[New short fiction] Read ‘Black Cornea, White Iris’, a short story by M Mukore, from the new Afro Young Adult anthology Water Birds on the Lake Shore

In the October issue of The JRB, we present three new short stories from the Goethe-Institut Afro Young Adult anthology, Water Birds on the Lake Shore: An Anthology of African Young Adult Fiction.

Water Birds on the Lake Shore: An Anthology of African Young Adult Fiction
Edited by Zukiswa Wanner
Ouida Books, 2019

Read the excerpt:


Black Cornea, White Iris

By M Mukore

It seems that my blood appeases the gods of the mountains during volcanic eruptions …

It appears that my hair heals more than 800 illnesses: typhoid fever, kidney failure, chicken pox, even the terrifying Ebola …

It looks like my nails mixed with cassava leaves pounded with green chillies give a potion that cures Aids …

There is an impression that a potion made with my nose brings luck in love …

There is a suggestion that my blood doubles as excellent radar in ore deposits to find gold …

There is an insinuation that a potion made out of my tongue renders one eloquent …

There is a feeling that grinding my bones brings success in business …

It would seem  …

There is an appearance …

An intimation … that I’m not a human being!

Perhaps you would say I’m a fool, but even fools have a reason for their folly. To you, I’m perhaps an idiot but I have a good reason for being so. To those in whom I inspire compassion, I say: excuse me, but your pity won’t change anything about my condition, your feelings won’t change my being. The die is already cast. Keep your sympathy. And finally, to those who say, ‘Serves him right’—well, they are no different from Iscariot. Even though he confessed and gave back the thirty pieces of silver he received for betraying his master, it was already too late.

After a day of tests, school work and practicals, I am tired and the only thing on my mind is rest, once I got home. For the EXETAT tests, I decide I will ask Maman to buy me glasses. My eyes are in need of them. As I enter my room, I am almost choked by a foul smell. Bangi.

‘Denzu, would you mind smoking your joints outside? Why do you always smoke indoors?’ 

‘Kid, who do you think you are to give me orders?’ he answers, taking another puff.

 ‘But brother, this room doesn’t belong to you to reign over like a despot …’

‘Insolent kid,’ Denzu interrupts me. ‘You look like no one else in this family. Have you never wondered why your skin is light and ours dark, and why you have sorcerer’s eyes? For some time now, you’ve been thinking you are all that but you need to understand that you are not from this family. So don’t think you have any rights. I’m the heir.’

The words pierce my heart and my soul. I lose the ability to speak for a few seconds. Our mother has heard everything from the hallway. She enters the room and shouts at Denzu, ordering him to apologise, but the weed has made my brother lose all sensitivity, to the point that he doesn’t realise the blunder he’s just committed. Maman tries to convince me that my brother’s words are senseless, but … too late.

‘Don’t listen to any of the things your good-for-nothing brother says. He spends his time talking rubbish.’

‘Don’t you always say a lie out of the mouth of a drunk is a hidden truth, Maman?’ 

She opens her mouth to speak but no words would come out. She doesn’t seem to know what to say. The truth finally comes out from my father Kay-Kay later that day after supper. Maman is present but she remains silent and lets my father talk. I know then that this will be something serious. Between the two of them, she is the talker. 

‘Frandy my son, you are a man now. You are intelligent and I’m sure that you’ll be able to understand.’


Yes, understand. 

Understand that history keeps secrets. 

Understand that Kay-Kay and his wife were living peacefully in a little town inland. Joel and Denzu were only kids when an uprising took its first steps into the place. No longer willing to bear the excesses of the Founding-President who was making plans to stand for an eighth term of seventeen years renewable fifteen times, a group of citizens decided to take up arms in order to drive the dictator out of his presidential palace. The insurrectional movement gathered momentum and took control of the country piece by piece, and the armed forces retreated before them.

Strategic retreat, that’s what officers from the army called it. 

But, going by the way the soldiers fled whenever it was announced that the rebels had reached a neighbouring town or village, it appeared that the strategy being adopted by the army, which called itself regular, was to take to their heels. The soldiers destroyed everything in their wake; while the rebels, in an excess of zeal, celebrated their victory in the most atrocious ways by looting, raping, stealing and killing. The terror unleashed by the rebels was more charring than the flames of hell. Despite his rage, Kay-Kay could do nothing; he would not be able to do anything anymore for the rest of his life. The dishonour that now clothed his wife was more terrifying than the horror. A body in tatters, torn and violated; that was all that remained of Placide, his wife. Four men deposited their seed in her. They wouldn’t be the only ones. That’s how rebels are: they arrive, cause mayhem and leave. What could he, Kay-Kay, have done? The whole neighbourhood saw the sordid show.

