The chaperone finally released his hold on Jama’s forearm, leaving a sweaty handprint on his skin. Jama’s legs shook from the long journey in the back of the old truck and he clasped both of his thighs in his hands to steady them while his clansman went to replenish his stash of qat. Jama had put up with the mushy green spittle and the acrid stink that had accompanied the ostrich catcher’s habit for the day and night it took to cross the Red Sea by dhow to get from Aden to Hargeisa. Jama’s bloated, gaseous stomach bulged out before him, and he wondered why it stretched further and further the hungrier he got. For weeks after his mother’s burial, his gut had contracted, cramped, made him vomit, given him diarrhea, the pain slowing his steps to that of an old decrepit man. Every night he dreamt of his mother: she followed a caravan in the Somali desert, and he would follow, calling out her name, but she never turned around, the distance between them growing until she was a speck on the horizon. A clanswoman had found him huddled in an alley, covered in dust and blood. It took just three days for a human telephone network to locate his great-aunt Jinnow in Hargeisa and deliver Jama to her—or, rather, to this roadside where a group of men stood with their herd of camels, watching while the lorry overheated, its metal grill grimacing under an acacia tree.
Jama looked around him. Somaliland was yellow, intensely yellow, a dirty yellow, with streaks of brown and green. There was no smell of food or incense or money drifting in the air as there was in Aden, there were no farms, no gardens, but there was a sharp sweetness he breathed in, something invigorating, intoxicating. This was his country, this was the same air his father and grandfathers had breathed, the same landscape that they had known. Heat shimmered above the ground, making the sparse vegetation look like a mirage that would dissolve if you reached out for it. The emptiness of the desert felt purifying and yet disturbing after the tumultuous humanity of Aden. Deserts were the birthplaces of prophets but also the playgrounds of jinns and shape-shifters. He had heard from his mother that his own great-grandfather Eddoy had walked out of his family’s encampment and into the sands; he had given no one word of where he was going, and was never seen again. Eddoy became one of the many bewitched by the shifting messages that were left among the dunes.
Jama lay down under the acacia tree and spread his arms out; the sky covered him like a shroud and he felt cooled by the watery blueness washing over him. He awoke, disturbed by the sound of two voices above his head, and opened his eyes to see an old woman standing over him, as tall as a policeman. She bent down to wipe the drool from his sleepy face and held him to her bosom, filling his nose with her sour-milk smell. Tears beaded up in the corners of his eyes but he drew them back, afraid of embarrassing them both. Jinnow took his hand and led him away, Jama floating behind her like a string cut loose from its kite.
Of everyone in the family, only Jinnow, the level-headed matriarch, had ever shown Jama’s mother any affection. Jinnow had delivered Ambaro into the world as a baby, whispering the call to prayer in the small shell of her ear. Jinnow had held the baby up to her mother, rubbed the blood off the child and revealed the brown birthmark on her cheek that earned her the old-fashioned name Ambaro.
As they walked, Hargeisa appeared all of a sudden in the valley before them. It was only the expanse of emptiness around it that made Hargeisa seem like a town but unlike the straw and skin collapsible desert homes they had passed along the way, the houses in Hargeisa were forbidding white stone dwellings, as utilitarian as beehives. Large barred windows were decorated with simple, geometric designs, and the wealthier houses had courtyards with bougainvillea and purple hibiscus creeping up their walls. Everywhere there were closed doors and empty streets. All the town’s dramas were played out by figures hidden behind high walls and drawn curtains.
Finally the gate to his grandfather’s compound creaked open and a smiling girl said, “Aunty, is this Jama?” but Jinnow pushed past her, still holding Jama solidly by the arm.
In the courtyard, women stood up to get a closer look at the boy.
“Is this the orphan? Isn’t he the spitting image of his father! Miskiin, may Allah have mercy on you!” they called.
The girl bounced along in front of Jinnow, her big eye constantly peering back at Jama.
Jinnow reached her room. “Go now, Ayan, go help your mother,” she said, shooing away the girl, and pulled Jama in after her. A large nomad’s aqal filled the room, an igloo made of branches and hides. She caught Jama’s look of surprise and patted his cheek. “I’m a true bedu, could never get used to sleeping under stones, felt like a tomb, come lie down and rest, son,” she said.
The inside of the aqal was alight with brightly colored straw mats. Jama lay down obediently but couldn’t stop his eyes from roving around. “Do you remember that you once stayed here with your mother? No, look how my mind is rotting, how can you remember, you couldn’t even sit up,” Jinnow chattered.
Jama could remember something, the snug warmth, the light filtering through woven branches, the earthy smell, it was all imprinted in his mind from a past life. He watched Jinnow as she fussed around, tidying up her old lady paraphernalia. She had the same high cheekbones, slanted eyes and low toned, grainy way of speaking as Ambaro, and Jama’s heart sank as he realized his mother would never be old like Jinnow.
After a restless sleep, Jama ventured into the courtyard; the women carried on with their chores, but he could hear them whispering about him. He ran towards a leafless tree growing next to the compound wall, climbed its spindly branches, and sat in a fork high up in the tree. Leaning into the cusp, Jama floated over the roof and treetops, looking down like an unseen angel on the men in white walking aimlessly up and down the dusty street. The tree had beautiful brown skin, smooth and dotted with black beauty spots, like his mother’s had been, and he laid his head against the cool, silky trunk. Jama rested his eyes, but within moments felt tiny missiles hitting him. He looked down and saw Ayan and two little boys giggling. “Piss off! Piss off!” Jama hissed. “Get out of here!”
The children laughed louder and shook the tree, making Jama sway and lose his grip on his seat. “Hey bastard, come down, come down from the tree and find your father,” they sang, Ayan in the lead, with a cruel, gap-toothed leer on her face.
