The JRB presents an excerpt from Akbar Hussain’s unpublished novel Moan of the Marabou, a literary thriller set in the surreal underbelly of present-day Nairobi.
The smell of cooking fires mingled with that of the sea. Turreted clouds framed the dusk, sudden and pyrotechnic.
Toogood loped, slow and naked, his back to the darkening sea, up the slope of Brava Beach. To his clothes, neatly folded on the concrete promenade jutting like a swollen lip from the shattered face of L’Etoile de Mogadiscio, the erstwhile domicile of five star glamour in Mogadishu. Now, bearded men squatted in post-apocalyptic fashion around wood fires built directly onto the floor of the lobby, feeding the flames the few remnants of paneling and joinery. Exotic woods imported to build the grand palace of a hotel, self-destructing in the campfires of desperate souls.
An apt Mogadishu metaphor.
This was a time of solitude, the only time of any sort of peace in Mogadishu. It was paradoxical, Toogood mused, that the peacefulness only came about because people were afraid—afraid of the transition from the relative normalcy of the day, to the utter lawlessness of the night.
This suited Toogood fine, straddling as he did those two worlds. His student life was fading though—the cancelled lectures, the frightened professors, the violence circling the dusty university campus. Still, he clung to the faded ritual of his bicycle ride to the campus, to his satchel containing his only textbook, The Responsible Manager, having belonged to one Patrica McHale before him. This Toogood knew because this Patricia had written, almost embossed, her name on the first page, in a girlish curlicue. Toogood often ran admiring fingers over that inscription, its methodical neatness bespeaking in his mind a sense of order, predictability, even entitlement which he had never known, but which now slipped further and further into abstraction, a feast of which he would never partake.
But increasingly, Toogood went to the university because that’s where his clients were. Where there is despair—where there are Homo sapiens, he supposed—there will be a demand for narcotic substances. And these did Toogood supply. Specifically, tightly packaged samosas made from newspaper, containing within them a relatively high grade (‘untrodden’ was the somewhat poetic parlance of the wholesaler Toogood dealt with) heroin. Toogood bought low and sold higher. But more importantly, to his clientele, and therefore to his prospects, Toogood was honest, punctual and not unkind.
People liked him. And in general, Toogood liked them back.
Once, he had delivered a dozen little samosas to an Indian-Kenyan UN rapporteur of something or other. Toogood had clean forgotten about the deal until he bumped into the man a few weeks later at a neighborhood vegetable stand. In front of a pyramid of dusty potatoes, the Indian had spontaneously pulled Toogood into a hug and exclaimed, without any contextualisation or self-restraint, in an Indian accent undiluted by two centuries of East African residency, ‘Too good yaar. Toooogood!’
And this was the name with which Ibrahim was introduced to the Indian’s constellation of friends and acquaintances. Friends and acquaintances who were much more cosmopolitan than the people Toogood was used to dealing with. These people flew in on Hercules aircraft, wore $200 Nike desert combat boots, and spoke rapid-fire English peppered with the staccato shorthand of UN abbreviations. These people had disposable time, confined as they were to air-conditioned shipping containers, which served as their quarters. Finally, and in fairness to these people, they daily saw what were, for them anyway, pretty grim aspects of the human experience.
The exchange of goods for money itself took seconds, but the clients made clear, in unspoken fashion, that they would appreciate it if Toogood would be discrete enough not to make their interaction nakedly transactional. That this was, after all, their only peer to peer interaction of the day with an actual Somali.
Toogood, ever keen to make the most of a situation, considered it an immersive English conversation session, and felt free to ask pointed questions about idiom. Toogood shyly repeated words and expressions he liked, trying them out in sentences of his own. This often drew the foreigners in, causing them to abandon the socioeconomic embattlements they felt awkward manning in the first place.
Especially the ladies.
The flak jackets and the chatter of helicopters were portents of good business—both for the UN crowd and for Toogood. Piggy-backing the spike in turmoil and international aid, intertwined like strands of DNA, Toogood’s book of business had grown, in importance and diversity.
In fact, this sunset walk on the beach was a celebration of sorts. And a self-baptism. For Toogood intended to hang up his satchel, and turn full time to a life of self-improvement through chemical entrepreneurship.
It had been surprisingly easy to plan. Speaking with an Italian UN staffer after delivering an order of samosas, Toogood had learned he was not the only Somali dealer in the camp. So Toogood had made it his business to learn more about the competition—Nooruddin, a middle aged man from a different tribe, with a wife and children. The man’s trading name was Noor, or the Light.
Once Toogood had understood Noor’s supply chain, he made a move. In the dusty shade outside the gate of the UN camp, Toogood strode up to the Light. Never one for too much artfulness, Toogood explained that his was an exclusive holding over the UN camp. The Light, from behind his heavy beard, regarded Toogood, without uttering a word of response, weighing Toogood’s lithe youth, his ambition, his hunger.
Then the Light held out his hand to Toogood, by way of formalising the arrangement.
