The following is excerpted from the novel by Petina Gappah. Gappah is an award-winning and widely translated Zimbabwean writer. She is the author of two novels, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, The Book of Memory, and two short story collections, Rotten Row and An Elegy for Easterly. She used to work as an international trade lawyer in Geneva and has been a DAAD Writing Fellow in Berlin, and a Livingstone Scholar at Cambridge University.
It is strange, is it not, how the things you know will happen do not ever happen the way you think they will happen when they do happen? On the morning that we found him, I was woken by a dream of cloves. The familiar, sweetly cloying smell came so sharply to my nose that I might have been back at the spice market in Zanzibar, a slim-limbed girl again, supposedly learning how to pick out the best for the Liwali’s kitchen, but really standing first on one leg, then the other, and my mother saying, but, Halima, you don’t listen, which was true enough because I was paying more attention to the sounds of the day—the call of the muezzin, the cries of the auctioneers at the slave market, the donkeys braying in protest, the packs of dogs snarling over the corpses of slaves outside the customs house, and the screeching laughter of children.
I think of my mother often enough, but it is seldom that she comes to me in my dreams. She was the suria of the Liwali of Zanzibar, one of his favorite slaves, although she never bore him a child to become umm al-walad, and what a thing that would have been for her, to bear the Liwali’s child; for he was the Sultan’s representative back in the days when Said the Great, Seyyid Said bin Sultan that was, lived in Muscat, across the water in Oman, and not in Zanzibar.
My mother says I was born before the Sultan moved the capital from Muscat. In those days, the Sultan had the Liwali to act for him in Zanzibar, and yes, there was the great lord of the Swahili in Zanzibar, the Mwinyi Mkuu, they called him, but the Sultan needed his own man, someone who was an Arab through and through, an Omani of the first rank.
Though to look at the Liwali, well, you could see at once there was an African slave or two in his blood, and that’s no lie. He had his three official wives, the Liwali did, he had his three horme, they called them, and also his concubines, the ten sariri in his harem. That is plenty enough woman for any man, but it was not nearly as many concubines as Said the Great, for he had 75 wives and sariri, who gave him more than 100 children.
My mother was the only dark-skinned suria among the Liwali’s sariri concubines, for they were all Circassians and Turks and whatnot, and although they said a suria was the best kind of slave to be, and only the comely women were chosen to be sariri, for my mother, who was also a cook, being a suria only meant that she was doubly enslaved: at night, a slave in the Liwali’s harem, and in the day, a slave in his kitchen.
The Liwali has been dead these many years. His house is now owned by Ludda Dhamji, a rich Indian merchant from Bombay. They say he is more powerful than the Liwali was, for he has lent Said Bhargash, the new sultan, ever so much money. Ludda Dhamji controls the customs house too, and takes a share of every slave sold at the slave market and every single one that goes to Persia and Arabia, to India and up and down the whole coast of the Indian Ocean. That is wealth indeed.
I was roused from my dream, and all thoughts of my former life, by the sound of running feet and loud voices. I could tell at once that something was wrong. Ntaoéka and Laede had not yet made the fires, no surprise that, for it was between the morn and night. For all that, I could make out their forms easily enough; the moon was still bright. The watch was up, but so were others who need not have been. The porters and expedition leaders were in a flurry of movement. Even the most useless of the pagazi, like that thief Chirango, who normally needed Majwara’s drum to beat some spirit into his lazy legs, moved as quickly as the others, going from one group to the next, and then from that group to the one after that.
Susi ran to the boy Majwara, Asmani ran to Uledi Munyasere, Saféné ran to Chowpereh. It was all confusion, like chickens before a rainstorm. Under the big mvula tree, the Nassick boys were conferring in a huddle.
There were seven of them, all freedmen who had been captured by slavers as boys and rescued by giant jahazi sent by the queen from the land of Bwana Daudi. Ships, they called them, dhows that are as high as houses and almost as big as the Liwali’s palace, Susi said. They had been taken in these jahazi ships to India, where they were taught to speak out of their own tongues, and instead learned all sorts of other muzungu tongues to speak. They were also given trades to learn and books to read, and paper to write on and clothes that made them look like wazungu.
