Celebrating East African Writing!
Admiral Brutus Street isn’t what you would call an admirable street—well, there are tired-looking buildings parading in unclean pavements and smelly sewages. There are haggard-looking shops, bars tickling with glasses, and have never closed its doors for the last half century and counting, lodges creaking with beds, that lie awake from indecent lives within them, weather-beaten iron-roofs that clatter-clang and gaze at one another with black collected countenances. There are also reprobates who monitor everything that happens in that street, as if they possess it, or perhaps possessed by it.
The pot-holed tarmac, an occasional sparkling fuel-guzzler arrogant with road monstrosity, loud-mouthed hawkers, weighed down by huge hoarded goodies, competing here with impatient hooting, and there with street preachers, old tilted taxis, and stranded passengers, pedestrians, drug peddlers, idlers, and the playful scatter of street urchins make the street a visual and an oscillating concerto of confusion.
This chaos climaxes every Sabbath Day, when spirited lips chew chants and sing sacred songs while the revivalist irritates every open space with verbal diarrhoea. The street pays no attention, for an anthem of hullabaloo from the madding crowd, hustles noisily upon its ear, and drenches the whole hallowed hum. Even when the ‘brother’ proclaims like the prophets from his Ararat podium, eloquent as Luther King but boiling with braggadocio, and, his hand on the open Bible, of the ‘revered realities of our religion’, and of angel-like lives and vicarious sacrifice, and of endless bliss or indescribable gnashing of teeth, its eyes darkens with restless dust, agitated, in case the heavens up yonder should rumble and smite those speckled lips busy spewing forth sacrilege.
An old dark man, old as the sea, with the most depressing looks and a face that reminds one of Rufus, but on second thoughts, of Hannibal dusts the windshield of his London cab for an umpteenth time. He has the most curious raincoat that has its rightful place in the war memorial museums. It covers his spurs, barely concealing his shining army boots and had once been a confederate grey in colour. But rain and sun and age has so speckled it that Caesar’s rabbit-fur coat, beside it, would have discoloured to a pallid monochrome. A despondent descendant of kings is this old man.
The old man stands majestically by his dark cab that is so old that Lot himself might have asked for a ride in it after he fled Sodom with his two daughters and wife blindfolded in the boot, lest she should be tempted to look back. Although the street itself is already worried by the ominous presence of this old man of the hills by his evil looks, the old man touts for would-be passengers, and as they approach, he draws the fly whisk, waves without using, and proclaims like Noah, in deep, rumbling tones: ‘Zion Train express! Get on board sire, spotless—no dust, jus’ back from di funeral, suh.’
An Undertaker’s hat conceals his white wig but still reveals a wee-bit of his parched face and also shows some secret forces of despair and shame that pull it earthwards. He assumes the most revered expression to match his outrageous overstatement of the weight his burly figure carries. His sharp eyes join the other million-dollar Zimbabwean eyes curiously detained by a revival meeting that is just starting, conducted by three sisters in black, and a brother.
A sister waves and strikes the tambourine against her hand in attempts to silence the crowd. She gives up as no one pays attention to her listen-to-di-servant-of-the-word cries. Aah! It’s her sorry figure; darting eyes from the crowd seem to confirm. She’s in a shapeless black robe and white shoes, had starved her face of make-up, and thus would be a miracle if forty-nine out of fifty men dared to look at her twice!
Like the old street, the old man too, is not impressed by the enacting scene, now pregnant and anxious with clamoured chants of Miserere Mei Deus, for they are like, the reception room of an undertaker’s office, a cold ambience motioning toward the mysteries of ethereal raptures: a place painted with reverent images of immortal proportion, disturbing odour, flower vases, sketches of soaring swifts and gloomy misty mountains.