And for several weeks, Toogood had in fact held a lucrative monopoly over the camp. But then there were sightings of Noor, cross-legged, drinking tumblers of sweet tea with the blue helmeted peace keepers, who were high value customers. Emboldened by the fact the he held no tribal allegiance to Noor, Toogood had brought the matter up with his childhood friend Teesh. Teesh, in his stolid way, had insisted it was downright unSomali to go back on your word.
‘We need to address this,’ Teesh had said. It surprised Toogood how disarming he found Teesh’s use of the word ‘we’. But no particular plan was agreed, and Toogood assumed the discussion was to be revisited. The issue became moot when Noor ceased to appear in the camp. Weeks later, when delivering a samosa to a Nepali peacekeeper, Toogood had asked what had become of the Light. The smooth-faced Nepali squinted, ‘Heard his wife was killed in a botched robbery. The Light is full time daddy now, no time for us anymore.’
When Toogood asked Teesh about the incident, he had shrugged, as if to say, “It’s a bad, bad world.” But the Light’s investors had been somewhat more dogged in their investigations. In due course, Toogood was contacted via phone by a person who represented Light’s backers.
Would Toogood care to make them whole? The threat was implicit.
On Teesh’s advice, Toogood had suggested to the man on the phone that he would act for them in the UN camp, on an exclusive basis. Toogood figured the conversation was heading that way anyway, better simply to get ahead of it.
‘Foot in the door,’ Teesh called it.
A few mutually profitable months later, Toogood received an offer to become a minor equity partner in an East African narcotic joint venture. The opportunity would catapult Toogood several rungs up the food chain—one which enjoyed, in the unlovely words of the ‘The Responsible Manager’, a ‘mitigated risk profile’.
But it would require a full-time commitment. The amateur era of his drug dealing career was, in other words, at a close. The other shareholders of the joint venture had long ago transmuted themselves into Big Men, legitimate business persons, pillars of their various communities scattered across East Africa and beyond. They spoke, especially when discussing matters of criminal enterprise, a sanitised corporate speak drawn from oak-paneled board rooms. When Toogood had been negotiating the terms of his equity stake, for instance, one pinstriped elder had coughed into his sleeve, and said, ‘As a junior partner, you will take a haircut on your dividend.’
Toogood brushed sand from his legs, pulled on his boxers, and sat, cross-legged and erect, to take in his last sunset as a quasi-student. The next time the sun rose, it would be upon Toogood, the clear-eyed professional. Toogood had seen enough of the industry he was entering to understand that it was impossible to avoid degradation altogether, but his hope was to limit this—something he currently did only by not asking Teesh too many questions. Teesh, upon whose violent unpredictability he was growing increasingly, and paradoxically, dependent in his quest for respectability. This investment, which tied up the bulk of his money, would remove him from street level risk.
Toogood closed his eyes, took in the sound of the surf.
A darkness curtained him. Toogood looked up at where the sun had been. An Indian woman, her back to the sea and her face shrouded in shadow, stood between him and the sinking sun. She sat beside him, and the flash of sunset echoed against Toogood’s retinas.
‘A melancholy time, in a melancholy place,’ the woman said. Her voice was throaty.
Toogood had come across this word ‘melancholy’ with a client once, a Spanish woman also with a deep voice, and sad eyes. The Spanish woman had explained that the term contained within it a multitude of sentiments, seething like maggots in a papaya, consuming yet productive.
Toogood closed his eyes. He smiled, his cheekbones gaunt above the patchy beard.
With his closed eyelids glowing bronze, Toogood said, ‘What would you say if I said I was busy?’
The woman’s laughter floated like a red balloon into the crepuscular sky.
He continued, ‘In my culture contemplation is considered an important use of one’s time. I am at a crossroads.’
She said, ‘Big decisions, eh? Well, if it’s any consolation, ninety-nine per cent of what concerns us is inconsequential—I mean it simply won’t matter one way or another in three, or five, or certainly ten years. So if you’re not hurting anyone, just do what you want.’
Toogood’s eyes opened. She too was cross-legged, leaning back on her arms, which were planted in the sand behind her. Her face was smooth, sharp-featured.
Toogood said slowly, ‘Oh but that’s the thing. There’s a good chance people will get hurt.’
‘That’s interesting how you phrased that. In the passive voice, removing yourself from the arena. But that’s not how it works.’ She blinked at him, her dark halo of hair swaying. ‘You have it within you to define your relations with this world.’
Toogood thought for a moment, and was on the point of saying something when the woman stood. She shook the sand from her salwar kameez and said, as if by way of farewell, ‘Nothing can happen unless you want it to.’
She turned to continue her walk. Back to an idling Land Cruiser VX no doubt, thought Toogood, in a cynical effort at not being impressed. The sun had fallen into the oily sea.
But he was impressed. ‘Wait,’ Toogood called after her, ‘what’s your name?’
‘Nice,’ she said, walking backwards away from him.
- Akbar Hussain has been living in Nairobi since 2011, and is, variously, a start-up lawyer, martial artist, and novelist. Moan of the Marabou is his ‘front-line report’ from Nairobi’s ongoing tryst with capitalism and democracy. He and his partner have three children.
© Akbar Hussain, 2017