Jama waved his leg at that smile, hoping to smash the rest of her teeth in. “Who are you calling a bastard? You little turds, I bet you know all about bastards with your slutty mothers!” he shouted, drawing gasps from the women near him.
“Hey Jinnow, come and get this boy of yours, such a vile mouth, you would think he was a Midgaan not an Aji. No wonder he was thrown into the streets,” said a long-faced woman.
Jinnow, startled and ashamed, charged over to Jama and dragged him down, “Don’t do that, Jama! Don’t drag down your mother’s name.” She pointed toward her room and Jama slunk away.
Inside the aqal, Jama cried and cried, for his mother, for himself, for his lost father, and it released something knotted up and tight within his soul; he felt the storm leave his mind.
Jinnow spent her days tending her date palms, selling fruit in the market near the dry riverbed that bisected the town or weaving endless mats, while Jama appeared and disappeared throughout the day. With all the men away grazing the camels, Jama spent time on the streets, to avoid the harsh chatter of the compound women, who treated him like a fly buzzing around the room, swatting him away when they wanted to talk dirty. Their faces a bright, cruel yellow from beauty masks of powdered turmeric, they dragged each other into corners, hands cupped around mouths, and in loud whispers languidly assassinated reputations. They drew shoes in fights as quickly as cowboys drew pistols.
Clutching her brown, spindly fingers against the wall of the compound, Ayan would peer over and watch as Jama disappeared down the road. Ayan was the daughter of one of the younger wives in the compound and lived in a smaller room away from Jinnow. Jama would stone her every time she approached him, so now she just satisfied herself with staring at him from a distance, crossing and uncrossing her eyes, flapping her upturned eyelids at him. As a girl she was rarely allowed out. Jama’s bad reputation and filthy mouth had slowly begun to win her admiration. She hoped to stare him into friendship, but he had too long a memory for that, and was still planning a revenge for the time she dared call him a bastard. Jama slyly observed her daily routine of housework, childminding, and standing around, one leg scratching the back of the other, and plotted her downfall. Ayan’s mother was a tall, shrewish woman with a missing front tooth, a neglected third wife who beat her children down with words and blows. In front of her mother, Ayan was a well-behaved, hard-working child, but in private she was a gang leader and a vicious fighter. Her troupe of scraggly children would gather behind her after lunchtime, and prowl around the compound, catching lizards by the tail, spying on older children and going through their belongings. If challenged, the younger children would take flight while Ayan fought the angry object of their snooping. Scratches and cuts formed patterns on her skin like the tattoos on a Maori warrior, her young face knocked into a jagged adult shape by the fists of her mother and cousins. Jama had no possessions to filch or secrets to hide, but to Ayan he presented an enigma, a strange silent boy who had returned from a foreign land.
Jama would sometimes see Ayan in the evening as the women gathered around the paraffin lamp to tell stories. Tales about the horrors some women were made to suffer at the hands of men, about the secret lovers some women kept, or about Dhegdheer, who killed young women and ate their breasts. Ayan would regularly be mocked as “dirty” and “loose” by the women and older children for being uncircumcised and her head would droop down in shame. Her stupid mistakes would also be recounted; she had once tried to open a lock with her finger and instead got it stuck. “I thought that is how people open locks!” Ayan wailed.
“Served you right, that was Allah’s reward for your snooping,” rejoiced her mother. Jama’s favorite stories were about his grandmother Ubah, who travelled on her own as far as the Ogaden desert to trade skins, incense, and other luxuries, despite having a rich husband. “What a woman. Ubah was a queen and my best friend,” Jinnow would sigh. All the storytellers claimed to have seen a shapeshifter, nomads who at night turned into animals and looked for human prey in town, disappearing before daybreak and the first call to prayer. Ayan’s eyes would form wide, frightened circles in the orange light, and Jama could see her trying to nestle next to her mother, but getting pushed irritably away. Jama hoped that one of these shape shifters would snatch Ayan away, and take her out into the pitch black night where shadows slipped in and out of alleys. Alleys where hyenas stalked alongside packs of wild dogs, hunting lone men together, ripping out the tendons from their fleeing ankles as they tried to run for their lives, their helpless screams piercing the cloistered night.
Jama’s life was no different than the goats tied up in the compound, staring blankly as they chewed on peelings. He was just a lump of dull clay that no one wanted to mould or breathe life into. He was not sent to school, not sent out with the camels, only told “fetch this” and “get out!” The wives made a show of exchanging glances and locking their rooms if he was nearby—they were all like Mrs. Islaweyne in their pettiness. The only comfort he found was at night in Jinnow’s aqal, when Jama would allow her to tuck him in under the thin sheets and wait for her to start talking about his parents. With his eyes tightly closed, Jama would listen to Jinnow describe how his father leapt out one night in the desert and with a flaming torch scared away hyenas that were stalking the family camels, how his mother had run away as a child and got as far as the sea before she was brought home. Jinnow remembered them at their best, young and brave before hunger, disappointment and illness brought them low.
She recited old gabays to make him laugh; “Life in this world allows one man to grow prosperous, while another sinks into obscurity and is made ridiculous, a man passing through the evil influence of red Mars is feebler than a new born lamb punched on the nose.”
Jinnow told Jama one night, “I know you are sick of milk, you think you are a man already but don’t hurry to that, Jama, the world of men is cruel and unforgiving, don’t listen to those fools in the courtyard, you are not an orphan, you have a father, a perfectly good father who will return.”
“Why hasn’t he come to collect me then? What’s he waiting for?”
“ We are all servants of our fate, he will come when he can. Hopefully he has made a good life for you both somewhere.”
“What’s wrong with here? This is where we belong.”
