It was the death anniversary of his grandmother. He was 30 years old, in the Netherlands, and in so much anguish.
It wasn’t just sadness. It was excruciating pain tormenting every part of his body: his scalp attacked by the needles of the prickly pear that his mother planted in their backyard, and his skin bitten by fire ants that terrorized his childhood.
That morning he left his apartment in Koornbrugsteeg to brace the 2° C weather without his coat on. He walked to the intersection of Breestraat and Steenschuur and turned right. He walked along the canal, allowing the cold to attack him, until the torture it exerted was much greater than the one coming from his body.
Shivering, he traipsed go back to his room that was adjacent to many others in the three-story building of red brick that hugged the moist and glittery road, where the cold fell down like wet snow. He threw himself on his bed. He closed his eyes and remembered his grandmother.
He loved his grandmother, and 24 years after her death, he still had vivid and fond memories of her. He particularly remembered the day before her death because it was the Saturday when she told him about the day he was born. Although no one else dared to tell him, they would still talk about it in whispers, and by the age of six when he started making sense of the world around him, their murmurs would dissolve into biting, icy wind on his ears.
His grandmother loved him in a manner that others couldn’t, even those who tried to, like his mother. She was the only one who didn’t regard him with inquisitiveness bordering on distrust: everyone else viewed his peculiarity as ominous. At the age of six, when words had yet to give him the full comprehension of expression, he had come to feel her unconditional love, the kind that was given freely, without asking for the reciprocity of good behavior.
His grandmother came to live with them on two separate occasions: once when the boy was born, and later when the boy’s grandfather passed away from a heart attack.
She was the type that wouldn’t escape one’s memory. She had popped-out upper teeth which refused their rightful place, even when her mouth was closed, as a result of the abuse she endured at the hands of his grandfather. She had the gait of a queen and the stiff back of a woman who had suffered but was still standing.
She swept her gaze across a room with grace and poked at her words with her index finger, as if that was the only way her tales would make sense to her audience.
The day before she died, she sat on the stump of the cassava tree and told him the story of his birth, sipping liquor made from fermented bananas that she had smuggled into the house when the boy’s pious mother was away.
His mother hated liquor. She said it was Satan’s concoction, which turned men into beasts and women into whores. “Don’t listen to your mother. This is the drink of our ancestors. Just remember to drink it in moderation,” she would whisper to the boy.
The boy never understood why his mother hated liquor so much. Why is it bad when grandma is so much fun and tells beautiful stories when she drinks it, he asked himself.
“Your father was a drunk. He would come home late at night and shower your mother with fists that turned her skin purple.” He found the answer from his grandmother that afternoon.
“Your mother’s response was prayers for a man who never knew how to love. She believed the power of Jesus would mend his way. And when she got pregnant, she thought that her prayers were answered.” She continued.
However, the boy learned that his father had left with another woman four months before he was born. For years, the boy would hear stories of the homewrecker from the women in his household, and with each retelling, the accursed woman would assume a different personality altogether.
That afternoon, sipping her favorite drink, his grandmother declared that her description of the woman was the most correct. “Don’t listen to anyone else.” She punctuated this with her index finger.
She said that the woman’s fragrance was a blend of kitchen soot, sweat, and a cheap perfume that seemed to attract both men and dogs, which she had procured from the Saturday flea market. The obscenity was further exacerbated by the tendency of her kanga to hover above her calloused knees, as if the wind only favored her thighs.
Her lips were in a perpetual state of bleeding, and her eyelids in constant agony from the kitchen soot applied on them. The polish on her long nails had chirped off on the tips, and her wig, which was smuggled from Congo by the perfume vendors, made her look misplaced in an otherwise picture-perfect painting of women selling vegetables in the market.
That was where she met his father, throwing him lascivious looks and working her wig. She succeeded, and by the time they left for Kintinku, she had a small bump that could’ve been disguised if she had an ounce of shame.
After hearing his grandmother’s description, the boy was certain that his grandmother hated this woman, to the point of making her up. A woman like that couldn’t exist in real life, only in the world of pantomime.
The boy was born in 1986 in the newly established village clinic of Itigi, in the presence of two midwives: one of them, who was witnessing her first childbirth, vomited on his mother.
His mother was escorted to the clinic on foot by a throng of village women, along with the boy’s grandmother.
These women, who were by then already mothers, were all sitting in a circle along the narrow corridor of the clinic, just outside the maternity ward. They were singing birth songs they had learned from their mothers, their hands clasped together as if in prayer.
