Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Peel Maina 




By Peel Maina 


1957- Walking towards Mr. Richard’s house where my black father worked as a cook, I saw the long lines of black, male Africans working in the expansive coffee plantations, picking and carrying uphill the plum-red coffee berries. A few African women struggled uphill, laden with harvests of maize.


Some of the men wore coverings made from animal skins while the women were adorned with age-worn dresses. Despite their jubilant greetings and questions about my life in the white, missionary-taught school where I was having my high school education, I sensed a spirit of weariness and reduced expectations of what life had to offer. Sometimes, I sensed reserved energy and potency in younger men like me, whose silent whisperings, short talks in groups of four or five and a wary looking around lent a pregnant mood to the atmosphere.


An armed resistance against the minority white government had exploded in the forests. Groups of young African men escaped the labor in the white owned farms and armed with spears, bows and arrows, or for the more resourceful ones, crude home-made guns, ventured into the forest to struggle for the dream of independence.

I could not escape a feeling of guilt as I contrasted the physical labor of these my people with the relative comforts of life in school. There were ready meals, a quiet and serene environment, a day-long consultation with books and finally a nice, comfortable bed at the end of the day.


Into the future, my mind’s eye could see myself in a glamorous career: doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer….. But those were not for these, I pondered in silent horror, as I stood among them in my bright white shirt and shorts, they would forever be sons and daughters of the soil, wrestling with the soil, its dust, its dirt, periodically punished or rewarded by the weather.


As I glanced at their dirtied hands, sweating brows, backs bending under back-breaking burdens of harvest, I realized that this day was their every day, their forever day. Without western education, they would never know how to build roads, make machines and administer complex curative measures. They would never see beyond this soil that made them servant. Perhaps, when I got western education, I could come and teach them.


I had to leave them and walk uphill to Mr. Richard’s house and assist my father in the domestic duties he was employed to do. A wisp of blonde hair flitted across my mental eye, momentarily lighting a flame I had unsuccessfully tried to extinguish.


Was Clara, Mr. Richard’s daughter home? For a second I was gripped with a panic attack when I remembered the letter I had sent her from school. For another second, I regretted the words I had achingly written on a piece of paper under the blanket with the assistance of a flashlight.


Knocking on the door, Mrs. Richards opened it. She was of average height, slender and with thick, orange-brown hair. She cupped her hands on both of my cheeks, sought to know how I was doing in school and welcomed me inside.


A coffee and slices of bread were put on the table and she, being a woman of few words, went back to her knitting. I was grateful to the Richards for they had been the ones who had sponsored my education since childhood.


My father’s voice from the kitchen urged me to hurry up and join him. As I finished, a singing voice from inside one of the interior rooms carried itself to the living room. The sounds of a door being flung open the soft patter of feet and there she was, standing in the sitting room like a dream.


Her figure had grown fuller and her face which had the shape of an upturned oval had grown prettier. Her blond hair which had captured me in all the past and recent school breaks flowed in cascading curls down to the space between her shoulders and waist. Her girlish figure was slender. She went and hugged her mother, encircling her from behind with her hands and pressing her face to hers.


“Remember Kathleen is coming to visit,” said her mother to her.


Kathleen was her best friend from the next settler farm. She nodded.


“Hi Wainaina,” greeted she. I replied the greeting.


She disappeared from the room.


Just like that!


Well, what was I expecting? In my naivety and youthful impatience, I had taken to borrowing overnight the books she was reading and sticking in short love letters. She continued lending the books to me with no comment.


If my father had known what I was doing, he would have beaten the love out of me. Making a pass at a European female was unheard of; not that it was explicitly forbidden but how could one entertain the idea of loving a one whose race had come, imposed their rule and government on us, taken our best lands, beaten us in battles, slapped us with taxes, turned its nose up at our culture and judged our ways of life, our traditions, as phenomena of a past era? Making a pass at her endangered my father’s friendship with his white employer and even more seriously his job.


Moreover, African tradition was very strict in boy-girl relationships. It highly discouraged secrecy as this gave opportunity for vice to creep in. Flirtations and romances were carried out in night public dances or near the river where the girls got their water from or on road sides, under the watchful communal eye.


But Clara attended no dances which her parents considered heathen, no weddings and never went to the river. How was I to communicate with her?


In the kitchen, I washed the utensils, made tea and lunch in a giant container for the workers who would come hungry in the afternoon and later, went outside the house, leaving my father to continue with lighter work.


She was playing tennis with Kathleen. Approaching her in the in full public view would have stuck out like a cockroach on a wedding cake. A number of times, the two girls passed me on their trips to get water from the house. She never turned towards me or acknowledged me in any way.


How I suffered!


Was she totally unconcerned or was she too well brought up to be forthright?


As the dusk shaded the skies, it was time for me to leave. I could see Mrs. Richards giving some instructions to my father a few meters away. Clara had just seen off her friend whose dad had come to pick her and was walking towards their house.