The brother glances sternly at the mortified faces of his listeners, swings with swaggers his Bible as he preaches, his powerful voice resonating with threats of repentance. Two sisters clasp their hands in harmony, nodding their consent at his testimony with mismatching refrains of HalleluJahAmen, the third sister stalks around with a tambourine extended charitably for the congregation to give what’s the Lord’s. When the brother’s testimony ends, the tax-collecting sister deposits the Caesar’s coins into her palm and—with a zeal that would embarrass Zacheus—transfers them to the pocket of her long black robe.
She shakes the tambourine in a rising crescendo like a lead percussion military band player, and strikes it against her left hand. The brother starts clapping his hands and prods the other two sisters to join her. They sing in a husky, dehydrated tone the well-known worship hymn,
‘Di Spirit of Jah,
Pour down di fyah!’
Their rasping voices and phrasing literally hypnotize the sisters and seem to transpose them to the Day of Pentecost. They beat their chests, shake their heads, their black robes spin from the gyrations, and the brother stretches forth his right hand into the sky, eyes searching the clouds, and blinking like a light indicator, no wonder seeing visions of Ecce Homo hanging upon the cross.
The sisters seem to see a different apparition—their Lord’s blood gliding from his veins down the trunks and onto the base of the cross. They tremble with mortal dread, seem out of this world and even the old man of the pyramids has to agree, this is no ordinary revival.
The old man’s eyes searches the faces of those who stand there and gawk blankly into the sky—for signs of lunacy. He only sees gaping eyes arrested by a likely spectacle of torrential brimstone and fire. He realises too, that for once, the street is unattended, that eyes has stopped watching the street, and focussed on the heavens, looking out for miracles and signs. He sees doubting Thomases, impatient to watch, yet stand still—like the sun did for Joshua—gazing at the azure horizon and scorching the roofs of their mouths, then take back their eyes to watch the street, shaking their cricking necks, cursing, ‘I told you silly goose, this is just another impostor.’
They watched and watched and listened too, for a rumble, that is, but all they heard was another urgent hymn:
‘Di voice of di Lord a-callin’
Di las’ train soon a-goin’
Come all git on board
Don’t be left behind.’
But every soul that stood and watched seemed determined to be left behind as none stepped forward when the brother made a last call. His keen eye only met the most unwilling stares of the would-be passengers, suddenly reluctant to plant their cold feet inside his Zion Train. Perhaps he had not scared them hard enough by intimidating threats to book a one-way ticket to Zion. What could unmask ‘an adulterous and wicked generation’ and turn their stone-hard hearts to heed to the tender pleas of free ride to Zion? His once Martin Luther voice changed into an upsetting tenor—no wonder his Lord hadn’t hesitated to use a whip!
He didn’t seem to notice that behind those empty stares were discerning souls which especially had no faith in his ability to chariot the Lord’s Train with the crew of his three sisters, for they knew everything about them, knew where they lived, and how.
The tax-collecting tambourine sister, whose voice governed the air, whose voice was intense with ecstasy, shared a lot in common with the woman who stood watching her, throwing knowing looks from her scarlet eyes, obviously after a khat chewing session, blowing puffs of smoke like a tractor with a defective carburettor, darkening her stone-face that was already cursed and blemished by scars from countless extra-marital escapades. This was why when they bumped into each other in the street, a polite title of ‘sister’ escaped from their pursed lips.
When the music saturated the air, the faces that stood watching seemed to be elevated to another plane, transformed even and started struggling like the Djinn trapped inside the bottle that was found by an Arab fisherman. The music seemed to unveil new possibilities, a new horizon unseen before by those gazing eyes and breaking the walls of their existence, shattering into splinters what held them back, lifting them higher out of their present state, as if, once the bottle was opened, allowed only a split of a second scurrying from their first condition, into a worthy next.
A beggar came along, stood for a moment to weigh the prospects offered by the large crowd at the revival, but hesitant to try his luck, then his face lit up when the first man he desperately stretched out his hand for, dug into his pockets for loose coins. Nothing came from his effort, for he reflected for a second, his hand still inside his pocket, and started walking away, as if some unexpected emergency had occurred. At this, the old man half shook his head and smiled, adjusted his undertaker’s hat and went back dusting his cab.