“Your father has too much music in his soul for this kind of life. Your mother did too, but she tried hard to drown it out. Life here is too hard, everyone is peering over the horizon, but one day, inshallah, you will also see how wide the world is.”
“But where is my father?”
“Far, far away, in a town called Gederaf in Sudan, beyond Ogaden, beyond Djibouti, many months’ walk, son. I heard that he was fighting in Abyssinia but now it seems he is in Sudan trying to become a driver again.”
“Can I go to him?”
“Allah, how could I let you do that? I owe it to your mother to make sure you don’t come to any harm. She is watching me, I feel her here.” Jinnow placed her hand on her stomach. “She is like a light there, you understand, son? Your mother, Kahawaris, sometimes the dead are more alive than the living, no one really dies, not while there are people who remember and cherish them.”
Jama was ready to explode, cooped up in the compound, he needed a job so that he could add to his mother’s money and find his father. He scoured the barren town for places to work, but shops and homes operated on the most basic levels of survival and there was no room for luxuries like paid servants. The market consisted of a handful of women laying out dying fruits and withered vegetables on dusty cloths in the sand. They sat in the sun gossiping, collecting their meager income in their laps. The market brought everyone together, all of Hargeisa’s Aji clans; the Eidegalle, Habr Yunis, Habr Awal, Arrab emerged from the wire perimeters that the British had built around their encampments and traded. The eating houses were the haunt of Hargeisa’s men, but they were offered only two dishes, whatever their wealth: boiled rice with either boiled goat or camel. The cook would serve as waiter and dishwasher as well, and would earn a pittance for all three jobs. Children and young men mobbed them for the leftovers from the eating houses, pushing the smaller ones out of their way. Men chewed qat constantly to stave away the nagging hunger in their stomachs, so they wouldn’t succumb mentally to it, wouldn’t humiliate themselves. Late in the afternoon, the steps of the Habr Awal warehouses were clogged with men talking over each other, laughing, and composing epigrams, but later, as the qat left their systems, they became morose, reclining like statues as the town darkened around them. Even with qat, the fear of hunger determined every decision every person made, where to go, what to do, who to be. Destitute nomads would come in from the countryside and sit under trees, too exhausted to move any further. If it was a Monday and they could drag themselves to the white offices of the Sha’ab in the south-west of town, the District Commissioner would hear their appeals, and bestow four annas on the most deserving.
Jama thought himself tough but the youth of Hargeisa were desert hardened, belligerent brawlers, uninterested in small talk with strangers, and the boys his age just wanted to sing and dance with the market girls. Not finding any companionship inside the compound or outside, Jama retreated deep into himself and made his mind his playground, fantasizing all day about the father he had somehow lost. Conjuring his father was a pleasure, his strong muscles, gold rings and watches, nice shoes, thick hair, expensive clothes could all be refashioned on a whim, he said and did only what Jama wanted without the intrusion of reality. The fact that his father was alive made him everything Jama could want, while seeing his mother in his mind’s eye was agonizing, he could recall the way she smelt before dying, the sweat running down her temples, the fear she was trying to mask from him.
Jama had seen young boys working in the slaughterhouse, ferrying the carcasses of freshly killed animals to the eating houses and market. He watched the couriers, their necks awkwardly bent by the weight on their shoulders, their feet frantically shuffling forward, propelling whirlwinds of sand up their legs. The work was hard and dirty, but Jama resolved to get money by whatever means necessary.
He woke up early one morning, the sky gray and the air still cool, and snuck out of the room, Jinnow’s snores chasing after him. A hyena-rich darkness covered the town and Jama could feel jinns and half-men at his back stalking the alleys, making the hairs on his neck stand on end. He sped to the slaughterhouse, the cries of camels and sheep growing in volume as he got closer, and he summoned up an image of his father; tall, strong, elegant in uniform, a smile playing on his dark lips. The slaughterhouse was empty of people; only the penned-up animals, waiting since nightfall for their deaths to come, acknowledged him, fixing their pleading eyes on him, sticking their flaring nostrils into the air. Jama felt the impending bloodshed sizzle in the air and rubbed down the tiny hairs on his lower spine as they nervously stood up, as if they were frightened conscripts standing to attention before a bloodied old general. He paced up and down, avoiding the eyes of the animals, turning his back to them, counting the stars, as they one by one bowed and left the stage. As the sun rose, more tiny figures emerged from the dawn horizon, approaching Jama with hostile eyes. Jama looked around with satisfaction as he realized that he was amongst the tallest of the motley crew of boys which had formed, waiting for the butchers to come and make their selection from them. With the same swift appraisal of strength and value that they usually trained on livestock, the butchers would pick their couriers for the day. The Midgaan and Yibir boys, those too young to understand that they would never be chosen, were insulted out of the line-up; “Get out of here, you dirty shit, go and clean some latrines!” They moved away, forming a separate line, silent and enraged. The oldest porters were camel herders who had been possessed by jinns in the lonely haunted desert and were now forbidden from approaching the camels. The smallest were barely five years old, bewildered little children who had been dumped in Hargeisa by nomad fathers keen to toughen them up; they had been ripped from their mother’s arms and now slept huddled in groups on the street. Hungry and lonely, they followed older children wherever they went, their fathers occasionally visiting to ask “So, how much have you made?”
The butchers arrived already smelling of blood, with an impatient slap on the shoulder and a grunt they pushed out of the line the boys that they would employ that day. Jama was one of the chosen few. The unlucky ones slunk away to their mats or patches of dirt and prepared to sleep away the day and its insidious hunger pangs. Jama walked towards the killing ground but hung back, hoping to avoid seeing the actual slaughters. A man shouted “Hey you! Whatever your name is! Come here!”
Jama turned around and saw a broad, bare-chested man kneeling over a dead camel, still holding onto its reins as if it could make an escape.
