Stanley Gazemba was born in 1974 in Vihiga, western Kenya. He lives with his family in Kangemi, Nairobi. Trained as a journalist at Kenya Polytechnic University College, he has written for Sunday Nation, The East African and Msanii Magazine. His fiction has appeared in The Literary Review (Fairleigh Dickinson University, 2009), Crossing Bordersonline magazine, ‘A’ is for Ancestors-a selection of stories from the Caine Prize (Jacana, 2004) and Man of the House and other new short stories from Kenya (CCC Press, UK 2011).
He has published one novel, The Stone Hills of Maragoli which won Jomo Kenyatta Prize, and seven childrens books: Poko at the Koras, Poko and the Jet, Shaka Zulu, The Herdsboy and the Princess, Grandmother’s Winning Smile, Tobi and the Street boy and Ant’s Clay castle.
In 2003 he attended the Caine Prize Writers’ workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
Chinese Cuisine (continuation)
The long rays of the sun stretched across the street and touched the twisted mabati roofs of the shops across in a soft fiery hue that dulled the score of the dust and rust and made them look almost beautiful. The lights in the shops were coming on one after the other, and up the street the music from the pub had cranked up. Jomo had already set up his jiko although he hadn’t lit it yet. The street mongrels had gathered around the greasy spot where the jiko stood in anticipation of castoffs once the day’s business began. Jomo arranged the charcoal on the tray and stuffed used packets of milk in the chamber underneath. Then he stood watching the throngs of people streaming down the street coming back from work, a Rooster cigarette burning at the corner of his mouth, his eyes squinted thoughtfully.
He was hoping to do good business, given today was midmonth when the street people would have got their advance pay from the Asian factories and Wazungu homes where they worked. He knew the routine well. They would start at the smoky busaa shebeens further down the street. And then as the evening ripened they would stagger to the pub to round off the day with a beer and a dance with the cunning busaa women who would be hanging on their arms. As they filed by into the pub the glistening mutura and meat would be irresistible. Of course by then a five-shilling measure of the stuffed colon-sausage would be going for double. With such predictable patrons like these who needs a miserly job at a Mhindi’s factory? Living off the fat of the land… wasn’t that what the poet called it?
Blowing a long jet of smoke he cupped his hand over his mouth and shouted at a group of kids playing with a broken tricycle that had one hind wheel missing a little distance away. His son Gitau detached himself from the group and came running. Save for his size he was a spitting image of his father, bearing the same broad accountant’s forehead and shifty eyes; even the bow in his short soccer full-back’s legs was already showing at his age.
“I want to find this jiko lit,” said Jomo curtly, gathering his sack and setting off to get the meat.
Unlike Fanta, her aunt was a burly dark woman whose chubby face was ever breaking into a smile. It is the one reason she had worked for the white family who employed her in the wealthy suburb next to the slum as a househelp for all those years. She always made their guests feel at ease, her mere presence radiating warmth in the large airy house. But behind those shiny dark eyes was a sharp business mind that had enabled her to send her three children to good boarding schools upcountry and was planning to enroll Fanta for a hairdressing course partly from the profit she made running the grocery store. It was the reason she took stock at the store everyday first thing when she returned from work in the evenings.
And she wasn’t looking very pleased today. All the sodas were still in the refrigerator and the groceries had hardly sold. And yet it was mid-month, when the people who lived on the street would be replenishing their rice, sugar and beans reserves or buying a tub of Blue Band now that they had their advance pay.
“I daresay we had a bad day,” she said to Fanta, who was sweeping out the yard at the front of the shop. “We have hardly sold a packet of milk!” She turned on the light at the front of the shop, instantly drawing a swarm of mosquitoes and moths, which swirled round and round the glowing bulb. “Finish up the cleaning and come lend a hand,” she called to Fanta as the first of the evening customers started lining up at the counter, drawn by her familiar high-pitched voice- mostly neighbouring women coming for a bit of the day’s gossip before they purchased a matchbox or a measure of ghee.