The meeting came to an end. The three sisters and the brother, waving their hands sadly, sang, ‘May the sweet airs of heaven, be with you till we meet again.’ This had an effect on the faces; caused upsetting expressions, and one by one, they left, dispersing unwillingly and dejected. The music stopped, and the brother put the Bible into his big pocket and gathered his flock of three to leave.
The old man watched the three women and the one man walk up slowly the street. He gave them a second or two, then started the cab and made towards them, caught up, threw open the door of his cab, got out, flourished his duster, and began his depressing formula: ‘Zion Train express! Get on board sire, spotless—no dust, jus’ back from di funeral, ma’am.’ The 49-50 sister smiled when she recognized him—the old man who had dropped crisp new bank-notes into her collection, but the other sister, whose long black robe looked designed in wrath and worn in a rage, was restless not to get trapped in any talk that might impede her voyage—to Zion.
‘Please, step in. I am off duty, and I shall give you a lift to your place.’ The old man offered again, waving impatiently at them to get in.
‘You done seen him before?’ the brother whispered. The sister nodded. And for a moment, they meditated between silence and speech. Then the brother after studying the air to the left and to the right of the street, seemed to agree with the proposal, entered and sat in front. The three sisters sat in the back.
‘Know De Klub House?’ the brother asked him.
‘Oh, yeah,’ the old man swallowed and adjusted his Undertaker’s hat, without taking his eyes off the road, ‘so, you live by the Klub House, huh?’
‘No sire, I live by the monastery.’
‘Are you monks and nuns, then?’
‘Not really, I’m not a monk and definitely they are not nuns, but I’m saying I live next to the monastery because our house is next to the monastery.’
‘So you’d say the General lives by the beggar if a beggar lives near him?’
‘You have a very strange way of twisting words, old man. You waste your talents driving this cab—you should be with the FBI!’
‘I’m just pulling your legs.’ The old man jokes, his teeth luminous like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning of an earthquake.
‘Your voice is so strangely familiar, ol’ one.’ The brother muses.
‘I’d have almost sworn by God that I’ve heard that voice before.’ The sisters looked at each other, and then shake their heads in unison.
‘Oh, come on now, I’m everywhere in this little world, riding in this taxi, and this town is so small, when a cab driver buys a bag of peanuts in the street, they compose a little song about him.’ He threw a grin and started tuning the car stereo, searching for a suitable station. He settled for one. He hummed to the song.
Dem waan I fi come to deh burial
But dis man a no come a no one funeral
Yet deh man claim say him a di general
‘Yeah, General Brute!’ the 49-50 sister exclaimed. ‘You have his voice.’
‘Hahaha..!’ the old man guffawed. ‘I’d almost believe it myself, about this General, Conqueror of the British Empire, Last King of Scotland, the one and only president of this country, but riding in a cab? Funny thing, isn’t it?’ he grinned, and from his voice he could have been pointing out the shortest way to get to get out of town.
‘Yeah, very funny indeed,’ the brother observes, ‘the General’s life is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. It’s only when he fools around that we get to know that he’s still in charge of this country.’
‘You’ve heard the rumours about his ruthless killing? They say that, two days ago, he drowned all cripples and street beggars into the sea. That he lured them that he was going to entertain them at the State House, and poor souls, bundled into trucks and tossed into the sea for the fishes to feast on!’ the dressed-in-rage sister explains.
The old man tensed a moment, but attempts to defend what he felt were necessary evils. ‘Perhaps it was because the Queen of England, her brother Briton Hood, and international AMF visiting the country and the General didn’t wish his ‘extinguished’ guests to witness ten million underbelly crooks pretending to be beggars.’
‘Killing innocent souls?’
‘The means justifies the end.’ The old man went on. ‘I myself decry the soaring number of children in our streets, I will personally recommend a statue to be set up, and a title, the Knight and Preserver of the Kingdom, to whoever can invent a painless way of turning these brats into useful members of the commonwealth.’
