The truck was muddied in a wide red fan where the wheel had spun uselessly during the monsoon. When the truck had had wheels, that is. It was now sunk up to the illegible number plate in the earth, which had gone from sticky, brown-red clay to a fine powder since the rain stopped, months ago.
Selemani cupped his hands over his eyes and peered through the dust-mottled windows and saw blue vinyl seats ripped apart, their springs poached by stealthy night visitors, and splatters of rotten fruit and baboon droppings.
The dashboard was gone, as was the steering wheel. He tried the passenger door; it opened, and the smell of stale air and dried ordure swelled out before he could think twice and close it.
“The engine’s gone,” Lemi remarked.
“Nothing in the back,” added Julius.
“Ati. We’re too late.” Selemani put his hands on his hips and stuck his jaw out thoughtfully. “What about the roof?” He looked at Julius, who looked at Lemi, who looked down at his stick forlornly. His limp right leg flopped around it like a creeper. “Julius, you’re lazy. Get up on the bonnet and look at the roof.”
Julius gave Selemani a long stare, bearing no hurt or discomfort at all. It wasn’t even vacant; it was like he was looking at a fascinating painting that couldn’t look back. Selemani hated that look.
With an irritable cluck, Selemani shook off his flip-flops and hopped up onto the bonnet of the dilapidated truck. It was a neat view; hardly anything to be seen but moist fields of tea and a few little plots of banana palms grouped around dog-rib houses of the same raw sienna as the earth they were built from. The mountains stood in a shaggy crescent over to the west, like cloths hung crookedly from a washing line, striped horizontally with staggered terraces and steaming with condensation from the clouds they drew in.
Selemani scrutinised the roof. It was nearly rusted through in one or two places, but on the whole it was spectacularly broad and long, and only slightly convex. It would be big enough, for sure.
At that moment a woman’s yell came faintly from the direction of the village. Lemi craned his neck. “It’s your mother,” he told Selemani. Julius shrieked with laughter. “She’s got that girl round, hasn’t she? The one you’re marrying.”
Selemani ran an appreciative palm over the surface of the truck’s roof, pretending to be absorbed by its rough corroded rosettes. They seemed to make a pattern like the moon in those photos framed over the bar in The Savannah Club. Jamani, the things those white men got up to.
“Selemaaaaaniii!” the voice screeched again. “You’re wanted!”
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Selemani announced, as if the moment had spurred him to take the decision, and he dropped back to the ground and worked his flip-flops back on with his toes.
The three started back toward the village, meandering through the thin streets of the outskirts with the piles of rotting rubbish and corrugated tin shacks, past the circular TANU meeting spot still not repainted even though TANU became the Revolutionary Party CCM last year – opulated as ever by elderly men with rumpled white embroidered hats and serious mouths, arguing over politics and getting hot under the collar, then sitting down and thinking for long stretches.
The three separated at the marketplace, less a square and more a rhombus bordered by cinnamon trees and whitewashed shops with wooden shutters and padlocks and hand-painted signs. Julius headed south to the far edge of the town near the school. A school and a clinic, that was modernisation. Government-paid nurses in crisply starched uniforms taking blood samples and distributing quinine.
This was one of the pioneer towns; not founded by pioneering homesteaders travelling West, but by the state, inspired by Lenin, funded by Russia and China, determined to lift Africa out of grinding poverty and into the free market. The village had swollen from a cluster of houses built by a stream to a town, a proper town, with public amenities and a registered electorate, all by government decree. Some households were ordered to move 50 feet to come into accordance with the new regulations. Almost everyone who used to live in the scattered cottages nearby now had to walk much farther to reach their plots of land every day. But this was progress. One day this village would be rebuilt in stone and have a bowling alley and a paved market square, and all the streets would be cleaned by professional, government-paid street sweepers. At least, that was how the young ones thought of it.
The old ones saw the land being overtaxed, the latrines being hastily dug too close to the sources of water, the outbreaks of cholera and typhoid laying out whole neighbourhoods clotted with people, heard the party rhetoric of self-reliance and ground their few remaining teeth in the circular TANU hut and sat thinking for long stretches, blinking watery eyes turned blue with age. There wasn’t much else to do about it. This was progress.
Julius reached his house and absently called out “Hodi!” Without waiting for a karibu to welcome him inside, he shook off his sandals and slipped through the door. His father, the rector, was sitting on a church chair, which had lost a leg and therefore been inherited. It leaned against the wall so as to not fall over. In the niche in the wall there was a radio, which Julius’s father was listening to attentively. The news was being broadcast in crackly Kiswahili. He waved a quieting hand at Julius as he came in.
“Shikamoo,” Julius mumbled.
“Did you know they are moving the capital to Dodoma?” his father boomed over the radio set.
“House by house?” Julius inquired.
