Americano

 

The message was precise and urgent. “Come home quickly Dillen, it’s about Zanabu.” And that was it; nothing else. I packed my bags and headed to Africa.

          My nerves were taut as the plane lost altitude into the land where I was born. It wasn’t so much about seeing the people but more so about venturing into my past; the life that had once defined me… and now and many years later, I couldn’t remember much. I closed my eyes. One last nap before the real journey began.

          The dream. It was the same dream again. An American flag being folded… salute rifles firing into the sky. Two women approaching; hands outstretched, eyes pleading.

          “Stop right there!” I roared.

          Earpiece. My lieutenant’s voice. “If they take another step Dillen, you fire! And that’s an order.”

          “Stop!” I yelled again.

          The women; they were pointing at their mouths and bellies.

          “They are hungry lieutenant; they just want some food.”

          Lieutenant’s voice. “You have your orders soldier. They take another step forward, you fire!”

          The plane’s wheels hit the runway and I woke up with a start. Africa. I had arrived.

 

          “I don’t understand,” the white man seated next to me said as the plane lost speed on the runway. “You are white but were born in Africa?”

          I nodded and tried to explain for the hundredth time. “My parents settled in Africa after Africa gained its independence. They were not only missionaries but also community developers. They dug wells in the villages and helped the villagers get access to medicine.”

          The white man nodded. New York accent; very inquisitive. “And you can’t go straight to your country why?”

          “I went to America on a visitor’s visa but due to the war in Africa I was able to acquire refugee status in America which allowed me to live in the country longer. If I go straight back to my country, the airport will stamp my passport and I will be in violation of my refugee visa. My parents were born in America but I wasn’t.” The story was partly true.

          “And so you are going to land in a neighboring country and then drive across the border?”

          “Yes. That’s the plan.”

          I searched his face but found nothing of concern. An innocent conversation with a stranger could sometimes be a dangerous thing in my line of business. Strangers remembered; and remembering was not always a good thing. And that’s why I lied.

          The plane coasted to a stop and we alighted. I said goodbye to my New York buddy and spend the next two hours going through the nightmare that was called customs. But when I finally stepped out of the airport, the familiar burning heat from the sun warmed up my heart and brought me to reality; Africa. Oh sweet Africa! The smell of rain and animals; the dust in the wind, red earth and green vegetation.

          “Taxi Americano?” A black man in a tired jacket asked me.

          “I’m not an American,” I said. “I’m from Africa.”

          “Taxi sir?” He insisted.

          “How much?”

          We took the next few minutes to argue over price. His rates were those charged to tourists but when he realized that I was really from Africa, he lowered his amount.

          “Can you drive me across the border?” I asked.

          “No problem Ameri… sir! You pay me and I drive. I know every road across these lands. You can call me Emil.”

          I liked the sound of it and the confidence in Emil’s voice. I rode shotgun and threw my bags in the back seat. The white taxi shot black smoke and we headed away from the airport.

 

          Bugs and mosquitoes; unfinished construction sites, hawkers trying to sell imports from china through the car window. We crossed the border two hours later and I was forced to part with some dollars to appease the border guards whom Emil knew. An envelope under the table did the trick and the guards waved us through jubilantly. Immediately afterwards, I fell asleep and trusted Emil to get me home.

 

          "Wake up Americano!” A voice yelled. It sounded so distant and I was tempted to ignore it.

“Wake up Americano. You have to see this!” Emil yelled at me.

I startled from sleep and looked at my watch. The time was six in the evening and the African sun was beginning it’s descend over the distant mountains.

"Over there!” Emil pointed with excitement in his voice.   

I rubbed my eyes and followed his finger; sunset over the golden brown savanna land. Long dry grass swayed to the tune of the wind and sparse thorn trees stood resilient in their solitude. Game. Wild game. Gazelles jumped up and down the prairie, zebras grazed in herds and in the distance two giraffes ran gracefully. It was an amazing sight.    

"This is one of the biggest parks in the world and you can find all the big five animals here; the lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and the leopard,” Emil explained. “They are named the big five not because of their size but because of how difficult they were to hunt.”

I had always thought my village as the prettiest place in the world. But this… what I was looking at… was something else. This was Africa!         

The car sped down the arid land and the rest of the journey flew by without incident. Acacia thorn trees turned into mud houses and wild animals into natives, some dressed in traditional attire and others in western clothes. I saw with amusement a native boy herding cows with a cell phone to his ears. With no electricity anywhere close by, I wondered how the cell phones were charged. The natives here reflected the pulsing beat of a new Africa.

