The incident happened just two months after the German was released from prison. As additional retribution, the officers had forbidden him from shaving off the beard he grew inside prison. His name was Frederick. He worked for a charity that built affordable homes for the poor. For the Germans who lived here, there were only two goals in life: writing down an account of their everyday expenses, and drinking beer. The reason for his imprisonment was this second goal.
Frederick worked in Somaliland, a tiny nation trapped amid Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Indian Ocean, which had seceded from Somalia but was not recognized by any other country in the world. Frederick’s wife, Martha, was an American, from Hawaii. Since drinking was banned in Somaliland, Frederick used to secretly brew beer from corn and drink it at nighttime. Life went on peacefully for a year. Then somehow the police discovered his brewing operation and arrested him. Frederick spent two months in prison and returned home with the beard.
The couple’s maid, who’d gone to the market early one morning, came back screaming. She wept as she told Martha what she’d seen. Martha ran to the market with her. A larger crowd than usual had gathered there. About two hundred people stood around. Martha fought her way through the crowd to have a look. She felt as if someone had plucked out her heart. A newborn baby, wrapped in a sack, had been thrown into the street, most likely by an unwed mother. Even though the child’s eyes were closed, everyone could hear it moaning. Ants and flies swarmed the baby. It reached three little fingers out of the sack, a heartrending sight for the spectators. No one dared to approach the child, as ordered by the village chief.
Since Martha did not have a telephone, she called her husband on the radio. The village chief had respect for her husband because of his long beard. Frederick’s superiors contacted Geneva, and through them put pressure on those in power. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when Martha rescued the baby. The chief and the people looked at her with disgust. They threatened her, following her to the house. She did not care, nor did she show any fear. Only after reaching home did she discover that the baby was male, and she named him Ekolu. In Hawaiian, it meant ‘three.’
“Today’s date is three; the time is three, and the baby called me by pointing his three fingers,” she explained to her husband.
The child’s lungs gradually learned to breathe. One day Ekolu woke up from his sleep and blinked. Martha thought his eyes seemed to thank her. From the beginning, Martha had the impression that Ekolu was different. He never laughed, never made the hunger cry. He had to be force-fed milk. And it seemed as though he were always in deep thought. Sometimes during the night Martha would wake up and look at the child. She would find him lying awake, his eyes fixed somewhere in the distance.
When he started crawling, the child began to explore the house. Frederick had a lot of books. Ekolu would pull out a book and turn each page carefully, without tearing or crumpling the pages. He was not attracted to toys. But he could spend an entire day with just one book.
Ekolu did not speak a word until he was one and a half. The couple discussed whether they should take him to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, for a medical checkup. But they soon discovered it was not necessary. One evening, when the three were eating at their table, Ekolu, who sat in a tall chair, took his food with a spoon and put it in his mouth. But as usual, his eyes were dwelling somewhere in the distance. Frederick tucked his beard, which had grown down to his chest, into his shirt, cut off a piece of steak, and put it into his mouth. Then he drummed on the table to entertain his son.
“Stop! I’m trying to think!” said Ekolu, in perfect German. Frederick’s hand stopped in midair over the table. Martha could not swallow her food.
“What did you say, son?” Frederick asked in shock. Ekolu repeated his words.
Frederick and Martha had a long discussion about Ekolu that day. They could not decide what to do next. In the days that followed it was revealed that Ekolu spoke both German and English fluently. He spoke not just single words, like other children his age did, but grammatically correct, complete sentences. For the first time, joy played on Ekolu’s face as he learned to pronounce the alphabet. Giving up his earlier habit of just wading through the pages of books, he now started reading them word by word.
Though he could speak, Ekolu still maintained long silences. It was hard to predict what he would do next. He surprised his parents every day with his exploits. One day, when they were standing under an acacia tree, he said to Martha, “Come, let’s go see the rain.”
Martha was shocked. “Rain? Do you know what rain is?” she asked.
Ekolu said, “Yes, I do. The rain has no form, no color, no limits, no direction. You can touch it but not catch it. It’s very soft and beautiful. It has the fragrance of the sky.”
“Really?” asked Martha, unable to produce a fit response.
On another day when he called out to her, Martha waited with a receptive face, ready to absorb the shock. “The other day when you fed me milk, my mouth got burned because the milk was too hot. I cried uncontrollably,” he said.
“Yes. I made a mistake. But you were only three months old then. How did you know?”
“I can still remember. But I was unable to speak then. That was why I shook my head when you came to feed me. I was afraid that you might feed me hot milk.”
“I’m sorry, Ekolu,” said Martha, her eyes fixed somewhere in the distance.
The couple took him to a psychiatrist. After completing his examination, the doctor said, “The reason he is constantly in deep thought is that he is an extraordinary child prodigy. Don’t do anything that disrupts his thinking. You don’t have to teach him anything. He will learn everything by himself. All you have to do is provide him with the amenities. You might have heard of the great musician Mozart. An incident happened when he was a little boy. There was a musical genius who was popular at that time named Gregori. The young Mozart went to one of his concerts in which the musician performed his sonata in front of the pope. At home, on his bed, the music kept ringing in Mozart’s ears, not letting him sleep. Overnight he was able to retrieve the notes of the music from his memory, and by morning he had re-created the whole of that wonderful melody. Your son too is such a genius! He has a magnificent future. Just leave him alone.”
