Certain people in Ilmorog, our Ilmorog, told me that this story was too disgraceful, too shameful, that it should be concealed in the depths of everlasting darkness.
There were others who claimed that it was a matter for tears and sorrow, that it should be suppressed so that we should not shed tears a second time.
I asked them: How can we cover up pits in our courtyard with leaves or grass, saying to ourselves that because our eyes cannot now see the holes, our children can prance about the yard as they like?
Happy is the man who is able to discern the pitfalls in his path, for he can avoid them.
Happy is the traveler who is able to see the tree stumps in his way, for he can pull them up or walk around them so that they do not make him stumble.
The Devil, who would lead us into the blindness of the heart and into the deafness of the mind, should be crucified, and care should be taken that his acolytes do not lift him down from the Cross to pursue the task of building Hell for the people on Earth. . . .
I, even I, Prophet of Justice, felt this burden weigh heavily upon me at first, and I said: The forest of the heart is never cleared of all its trees. The secrets of the homestead are not for the ears of strangers. Ilmorog is our homestead.
And then Wariinga mother came to me when dawn was breaking, and in tears she beseeched me: Gicaandi Player, tell the story of the child I loved so dearly. Cast light upon all that happened, so that each may pass judgment only when he knows the whole truth. Gicaandi Player, reveal all that is hidden.
At first I hesitated, asking myself this question: Who am I—the mouth that ate itself? Is it not said that an antelope hates less the one who sees it than the one who shouts to alert others to its presence?
It was then that I heard the pleading cries of many voices: Gicaandi Player, Prophet of Justice, reveal what now lies concealed by darkness.
Then for seven days I fasted, neither eating nor drinking, for my heart was sorely troubled by those pleading voices. Still I asked myself this: Could it be that I am seeing phantoms without substance, or that I am hearing the echoes of silence? Who am I—the mouth that ate itself? Is it not said that the antelope conceives more hatred for him who betrays its presence with a shout?
And after seven days had passed, the Earth trembled, and lightning scored the sky with its brightness, and I was lifted up, and I was borne up to the rooftop of the house, and I was shown many things, and I heard a voice, like a great clap of thunder, admonishing me: Who has told you that prophecy is yours alone, to keep to yourself? Why are you furnishing yourself with empty excuses? If you do that, you will never be free of tears and pleading cries.
The moment the voice fell silent, I was seized, raised up and then cast down into the ashes of the fireplace. And I took the ashes, and I smeared my face and legs with them, and I cried out:
Silence the cries of the heart.
Wipe away the tears of the heart. . . .
This story is an account of what I, Prophet of Justice, saw with these eyes and heard with these ears when I was borne to the rooftop of the house. . . .
I have accepted.
I have accepted.
The voice of the people is the voice of God.
That is why I have accepted.
That is why I have accepted.
But why am I lingering on the bank of the river?
To bathe is to strip off all clothes.
To swim is to plunge into the river.
It is good so. . . .
Come, my friend,
Come and let us reason together.
Come and let us reason together now.
Come and let us reason together about
Jacinta Wariinga before you pass judgment on our children. . . .
The Devil appeared to Jacinta Wariinga one Sunday on a golf course in the town of Ilmorog in Iciciri District, and he told her—Wait! I am leaping ahead of the story. Wariinga's troubles did not begin at Ilmorog. Let us retrace our steps. . . .
Misfortune and trouble had trailed Wariinga long before she left Nairobi, where she worked as a secretary (typing and shorthand) at the offices of the Champion Construction Company in Tom Mboya Street near the National Archives building.
Misfortune is swifter than the swiftest spirit, and one trouble spawns another. On Friday morning Wariinga was dismissed from her job for rejecting the advances of Boss Kihara, her employer, who was the managing director of the firm. That evening Wariinga was abandoned by her sweetheart, John Kimwana, after he had accused her of being Boss Kihara's mistress.
On Saturday morning Wariinga was visited by her landlord, the owner of the house in Ofafa Jericho, Nairobi, in which she rented a room. (A house or a bird's nest? The floor was pitted with holes, the walls gaped with cracks, the ceiling leaked.) The landlord told Wariinga that he was increasing her rent. She refused to pay more. He ordered her to quit the premises that instant. She objected, declaring that the matter should be referred to the Rent Tribunal for settlement. Her landlord climbed into his Mercedes Benz and drove off. Before Wariinga could blink, he had returned with three thugs wearing dark sunglasses. The landlord stood at some distance from Wariinga, arms akimbo, taunting her: "There, I have brought you your Rent Tribunal." Wariinga's things were thrown out of the room, and the door was locked with a new padlock. One of the henchmen tossed a piece of paper at the girl, on which was written:
Make the slightest move to take this matter to the authorities, and we shall issue you with a single ticket to God's kingdom or Satan's—a one-way ticket to Heaven or Hell.