‘Brutal and gullible General!’ the brother went on, ‘couldn’t even address the queen properly with dignity at the state dinner. Just listen to his speech last night on State TV: “thank you disgusting guests, ladies under gentlemen, Mr Queen sir, before I undress you, may I open the windows for the fart climate to go out.” and when they were opened, the fool cracked his sick joke about Edward de Verre, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was so embarrassed after he passed wind when bowing before Queen Elizabeth I that he left England and travelled abroad for seven years. When eventually he plucked courage to return, the Queen welcomed him and said, ‘‘my lord, we had forgotten the fart.’’’
It was such an uproarious joke that their faces turned a little lighter, and they all screamed with amusement. The dressed-in-rage sister cracked so hard she had to hold her heaving chest as a trickle of tears squirted from her eyes and emptied down into the raised corners of her cheeks.
‘And we Africans say British his-story is boring?’ the old man cut in, humming to the refrain coming from his car stereo.
Dem want I to come a dem funeral
Dem claim say dem a di general
‘And how about the one that the CNN journalist asked him, whether he was cannibal, as reported by the western media, and he replied that he didn’t like eating human flesh because it tasted too salty!’ the sister added to the general mirth.
The brother goes on, ‘I love the one that when he heard about the Russians going to the moon, he directed our leading astronauts to invent a rocket that would take them (and our country into the light of scientific advancement) into the sun. And when he was informed that, the rocket would melt under the sun’s intense heat, he advised them not to travel during the day, but fly by night, that way, the sun would be sleeping and cold!”
‘I think the great things happen at night, in the moonlight, including scientific advancement, because the moon is more important than sun; it gives light at night when light is needed; but sun gives light during the day when light is not needed!’ the old man added.
They stopped to let the lights change at General Brutus road junction. A cocktail of humdrum din and clamouring voices, dashing pedestrians, eager to cross the street, idlers watching everything in the street, and inside the car, the scents of body sweat and polluted fumes from the exhaust made the atmosphere in the street almost visible.
A Hummer, driven by a very sophisticated looking youth, stopped next to them, and is playing very loud Wailing Souls song Mass Charley Ground. It’s an ear-splitting statement that leaves them to re-assess society’s anxiety with the youth and loud music. Perhaps they heard too much wailing souls in music their parents danced to before they were born, and by playing loud music, were declaring what their parents missed.
This noise juxtaposed with what was on other side of street, two mass choirs in black and white robes. They sang hysterically, their wailing voices like wounded angels, pleaded to the wrath of God to smite a sinning universe. The attempt was glorious, but all around them, people were preoccupied with pressing earthly cares, looking trodden and weary of feelings.
‘Com duon Fadduh, com don!’ begged the preacher. ‘Dis world-o na be my home, I’m jus’ passim by!’
‘This poor people, who, who…,’ the old man mused, ‘who’re so busy worrying about the next world that they can’t live in this one! Just see all these idlers and hypocrites in every street.’
‘Brother, man!’ the brother admonishes, ‘your talents are wasted as a grumbling taxi driver; you really must join the army of our Lord.’
‘The Army of the Lord?’ he smiles, ‘but I’m the General in the Army of the Lord, only on undercover assignments!’
‘You must confess, and declare publicly, brother.’ The brother forcefully puts in, his Martin Luther tone having come back.
The dressed-in-rage sister says, ‘this is more than a spiritual warfare my brother, you must declare to the world that you’ve booked an express first-class to Zion!’
‘We desire eternal life—but most of us want it here on earth, not in heaven.’ The old man replies.
‘We can build our little heaven down here, if we allow the Spirit of the Lord to dwell upon us,’ the 49:50 sister offered. But the old man half-shook his head, still unconvinced why the word Lord shouldn’t be kept within the precepts of a church like other words inside the bedroom!