The savannah receded in the rearview mirror and soon afterwards we drove into the forest. Darkness. A chill down my spine. My village was on the other side of the forest.

“Who is Zanabu?” Emil asked and our eyes met briefly in the rearview mirror. He quickly added at the astounded look on my face. “You called out her name in your sleep.”

I sighed and looked outside at the dark silhouettes of trees. “She is… was my girlfriend back in the village before I left for America.”

“Oh!” Emil exclaimed. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Six years ago.” I closed my eyes and tried to remember the day. “We never said goodbye. I told her that I was going to America and she wasn’t very happy. The thought of us being separated had never occurred to her.”

Silence. The sound of the car as it hit the various pot holes on the forest road. “Why did you leave her?” Emil asked with a genuine curiosity.

“Ahhh..” I didn’t know how to reply. “It’s complicated Emil. I was going through a lot of stuff with my family.”

Suddenly, a flashlight appeared in the middle of the road and the car came to a screeching halt. I leaned forward and caught a good look at an AK 47 pointing at us. Five men… no ten! They seemed to be swarming around us and it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to panic.

“Get out of the car now!” A commanding voice to my right.

I turned and saw the silver of a pistol pointing at my face. Instinctively, my hands went above my head as the door swung slowly open. A shadow. The door was yanked open and I was forced to my knees.

“Are you an American?” The deep voice asked.

“No,” I replied in a shaky voice. “I was born in Africa. I went to America six years ago.”

Cold metal pressed hard against my temple. “I’m not lying1” I yelled desperately. “Check my passport. It’s in my right pocket.”

Silence. Footsteps. A hand dug into my leather jacket pocket and I heard the sound of ruffling papers.

“What were you doing in America?” The tone hadn’t changed.

“I was a high school teacher,” I said staring at the ground, both my hands above my head. “I started as a volunteer before I was hired.”

A growl ruptured the night and the burst of gunfire erupted. “Stupid lions!” A man cursed. None of the other men moved or flinched. Wild animals were the least of their worries.

“Stand up Americano,” the voice commanded and I obeyed.

Red eyes, dark skin, a green beret… a grin. The soldier extended a hand and I took it. “You can call me Captain Erazus. Sorry about the roughness. We have to be careful around here. You will be my guest tonight.”

I wanted to say no but nobody was asking me. It wasn’t a request and the sight of AK 47’s flanking me was enough motivation to accept the invitation.

“Emil?” Captain Erazus called.

“Yes Captain?”

“Good job. Bring me more good news and your family will be greatly rewarded with diamonds.”

The taxi driver’s eyes sparkled as he dashed back to his car. A few seconds later, the engine roar vanished in the night as the white car headed back in the direction where we had come. Emil had just delivered his package.

I had been careless; complacency misplaced. I should have smelled Emil from miles away. The glitter of diamonds around the Captain’s neck caught my attention as I turned. Power, confidence; the promise of better days for the rebels. There was a price for loyalty and men would never follow a poor man.

“Come Americano. I welcome you to my home.”

 

We sat around a camp fire; the caves behind us, the forest a silhouette below. Three rebels including Captain Erazus sat with me; two teenage boys stood guard nearby, their eyes glazed over with drugs. I could smell the sweat on their bodies and see the rot in their teeth.

“Tell me about America,” Captain Erazus said. “Is it as beautiful as they say? Are the streets paved with gold and silver?” His combat jacket was off to reveal a white t-shirt that badly needed to be washed; a capacious belly.

I bit into a chunk of roast beef and again wondered what I was eating. I was sure that it wasn’t cow beef, and it sure didn’t taste like goat.

America is pretty,” I said as I searched for the right words. “Silver and gold on the streets? Well, if you are talking about opportunities then there are plenty. But opportunities are there only for those who are willing to work hard. Every dream has to be fought for, regardless of country.”

“Now you are speaking my language Americano,” the Captain said with an excited voice. “It’s what I tell my people everyday. Every dream has to be fought for. We will get rid of this corrupt government and give the people a path to democracy. Diamond revenues will be shared equally amongst the people; education and health care will be free for everyone.”

I had been in America for six years but I wasn’t stupid. What had started in Africa as a genuine revolution against the government had over the years turned into a nightmare. The rebels had developed an international reputation for their cruelty towards the civilian population during its decade long struggle; especially in the practice of hacking off limbs to intimidate and spread terror amongst the population, and its wide spread use of child soldiers. These rebels were the hijackers of the African dream.