In their midst was the tall figure of Jacob Wainwright, fully dressed even at this hour. It can rain the hail of a thousand storms, and the sun can bake with the cruelty of Tippoo Tip’s slave raids, and still Jacob will wear his suit. It was given to him by the man he was named for, he says, and if you ask me, if the good man could only see how Jacob sweats in it every hour of every day, he might well have rethought his gift. I could see no sign of the other Wainwright, Jacob’s brother John. Well, I say his brother, but Jacob himself claims that John is no brother of his, and it is no wonder that he will not claim such a brother. The man is lazier than a herd of sleeping hippos. He even lost our two best milking cows. You would think he had never tended a cow before. What they teach them at that school in India besides reading and talking English, I really don’t know.
I had an inkling of what it might be that had raised the camp at such an hour. I made my way to the mvula tree and touched the shoulder of Matthew Wellington.
“Is it so?” I said.
He nodded but did not speak. I let out a cry that startled a nearby owl into flutter. Susi detached himself from the cluster of the most senior pagazi and came toward me. I flung myself into his arms. Susi has never needed an excuse to be near me, that he has not, not from the first time he saw me. If there is something I understand, it is the look that a man gives a woman when he wants her, and if I had a gold nugget for every one of those looks that Susi has given me, I would be the daughter of that rich Indian Ludda Dhamji, that I would.
Just as I was letting myself go in his arms, my man Amoda came up, and Susi hastily let me go, but not before I had felt the stiffness of him. With the Doctor lying just yards away, dead as anything! Filthy goat.
Before Amoda could remonstrate with me, Susi had pulled him to the side. My instinct was to find another woman. Heading to the hut where Ntaoéka had slept the night before, I let out a cry that split the heavens, thinking she would join me. No answer came. She had probably made a bed somewhere with that Mabruki, to whom she had so foolishly attached herself. Even in the perturbation of my spirits, I could not help remembering that just a week ago, she had been saying he was no man at all, that he was nothing but a donkey, and a lazy one at that.
“Well,” I had said to her then, “you could have had your pick when Bwana Daudi told you to choose. You could have had Gardner, you could have had Chuma, but you chose to be with Mabruki.”
Back when we were in Unyanyembe, and she had glued herself to our party without ever being invited, Bwana Daudi had said she was to choose one of his free men to be her husband. Right he was, because a good-looking thing like her had caused us no end of trouble from being untethered.
“I do not like to have such a fine-looking woman on the loose among us.”
Within a week of being hired as washerwoman in Unyanyembe, she was making eyes at Amoda. There are many things you can say about that man of mine, but it is true that he has no trouble attracting women. He is almost as fine a specimen of a man as Susi, well grown and tall. But though he does not have Susi’s hearty, merry laugh that you want to hear again and again, he has a way with him that would win any woman’s heart. When I first saw him, back in Tabora when I was with my Arab merchant, he fairly drove me distracted. He was all I could think of until I had him. Of course, once I had him he soon showed himself for who he was, and I have the bruises to prove it, don’t I. And I often wish that it had been Susi that I saw first instead. But for as long as I was Halima, the daughter of Zafrene, the Liwali’s favorite suria, I was not going to let Ntaoéka get away with simpering and smiling in my man’s direction, even if that man was as hard a man to love as my Amoda.
I had no problem using my fists on her, I most certainly did not. For that, I roused the anger of Bwana Daudi, who said it was all my fault. But after she started to make eyes at Susi, to the great anger of his woman Misozi, he came to see things my way.
We had met Misozi in Ujiji, in the weeks before Bwana Stanley found us. She was especially helpful to me then, and no wonder; she had her eye on Susi. Her own man had gone on a trading mission to Tabora and not come back, she said. She would rather travel with us and be Susi’s road woman than continue to wait for her own man in Ujiji. She has a most trying nature, Misozi, with the brains of a baby goat, but it was good to have another woman about, all the same.
After I made it clear to Ntaoéka that Amoda was not for her, she began to make eyes at Susi. When Misozi ran to complain to Bwana Daudi, it was then that he said she should pick someone else. “I do not like to have such a fine-looking woman on the loose among us,” I heard him say to Amoda. “I would rather that she choose any of my worthies.”
But look at her now; tethered though she is, she is still causing problems. She is like one of those pretty bowls in the Liwali’s house: too shallow to drink tea from, but too small to eat dates from, so they sit on a high shelf, where they are only good to be looked at, and take up space for no reason.
