study in poor India," Narinder said with a sigh. "Maybe one day we will learn to call all people who are born and live in Africa just plain Africans and be done with these stupid division of African, European and Asian."
"Do you think Tom Mboya will become the top leader if this country gets Uhuru?" asked Ramesh.
"Well, he is already the Trade Union leader. If they ever allow one man one vote, he would be elected to-morrow. Who knows if this country will ever become independent. The settlers are already talking about joining with the Rhodesians in one big Federation. They want another South Africa here."
"Ghana has independence, one man one vote. Why not the rest of Africa?"
"The white kaburus will never give up power in South Africa."
"Talking about colour bar, you know what Tom Mboya did the other day? He got together with a couple of other African and Indian leaders and tried to have dinner at Safari Hotel."
"Who were the Indians?" asked Narinder.
"Chuni Madan, the new Asian member of Legco...."
"What's Legco?" asked Amichand, hesitantly.
"It's short for the Legislative Council. Didn't they teach you anything in Eastleigh Secondary? Anyway, the other Indian was the editor of the Daily Chronicle. They all walked into the restaurant at Safari Hotel. They went in and sat down at a table. The African waiter called out the European manager, who politely asked them to leave."
"And what did they do?"
They asked why they were being asked to leave. The manager pointed at the sign they have in all European restaurants and cinemas: "THE MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT OF ADMISSION."
"In South Africa they are more direct. The signs say 'Coolies, Blacks, Coloureds and dogs not allowed in.' "
"Well, in the end the manager called the police and they were forced to leave. The next day the Daily Chronicle printed a big headline about the colour bar at Safari Hotel."
Amichand wanted to know how many Asian members Legco had.
"There are three elected Asian members and five African elected members. The Asian seats are divided, one is reserved for a Muslim member, the other two for non-Muslims. Europeans have eleven elected members."
"The British know how to divide and rule," said Narinder.
"Hey, look at that cute Maasai girl."
Amichand was pointing at a lithe, young woman walking with her arm around a big gourd balanced on the side of her hip.
"You will have to be born again and be in the right Morani age group to get any attention from her," Narinder said.
The girl had a series of tight bead necklaces strung around her long neck and strings of bead around her waist, just above the hips. Her hair was in braids glued with a mix of red ochre. Her features were angular.
"Look how red everything is. The red jeep on the red tracks of the unpaved road and the girl wearing the red ochre suka," Amichand said with enthusiasm.
"And if you think you can invite her to join us we will soon have red blood sprouting from a Maasai spear. Get the idea out of your head," said Narinder.
Ramesh laughed and took three Clipper cigarettes from the pack on the dash board and passed two to Narinder, who pressed in the lighter on the dashboard. The road was getting steep now and he had to switch to first gear.
"Remember the time we picked up the Wakamba women near Machakos? They kept saying they wanted to go to the 'raiki' and we couldn't figure out what the hell they meant," said Amichand.
"You were getting pretty friendly with one of them?"
"I've figured out what they meant by 'raiki'. It's a lake. There is a small one further along the road to Nyandurwa."
"They would have come along with us if we had anywhere to go."
"We are the wrong colour in the wrong country."
The lighter popped up from its socket. Ramesh lit his cigarette and passed the lighter to Narinder. They were getting close to the top of the first of the seven Ngong Hills and the gradient was getting steeper. Soon a vista of the sun-baked plains of the Rift Valley opened up to their right as the road curved to the left. The ridge they were on dropped precipitously down. They could see the dry, burnt plain below stretching to the horizon. Far away, past Mount Longonut, they could see a streak of blue. That had to be Lake Naivasha, thought Ramesh.
Although the sun was shining, there had been a shower earlier and some of the hollows on the meandering road were waterlogged. As they approached the next dip in the road they saw a Ford Cortina stuck in a water-filled hollow. The rear wheels rotated furiously, churning out mud, the vehicle refusing to budge forward.
"Looks like wazungu," Narinder said.
"Don't feel like helping them after what that bastard settler said when we were dropping off the British soldiers at Gilgil."
"'Since when have you started a transport business?'" Narinder imitated the settler's gruff voice, managing to rub in the insult Ramesh had felt at the time.
Ramesh recalled how he had stopped to let out the soldiers after giving them a lift from Naivasha. As he yanked down the rear door plank to let the soldiers out, a settler's car pulled up behind with bright headlights beaming into the jeep's box. A red-faced, paunchy man in khaki shirt and shorts came marching out of the car shouting, "What the hell is going on here?" his revolver slinging from the sagging belt on his shorts.
The man walked to the front of the jeep, took a look at Narinder and Amichand and then turned to Ramesh. Ramesh was frightened by the tone the man had taken and managed to stammer that he had just given a lift to the soldiers. The settler then spat out, "Since when have you started a transportation business?" and had marched back to his car and drove off. The young Scottish soldiers from the Black Watch unit were in Kenya as part of the British effort to fight the Mau Mau. A state of "Emergency" had been declared in Kenya for some years now. The soldiers apologized for the settler's behaviour.
They had to stop a short distance behind the Cortina. There was no way of passing it, and it was too risky to try and wedge their way around the furrowed track. The grassy bank was too high and the space between it and the Cortina too narrow. The Cortina's driver and passengers had gotten out of their vehicle to examine the situation. They were two young white men and a girl in a gray flannel skirt and white blouse. She had long blonde hair done in a thick braid hanging down to her waist.
"Let's see what they do," Amichand said.
The driver got back into the vehicle, and the girl and the other man took up positions behind the Cortina. The driver put the vehicle into gear and started revving up the engine. The rear wheels turned, but the vehicle stayed in the same spot. Mud spluttered everywhere. Soon the girl and the man were covered all over with it. They stopped pushing and the girl stepped back a few yards. Suddenly the driver revved the engine again. Rear wheels spun, spraying two parallel streaks of mud on the girl's skirt and blouse, her neck and her cheek. She yelled and tried to duck out of the way. Then she began laughing. She stopped for a moment, then bent over double with laughter, at the same time trying to brush some of the mud off with her hand. The driver got out of the car, took a look at his companions and then both men joined in the hilarity.
The girl pulled a big cake of wet mud off her skirt and threw it at the driver, splattering his shirt. They were now running in circles around the car like escaped lunatics. Then the girl lost her footing and fell into the watery furrow on the road. The men continued to laugh helplessly as they pulled her up. As she got up Ramesh noticed her braid was now caked with mud.
"At this rate we will never get out here, but the show is great," said Narinder.
The girl and the two young men laughed and ran around for what seemed a long time and finally, exhausted, they collapsed onto the front of the car and lay sunning themselves. At that point Ramesh got out of the jeep and walked towards them.