The Captain was telling a story and I caught the last part of it. “I looked back and saw the government soldiers gaining on me and so I ran as fast as I could.” He lit a cigar and stared pensively into the dark night. “The road ended and I found myself running on a railroad, high above a river. I wasn’t scared because I knew that I would never let them catch me alive.”

“Did you manage to get away?” I asked, pretending to care.

“The railroad started vibrating hard,” the Captain said. “A train was coming and I was still above the river. I wanted to jump into the water but I didn’t know how far below the river was and so I crawled underneath the rail tracks and held on for dear life.”

I opened my m

outh to say something but another soldier hushed me up. The captain was about to deliver the finale.

“The train passed and I held on for as long as I could, but as soon as it passed, I heard the voices of the government soldiers searching for me and so I held on a little longer. I stayed under the bridge all night hanging on to the rail with the last of my strength.”

All night! That was impossible! The thought flashed through my mind.

But the captain wasn’t done yet. “When the first of the sun came out, I looked down and finally saw the river.”

“How far below was it?” A soldier asked.

“It was only six feet below me,” the captain replied and then burst out laughing. I joined him in laughter and he slapped my back heartily. “Do you get it Americano? The river was right there below me and all I had to do was slip into the water and swim away!” Tears of joy trickled down the Captain’s face. “I’m a hard man to kill Americano. The gods favor me.”

Suddenly, one of the young boys walked over and pointed the rifle at one of the men around the camp. The sound of a shot tore through the night and I stared in disbelief as the man dropped down dead. “Failure to laugh is treason!” The young boy screamed and then returned to his post as though nothing had happened.

My face was as white as a ghost, my mouth open in shock. The Captain watched me very carefully and I intentionally avoided his eyes. And then suddenly the man who had been shot sat up and yelled. “I’m alive! I’m alive!” The whole camp roared with laughter, each pointing at my confused expression.

The Captain turned laughing. “You should see the look on your face Americano. We are not barbarians here you know. It’s a trick we like to play on our guests.”

Blanks, I realized; a type of cartridge for firearms that made a flash and explosive noise and cycles the firearm action. They had me going there for a moment.

“Turn on the music!” The captain yelled. “Lets show our American brother here how we do it in Africa.”

I stood up and watched them stomp the ground to the sound of the Azonto dance. The dance was well choreographed and I did my best to join them; taking note not to bump into anyone who may shoot me in anger. I had heard of the Azonto dance while in America but to watch it being performed live under a full moonlight was an exhilarating experience.

My sleeping quarters. Captain Erazus walked me over to a cave and talked to me in a calm voice. “I hope you enjoy your stay with us Americano.”

“My name is Dillen Captain,” I told him and he chuckled.

Suddenly I caught a movement in my peripheral; coming from the captain’s side. A man stepped out of a bush, pistol pointing at my head. An ambush!

          I moved my head out of line of fire and caught the gun, twisting it upwards and back towards the assailant, simultaneously taking a dominant step forward. The attacker struggled and tried to level the gun back at me but I caught his wrist below the gun and twisted it, causing him to scream and release the gun. Gun in my hand, I pressed it hard against the man’s forehead.

My eyes were focused, my movements swift and calculated. A voice beside me caught my attention.

“Well well well,” the Captain said as he dramatically clapped his hands. “I guess you are not a high school teacher Mr. Dillen.”

I took a subconscious step back and lowered the gun. It had been a trap and I had fallen for it. My insides seethed with anger, my outside stayed calm with control.

The attacker took the gun from me and disappeared into the night.

“We have a lot to discuss Americano,” the Captain said as he adopted a mysterious tone.

There was no need to pretend. “What do you want from me Captain?”

“Ah.” Captain Erazus paused for effect and then raised both hands. “What do you see when you look around Americano?”

“Diamond mines,” I said calmly, “lots of diamonds.”

“Yes. We control the diamond mines and this is our power over the government.” Silence. The Captain paced. “The United Nations has banned the export of diamonds from this country Americano. Our exports have gone down from 20 to 1 percent in the past six years. We need weapons in exchange for diamonds if we are to win this war. The government is trying to construct a legitimate diamond mining industry in the country but they can’t do this without negotiating with us.”

“What do you want me to do?” I didn’t need the details. Most of it was in the news anyway. Almost 200,000 people had died in the conflict. The economy had collapsed and ordinary people were trapped between the cruelty of the rebels and starvation.

