We are back home trying out new skins as the continent wastes on. We had believed we could save Africa. We were young dreamers. We embraced The African Manifesto, a tract which in our group became as popular as The Communist Manifesto in its time. The first oath we took steered us towards defending and liberating our national frontiers. There was trouble all around Africa. Enemies were approaching our land. We could hear their gunshots from whichever direction we faced. We did not want to run away. It was more worthy standing up to fight.
How could we have known the truth? By the time Biira and I finally agreed that it was what was left of us that needed saving, many of our comrades had died, along with our dreams. What pained Biira and I most, however, were not the deaths but the denial, the lack of a funeral. In Africa, when someone died, it was acknowledged and burial arrangements made. In fact, it seemed we respected the dead more than the living. Nowadays of course things have turned round. Alive or dead there’s no big deal. Though it’s tougher staying alive than dead, of course! And probably that’s why we have more haunted and tragic lives. For many of us life is cruel and disjointed like a chicken cut up and assembled according to the parts: the wings together, the drumsticks together and so on. When you cook them you think that you’re going to eat chicken but that’s not true. You’re only feeding on parts of a chicken. That is our life, not lived wholly.
One by one, our comrades were bundled in reed mats and blankets, and ‘disposed of.’ Our commanders called the disposal operation smooth. We learnt years later that the bodies were not flown home. That they were taken to a villa in Lubumbashi where they were slit open. That the hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs were plucked out and sold in South Africa. That’s what our government did to our fallen heroes. No consolation letters were sent to their families. No condolence messages to their friends. How can I admit that operation smooth as its name suggests was indeed fast and efficient? Years later when Biira and I sat down by the river Congo to remember our comrades, it seemed as if they had never lived, never walked here, they were never born. We had only imagined them. What had happened to our memory that we could not recall their names except one? We searched desperately for their faces, their names. How were they erased? Exhausted, shocked, we questioned our sanity, failure of the mind to recollect our absent colleagues. Had nothing happened? Had everything happened?
Biira and I are from Arcadia, a relatively small country compared to most African states. Sometimes, if you’re not careful your eyes might miss us on the map. Foreigners tease us that our country is only a strip, but we are there all the same. And those of you, who still follow news, don’t pay much attention to what you read, see, or hear about us currently. It wasn’t like that at all in the beginning. We were an enviable rich state, in control of our resources, proud of our land and the people. And we were on our way to liberating the whole of Africa. We never made it. Things changed.
Biira and I were in our final years at the Ivory Tower University, the place where our dreams became crystal clear in the liberator’s shape. We stood before the looking glass and spread our future like a carpet of luminous colours. We saw stripes of dazzling yellow, brilliant orange, deep purple, vibrant red and magnificent lime. We never even imagined a few shades of grey and other mourning colours.
Every Sunday afternoon, as the sun blazed and the sky was a clear blue without clouds, we gathered for our political study in the mess of Lumumba Hall. Officials from The Peoplist Motion Secretariat came and addressed us.
“Know your history. Do not dismiss it for it shapes the way we do things here,” Colonel Whiff said, smoking a pipe and tossing back his dreadlocks that were long enough to sweep the floor. His lazy, kind eyes searched our faces and each one of us secretly fell in love with him. He had the look of a sleepy blue ocean in a calm season. We respected him for his consistency. “Know your history, only then can you visualise what to do with the future that is yet to come,” Colonel Whiff repeated. Biira always clapped. She was a student of Political Science, incessantly drunk with words like the future, history, hegemony, ideology, manifesto, nationalism. At first, I deemed it was fit to avoid her. We were roommates. If I timed her schedule right, I knew the days when I could get to sleep before she came in and on other days I could get to the room late when she was already asleep. Still, she had a way of reaching me, rubbing me with her beliefs and dreams. If she woke up early and left me sleeping, I would find a yellow note under my pillow: “The future belongs to those who are awake.” I would respond likewise: “The future belongs to those who can see it with their eyes closed.” Sometimes she simply wrote: “The future is here. The future is now.” We carried on like that, interacting through the yellow notes without a face-to-face discussion. Then one day it happened. We were in the quadrangle waiting to watch a movie brought to us by the Life Ministry. Our hall which was shaped like a box had earned the name: ‘Box Hall’, and ourselves the ‘Boxers’. Biira seized the chance to start a fire.