I decided to approach her.


The closer I got to her, the more the drumming of my heart sounded in my ears. Suppose she became upset, perhaps even afraid of me, and intimated our encounters to her parents. The consequences were unthinkable!


“Clara,” I called.


She turned around. It was not dark enough for me not to see her face. I wanted to ask her whether she’d gotten my letter but the words stuck in my throat.
“Can I borrow overnight the book you are reading?” I asked her.


She looked at me blankly, for half a second, and disappeared into the house, coming back with a novella. What totally unsettled me was the blank look on her face, totally devoid of emotion. For a few seconds, I wondered whether she was too young. May be she didn’t know what I was talking about, or may be this was how white people carried themselves in romance; with an informal, modest, hands-off air. The mere sight of that face made my heart convulse with love-ache.


Leave now or you will be in trouble! I heard a voice in my head shriek.


“You can give it back when you have finished,” she said, in that quiet, thoughtful manner which I felt came from a quiet, thoughtful soul.


“Clara, did you get my letter?” I asked. She turned and regarded me.


“Yes,” she said quietly, thoughtfully, with a quiet look on her face like the sea at it’s calmest.


We stood together, facing each other like two robots. I could not dare say what I wanted to say next.


“Well, see you tomorrow then,” I said and turned back.


My father’s voice ordering me to go to the cows’ pen reached me. Once there, I found Mr. Richards and Johnny, a soldier, bent over a cow which was about to calve. My father knelt near its head, stroking the soft fur on the nape of its neck. After the greetings from the two men, I settled down and stroked the fur as I listened to their conversation. They were speaking in English, a language that my father could not hear as he had never been to the white man’s school.


“Our informers have told us that some fighters will be coming into the village tonight,” said Johnny.


Mr. Richards’s eye grew large.


“Will there be an attack on us?” he asked.


“The fighters from the forest are coming for supplies of food and wear from the villagers. We have also discovered that some of the villagers get medicine after faking illness and they stock it up for the fighters.”


Mr. Richards pondered it silently, then said, "They support their own.”


Johnny drew from his cigarette and blew out the smoke.


“The black fighters are growing more and more dangerous as time passes. A month ago, they stormed an administrative post, overpowered the men there and made away with guns, real guns. A week later, they stormed another post and made away with ammunition, although they suffered heavy casualties. They mean business. We will have to flatten them with an iron hammer.”


“I’ve been feeling like it’s time to go,” said Mr. Richards silently.


Johnny gave a short, contemptuous laugh.


“You want to give up already?” he asked.


“I just don’t think that these people will ever be at peace until they get their lands back,” said Mr. Richards.


“And they won’t get them,” said Johnny, his eyes narrowing into slits.


“Can’t they see the benefits we have brought them: free medical centers, new methods of farming, we’ve built roads, a long train track from the coast, we educate their children at minimum cost….”


“It’s a low quality type of education we give them Johnny,” said Mr. Richards sadly, “only good enough for practical work while we keep the better education for ourselves.”

“So what? They have to start somewhere. Okay, we are not giving them intellectual education, we are only teaching them practical skills like woodwork and metalwork but that is what their industries will need in the future,” Johnny argued out.


“And for all those benefits, we take their land, make them our mules, pay them a pittance, give low-quality education, slap them with taxes all because we built roads for them and stopped their tribal wars?” posed Mr. Richards.


“Well, perhaps we have been a bit selfish,” reflected Johnny, “but so have all conquerors in human history. What I want to assure you is that this continent will be so much better because of our influence.”


“You know, I was in the city one week ago. I saw that they are having black prostitutes now. We’ve impoverished their young men, making them unable to pay the bride price and now their women are strolling in the cities selling themselves,” said Richards.


“Well, everything comes at a price Richards, even civilization.”


A servant from the main house brought us steaming cups of tea.


“Anyway, I want you not to sleep here tonight. All the white families are sleeping in our post. Enough soldiers to guarantee you safety and a long night’s sleep.”

Mr. Richards sighed deeply.


“We will have to hammer them down,” continued Johnny.


Cold droplets of sweat gathered on my forehead. I knew that young men, specifically those in my group would be involved. They would probably be ambushed as they transported food, medicine and clothes collected from the various villagers or they would be ambushed when meeting the fighters at the edge of the forest.

After the cow had calved, I walked home with my father. Recently, he had grown very silent. He knew the plans that were going on in the village, the food and medicine that was delivered at night to the fighters. He knew of the old men’s’ meetings in deep night, of a young man from a particular family who had left the daily labor and run to the forest to join the fighters.


Despite all the financial help he extended to others, father had grown increasingly alienated from the villagers. He was Richard’s most trusted servant and the two could be seen talking and laughing at times. Many people suspected him of being an informer.