"Do you ever want to get out of here?"
"No," said the girl, "never," and she started laughing again.
The mirth on her muddy face lifted Ramesh's gloomy spirits.
"I can try pushing up the rear". He was pointing at the back of the Cortina, but was still looking at the girl. At that moment she seemed the most stunning young woman he had ever seen. Her features were hard to make out through the caked mud, but he loved her just as she was, covered in mud and laughter.
"You are visitors from Europe?"
"Yea, all of us. Joe here is my cousin in Kenya, and Philip is also my cousin, from London. I am Felicity," she said between more bouts of laughter.
"My name is Ramesh."
She put out her hand, then started to withdraw it. "It's wet and muddy."
"Never mind." He took her hand and shook it vigorously. They laughed. Her hand felt warm and inviting and he shook it over and over again. Then he said: "Okay, I will push you up out of that hole."
He walked back to the jeep.
"They are having fun," said Amichand.
"Yea, they know how to live," said Ramesh.
He started the engine, engaged the four-wheel drive and roared up to the back of the Cortina. Then he slowed down and edged along until he made contact with the rear bumper. Felicity was watching from the back seat of the Cortina, directing him. As the jeep was about to touch the bumper, she put up both hands and began shaking them wildly. The Cortina's driver, the fellow called Joe, revved the engine, and the jeep pushed the car out of the mud, up the little slope and on to the dry tracks again. As the Cortina continued along on its own power, Felicity waved a two-handed good-bye, punctuating it with several kisses blown their way.
"Yes, they know how to live," said Amichand.
They followed the Cortina to the top of the first hill and parked further up on the little plateau to the right side of the summit facing the burning valley below. The sun was lighting up the whole of the plain in gold, broken only by the shadow of a range of hills far away. Mount Longonut stood in the centre, its jagged extremities reminiscent of volcanic ferocity. And yet, at the moment the mountain seemed lonely, strange and desolate.
Ramesh opened the door on his side and stuck his legs out.
"Let's have the beer."
Narinder had stepped out of the vehicle to watch the Cortina and now came back to report that the occupants had gotten out of the car and were carrying the girl up to the top of the summit. Ramesh stuck his head out of the jeep to look. There she was, perched on the seat formed by the joined hands of the young men on either side of her. He accepted the bottle of Tusker Amichand had opened for him and took a long swig.
Ramesh was silent for a long time. He wanted, he thought, the simplest of things. He worked hard. All he expected from life was what most people in the world somehow got, even if they were poor. Some balance. He didn't mind hard work, but needed some personal freedom, some opportunity to enjoy things. Play some sport, go to dances, make friends, meet women. Simple things, yet somehow just not possible.
He said quietly, "Look at us. We've got nowhere to go for fun. The swimming pools and the restaurants are closed to us. There are no girls for us to take out. The wazungu won't even look at us. This girl who talked to us is different because she is a visitor from England. Our own Indian girls are not allowed to go out at all. The Africans live in their traditional ways and stick with their own people. The only women we can have anything to do with are the malayas -- those prostitutes in Eastleigh. Other people play tennis on beautiful club lawns, even go water-skiing at the Nairobi damn. Not for us, no, it just ain't available."
"Well, there are dances at the Goan Institute, and a friend of mine has got in sometimes," said Amichand.
"Only if he is taken as a special guest by some Goan friend."
"London is the place. We've got to get out of here," Ramesh said, thinking how he would have to face the wrath of his elder brother on returning home.
The air up there on the hilltop was crisp, the soil red and the grass bright green. Down on the plains below, hot air shimmered and created double images. In the distance lone Mount Longonut loomed again. Its dark, ragged edges seemed forbidding as they wre silhouetted against the dipping sun. He could make out the elliptical lines of the crater at the top of the volcano. There had been some rumbling in the crater not so long ago. The prediction was that there could be a major eruption.
It would be hot and uncomfortable when they got down to the plains again.
"Or, maybe, just maybe," Amichand offered hesitantly, "Ghana. It is the only free black country. At least then we would still be in Africa."
"Dream on. What the hell do you know about Ghana? Do you know what language they speak there? Whether they would let in people like you and me?"
"And what do you think you can do in London?" said Amichand, "Work as a waiter -- if they let you in at all, that is?"
Narinder felt the bitterness in the air and said nothing.
(Rasik Shah was born in Nairobi, of migrant parents from India. He grew up in a large family in a Kenya not very different from apartheid South Africa, speaking Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and Swahili. He studied law at the Inns of Courts in London and practised in independent Kenya for about ten years, and then in Canada where he now lives and writes full- time.)
Coping with Karma
'Jamaica, no problem'
2 Dec, 1997
PICKED five weeks ago on a Papine bus to Half Way Tree, my leather wallet has come back to me without the money but with everything else intact. I thought it might be an omen.
To be fair, my karma has been pretty good, except for picked pockets and lost affection, made terminal by indiscretion the day I lost the wallet. My Guyanese-Jamaican guru, Dr P, has done his best to help. Trying to stick to my mantra the morning the wallet returned, I thought, 'It must be: faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is hope '.
It happened like this.
I called a woman I know at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, library for information on the Carter Center in Atlanta, which is bringing international observers for the December 18 Jamaica election. The woman in the library said someone had called her weeks ago to say they had found the wallet on the pavement in front of their office at Half Way Tree. The name and telephone number of the woman at the library were in the wallet. She thought I had gone back to Trinidad, said so to the caller, and told me apologetically she had misplaced the caller's name and telephone number.
I placed a classified ad in the Jamaica Observer, asking the finder to contact me. The first day the ad appeared the finder called to say I could come to pick it up.
THE driver's permit still in the wallet has revived the dream of renting a motorbike and riding about the island. I've been warned repeatedly against riding a motorbike here because of the risk of being knocked down on Kingston's streets. But I have no intention of riding in Kingston.
I want to burst through the hills and hurry along the old country lanes of St Ann, St Elizabeth, and Westmoreland. I've been warned of a particular danger while the election campaign is on. The bike, and anything I wear, should not be red or orange, the colours of the People's National Party (PNP), or Green, the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP's) colour. Political fanatics here take their colours that seriously. Perhaps it would help if I stuck on the handle bars the Jamaican flag I got for the Jamaica-Mexico World Cup qualifying football match.
The wildest Jamaican football fans have begun to believe the World Cup must be brought back to Jamaica from France, one way or another--before the final if necessary. Dumbfounded Fifa officials would send the Foreign Legion on undercover missions to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, across Columbus's Ocean Sea, JLP and PNP dons would give orders to down arms while their troops skanked before Jules Rimet's trophy, strapped to the roof of a smoking, rattling bus.
