24 October 2008

Kennedy by Emmanuel Sigauke

The entrance to Kubatana was dotted with scantily-dressed women and peanut vendors, a curious combination about which I shook my head as we entered the flood-lit bar.

'Tonight you'll see a side of me that will blow your mind away,' said Mukoma, my big brother.

'What he's saying is that he has something important to tell you,' explained Jakove, his friend.

'And to show you,' added Mukoma.

The beer hall was crowded. Shouting men waved at us. Mukoma and Jakove waved back at acquaintances scattered in the swaying crowd, where loud music competed with the loudest of voices. We threaded our way through this crowd like celebrities. After walking and stopping, walking and stopping, if we could call the slow bumping against and squeezing through dancing bodies walking, we reached a long table where, Mako, the man brother called Sekuru because he was from our village and had the same last name as our mother, sat with two women and another man. The youngest of the women would be perfect for me tonight, I thought, if she was the reason Mukoma and Jakove had brought me here. She noticed that I was looking at her and said, 'Come sit here, honey!'

'Eh, eh! Leave him alone. He is beyond your league,' said Mukoma.

'Yes, way beyond,' added Jakove, who turned to me and said, 'Don't waste your time with these. Your future is waiting for you in America.'

But she is attractive, I thought. Perhaps even beyond my league. As I was about to take the offer to sit next to her, Mukoma showed me an alternative spot, and he sat next to her and whispered something into her ear. She beamed and refocused on her martini. I sat next to Mako, who said something.

'What?' I said, leaning forward.

'Your brother is going to honor you tonight?' He shouted, sending jets of spit to my face.

'So I hear,' I said, accepting his extended hand for a greeting.

'That's good. Few men own up to-.' He trailed off because Mukoma cast him a scalding glance. The whole table focused on Mukoma for a while, watching him shake his head in disapproval.

'Gentlemen, talk about something else,' Mukoma said. 'Ask him about his trip, or something.' Then he turned to the young woman and said, 'We can, you know, hook up later. After this thing I'm doing with my brother. Just make sure you stay fresh'.

She said something inaudible, but it satisfied Mukoma, who turned to Mako and said, 'So what are we drinking?'

'Well, you brought us the big fish here. What does he have for us?'

'Ask him. He has a mouth of his own.'

I took out my wallet and found two twenty dollar bills lying close to five one-hundred dollar US bills. I got rid of the Zimbabwean currency by giving it to Mako who clapped in gratitude, 'Well done, son of my sister. They sure dont call you Big Fish for nothing.'

'Be careful now,' Mukoma said. 'You can't empty your wallet on these drunkards. Anyway, Sekuru, get us something with that money.'

A round of Chibuku buckets was ordered. I was asked to join in the drinking, even after I indicated that I didn't want to drink. The table argued that with an important journey ahead of me, I had to loosen up and drink the peoples beer. I took up the challenge and pulled hard at the pitcher presented to me. The table clapped in admiration. No one here, not even Mukoma, had ever seen me drinking. So they were witnessing what they thought was my first encounter with the beer pitcher. I drank some more, then the questions started coming.

'So, about this journey of yours, what can you tell us?' asked a man I had seen only once, who was Jakoves work mate.

'Well, just a journey, traveling on vacation,' I said, waiting for the brew to reach me again.

'Traveling all the way there for a vacation? Who does that?'

'Just a vacation trip, yeah' I said, receiving the pitcher from Mako, and bringing it to my mouth in such a way that it blocked my view of the group. With my eyes on the frothy, dense liquid, I pulled and pulled until I was almost out of breath.

Mukoma said, 'I have told him to make money soon as he gets there. Make money, doing whatever. By the time he returns, he should be okay'.

'He will do well; he has an education.'

'All young men should be like him. Men, real men, with dreams.'

'But you are just visiting; that's all?'

'He can't just visit. He will upset the ancestors if he just visits and comes back empty-handed like, what's his name?'