Two months in the past, the body of a slain warrior had been found near the edge of the forest. It explained gun shots of the previous night. Many villagers had increasingly become suspicious of those who were seen to be close to Mr. Richards. It pained me particularly to see the two men being thought of in such a way. Despite being part of a system that crushed us, Richards was essentially a good, honest man. I had heard him intimate to his wife that they would leave for Europe shortly, a secret I never wanted to convey to father so as not to plunge him in anxiety over a job loss.


Moreover, the thought that some villagers thought him untrustworthy distressed him greatly. I knew this from silent observations of the world around him, the world around me.

In my silent moments at night, the thoughts of this European damsel plunged me into my own melancholy. Many times, I wondered if I was being too ambitious, too silly.

On finishing the supper, I went to my hut. In African homesteads, boys and young men have their huts built outside the main house, unlike daughters who sleep inside the main house.


I was therefore able to move out of the house undetected and went to inform my friend Njoroge that no young man was to venture out tonight. We met, all thirty two young men. I told them that soldiers were going to lie in wait and that their lives would be cut short. Many reacted in aggrieved bitterness that their plan to supply the black fighters in the forest had leaked out.


Njoroge was chosen to go to the forest and warn the fighters not to venture to the village. It was a risky journey but he agreed to go.


When the meeting broke, I went home with a sense of dread. What I gathered from the young men was that fighters from various mountain ranges planned to attack the very post that Carla and her father were stationed. Hundreds of fighters would land on the post, with guns gotten from past overruns and overpower the forty or fifty white soldiers in the post. There was no guarantee that Njoroge’s message to the fighters would convince them not to attack the post.


Lying in bed later, agonizing images of gun and smoke surrounding Carla flashed through my mind. I could not bear the knowledge of that innocent face, that vulnerable persona, in so merciless a violence.


I let myself out into the night, haunted, running like a hunted gazelle, striving to save the hunted. I ……..I had to save her. I arrived at the post, met the white, unsmiling faces of the white soldiers. After thorough questioning of my purposes, none of which I revealed, I was allowed to see Mr. Richards.


He listened to me, at last curiously, then his face turned deathly pale as I spoke in anguished insistence. His eyes seemed to lose light, like a weary man. Finally, I implored him to let me leave the post, and not to tell the soldiers what I had told him as I would be surely detained on suspicion of being a spy working with the fighters.

Once out of the cold night, my next mission was to find Njoroge. Njoroge was the fighters’ informer in the village. I aimed to tell him that the fighters’ plan to attack the post had leaked out and insist on the fighters not to venture out. My intention was to hopefully protect both sides.


Only a few meters from the post, I bumped into a body and fell down. It was dark, the night crickets singing. A flashlight was shone on my face.


“Is it you Wainaina, ooh is it you!” cried a voice in agony. It was Njoroge. He stood over me shining the light on my face.


“You went to inform them right?” he asked, I could feel his voice choked with emotions.


“You betrayed us, you betrayed us Wainaina!” he cried.


“For Carla, I did it for Carla,” I sobbed. “I love her Njoroge.”


“What! You fell in love with the white girl,” he burst in a whisper that vibrated with repressed rage. I saw faintly his hand, holding something, go up in the air. It was a spear, or a club.


Suddenly, he dropped the weapon, yanked me up and stared into my face.


“If I report you the fighters, you will die a slow death. I will only spare your life because you spared ours. Go!”


He pushed me away. I stood looking at him, too dazed to act.


It was true. I couldn’t go back to the village. I had informed the white soldiers and this deed neutralized my former one of saving the fighters. The news of my being seen at the post would reach the villagers, then the fighters.


The only way forward was to run away. I ran wildly, tripping over overgrown bushes, roots and shrubs. In intervals, I surveyed the distant mountains, the valleys, what had been home for years.


I was an outcast in my village and I led a solitary life in the city, uprooted from my origins.


Fate is funny, or coincidence, or luck. I did finish my secondary school education, and got a scholarship to Britain to pursue medical studies. I wanted nothing more than to graduate as a doctor and go back to my home country to render a lifelong service to it.


One day, I strolled into a restaurant in London. I had just been served when I got a feeling that I was being watched. On looking around, my eyes met those of a mid-twenty lady, seated together with an Englishman in his early thirties. With them sat a little girl of four years, delightfully nibbling.


It was the gentle face of Carla, blonde hair and innocence on her face. Nothing confirmed it more than the face of the child, who looked completely the way Carla looked when she was a child.


I did not want to impose myself on their scene of marital serenity. Finishing my meal first, I went to the counter and with my meager student earnings, paid for my meal and her family’s. I made a slight bow at her, smiled and walked out into the cool day air, to seek my own fortune in life.


Peel Maina is a Kenyan teacher of English and Literature who is also a prose writer, essayist and poet.Many of his articles have appeared in The Nation newspaper which is Kenya's widest circulating newspaper, He is currently working on his first novel.


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