I have written to warn my cousin doing international law at Paris's Sorbonne (bright side of the family) that Jamaica will play Argentina in Paris on Sunday, June 21, in the first round of the World Cup finals. He might shoot down to Lyons the following weekend on the train de grande vitesse to see Jamaica confront the Japs.
I want to ask my editor for leave then and make the World Cup into a tour of France: Paris, Lyons, Toulouse, Nantes, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, Marseilles, Saint-Denis, Bordeaux, Nantes. Whether I get into any of the matches will be of secondary importance.
Argentine coach Daniel Passarella has said about the competition's Group H: 'Croatia could surprise anybody; Japan are a dynamic team we respect; we know nothing at all about Jamaica except that they have a Brazilian coach and play football well.'
Another warning against my renting a motorbike is that even in the peaceful Jamaican countryside I might by chance pass a band of outlaws eager for target practice and the bike. 'Death, where is thy sting?' All it would mean is having to be sent home to Lapeyrouse in a box.
Perhaps I'll rent a bike in France instead.
IF DIVINE intervention comes my way here, it may be because I went a few weeks ago to an inter-religious service at Unity of Jamaica's church near the National Stadium.
I went through loyalty to Dr P, the guru. A devout Hindu with a personal philosophy that embraces all religions, Dr P went to Unity to speak on 'male energy.' All the men in the congregation had to sit together, a square patch in a sea of women.
I met Dr P while doing an article on Jamaican Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. He has become the Fr Burchell of this visit to Jamaica. When I was here earlier this year, and thought I had fallen in love with Jamaica, I was adopted by Burchell and saw real Jamaican hospitality. This time I've been adopted by Dr P.
He saw my aura and I discovered he was deeply involved in the treatment of stress. He was soon prescribing adequate rest, less sugar, meditation and 16 glasses of water a day. Jokes are also important.
Sir Vidia said once he could crack four or five jokes a page. Dr P will give him a run for his money when his book comes out next year. The master of ceremonies at the Unity service was Mr Crawford--round, dark and very enthusiastic. He is the organist at the 7.15 a.m. service on Sundays at UWI's old chapel at Mona. During the Unity service he and a pianist accompanied each other while the congregation lustily sang some favourite hymns.
Mr Crawford and Dr P met 30 years ago as UWI students lodging at Irvine Hall. Crawford remembered that Patrick Manning, now Leader of the Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago, was there with them.
'Patrick used to eat a lot of bread,' Crawford recalled. 'When other people had two or three slices he had half a loaf.'
At the end of the service, after Dr P's medico-philosophical talk, the pianist did something by Tchaikovsky and received a tremendous ovation. Afterwards there were things to eat and drink. I was hugged and kissed by a couple of matronly ladies, which restored some of my self-esteem. Perhaps all was not lost after all: 'The greatest of these is hope.' I spoke to Crawford about Jamaican music, and later discovered Jamaican mento without at first knowing what it was. I heard it first passing through the lobby at Kingston's posh Wyndham hotel. Then at Caymanas Park, during the races, where there was a small mento band I was able to observe at close quarters.
The musicians were mainly oldish men. There were two guitars, a banjo, a scratcher and a box base on which its player sat, pulling on rectangular metal teeth that resonated in the box. I was swept away by the sweet music, only wishing another was there to hear it with me. I had been given two tickets for the Caymanas races and only used one. Mento is old-time Jamaican music, a mixture of Trinidad's Syl Dopson and parang. The band played a few old calypsoes. Their rendition of 'Sly Mongoose' set feet tapping. I would have been dancing madly if I had drunk a flask of rum or was in the privacy of my burrow.
When I noticed that one of the guitars played an offbeat rhythm, I knew immediately this music must be the precursor of reggae. I thought I must develop this theory, until I was told the connection is widely accepted in Jamaica. The woman at the UWI library has just given me an admission card and I will have to go there to find out all about mento.
My wallet I have shut away in a drawer and only use a money belt. I despair now at having to travel on buses and thankfully get drops two and from work.
Otherwise I'm usually at home writing this. With one addition, it would be paradise.
'Baby you'll find There's only one love like Yours and mine'. 25 Dec, 1997
A PHONECALL from Mrs Mayyou in Trinidad late on Christmas Eve reminded me that a lot of people went to church that night. I was going, wasn't I? Mrs Mayyou asked. I didn't know, I said.
Brought up a devout Roman Catholic, religious ceremonies now bore me quickly, especially the low-church, guitar-playing ones in vogue today. I'm a high-church man, so I like it better when there's a great organ accompanying famous hymns, with some Latin thrown in. The kind of thing you get at Evensong at St John's College, Cambridge, at the 11 a.m. high mass at London's Brompton Oratory, and sometimes at Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain.
It's not just religious ceremonies, of course. I'm afflicted with hair-trigger boredom, which means I sometimes walk out of films and find excuses to leave and return several times during seminars.
Jamaica, believe it or not, is a very Christian country: Protestant, high-church Anglican, and innumerable Pentecostal sects--together with a handful of hard-working Jesuits. Sundays are very still, with church music and preachers on radio stations. You can imagine, then, what Christmas is like.
After Mrs Mayyou's phone call I remembered Mr Crawford, the organist, and rang him. He was about to leave for Mona where there would be carols in the chapel from 11.30 p.m. before a high-church Anglican midnight mass.
I rubbed sleep from my eyes, dressed up, and set off on the 20-minute walk to the Mona campus armed with my rod of protection. You are generally warned not to walk about at that time of night in or near Kingston. I do, of course--and, bound for a religious service, surely God would protect me.
With a record 1000-plus murders in Jamaica in 1997--though the December election was said to be the most peaceful in years--if KD Knight is reappointed Minister of National Security it will be clear that the newly elected People's National Party (PNP) government isn't serious about stopping crime.
I ENTERED the campus gate and went across the dark lawn towards the chapel, not allowing myself even a glance in the direction of Mary Seacole Hall. That's where women students stay. Women are the one area in which my Jamaican karma has been really quite bad.
It got worse as Christmas approached, which is why I am sitting alone at home writing this on Christmas day.
There's a game we play at Christmas time at the Trinidad Express called angels and earthlings. Secret gifts are left by angels for earthlings. Two years ago something extraordinary happened. It is the final unravelling of that miracle that has me in Jamaica today. If you ever have the opportunity to play angels and earthlings (called pixies here) at a newspaper in Jamaica--don't! The cultural gap is too great.
To begin with, in Jamaica an angel mustn't be of the same sex as an earthling. That's where the trouble started. My earthling was a pretty browning in her mid-twenties. I'd been in a jeep with her previously on nomination day. I liked her sense of humour.