Fanta gathered the trash into a dustpan and emptied it in the dustbin to one side of the yard. Seeing the bin was almost full she decided to go and empty it on the rubbish heap in the garden behind the store, which she usually lit once a week. The garden was weedy, the sticky blackjack pods leaning into the way attaching themselves to the hem of her dress as she passed along the narrow path that led to the garbage heap. The stalks of sukuma wiki were starting to wither, shoulder-high and stripped of all their leaves. Same to the tomato vines that sagged from their stakes like strips of thong, the few fruits still clinging to them warped. Soon as the rains came she would dig them all up in preparation for a new crop.
But it wasn’t really this that Fanta was thinking about as she wound her way through the weeds towards the garbage heap. It was the street mongrels. They had started barking again, and there was a strange note in the wailing bark that disturbed her. Even still they had retreated to a distance, some barking from yonder across the muddy river that snaked its way down the valley, separating the slum from the next. Fanta knew that sound. It was the sound the dogs usually made in the dead of night when they were terrified. She knew it well because she had always been a light sleeper.
It had grown fairly dark by then, and for a while Fanta felt a chill pass down her spine. The truth was that the prospect of dusk filled her with dread. It was an old fear that she had lived secretly with all her life. It was the fear of her graphic dreams, and the cold sweat that they left in their wake long after she had sprang awake and opened her eyes wide. And right now as she stood there in the middle of the darkening weedy garden with the faint light thrown by the naked security bulbs playing on the swaying treetops and the fireflies zapping about her, the forgotten garbage bin in her hands the cold finger of dread clawed suddenly at her guts. This was her one deep secret that she kept strictly to herself, not sure how everyone would react. What if they decided she was a queer… someone who saw dark things… would she ever retain a friend in her life?
And as she stood there with the cool of the evening chill stirring the fine hairs at the back of her neck, rocking slowly on her feet, her ears filled with the eerie wailing of the dogs that seemed to beckon to her she was convinced beyond doubt that the dreaded night visions were starting all over again. Yes, it was a precursor to what awaited her as she lay in her bed alone later in the dark that night.
And the dreams were getting scarier and scarier. In one of last night’s there was the fishmonger down the street. She was going about her business as usual, gutting and cleaning fish from her old reed basket. She washed the gutted fish in the bilge-coloured water in the rusty tin trough, her thick hands moving with the practiced deftness of an old machine. At arm’s reach smoke billowed from her wood-fire, the raging flames lapping around the deep soot-coloured pan in which the brown deep-frying oil that she had carried over from the business of the day before bubbled angrily. A swarm of huge blue flies hung around the slop bucket, barely scared away by the flywhisk the fishmonger waved occasionally. One of the furry creatures even homed in on her wide open dream eye and butted against the retina, buzzing angrily; but she did not blink.
The fishmonger, a chunky stout woman, made an effort to rise from the low kitchen stool to turn over the frying fish in the pan. Her faded checked apron hung low, the pocket sewn into the front bulging with change and her house-keys. It was when her stained fish-slice dipped into the frothy oil to turn the biggest of the three fish that the drama started. Instead of turning over so the upper end could fry the big fish rose upright suddenly, ballooning out as if inflated by an invisible suction pump. In the blink of an eye the huge fish stood upright in the pan of boiling oil, rising two times the size of the fishmonger. Its glistening body still bore the gashes left by the fishmonger’s knife as she had prepared her for salting. Nonetheless the glassy eyes that peered down from above its mocking curved mouth were very much alive. As the fishmonger watched aghast the huge fish flipped over and out of the pan and stood towering beside her.
“Ha! Surprised, aren’t we?” she said, leaning close to the dumbstruck woman.
One by one the other fish rose and ringed themselves around the dumbstruck fishmonger, their eyes coldly menacing, bodies slashed by the injuries the fishmonger’s blade had left. She looked about her, at a loss for what to do. But for some reason the street had suddenly emptied, and the mangy dogs sleeping in the dust at the other end seemed barely interested.