“Don’t be insolent,” his father replied mildly, turning the volume down. “It was voted. By the people. We are a democratic nation now.”
There was no vote about villagisation, though, Julius thought. Two years as a trainee mechanic in Dar es Salaam and now he was meant to be hoeing onions on a plot of land a 40 minutes’ walk away. “Living in villages is obligatory,” the Father of the Nation had said not six months ago. And Julius was named after him, the man engineering all this progress, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, all because Julius Jr had been born on the 29 October 1964 – the day the United Republic of Tanzania was born. Julius turned 18 last week. It was the only way he knew his age.
“You wait, my boy. We’ll soon be snapping at Europe’s heels,” his father said, leaning back in his chair and remembering its precariousness with a jolt. “There will be children in Switzerland learning Kiswahili at school. Mwalimu wasn’t educated at Oxford for nothing, you know.”
Julius stared at him flatly. His father snapped the radio off.
“I don’t know why you kids aren’t more excited about these changes,” he scolded. “You don’t know how strong we’ll be, once people stop thinking in their tribe and start working together as a nation. You’ll see.”
Selemani came alive when he played pool. He would sit on the floor at dinner with one knee up and roll a ball of white, starchy ugali in his right hand and think only of the cool weight of the white ball clanking in the underbelly of the billiards table and rolling tirelessly into the hollow at the table’s foot; then the satisfying knock it made as he clapped it down into the black spot on the green felt, the aged ivory brought back to Africa after being bought by Britons and lathed and polished in India. This was the ball the wazungu, the white man, took their shots with – the shots of scotch, the shots that brought the game down – and there he was, taking their place in Uzunguni. Him and the chaotic thunder of the colours and the stripes hurtling down from the rack, the care taken in arranging them properly and tightening them in the triangle with his slender fingers. Then – ah! then – the climactic crack of the break and the smooth, erratic scattering of the balls – there was something atomic about it. And then there was the way the players slunk low over the table with the cue carried delicately underneath, like panthers, sleekly creeping along a tree branch, eyes trained on the line and the angle and the ricochet each ball would make. None of them could predict the directions and the speeds that would explode out of each shot. And the thunk of the desired ball when it was potted, the satisfied shuffle of the player’s feet as he tested out positions for his next shot, or the bending of his knees in frustration reflex, clenching his fists and hissing as he realises he sank the white too – bahati mbaya, bad luck. It was music. It was a day without sweltering heat or mosquitoes. It was a drug. And in the final, leisurely circumambulation of the table, feeling the gaze of the bartenders in their stiff white waistcoats and red bowties, the whores in nylons and telephonecable weaves crossing their legs on the barstools and elongating their painted eyes at him, he’d think: What more could any man want but to win a game of billiards? And he would dunk the ball of ugali in the tomato mchuzi and wonder how long it would be before he could give up fixing shoes in the muddy streets of the village and go back to The Savannah Club.
The truck was still there, in the clearing between the rows of cotton and the sporadic banana palms and avocado trees. A mongoose scurried into one of them as Lemi approached, oscillating like the finger of a metronome as he walked, leaning heavily into his stick and lurching forward on his good leg. He checked to see that Selemani and Julius hadn’t arrived yet; he wanted to get a good look at the roof before they came so he would be spared the indignity of scrambling up onto the bonnet like a starfish on shore.
Lemi was not his real name. People called him Lemi after mlemavu, disabled boy, ill-formed one, yule aliyelema – the one who grew wrong. At an age when he could still remember how many summers he’d lived, he’d fallen sick with polio and his left leg stopped growing and started to wilt. Lemi sounded better; it was more like a European name – it was French, that was it. Or was it Remy? He didn’t know – everyone in the village mixed up their is and their rs, anyway. Everyone he knew did.
He laid a hand on the truck’s bonnet; it was cool and damp; the day was still being born. He dropped his pole and hopped around the truck’s nose, leaning against it as he went. Lemi got out of working in the fields because of his leg, but he still had to do other things, draw water, feed the goat, burn the rubbish. Today it was getting mwarobaini leaves for his uncle who was sweating in bed with malaria. The intense, bitter green, the dirty taste of quinine that killed intestinal parasites and lice and lowered high blood pressure; one cure for 40 diseases, hence its name – “the 40 tree”. He picked off a few flakes of paint around the crusted patches of rust on the bonnet, then lunged headfirst at it, heaving hard with his arms and kicking against the truck’s mudguard with his right leg and swung himself up, landing clumsily with his shoulder pressing on the murky glass of the windshield. From there, he crawled to the roof and the whole plain opened up to him like a pair of moist green hands. There was the village, toward the crooked crescent of mountains, there were the rippling fields of tea, cotton-wrapped heads ducked over them bobbing like balls in a pool.