My first secret gift was a chocolate. The second was a white stone. The third was a small bottle of kananga water--which I assumed was a cheap perfume. The fourth was an invitation to 'do something on the weekend'. Her boyfriend wouldn't like that, she said pointedly, so I dropped it. After the weekend I went up to her with a debonair air and said: 'I hope my faux pas last week was taken as a compliment'.
Later that day I was accosted by another person of my earthling's sex, with whom my earthling must have communicated at the earliest opportunity. How could I have done it? Ask her to spend the weekend with me, then ask for her boyfriend's phone number? Especially when she was not the reason I was in Jamaica?
My amazement deepened when I was told that the combination of a stone and kananga water was seen an obvious attempt to employ obeah for my nefarious purpose.
From what the informant said before cutting me dead--as my earthling did too, after I berated her--every woman in the newsroom, most of whom I hardly knew, now regarded me with uncomfortable suspicion. No amount of explaining helped. Everyone else was suddenly a victim. My own deepening melancholy counted for nothing. You see what I mean about bad karma.
ANYWAY, crossing the dark campus lawn on Christmas Eve, carefully avoiding Mary Seacole, I entered the chapel to find Mr Crawford just coming in himself.
I saluted the Trinidad and Tobago flag, hanging with other Caribbean Community (Caricom) flags from the chapel's gallery, and asked Mr Crawford if he would be playing the organ. It was giving trouble, he said, but he hoped something could be got out of it. Near the organ was a piano which would be used as well.
I left Mr Crawford fiddling with the organ and walked about the chapel. I had been told that when UWI started up in the 1940's the chapel had been brought stone by stone from somewhere else and rebuilt at Mona. There was a simple table altar with two candles on it. Behind the altar was a blue stained-glass window depicting the risen Christ. On the ceiling were carved roses and some coats of arms. I went up the stairs near the main door into the gallery. There was a man half-asleep on the floor there who grunted as I passed.
I went along the gallery to sit for a while just behind the flag. Homesickness does this kind of thing to you.
Descending from the gallery, I went out through the main door, lit a cigarette, and passed through a waist-high metal revolving gate which led into the small, dark chapel garden. I walked across the garden lawn to the single, low white tomb there. It was the final resting-place of Aston Preston, former UWI vice-chancellor. He died, I think, in 1988, and there is a new hall of residence at Mona named after him.
Here and there at the edge of the garden were the broken remains of walls hundreds of years old, disjecta membra of Mona sugar estate. There were shrubs growing on the lawn, ornate old plant pots, a wooden bench under a tree and a fishpond, its surface thick with water lilies and fish-weed. At the edge of the pond lay pieces of what looked like carved sea monsters.
I thought it must be meant to look like an English chapel garden, and was perhaps more carefully tended and more beautiful when the campus was first laid out.
I left the garden and went back into the chapel just as the carols were starting, accompanied by the piano. Two or three people standing near the piano led the singing and the small congregation joined in. Familiar old favourites: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night--and a couple in a toned-down Jamaican vernacular--De Virgin Mary, and Rock di Baby to Sleep.
SUDDENLY, as O Holy Night, I think it was, began, the organ boomed out. It sounded in good health to me.
This was what I had come for, and it was wonderful. It wasn't Mr Crawford playing, though. It was a man in a white soutane, a deacon perhaps.
As midnight approached the priest came in and lit the candles. Soon mass began, the carols replaced by hymns accompanied by the organ. The man at the keyboard sounded like a virtuoso as far as I was concerned.
I stayed until the priest, with a hairdo like Suren Capildeo's, read the gospel. Disappointingly, he read from some newfangled edition and not the King James version.
I'd been to the chapel before and knew this priest loved his work as much as attorney Capildeo loves his. He would preach and preach, savouring each parable. He would leave the pulpit and came down the aisle to the congregation. He would smile and gesticulate and look people in the eye as he expounded the holy word. After half an hour he would be just warming up.
I left quickly just before the gospel ended.
Retrieving my rod, I headed off home. On the way I passed two young men. They called out, asking for $50. I refused. They threw a stone. I threw one back and, fortunately, they took off.
Back at home, I got into bed and began reading Sir Philip Sherlock's new book, The Story of The Jamaican People. I had interviewed Sir Philip a few weeks before the book was published. He explained that the purpose of the book was to tell black Jamaicans about their history: in Africa before they came to Jamaica as slaves; and in Jamaica, where their efforts gave birth to democracy and many other wonderful things. The book suggested Jamaica was an African country, not a European one. It was the kind of book, in other words, that would drive Trinidadian parliamentarian Morgan Job to distraction. Its importance for me was stories it told about the birth of modern Jamaican politics: Norman Manley and the formation of the PNP; Sir Alexander Bustamante, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
I stopped reading for a moment to consider my karma, and to imagine what Mrs Mayyou and her family would be doing on Christmas morning.
Then I fell asleep.
AULD LANG SYNE
....Han hall de res dem deh.
6 Jan, 1998 (Twelfth Night)
MONA GREATHOUSE sits on an eminence at the foot of Long Mountain. It looks over the broad Mona Valley to the western end of the Grand Ridge. The ridge, crest of the Blue Mountains, runs from north-west to south-east into Jamaica's rural eastern parishes of Portland and St Thomas. Twelve miles north-east of Mona, as the johnny crow flies, Blue Mountain Peak rises to 7,402 feet.
The valley was full of lush cane once, irrigated by the Hope River. Today the paved river runs alongside the sprawling Mona Heights residential district, like Diamond Vale in Trinidad but more than twice the size.
The white, two-storey wooden greathouse rests on a walled, six-foot-high stone foundation. Four large, identical square windows with glass panes run along the front of the ground floor. The pattern is repeated symmetrically on the floor above. Two identical stone staircases, parallel with the front of the house, rise to a stone landing. The tall, double front doors are polished dark and there is a shiny brass knocker.
At night the house is lit up but there is no sound of life. Ceiling fans turn slowly on the upper floor. A peep through a shutter on the ground floor reveals a startling collection of antique furniture and modern art. Adjoining the house is a carefully tended walled garden. It is all that is left of spacious grounds, now filled with expensive modern homes, some semi-detached, some matching the architecture of the greathouse.
Behind the greathouse there is a long, low block of flats on carefully landscaped terraced land descending to a little valley. (One of these flats was my home while I was in Jamaica.) The whole complex is now called Greathouse Mews.
ONE NIGHT I remembered I wanted to talk to the people who lived in the greathouse to write something about it. I walked round to the front of the house, went up the stone staircase and rapped with the brass knocker. No response, and there was no bell. I rapped again and called out.