“Well, looks like a miracle just happened here,” said the huge mother fish, her full pink lips curling sardonically, algae-scented breath warm on the face of the witless fishmonger. “Isn’t that so, my good lady?”
For answer the fishmonger stared speechless around at her former charges, who had just a while back lain in silence in her huge basket, hardly muttering a grunt of protest as she went about making them ready for her afternoon customers. Now they stared stonily back at her, poised in a menacing ring that she could not escape.
“I see. So the miracle robbed you of your voice too, didn’t it?” said the mother fish, gesturing at the other fish with a turn of her head. “In that case I guess my friends and I had better get on with the business at hand. We don’t have much time, you see.”
A shriek rose at the back of the fishmonger’s throat as the other fish closed in, but it barely left her constricted throat. Their fins extended outwards like an octopus’s arms, foul algae-scented breath smoldering her as their fine layered gills pumped slowly, more like the membrane of the old concertina that the choir-master at the Catholic church played Sundays. They seized her with ease, lifting her off her feet as if she was a piece of sponge, despite the fact that she weighed over ninety kilos.
As she lay on the chopping board she yet again attempted to free herself. But she found herself held fast in place by coarse claw-like fins. With the fishmonger subdued, the huge mother fish took charge, seizing the sharp gutting knife that the woman had wielded so effectively just a while back. She held the blade up to the flame, peering along the length of the cutting edge which had been honed to the point of a razor by the knife-grinder just that afternoon. A satisfied chortle sounded deep in her throat as she sucked in her bulbous belly and bent over.
The slashes of the broad-bladed knife ran parallel to each other, the shallow gashes even, like the work of a seasoned surgeon. She first went to work on the broad back, slicing across the quivering spine from shoulders downwards. Next she worked the chunky buttocks and flabby thighs, seeming to enjoy the way the blade sunk into the soft flesh, causing it to peel back. The fishmonger jerked violently as the salt was poured into the wounds, trying desperately to free herself. But it was all in vain. Her charges were far too strong for her.
“Some spice perhaps?” asked the mother fish, gazing round at her mates. Her expression was that of a professional surgeon going about her daily work at the theatre. One of the fish proffered the tub of ground pepper that the fishmonger usually rubbed the little fish in to extend their shelf-life as they waited for customers. Mother Fish worked up a thick paste that would cover the whole body and went to work, kneading the pepper thoroughly into the flesh until her captive was red as a beetroot from head to toe. Then she stood back, a satisfied smile spreading on her face at her able handiwork.
“Now for the mouth-watering part,” she said softly, indicating the pan that was still boiling angrily above the raging flames. Like in all dreams, no one had as yet appeared on the usually busy road to save the fishmonger.
It was as the fishmonger was lowered headfirst into the frothing brown oil that Fanta had sprang awake, gasping for air in the thick darkness, her body drenched all over in sweat.
Mabati– Corrugated iron/ rebar
Jiko– charcoal brazier/stove
Busaa –traditional beer brewed from maize or barley
Mutura– a delicacy made by stuffing an animal’s intestines with dried blood, bits of mince meat and spices, and which is roasted over coals. Similar to South African brae.
Mhindi– an Asian
Sukuma-wiki– kales (vegetables)
Ville-Juhani Sutinen (born 1980) is a Finnish writer, poet, critic and essayist. He has published four books of poetry (most recently Merkkihenkilön kuolema 2007) and one book of dialogue-based poems with experimental author Hannu Helin. His poetry has gotten more and more lingustic and semiotic with every book. Sutinen writes reviews on new poetry collections and philosophical books in newspapers and literary magazines in which he has also published something like a dozen essays dealing with culture writhing in a society saturated by media and misinformation. Sutinen has also translated over ten books from English to Finnish, including poetry (Lewis Carroll: Phantasmagoria and other poems), essays and classic prose (Thomas De Quincey:Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). Presently he is writing his first long novel and finishing up a collection of essays.