Since the Nassickers arrived, six months after Bwana Stanley’s departure, Ntaoéka has been giddy with excitement. I bet she would open her legs to any of them if they asked, and play the close buttock game too, particularly with that Jacob Wainwright. The way her eyes flutter about when she sees him, you would think she was trying to work up enough tears to get dust out of them. I told Misozi that I supposed Ntaoéka regretted not waiting, because if she had chosen after the large group of men sent by Bwana Stanley arrived, she could have had any of the fifty-five pagazi and the seven Nassickers that came with them. Bwana Daudi also called them the Nassick boys, and though they are young, with a little too much milk still to be squeezed out of their noses, they are far from being boys, particularly that Jacob Wainwright, a well-grown man who has seen at least one and twenty Ramadans. Proud as anything, he is, with all his English and his learning and his shoes and books and heavy muzungu suit.
But it was Misozi and not Ntaoéka who came out to me, wiping the sleep out of her eyes: “What is it?”
“He is dead, he is gone, he is dead!” I wailed.
“Who?” Misozi said as she yawned.
Sometimes I think that the woman cannot possibly be as stupid as she looks. Who else could I possibly have meant, the donkey? With a woman like that, it is no wonder that Susi looks three times and then twice more at every woman he passes.
She went inside to get her wrapper cloth, and while she was in there, I saw Ntaoéka slinking her way from the direction of the hut where Carus Farrar had slept. So that was how that loaf was cooking. I wondered if Misozi knew. There would be time to tell all, not that I would say anything, of course, because, and this I can say straight, I have never been one to gossip.
“You also, Misozi,” Ntaoéka said. “Who do you think Halima is talking about? Whose was the death we expected daily? Whose the frail body that was just hours from being a corpse? It can only be the Bwana.”
The two started arguing enough to make the head spin. I moved to the fire, where a group of men sat and talked. Among them were Susi, Amoda, Chuma, Carus Farrar, and the boy Majwara. They were waiting, Carus Farrar said, for the stiffness to leave his body so that they could lay him out. It would not be too long, he said, for Bwana Daudi had died sometime in the night, and the heat in the air would help the stiffness to leave his body.
His face, when he lifted it, was a mask of grief.
More and more of the pagazi arrived and took up places around the fire. On every lip was the same question: how had it come to this? Susi and Majwara took it in turns to answer.
“Just before midnight,” Majwara said, “Bwana Daudi emerged from the hut to say that Susi was to go to the Bwana, for his mind was quite delirious.”
Susi took up the tale. “I went in at once. The Bwana was trying to rise from his bed. He was clearly not in his right mind as he said, ‘I have found the fountains, Susi. I have found the fountains. Is this the Luapula?’
“I told him we were in Bangweulu, at Chitambo’s village,” Susi said, at which the Bwana started babbling in English, but the only words that Susi heard, and he is not sure he heard them properly, for they made no sense to him, were: “Poor Mary lies on Shupanga brae, and beeks fornent the sun.”
Mary, I knew, was the name of Mama Robert, Bwana Daudi’s wife, and Shupanga, which is also where Susi comes from, is where she is buried. I interrupted to ask Susi what he thought those words meant, but he had no answer. We all turned as one to Jacob Wainwright, but he simply looked into the distance as though he had not heard the question. I have noticed before that if he does not know the answer to something, he pretends not to have heard the question.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
Susi continued his narration. “I helped him back onto his bed, as the Bwana, now speaking in Swahili, asked how many days it was to the Luapula.
“‘It will take three days’ marching,’ I said. “‘Three days to go to the Luapula,’ he said. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’”
After this, Susi said, he seemed to come to himself, and realize where he was. He then asked Susi to boil him some water.
“Had he eaten the dish I made him?” I asked. “Groundnuts and grains it was, mashed together soft-soft so that he could swallow it all without chewing. I was that pleased when he asked for food.”
Susi shook his head and continued. He had gone outside to the fire and returned with the copper kettle full of water. Calling Susi close, the Bwana asked for his medicine chest and for a candle. He picked out a medicine, which he told Susi to place by his side.
He was part of a cargo of the enslaved who were being herded to the coast.
“His stomach must have been upset,” Carus Farrar interrupted. “I saw that bottle. It is a potion called calomel. It purges the contents of the stomach.”
“If his stomach was upset,” I said, “it had nothing to do with my dish. Made it fresh I did, with the groundnuts that we got from Chitambo’s women just yesterday.”
Susi went on. “I am certain he did not eat your dish, Halima. It was still beside him when Bwana Daudi dismissed me. I then left, leaving Majwara in the hut.”