They all climbed into the Mercedes Benz and disappeared.
Wariinga gazed at the scrap of paper for a little while, then tucked it into her handbag. She sat down on a box and held her head in her hands, wondering: Why should it always be me? What god have I abused? She took a small mirror out of her handbag and examined her face distractedly, turning over her many problems in her mind. She found fault with herself; she cursed the day she was born; she asked herself: Poor Wariinga, where can you turn now?
It was then that she decided to go back to her parents. She stood up, collected her things together, stacked them in the next-door room belonging to a Mkamba woman and started to make preparations for the journey, a cauldron of worries seething in her mind.
Wariinga was convinced that her appearance was the root cause of all her problems. Whenever she looked at herself in the mirror she thought herself very ugly. What she hated most was her blackness, so she would disfigure her body with skin-lightening creams like Ambi and Snowfire, forgetting the saying: That which is born black will never be white. Now her body was covered with light and dark spots like the guineafowl. Her hair was splitting, and it had browned to the color of moleskin because it had been straightened with red-hot iron combs. Wariinga also hated her teeth. They were a little stained; they were not as white as she would have liked them to be. She often tried to hide them, and she seldom laughed openly. If by mistake she laughed and then remembered her teeth, she would suddenly fall silent or else she would cover her lips with her hand. Men would sometimes tease her, calling her Wariinga, the angry one, because of her lips, which were nearly always firmly pressed together.
But when Wariinga was happy and forgot to worry about the fading whiteness of her teeth and about the blackness of her skin and laughed with all her heart, her laughter completely disarmed people. Her voice was as smooth as perfume oil. Her eyes shone like stars in the night. Her body was a feast for the eyes. Often, when she walked along the road without self-consciousness, her breasts swaying jauntily like two ripe fruits in a breeze, Wariinga stopped men in their tracks.
But she could never appreciate the sheer splendor of her body. She yearned to change herself, in covetous pursuit of the beauty of other selves. Often she failed to dress in harmony with her body. She rushed to copy the ways in which other women dressed. Fashion, whether or not it flattered the shade of her skin or the shape of her figure, was what governed her choice of clothes. Sometimes Wariinga distorted the way in which she held herself by trying to imitate another girl's stride. She forgot the saying: Aping others cost the frog its buttocks.
Insistent self-doubt and crushing self-pity formed the burden that Wariinga was carrying that Saturday as she walked through the Nairobi streets toward a bus stop to catch a matatu to take her to her parents' home in Ilmorog.
Even after many days had passed, and her life had changed in ways that she had never dreamed of, Wariinga was not able to explain clearly how she had managed to walk right along River Road and to cross Ronald Ngala Street, to find herself standing at the edge of Racecourse Road, between St. Peter's Clavers Church and the sewing-machine shop, at the Kaka Hotel bus stop.
A city bus came speeding toward her. Wariinga shut her eyes. Her body shuddered. She swallowed a lump, and her heart began to beat as if to the rhythm of prayer: In times of trouble, do not, O Father, look the other way. Do not hide your face from me at this time of tears. . . . Now . . . receive me. . . .
Suddenly Wariinga heard a voice within her head: Why are you trying to kill yourself again? Who has instructed you that your work on Earth is finished? Who has told you that your time is up?
Wariinga quickly opened her eyes. She stared from side to side. She could not see the owner of the voice. And now she felt shivers running from her toes to her hairline as she recalled what she had been about to do.
Instantly she felt dizzy. Nairobi—people, buildings, trees, motor cars, streets—began to swirl before her eyes. Her ears were blocked. All noise ceased as the country retreated into a vast silence. Her legs weakened at the knees; strength ebbed from her joints; Wariinga sensed that she was losing consciousness and balance. But as she was about to fall, she felt someone grab her by her right arm to support her.
"You nearly fell," said the man who was holding her. "Come and sit in the shade of the building. Come out of the sun."
Wariinga was in no state to refuse or even to discover who was talking to her. She let herself be led to the steps of the Kaka Heavenly Massage and Hairdressing Salon. The door to the salon was shut. Wariinga sat down on the second step. She held her head in cupped hands, her fingers touching her earlobes. She leaned back against the wall. All at once the last bit of strength left her, and she slid into depths of darkness. Silence. Then she heard whistling noises, then sounds that were not whistles: they seemed more like voices singing far away, sound carried on the waves of the wind:
I mourn over my own body,
The one I was given by God, the All-Powerful.