Stuck in the Desert
It was a lucky day. The new glue factory’s first shipment to markets in Sub-Saharan Africa had left fromGibraltar, which called for a celebration. The mayor cut a silk ribbon with gigantic scissors that seemed designed for cutting the nails of giants in fairy tales, his charitably-inclined wife praised the humanist tone of his speech touting the glue’s excellent qualities and the beneficial impact of the factory opening on the market of the whole area, a juggler tossed balls at the culmination of the event, and, in fitting with the theme of the day, pretended they were glued to his hands – the usual thing. Children screamed, joy was at its peak. The sun gleamed with some difficulty from the rooftops of an Andorran ski hotel as engines roared,the ladies cheered for their husbands on their way to somewhere beyond the sandy deserts, and the journey began, as all
things begin – supremely pathetic and with unnecessary enthusiasm.
The glue factory with its tall smokestacks shrunk in the rearview mirror of Sanchez and Mbayn’s truck until it looked as if they were seeing it through the wrong end of a telescope. The mellow stones ofGibraltarloomed in front of them, as a cargo freighter passed carrying the same precious cargo – fragrant glue for all the poor youth ofEast Africa. Life smiled on them, Sanchez munched on his sausage, Mbay dreamed of the juicy salary he would get from jobs as back-up driver, despite the fact that he was inSpainwithout papers. He, too devoured a sausage, but he didn’t squirt ketchup on top – a month on a tomato farm had left a mark on him.
Moroccowas lying on its side in the sun as the convoy of trucks traversed its already cracked roads. Trucks hummed over the broad shoulders of theAtlas mountains, descended to Ouarzazete’s rental paradise and were soon at the edge of theSahara. Sanchez and Mbay sighed, lit cigarettes, and filled their water bottles. A foot caressed a gas pedal, the fingernails of the sun scratched the ground hard, like the nails of a lover. It was time to cross the desert, like so many benevolent conquerors before them.
Shit luck. Nobody knew where he came from, but everybody knew where he was going – toward a secure job, or certain death. The desert is large, a person small. But banal profundities were no help to him – no one would give a ride to a refugee headed forEuropebecause it would end in a merciless shake-down. He had to walk across theSaharatoEurope, to happiness, work, money, durable shopping bags, baseball caps, refurbished ruins.
His uncle, not yet old but no longer in the full flower of youth, had sent a letter home along with the usual envelope of money praising the labor market in southern Europe – apparently even illegals could get jobs. A particularly good place was in a new company, apparently a factory producing glue, that was hiring non-stop, anyone at all, as long as they didn’t ask for much
in wages or ask for any fucking fantastic employee benefits.
The letter had convinced him to go. You just couldn’t make a living selling milk powder anymore, and the phone card business wasn’t putting any bread on the table, either. Besides, the house was getting crowded, and as the oldest son he was supposed to earn the money to build a third floor. He hadn’t managed to get rich at home but maybe he could succeed in the promised
land, inEurope– at the glue factory, naturally.
But first there was the desert – the legendary, punishingSahara. He put on his sandals, left without anyone noticing or caring, with bread, ugly fish, and twelve coins in his knapsack to get him through the evening and the freezing night.
“Vroom, vroom,” Mbay, or as young Sanchez jokingly called him, Uncle, said playfully as the truck crossed the landscapeless land and the sausage dwindled away and finally ran out along with the jokes.
“We do not have such cars,” Mbay proudly declared from the passenger seat.
“What kind do you have, then?” Sanchez asked, not focused on the road, because there was nothing to be careful or afraid of. There was nothing much of anything.
“Old shit cars. FromEuropeandAmerica.”
“If they’re old enough, they can get a good price from collectors.”
“What do you mean?” Mbay said.
“Vintage car collectors. They pay a hell of a lot for old sets of wheels and parts for them,” said Sanchez, thinking of his cousin Pepe and the things that poured into his garage on a back-street ofMadrid, all those odd parts that didn’t seem to belong anywhere, but he somehow found a place for them in the labyrinth of engines.
“It’s a hobby,” Sanchez answered simply.