“Jama, my name is Jama, uncle.”
“Whatever. Come and take this carcass over to the Berlin eating house for me. Wait here while I prepare it.” Jama stood back and waited, as the butcher took his cleaver and cut off the neck and legs, removed the skin from the camel’s torso and emptied it of heart, stomach, intestines, and other organs that only the poorest Somalis ate. The carnage shocked Jama, its efficiency and speed making it even more dreadful, he stood before the giant, naked, gleaming ribcage, frightened and awed by its desecration. The butcher got up, wiping his red hands on his sarong before picking up the ribcage and balancing it on Jama’s head. Its weight made him stagger and the soft, oozing flesh pressed revoltingly onto his skin. Jama pushed himself forward, trying to not career around, but the heavy load drove him left and right. He stopped and pushed the ribcage down his neck onto his shoulders and held it wedged there as if he was Atlas holding up the world in his fragile arms. The broad bones jutted into Jama’s back and blood trickled down from his hair onto his shoulders and down his spine, making his brown back glisten with a ruby luster. His nose was filled with the dense, iron smell of blood and he stopped against a wall to retch emptily. Blood dripped onto the sand, decorating his footprints with delicate red pools, as if he was a wounded man. He finally reached the eating house and hurriedly handed over the ribcage to a cook through a window. The cook grabbed it as if it were weightless and turned back to his talking and chopping without acknowledging the human carriage that had brought the delivery to him. Jama walked back to the slaughterhouse, a grimace set on his face, his sticky arms held away from his rancid body so that they wouldn’t rub and release the metallic fumes. He delivered four more carcasses that morning and by the end he resembled a little murderer covered in the juices and viscera of his victims. Jama carefully tied his hard-earned money in the bottom of his sarong and walked home. The blood dried quickly in the noon sun and his hair and skin began to itch. He rolled his palms over his skin and the blood peeled off in claret strips. The insides of his nails were choked with dried blood and his sticky hair attracted fat, persistent flies, their buzzing causing an infuriating pandemonium by his ears. Jama had grown used to his own high, rich smell, but the scent of death clinging to him was unbearable. Knowing that the precious water in the compound was only occasionally used for bathing, he hurriedly removed as much of the filth from his body as he could, using sand to clean himself as the prophet advised. He arrived at the compound door and it was opened by Ayan before he had even knocked. She had fresh cuts on her face and one of her plaits had come apart, her wavy hair fanning out over one side of her head. “Nabad Jama,” she enunciated slowly, looking into his eyes intensely. “Where have you been? You look tired, and what is that in your hair?” She reached out to touch his hair but he slapped her hand away.
“Get off, you idiot,” he said gruffly, walking away to Jinnow’s room. He could hear Ayan skipping behind him, her rubber sandals clapping the earth. “I’ll get you one day,” he threatened. Tired and hungry, he just wanted to collapse onto his straw mat. Ayan continued to follow him until unable to contain herself any longer, she exploded with her news. “The ginger cat is pregnant! She’s not just fat, there are kittens in there! Come and see, Jama! Come.”
Jama turned around and gave her the most belittling dead eye he could muster, before going into Jinnow’s room and slamming the door shut behind him. He heard Ayan squeal in frustration before trundling back to the main courtyard. There was a stillness in the air, the compound was silent, cobwebs floated from the ceiling, cockroaches scuttled into crevices, everyone was dozing. The droning of insects in the air was punctuated by the hammering and ratter-tattering speech of workmen building a house nearby. The smell of charcoal, onions, meat, tea boiling with cloves and cardamom drifted from underneath the door. As Jama dozed, images of Hargeisa appeared in his mind, the roughness of hot rocks and thorns underfoot, the soft prickliness of camel fur, the taste of dates, ghee, hunger, a parched mouth surprised with the taste of food.
A young woman arrived at the compound while he slept. She carried her slim possessions in a bundle on her back and looked ready to collapse. She was one of Jinnow’s nieces, who had recently run away to marry a man from another clan.
“Isir? What are you doing back here?” shouted one of the wives.
“That man doesn’t want me anymore, he’s divorced me.”
“You see! Has he given you your meher at least?”
Through the thin walls Jama was awoken by the compound women scurrying around, “She has been possessed, I can a see a jinn in her eyes. Call Jinnow,” they called. Jinnow brought Isir into the aqal. Jama pretended to be asleep but watched as Jinnow inspected Isir, rubbing her hands all over her body, half doctor, half priestess.
“How do you feel, girl?”
“Fine, I’m fine, just keep those crazy women away from me,” Isir said. She was dressed in rags but her beauty was still intense.
“That idiot, that enemy of God says I am possessed.”
Isir caught Jama’s eyes peeking out from under his arm and he shut them quickly.
“Has he given you any of your dowry?”
“Not one gumbo.”
In the dim light, the women looked as if they were ready to commit some mysterious deed. Jinnow gathered herbs from her leather pouches and told Isir to eat them. She left Isir to rest and called the other women of the compound. As the neighborhood alaaqad with shamanic powers they could not refuse her.
Isir shook Jama. “Are you Ambaro’s son?”
Jama nodded. Isir’s large brown eyes had the same burning copper in them as his mother’s had.
“Go and listen to what they’re saying for me,” she demanded.
Jama went as Isir’s eyes and ears. “Our sister needs us, she has been afflicted by a saar, we must exorcise her tonight, as her husband is not here you must bring perfume, new clothes, halwa, incense, amber, and silver to my room to satisfy the jinn. I will conduct the ceremony,” proclaimed Jinnow.
“She’s always been like this, it’s the price for her beauty,” Ayan’s mother scoffed. “Isir has always been leading men on, one of them has finally put a curse on her.”