'Good evening, anyone at home? Good night! Ello, hanybody at 'ome. Whe a baddy a dey so in dey?'
Still no response.
I slipped my card beneath the door and left. The next day the owner rang. I explained what I wanted. He would have to talk to his wife, he said in a neutral English accent. He called again the following day, thanked me for my interest, and said an interview was quite impossible. I heard the stern voice of the wife in the background. I wondered if either of them was a descendant of the original owners.
'It may not really have been a greathouse,' the owner offered. 'It seems to have been the overseer's quarters. It was built in the 1700s on the remains of an old Spanish building.'
He didn't want to say any more; he and his wife wished to protect their privacy.
Were there ghosts? I asked. He didn't think so, but the children said they had seen their dead nanny.
I SPOKE TO the man in the greathouse on Old Year's day.
There had been a drought for weeks. Mona dam, half a mile from the greathouse, which supplies nearly a million people in greater Kingston, was just over half-full. Everyone was being asked to conserve water. Three days before Old Year's it suddenly began raining. It rained day and night with gusty winds. It became perceptibly cooler. In my flat, with squalls rattling the windows, I felt I was on a sailing ship at sea. The hook holding one of the windows broke and the window sprang open.
Was this the rainy season come at last? No, just a cold front passing over the island, said the television news.
No one seems to know any longer when Jamaica's wet season occurs. It used to be in April and October but has become irregular.
It has been unusually dry for years. Xamaica is Amerindian for land of wood and water. With continuing deforestation of the Blue Mountains, Jamaicans are learning that one doesn't come without the other. Jamaica is a much more settled island than Trinidad. Much of the forest was cut down centuries ago. Today the rolling pastureland that alternates with cultivation reminds you of Europe. For me, one of the joys of Jamaica is the fresh milk sold in plastic jugs and boxes in groceries.
As in Haiti, country people have for a long, long time cut down trees for charcoal. More trees are being cut now to increase the acreage under coffee. There has even been talk of building a desalination plant to turn the sea into fresh water.
Jamaica is the Caribbean's English-speaking Haiti. Think about it. The island was preserved from the Haitian disaster only by remaining a colony till 1962. Haitians have had nearly 200 years to wreck their country as they please.
Of course, the rain came down in abundance in October, just when the Red Stripe cricket series was being played. But that was to be expected. Cricket's alchemical influence on the clouds works as well in Jamaica as it does in Trinidad.
Immediately after the cricket the drought resumed. The water shortages all over Jamaica were an issue in the campaign for the December 18 election. The water goes off at about 10 p.m. at Greathouse Mews and comes back on again at about 5.30 a.m. On top of the drought, corroded old mains gush water all over the island. No one has asked why the mains weren't properly maintained.
I'm sorry, but if you can't even run a proper election, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to manage your water resources.
The Chinese have recently come to the rescue with a shipment of PVC pipes, bought with a US$5 million (TT$30 million) interest-free loan. I've heard that Trinidad is sending pipes too.
GOING to work in a taxi on Old Year's morning (I avoid buses like the plague now), the glassy-eyed Rastafarian driver and I were listening to Jamaica's most famous call-in radio programme, hosted by the highly opinionated and loquacious Wilmot 'Mutty' Perkins. The topic was politics, as it has been on call-in shows for the last three or four months.
'Dem commit dem finger and dem body a go pay for hit,' the driver said suddenly. He was talking about those who had voted PNP in the election. 'Dem give dem a dey crumbs and bribes a whe go bring damnation,' he declared.
He was no friend of PJ Patterson, sworn in as prime minister for the third time at King's House the day before. ANC chief, Thabo Mbeki, who 'happened to be on holiday in Jamaica', was guest of honour at the ceremony.
JLP leader Edward Seaga has said the Jamaican economy is in shambles and the PNP won't be able to do anything about it. He has even hinted the PNP won't last the full five years of it third term.
A local-government election, called parish elections in Jamaica--with parliamentary constituencies within each parish divided up into local government constituencies--is expected by April. Patterson has said these elections will take place just as soon as the confused voters list is cleaned up.
Suddenly, after the rushed general election, he has conceded how bad the list is--not to mention the confusion this caused for voters. Even as the PNP starts on its unprecedented third term, it's beginning to look like the December 18 election is far from over.
During Christmas week the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), headed by the much-maligned Danville Walker, announced that the JLP's Andrew Holness--who at 25 will be Jamaica's youngest member of parliament ever--had displaced the PNP winner Dr Warren Blake.
The first vote count on the night of the election gave Blake 8,436 votes, 122 more than Holness in the West Central St Andrew seat. Holness asked for a recount, and the result swung one way, then the other during two or three further recounts.
On the final, final recount, Holness was declared winner by a 'slim margin'. The final figure was not disclosed.
Holness's political leader, Seaga, now 57, first won a seat at the age of 29.
Blake hasn't taken the final, final result lying down. He has charged that during the recount two ballot boxes went missing and a third was found to contain 140 spoilt ballots which his PNP supporters claim were cast unspoilt for Blake.
Contacted on December 28, the EOJ said the returning officer for West Central St Andrew, Ancel Thomas, had been 'faced by a dilemma and had no recourse but to issue the necessary documentation at midday yesterday, declaring the seat for the JLP'.
Last week, more than 20 unsuccessful JLP candidates--of a total of 60--filed petitions under new electoral laws passed in the House just before the election to have elections in their constituencies declared null and void.
One of the JLP's deputy leaders, Ryan Peralto, was deeply involved in discussions with the EOJ before the election about serious discrepancies in voting procedures. Peralto has said once again that the inaccurate list of voters and the failure of the EOJ to issue identity cards to each voter, as required by law, meant many electors were unable to vote for the candidate of their choice. The December 18 election was so full of distortions it made a free and fare election impossible.
It is now up to a body called the Constituted Authority. Petitioners can take the matter to court as well.
WORKING here, and not on vacation, there's been little time to see much of Jamaica. I mean the rural interior not the beaches.
I've been trying to get to one spot in particular and am determined to get there before I leave in a couple days time.
I want to go up into the Blue Mountains to Newcastle, 5,000 feet above sea level. No one will take me so I'll have to use all my ingenuity to get there. A Papine pine taxi-driver told me he could take me there and back for J$1,600 (TT$270).
I've discovered I can go with a tour group and guide for J$1,400 (TT$230).
The road forks at Papine, near the University Hospital. To the right is August Town, where the most serious violence in the election campaign took place. To the left it goes uphill past Irish Town, then winds precariously between sheer drops, past Redlight to Strawberry Hill and the park at Newcastle near an army camp.