The preacher then waved his hand and called to someone in the crowd, ‘You mustn’t let the doors of heaven shut upon you! You must plant a seed! You must give generously! And yeah, nobody leaves here till we have a hundred dollars!’
The old man watched, and no longer speaking an unnecessary word to his passengers. ‘No wonder He didn’t hesitate to use a whip on those who were defiling and turning His house into a den of idlers.’ He mused, his eyelashes twitching, they couldn’t tolerate seeing wolves in sheep clothing with a cosmetic tongue designed to confuse the gullible. Yet he knew where the carcass was, there will the eagles be gathered. He turned back to his music and hummed to it.
Let deh dead bury dem dead
I’m a living man, ‘ave got work to do
‘The light has changed, brother.’ The brother nudged him.
‘Oh, has it?’ He said, as if he had not been conscious of it. To evince surprise at his passenger’s impatience was part of his PR benevolence.
Before a fly could blink twice, they were at their 4th Brutus Street destination, their car appearing round the corner with noisy threats of speed. ‘Here we go,’ the brother breathed briefly, ‘behold the monastery and the house!’ He pointed with finality, indicating with his finger, first to the left and then to the right like he was giving the positions of two new planets.
‘Thank you very much, may you be blessed abundantly.’ The brother wished him and they turned to go. There was an embarrassed moment from the 49:50 sister who thought the old man deserved more than just ‘blessed abundantly’. She couldn’t bear the thought of breaking an old heart like the way one would throw a cigarette you were through with.
‘Perhaps you’d still pray for me, my most excellent accomplished sister, for heaven to rain sweet odours on me.’ The old man, as if reading her thoughts, suggested to her as she were leaving.
They delayed their voyage again, and for another moment, they meditated between silence and speech. Then the brother after studying the air to the left and to the right of the street, seemed to be in agreement with the suggestion, that there was no harm in throwing an old man a few left-over blessings.
And they all disappeared into the big house from another century, the old man tagging along, deliberately and with measured steps. It did look like a monastery, but only in age and simplicity about it. They made through the main door, there must have been more than five bedrooms in that old house, judging by the space the hallway boasted of.
There was an old prophetess sitting in a raised chair in the middle of the sitting room. Her countenance changed as soon as her eyes met the old man’s. ‘I don’t like surprises, children,’ she observed. ‘And from the look of things, I can see fear.’ She looked at them. Her eyes went quick and fast to the old man, darting as if she was troubled there wasn’t time to look, for without moving her head at all, she looked at them—at all the three of them at one time.
Someone knocked loudly at the back of the house. Before the prophetess could stand, the 49:50 sister had sighed a soft excuse and was gone to investigate the noise. She returned shortly with a cheered up face, a faint flush on her cheeks, and sixty years lifted from her shoulders. She was fondly holding the hands of the newcomer, a man, whom before he could properly be introduced; the gun stared at his face.
The old man had pulled out a revolver. He used the other hand to tear off the mask on his face, and warned brashly at the new arrival: ‘Don’t even dare!’ Their initial shock instalment was the sight of the gun; the aftershock was when they finally realised who he really was. Mortal fearful faces full of OMG followed and filled the room. They stood arrested with fear and fright and for a few moments, remained still, looking down in that gloomy direction where all dreadful faces looked for respite.
‘Holy Moses, General!’ A sigh escaped the prophetess.
‘What the …!’ cried the new entrant.
When you find yourself in a backstreet building at the beginning of the year and see faces that are not as other faces, you can bet your million dollars that you are looking at faces that have come face to face with the face of General Brute. That is what happened back there, as soon as they registered and digested who the messenger of wet news was, now standing in their sitting room, with a pointed gun, and face to face with three sisters, a brother, an old prophetess and worse, the Rebel Chief of the Lord’s Liberation Army, a religious rebellion that kidnapped babies still suckling and strapped to their mothers backs, to go fight in the forest in the name of the Lord!
A deathly silence fell over the room. The brother and the three sisters are obviously in despair over their careless chit-chat back in the car, behind the back of the General, even when he had been right in front of them. After a while the General turns matter-of-factly to the Rebel Chief: ‘how many bodyguards are out?’