'Oh, Mairo's son?' said Jakove. 'You know that one is retarded; even New Zealand could not stand him. He wouldn't even last a day in South Africa or paBotswana apa. But our man here, he's smart.'

'He can always go to school when he gets there. I hear most of our young men make money bathing old women there; they call them machembere'. This was followed by general laughter, which I joined. There was no way I was going to bathe old women for a living. I sat there looking at the progress of the beer mug from mouth to mouth.

'Why would he want to go to school again? He already has a degree, now it's time to be rich,' Mukoma said, wiping the beer froth off his upper lip. He had passed the mug to Jakove, who practically buried his head in it.

'Young man, you better not waste that trip. If you do, I personally will straighten your head, I swear upon my dead grandmother!' said Mako, the man I knew little about.

'Don't they say once you get there-?'

Mukoma cut in: 'Okay now, enough about his trip. What's important today is what he is going to know.'

'Yes, talking of knowing, why don't the three of us continue to our business so we can return on time, while the beers still fresh?' Jakove said, standing up.

Mukoma whispered to the young woman, who pursed her lips and brought them to meet his for a kiss. He fished out his wallet and pulled out a crisp bill, which he handed to her. She smiled, folded the money and inserted it in her bra. Lucky money, I said, my eyes struggling to disengage. The woman directed a twinkling eye to me and stuck out the tip of her tongue. I looked away and stood up to join Mukoma and Jakove.

Outside was quieter as all the market women and vendors were leaving. It was already after ten. I really needed to be in bed by eleven-thirty to get enough rest before the long trip ahead of me.

This thing better be worth my time, I thought as we walked away from the beer hall. Mukoma led the way toward the older side of Glen View, a place popularly known as the Weddings Section because when it was established in 1979, it had been intended for newly-wed couples. But when the country gained independence in 1980, the pursuit of equal opportunities for everyone brought a wave of house-seekers of all stripes. Yet the name had stuck; even those who were not married could say, happily, they had a house in the Weddings Section.

We walked past the terminus for city-bound buses, which was virtually empty at this hour, past the emergency taxis rank, where several men were roasting corn. We crossed the notorious 40th Crescent, which, because of poor lighting, was known for muggings. We walked down a moderately-lit street, going east. Some of the houses still had lights on, and in the few whose curtains were drawn, I could see people watching television or sitting in gesticulating groups. Looking through these windows, I was fascinated by the life in progress. On lucky days one could see fighting people, maybe a couple or two, doing this or that. I always wondered why they did not think to close those curtains. But some houses did not have curtains, which was even more interesting. Maybe we were walking to a house without curtains, where we would sit and be seen from outside by those walking by, doing whatever Mukoma and Jakove had in store for me.

What did they want to show me? Had they found a woman for me, so I would be one of those people who married immediately before departing to ensure that they would not marry abroad? These two knew I had no girlfriend and that I seemed not to show signs that I was interested in one. So they were trying to fix me up with a woman. That had to be the reason, a woman for the departing man. Or maybe we were on our way to a n'anga, someone to give me good luck charms and spiritual guidance before the journey. But if we were going to a n'anga, they could have told me so. It had to be a woman.

We exited a street and entered a dark alleyway.

'And we are not lost?' I asked, immediately wishing I hadn't asked, because I had sounded, well, funny, a bit drunk, or just out of place.

The two laughed and continued plowing along. After a while Mukoma said, 'Get ready.'

'Do you think you are ready for this, sir?' asked Jakove, prodding me in the ribs with his fist.

'I just don't know what it is. So, I don't know,' I said.

'Just toughen up,' he said.

'I've to be tough?'

Mukoma slowed down, almost coming to a standstill. He turned and said, 'I trained you to be tough and rough. Why is that even an issue?'

Before I was able to respond, Jakove chimed in, 'Okay now, let's hurry up. Do you know what time it is?'

So we walked on in silence. The alley became wider and sufficiently lit and I noticed we were walking in the back of houses.

'Two more houses,' said Mukoma. 'I know you'll handle it. Don't you think he will, Jakove?'

'Would he be called a man if he couldn't?' Jakove said.

