Celebrating East African Writing!

Wake With The Night

Nairobi didn’t know when to rain. Or how to rain. A nightmare of a WhatsApp conversation had awoken her, and all she had for company were the half-hearted drop-beats of the unseasonal but much anticipated rains. Peter, cheeks always full of chat (stimulant leaf), usually silent on his evening taxi pickups from the gym, and the passengers whose conversations she could make out when on the Citi Hoppa were all unanimously agreed on El Nino. She felt a pang of longing for the unapologetic keremt (Ethiopian rainy season) rains of Addis. The sound of those rains had always filled the complete volume of her thinking, so the dreamless, sleepless nights almost seemed comfortingly full, bearable. Here, on the frequent sleepless nights, she had to stream the orchestra of noises seeping out from the next apartment block. The adjacent block was a haven for tenants who never stayed too long and whose peculiar nocturnal habits and schedules provided her involuntarily awake mind with plenty of imagination-gymnastics. The arrhythmic hammering and sounds of dragging on parquet flooring became a kindred insomniac who passed his nights rearranging his heavy mahogany living room furniture and attempting DIY projects with very little success;  the late night furtive strained conversations that followed heavy but unsteady banging on the door became an unhappily married couple who seemed to constantly disagree on what to do with their teenage son, including whether or not to let him in drunk at all hours; and the loud joyful singing and clanging about in the kitchen a late night radio deejay who chose to live her days in the night as the rest of the world slept.

Something else preoccupied her tonight however. He had finally let her glimpse at some of the shadows his shaded almond eyes had jealously guarded for so long. He had decided to show and tell her his nightmares, in addition to his dreams, and she mused about which poetry would ultimately be louder. Did it matter now? Hadn’t she decided which one she would open her ears to? She thought back to the exact moment when he had finished telling her. His eyes had cautiously searched then penetrated hers, trying to gauge her reaction. Horror? Disgust? Sadness? Pity? She had remained silent and impenetrable. Her silence had confused him, unable to see her silence as a deliberate savoring and digesting of the moment. Yet she couldn’t find it in herself to explain, letting the confusion fester and stagnate like the water clogged empty plot full of algae on the next street she tried to avoid when trying to catch the bus. He could not have known how his words had at that moment immediately severed him from her, and had become woven into a heavy gabi (Ethiopian hand-spun cotton blanket) she used to tightly cocoon herself. He had left without a glance back, and she barely noticed him pause at the doorway and tightly clench shut those hands which were usually splayed out generously across the span of her hips.


That had been a week ago, and yet he continued to occupy her days and nights, even when absent.  His smell had squatted in her nose, and every conscious waking breath became full of him; her nights interrupted and occupied by words, his words, their words. She had to be resolute, and wake with the day. ‘’I could love you, but I won’t’’ she declared in a whisper into the moonlight mediated dark, to no-one in particular, except the walls.  Walls that have mice, and mice that have eyes and ears. Walls whose eyes are never politely averted, walls that demand answers and truths which are not theirs.  Tears fell, they were not fresh, but they fell anew, having been stuck somewhere between her eyes and voluminous cheeks, soaking the pillow.


The house reeked of the past, old memories. The old cracked wooden flooring, meticulously polished with the vitality and acquiescence of someone’s youthful feet, sem (floor wax), and bernos (wool piece), seeped that smell from its underbelly with very little encouragement, even from my tiny feet. I spent most of my nights in that house in the various corners and cracks I discovered with time of her orderly bedroom. Every so often, I noticed that her solitude would be broken by guests whose obstacle course of haphazardly strewn suitcases and shopping bags on the floor made it difficult for me to leave discretely early in the morning. I stayed away during these times, visiting other nearby houses, but always fearful that I might lose my way back with the shifting maze of new buildings and rubble from demolished houses in the city that was constantly trying to outpace its name.


They seemed unlikely companions. She seemed to enjoy being alone, retiring early to read and mediate, while who could only be her grandmother stayed alert and eager to continue with her animated recounting of the day’s disasters with the new cook and the unexpected lunchtime guests.  Despite her comfort in being alone, she occasionally seemed vulnerably lonely from where I observed her. On those nights, once she had fallen asleep, I would snuggle down next to where she lay her head in the hope that some sort of presence would comfort her in her dreams. I never let her see me though. I tried to make sure she didn’t catch sight of me, although I could be somewhat careless with my droppings sometimes, betraying that I had slept so close to her. I also enjoyed indulging in the delicious habit of scurrying up the miniature golden elephants prints d on her navy dressing gown languishing unused on the coat hanger, imaging what magnitude of David-Goliath fear I was inspiring. There was something both comforting and empowering about that pastime, but it was also risky as moving clothing was bound to attract her attention, and unmask me and my favorite play sport.–

She knew her night companion was back, because she left her mark right next to where she lay her head to sleep. She also stole her dreams, how else could she explain the many dreamless blank nights in a row?  Last week, it had been the noises of AFCON fever hitting Addis, screams of mixed elation and disappointment, mingled with the drumbeats and chants of the Mawlid (Prophet Muhammed’s birthday) celebrations drifting through her partially ajar window which had woken her. There was no cacophony of noises tonight, just complete silence. The silence startled her, she tried to listen out for the sounds of the neighborhood cats whose acrobatics in the metal scrap and joniyas (sacks) of spring water bottles strewing the compound usually created its own disturbing music. There was one particular cat, whose rotund frame usually set grandma’s blood presence climbing, reminding her of the prime fillet beef just bought after much pleading with the butcher that she had guests coming for lunch that the cat often enjoyed due to the open kitchen door the new cook never seemed to remember to keep closed.


It had been the subconscious imprinted sound of her untied shoelaces, hard plastic tips, clanging unchecked to the rhythm of the last ten minutes of her jog that forced her awake to consider the consequences of what had happened that afternoon. It was one of those days when even the treadmill and punching bag combination couldn’t chase the demons. Suddenly that gentle face that she had gotten accustomed to searching for appeared by her side to warn her of the shoelace hazard. She briefly acknowledged his warning with a nod, but didn’t want to betray her relief by looking directly at him. The demons always shied immediately when he was around. Maybe it was his uncomplicated light, and when he left, he left behind a deep spicy woody smell lingering like a force field. She didn’t know his name, and yet she was indebted to him for banishing the demons for the evening. But in those last five minutes, they had both been jogging in sync side by side. She tried to change her tempo, embarrassed by the overly intimate-ness of what was happening. She was scared of possibilities. She would change gyms tomorrow.

©S. Abdulmelik 2014


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