These women, short but strong women who balanced buckets of water on their heads with a baby strapped to their backs and firewood in one hand, would deliver at home and the following day go about their business as if nothing major happened.
Sometimes, these tough women would lose their babies; other women from the village, all dressed in black, would come to help them bury their children in the back gardens, and the following day, they would resume the chaos of duties in an uninterrupted rhythm.
However, this practice of home birth changed shortly after independence, when newly trained midwives from the government clinics began knocking on doors around the villages, convincing women to deliver their babies in safer hands.
Many were reluctant; they believed that these midwives were sent by the government to kill their babies as part of the white men’s plan for control by limiting their population.
“White men don’t like people like us, my son,” his mother told him when he was ten.
“But what about the padres and sisters at the mission?” he asked her.
“Those are different white people.” She said it in a way that stopped him from asking any other questions, just like she stopped her protests against delivering in the clinic after it was discovered that she was carrying twins.
“You will surely die if you deliver at home,” said the older midwife.
At midnight on the day of his birth, when the boy’s mother was being assisted by one of the midwives since the young one was sitting petrified at the corner, the full moon was swallowed behind dark clouds. When she again came out, floating in the blue expanse, a silent and watchful owl sat perched in the window overlooking the corridor where the women were.
They gasped when they saw its full-moon eyes. Immediately, their promising songs turned into cries scented with the knowledge that something bad was about to happen.
In the circle, they hugged each other; their bodies mourning, shoulders in spasms, and fingers trying to pinch the pain away from their garments.
The scared midwife came out when she heard the women crying. Just as she opened the door, she saw the owl watching her with an unwavering resolve. She ran out, jumped over the women, and disappeared into the darkness.
Back in the village, another owl with round, glowing eyes the egg-yolk color of the moon sat on the edge of the bougainvillea fence in front of Agostino’s house, and hooted just as the moon emerged from underneath the clouds.
Everyone woke up when they heard the sinister call. A few seconds passed and they heard the cry of a woman, in a manner they had all come to know too well.
Men dashed out bare-chested; women followed, their heads covered with scarves and their bodies wrapped with kanga.
Unlike the women at the clinic, the women in the village had a more dramatic performance: they howled, hands on their heads, feet stomping the earth, bodies falling to the ground and pieces of clothing—scarves, kangas, shoes—leaving their rightful owners.
During the moments of commotion at the clinic and in the village, the boy’s mother delivered. The remaining midwife, a big woman with a piercing shriek for a voice, had never seen a boy like that before; she was frightened.
The women went quiet when they heard the cry of a baby. They all rushed inside the ward, uninvited, only to run out as if they had seen a ghost.
“I was not scared of you like the rest of them,” his grandmother told him with a smile of reassurance. “I loved you the moment I saw you,” she remembered with a smile of protruding teeth.
The midwife called the doctor on duty, a small, plump man with a mousy face and the pinched expression of one with a bad case of diarrhea. He bolted in with an army of other doctors and nurses as news spilled through the clinic.
They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They kept murmuring scientific terms that his grandmother didn’t understand, speaking in English as if their mother tongue was inadequate to explain such mutation.
His grandmother recalled the commotion that ensued afterward. Patients ran out of their wards, some unclothed. Friends and relatives of the patients who happened to be at the clinic at that time of the night tried to break through the door of the maternity ward. The stocky doctor had to summon the village police to control the growing mob.
Some said it was a curse. Some even dared to say that the boy should be killed in order to remove the curse. “He will destroy us all,” said one of the men who had brought a patient to the clinic. Others were against such an act, declaring that the boy should be exorcised through various forms of witchcraft. Still others with more entrepreneurial minds offered to buy the boy as they saw a fortune to be earned.
In the pandemonium that grew as the news covered more ground, everyone, including the midwife, doctor, and nurses trying to decipher the anomaly, forgot the other twin, who was lying on the overbed table near the corner. Uncovered. Dead. His grandmother went over and covered his body with her kanga.
News from the village reached the clinic like the first rains of November, thanks to a barefoot lantern boy with mucus running down his nose.
When he reached the door that people were trying to push open, he screamed, “Agostino is dead. They found him cold in his bed after the owl appeared on his bedroom window.”
The man shouted, “You see? The boy is cursed. We have to kill him.” The mob gained more power, their resolve becoming stronger. They were about to break down the door when the police arrived and dispersed them with sticks. Their leader fell down as he was trying to run away; his msuli, a cloth wrapped around the waist, came undone.