I had to say something, to show I was still relaxed and flexible. The beer was taking effect too, loosening up those mouth muscles that often favored to remain still in the presence of these two men. 'This is getting interesting. What are you two up to?' I asked.

They both just laughed and continued walking. Calling them 'you two' was usually not part of my vocabulary. But they had never played games with me before either; I was used to them thinking that doing certain things with me was inappropriate, considering that Mukoma was just like my father, being eighteen years my senior. He had told me many times never to follow his lead in matters of dealing with women. His first serious conversation with me about the issue was when he took a second wife, the one for the city. He had told me to focus on books and to worry about bringing prosperity into our family.

'That's your primary role in this family, and, as you can see, mine is to make sure the family name grows,' he had said. But I had finished at the university, a great achievement for our family. The fact that I was leaving the country for the United States was to him the first step to realize his dream of prosperity. So, of course, he would easily want to take me to a woman as a way to celebrate.

We negotiated our way through a tomato garden, which was damp. 'Careful not to fall' whispered Jakove, who now led the way. We were behind a big house whose lights were off. We walked some more in the darkness, and then jumped over a short barbed-wire fence as we entered another compound.

'We are here,' announced Mukoma, signaling us to stop.

We stood in front of a shack, which had just suddenly appeared. Inside, light blinked. 'Watch for your heads,' said Mukoma, as he opened the door.

We crept into the shack where a woman sat, suckling a baby. There was nowhere to sit.

'Find somewhere you can fit yourselves,' the woman said, voice relaxed, eyes looking at the baby.
'Sit, gentlemen.' Mukoma said, as he crouched on a spot near the woman, whose legs stretched in front of her.
I found a clear spot between some dishes and sat. Jakove squatted near me. The woman torched me with her eyes, eyes so big and clear they seemed capable of swallowing you. I hope these men are not trying to fix me up with this woman, I thought, as I scanned the room, which had no bed. My eyes refocused on the baby and found their way to the full length of the woman's outstretched, smooth legs, all the way to the bare feet whose tiny toes seemed to wave at me.
'This is the surprise, young man,' Mukoma said, pointing at the baby.
'Oh,' I said. 'The surprise?'
'Yes; he wanted to surprise you,' Jakove said.
'He did?' I asked. But I realized I couldn't ask that question, so in the interest of toughness, I gave a brief laugh, said, 'Of course, he did.'

I rose to a squat and edged closer to where Mukoma sat. A smile of approval worked its way across his face. 'This is your responsibility,' he said, still pointing at the baby, and the woman nodded and said, 'What he is saying is-.'
'No, Melu; let me handle this. I'm his brother.'
'Fine then!' she said, eyes returning to my 'responsibility'.
'And what's that attitude, woman?'
'Attitude? You're the one with an attitude.'
'Stop it, you two!' Jakove said.
Mukoma sighed. 'Ok. Look, young man. I already told you about my problems with your sister-in-law, the one here in the city. As you know, when a woman starts acting up, a man does what-.'
'No one wants to hear about that whore now!' the woman said.

'Why don't we just do what we came here for?' said Jakove, after which I shocked myself by saying, 'Let's hear about this here. My finger pointed at the baby, whose little arms were flailing.

Mukoma licked his lips and crawled closer to the mother and her baby. 'What we have here,' he extended his arms to receive the baby who had been plucked off a stiff breast. 'There we go,' he said, patting the baby. 'Yesh, yesh. How are you, shir?' he asked the baby, and looking at me, continued, 'What we have here is the newest member of our family. He has no name yet, because we were waiting for you to name him, as long as you give the mother, your newest sister-in-law, something.'

I pulled out my wallet. No Zimbabwean money left in it, but I discovered that in addition to the five Franklin's, I also had a ten-dollar bill. I wouldn't have wanted to part with it, but the woman, blouse still unbuttoned, was waiting. 'This is all I have,' I said, handing her the bill. She held it against the light and, eyes widening, looked at me, at Mukoma, at Jakove, and then at the bill again, squinting. She buttoned her blouse and smiled, checking the money one more time.

