The JRB presents an excerpt from We, the Scarred by Mukoma wa Ngugi.
The novel, which tells the story of a fictional East African country in the nineteen-nineties, its dictatorship about to fall, and its exiles preparing to return, was originally published in 2015 by Ohio University Press as Mrs Shaw. The African rights for the book have now been acquired by Paivapo Publishers, a new publishing house founded by Zukiswa Wanner.
‘For my books first published in the West, they are orphans until they “return to the source”,’ Mukoma says of the African edition.
We, the Scarred
Mukoma wa Ngugi
Paivapo Publishers, 2020
Read the excerpt:
‘We have to get Kalumba to the border. There is nothing more to be done,’ Ogum finally said.
He snuffed out the lantern and followed his companions out, closing the door behind him. They walked to an old Datsun pickup. Kalumba noticed the number plates—KVG 750. It was his father’s car. It was good that he was once again able to record details, he thought to himself absently. They put him in the back. That was how the Samasi were transported.
In spite of Sukena’s confidence, the first checkpoint was nerve-wracking. They did not know what to expect. The police officer who flagged them down was armed with a machine gun, a pistol, grenades, and an army knife. They were not relieved to note that handcuffs weren’t part of his arsenal. He was not here to place people under arrest. A senior police officer, he was bureaucratically polite when asking for Sukena’s driver’s license and Ogum’s ID. He checked their names against The List.
As the flashlight moved through it, Kalumba could see that it bore the same careless marks as the one he had received from the soldier. The police officer walked over to his car to radio in their names. They could hear a squeaking voice telling the police officer to be more thorough: Ogum and Sukena were known radicals, and the car they were driving belonged to a suspect’s father. He came back and handed Sukena her driver’s licence and Ogum his ID. The one thousand shilling note she had tucked in with her licence was still there. He ordered Sukena and Ogum out of the car and carefully patted them down. Then he fished through the glove compartment, under the long leather seat, under the mats, and even inside an unused cigarette ashtray that sat on the dashboard. Kalumba knew he would not pass this level of scrutiny. The officer walked to the back of the Datsun pickup, hand dangling slightly above his pistol as if in a Western movie. With his free hand he checked under the spare tyre. He signalled for Kalumba to stand up. He looked under where Kalumba was sitting. Then he walked to his car and spoke something into his radio. They heard the squeaky voice telling the officer to let them go since they were not on The List.
He walked back. ‘Protect your father,’ he said to Ogum, to the surprise of everyone in the car.
‘It’s too late,’ Ogum said. ‘He died this afternoon.’
The police officer shrugged.
From somewhere in the thickets by the roadside, they heard two gunshots.
‘A great preacher. Save yourselves,’ he said, his voice trembling.
Three other police officers emerged from the darkness, led by bright flashlights, one crossing out a name from their list. They started to walk toward the pickup. Before they reached Kalumba, Sukena, and Ogum, the police officer-turned saviour beckoned for them to get moving. When they reached the spikes he signaled with his flashlight for them to stop. He walked over to the driver’s side, reached in to the dashboard where Sukena had placed her driver’s licence and pulled out the one thousand shilling note, making sure to brush his hand against her breasts. He walked to the back of the pickup.
‘We have to eat,’ he said as he waved the one thousand shilling note in Kalumba’s face. ‘Stay gone, asshole,’ he whispered.
And he waved them off. They drove in silence, afraid that words if spoken would become too heavy—grief would stall the car. Soon, they were four or five kilometres from the border post. It was not safe to get any closer.
Kalumba would have to get off here and find a suitable place for crossing.
The border post was usually no more than a stall with a thick and heavy nylon rope that cut across the road, but it was still not worth the risk. With the coup attempt, there were bound to be soldiers. It made sense for Kalumba to cut through unmanned areas. It was here that the colonialists had divided the Samasi in two and put each half on one side of the border. In some places, borders had created enmity between families by giving them different names.
But not here.
As a consequence, the border had no meaning. The Samasi did not even pause. It was their land, and they had not drawn any lines around it. Ogum remained in the driver’s seat as Kalumba and Sukena climbed out of the truck. They hugged and held on, each for a long time trying to burn this last moment into their memories, before the interruption of exile. And when they both felt that it was imprinted in their skins and on their breath and in their memory, they let go. But just as soon as they let go, Sukena reached out to embrace Kalumba again. She thought about their love, how he was so broken up that when she held him, she could feel the fissures of strained skin.