‘Seven.’ The Rebel Chief says, and then goes into a silence like that which saturates a cathedral after a service. ‘But they’ll swarm all over this place if I don’t show up in ten minutes.’ He added.
‘Don’t worry about your soldiers; do you think they know their behinds from the holes in the ground? I doubt there is a brave one in the bunch.’ The General dismissed. ‘But just in case, push comes to shove, no one moves, no one gets hurt, am I clear?’ he went on in clear as day orders. The silence of the next few seconds must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever played by the youth since time immemorial.
‘How foolish was I?’ the prophetess cried, like a maidservant remembering half-an-hour too late the water tap that she left running in the bathroom tub.
‘Old woman, your guardian angel didn’t warn you in your visions, did he? Your world just coming to an end this way!’ the General mocked. ‘I’m sure we can all come into some understanding. The gun I’m holding is just to remind you who is in charge.’
They stood in respected awe and listened without answering back, for to contradict the General was a death sentence in itself; he was rumoured to have killed more men in a year than a mortar could do in a decade.
‘The scriptures say,’ he went on unheedingly, ‘“reap what you sow, for thou shalt eat thy bread by the sweat of thy brow”, because, if you always eat bread not from your own sweat it’s just tasteless. Brothers, why are you reaping where you never sowed? Brother, you have been measured, weighed and found wanting.’
The prophetess starts shaking but after a second she restrains herself and proclaims, ‘this is not how it ends, General, for the cherubs have spoken to me, in visions and they don’t make mistakes. They’ve chosen me to have a blessed birth to a reincarnation of St. Elizabeth who’ll usher in our Lord to fight the Armageddon and end the times. You wouldn’t wish to meddle with that eternal plan, would you?’
The General smiles, ‘if all men could have power to strike like lightening, as the heavens does, then the skies above would never be silent, for we’d abuse our skies for nothing but strike vengeful lightening. It’s consoling that that power is only vested in the hands of lenient heaven, which with its fast and furious force, tears to shreds the unbreakable and bulky rock, as swiftly as a soft siltstone. But man, mortal man, dressed in a diminutive power, doesn’t even know what he claims he knows, his naughty nature, like a bull in a china shop, amuses himself in such subterfuge and sham before high heaven, and causes the cherubs to weep, who, if they had our faces, would all have laughed themselves mortal!’
‘If what I hear is true of you General, then I’m afraid good wombs have borne bad sons.’ The prophetess said sadly.
The General agreed, ‘not only have good wombs borne bad sons, indeed, not only have the rains from heaven nurtured the ear of the corn and nourished the scent of the rose, but also strengthened the thorn and fed potency to the poisonous nightshade. That’s why the hypocrite who supposes they can have the best of both worlds, by assimilating good and evil is merely feeding the virus in their heart, for they are false already, and there’s no truth in them.’
Finally the Rebel Chief cleared his throat, ‘we are in a war General, I fight beside the Word, and you, with the Sword. The blood we aspire to shed is mutual. By the Word of my mouth and by the Sword of thy hand, whoever gets the other first, I pray to high heaven, and even I, to forgive them. And if there is such a place prepared for those that die in honour, I pray that when he falls, his weary soul may merit such a right to be with the seraphim.’
The General was prepared for this outburst: ‘How cowardly men crawl under the long arm of the law, while hypocrites play hide and seek with eyes of heaven! How some men devour into other’s narcissism, while egotism abstains in their impiety.’
But the Rebel Chief wasn’t giving up: ‘If you have come to cut a deal with me, then I must disappoint you, for I’m not up for grabs. You can take me in. You have me. You can finish me off. But the Lord’s Army is bigger than just me. For every one of me, there are hundreds of them,’ he pointed the sisters and the brother, ‘the Lord’s my Shepherd!’
© Gideon Chumo http://myroundsquare.blogspot.com
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