“There is no hurry yes?” The captain said as he placed a hand on my shoulder. At a height of 6’2 and weighing 230 pounds, I dwarfed him and he pulled back at this realization. “We talk in the morning,” he said and then quickly walked away.

Two rebels walked me to my cave and stood guard outside. I was a prisoner and a guest, whatever that meant.

 

Midnight; whispers in the darkness. I rolled on the brown cot and listened to the noises outside. Laughter turned into murmur and the smell of African weed soon faded to be replaced by a cold breeze. I knew that half the camp was already asleep. Two hours later, I stepped out of the cave and faked a muffled yawn.

One of the sleeping guards jumped to his feet and pointed a shaky rifle at me. “I need to take a piss,” I said pointing at the bushes. The other rebel opened his eyes and then closed them, bored; assumption that the situation was under control.

“No games Americano, and be quick!” The rifle poked my back and I walked into the bushes.

I did not need to go. Another fake yawn; the cover of darkness. The rebel was five ten tall, probably 180 pounds. I had almost 50 pounds over him. I grabbed the rifle muzzle and yanked it. He followed and I knocked him out cold with one punch. He would sleep for a while. Silence. I crouched in the bushes and listened; tied my long hair into a pony tail. It was time to run!

Darkness, thick vegetation, the drizzle of rain on my back. I ran like a mad man praying that I wouldn’t stumble into a patrol or a rebel camp. Cold wind numbed my face and dirt entered my mouth every time I slipped and fell. The land in the forest was hilly and I alternated between descends and climbs.

Running. I may look white but if there was one gift I had acquired from being born in Africa, it was running. It was all we had ever done as kids. While American kids engaged in football, baseball, basketball and other numerous sports, one activity in Africa dominated above all, and that was running.

Africa. The land belonged to my people. A subconscious part of me knew the direction I was heading: the way the hills sat and the moon smiled; the lazy twist of the river around the hills. I ran hard and when I became exhausted, I ran some more.

A stitch. I grimaced and hugged the trees. The pain under my ribs belonged to another. I couldn’t stop. I dared not look back either. The hordes of rebels wouldn’t stop if they came after me. The thought of loosing my limbs was enough drive to push me on.

 

Two Days Later.

 

Come home quickly Dillen, it’s about Zanabu!

 

Home. The say that a home is a gallery of the most cherished memories. I walked into my village with an expectant heart and glowing eyes. Six years was a long time away from home and I felt like an intruder.

“Dillen!” The kids yelled as they rushed into my arms. “Dillen is home!” They yelled jubilantly to anyone within ear. Some had never seen me before or had been too small when I left, but they all seemed to know about me. I took a knee and hugged them, pure hearts, tears of joy filling my eyes. Here in the village under the OchindoMountains, I was Americano no more. Here, I was Dillen and this was my home.

I walked around the village and greeted my childhood friends; enjoyed the familiar smell of cow dung and sweet taste of fresh fruits … women strapped with babies and men idling under trees; dogs and death throw chickens roaming around the houses. I avoided my home and asked where I could find Zanabu. They told me to try the river. It was her favorite place in the hot afternoons.

The river was a quarter of a mile into the forest. I walked the land and enjoyed the beauty; the giant trees and protruding roots, the green bushes and colourful flowers. And then I saw her and my heart froze at the sight.

She was lying on her stomach by the river; a two piece white bikini the only clothing. I stared at her for a long time; watched her push the long black hair away from the nape of her neck. Brown skin. I had forgotten how beautiful she was and the sight of her brought a familiar stirring in my groin. I had been a fool to leave her behind. And after six years of struggle and hell, I knew it now more than ever.

I coughed and stepped out of the bushes; studied her reaction at the sight of me. “Hi Zanabu, it’s been a long time.”

Silence. She stared at me as though I was a ghost and then she just sat there… no hug… no halo. Brown eyes. Her face was a mirage of emotions as surprise turned into indifference.

“You don’t expect me to pop open the champagne bottle do you?” A soft but angry tone. She turned and lay on her stomach as though nothing had happened. I walked over and sat next to her, mixed emotions running through my blood. Six years! Six years!

“I wrote to you every month Zanabu. Why didn’t you reply my mail?”

“I never opened them,” she said in a vexed tone. “I told you not to leave me Dillen. Why would you bother to write to me? You left! Remember?”

This was going to be more difficult than I had imagined. “I had to go Zanabu. Things at home were not … the situation at home wouldn’t allow me to stay.”