“A car is a tool. Football is a hobby,” Mbay blurted.
“Anything can be a hobby, if you can afford it.”
The specially-designed tubes of glue jiggled cheerfully in the truck bed behind their sweating backs. Their trek leveled off like a seat in a reclining position, the sun sank somewhere beyond the vacation paradises and civil wars, and darkness came like someone had put a plastic bag over them. It came with the large size glue at no extra charge.
The biggest problem was that there was nothing to gauge the distance, there were no points of reference. TheSaharais not the romantic postcard of smooth dunes and mirages, of course. It’s full of rocks, hummocks, scree, and taunting spirits along with the sand. But still there is nothing to measure the distance: places and objects pass by, but there’s no more meaning in them than in the kilometer-high pillars of clouds. He put one foot in front of the other: it was the only unit of measurement. There were a wide range of jobs on offer at the glue factory: conveyor belt worker, test smeller, spilled glue clean-up, and of course back-up driver. If you didn’t ask any questions, or answer any if asked, you could get a position, a bundle of money, and a corrugated sheet metal home. A beam would do for a bunk, it beat the rough bed of a camp in the middle of theSahara. Home was far away behind him, and when he turned to look back at it, his new home shimmered behind his back in the other direction. He hadn’t met with a single other person, no one would hear if he yelled brand names, sang jingles from radio ads, often having to do with plastic bags.
He rested in the hottest part of the day and the coldest part of the night, continued walking in the mildness of evening and the crispness of morning. There were no signs to guide him, no rest stops. Not even any fools with anecdotes to pass a pleasant moment. The days followed one another like a motorcade, every one the same, each as interminable as the next. His feet felt loosed from the earth, from the home country he had already left far behind, and from the corner of the continent he was crossing.
Sanchez and Mbay saw something in the gleam of the headlights and it aroused both of them from the sleepy numbness that had overcome them as they drove across theSaharawithout getting anywhere. It was something other than stray bushes, rocks or sand dunes: it was a man. It was actually absurd to remember that the two of them weren’t living in the journey of the truck, in the radio knob, cigarettes, potato chips and bottled water, but in the very same world in which there were people who did crazy things like walking along the side of the road at dusk, building
rain gutters, peeping into strangers’ homes, swearing party loyalty, or drinking wine on verandas. But this person was just walking, as simple as that. It was something indescribable.
He was exhausted, but had nevertheless managed to maintain some degree of human dignity, to change clothes every now and then, stealing shirts from clotheslines and gluing the soles of his sandals back on when they came loose again and again – the glue was no good. The pillars of light on the truck blinded his eyes and he couldn’t see far into the future ahead of him, the one he longed for. But he knew: he knew he looked like a black statue in the artificial light. He closed his eyes and waited for the truck to rattle by.
It was too late. The road was narrow, the truck large. Sanchez made a quick evasive action, swerved away from the shoulder and tried to get back on the road. The tires, wheels of fortune, searched wildly for traction, the rubber whipping the air. The stranger was still standing on the other side of the road, eyes shut, motionless. The car hadn’t hit him, but now it leaned
in the sparkling night air, could not find its footing and threw its entire weight onto its side in the middle of the road, right next to the statue.
It was said later that the stranger had really been lucky, when you thought about it: the entire cargo had spread out across the road and over the desert, the glue squirted out of its tubes along the crumbling asphalt and the gentle, cruel surface of the sand, gallons of the stuff spilled everywhere. The night was filled the with the smell of thinner and crafts, but the car didn’t roll onto him. He was still standing in the field, waiting for the truck to continue past the car and take no notice of him, or at least not call the police, but the car wasn’t going anywhere. The glue flowed to his feet, wrapped around his toes, halfway up his legs, and began to solidify in the cooling night, making him even more of a statue.
“Uncle!” he managed to say as the morning light came, standing in the desert, solid, his roots loosed from his own country, in an oasis of the white product of the glue factory, looking at the back-up driver squeezed between the truck cab and the cruel earth.