If you don't see me again, you'll know I've been overcome and taken up abode there: the man on the hill in Jamaica's Blue Mountains.
(Anthony Milne (email@example.com), was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)
SINGING IN THE WIND
By Keith SmithCarnival Tuesday evening, from the vantage point of the tray of the Laventille Rhythm Section truck, I am looking across at Roger George, much higher than me on the tip-top of his own Charlie's Roots' truck.
Or rather, I am listening to him and it seems to me that he is singing for me alone, not that he has any idea that I am there, only that down below people are moving around in a swirl of Minshall red going about their business, buying corn soup and bread and shark, beer and soda water, pausing to pee, the band standing still, as always, at this enforced Memorial Park pit-stop so the Minshalites, perforce, are occupied doing their human things on the ground while, perversely, this Minshalite is deep into the divine playing out on high.
All yuh ever hear Roger George sing? Well, I am hearing him this Tuesday evening, and I, who have made it my business to hear him sing whenever there is the opportunity, find myself stunned for the umpteenth time by the variety and range that this 26-year-old brings to his craft: as gruff as Satchmo would have it, and so high that hearing him David Rudder, who is sharing the truck with him (is Charlie's Roots' truck, after all), playfully asks of this married man: 'Yuh ent have no balls?'
Between Satchmo and the high falsetto that you'd expect only from a eunuch (thanks, David), George's voice covers all the bases and he is singing his original but Beanieman- inspired chant, only, of course, Beanieman never sang anything quite like this: George singing lead as if he was not one but all of three singers.
Indeed, he catches me because I find myself looking to see who really is singing atop that Charlie's Roots' truck because, look! Roots also has not only David, who alone is more than enough, but KV Charles who alone is a star, and Kerwyn Trotman who could carry the whole damn show if all of them were to get sick.
But this evening, this moment, whether by accident or design, it is Roger's show, and show off he does, singing and scatting, doing all kinds of wonderfully impossible things with that voice, and I fancy (we are outside the hospital you see) that the sick are pulling themselves up to peer out of their windows to see and hear; and as for the dead, well, the only reason they don't wake up is because the mortuary is quite across on the Belmont Circular Road so they out of earshot, poor things!
Now, the prelude finished, George presses into the song proper and it is 'Man A Bad Man' and I tell you and I warn you that after you hear George sing that song you don't need to hear Bud sing it again; which is a helluva conclusion to come to because there is also something divine about Bud's voice, only that in sharing voice when God reached Roger he was distracted by the need to reach out and save a drowning child, so that he hand slip and George end up with his and five other people's share.
So that, friends, was one of the transcendental Carnival moments for me; but before I leave I want to leave you with a few others in, as you'll see, no particular order.
Gypsy is singing. The last night of Spektakula's calypso season. A good but not full house. The song: 'Lift Yourself Up'. The style: Soulful. The Groove: Just right. And the crowd doesn't really want him to go so he asks the willing Wayne Bruno to bear with him ('is the last night, after all; what the hell!'), and this man who has just been deposed as the reigning king gives this kingly performance, so relaxed and so unperturbed, caressing each cadence; and I relate because both of us, I know, grew up with the 'blues' and what Mr Peters is here doing, this Carnival Saturday night, is chasing not his own (Gypsy is a nationally entrenched entertainer so the crown is neither here nor there) but other people's blues away.
And I am proud of him and thank God for giving us such an all-reaching talent as this one, and later I make it my business to go round the back to thank the old 'Gyp' for all that he has given us.
Dimanche Gras night and I am home watching it on the television. Nothing moves me until the very last item which is David Rudder with 'High Mas'.
As usual David Michael is making magic but neither I nor the audience stage-side knows what a double whammy he has in store for us until he jumps off the stage and heads into the North Stand, where he continues singing and singing and singing as if he's never going to stop.
Man, the lights go up and David Michael is still singing so that TTT 'in one of the most ill-advised departures in local entertainment history' returns to the studio (to hell with deadline schedules, I would have said had I been the programme director, all yuh ent see magic going on here?). Which just shows, of course, why nobody in their right mind would ever make me programme director of anything. And I literally dive across the bed to turn on the radio where David is still singing and I know what he is doing, which is spitting defiance at his and 'High Mas's' critics; only, David is incapable of spitting on or spitting at anybody, so what he is doing is not spitting but singing defiance, threading the song with other music from his great repertoire.
Calypso Music! Yes! Yes! Yes! Miss Elsie's son is standing up, once again, for kaiso's children and when he is finished I flop down on the bed, sweating, as if like him I had just ran a musical marathon.
Carnival Tuesday night and finally Minshall's red sea is sweeping stagewards, but instead of waves there is this raging rhythm. The Laventille Rhythm Section has been becalmed for hours as the band has been kept waiting.
But now, like men possessed, they fall upon their instruments and I seem to be standing still, but all that is illusion because, in reality, I am being swept along by these singing irons and I don't know how but I find myself singing this wordless melody and I think: 'Buh, boy, Keith yuh singing in tongues'.
And I laugh this kind of a manic laugh and jump high in the air on my old pinched-nerve foot, coming down to look at how many, 10, 12? pairs of black hands and one pale, because one of the Salloum boys had asked to join us and we haul him aboard and his playing helps to give the band a zing!
And I think all yuh think is only black man have rhythm, and somehow the thought pleases me and I hear myself, sober as a Carnival judge, laughing and singing in the darkening night into the Savannah wind.
(Keith Smith was born and grew up in Laventille, East Port of Spain, and still lives there. He was educated at Fatima College in the city and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and has now been engaged alamost as long as anyone else in Trinidad and Tobago in the pursuit of journalism. He is Editor-at-Large at Trinidad Express Newspapers.)
Samaki Kubwa (The Big Fish)
By Jeff CrookeJulius taught me to speak KiSwahili. A long time passed before I found out his real name, for he called himself Samaki Kubwa, The
Big Fish. He may have been the first person I met after moving into
my brick hut; I can't recall, but it seemed he was always there.
"Habari, Samaki Kubwa!"
"Salama, bwana. Kuna hadithi?"
He speaks inland KiSwahili, and he loves a turn of phrase. This
is not typical of children in Kenya; Julius learned KiSwahili as
a first language because his mother and father came from
different ethnic groups. They could not communicate in their
ethnic languages, so KiSwahili became their medium of everyday
I had seen Julius' father, Mzee Kiptarus, around the village
centre, moving around the falling-down dukas of the town's
market. He was an impressive figure, hat always at the same
precise angle, chin held out and eyes forward. His gait was the
gait of a soldier on the march. I met him soon after my arrival
as a secondary school English teacher in Kenya's western
highlands, one of a group of such teachers, part of a fly-by-night
non-profit operation. Hearing of me from his children, and
undoubtedly from Julius, he sent one of his daughters to invite
me to dinner. Ruth was shy and pretty and already doing poorly
in my Form 2 English class, though on that first visit to Mzee
Kiptarus' house she acted as translator. The old man spoke
fluent Swahili, but my KiSwahili was only fair, my ability to
hear it as anything more than rapid gargling still undeveloped.