I ask myself:
When they bury me,
With whom shall I share my grave . . . ?
Then the sound was not a song, and the voices were no longer identifiable. They had disintegrated into cacophony, a well-spring of the foam and froth of meaningless noise.
And now Wariinga was revisited by a nightmare that she used to have when, as a student at Nakuru Day Secondary, she attended the Church of the Holy Rosary.
She saw first the darkness, carved open at one side to reveal a Cross, which hung in the air. Then she saw a crowd of people dressed in rags walking in the light, propelling the Devil toward the Cross. The Devil was clad in a silk suit, and he carried a walking stick shaped like a folded umbrella. On his head there were seven horns, seven trumpets for sounding infernal hymns of praise and glory. The Devil had two mouths, one on his forehead and the other at the back of his head. His belly sagged, as if it were about to give birth to all the evils of the world. His skin was red, like that of a pig. Near the Cross he began to tremble and turned his eyes toward the darkness, as if his eyes were being seared by the light. He moaned, beseeching the people not to crucify him, swearing that he and all his followers would never again build Hell for the people on Earth.
But the people cried in unison: "Now we know the secrets of all the robes that disguise your cunning. You commit murder, then you don your robes of pity and you go to wipe the tears from the faces of orphans and widows. You steal food from people's stores at midnight, then at dawn you visit the victims wearing your robes of charity and you offer them a calabash filled with the grain that you have stolen. You encourage lasciviousness solely to gratify your own appetites, then you put on robes of righteousness and urge men to repent, to follow you so that you may show them paths of purity. You seize men's wealth, then you dress in robes of friendship and instruct them to join in the pursuit of the villain who has robbed them."
And there and then the people crucified the Devil on the Cross, and they went away singing songs of victory.
After three days, there came others dressed in suits and ties, who, keeping close to the wall of darkness, lifted the Devil down from the Cross. And they knelt before him, and they prayed to him in loud voices, beseeching him to give them a portion of his robes of cunning. And their bellies began to swell, and they stood up, and they walked toward Wariinga, laughing at her, stroking their large bellies, which had now inherited all the evils of this world. . . .
Wariinga started. She gazed about her. As if it had been on a journey far away, her mind slowly returned to her. She saw that she was still on Racecourse Road, still at the Kaka Hotel bus stop near St. Peter's Clavers Church, and that the sounds she had heard were nothing but the hooting and revving of cars. She asked herself: How did I get here? Which wind has carried me here? I remember boarding the 78 bus from Ofafa Jericho. It passed through Jerusalem, Bahati, and it joined Jogoo Road, past Macaaku Country Bus Station. . . and . . .oh, yes. . . I was on my way to the university to see John Kimwana, my love, for one last glance. . . . I got out at the bus stop outside the National Archives building, near the White Rose drycleaners. I walked down Tom Mboya Street and past the Koonja mosque. I crossed the Jeevanjee Gardens, past the Garden Hotel, and I stopped at the corner of Harry Thuku and University streets, facing the Central Police Station. Was that where I turned back? For when I looked at the university buildings, and especially at those of the Engineering Department, I remembered the dreams of my youth, when I was at school at Baharini Primary and Nakuru Day Secondary, and I recalled how later my dreams were trampled into the dust by the Rich Old Man from Ngorika. When those memories fused with thoughts of John Kimwana, who abandoned me last night, knee-deep in the mire of my troubles, I suddenly felt my brain and heart burn with pain, and my anger seemed to suffocate me. . . . Now, what did I do next? where did I go? Ah! My God, where is my handbag? Where did I leave it? Where will I find the fare to Ilmorog?
Once again, Wariinga stared about her. It was then that her eyes met those of the man who had taken her by the right hand and had made her sit on the steps of the massage parlor.
"Here. Here is your bag," the man said, stretching out his hand to give her a black bag decorated on one side with a piece of zebra hide.
Still seated, Wariinga took her handbag from him. She glanced at him inquiringly. He had a youthful build, though his face displayed maturity. He had a mass of jet-black hair and a beard like that of a small he-goat. His dark eyes shone with the light of a wisdom that sees many things hidden in the distance. . . . He had on khaki jeans and a brown leather jacket. Under his left arm he carried a black leather bag. He explained how it was that he had Wariinga's bag.