The women who had arrived with the expectant mother wept uncontrollably when they heard the news from their village. Agostino’s mother was their friend, and they spent time together at the market. One of the oldest women in the group declared that the boy’s mother had given birth to two funerals and a curse.
Right away, the women left the clinic; the grandmother stayed. The women walked back to the village, their steps guided by the faint light from a dying lantern, their feet tracing the mourning scent in an eerie procession sprinkled with traditional funereal songs.
When they arrived at the village, they joined other women who were already at Agostino’s house. The men were gathered in small groups in their misuli, quietly planning the funeral.
The women went into the house and stripped it of its furniture, until their own ghosts were revealed and projected against the blue wall by lanterns. They covered the floor, worn-out by years of use evidenced by the flaking red color, with mats of woven palm leaves.
Then they brought Agostino’s mother out from her room. In a single night she had turned into a frail woman with a halo of sorrow. The women respected her. She was known for not saying more than she was supposed to. She sold the best handiwork in the village. The husband she had married because she was required to, had been killed some years before, at the intersection of Sokoni and Shimoni Roads in an argument over cows.
They covered her with kanga and placed her at the corner of the living room. She looked smaller. Women sat on each side of the bereaved mother and ignited a choral wail.
In their tradition, women were allowed to cry uninhibitedly; men were not allowed to cry loudly. Only with their eyes, their bodies unyielding, two streams down their cheeks; the whole thing so silent that you could hear the teardrops falling on the red soil. This is because they said the gods hated the sound of sobbing men.
Young boys were runners; they were expected to spread the word, barefoot, to the far corners of the village, carrying lanterns if at night.
That night, no one went to the house of the new mom to prepare for the funeral of her dead twin.
Many people were still trying to get a glimpse of the mysterious boy; they couldn’t go in because of the police guarding the door. The grandmother refused to leave the room. The dead twin was still on the overbed table, covered. The doctor told them that someone would come and take him away to be buried.
The boy’s grandmother was aware of the danger that their presence caused at the clinic. She knew that they had to leave unnoticed. His mother was already complaining about the smell of chloroform.
His grandmother knew if they managed to leave the clinic’s premises unnoticed, they would be fine. So, she came up with a plan. With the help of kanga, vitenge, and scarves, they managed to disguise themselves.
When no one was in the room, they snuck out the back door, which could be unlocked from the inside. The boy’s grandmother was carrying him, and his dead twin brother was bundled up and hidden in a kikapu—basket—that his mother carried.
They hid behind unpruned shrubs, bushes, and thick tree trunks until they reached the main road. Uhuru Road was deserted; it felt as if everyone was either at Agostino’s house or at the clinic. They made sure to walk with their heads hanging low so no one would notice them.
In a bubble of silence, they moved slowly, the boy’s grandmother trailed by his mother like a shadow. At noon, the tropical sun felt close enough to kill both of them.
After a few minutes on the road, they saw a man coming. He was carrying an axe. The boy’s grandmother reckoned that he was sent to kill the baby. Out of fear, they quickly moved to the far side of the road, shielding the boy from danger.
“Congratulation on having a grandchild.”
“Thank you.” His grandmother forced a smile. Relieved. The man continued walking without looking back.
The boy’s grandmother realized that the main road was not the best option for them, so they took a left through Shimoni Road. The road that looked like a crescent moon on the map, gradually descended to the main bus stand on what used to be a huge shimo, or pit, used as a dump. Shimoni Road was also empty, apart from a few open shops whose shopkeepers were escaping the heat.
They continued walking; the only sound came from the crackle of trees scorched by the sun and their slippers scratching the ochre road. When they wanted to take a rest below a whizzing Australian pine, a cloud like a piece of cotton appeared and rendered the sun invisible. So, they continued walking under its cover until they arrived at the intersection of Shimoni and Sokoni Road.
It was here where the boy’s father, together with three other men, had taken the life of a cow seller four years ago. During a night of heavy drinking at the Kona bar that used to be at the corner of the intersection, they confronted the man; they claimed he had sold them four infertile heifers. They brought him outside, and at 3:00 in the morning, beat him and left him unconscious.
The first women going to the market in the morning found the body. They called his wife to identify him. He was lying in a pool of blood, but his face was untouched. She didn’t cry. She was relieved.
At 8:00 that morning, the four men made their way to Sunday mass and sat at the front pew. These men were feared, and no one who was at the bar that night would pluck up the courage to corroborate with the police. The bar was immediately shut down, and the intersection became known as the Intersection of Blood, because in the afternoon, when it was the hottest, one could still trace the smell of blood in the air.
