The Magic of Saida (Vintage Contemporaries)
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From Giller Prize–winner M. G. Vassanji comes the story of Kamal Punja, son of an African mother and an Indian father, who has been living in Canada for forty years. Despite his material wealth, Kamal finds himself longing for the place of his birth—Africa—and of a girl there he once loved. As a child he was certain that Saida—granddaughter of a great Swahili poet and his constant companion—would become his future wife, but when he was just eleven Kamal’s mother sent him to live with his estranged father’s family in India. Now, decades later, Kamal journeys back to the village he left—to confront his long-unresolved racial identity and the nightmarish legacy of a broken promise.
Omari found himself without employment for a few months, until he was hired in the post office, situated in a ground-floor corner of the old boma. One morning, having sorted out the day’s incoming mail, while he stood behind the counter attending the odd customer, still confused by the new postage stamps, a note arrived requesting his presence in the district commissioner’s office. “Mwalimu Omari,” the DC said, having offered him a chair, preferring himself to come forward and stand, looming awkwardly over the poet, “I was not told until yesterday that a poet of your eminence lived in our town—and was working just two doors away from me at the posta!
Where we planted grain, on our stolen land they planted cotton, and told us, Work. They brought foreign askaris to beat us. They broke the rules of our elders, our sharia. For disobeying which, the kiboko, the whip. For this misdemeanour, the khamsa-ishirin, for that one, the same. The twenty-five, referring to the number of lashes, delivered so hard they made you bleed and weep like a woman. Not for nothing we remember the German as mkono wa damu; the hand of blood. As the song says, the Arab put us in chains, the German whipped us raw, and the British sucked our blood.
She would withdraw not a penny more nor less, not a day sooner than mwisho mwezi, the end of the month. All her major shopping was done this day, whatever was needed that they could afford. Soap, maize flour, tea, and sugar to last as long as possible. And only once in a rare while, something to wear. The shops were full, the shopkeepers inviting you in with smiles as you passed, Karibu kijana, Karibu shoga! Starehe, would reply Mama, and hesitate outside, before stepping in. You had to be alert for those Asians, smooth as butter and sweet as honey, even their children, they would not let you leave without a purchase.
He would not say. He was just going. First the bullying: “You can’t go, Sabini. I don’t allow you to go. Your place is here. ” Then the pleading: “Nowhere else but here, Sabini. We are of one blood, Sabini. Don’t abandon me! Please … listen to me …” “Don’t cry, my friend. The girls will laugh at you. I must go. ” “Really? ” “Really. ” Mungu na mtume. By God and His Prophet. “But you must come back. To see me …” “I will, my brother. ” And so he was off. Just like that. First Mama; then Sabini. Kamal followed him at a distance, like a stray, all the way down Mosque Street, Market Street, to Uhuru Street and the bus station crowded with workers on their way home.
And? ” “Daddy said you were in Uganda. Then he sent me away, but I know that he gave this girl some money. ” “That’s all? ” “Yes. But who was this girl? What was her name? Where did you find her? ” Kamal did not reply. “What did she look like? ” he asked quietly. “She wore a khanga. I remember her clearly, because we were so surprised. And her voice—it was thin—like a …” “And you’ve kept this from me all these years? All of you? ” “It never came up. And you were getting married, weren’t you? And then we were all here.