“Box oyee!” She punched the air.
“Oyee!” we cheered.
“Gallant boxers, I am inviting you to a political study group on Sunday at 3 p.m. Come and hear the words of the future from the Peoplist Motion Regime…”
Watching her with fists in the air, quoting Nyerere, Nkrumah, Castro, Fanon and our dear president, amused me so much that I decided to join the group to find out the quickest way to being crazy — the source of Biira’s steam. A month later I was converted. The Peoplist Motion Regime was the way forward. Their manifesto was charmingly simple: Arcadia is one people, grouping to liberate Africa from the ravaging wars. Together we would sow the seed of oneness, the meaning of a Peoplist Nation. In Arcadia alone we had thirty two ethnic groups. It would be magical to forget our internal clashes and integrate as a Peoplist Nation. The revolutionary angle appealed to me. I was doing Comparative Literature which, in our national curriculum meant Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare, period. I wanted to be a teacher but deep down I knew I could never continue in the tradition of teaching what was being taught. Secretly, I nursed a dream of initiating a think-tank that would eventually redesign the curriculum, overhaul the syllabus and develop a new education system grounded in our own knowledge sources and civilisations. Through the Peoplist regime, I could bring my agenda to the table. The study group became my regular beat. Whenever we met, the first thing we did consciously was to put aside arguments and pretensions that might break us. We even overlooked our different academic disciplines. Together with the botanists, geologists, behavioural scientists, molecular biologists, social scientists, doctors, writers, civil engineers ... we embraced the first principle in The African Manifesto: Building an intellectual, professional army that was not only up-to-date in state of the art machinery, but also mentally trained to fight wars far and beyond. Our weapons therefore were not only to be physical—the typical and common approach to most wars and conflicts in the world—but also to provide creative and practical strategies outside the box in negotiating for peace. Other countries would learn from us.
“Timing is crucial,” Colonel Whiff said one day, rolling his eyes. “We are doing the right thing at the right time. Some of your colleagues think that what matters now is finding a good job, making money, starting a family ... they are wrong. The most important thing is being here, learning history, and standing up for Africa. We start with Arcadia.”
The state of chaos which had engulfed Africa made us believe that our political aliveness was indeed consuming us at the right time. A boil had just burst in Angola. A wound was festering in Mozambique, simmering with pus and blood. Rwanda was licking a genocide bomb and her relations with the neighbouring territories were terribly strained. Rwigyema was our man there. We rallied behind him and cried Freeeeeedom! We promised all the Rwandese desiring to return home that we would give them their country. We would help. The Peoplist Regime would resettle everyone where they wanted to be. Grand. We would teach Northern Sudan how to shake hands with Southern Sudan, and command the International Press to declare Darfur habitable. It would feature in the UN’s Special Watch of 100 places to be in the whole world. We marched there. Then Cote d’Ivoire lost her glory and started sniffing out those who were not pure Ivorians. Nonsense! The next tragedy was going to be an ethnic cleansing. We sent representatives to tell the Ivorian president and his cabinet to stop being stupid. The Peoplist Motion Regime recognised all African people as one. No authentic or contamination talk. Simply African is all we lobbied for. Then we heard that the Congo was falling apart. Our hearts went out to that vast and beautiful equatorial region. It was our duty to make peace, to re-make the Africa Nation One. We needed no messiah to inspire us on that one. We marched there.
With more energy and zeal, we flew to Angola to discipline that Savimbi dog. But then the guns he was using to terrorise his folks were not manufactured in Africa. So it wasn’t just Savimbi we would be fighting. The bad apples of Africa had strong reinforcements. Charles Taylor was backed too in his atrocities. We brought our heads together to find out exactly who powered these dictators. Our hearts burned for the continent. Our dream was that we would be one eventually, with our visionary president, our irreducible and indefatigable Peoplist Regime. I must mention here that by far Arcadia was the only independent, democratic state north of the Nile River, east of the Lake Victoria, south of the great Okavango River and west of the Sahara. We purposed to show others a clean future built from the colours of our dreams.