“Nonsense,” shouted Jinnow. “She is of our blood, we can not stand aside when she needs us, what if a man threw you out with the rubbish?” The compound women grumbled but agreed to prepare the saar ceremony.
Some cleaned Jinnow’s room, some cooked, some borrowed drums, others collected the gifts. When the children had been fed and sent away, Isir was led by a procession to Jinnow’s room. Jama was locked out, but with a pounding heart he climbed the wall and walked over the roof until he could lean over Jinnow’s window. The room was brightly lit with paraffin lamps, smoky with expensive incense. Jinnow had brought more old women, mysterious crones with shining dark skin and strong hands. After the incense had been passed around, and the gifts presented to the jinn, Jinnow took the largest drum and pounded it intermittently while shouting out instructions to the jinn. Isir stood in the center of the room, looking stiff and nervous. With every command the old women chanted “Ameen” and the young women clapped. Then the old women brought out small drums, got to their feet, and started drumming in earnest. Jinnow stood behind Isir, grabbed her around the waist and forced her to dance, the crowd ululated and danced with them. Jinnow tore off Isir’s headscarf and pulled at her hair. Jama watched as Isir’s movements took on a life of their own. Jinnow was an inch away from her face shouting and crying: “Nin hun, nin hun, a bad man, a bad man, never tie yourself to a bad man, we told you he was useless, useless while you were brave and strong, Allah loves you, Allah loves you.” Isir’s tears flowed freely down her face, she looked like a lost little girl to Jama. Jinnow spun around Isir with more energy than he could have imagined, steam was rising from the women and no one noticed his head hanging upside down in the window. Isir had her head flung back, her eyes half-closed but staring unseeingly into Jama’s, she was saying things that Jama could not understand. Jinnow was encouraging her, shouting, “You are carrying this load on your back and you are staggering around with it like a tired camel, stop here and pass your load to me! Send him out of your soul! You are full of ghosts! Spit them out! Get your freedom, my girl!”
Isir carried on weeping while the compound women danced around her, clapping their support and flushing out their own grief.
Isir became a small ally against the compound women; she slept in the same room as Jinnow and Jama and joined in on their late night conversations.
“I used to sleep right there next to Ambaro, where you are now Jama, plaiting our hair, tickling each other.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” encouraged Jinnow.
“Jinnow would throw a slipper at us to quieten our laughter.”
“They had no sense of time.”
“Do you remember, aunty, how she would read our palms? Telling us all kinds of things, how many men we would marry, how many children we’d have. She scared the other girls with that talk.”
Jama sat up on his elbows and listened attentively to the women.
“It’s because she had the inner eye and she didn’t soften or hide what she saw, I saw it in her from an early age, I watched her read the future in shells when she was not yet five. Grown men would come and ask her to tell them their fate. Did she tell you all this, Jama?” Jinnow asked.
Jama scanned his memory. “She only told me that I had been born with the protection of all the saints and that a black mamba had blessed me while I was in her stomach.”
“That is all true, you had a very auspicious birth, every kaahin and astrologer envied your signs, even Venus appeared the night you were born.”
Jama rested his head on his arm and sighed loudly. If only he could meet his father he would believe all of their fanciful words.
Jama went to the abattoir every morning, and his eagerness and industriousness meant he was always picked out, creating enemies for him amongst the other hungry children, but only a few resentful slaps or gobs of spit landed on him. Jama saw the sweaty, smelly work as a kind of test that, if passed, would entitle him to see his father, a trial of his worth as a son and as a man. He hid all of his abattoir money wrapped in a cloth inside a tin can in Jinnow’s room. The bundle of coins grew and grew in its hiding place, and he could feel the reunion with his father approaching, whether his father came to him or he went to his father Jama knew it was fated to be. He read it in the clouds, in the entrails of the carcasses he delivered, in the grains of coffee at the bottom of his cup.
After work, he often wandered around town, sometimes as far as the Yibro village that nestled against the thorny desert on the outskirts of Hargeisa. He walked through the pariah neighbourhood looking for signs of the magic Yibros were said to possess, he wanted some of their powerful poison to use against Ayan, to watch her hair and nails drop off. Jama peered into small dark huts, an outcast amongst outcasts, hot dark eyes following his progress. But there was no magic to be seen, the Yibros had yet to find spells that would turn dust into bread, potions to make their dying children live or curses that would keep their persecutors at bay. An Aji boy in their midst could easily bring trouble. If a hair on his head was hurt a pack of howling wolves would descend on the village, ripping and tearing at everyone and everything, so they watched him and hoped that his curiosity would quickly be satisfied. The village had only recently stopped mourning for a young man killed by Ajis, his body had been cut up and the flesh put in a basket outside his family’s hut. His mother collapsed when she peered into the basket and realiszd where the plentiful meat had come from. His head was at the bottom, broken and gray. No blood money could be demanded by them. His father went to work in the town the next day as he did every day, smiling to hide his fury, bowing down to men who had dismembered his child. Jama saw that the village was full of women; Yibro men were usually labouring elsewhere, hammering metal or working leather or in the town cleaning out latrines. The children sat outside picking their noses, their stomachs stretched to the bursting point, destitution the way of life. The clan handouts that kept other Somalis afloat were absent here, as the Yibros were so few and so poor. Ancient superstitions meant that Aji Somalis ostracised Yibros and Midgaans and other undesirables without any thought; Yibros were just Jews, eaters of forbidden foods, sorcerers. Jama was only dimly aware that these people received a payment from families like his whenever a male child was born and that a curse or spell from a Yibir was more powerful and destructive than from anyone else. Jama could see why they were feared, their clothes were even more raggedy than his, their shacks open to the cruelties of the August heat and the October freeze, their intimacy with misery deeper than that of anyone else.
