Samaki Kubwa (The Big Fish)
                                                                     By Jeff Crooke
Julius 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 communication.

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 younger ones.

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: 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 noticeably.

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 enough.

"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.


"Salama, bwana."

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 language provided 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 [] 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 [].