It took years for the scales to fall off from our eyes, for us to realise that our strategy was empty rhetoric, our government a lying game. Our actions were a contradiction of what Peoplist truly meant. The past repeated itself with all the mistakes and catastrophes. Let me tell you the truth: We did not liberate anyone. Here’s what happened:
As ambitious, ignorant dreamers, we shared the bush with snakes and spiders, while our bosses slept in the best hotels under treated mosquito nets, and very often took state funded holidays to Europe. They plundered and violated the right to life of everyday people in the areas where we were keeping peace. Our leaders got fat on the gold and disappeared with our pay. Believe me, the Peoplist paymaster, Mr. Kutaga, vanished with four billion dollars. The head of our regiment, Colonel Wafiire took all the timber that Congo could give but tried to convince us all the same with his rusty singsong: “It’s peace that we want for Africa.” He may as well have been saying, “We are for pillage.” Our time in the Congo had nothing to do with national security. Like most so-called superpowers, we were there for the resources and occupation. It took us long to awake and see through the smoke screen the image in the mirror. We engaged in senseless wars, we were told to fight without question, to kill or be killed. How different were we from a barbaric army marching to conquer, to defeat the weaker?
We saw things clearly when Dagu died. The only comrade whose name had not left us. The one who was to father Biira’s child. Dagu was an only child, a straight A student who consistently topped his Surveying class at the University. He was approved for the World Foundation Scholarship, but like us he had swallowed the pill. The dream to liberate Africa had spread its magic colours, beckoning him to forget the pursuit of further studies. We came across his head one evening. Bullets had left holes in his head, which wasn’t a whole head anymore, but a shattered cranium. It took us a great amount of time to recognise it was our Dagu. Only after we identified a green bandana bearing a few strands of hair did we remember having seen him at breakfast tying the bandana across his forehead. Near his shattered skull was a thicket of blood that had become one with the grass. What had alerted us to the scene were two vultures goring into Dagu’s brains with their hooked beaks. The rest of his body was nowhere to be seen. I knelt before a piece of his skull. Turned it round. Examined him. Dagu. I looked at Biira and sighed. She closed her eyes. That evening when we assembled, we noticed that Blanco, the surgeon was not with us.
“Where is Blanco?” Biira asked Captain Huambo.
“He’s gone on an emergency call.”
I glanced at Biira. The struggle had linked our minds together. A look shared between us often penetrated deeper to reveal that we were thinking the same thoughts. That night we became numb, not because of a brutal loss but the fact that there had been no shootings that day. Dagu was butchered by one of us.
Silently, we packed our bags. There wasn’t really much to pack, but we made an effort of it. We had to brace ourselves for what the government would call us if we survived, if they let us go our way to save what was left of us.
Word suddenly reached us that we were to have an audience with the General, who was the decision maker in our case. We rejoiced and then froze. To us, the meeting spelt freedom or doom.
Our leaving coincided with the coming of extra troops. More gold had been found in Mongbwalu, Ituri district, so it was a calculated move to mobilise an army from home to keep peace in that territory as the miners mined. At 7am after a strong cup of coffee, I strapped the army green backpack on my shoulders, saluted and shook hands with Captain Huambo.
“Good luck,” he said.
“Stay well,” I responded. I watched his face for a sign of betrayal. The face was neutral. I looked away and waved at the new deployment force from Arcadia. Did they really know what they were in for, here for? Fresh graduates with no war zone experience, headless chickens running where they ought not to run. Did they know the real reasons we were in Congo and anywhere else? I avoided looking deep in their faces to see hope alive, to see expectation, to remind me of what I had been before. It is one thing to have dreams and watch them unfold day by day, it is quite another to see them crashed and have to summon up courage to stoop and gather the broken pieces. We stumbled out of the bush towards the chopper that was waiting in the clearing. Every step of the return journey reverberated with heaviness.
We were not sure we would arrive home. If we did, we tried to imagine the kind of questions Big Man would fire at us once we made it to his office. Being in his presence for a good record alone was frightening. How was our meeting going to proceed at headquarters? His red eyes would dilate, threatening to jump out of their sockets. His bald, watermelon head would turn here and there, to scare us and make us think that something sinister was about to spring at us from whichever direction his head swung. His boom of a voice like thunder would demand why we were pulling out of the army, his large palms hitting the table like ocean waters against a rock.