On a still, stagnant day, Jama returned home from work to find Ayan in Jinnow’s room. Standing on tiptoe, her eyes ringed with stolen kohl, her raccoony eyes widened as she saw Jama staring at her as she snooped through Jinnow’s things, the beautiful silver kohl bottle rolling on the floor separately from its ornate lid.
“Thief! Thief!” shouted Jama, filled with horror that she might have found the father-finding money. “What are you doing? You thief!” he said as he lunged at her.
Surprise had frozen a ridiculous expression on Ayan’s face, her eyebrows had arched up like the spines of frightened cats and her gap-toothed mouth hung open. Jama pulled her arms around her back, lifting her thin, dusty feet up from the ground.
“Let me go!” she cried.
“What do you want in here? What are you looking for? Has someone sent you?”
“No, no, please Jama, I was just looking, wallaahi, let me go!” she begged. Jama, in confusion, held on to her. Ayan was strong and supple for a girl but she was no match for a feral street boy like Jama. He was too embarrassed to check her body for the money, so seeing the imposing dark wood wardrobe with the key in the lock, he opened the door and shoved Ayan in. He quickly turned the key and stood back, shaking, with sweat beads trickling down his forehead. He stared at the wardrobe door as Ayan kicked and shouted to be let out.
“Jama! Jama! Jama! Let me out! I can’t breathe!” said her muffled voice.
Jama gathered himself, and with a jabbing finger said, “You are staying in there, you dirty thief, until Jinnow comes back and checks you.”
Ayan screamed long and loud, her erratic breathing and convulsive tears clearly audible in the room. Jama wiped the sweat off his brow and walked out of the room as Ayan continued to wail and weep, “It’s dark! It’s too hot. I’m going to die. Murderer! Murderer! Jama the Bastard Murderer!”
Jama waited and waited outside Jinnow’s room. Inside the cupboard Ayan gulped down the warm, old air and emitted a low, strange whine. Her jail was lined with nuptial gowns and undergarments given as part of ancient dowries, the relics of dead loves and youthful dreams of glamour and romance. The velvety blackness around her shifted and made room for its young visitor. She felt like she was at the bottom of a deep, deep well, too deep in the earth to ever be found. Panic washed over her in rapid waves. The noon prayer came and went as did the afternoon prayer and it was not until it was nearly time for the sunset prayer that Jama could hear Jinnow’s voice rising up from a commotion in the courtyard. Jinnow walked down the hallway from the courtyard followed by a loud troupe of compound women, she had a beleaguered look on her wrinkled face.
“Have you seen Ayan? Her mother can’t find her.” Jinnow asked.
Jama looked up and it was only then that it occurred to him how long he had spent on that doorstep and how long Ayan had spent in her makeshift prison. Jama got up creakily on weak legs. With slippery fingers before a roomful of expectant females, Jama turned the key on the wardrobe lock. Immediately a stink of urine swelled out of the hot stuffy cell. There lay Ayan, barely conscious, her head flung back, her too-red tongue lolling. A collective gasp surged from the audience and Jinnow shoved Jama violently out of the way to get to Ayan. She shook Ayan and kissed her face until the girl’s eyes snapped open and a long scream coiled out from her. Ayan’s mother grabbed her child and hugged her suffocatingly against her bosom. “May God break your back, you devil,” she said over Ayan’s shoulder, her eyes ringed with antimony shooting daggers of hate deep into him.
Jama stuttered, “She’s a thief Jinnow, check her, she was trying to steal my money.”
“May God break your balls, you lying bastard, you are cursed by all the saints” screeched the mother. “Oh tolla’ay, tolla’ay, my poor child, may God put you under the ground, you eunuch, you devil!”
Jinnow’s head sunk down and fat tears rolled down Jama’s distraught face. Young women bearing water and cloths dragged Ayan from her mother’s grip and took her away to revive and clean her. Ayan’s mother stretched out to her full height and with a long sharp fingernail pushed up to Jama’s face, said “I want you out of here, or I swear to God I will cut your nasty little thing off.” The courtyard women left the room, leaving behind them a miasma of hair oil and incense.
Jinnow pulled Jama into a crushing grip and kneaded his back, shoulders, and neck violently and soothingly. She told him to lie down but he didn’t—he pulled away and took one last, hard look at her. Jinnow’s small eyes were framed with short, feathery eyelashes, her skin looked like old paper, moles spread over her cheeks and nose, and three of her front teeth were gold; she was an elderly Ambaro. Jinnow and Isir left their room to soothe Ayan’s mother and Jama grabbed his stash of money and snuck out behind them as stealthily as a cat. There was a deep, false silence echoing across the courtyard, but he could see twinkling eyes peeking out behind curtains and doors. As he walked out into the sunset, a bitter wind flicked at his threadbare clothes and drew goose pimples from his skin. Stars grew smaller and dimmer above as paraffin lamps were placed on window sills down the street, burning like golden fireflies trapped in cages. Jama heard Jinnow calling him back and glanced over his shoulder; Jinnow stood in the street barefooted, her arm threadlike as she held it aloft. He waved to her, trying desperately to communicate his gratitude and love, but he ran on. It fell into Jama’s mind that he wasn’t a child anymore; he needed to learn how to be a man. Jama reached Naasa Hablood, the Maiden’s Bosoms, the conical twin hills overlooking Hargeisa, and peered below to see the lamps and lights of the town disappearing into the gauzy brown haze of a dust storm. The wind licked and slapped the cowering wooden nomad huts while the white stone houses stood pompously amidst the flying rubbish but eventually the whole town disappeared as if it was just a mirage from an old Arabic tale; and just as easily Jama was spirited away from family, home, and homeland.