Ekolu turned each day into an opportunity to learn. One day the family was sitting in their garden simply watching nature. Ekolu was quiet. He never took part in his parents’ conversation. As usual, he was turning the pages of a book. Since he had already completed reading all the books at home, Frederick had brought in books from abroad. Ekolu never forgot what he read.
The call for Maghrib prayer came, just after sunset. The day hadn’t ended. The night hadn’t begun. When you shoot an arrow, it should still be visible. That is the time for Maghrib prayer. Right then, a giant bird flew over them, making a loud growling bark. Ekolu looked up for a moment and said, “That’s a kori bustard. She is going to dig a shallow pit and lay her eggs in it. This is the heaviest flying bird in the world.” He had never seen that kind of bird. All his knowledge came from the books he read.
It was only after the next incident that the couple decided to ask for a transfer to Nairobi, where Ekolu had the best chance of thriving. When he was writing his accounts related to their income tax, Frederick asked, “Martha, how much is twenty-three percent of our combined income?” While Martha was looking for a calculator, Ekolu, coming out of his ceaseless contemplation, instantly provided the correct answer. No one had ever taught him numbers. When asked how he was able to do this, he replied that he just knew somehow.
They did not have to ask for a transfer. Frederick’s higher official wrote to him: “Several people have been killed in the bomb blast at the US Embassy in Nairobi. Some of the Americans there have returned home. We need people for a charitable organization there. Would you like to take up a position?” Frederick wrote to him immediately stating his willingness to join. The first thing he did when they got to Nairobi was to shave off his beard. Even Ekolu could not recognize him. A few days after celebrating Ekolu’s third birthday, they took him to a famous psychiatrist. He echoed the opinion of the Somaliland doctor.
“Just do nothing. Let the boy grow in his own way. He has a bright future,” he said, giving them confidence.
They descended from the fourth floor of the hospital. They were crossing the reception hall when they heard a loud noise. The three of them froze at what they saw next. A woman was rolling on the floor. They were able to guess that she was a Somali woman by the way she had wrapped her body in rags. No one understood why she was screaming, and they did not understand her words. The hospital guard kept scolding her for yelling. Her wails filled the hospital.
Ekolu wrested himself away from his mother’s hands and ran to the woman. He asked her something, and the woman replied. Their conversation continued, while the guard stood looking at them in astonishment. In English, Ekolu told the receptionist in detail what the woman had said to him.
“The woman’s husband is in pain and has collapsed in the street. He’ll die if he doesn’t get help immediately. He requires urgent care.”
The hospital was bustling the next moment. The man was brought inside and given emergency treatment. The doctor said, “I couldn’t have saved him if it had been a minute later.” The next day the papers wrote about the incident. Journalists and TV channels interviewed Ekolu. Without any hesitation, Ekolu was giving interviews in German, English, and Swahili. Within a day he was famous.
Martha had been adamant that Ekolu did not need to go to school and that he could study at home. Though he had read many books, he could not write, not even his own name. Martha thought she could teach him to write at home. But the psychiatrist had a different opinion.
“He has to grow in society. Yes, he has nothing new to learn from school. They’ll only teach him what he already knows. But interacting with other students will teach him about the ways of the world,” he said.
Martha walked with Ekolu toward the kindergarten. She had already filled out the application. The admissions officer had read about Ekolu in the newspapers and greeted them warmly.
“Doesn’t Ekolu mean ‘three’? Now you’re three years old. Will you change your name to Eha when you turn four?” Though he asked jokingly, Martha was annoyed at his comment.
“What kind of school is this? Is this how a teacher talks to a child?” Ekolu looked at the ground as he spoke.
“I saw your name written on the outside door as Badru. It’s not Swahili but an Arabic word. It means ‘full moon.’ Your face neither looks like the moon nor does it shine. It’s just dark,” he said. Someone laughed. Ekolu shook off his hands and ran outside, with Martha following.
On the way back, Ekolu said, “Mom, why did you pick me up from the rags and raise me?”
“Do you still remember that?”
“I do, Mom. The whole village wanted to kill me. You alone fought with them and saved me. I can never pay you back the great love you gave me. What good is it to boost your knowledge by reading thousands of books? That’s nothing compared to love. It’s the greatest thing in the world. And you possess that thing,” Ekolu said.
Martha said, “Son, tomorrow you could become a great scientist, a philosopher, or even a creator. But that’s not what matters. You saved the husband of a poor Somali woman. That is a true sign of greatness! You have such compassion. I’m so proud of you.”
For the first time in his life, Ekolu’s eyes witnessed the sudden blast of rain that was colorless, formless, limitless, and uncatchable, that carried the fragrance of the sky.