Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Peter Nena
“Anyap”—that was what my parents named me at birth. In Dholuo, it means “I am lazy”; and I hated it with as much passion and disgust as I did a certain boy called Onyango Ding’ir. A more depressing name has never been formed on earth. Pronounced with a proper inflection, it can actually imply “I’m weak.” And that was what everyone did. They called me weak and it thrilled them to do it. I could see the sparkle in their eyes and the agitation in their throats; and when their jaws loosened and their mouths opened like horrible, stinking wounds, I would be beside myself with hate and disgust.
“Anyap, do you help your mother in the farm?” a woman would mock upon noticing me in the neighbourhood. “Anyap, can you play football?” a man would jeer. “Anyap, do you eat to live or live to eat?” my classmates would shout.
“Ma, why did you name me Anyap?” I asked my mother one day. I was ten and in tears after being insulted at the playground. What I really wanted to ask her was “How could you name your son Anyap? How could you dare to foresee my future and summarize it in a single obnoxious word? How could you, Ma?” but I didn’t because sometimes she was tired and unhappy and her temper was frail.
“Ask your father,” she said dismissively. But my father had been dead for eight years. I went to his grave and furiously hurled rocks at it while calling him a witch and hoping he would resurrect and get hurt.
As if God himself was thrilled by my name and wished it to be manifested in my body, I was born with a strange incurable lung disease. When it attacked, my windpipe would be inflamed and red and wounded, and the air would taste like fire, hot, dry, deadly, scorching and shrivelling my lungs. Sometimes it felt as if somebody was wringing my lungs in his merciless hands like a cloth. I’d cough out blood profusely, and my mother would cry bitterly, and I’d cry too for seeing her crying, and the coughing would worsen. The only doctor she could ever afford to visit, Dr. Onyuna from Ranen Mission Hospital, had told her I’d never live to be eighteen.
Consequently, I had a weak constitution. I looked sick and exhausted and withered, even when I was feeling healthy and strong. I was forbidden from strenuous tasks for fear that they would awaken the murderous monstrosity in my lungs. In school, I was not involved in sports; at home, I did not go to the farm; in class, I performed poorly since I missed school for weeks when I became sick.
But it was all because of my name.
“Cursed, cursed my father,” I cried in rage and bitterness. “Why, why did you name me Anyap? Would I be still sick, sickening, and miserable if you but named me differently?”
Even the teachers ridiculed me. They said that in the entire school, no student had a more suitable name. “Look at him! Anyap!” the teacher on duty would yell sarcastically when I asked to be excused from labour. A new teacher would come to class and mark me, just me, out of everyone.
“What is your name?” one teacher asked.
“Anyap!” the class chorused before I could answer, and he laughed madly along with everyone else.
“Anyap, what can you do?” he continued.
“Eat!” was the chorus; and the laughter became a roar.
“Anyap, inyap ndi?” he asked in Dholuo. It meant “Anyap, are you thoroughly lazy?”
“Anyap, inyap! Anyap, inyap!” everybody sang gleefully, shouting, shrieking, squealing, excited helplessly by the rhyme. The roar became thunderous.
One voice was particularly loud and remarkable. It came from the back and it belonged to Onyango Ding’ir, the ringleader of all the bullies from standard six backwards. He did hate me specifically and his animosity was resolved against me. I’d never done anything to provoke him, though; I feared him; but twice he’d provoked and hurt me in ways that were unforgivable. The first time he had tricked me into a torturous game of which I had been utterly ignorant. He asked me to cane him five times on his buttocks. If I refused, he’d cane me twenty times on my back. But if I obeyed, he’d do no more than retaliate. It was evening and the school had closed for the day. He and his team had caught up with me on the way. He knew I did not have the will to inflict substantial injury upon him; while he could hurt me pretty badly. He was older and taller. He had repeated standard six thrice. But I could not let him cane me for free; so I caned him first. It was useless because he’d put a book inside his shorts. However, he did avenge himself proper. He caned me nine times before I seized the opportunity to flee. The second time I had, accidentally, found him at the river where I’d gone to bathe. He pinned me down and rubbed an abundance of wet cow dung on my face and hair; then he spat in my mouth. In both cases, he’d got away scot-free. It was futile to tell my mother; she’d be worried and distressed and might rush into a fight with the Ochayas. I dreaded the prospect. If she was injured, there would be nobody else to care for me, the despicable me.
Because I was defenceless against my bullies, I was constantly fearful and alert, like an animal. I’d cower and flee from a mere glimpse of danger. One day, though, while coming from school, I met a man who changed my life forever, what life I had in those days. I was usually alone and withdrawn, brooding, my mind wandering far afield; then suddenly there was an enormous man in front of me with a knife in his hand. He was very dark, and his face was extremely fat and shiny with droplets of sweat, his cheeks swollen like donuts, his forehead exploding out of his face. He wore thick, nasty dreadlocks on his head and chin, and they were twisting and quivering as if they were alive. His eyes seemed lifeless, blank and wide and unmoving. Facing me, he shouted, “Your lungs! Your lungs! Give me your lungs! I want your lungs!”
I became mad from the terror and panic that seized me. The next thing I knew was that I was in Ochaya’s compound and the family was rushing out to see me. I had been screaming bloodcurdlingly. I was gasping and coughing badly and I had no breath to explain that a man had wanted my lungs. I pointed back towards the road but nobody understood what message I was conveying.
“It’s Anyap,” somebody remarked indifferently.
“Just Anyap,” another person added, bored. “He’s always scared.”
They went back into the house.
“Anyap, inyap!” exclaimed Ding’ir. I looked up and saw him advancing towards me.
I’d fallen to the ground, coughing and retching and writhing excessively, my lungs on fire, the fire stoked by every explosion and expulsion of blood. Ding’ir promptly began to kick me on the sides and back. He swore that I was coughing like a dying animal and I must leave their compound before I caused them a misfortune. There was nothing I else could do besides obeying him, although I could hardly keep my balance. As I struggled up, I saw the man from the road; he was running towards us with his short, black knife in his right hand. He was waving it vigorously and shouting incoherent, indiscernible things. I tried to run, leapt twice, and fell down like a bag. He fast-forwarded recklessly, relentlessly, and with a single-minded ferocity.
I’d never before (and have never gain) felt such terror. It was pristine and absolute. It was insane.
He bent over me with his right hand stretched foremost, the knife pointed at my chest. I now saw that it resembled a wooden cross. He pressed it against my breastbone while uttering his abracadabra. I felt unaccustomed pain then; a violent flare of squirming, hot, live pain that beat like wings; it was as if my chest had burst open. Something lump-like gathered there; I could feel it constricting my lungs as if they were squeezing it out; it was heavy, but when the knife was removed, it oozed forth like blood.
And I collapsed. Dead.
But I wasn’t. When I came to, I was at home and my mother was with me. The strange man had gone. My mother said he’d carried me home. “He’s a miracle man,” she said. “He transferred your disease to Onyango Ding’ir!”
I shut my eyes, confounded. I imagined Ding’ir wretched as I’d been and coughing out spurts of blood. It was a horrifyingly relieving aspect.
“He said you will no longer be Anyap!” added my mother.