Every man, every boy in the neighbourhood was there. Noone could miss the show. Not that there was a choice. One had to be there to see one’s mother, one’s daughter, one’s sister, one’s fiancée, one’s mistress, one’s wife, one’s cousin being savagely mounted by those that feared neither God nor men. What was this kind of liberation? What was this kind of revolution? What was this change one had to believe in, that one had to accept? And who was brave enough to spit the truth into the face of these monsters who came to ‘liberate’ the people from dictatorship only to implement anarchy …

‘Your father, we don’t know him.’ Kay-Kay says, drinking from a bottle that moves between his mouth and his left knee. ‘In fact, I avoid thinking about your bastard of a father because he pisses me off. You get on my nerves just like he does. Your father, whoever he is, is not a good man. Your father, he raped my wife before my eyes. They were four, your father … four men raping my wife before my very own eyes during the war …

Son of a bitch, imbecile, macaque.

‘But you, you are a lucky one, sonny. Oh yes! Because I took my wife to the hospital to expel you from her stomach but the doctor said that if she had an abortion, she would lose her life.’

Placide is in tears. Yet she insists that she wants me to know what they did to her during the war. The double-sided war where the persecutors fought each other and the victims brought gold and coltan to the winners. For that was the crux of this war: to control the country’s resources. The President The Government? The Judiciary? No one cares.

They’ve had their way and everyone else is trying their best to go on living. As for me, I am already regretting my search for answers. What did I do to the Good Lord to wind up as the result of rape? He didn’t protect me, the Good Lord. The only one who protects me is Maman. A stranger deposited me inside her stomach and she took me on. Despite the ghastly circumstances, despite my being a product of sin, she accepted me when everyone else said no. She says I’m a blessing to her and that she loves me, but how can she? I’m a curse. Even the Good Lord Himself didn’t take care to make me properly. 

My mother is not a human being. She is an angel. To accept a child like me, she had to be the incarnation of divine goodness on earth. Why didn’t she abort me? Why didn’t she strangle me at birth? Why does she bend over backwards to feed me? Why spend her money on my schooling, on my medical care? Kay-Kay has been unemployed for eons and it is Maman who bears the load of everything. Speaking of bearing the load, I’m the only one still at school. The one that falls ill every two months. Maman is not a millionaire; she only sells cassava in front of our house. What does she find so precious in me to cherish me so? And so I cry with her. She deserves this from me at the very least. I do not feel worthy of being her son, since I’m the fruit of her misfortune …

My day has the stillness of the cemetery. Hypnotised by the news of the day before, I hear nothing of what the History teacher says about how to fill in the answer sheet for the EXETAT. I have only one thing on my mind: go home, see Maman and take her into my arms. When the bell rings, I run home with all my strength but I find no one. Maman usually sets her table in front of the house but there is nothing there.

‘They are at the hospital,’ the neighbour tells me.

‘At the hospital? What for?’

‘Maman Placide had a seizure. They took her to the hospital.’


Good Lord! Why her? Why? Maman! You have no right to die, no, you can’t die, Maman. You can’t do that. I have arrived at the hospital where I hear the news of your death.  In two weeks, we sit the State Examinations. Maman, at least wait till I graduate. You only had to wait for me to get my scholarship, for me to study, find a job, buy you a house or a car. You’ve always been proud of me because I work hard at school. Maman, could your stroke not have waited? Stroke, could you not have waited? Why have you taken Maman away from me? Why don’t you give me the chance to see her smile? Maman, you were the one keeping our family ship on board. Now that you’ve gone, we sink …

No doubt about it, he killed her.

You only have to look at his red eyes to understand that he drinks human blood.

Do you know the latest? They caught him saying incantations last night.

He is a sorcerer.

Something needs to be done. Once he finishes eating all his family members, he will move onto people in the neighbourhood. Now is the time to do something.

During Maman’s funeral, I hear those talks again and again. Mourning these days is but a formality. People come to find lovers, fight old wars, find a husband, play the fool, do business. The bereaved family must console itself. Friends put together the programme for after the burial. Drinks, food, music and dance are on the programme. People of the neighbourhood review what they consider to be a murder and once the funeral is over, the hunt for the murdering sorcerer opens. That’s how it is. 

No death is of natural causes. 

No death is accidental. 

Every death is a crime and during the funeral, investigations are conducted as rumours are spread to find the culprit, namely me. I’m a sorcerer. No need for proof; what the specialist investigators peddle is of the same value as the Gospel. Strangely enough, I feel protected by my brothers, and by my father Kay-Kay who warns off anyone who dares speak ill of me. It seems hard to believe. As if death is strengthening the family bonds, but for how long? When Maman was alive, I was an impostor in the eyes of my brothers and a burden for Kay-Kay so now, what should I expect from them?

However long the night is, dawn will break. That saying comes to me now. I say it again and again as I lie on my bed every evening. Since I contended with the notorious four days of the State Examinations, I have been waiting impatiently for the results. The longer I wait, the more desired the results; a wait that’s taking more time than expected. Carefully scanning the ceiling of my room—a room I share or was sharing with my two elder brothers, this room wrapped in the ever-present smell of weed—I don’t lose hope that my dawn will break one day. It will come, everyone is unanimous about that, Kay-Kay above all.