It held him there in chilly, breathless awe for longer than he knew how to count; this was what Selemani could bound up and see when- ever he liked! Lemi shivered and tried to com- press as much detail as he could into this briefest of authences: the smoking houses high up on the mountains – they were brewing ba- nana beer this time of year, ready for when the girls came out of puberty seclusion; the galli- maufry of tin and thatched roofs in the rapidly expanding village; the almost invisible troop of colobus monkeys hopping about in the mango trees over there, with long, draping tails as red as the earth; and enlivening it all was the cool bite of the air, before the sun rose high and made the humidity swelter.
The mwarobaini could wait a minute or two more.
The boys set to work as soon as Selemani could smuggle out some tools from his workshop. Selemani was always the one on top, inspecting the coralline encrustations of rust and making supervisory comments. Julius sat on the roof, taking turns with a wooden mallet flattening the surface of the roof as evenly he could. It was an impossible task, all three knew – they didn’t have any felt, and the surface would end up dented and warped all over. But it became their overriding pleasure, of all things, one that made them equal in purpose. They dodged their plots of land and came home late to do it, urged on by the series of tasks which had to be done: strip bark off straight branches for the cues – mwarobaini’s best, get Lemi to do it; roll balls of clay and bake them in a fire and paint them with glossy shop-sign emulsion; sew fishing net into pockets for the corners.
Lemi oscillated back and forth on his stick, finishing the little jobs Julius and Selemani felt too important to do. But while he did them, he thought of the mural he would paint on the sides of the truck, a name for their pool table – make it a pool hall, sell sodas out of the boot! He worked out the lettering in his head as he plodded between his house and the truck each day, every time on the pretext of finding medicines or catching a runaway chicken. It would read: Babu Kubwa Billiards. Big Granddaddy Billiards.
They started attracting small crowds, mostly children wearing scraps of kangas in parrotish colours sewn into ruffled dresses and shirts. The kids stared at the three boys tinkering at this mudscabbed truck with eyes that had never known how their own faces looked and chewed on bits of plastic string. Then the tea-pickers started passing through; it broke the monotony of the work, laughing to each other in veiled interest at the three young men with city heads operating on their useless lump of metal.
“Don’t mind them,” Selemani told the others, though he was the one who minded the most.
In time their other jobs, the shoe-fixing and hoeing and weeding and chopping firewood and finding medicines, began to fade into a sort of translucent, water-skin background, the breakable surface of what really mattered. The more Julius’s father tried to impress upon him the beauty of working together as a nation, the humility of the common labourer and the holy economic balance God held such countries in, the more Julius daydreamed on the plot of land and woke up when smoothing out the roof of the truck. It had to be smooth enough to execute a satisfying break on, that was all; if he could just work that ridge flat and this lump even, it would result in the most ecstatic of sensations. That’s what Selemani said, anyway.
There came a morning, though, with no droppers-by, no idle teapickers or round-eyed children standing around watching the boys at their work. There didn’t even seem to be any birds circling above the plains, no clouds hanging over the mountains. It was as though someone was talking far off and the whole village was hushing its mouth to listen.
Selemani looked at Julius. “Is there somewhere we’re supposed tobe?” he asked.
Julius stared back at him with his eyes slightly apart, one on Selemani and the other on Selemani’s ear. “What month is it?”
“Pumpkin season,” Selemani replied, pressing his closed eyes with the pads of his thumb and forefinger. “E-heeeh. So it can’t be Independence Day. What else is there?”
A round of staccato gunfire studded the air, moving from left to right as if it were lead typewriter lettering on a loose piece of paper. The boys ducked; Selemani climbed inside the truck and instinctively moved to start the engine somehow, yanking desperately at the handbrake and pumping the gas. Julius slid into the back seat.
“There’s no engine,” he reminded his friend. “Or wheels.”
They fell silent. Selemani opened his door gingerly and shouted as quietly as he could through the crack.
“Lemi!” Nothing. “Leeeeemiiiii!” His call seemed to echo back at him from the road to the north, rustling in the dense border of trees that ran alongside it. Perhaps Lemi was over that way, cutting mwarobaini for the cues. Another of its 40 uses.
“The shots came from town. We’ll be safe out here,” Julius croaked. “What about Lemi?” Selemam” hissed. “We have to go find him!”
Julius looked out of the window. “How will we ever finish the truck without him?” he said weakly.
“Come on.” Selemani leapt from the truck and opened the back door for Julius. Then he turned and ran as low as he could, slinking like the panther crouched over the pool table, aligning himself with his prey on an infallible cross-country trajectory. The treelined road over to the north was the cushion running lengthways along the green felt ground; Selemani thought of the impact he would make against the cushion, the angle of the ricochet perfectly mirrored on the other side of the perpendicular. He was the smooth wooden cue, the hand that shunted it forward, the ball it cracked against – the whole, single-minded focus of the game, and he’d win it.