'This is fine,' she said. 'Any amount is fine. This is actually very good.' Then she got to her knees and started clapping, 'Your brother was right about you. Thank you so much, our provider.'

When the mother sat down again, Mukoma resumed, 'Here is your brother's son. A man has got to do what a man has got to do, but I am getting old. I am showing him to you so you can always remember.' He paused to watch my reaction, and satisfied by what he saw, continued, 'I want you to remember, wherever you go, if you decide to stay in the US or continue to Canada, that you left a son here. Here is your son.' He held out the baby to me.

I received the baby with steady arms. He was so light it didn't feel like there was a person in the wrapped thin blanket. As I was about to unwrap the cloth to verify the gender at least, my hand started shaking.

Jakove came to my rescue, 'I wouldn't worry about trying to make sense of anything yet. Take it all in slowly. For now, just name your son and explanations will come later.'

'Greet your son like a man!' said brother. 'He is your blood.'

'Hey, little one! You, shir! I-I—.'

The woman laughed. 'This is all too new for you, huh? You forget you have some brother here?' She patted Mukomas shoulders, who said, 'Let him name his son.'

I balanced the baby in the crook of my right arm. I looked at his face and my skin crawled. My son? Of course, not my son, but Mukoma, once he turned forty-two, had begun to tell me that the future of his children was in my hands since he had given me a college education. Here in the city, he had a son and a daughter, aged seven and nine. In the rural areas, his senior, and real wife, had two daughters, aged five and nine. And now this? A third wife? I mean, a word of warning, something in advance, would have prepared me better for this moment.

'Name your son, young man!' said Jakove, and Mukoma nodded his agreement.

'Kennedy.' I don't know where this came from, but it did it. This was my first time naming a baby and saying that name and then looking at the baby as if he could recognize the name as his felt good.

The men clapped rhythmically while the woman broke into ululation. I raised the baby to an upright position and right there, in the flash of a moment, I saw its vulnerability. I looked at him like I wanted to see a revelation. His stare was intense, as if his little dark eyes had seen me somewhere. The silence was broken by Mukoma, 'Kennedy it is. An American name, indeed.'

'America!' shouted the mother.

I returned the baby to the mother, and for a moment my eyes locked into hers, and I realized we had not been formally introduced. Someone had to say something.

'Nice meeting you again,' I said.

'Thank you very much father of my child. Thank you for coming to see us.' She undid her blouse again and the baby clasped on. I averted my eyes and moved back.

'So, I think that's it then!' Mukoma spoke, stretching and yawning. 'I will give him more information.'

The woman clapped her hands and thanked me again.

We crawled out of the shack into the darkness of the alleyway. We walked in silence until we got to the main street.

Jakove was the first to speak: 'That was easy. Mother and baby liked you.'

Mukoma said, 'I didn't know you would give that woman foreign currency. You couldn't find regular money? Even I could use that kind of money.'

'Wait a minute now,' Jakove said, raisin his voice. 'She's already ‘that woman’? Guys, lets be serious.'

'The point is, Jakove, well, fine!' He paused, perhaps waiting for me to say something. I had nothing to say. So he continued, sounding relaxed. 'But that was easy. You handled it well.'

'Did you take a good look at that baby? He look just like you,' Jakove said.

I nodded in response, and walked faster.

Mukoma, increasing his speed, caught up with me. 'I know you have questions. They'll all be answered before you depart. For now let's hurry back to the bar and celebrate.'

I walked faster, allowing silence to reign. As we reached the beer hall, Mukoma said, 'This doesn't get to your sisters-in-law, not to the one here, not to the one in the village. At least not yet,' Mukoma said, 'But you can ask me any questions.'

I had no questions. All I needed was to enter the bar and drink myself into a coma.

Kennedy was written by Emmanuel Siguake.

Copyright © Emmanuel Sigauke 2008.

Emmanuel Sigauke grew up in Zimbabwe, where he studied English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe.