‘No promises,’ she whispered to him as Ogum signaled her it was time to go.
Ogum did not look at Kalumba or say good-bye.
‘I have to go look for my father’s ashes,’ he said and started the car.
As an afterthought, he leaned out through the window to say something and then changed his mind.
He was angry at Kalumba but did not know why. Maybe it was his grief trying to find a face, he told himself. Kalumba stared back at Ogum guiltily, expectantly even, as he rolled up the window. He knew something had irrevocably broken and it would take all their strength to mend it—or this grief would destroy them a day at a time. The fight for their friendship would be for their very own lives. Kalumba stood still for a while and watched the furious ball of dust and light roll away, then started for the border. He hadn’t been walking for long before he noticed headlights haphazardly and busily digging holes into the night, sometimes all but disappearing, then reappearing as the approaching vehicle dipped in and out of the pothole-filled road. He stopped, hoping for more words that would soften the day’s events. He wanted to embrace Ogum and apologise for his father’s death. No, he wanted to console Ogum. He wanted to tell Ogum that he too had been killed together with his father and that exile would kill him again.
He wanted to offer Ogum his own life in place of his father’s—or something that would lessen the pain. He wanted to make promises to Sukena, promise to marry her, to come back within a week, to liberate the country single-handedly, promise her anything that would fill the silence that he too had felt had been steadily growing between them. When he could peer through the ball of dust, instead of the old pickup, what he saw hurtling toward him was a massive 4×4. He started to panic thinking that he had already been spotted. But when it screeched to a halt beside him, he found that it was full of white tourists.
They wanted to take photographs of him, but he signalled that he wanted to be driven in their motorcar to the big city across the border.
‘Probably to buy cattle,’ one of them said.
‘Well, let him hop in,’ another said.
They did not put him in the carrier cabin at the back. They squeezed him into the back seat.
‘Yo! Mr. Samasi, can you teach us to say hello? How—do you—say—hello?’ they asked him, gesturing wildly.
‘Ogum probably knows Samasi,’ he thought to himself.
‘Molo,’ he said in his language.
They didn’t know he was speaking Kyukato, and if they did, they didn’t care.
They repeated after him in chorus, ‘Molo.’
‘Why do you people kill lions? Do you know I once dreamt of hunting a Samasi hunting a lion? Man, he doesn’t look too good—perhaps the hunt didn’t go too well.’
And thus their journey continued, pausing only briefly to show their white skin and their one Samasi to the soldiers at the border post. They too had escaped the coup. Soon they reached Kiliko town.
Camera flashes tore into his eyes as his companions took what felt like a thousand photographs of him. The townspeople, who would be described in a postcard to America as composed of natives in bright tribal costume and administrators with suits that had browned and bruised collars, went about their business, as did some tourists with cameras and long hair. But some of the other tourists crowded in as if on a kill and snapped a few photographs of Kalumba.
Thinking about being in the United States, he wondered if he would ever come across a calendar of himself, the Samasi Lion Killer who was just tame enough to take photographs with tourists, or if he would someday walk into someone’s home and find his photographs adorning their walls.
About the book
‘Let me put it this way: returning what was stolen makes everyone see once again. The aggressor is no longer blinded by the guilt of theft and fear of revenge; and the aggrieved is no longer blinded by the constant need for revenge.’
When Kalumba gets The List from a mysterious soldier in Kwatee Republic, he and his friend Ogum set about warning their comrades to escape from possible arrest or murder by the lackeys of The Dictator. On The List is the fiery clergyman Baba Ogum, who fails to heed the warning, little knowing that this time, the preacher’s collar will not save him.
Kalumba, also on The List, successfully escapes to the United States, where he will eventually come to see that the idea of a ‘land of the free’ is relative.
Years later, The Dictator falls and Kalumba returns to Kwatee Republic where he reunites with his comrades. But he soon realises that the scars of exile are as real for those who remained. And where did The List come from? In the Second Kwatee Republic, a battle of minds ensues and it becomes necessary for Kwateeans to answer whether truth and justice trump reconciliation in order to move a nation forward.
About the author
Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownership, the novels Black Star Nairobi and Nairobi Heat, and two poetry collections, Logotherapy and Hurling Words at Consciousness. He also wrote an eight-part radio play for Deutsche Welle, Drugs to Kill, Drugs to Cure, that was translated into Hausa, Lingala, Kiswahili, French and Portuguese. He is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and a member of the African Literature Association Executive Council. He was named one of the 100 Most Influential Africans by New African magazine in 2013.