“It’s finally over,” I whispered to Biira, squeezing her hand as we adjusted our seat belts.
“You think so? You are wrong. It has just begun. There we were in a battle, now we are going into war.”
Biira was my companion in the struggle but she was of no comfort at a time like this. While I thought that I wore dark pessimistic lenses, Biira wore them double It was a four-hour flight from the Congo to Arcadia. A few minutes past 11am Congolese time, we landed at Kanu airstrip, and a big land cruiser was waiting to take us to headquarters. Everyone who mattered in our politics seemed to know what was happening; two lieutenant commanders, women at the forefront were quitting. They wanted to hear our story as if we had been in heaven and they had no clue why we would choose to go to hell. Within 15 minutes we were at headquarters.
We avoided the lift and took the stairs to Big Man’s office on the 9th floor. It’s like we needed our feet to touch every step of the way before facing him. We stopped by the rest room, changed and removed the regimentals. I drew out my passport, looked at it slowly, carefully.
Name: Adong Poseidon
Age: 29 years old
Profession: Special Service.
I studied my picture in fatigues. This would be the last time I hold it. Once I walked out of big man’s office, it would be goodbye.
Biira was very calm and composed. Her head was slightly bowed I had to run a finger across her poker face to make her look at me. She did not say anything. But I knew she had bottled up her frustration, it would come out when she screamed, awaking from the two nightmares which now plagued her nights she could not risk going to sleep without the valium. She would see a giant drenched in blood, with talons for feet and fingers jumping to attack her, clawing a long sword pointed against her left breast. But the most troubling nightmare was one in which she saw a skeleton tearing to shreds a map of our beautiful Arcadia and throwing the pieces in a river of blood. She was in that river and tried to swim against a high tide to rescue the pieces and put them together again, but a hungry, snarling alligator leaped over from the bank, opened its jaws and swallowed her, with the pieces of Arcadia fisted in her hand. Valium kept the demons in check, sometimes.
We found Big Man talking on the phone. We saluted him, and he gestured us to the leather seats in his ample office. Arcadia is relatively a cool weathered country and behind Congo two hours, we wondered why the air conditioner was so strong yet it was only an hour in the morning. But big man sweated a lot. As for us, we were chilled from within. It may have had nothing to do with the air conditioner.
Big man had a view of the city in front of him but he swung his chair round to face us as soon as he finished talking on the phone. Behind his back we called him monument, Africa King Size for he was huge and tall. Publicly, we called him Big Man and that’s what he liked. It was true that he could eat a whole roasted goat alone and wash it down with a crate of beer. In the office he was a General who wasted no time on greetings.
“I read your letters. You have decided to abandon the army force. Do you know what that means?” He squint as if the mere thought of it pained his sight.
“Yes Sir,” we quivered.
“Do you understand how we treat deserters in this country?”
“You were doing well, I had already received recommendation from your Lieutenant General and I was considering promoting you,” he paused. “Do you need some time abroad to rest and get back on track, we could arrange that.” He glanced at his large gold ring on his small, right hand finger. Quickly, without warning, he pushed back his chair, rose up and stepped right in front of us and chilled us with his cold stare. We flinched.
“It’s only peace that we all want; don’t focus so much on the war, on the battles you have to fight. It’s the desire for peace that should occupy your thoughts always.” I once read that “if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood, give orders and divide work. Rather, teach them to yearn for the far and endless sea.” A cascade of sweat that was streaming down my spine started to dry up. Big man, like most of our bosses, could only be found in the comfort of his air-conditioned office talking about peace and war. In the evenings he dined and wined at famous exclusive clubs and grew fat on goat and beer. Now as he talked, we said nothing.