He helped found the Zimbabwe Budding Writers Association, for which he served as National Secretary from 1992 to 1995.

He moved to California in 1996 and studied English at Sacramento State University. He teaches composition and writing at Cosumnes River College and is one of the editors of Cosumnes River Journal.

His poetry has appeared in various journals in Zimbabwe, Finland, United States and Ireland, and he is the editor of Munyori Poetry Journal. He is also a member of the Sacramento Poetry Board and a book reviewer for Poetry Now, a publication of the Sacramento Poetry Center.


Ivor W. Hartmann said...

I'd like to say a personal welcome to you from StoryTime, thanks for joining and kicking things off with such a great story. For me, Name Your Baby, besides causing a wonderful attack of acute Zimbabwean nostalgia, was all about rites of passage, from a home country to a foreign country, from boyhood into manhood, from idealism to realism. But a rite of passage that not only held firm to deep cultural roots, but strengthened and enriched them, providing a source of comfort and confidence for the future stranger in a strange land. All in all it was a thoroughly good read and I way, look forward to reading more of your excellent stories.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Thanks, Ivor, for the fantastic critique of the short story. The stuff you said about rite of passage, what a fitting analysis. It all makes sense now...

Anonymous said...

This story should surely be called 'Kennedy". Its current title is lousy because it sells away the story two third way. Kennedy is mentioned towards the end. This would pull the reader on a longer wild goose chase/search! The best thing about the story is the dialogue. It is true to life. I see that the bully elder brother vs a quiet but more intelligent younger brother is a motif for you!Indeed you Zimbos write short stories effortlessly. Also vakadzi vako havasi mahure semahure. Vane humanity yavo.--Memory Chirere

Emmanuel Sigauke said...


I like your suggestion regarding the title changing to Kennedy; it is more interesting, especially to a readership that does not find the naming ceremony out of the ordinary.

Regarding the role the two women play as "mahure", I see that the narrator appears not to judge them, and I just realized that it's in my nature not to judge a person by profession or whatever they do for a living. So yes, the narrator seems to treat everyone equally, something I am just noticing now, after you pointed it out.

Zimbabwean writers and short stories: Well, your colleague, Ruby Magosvongwe, said it to long ago, that Zimbabwe is a country of short stories, so we have to comply...

Thanks for stopping by, Chirere.

Anonymous said...

Good Story Emmanuel, overall I really enjoyed reading it, and agree with the title change.

Though I'd point out that writing as an equalitarian narrator can be read as either being mildy nonjudgemental or just indifferent. If the narrator sits on the fence we sit with him, if he jumps down and shows both sides we take that jump too. I guess I'm sayin there's a danger in using a passive subjective observer as a narrator, because it might not tie people in emotionally, as much as you might have wanted.

People have a multitude of opinions and emotional reactions every second, so to must deep character's relayed by their narrators if that's the style you are using.

Just my penny, for what it's worth.


Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Thanks, Metabolix.

This narrator seems not to give out much, except how he feels about the situation. That he seems to follow along passively depends on his relationship with the older man he is walking with, men he does not understand, and who do not understand him that much. But we get to know how he feels to some extent, then the rest is up to the reader ti fill in the gaps.

Masimba Musodza said...

This story echoes the First Golden Age of Zimbabwean literature in English- the period after Independence before Mugabe's regime took away the vitality of our culture. I am moved to memories of Chinodya, Nyamufukudza, Hove etc. I could not help feeling a sense of empathy for Mukoma-I too have a brother young enough to be my son. Great read.

Patty said...

Wonderul, wonderful! I love your set up, too. I am going to have to work on mine.


Masimba Musodza said...

This story echoes the First Golden Age of Zimbabwean literature in English- the period after Independence before Mugabe's regime took away the vitality of our culture. I am moved to memories of Chinodya, Nyamufukudza, Hove etc. I could not help feeling a sense of empathy for Mukoma-I too have a brother young enough to be my son. Great read.

Patty said...

Wonderul, wonderful! I love your set up, too. I am going to have to work on mine.


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