Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Clifton Gachagua
We always knew that the black-tailed birds were not meant to be hunted, or even eaten. Perhaps it was the ominous black on the feathers but we convinced ourselves that all small birds had necks that would give under any blunt razor blade. Instead of the sparrows’ chirping in the early mornings we only saw the soft flesh of their protruding chests. Of course you could not go around eating marabou stocks, black crows or the angle white egrets; those were big birds. Pigeons were allowed but we were all too poor to afford those and, anyway, there was the invaluable thrill that came with hunting.
That was the time murogis, Pied Wagtails, became a recurring delicacy. It was our time to try new things and the rumors that we were surrounded by murogis did not matter. The hunting party was made up of the neighborhood kids but Sweety, Odijoh, Kaboy, Kimya and I were the self-appointed generals, as we were apt to fantasize. There was an abandoned field behind the Moi Air base barracks with scanty trees and bushes and a lot of myths buried under it. We had heard about the huge chatu, boa constrictor, that had swallowed a herd of goats along with the Somali shepherd but that only added more thrill to the hunt. Of course it scared me from here to Stendikisa but I was general, and a good general leads his men in battle.
Odijoh was the one who shot the sling at the wagtail, almost splitting the bird into two. For ammunition, instead of stones we had marbles which were tougher and streamlined, sure to bring down any bird. Too long had we had the misfortune of birds running away with a broken wing because we had used kokoto.
The bird’s limb body was split into two at the chest using old Nacet razor blades. The blades pierced the skin so softly you could feel your own skin tear. There were goose bumps where the feathers had been carelessly plucked. The next step was getting rid of the intestines. I slid my index finger into what I believed to be the abdomen, rubbed my finger in the warmth, like I did when scooping peanut butter from the tin, or to girls my own age, and pulled out anything that felt like entrails. My fingers came out sticky and wet, the warm blood exciting nerves under my skin. That was how the fat women in the market removed intestines from smelling fish.
Everything else that survived this stage, and a lot of flesh did, was considered edible. By that age no one knew about bile, and even if we did, would it be big enough to make our meat bitter? All I could think of was liver sliding down my throat.
The lifeless bird was now ready for roasting. There was always a fire burning nearby, mostly in the heaps of garbage that were so common in the estate. The wire gauze would be placed on top of a fire fueled by polythene bags, saw dust and feces wrapped in old newspapers. The bird was further disembodied, split further midway to make it cook better.
The flesh burnt in the flame, reflected in our hungry eyes that chose not to notice the black smoke charring it. Meanwhile, someone would run home to steal a pinch of salt. That someone was never me; I was chief chef, leaving my meal unattended was out of the question. But it was mainly because by the time the poor fellow came back with the salt we would have devoured the whole thing and left.
Now, deciding when the meat was ready was always very tricky since only the chef had that privilege. Some smart chefs had been sucked and beaten up for tasting too much. Sweety, the former chef, once ate half the meat in the name of waiting for it to be perfectly seasoned.
After some waiting we all knew the meat was ready, it was only a matter of who would grab the whole thing first, and once he set out to run someone sent him down with a blow on the back. The meat would be lodged in midair as if by some sick miracle it had grown wings; that little fucking phoenix, flying away just like that, without goodbye. Our eyes glistened as we held up our hands in supplication, waiting for gravity to pull it back. The poor bastard lying on the ground would be the stairway for whoever wanted to get to the meat first. Once the meat hit the ground, we would all jump into a hurdle around it, roughing up each other in the fray, pulling at each other’s threadbare t-shirts, biting into thin thighs and buttocks, pulling at each other’s uncircumcised little penises, screaming. It was like a mad ritual dance.
By the end of it all nothing of the meat was left. Not a fiber of muscle. Nothing. Somehow everyone managed to get a bite of it and boast how it was the sweetest of all the roasted bird they had ever eaten. It didn’t matter if Kimya ate a piece that had been spit from the bloody mouth of someone who had received a blow in the jaws; he still boasted how the thigh was sweeter than a sparrow’s. Sweety said he had eaten the gizzard; Kaboy said there was nothing as heavenly and cleansing as eating the flesh on the back. His father was a pastor.
No one would agree to having only eaten bones, or the anus. I had no idea what part of the meat I had eaten, only that it was all in a day’s work.
After the ceremony of wagtails it was back to laughter, back to the stories of our hunting party’s success. Odijoh would stand in front of the gang and brandish his sling, proudly displaying parts that had been smeared with blood. This was a sign of future success. It meant that more birds would come falling from the firmaments beyond which our dreams skipped rope together. He would go on to christen himself a warrior before we, irritated by his nagging, all jumped on his ringworm infested head and beat the hell out of him.
We would then invent another game, this time chasing away the hounds of stray dogs that came to gather around us trying to salvage the leftovers. The dogs always smelled each other, mounting each other. They were so much like us.
Slowly, as slow and surely as the sun set behind the walls, we all went back to our mothers and sisters, creeping back into the houses to avoid disturbing our fathers as they watched the prime time news. I watched the news for a while then went to bed, imagining how Sweety looked with his pigeon chest.
© Clifton Gachagua 2010
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