That afternoon, the boy’s grandmother smelled it just before she noticed a procession coming their way. When it got closer, they saw men and women they recognized from the village, dressed in black; one man was carrying a small coffin of mismatched unpolished woods, put together with knowledge but in haste.
Beside that man, they saw Padre Dino, leading a heaving line of mourners that moved like a snake, climbing and falling along the terrain, singing mournful songs that zoomed in and out with the undulating wind.
The boy’s grandmother saw their neighbour, Agostino’s mother, supported by two women on each side. Although they were neighbours, they had never shared more than casual greetings, in the manner that satisfied traditions but never forged meaningful friendship. Later, after the boy’s father was accused of killing the woman’s husband, the two neighbours stopped greeting each other.
That afternoon, the mourner’s songs died off at the Intersection of Blood. The boy’s grandmother and mother stood on one side of the intersection and the mourners on the other side. A standoff ensued for few seconds, and the smell of blood seemed to grow stronger.
Padre Dino, a short Italian man with a thick beard that covered most of his face and two red lines for lips, crossed over to the two nervous women, who were receiving angry stares from the mourners.
The boy’s grandmother, unsure of the intent of the short man, took a few steps back and shielded the boy. Padre Dino, who could wake up any dozing member of his congregation with his coffee breath, had a sympathetic round face, and that afternoon, his hazel eyes appeared moist.
With a smile, he extended his hairy hand, which had taken on an auburn colour in the tropics. After a few seconds of hesitation, the boy’s grandmother reluctantly handed the baby over to him. However, she stood close by, to make sure that he wouldn’t harm the innocent child.
Padre Dino, who had spies in the village that brought him news and rumours that otherwise wouldn’t have reached his ears, was aware of the stories going around the village of a boy who had brought on two deaths.
His eyes lit up when he finally laid his eyes on the boy. From the look on his face, it appeared that he had never seen such a boy before. He started speaking in a sing-song language of his country.
Behind him, the mourners were talking in hushed voices, loud enough to be heard but quiet enough that the grandmother could not hear what they were saying. All she could see was their eyes darting back and forth in condemnation. However, their furious glances didn’t deter Padre Dino from marvelling at the boy, tracing his finger down the infant’s face.
He looked at the boy’s mother and said, “Congratulations on having a boy, and my condolences on losing another.” He placed his right arm around her shoulders and led her and his grandmother to the procession. This was met with disapproving looks, murmurs, and exaggerated grunts.
The boy’s grandmother was prepared to protect her grandson. She stood close to Padre Dino, ready to snatch the baby away from him, in case of an attack. The grandmother didn’t like the fact that they had escaped one mob only to land in another.
Though it was clear that the angry villagers didn’t welcome his mother, and grandmother in the procession, even more so because of the presence of the accursed infant, they couldn’t do anything because Padre Dino was holding the baby: they didn’t want to challenge the white representative of the white God who had built an imposing structure on their shrine and showed them that their gods were not as powerful as they were led to believe.
Padre Dino restarted the hymn in his Italianized Swahili, and before long the murmurs were converted into a sluggish chorus as they continued on their way to the cemetery. Padre Dino didn’t give the baby back, even after a pair of crows started circling above them, and the mourners could be heard saying that the curse was following them.
“There is no curse in front of our powerful God,” he said, and resumed singing.
At the Jacaranda Cemetery, as it came to be called because of a line of jacaranda trees that surrounded it, a fresh grave smelling of dampness stood beside other graves that had been dug in chaotic fashion. When the small coffin was laid down, it looked like a small box on a carpet of purple flowers.
The sound of droning bees had taken the place of the songs of the mourners, who were now quiet and waiting for Padre Dino who was still marvelling at the bundle of joy in his arms, to say something. They were unsettled by the fact that he was still holding the baby.
Padre Dino handed the baby back to his grandmother, who all this time had been sweating with fear. He declared that there would be two funerals and ordered a second grave to be dug. After a moment of hesitation, a few men picked up hoes, pickaxes, and shovels, and started digging.
Everyone was quiet. Even the bees stopped humming as the mourners listened to the cries of the earth being pried open by the chanting metal. It took less than ten minutes to dig the small grave.
After lowering Agostino into his grave, Padre Dino was met with resistance when he tried to take the dead twin from his mother’s arms. He had to order the men to take the baby away from her by force, after his words failed to persuade her.