You are clever. You will pass with no problem and you will even be rewarded by the State.

He says it with such assurance that he gives me hope, his hope. Since Maman died, everything seems dead at home. Joel has found refuge at one of his friends’ place, and Denzu too. With nothing to buy himself beer with, Kay-Kay has resurrected his late wife’s trade but revenues continue to plummet. He wouldn’t have believed it, twenty years ago, that his only hope would rest on a child not his own. He calls me: My son. He has three sons; and hearing him, it isn’t too difficult to guess that if he calls me son, it’s also because I have good marks at school.

He always says to me: ‘Work hard, my son, and tomorrow you will become the Finance Minister, and I will be the father of the Finance Minister. What greater title can there be than the father of the Finance Minister?’

In this forsaken corner of the capital city we are always waiting for the Messiah. Kay-Kay is convinced that I will get a scholarship to pursue higher education. The government gives a scholarship to every poor student who gets a score of at least 70% in their EXETAT. For Kay-Kay, it is all sorted: his champion that I am will get 90%, will receive a scholarship and once his BA is in the bag, will be appointed Finance Minister. Kay-Kay dreams big, very big.

The town is buzzing, people run. This is it: Viacom has published the results. There is electricity in the air. It is Kay-Kay who pulls me out of bed.

‘Wake up! Your results are out.’

I jump out of bed and run to the phone kiosk at the corner of the street, since I don’t have a Viacom SIM card or a mobile phone for that matter. It is crazy; we jostle. In the distance, I see Dondrick, a school friend. He is sad.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I failed.’

‘Oh no!’

‘What about you, Frandy? Have you passed?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t sent my code off yet. Can I use your phone?’

‘Of course. Here you go.’

Poor Dondrick. This is the third time he’s failed the EXETAT. He is quiet, sad but quiet; he’s gotten used to it in a way. I feel bad for using his phone. How to shout for joy when another cries? I must control myself. There we go, I have sent off the message. I now wait for the reply. The reply that will make my dawn break. My hands shake, my legs shake. Nothing unusual, I’m scared. I have nothing to fear. I have faith. The phone rings, the much-awaited SMS is here. No information. It reads. No! That’s a lie. I start again. No information. I’m cursed. A curse runs through my veins. I don’t say a thing to Dondrick. I give him back his phone instead and leave. He’s understood that I too have failed.

What is the purpose of my life now? Orphan, poor, no qualifications and … an albino. In my family, the Mutshipule, misery follows misery. Joel has failed his State Diploma four times. Denzu stopped his schooling in his second year of primary school. Misery! How to tell Kay-Kay? Would he call me my son again? He has no money to pay for another year, so for me the road ends here. My mother, and now school. Why go on? To see the indifference in people’s eyes? To be hunted by people with belief in the occult? To be Kay-Kay’s laughing stock? No. No. Luckily, Kay-Kay is not home. He’s left his radio on …

Does anyone hear me? Does anyone wonder why my mother was raped, why I had to be born of such an odious crime? Does anyone hear me? Is there anyone who understands me? Who can explain? Why I was born an albino? Why do all the ills of the world fall on me? That which is evil must be destroyed. It must be prevented from growing and until now, no one has been courageous enough. I must do it. I have to destroy the evil of this family, bring peace to Kay-Kay and to the people of this neighbourhood who don’t miss an opportunity to harm me. Yes, I must do it, before someone else does it. I would rather do it myself to alleviate my suffering. I won’t have the qualification, I won’t have any scholarship, I won’t have any future. I have no life.

Perhaps you will say I’m a fool but even fools have a reason for their folly. To you I’m perhaps an idiot but I have a good reason for being so. To those in whom I inspire pity, I say, excuse me. I say please, but your pity won’t change my condition, your pity won’t change my being. The die is already cast. Your pity! Keep it!

Kay-Kay will understand. He will understand that I have caused him enough suffering and I don’t want to add to it. He will understand that I’m giving him the opportunity of a new life, I don’t want to lock him in that dream of seeing me as a Finance Minister. He will understand that I’m setting him free when he sees me hung on this rope …

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this new edition of the news (…). The EXETAT results are in and the Minister of Education has just made known the names of those who will be receiving scholarships. They are Mutshipule Frandy and Mutsh Dondrick with respective scores of 94% and 90%. The two laureates will each receive from the President a scholarship that will allow them to study in any university they want to attend in the world. Please be aware that the Viacom network is currently not very stable. The results are only available on the website of the Ministry of Education. Thank you for listening, stay tuned, and congrats to our laureates. A lovely day whatever you are doing!

 … Oh no! My God! My neck!


  • M Mukore paints the world through words and writes theatre and short stories.

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