Majwara now took up the tale. A few hours after Susi had left the Bwana, he said, he roused Amoda, who had taken over the watch but had fallen asleep, with the words “Come to Bwana, I am afraid; I don’t know if he is alive.” Amoda then roused Susi, Chuma, Carus Farrar, and Chowpereh. Passing inside the hut, they looked toward the bed. Bwana Daudi was not lying on it, but was kneeling next to it, seemingly engaged in prayer. They instinctively drew backward. Pointing to him, Majwara said, “When I lay down to sleep, he was just as he is now, and it is because I find that he does not move that I fear he is dead.”
Carus Farrar then said, “The candle was stuck to the top of the box with its own wax, and shed a light sufficient for us to see his form. Bwana Daudi had left his bed, and was kneeling beside it, his body stretched forward and his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. He did not stir.
I advanced to him and placed my hands on his sunken cheeks. The Bwana felt cold and stiff to the touch. I turned to the others and nodded. I told them what we had all of us felt the instant we entered the hut. Bwana Daudi was no more.”
In the silence that followed Carus Farrar’s narration, Majwara got up and moved off by himself. I left the men around the fire and followed him to an outcrop of rock a small distance away. He sat down. I sat next to him and waited as he wept into his hands. His face, when he lifted it, was a mask of grief.
When he was not acting as the kirangozi and beating the drum to which we marched, Majwara was the Bwana’s own servant. He is no longer a child but is not yet a man; he is the only one of his age among the six children, and is still most content alone with his drum. It is a great responsibility for one so young to have in his care the bathing and dressing of a grown man. Look at that, I keep forgetting that Bwana Daudi is no more. Amoda had often suggested to the Bwana that the boy was perhaps too young for the job, but Majwara, overhearing him, had insisted that this was the very job he wanted.
We had come upon him the year before. He was part of a cargo of the enslaved who were being herded to the coast. Whenever we came across such scenes, they caused the Bwana severe distress. He had been struck by Majwara’s young looks, and indeed, Chuma said later that he himself had been of such an age—just 15 Ramadans, no more—when he too had been captured, and then rescued by Bwana Daudi.
Just as he had done with Chuma, Bwana Daudi persuaded Majwara’s captors that the boy was too young and sick to travel all the way to the coast, and he would give them the price for a full man. Seeing a chance to make something quickly, they had handed the boy over to Bwana Daudi for five strings of beads, which the Doctor often joked was more than I had cost him, for he had bought me too; not for himself, but for Amoda.
Bwana Daudi’s rescuing him, and his healing Majwara afterward of the malaria fever, meant that the boy would have done anything the Bwana asked him. The only thing he had refused to do was change his name, even though Bwana Daudi had suggested several other names for him.
“Chuma is James, and you too shall be an apostle,” he said. “You can be my Peter, and I will lean on you just as Jesus leaned on his rock.”
But Majwara had said he would keep his name. It was in memory of his mother, he said, for she had chosen that name for him above all others. “I will never see her again,” he said, “but she is with me in my name.”
“What a sentimental boy,” Bwana Daudi said, and clapped him on his back. “Very well then, my young rock, you shall continue to be called Majwara.”
And now here we were, on this rock in Chitambo’s village, and Bwana Daudi was dead in his hut.
Majwara and I sat together in silence. Then Majwara said, “He asked for his medicine. I gave it to him, and he picked out what he needed. But what if it was the wrong one? What if, in the confusion of his illness, he picked the wrong one? And then I fell asleep. I was so weary. I should not have been so weary. What if he called out to me and I did not hear?”
“You did what you could, child,” I said, and patted him on his head. I had to raise my arm to do so, for though he is many moons younger than me, he towers over me like a sapling above the dug earth.
“He saved my life,” the boy wept, “but I could not save his.”
I let him weep without talking. After his passion was spent, he said again, “I will never see him again.”
“Yes, that is death,” I said to him. “We will none of us see Bwana Daudi again in this life.”
Together, we walked back to the camp. By this time, the stiffness had left the Bwana’s body, and the men had laid him out. We arrived to find them going into the hut in little groups to pay their respects. After all the men were done, I led the women in to see him. They had laid him on his back on the mud bed. His hands were at his sides and his eyes closed. Against his scalp, his hair was gray and thin. It was strange to see him without his hat, for no day had ever gone by that he did not wear it. In the thin light that broke the darkness of the hut, it seemed as though he was asleep. A blue fly buzzed from the ceiling above. His medicine chest formed a table next to his bed.
As I looked at the uneaten dish of boiled grains and mashed groundnuts that rested on it, which he had asked for only the night before, it came to me that, truly, he was dead. And it came to me then that his death was everything to me.
From Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah. Featured with the permission of the publisher, Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Copyright © by Petina Gappah.