Mr. Smith was the only white man in my village in Turkana, Kenya. He was a nice man, different too. See, while all the white men ran to grab land in the rich land around Mt. Kenya, Mr. Smith came to dry Turkana to help build a dam. Said he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. I didn’t believe the last part. Many a times, I caught him staring into the distant horizon, a vacant look in his eyes.
“Mr. Smith?” I asked him one day. “Where are your wife and kids?” I was fourteen years old and I enjoyed listening to his stories about America and the world across the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Smith hesitated then said, “Chiror, the course of love never runs smooth.”
“Shakespeare?” I asked and he nodded. I waited, gave him time to compose himself and then…
“I failed them Chiror. I failed my wife and kids.” His face was sad, melancholy, pain… heartbreak. My heart reached out to him, but I said nothing. He continued. “My wife caught me having dinner with another woman, a workmate whom she had warned me against. By the time I got home, she had packed her things and left with the kids.” A pause. “I became a drunkard afterwards. That was five years ago.”
“You haven’t seen your family in five years?” I whistled.
“It’s okay Chiror, Africa is the best thing that has happened in my life. Here, I have found a reason to live.”
“But you didn’t do anything?” I said. “It’s not fair!”
Mr. Smith smiled. “Chiror, one day when you grow up you will understand. Betrayal is not just a physical act; it happens the moment you take your eyes off your wife or girlfriend and turn them to another.”
We sat outside Mr. smith’s hut and enjoyed the silence that followed. It was never awkward with Mr. Smith and at times I could hear the wheels in his head turn. I always wondered whether he was okay, whether he was using Africa as an excuse to hide from reality. The sunrays beat hard on the cracked ground; the cows trudged around eating dry grass. Cows in my village die everyday of thirst.
Finally, Mr. Smith recovered and prodded me in the ribs. “What about you Chiror? Who’s the lucky girl?” He laughed and I looked down embarrassed, caught unawares. I paused for a long time and then said. “Her name is Chebet. She sits in front of me in class. Every morning when she walks through the door, my heart skips a beat and I’m caught in a trance.” Silence. “Its everything about her: the flicker of her hair; the laughter in her eyes; the way she dresses.” I sighed and Mr. Smith said, “Sighing is a sign of love. Admit it Chiror, you love her. Does she love you back?”
I lowered my eyes at the question and kept quiet. Mr. Smith caught the look on my face and was pensive. “Have you ever talked to her? Does she know that you are alive?”
I said nothing. So many times I had mastered the courage to talk to Chebet and failed. So many times I had wanted to say halo and ended up biting my lip. Mr. Smith raised my chin. “Chiror, you have to try. You have to let her know that you are alive; make your presence felt.”
My eyes lit up. “What do I have to do Mr. Smith?” I asked eagerly. He smiled. “I have an idea,” he whispered ominously.
I tossed in bed all night and woke up earlier than usual the following morning. My steps were quick and I couldn’t wait to get to school. This was it: the day that I would make my move!
The literature teacher walked in and as usual asked for volunteers: students willing to quote directly from their favorite books. Chebet as usual offered to go first and she quoted Shakespeare. Before I could help it, my hand shot up and the teacher looked at me in surprise. “Chiror? My goodness, I never thought that I would live to see this day. You actually raised your hand?” It was a rhetoric question.
I stood up, so very conscious of the other students’ stares. I looked up and my eyes met with Chebet’s for the first time ever. My knees buckled and I held the desk for support. ‘Forget the girl, focus on the question!’ I heard Mr. Smith’s voice. I tore my eyes away from Chebet and looked up at the blackboard. My voice was initially soft.
“Speak up please!” the teacher said. I straightened my back and coughed nervously. It was now or never. I began…
“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” I paused. “Karen Blixen, Out of Africa.” I sat down to the echo of a quiet classroom.
It took a moment for the teacher to recover and then she started clapping, soft at first and then hard and rapid. Everybody clapped and I turned and again my eyes met with Chebet’s. She smiled at me and this time, I felt a warm glow swim inside my blood. The smile was meant for me!
“Chebet and Chiror,” the teacher said. “I want you both to audition with my senior class for the summer play. No arguments. Next topic…”
I ran all the way home after class: down the valley and through the scant acacia forest. I ran past the camels, cows and over dried streams. In the distance I saw Mr. Smith waiting for me, looking at me… his white-speckled hair shiny under the sun. I ran faster and when I got close, stopped. We stared at each other for a quiet moment as he tried to read the serious expression on my face. And then I broke into a big smile and he tipped his head backwards and laughed. I ran into his arms and hugged him and we held each other for a long time. A bond had been forged, a milestone covered. I was happy.
I finally let go of him and walked into his house. I knew what I was looking for. There were clothes everywhere; empty liquor bottles on the floor, full ashtrays… the smell of urine. Yes- there it was, sitting next to the Bible on the end table. I grabbed it and went outside.
“Mr. Smith?” I said. “Please call your family.” I handed him his cell phone.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...