She lay quiet and thoughtful; reached back and unstrapped her bra. “Can you put some lotion on my back Dillen?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes but I obeyed and applied lotion on the soft of her back. The Zanabu I knew would never have unstrapped her bra outside her home.

“You have girlfriends in America Dillen?” She asked in a careless tone.

“No,” I replied. “I enlisted in the military and they shipped me to Iraq.”

“A soldier,” she said. “That explains the muscles and the scar on your neck.” She had seen it. With one glance she had noticed the change in me.

“I have many boyfriends here Dillen,” she continued, the words from her mouth strange. “I don’t need you anymore.” She sat up and strapped her bra giving me a good view of her full breasts. This was not happening.

“What happened to you Zanabu? You have changed. I’m sorry I left, but I never stopped loving you and I came back. I’m here now honey, please!” My voice was desperate…hoping… clinging to a past I barely remembered.

She chuckled and put her arms around my neck. “Poor Dillen is back home looking for love.” She kissed me softly on my lips taking me by surprise. Her lips were soft and the kiss made my head spin with desire. Then she pulled back and her eyes turned cold. “I hope you enjoyed that kiss Dillen because you will never touch me again!” And with that, she grabbed her clothes and ran into the trees. I sat there by the river for hours, a hazy expression in my eyes. This was not the kind of welcome I had expected.

 

A lot of things had changed in my village. There were a clinic, a church, a police station, a school and a shopping center nearby; a night club and a super market at the end of the village. The women frequented the river no more as a water pipeline had been installed to reach the village. The houses were still made of mud and inside plumbing was years away in the making. Electricity; electrical poles ran down the road for miles and currently only the chief’s home received power. But it was coming; civilization as they called it.

The Chief; he summoned me two days after my arrival. The only wooden house in the village… I mean other than my father’s house.

“Welcome home Dillen, you left a boy and came back a man. How was life in America? I hear stories about you fighting in Iraq, is this true?”

“Yes chief,” I replied politely. “I was there when the government of Saddam was overthrown.”

“Ah, a hero.” The chief rose and stood next to me. “Let me welcome you home in style Dillen. I want the people to receive you like a hero. What do you say? I have a big meeting tomorrow. I would love it if you join me.”

I knew exactly what he was asking. Subservient was a word that I wasn’t familiar with. The chief was a politician and with me beside him… a white man and an American soldier, it wouldn’t hurt his political career.

“I just came to see my family Chief, and then I have to head back.” I wasn’t sure why I was rejecting him but by the look on his face I instantly knew that it was a mistake.

“No rush Mr. Dillen. Think about it. Go home and see your family and then we will talk again.”

The fresh mountain air was welcomed as I stepped out of the chief’s home. Politics was the last thing on my mind.

I stayed at a friend’ house and refused to go to my father’s home. I wasn’t sure why but the thought of seeing my father again made me angry.

 

On my fourth night in the village, on a Friday, a startling bang on the door made me jump to my feet. I pushed the door open and saw a teenager gasping for breath. “It’s Zanabu,” he said.

“Where is she?” I asked without wanting to hear the rest.

“At the night club at the end of the village! You told me to keep an eye on her. Today she is drinking a lot. She never drinks that much.”

“Thank you Adiche.” I pushed a bill into the lad’s hand and stepped into my combat boots.

White t-shirt; combat pants. I jogged to the night club, my long hair blowing behind me in the wind. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to Zanabu.

I paid at the entrance and walked into the dark hall. It was larger than I had expected and the sound of Notorious BI.G welcomed me into the club. Flashing neon lights. It was hard to see the faces in the room but I was surprised to see sexy looking strip dancers on the poles. What? It was as though I was back in New York City.

“Americano, do you want to take me home tonight?” The girls swarm around me.

They dragged me into the dance floor and I followed. Hands on my abs. They rubbed against me and tried to arouse my attention. They wanted me… my dollars and an American visa.

This was a dream. It had to be. The village life was fading and with it the culture. The city life was slowly encroaching into the villages. This was the definition of the new Africa.

I looked up and saw a group of men sitting on a round table; glancing casually in my direction. There was a woman amongst them. One woman. Zanabu! It had to be. I walked over and saw her head drooped over the table, hands flailing, eyes hazy, a dress of pale yellow.

“She’s with us,” one of the men hissed.

I counted five of them: six feet tall, two hundred pounds average weight. These were all plantation men, hardened by the village life.

“She doesn’t look too well,” I said politely. “I’m going to take her home.”