Julius scrambled after Selemani clumsily. He wasn’t used to running; his uncle told him once when his father wasn’t listening that one day he’d get a good job in the government filing documents and writing assessments – who needed to be fit for that? Farmers were fit because they were poor and had nobody to do work for them.
They came to the road into town, sheltered by mango trees crowding their shoulders together and depositing sugary offerings on the soil all around, rotting and stinking of fruit alcohol. Selemani slowed down, ready to make his sharp 40-degree angle turn to look elsewhere for Lemi, when the sound of approaching footsteps killed his momentum. He shot low under a bush. Julius loped into view and Selemani grabbed his shirt and pulled him down beside him.
It was a regiment of askari, young Tanzanian men in slightly faded camouflage fatigues and neatly lopsided caps lit up with a gold emblem and trousers tucked into spit-polished black boots, rifles slung over one shoulder.
“Is Lemi there?” Julius asked.
“Wake up, Julius! They’re going to war!”
“Are we at war?”
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” Selemani frowned. “Idi Amin invaded Kagera last month. These are our troops. They’re going to defend our country.”
Julius sat silently with his arms folded around his knees, staring at the ground. He shivered and a sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead. An ant as long as his thumbnail was struggling to carry the mutilated body of another, its head crushed inwards and its legs flailing miserably in tiny, almost imperceptible death throes. Julius shuddered and watched as the bigger ant held it with two legs and marched on with the other two. Any moment, I could put my toe down and kill the two of them, Julius thought. Perhaps it would be better off; then the dying ant could the quicker and the healthy ant wouldn’t have to go to all that effort. But much as he visualised the act, the quiet snap of crushed exoskeleton, the gradual cessation of movement and the little wet spot on his toe, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“You don’t think they have Lemi, do you?” he asked.
“Of course not. He’s too crippled to go to war. Just as well they didn’t see us, though-we’re old enough for the army now.”
Julius looked back at the ants and wondered if he would do the same if his friend went down. That’s what soldiers did, wasn’t it? He shivered and waited for the ant to cross the patch of dirt and disappear into the base of a hibiscus bush.
“Why did Idi Amin invade, anyway?” he asked.
Selemani shrugged. “I don’t know. It’ll probably be over soon. We’ll fight them off and get back to business.”
“Yeah, we’ll get back to business.”
“Progress!” Selemani smiled.
“We’re going to make Africa the richest place on earth!” Julius replied.
Selemani laughed and punched Julius on the arm, and Julius breathed his relief in deeply and felt good.
The regiment passed and met with a convoy of trucks where their path joined the main road. It was going to get tarmacked soon, that was the news from the town council. Out in the distance, a thin cloth of white mist lay over the mountains and the red-brown strip of earth the askari marched on trailed away into the greenery of the cloud forest. They could see yellow-backed baboons sitting in the trees, munching things thoughtfully and watching as the regiment passed, quick march, hup-two-threefour.
Julius and Selemani leisurely made their way back to the truck. As they neared it, they could see Lemi sitting on the roof waving at them, his stick leaning against the front wheel and a big smile on his face.
“I finished the cues,” he called through cupped hands.
Selemani stopped midfield and stood, leaning his weight on one foot. From here the truck looked like a sculpted mass of powder, a dusty mirage slumped on the earth with no engine, no dashboard, no wheels and no hope of ever moving. And there were boys from his town only a year or two older than him marching off to fight, ranged in formation and ordered to kill so that this country could fulfill its promise to its people – money, running water, jobs with uniforms. Freedom from tyranny, protect the little guy. It all seemed somehow fruitless, the potential pool hall in the midst of tea fields and mango trees, mongoose and mountain cats watching from a distance, mosquitoes and jiggers clamouring for a meal.
Julius kept walking, his hands dangling limply at his sides. He saw the powdery lump, Lemi’s impromptu throne, and his job filing documents for the government and growing fat faded away in that moment. What did it matter, seeing as one of his country’s neighbours might invade whenever it felt like it? The pride he’d felt over his nation’s glorious prospects imploded unceremoniously; when death is so near that you feel its breath on your face, no place is ever rich enough to save you.
From where Lemi sat, though, the whole valley basin looked cool and green, laced with mist and still as Paradise. The sun had crested the mountain ridge and now lay strips of beeswax yellow across the fields, mapping out the pattern of stepped crops and banana palms that ornamented the mountain’s slopes. The farmers were at home, resting-God knows how they needed it. He would sit on the roof of the truck for a while longer and look around at this liquid cure, this moving portrait that concealed the artist’s signature in every line and curve, and then limp home and think himself back there whenever he got tired.
He’d just sit a minute or two more.