Mzee Kiptarus disliked speaking through an interpreter, and sent
Ruth on small errands. He gave me a plastic cup full of a thick
porridge which tasted strongly of alcohol. This, he told me, was
pusaa. I understood little, but as the initial panic of speaking
to him sans Ruth wore off, I could understand occasional words,
enough to form an idea about what was being said.
"Labda unafikiri sisi ne kama mnyama," he said. He repeated it
when I didn't understand. He aptly illustrated the few words I
didn't know. He had asked me if I thought they lived as animals.
I was set back. All through orientation I had been told Kenyans
rarely addressed a matter directly in conversation.
Finding my tongue, I replied with the first words that came to
mind. "Wewe na mimi ni sawa sawa," I said. You and I are alike.
Mzee Kiptarus smiled broadly.
"Yes, that is correct," he said in perfect English.
Every member of the family was present for the second visit, even
the wayward Julius. I greeted his six sons and five daughters
first. I knew only three of his children, the two that were
attending secondary school, and Julius. The old man introduced
each of the eleven by pressing his index finger to the side of
his nostril and, while pushing air out of the free nostril, he
would release his finger suddenly, the air rushing from his
nostril with a whoosh. He would proudly point to himself, his
chin held out. It was a very emphatic and effective gesture,
conveying exactly what was meant; "These are from me."
His wife greeted me next. Her high cheekbones, narrow face, and
strong chin had been passed on to her children. She was Kikuyu,
an alien here among the predominant ethnic group, the Nandis.
Mzee Kiptarus led me to a stool in the yard, gave me a cup of
pusaa, and left me alone. The solitude was quite a contrast
after greeting all thirteen family members. On the first visit
this had been the course of events as well. The custom in that
part of Kenya is to leave the guest alone as the meal is
prepared, and sometimes during the meal itself. This time I was
ready. I had brought with me my Swahili/English dictionary,
as well as my birding field guide and binoculars. An avid
birder, I went nowhere without them. Seeing an intriguing bird,
I pulled out the binoculars.
I never got to identify the bird. I was no longer alone; Julius
soon had the binoculars. He laughed and stared in amazement at
the sight of the bird. He waved his hand on the other side of
the binoculars to see if the bird was indeed close enough to
touch. A large crowd quickly gathered as the sons and daughters
overheard the youngest of them all laughing. Everyone took a
turn, each turn bringing a round of excited comment and laughter.
The impromptu party did not last long, however. Mzee Kiptarus
appeared suddenly, yelling brusquely. Everyone went back to
tasks they had left. Julius had disappeared just prior to the old
man's appearance. Mzee Kiptarus told me of his years with the
army. He spoke of being posted in Malaysia, of living in other
countries, and I followed as best I could with the dictionary.
Even if I did not understand all of what he said, his gestures
and bearing carried the stamp of those years; a strong sense of
dignity, imparted by a devotion to discipline, marked his life.
His face was lively, and he moved his hands expressively as he
crafted his conversation.
We began discussing simpler matters. He took the dictionary from
me and said something I didn't understand. When he left me
alone to eat my breakfast, I wrote what he had said onto the
inside cover of the field guide. He came out to say goodbye when
I had finished, handing me the dictionary and inviting me to
breakfast later that week.
Upon my return home I translated the sentence I had not
understood: "You must be a moran to come alone into a strange
land to live among its people." It was a compliment of the
highest order, for there are none more respected by the Kenyans
for bravery than the morani, the young men who have come through
the rite of circumcision and passed into adulthood. I also
followed the context of the compliment, and left the dictionary
at home on my next visit.
I remember the first time Julius showed up to hide at my house.
He had tucked himself into a corner, behind the bamboo matting I
had put up around the concrete stoop in front of the house. He
shushed me when I walked in after school, and slinked in behind
me as I opened the door. Immediately he picked up the funnel I
used to fill the kerosene lamp, put it in his mouth, asked what
it was. After removing the funnel from his hands, which
immediately wandered to the jagged edges of opened cans, I asked
why he was hiding from his father. He replied that his father
was drunk and would beat him if he went home. He knew his
father would be staggering by soon, on his way to sell changaa,
the Kenyan equivalent of moonshine. Julius told me to keep watch
for Mzee Kiptarus.
This was no easy task, for I also had to keep
keep an eye on Julius, too. He ate off the floor, anything he could
find, ashes from mosquito coils, a tiny bit of charcoal. I
offered him peanut butter cookies, which he devoured ravenously.
He found the playing cards I kept for the odd mzungu straggler,
and he shuffled them so faces were to faces, backs to backs. I
found myself getting exhausted, between looking for his father
and trying to keep up with Julius. He chattered incessantly in
KiSwahili. I tried desperately to follow. He explained that
"margarine" (which he pronounced with a hard g) is not an English
word, but KiSwahili. This, of course, as he ate the margarine
from the can.
His father never turned up. Eventually I talked
Julius into taking the bar of soap he had just tasted to the
river with him for a bath. I reveled in the silence that
followed his departure. My head hurt. I wondered if I was
coming down with malaria. Julius returned, too quickly--it seemed
he lost the bar of soap. Shortly afterward, in response to my
prayers, Mzee Kiptarus did walk by the house. I could not see
any alteration in his gait, but Julius insisted he was drunk.
The boy peeped through the matting beside me, then hurried home
in the fading light. I watched his thin frame go thinner in the
fading light. He turned to wave and smile before disappearing
completely, and I could not help but smile back at him.
My next visit to the Kiptarus shamba was a breakfast visit. The
usual cup of pusaa was offered beforehand, and I accepted it.
There was honeyed bread, chocolate cake, a few, crisp spicy
cheese twists, some shortbread crackers. I sat chewing happily,
listening to Kiptarus huskily delivering orders from the yard.
It was a beautiful morning. His wife, who had been working
silently in the kitchen since my arrival, came out to
pick up my plate once I had finished. I was thanking her when
Julius suddenly appeared in the doorway to the kitchen and
snatched off the bandana she had used to cover her head. I
laughed, but my laugh was cut short. She
swatted at the boy with real anger. Before she ran from the
room, I could see her right ear was badly damaged, a raw red
crescent at the top showing clearly against her dark skin.