The first man started rising and I punched him before he got there. A table broke into half as he landed. Two men came at me with fists from two opposite sides. I punched and ducked; accepted a punch to my ribs as I focused on the bigger man on the left. A chop to the throat and he staggered backwards. I ducked and turned; raised the second man by the throat and slammed him on the ground.

Blood in my eyes; I was in Iraq again. American flags being folded, salute rifles firing into the sky. “Pull the trigger soldier! And that’s an order.” My lieutenant yelled. The two women took a step forward and I pulled the trigger; one to the head and the second to the chest. I started crying before their bodies hit the ground.

Two men were rushing at me. I rose with a scream and dove in the air; caught both necks in my hands. They landed hard on their backs, my weight crushing them from the top. I picked up Zanabu over my shoulder and dashed out of the night club.

 

Five hours later.

She lay on my friend’s bed and finally stirred. “Dillen? What happened?”

“I think the men put something in your drink.” I watched as she struggled with recollection.

“I didn’t need your help,” she said as she tried to rise.

I raised a polite hand and pushed her back on the bed. She groaned and stared at the thatched ceiling. “Why did you come back Dillen?” Her voice trembled with emotion.

“For you Zanabu,” I said. “For you.” Silence. “I was in Iraq for so many years and life lost its meaning. I did some bad things there and forgot who I was. I came home to find myself, and you are the only one who can help me do that.”

She sat up and I gave her a glass of water. “What about your father Dillen? I hear that you haven’t been home to see him.”

“I can’t…” My voice trailed off.

“He’s your father Dillen. Ever since you left he hasn’t been the same. He misses you.”

“You don’t understand Zanabu…” I took in a deep breathe. “He is the reason why I left. He was there when my mother died.”

Zanabu stared in disbelief. “What do you mean Dillen?”

I moved closer and sat on the bed next to her. “I came home that day and found my mum dying on the floor, dad next to her, watching and doing nothing. I ran over and started administering first aid and the whole time, dad just sat there and did nothing.” The tears finally came. “My mum died a few minutes later and I have never forgiven my dad since. It was why I left for America. I had to get away. I wanted to be with you Zanabu but I was in shock too over my mum’s death.”

“Did your dad panic? Did he freeze? Is that why he didn’t help her?”

“I don’t know. But I get angry every time I think about it.”

Zanabu suddenly raised her hands and pulled me into her arms. “It’s okay Dillen. You are back home now. Everything will be okay. We can fix this. We can fix this thing.” And there it was; the look of believe in her eyes. It was what every man desired for; it was what led to separation… I mean… its absence.

It felt good being in her arms again. The familiar scent of her skin brought back suppressed memories and I saw her as she was six years ago. “I love you Dillen,” she said.

“And I love you too Zanabu.”

Knock knock! The door shook and a deep voice called out my name. I opened the door and saw three policemen with rifles at ready.

“Mr. Dillen, you are under arrest for the disturbance at the night club.” They were watching me; waiting for me to make a move.

“I was only protecting myself. The men attacked me.” It was hopeless. These men were under the chief’s orders and I had offended the chief. It was pay back time and I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

“He didn’t do anything!” Zanabu yelled and the policemen asked her politely to stay inside while I was escorted to the police station. She obeyed. African policemen were known to be ruthless, more so in an unstable government.

 

The Village Police station. Not a single police vehicle. It was tiny with two desks at the front and four cells. There were a total of seven policemen, former cow herders recruited to keep the peace and obey every command from the chief.

They came for me at midnight the following night, drunk and bored. The rattling cage woke me up and I saw a shoe headed for my face. I ducked and the cop missed; slipping in the process and landing on his butt. The others laughed at him and stood me up against the wall. A blow landed in my stomach but I was ready for it.

“This one is a big headed one,” they said. An insulting slap landed on my face and I shifted to let it glance by. A blow to my chest. I felt that one.

They used me as a punching bag until they got tired and bored. I gladly watched them leave and collapsed on the floor. They had been too drunk to cause me any significant harm but I knew that they would return the following night and the one after.

Cell time. Alone. The distant bark of a dog; the sight of a raven flying high to its roost. I thought about Zanabu and the last time I had seen her. She had almost looked like her old self and the fact that she still loved me drove hope in a not so good time in my life. I would make it up to her. I would make up for the lost time and bleeding hearts.

Fast forward. Day two in jail. Gun shots in the air; sporadic. I called out to the policemen and asked them what was happening.