When they put the boy’s twin brother in the grave, his mother, who hadn’t grieved for him yet, finally opened the floodgates of her tears and mourned for the baby she never had; her knees gave in and she dropped to the ground.
Slowly, the women who earlier had borne aggressive stares and unwelcoming demeanours, succumbed to empathy for the pain they all knew too well, and one by one they gathered around her. “It was at that moment they all left their anger behind,” the boy’s grandmother told the boy, her eyes wet.
Unlike Agostino, the infant was buried without a coffin or a name. Everyone bowed their heads down as Padre recited the prayer. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The gravediggers quickly covered the two graves until two humps rose from each.
Then, as if orchestrated, a strong wind came down and undressed the jacaranda trees of most of their flowers, and the two graves were covered by a purple veil.
Padre Dino, who came from the north of Italy, remarked that it looked like purple snow. However, no one knew what he meant, and they didn’t have the time to inquire like they would normally do when he talked about his country, because the women were trying to prevent their kanga from flying off and the men were covering their faces against the punishing dust.
When everything settled down, Padre Dino made a second declaration while looking at the mysterious boy.
“He will be called Agostino.”
The sun was hiding behind black clouds and the smell of rain in the air, which would normally put children into a frenzy around November, sprayed over the mourners.
No one ran, even as a downpour in the middle of August showered the dispersing crowd. Women walked slowly, their kanga clinging to their bodies like wet tissue paper, men hanging their heads low as if escorting another funeral. Even Padre Dino, who was known for his fear of the rain after a seven-day downpour caused a flooded river to take away the life of another padre four years ago, didn’t run that day.
“And that was the day you were born,” she finished her story and sipped the last content of her liquor. She looked at him for a long time, with a big smile on her face, before she got up, patted him on the shoulder and disappeared into her room. That was the last time he would see her alive.
Years after her passing, the village continued talking about the day she died, a legend befitting someone who was different. Special. Everyone would remember it differently.
Some said that the morning started with rolling clouds that danced on rooftops. Others believed that all the women in the village were mysteriously cooking at the same time, sending smoke to the skies.
In the afternoon, there were those who talked of an apparition of a sad woman, draped in white, with a halo around her head: some saw her at the market near the railway station picking flowers, others at the rocky hill where a cross greeted the city every morning, and yet others in the club where music blasted at high volume and the women wore so much makeup that they were transformed into other women.
People said it was a great blessing if the Virgin Mary appeared to you, and for years, the boy would pray that the white woman would appear to him from somewhere within the white shawls of the clouds, with a shining ring around her head, just as the paintings in the Catholic Church depicted. But she never did.
Back in his room in the Netherlands, he remembered playing with the other kids from the neighbourhood: their clothes were dirty, and some had patches sewn on their buttocks. That day they were chasing a naked-neck rooster, the colour of dirty oil, belonging to the mother of the late Agostino.
The boy caught it and in a single movement twisted its neck. The other kids stood in shock. One girl started crying, and the rest ran away. They were scared of the late Agostino’s mother, who punished them when they played with her chicken.
The boy could see the other kids hiding behind the bougainvillaea fence when Agostino’s mother came out of her kitchen, alerted by the cries of the young girl. She froze when she saw Agostino holding the dead rooster. She didn’t punish him; she took him to his mother with the dead animal in his hand.
“My Agostino did the same thing one week before he died,” she told the boy’s mother, who had come out of the kitchen, her hands covered in flour.
The boy’s mother picked up a stick from the pile of firewood and whooped him six times before the boy’s grandmother rushed out of the house and took the stick away from her daughter.
“This is no way to raise a child,” she protested.
“Don’t teach me how to raise my own kid,” she replied to her in the way that children would let their old parents know that they were ruining their grandkids, by defending them even when they were wrong.
Agostino didn’t cry. He left the house. The other kids were nowhere to be seen and the street where they had been playing in was empty. He walked all the way to the intersection of Shimoni and Sokoni Road.
At that instant, Agostino saw his younger self, a peculiar boy with a dead rooster in his hand, standing in the middle of an intersection of unpaved roads the colour of ochre, with two wet lines down his cheeks. Looking at the young boy, he confessed to himself that there was something solemn and beautiful about a black boy with blue eyes.
Stephen Swai is a Tanzanian writer. His works have appeared in the Borneo Post & The Star newspapers in Malaysia, The Holland Times in The Netherlands, and Kalahari Review. He is currently sharing stories from his Boys at the Intersection collection.