Julius ran into the room as she ran out. He was still smiling,
though a little wistfully, as if he knew he had disappointed me
and was sorry for it. He pointed to the yard, where Mzee
Kiptarus was barking, pretended to place his hands around an invisible
head, yanking it toward him and biting down. Something malignant
added itself to the room. I recalled the jagged, serrated edge
of his mother's wound. Julius further darkened my mood
by swinging his hand hard over his shoulder and then downward while
letting his index finger go limp, making a snapping noise
against the second finger. It was a gesture I had
seen at school when older boys were threatening to beat the
My stomach turned. The taste of honey was replaced
by something that had soured. We could hear the old man
approaching. Julius disappeared.
Mzee Kiptarus was sitting opposite me at the table. No turn in his wide
mouth, no glance from the deep brown eyes, no new wrinkle
in the face; nothing would betray him.
I turned my thoughts to the wound. It was a bad one, and I knew
human bites had a high tendency toward infection. In the medical
kit I had been issued there was a tube of antibiotic ointment.
I tried to think of how I might return to my house, then get back here
again to treat her without the old man finding out.
Mzee Kiptarus got up and went outside, leaving his dishes on the
table. When he could be heard yelling at a safe distance, his
wife came back into the room, speaking rapidly. She had retied
the bandana. I understood nothing, except for one word: he
changaa. I regretted leaving behind my dictionary.
She stopped speaking when she realized I didn't understand. Then she
began speaking again, slowly. She told me that because I was rich
I could help her with money to leave the old man.
I tried to tell her I had medicine for her wound, medicine she
needed badly. "Hapana," she said, "sitaki dawa. Nataka pesa."
She did not need medicine, she insisted. She needed money.
I couldn't afford enough to help
her get any safe distance away. I would be the first suspect in
the old man's mind if she disappeared, since no one else had that
kind of money. And who would take care of the children,
of Ruth and Julius? She went to a clay pot hidden in the rafters,
pulling from it a single ten cent piece.
"Saidia mimi," she said. Help me.
I considered it.
"Hapana," I said after a moment. I struggled with the Swahili,
arranging the words in my head. "I won't give you money. I can
give you medicine. I will come back later tonight with the
medicine." She stood in the middle of the floor, looking out into
the yard. She looked at me, nodded, and went into the kitchen.
Her despair felt thick as the smoke from the jiko.
I left the half-empty cup of pusaa and stepped out into the yard.
The morning had turned hot. I was momentarily blinded by the
bright sunlight. When I could see again, I spotted the old man standing
beside six large sacks. He smiled. I smiled back.
"I must go," I said. "What is this?"
He grinned the same grin again, and I realized where Julius had
gotten his own from.
"Mtama, ya changaa," Mzee Kiptarus replied. Millet, for changaa.
Julius showed up at my house later in the day. He was hiding
again. This time, he said, Mzee Kiptarus was much worse.
We heard him before we saw him. He was bellowing. We watched
him from behind the bamboo matting. He was staggering
Julius moved quietly. The bag of charcoal he usually hid behind
was empty; like a street magician's accomplice, he folded himself
into the bag and disappeared.
"We!" shouted Mzee Kiptarus from just outside the porch. "You!"
"Jambo," I said in greeting.
He slurred something I only half understood, but half was
"Siona Julius," I replied, using poor Swahili to avoid a blatant
lie. I am not seeing Julius.
Mzee Kiptarus grunted, then staggered past.
After his bellows had faded into the distance, Julius peeked out
from the charcoal sack.
"Ameenda," I told Julius. He has gone.
He hopped out of the sack, smiling. We left immediately for
Julius' shamba. When we got there Julius' mom was sitting out
front in the sun, dozing lightly. Julius touched her hand lightly.
It was a gesture of care, of understanding. At that moment I
saw him in a different light, as just small, vulnerable boy who
loved his mother.
His mother awakened with a start, and smiled. Then she saw me
and again asked for money. I again explained that I could not
give her any. That formality out of the way, she pulled aside the
scarf. The ear had a minor infection already. The ointment would
take care of that. I gave her the tube, and told her what to do with it.
But I didn't want to leave anything to chance. As I applied the
ointment, she laughed.
"Mzungu ni daktari, Julius," she said. The white is a doctor.
Julius laughed too.
Julius asked me if I have a story to tell. I replied that the day
has gone well. He is already inside the hut at this point, turning
things over on the table, probably looking for something to eat.
We often ate peanut butter sandwiches together, one of his
favorites. While we ate he would point to a basket I kept for
laundry and ask for its name in KiSwahili.
He asks me the word for hair by tugging mine; he points to his
dark eye and raises an eyebrow; he pulls a bit of string from
deep within the basket and pretends he has caught a fish, and I
reply with the word for fishing. Nywele, jicho, vua samaki--
that is how Julius taught me KiSwahili.
A traveler accumulates debts in passing that can often never
be repaid; a consciousness of the balance owed is all that most
people require, however. Of all the debts I accrued in Kenya,
the debt owed Julius was the greatest. I had taken several years
of foreign languages in high school and college, and never had I
learned anything but the most basic vocabulary, and no grammar.
But in just four months I had learned KiSwahili to a small degree
of fluency from a seven-year-old boy. Situations that bogged down
my fellow teachers I glided through. I often translated for them. I
could teach my classes in both English and KiSwahili, much to the
delight of my students. Most importantly, knowledge of the
languageprovided me a passport of a different kind: the people I
spoke with recognized I was more than a tourist, that I respected
them enough to try and communicate with them in their own tongue.
I will never be able to repay that debt.
I am looking at a letter sent to me and my wife. It had been
sidetracked to Malaysia before arriving at our country post
office. Ruth had written to inform us of Julius' death. Hypertension
killed him in 1993, she wrote. It is hard to know what really
may have happened to the boy.
A friend of mine, with whom I share some form of belief in
reincarnation, has comforted me by telling me perhaps Julius' soul
was destined to be reborn to my wife and myself. Pregnant, my wife
considered Julius as a name for a boy. I haven't had the heart to tell
her of his passing, not yet, but I have dusted off my dictionaries and
textbooks. I talk to her swollen belly in KiSwahili, calling its occupant
Samaki Ndogo--Little Fish. I don't know if Julius can hear me or not,
but it seems a simple enough act of faith to give Little Fish what
Big Fish gave me.
(Jeff Crooke [firstname.lastname@example.org] and his wife and daughter and live
in the rock-strewn foothills of the Appalachians. He's a newspaper
reporter by day and fiction writer by night [actually, early morning],
and has taught English-as-a-third-language in the rural highlands of Kenya. His first short story appears in the spring edition of Thema [http://www.litline.org/html/thema.html].