“The rebels are here!” they yelled as they stripped off their uniform and dashed through the door. They had a better chance of surviving as civilians.

“Let me out!” I yelled as I rattled the bars. “Let me out of here!” But they were gone. Panic in my gut; adrenaline surging. I knew it. It had to be Captain Erazus and his men. They had found me!

Blood cuddling screams filled the air; women, no, children. Zanabu! I looked up through the cell bars and saw black smoke rising from the direction of my village. Death. I could smell it as I paced the cell.

“Junior!” A voice behind me. I turned and stared at the white old man on the other side of the bars. “Junior, it’s me, your father!”

I took a subconscious step forward. “Dad?” He looked older than I had expected; the wrinkles and white hair… the years had been hard on him and suddenly I felt a jolt of guilt.

“I heard that you were around Dillen. I was hoping that you would come and see me. I missed you son.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Dad, can you get me out of here? Check the drawers for keys.”

He moved and I watched him ransack the ragged office. Keys. A whole bunch of keys. He played with one after the other until the cage rattled open.

“Thanks dad.” I moved past him and headed for the corner of the office where two rifles were leaning against a wall. I swung both over my shoulders and searched the drawers. Two handguns: a 45 and an M9 military berretta. I loaded the bullets in my pockets.

“How can I help?” Dad asked as he limped through the office searching around. I looked at him and wanted to say no but if Captain Erazus and his men were out there then nobody was safe. I took two grenades and handed them to my dad. “The timing has to be perfect dad!” I emphasized and he nodded.

Sunlight warmed our bodies as we ran through the village. I tried to ignore the sight of dead bodies on the ground and while folks ran away, I dashed towards the gunfire. And then I saw him, Captain Erazus himself dressed in full military gear: a black beret and green camouflage. In front of him, the villagers knelt; behind him, the rebels, a mixture of boys and men aimed their rifles, waiting for the ultimate command. I raised my rifle and fire at the Captain. The bullet went through his chest and lifted him clean off the ground. I did not wait to see the rest as gunfire erupted around my feet. I ran like hell, away from the village and into the trees.

They were angry. The kill was in their eyes, driving them forward blindly. A mile into the trees I turned and leaned one rifle against a tree, ran back towards them and raised my second rifle. I waited for them.

Twenty seconds. They came charging through the trees, firing at unseen targets. My rifle spat five times and five rebels dropped dead. I saw the hesitation and they slowed down a little. But the bullets came and I ran towards my second rifle. This would be my last stand before I pulled out my handguns. I was done running!

Rat a tat! I fired as they came; killed some and wounded others. They seemed to be coming from every direction, converging towards my position. I focused my fire on the edges of their formation and forced them to hurdle together. They did just that as my 45 pistol came alive. The change in sound gave them hope for they knew that I was running out of ammunition.

“Now dad!” I yelled. “Now!”

Two grenades came lobbying from the bushes. The rebels turned but it was too late. Boom! They were too close together. I hit the dirt as the explosion tore through the trees. A few seconds later, the smoke still in the air, I rose and pulled out my M9 military berretta.

“Help me please!” A rebel cried with an outstretched hand. I shot him in the forehead and moved on to the next… picking them out like rats. Death! My pistol spat over every rebel and when I was done, I reloaded.

Zanabu! The thought flashed through my mind and I started running. Oh God please let her be okay! There were tears in my eyes.

All the rebels were dead and the few left had taken off running. I saw families hugging each other, blood stained faces streaming with tears. Zanabu! She was there, treating a little boy… unscathed. She saw me and came running. We met halfway in a hug and I picked her off the ground.

“I thought I lost you Dillen,” she said happily. “I saw the rebels go after you. How did you do it? How did you get away?”

I kissed her passionately and looked into her eyes. “Zanabu,” I said. “I love you very much and I will never again leave your side. Do you believe me?”

A smile. She liked the look on my face. “Yes,” she said. “I believe …”

A gunshot suddenly ruptured the air and I froze. Zanabu’s eyes popped open and I felt something warm on my chest. I looked down and saw the red of blood and the confusion was vivid in my eyes.

“Well, well well Americano,” a voice from the dead said. The hair on the nape of my neck prickled.

I raised my eyes and saw Captain Erazus with a smoking gun in his hand. Shock. I had killed him but he was still alive! A bloody chest yes but very much alive. “Goodbye Americano.” He stared at me aghast and raised the gun. A mad man. I stared in disbelief, too paralyzed to react. The shot came and I closed my eyes. It was time and I was ready.