"You dropped it in River Road, near Tearoom, the Nyeri and Murang'a matatu stop, and I picked it up for you and followed you. You have been very lucky today—you could easily have been run over. You were crossing the streets and dodging the traffic like a blind man who has been smoking dope and is filled with reckless courage. I caught up with you as you were swaying on the curb. I took you by the hand and led you into the shade. Since then I've been standing by idly, waiting for you to return from whichever land you'd been transported to by the trials of the heart."
"How did you know that I was far away?" Wariinga asked.
"From your face, your eyes, your lips," the young man replied.
"I'm very relieved to get my handbag back," Wariinga said. "I didn't even realize that I'd dropped it. And I haven't got as much as half a cent in my pocket."
"Open it and check that all your things are there, especially the money," the young man told her.
"There wasn't much money in it," she said ruefully.
"Even so, you'd better check. Don't you know that it is the thief who steals twenty- five cents who is usually hanged?"
Wariinga opened the handbag, looked inside without much interest and then said: "Everything's there." A question was troubling her. Was this the man whose voice had intervened when she was about to throw herself into the road? How had he fathomed her thoughts? How had he known that this was not the first time she had attempted to kill herself? She asked: "Are you the person who spoke to me just before I fainted?"
He shook his head. "I arrived as you were about to fall. Are you ill?"
"No," Wariinga answered quickly. "Just weary, body and soul, of Nairobi."
"You are right to be weary," the young man said. "Nairobi is large, soulless and corrupt." He moved nearer to Wariinga, leaned against the wall and went on: "But it is not Nairobi alone that is afflicted in this way. The same is true of all the cities in every country that has recently slipped the noose of colonialism. These countries are finding it difficult to stave off poverty for the simple reason that they have taken it upon themselves to learn how to run their economies from American experts. So they have been taught the principle and system of self-interest and have been told to forget the ancient songs that glorify the notion of collective good. They have been taught new songs, new hymns that celebrate the acquisition of money. That's why today Nairobi teaches:
Crookedness to the upright,
Meanness to the kind,
Hatred to the loving,
Evil to the good.
"Today's dance-song proclaims:
That which pecks never pecks for another.
That which pinches never pinches for another.
That which journeys never journeys for another.
Where is the seeker who searches for another?
"Turn these matters over in your mind, and ask yourself: That kind of song—where is it leading us? What kind of heart is it nurturing in us? The kind that prompts us to double up with laughter when we watch our children fighting it out with cats and dogs for leftovers in rubbish bins?
The wise can also be taught wisdom,
So let me tell you:
Gikuyu said that talking is the way to loving.
Today is tomorrow's treasury.
Tomorrow is the harvest of what we plant today.
So let us ask ourselves:
Moaning and groaning—who has ever gained from it?
Change seeds, for the gourd contains seeds of more than one kind!
Change steps, for the song has more than one rhythm!
Today's Muomboko dance is two steps and a turn!"
The young man suddenly fell silent, but his voice and his words rang in Wariinga's ears.
She did not understand all the things that were hinted at in the arcane language of the young man. But here and there she could sense that his words approached thoughts that she herself had had at one time. She sighed and said: "Your words have hidden meanings. But what you say is true. These troubles have now passed beyond the limit of endurance. Who would not welcome change in order to escape from them?"
As she spoke, Wariinga felt her tongue loosen. She began to talk as if she were lifting a heavy burden from her heart. She spoke in a level voice, neither strident nor muted, neither breathless nor halting. It was a voice, however, laden with pain, sorrow and tears.
"Take a girl like me," Wariinga said, gazing down at one spot as if she were talking to herself. "Or take any other girl in Nairobi. Let's call her Mahua Kareendi. Let's assume that she was born in a village or in the heart of the countryside. Her education is limited. Or let's say, perhaps, that she has passed CPE and has gone to a high school. Let's even assume that it is a good school and not like those Haraambe schools where the poor pay good money even when the classrooms boast no teachers.
"Before she reaches Form Two, Kareendi has had it. She is pregnant."
"Who is responsible?"
"A student, say. The student doesn't have a cent to his name. Their friendship has been a matter of lending each other novels by James Hadley Chase, Charles Mangua or David Maillu. It has been a question of singing songs from the records of Jim Reeves or of D. K. or of Lawrence Nduru. Kareendi, where can you turn now?
"On the other hand, we could imagine that the man responsible for the pregnancy is a loafer from the village. The loafer is jobless. He hasn't even a place to lay his head.