Sand scratched his eyes and blurred the path as it danced around the desert in a frenetic whirling ballet. Jama’s sarong was nearly pulled off by the mischievous sand jinns hiding within the storm. Jama covered his face with his sarong and managed to make slow progress like that. The dust storm had turned the sun a dark orange, and it crept away below the horizon to be replaced by an anemic and fragile-looking moon. Jama stumbled across the hills, kicking rocks away with bare feet, giant thorns poking and prodding dangerously. Desert animals scurried around looking for refuge, their small paws scrambling over Jama’s sand-swathed feet. Exhausted, Jama stopped and collapsed onto the sand. With nothing but the howl of the wind around him, he fell asleep, the cold scratch of the storm still assailing his arms and legs. When he opened his inflamed eyes it was the hour before sunrise but he saw a tarred road laid out in front of him as if jinns had prepared it while he slept. It was strewn with sand, leaves and twigs by the departing storm. The wind had calmed and the temperature was mild, he stood up excitedly and scanned the road, left to right, right to left, hoping for the round lights of a truck to emerge, but there was no light apart from the white of the moon. The tarred road was cool and smooth against his desert-sore feet and he walked slowly as the sun returned joyously to the east, its rays lighting the undulating road until it took on the appearance. of gold.
A rumbling sound reverberated along the road and then the “daru daru daruuu” horn of an invisible truck pierced the morning air like a cockerel cry. Jama ran down to meet it, and narrowly avoided its gigantic hood as it careered around the bend and raced past. Standing in its sooty trail, Jama wondered how long it would take to get to Sudan, if he had enough money, if he could get food and water on the road. He only knew to walk away from Hargeisa, everything else was a mystery. He walked up the side of a mountain, rocks slipping under his feet. He tripped on the skeletons of goats killed by earlier droughts; their bleached white rib cages jutted out of the dirt like teeth and inside them tiny yellow flowers sprouted from cacti. The desert terrified him, the silence, the boulders marking nomads’ graves, the emptiness. Jama scampered further up the mountain, hoping to find human company by following the goat droppings left by a passing herd. As he climbed higher the Maroodi Jeeh valley was spread out beneath him, and he scaled the large granite boulders believing that he would be able to see Sudan from the summit. He squinted at the strip of blue on the horizon, unsure whether it was sky or sea. The land looked eerie from this height, dry riverbeds snaked across the earth as far as the eye could see, acacia trees grew bent and stunted in tangled, harassed-looking clumps like old widows begging. Massive stony-faced boulders sat squatly amidst nothing. Towering termite mounds, the zenith of insect architectural genius, stood tall and imposing like bleak apartment blocks. A nomad’s house built from branches and straw had a high fence around it, keeping out emptiness. A raw breeze prickled Jama’s skin, and dark purple clouds amassed in the sky. To the far east shone a spontaneous river, fed by rain falling on the distant Golis mountains. Vultures swooped above the river, praying for drowned bodies. In the water, opals and emeralds glinted. Small villages had grown alongside the road, the fragile dwellings placed so close to its edge that it seemed the speed of a racing truck would blow them away. Here and there forgotten paraffin lamps burned dangerously in the makeshift homes. Far off to the north galloped British colonial officers in khaki looking for warthogs to set off their game of pig-sticking. Warthogs were rarely seen in the country any more but the British were even more elusive, generally preferring to hide in their Raj-style government bungalows from the heat and bloody foreignness of Somaliland. The sight of the groomed Arabian horses sweating in the scrub, tormenting the poor warthogs, saddened Jama and he climbed back down the mountainside to the road.
Jama walked and walked. No more cars or trucks passed by and he didn’t see any camel caravans, but he carried on stubbornly. The clouds pursued him, gathering in speed and strength, an army dressed in black marching across the sky, conquering the blue. Straight ahead of him the sun got heavier and larger like a hot old lady wobbling before her knees finally buckled. He reached a ruined Oromo town, its once grand buildings fallen down and forgotten. Jama crept into the old mosque, the wood rotting and clay bricks disintegrating around him. He rested on his haunches and sat there like a madman amid the dirt and debris, bats flitting in and out of the silent pulpit and spirits murmuring behind his back. He watched as the wind blew life into an old snake skin and it slithered away to find its old self. Thirsty and frightened, he regretted running away and was now sorely tempted to return to Jinnow. He found a well and peered into its gloomy mouth, he suspected it was full of rubbish, twigs, rubble, a dead rat, but he was so thirsty he dropped a rock and heard the delicious reply of water. Jama leaned further over the lip of the well and the old wall crumbled underneath him. He fell head first into the stinking pit. He spat and blew his nose but the bitter water had already gone down his throat. He scrambled out, terrified the whole thing would collapse on top of him, and went back despondently to the ghost mosque with scratched arms and a vile taste in his mouth. Only when his mother’s sleeping body appeared beside him, her ribs rising and falling in peaceful slumber, could he finally close his own eyes. At the darkest hour of night, the sky cracked and revealed a blue and white secret kingdom. The high heavens and low earth were joined by a sheet of conquering raindrops, followed by a thundering marching band that seemed to be playing drums, cymbals, violins, and reedy flutes whose notes fell down and smashed against the gasping desert earth, battering down an angry song of life. Jama was awoken by this miraculous concert heralding the end of the dry season, and sleepily turned onto his back to receive his benediction. Rain splattered against Jama’s lips and he opened his mouth to drink it in. He heard happy laughter echoing around him and saw drenched jinns cavorting and dancing with abandon.