Death. Finally. Nothing happened. My eyes opened a few seconds later and I saw Captain Erazus lying dead on the ground. My dad walked over and pumped two more bullets into his chest for good measure, and then spat on the rebel.

Zanabu! I lowered her to the ground, tears pouring down my face, my lower lip trembling. “No, noooo, noooo, Zanabu, please open your eyes!” She did and stared at me for a second… tried to smile through the pain. “Dillen,” she said. “You came back for me!”

“Yes I did honey. I love you. Please don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me!” The bullet had ripped through her chest.

She managed a smile. “I will never leave you Dillen. The gods can not keep me from your side.” Blood rushed through her mouth and I panicked. “Dillen?” she called. “I ha…ve to tell you some…thing.”

I placed my ear next to her mouth. “I’m still a virgin Dillen. I waited for you! I wa…ited for y…ou… ” And then her head dropped and she was gone.

“No no noooo…” I looked up at my dad, at the dead bodies lying on the ground; spluttered brains and chopped limbs, burning houses and silent birds in the trees, faces and voices a blur. I looked back at her in shock. The colour was already fading from her face. “Aaaaaah.” The cry escaped my throat. “Aaaaaaah …. Why God? Why? It should have been me! It should have been me and not her.” I pulled her into my arms and cradled her like a baby; felt horrible about myself. I had brought death to my home. Everything I touched turned to dirt. I should have stayed away. I should never have come back home.

Africa. The rain came hard and torrential; washing the shimmering blood from the land and darkening the sky with gloom. The gods speak to us but rarely in plain speech. All the people I had killed in Iraq… and now… I had brought the curse home to the people I loved.

I sat around the fire with my dad and watched the crackling flames rise in the air. My resilience was gone. Hell, I thought. At least it would be warm in hell. The death that I longed for.

“Its not your fault son,” dad said. “It was the chief, seduced by the power of wealth.”

He had my attention. “Ever since the United Nation started cracking down on blood diamonds, the chief has been using the village as a route for trafficking the gems. In return the village has blossomed into a small town and a powerful chief. It was meant to happen in the end, whether you had returned or not.”

I nodded and tried to draw comfort from his words. It was true what he was saying. Only in Africa could one get away with so much. Corruption, murder… you name it; with money one could get away with almost anything.

A heart to heart conversation. “What happened with mum dad?” I finally asked the question. “Why did you let her die? You watched her writhe on the floor suffocating in pain and you did nothing to help her!” My voice came raised and bitter. Boiled up emotions rose to the surface and I glared at the old man.

“It was her wish junior,” my dad said without looking up. “She had been in pain for years and the disease was incurable. I had taken her to every doctor and the diagnosis had been the same. There was no cure and it was only a matter of time.”

“And so you let her die? What gave you the right to make that call?”

Tears poured down my dad’s face. “I did not junior. She did. She wore a ‘do not resuscitate’ bracelet on her arm and there was no way I could disobey her wish. I miss her soo much. I miss her a lot.”

I could not believe my ears. Mum had wanted to die? And all these years I had been angry at dad for nothing. My dad had been in as much pain as I was. “I’m sorry dad.” The words escaped my lips. “I’m sorry for hating you all these years. It wasn’t your fault. I now understand.”

“It’s okay son. I’m sorry I made the phone call to America. I’m sorry I used Zanabu to get you to come home. I couldn’t think of anything else. I missed you a lot.”

Silence. An empty home. A dead village. Broken dreams replaced by sleepless nights. The sun would not be coming out for a long time.

 

 

She comes to me at night when am asleep. I try to touch her but I can’t. I ask her to stay but she says she can’t; promises to visit again. I watch her disappear in the mist; see the last of her smile vanish. It hurts but my dad promises me that the pain will go away. I do not believe him. The real story; pain has been the very definition of my life. Life has lost its meaning and the things that I wanted don’t seem important any more.

 

Notes

Angola UNITA rebels sold diamonds (1992-1998) valued at US $3.72 billion to finance its war with government.

Executive orders were issued by President Clinton and George W. Bush and other European countries to prohibit the importation of blood diamonds from Sierra Leone, Angola, and cote d’lvoire in accordance with the UN resolutions.

The World Diamond Council reported that by 2004 illegal diamond trade had fallen from 20% to approximately 1% where it has remained.

The world is a better place if we love others as we love ourselves.

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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

 

Contact

 

mrobertto@yahoo.com

Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...