Their love affair has been sustained by guitar playing and evening dances in the village. It has been conducted in borrowed huts or in the open fields after dark. Little Kareendi, where will you turn? The baby will need food and clothes.
"Perhaps the loafer has a job in the city, but his salary is five shillings a month. Their love has been nourished by Bruce Lee and James Bond films—by five minutes in a cheap hotel on their way home by matatu. Who will wipe away Kareendi's tears now?
"Or let's say that a rich man is the father of the child. Isn't that kind of affair the fashion these days? The rich man has a wife. The affair has been a question of a rendezvous in a Mercedes Benz on a Sunday. It has been fueled by small amounts of cash that Kareendi has received as pocket money before returning to school. It has been lubricated by hard liquor drunk in hotels far away from the village.
"Student, loafer, rich man—their response is the same when Kareendi tells them about her condition: 'What! Kareendi, who are you claiming is responsible for the pregnancy? Me? How have you worked that out? Go on and pester someone else with your delusions, Kareendi of the easy thighs, ten-cent Kareendi. You can cry until your tears have filled oil drums—it will make no difference. . . . Kareendi, you can't collect pregnancies wherever you may and then lay them at my door just because one day I happened to tease you!'
"Say Kareendi needs no borrowed tongue. She stands there, arms akimbo, and lashes out at yesterday's sweetheart. 'You think you are sugar itself? I'd rather drink tea without sugar. You imagine that you're a bus? I'd rather walk. You think you are a house? I'd prefer to sleep in the open air. Or the bed itself, perhaps? I choose the floor. I've lost my faith in silken-tongued gigolos.' But Kareendi is only trying to put a brave face on things. Inside, her heart is dancing with rage.
"Let's say Kareendi refuses to take drugs. It is appalling that babies should emerge from their mothers' wombs as corpses. Kareendi has the baby. And she doesn't throw it into a latrine pit, nor does she abandon it at the roadside or in a bus. Nor does she leave it in the forest or on a rubbish tip. Kareendi places on the shoulders of her mother or her grandmother the burden of bringing up this baby, who has come into this world in spite of the fact that her parents have neither welcomed nor prepared for her arrival. But Kareendi's mother and grandmother warn the girl not to make a habit of this: 'Be on your guard from now on, Kareendi. Do not forget that men have stings, vicious and corrosive, the poison of which never leaves the flesh of their victims.'
"And Kareendi now knows only too well that no one repents on account of another's sins. There is no one who regrets the going as much as the returning. To be smiled at is not to be loved. So Kareendi bites her lips decisively and goes back to school. She makes steady progress and reaches Form Four. She sits the Cambridge or School Certificate and she gets her EACE, a certificate to indicate that she has passed in English, Swahili and Religion.
"So far so good.
"But problems don't have wings to bear them away. Once again Kareendi's parents have to dig into their pockets. They pull out the cents that they have been saving, the stick put by in reserve in case they should meet a rat unexpectedly—and now just such a rat has appeared. They speedily enroll Kareendi at the Nairobi Secretarial College so that she can learn typing and shorthand. At the end of nine months Kareendi can pound a typewriter, thirty-five words a minute, and she is now an expert at shorthand—she has reached the speed of eighty words a minute. The language of the eye is not the language of the ear. Typing and shorthand: Pitman's certificates for the two skills are in Kareendi's pocket.
"Kareendi now tramps all over Nairobi looking for a job. Armed with her Pitman's skills, she enters one office after another. In one she finds Mr. Boss, who leans back in his chair for greater comfort. He eyes Kareendi from top to toe. 'What do you want? A job? I see.I'm very busy right now. Let's meet at five.' Kareendi waits impatiently for the hour to come. She rushes back to the office, panting. Now Mr. Boss smiles at her, and he offers her a chair, and he asks her what her names are, the one she was given at birth and her acquired English one, and he inquires into the things that are troubling her, and he listens with attentive patience. Then Mr. Boss taps the desk top with his finger or with a pen, saying, Ah, Kareendi, jobs are very hard to come by these days. But a girl like you . . . it shouldn't be too difficult to find something for you to do. But, Kareendi, a matter like this can't be finalized in the office. Let's go across to the Modern Love Bar and Lodging to discuss the question more fully.' But Kareendi recalls the venomous stings of her early years: he who has seen once knows thereafter, and he who has drunk from a calabash can gauge its size. So Kareendi declines all invitations to meetings at hotels designed for love, old-fashioned or modern. The next day she is still combing the city for a job.
(This excerpt from Devil on the Cross, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe, ends on page 15 of the paperback.)