Jama placed his feet in the large footprints the jinns had left behind. Left, right, left, right, he rode high on long, thin legs. All around, large iridescent pools had formed from the night’s rainstorm, they looked like mirages in the drifting heat of the day. Jama stopped regularly to marvel at the sudden deluge and examine his face in the water’s silky surface. He picked at tough karir berries and drank rainwater. The mountains had become pyramids of blue and dark purple under the rain clouds and it was with a joyful heart that Jama walked through the downpour, washing away the memory of months of grime, slaughterhouse blood and misery. A caravan of wet camels, wooden bells clanking, sloshed past him, the young herders casting a quick suspicious look his way as they jumped over puddles. Jama followed the group discreetly, hiding behind the high legs of an old camel carrying a sick woman bundled up in hides. The caravan stopped at a saint’s tomb and began unloading, the women taking charge of the tents, the children, the sheep while the men wrestled with the camels. In the mornings the camels would be called by name, and with a heave and a groan they would get up and amble over to their proud owners.
The rainy season had finally arrived; bash bash and barwaaqo, the season of splash splash and God’s rain. Everyone had a sparkle in their eye; their necks craned towards the clouds for months could finally relax. For a few months life would be a little kinder and people would have the leisure to recite poems and fall in love. Green shoots sprouted at once and the camels ate as if they were at a wedding feast, glades appeared beside dusty flats that had magically became rivers.
The saint’s tomb was a simple structure with a large whitewashed dome, but it brought together a cosmopolitan mix of travelers; rich men with high turbans and supercilious expressions prayed next to hardworking, subjugated Yibirs, Tumals, and Midgaans. They came from every direction, picking their way through the dusty tracks left by earlier pilgrims, their figures barely distinguishable from the termite mounds and cacti. Ascetic nomads asked for blessings alongside boozy merchant sailors, home for the first time in years. Country women with bare heads and exposed bosoms howled for fertility as did veiled, sheltered townswomen. Jama moved around in the melee, praying for a father while the women prayed for children. He observed the fervor of the other worshippers and hoped that God could still hear him through the clamor.
A little distance from the tomb was a hut surrounded by an inquisitive crowd. Jama pushed through and saw a nightmarish scene; an old man had a young boy’s head clamped between his knees. The holy man cut open the boy’s head; a flap of hairy skin fell to one side and he scored back and forth over the skull with his dagger. Finally, a square of the boy’s skull came loose from the soft watery pulp of his brain; the old man carefully picked it out and placed it to his side. A woman explained to the silent audience that the boy had fallen off a mountain, had been asleep since and was not expected to wake up, his father had brought him to the holy man in desperation. The boy lay lifeless throughout the operation, but his father was seated next to him, his eyes wide and white. Jama wished that he was the sleeping boy with his own father bent over in fear and love.
Jama spent the night at the tomb, Allah’s name was repeated all night until it echoed everywhere and seemed to emanate from the tomb, the trees, the mountains. From the nomads’ camp he could hear drumming and ululations long into the night; the young men and women danced under skies that blazed magenta, jade, silver, violet with lightning. The air sizzled between downpours and the young warriors jumped up as high as fleas, throwing their spears in the air, showing off their martial acrobatics. Jama fell asleep with the stars dancing above his head, whirling dizzyingly to the drums and chants.
The next morning, a man ran around yelling for the people to rise and observe a miracle: the boy had awoken and was speaking again. Old and young crowded around the holy man’s hut and saw the light of the boy’s blinking eyes in the gloom. People shouted out “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, God is great,” and brought gifts of incense and dates to the man and his son. The holy man stood aloof from the spectacle, he calmly picked off the beads of his rosary and chewed a wad of qat. When an excited party of worshippers approached him, he waved them away and returned to the cool of the tomb. Jama saw the miracle as proof that of all the tombs in Somaliland, God’s attention was on this one. He raced away from the tomb expecting his father to be delivered to him. Back on the road, within moments a truck appeared, it was white with BISMALLAH painted in red and yellow on its front, asking for the lord to have mercy on it, from its mirrors dangled withered jasmine chains but their scent still fragranced the morning air as the truck whizzed past.
Jama chased after the truck, waving and shouting. “Wait! Wait! Are you going to Sudan?”
The truck slowed down with jeers from the cab. “Of course not. We’re going to Djibouti, if you wanna get in just get in! Hurry up!” shouted one of the men sardined in the cab, the reflection of their bodies in the wing mirror creating the impression of a many-headed hydra.
Jama hauled himself up the ladder, throwing himself into a corner of what was essentially a large wooden crate containing goats, chickens, mangoes, onions, qat, and huddled men. There was a stirring as the child boarded, eyes peeped out and looked him up and down before falling back into sleep. The metal bars around the crate dug into Jama’s neck and stopped him sleeping so he turned around and bade farewell to his homeland, a captured prince exiled along with goats and chickens. His country was an afterthought of the empire builders, a small piece on a global Monopoly board to be collected to spite the others. His people were seen by the British as a fierce, unruly race, who made a good photograph but were not a modern nation deserving equal status to the adult, civilized states of Europe. His land had been carved up between France, Italy, Britain, and Abyssinia. Somalis gathered beside wells to discover what was happening to their world, they learnt about the machinations of the Ferengis the same way they had heard about Islam, but now the message wasn’t salvation but calamity. The coming tragedy was hinted at by the peppery, burning, mustard-scented winds blowing in from Abyssinia, the silence of the great League of Nations gossiped about by nomads in the desert.
The British had built the road to ease their passage into and out of their possession, and now Jama trundled along it, making slow progress towards the artificial border between Somaliland and Djibouti. The sun had fully reclaimed sovereignty over the sky and shone down on her subjects. The smell of grease, petrol, and rot drifted into Jama’s nose but he forced the bile back down his throat, willing this journey to come to an end.
From BLACK MAMBA BOY by Nadifa Mohamed, to be published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2010 by Nadifa Mohamed. All rights reserved. CAUTION: Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner. The book can be purchased online.