There are many things we could not tell Big Man, much as we were tempted to. In the first place, our interest in the armed forces had been the Intelligence Division where we thought our brains were needed. Instead, we were sent to the regular army on the grounds that we train as militia and be on reserve. That way we would be civilians who could be called to serve fulltime during emergencies. Soon we learnt there were emergencies everyday and that defeated the idea of a reserve. They kept promising us, however, that we would be shifted to military intelligence but that time never came. One day while we were having supper, Biira stated in a distracted voice that military intelligence was a gigantic contradiction. She had stopped eating and had a faraway look stamped in her eyes. I smoothed her hand and suggested that we take a walk in the forest. That night is still vivid.
“Can you see something in the moon?” Biira had asked as soon as we came near a whispering stream, after we had been walking silently for a while, each one of us occupied with heavy thoughts.
“There are seven pigs in the moon according to legend,” I said without looking up.”
“There is a grieving woman in the moon. That’s why the moon looks sorrowful tonight. Strange how when we were young we saw the world mapped in the moon.”
Seven years later, this time on a moonless night, it dawned on us that the wars we were fighting or not fighting were hopelessly the same; the propaganda and so much blood. Thinking or intelligence was the last thing expected of us after we were deployed. We were so cheap and the death of Dagu showed us the price of our efforts, the face of betrayal. We stopped believing in liberation, we lost faith in the defence of territories, we gave up love for Arcadia, but we could not tell Big Man that.
“I know you intellectuals get bored easily. Sergeants and corporals have no problem staying in the bush,” he remarked. “Perhaps I should give you scholarships and you can take courses in political history, military science, espionage, whatever! We have enough funds for that. At present it’s what you need.”
“One of these days we’ll be required to supply military attaché’s for the Libyan office. That is something you can do for a change.”
He could go on and on, telling us what we needed, what we could do, treating us as if we were retarded and incapable of standing by the decisions we made. We politely declined all his suggestions.
“It’s about wanting to have a family, right? You are women approaching thirty, that’s what your files here say. Your biological clock is ticking, you want to have babies now, husbands to look after you, to kiss you nicely, we could arrange that too, there are many captains and even brigadiers who are not married or have lost their wives ...”
I thought I would choke if I continued to listen to Big Man without giving him a piece of my mind. We had supposedly been looking after affairs of the nation, but when it came to our individual selves we were just helpless women who needed men to take care of us, my ass!
I swallowed the ball of anger that clung to my pallet. I glanced at Biira and saw the rage rising in her face as her left hand clenched into a fist. Her eyes flashed like a serpent that had been stepped on, she ground her teeth like one crushing grain. I could see clearly that she had become a volcano, the steam hissing through her nostrils, ready to erupt. I got stomach cramps thinking how she might eject her lava onto the General and it would be the end of our freedom. She must have sensed my fear, and heard my silent prayer to hold it in. All of a sudden she became dormant, almost extinct. I sighed deeply.
We had agreed that whatever the General said, we should neither contradict nor challenge him. He eventually realised that he was dealing with a hopeless case, mute women whose strength was not a barrage of words and guns but silence and a resolute decision to be free.
“Alright, I will sign your letters.”
With that he stamped our papers and approved our resignation. We handed over the military dress and insignia, and everything else that linked us to him and the government. We saluted him and anticipated a handshake before walking out in peace. It hadn’t been easy for us to roll up seven years and consider them forgotten, but that wasn’t his thinking. He turned furious like a crocodile whose children had been attacked. He snarled and sizzled and bawled, “Now get out of here! I never want to see your bloody faces again, women, stupid women!”
We tumbled out into the free air, breathing at last, feeling the civilian clothes. It was over, we hailed the first taxi that came in sight and went directly to Biira’s aunt.
When it occurs to you that the essence of your life has already flowed out of you, you can spend the remaining time and energy thinking about the nothingness of it all. There follows a regression into the wasteland. Biira chose that route. On any sunny day I can still hear the voice of Aunt Damako asking us one question: “Now that you are ex revolutionaries, what you gonna do with a civilian life?” She did not drive any of us to the edge with a repeated question. She only asked when we seemed to be in a cheery mood, which was a few times. She hoped we would be courageous enough to chain the past and find both our feet in the here and now.
“Perhaps I should be a poet. What do you think?” I tossed it to her one afternoon. “I studied literature, you know, enough Shakespeare to make me write war sonnets.”
“Ah, writing your biography might be more interesting, ‘failed revolutionary turned into a poet,’ that might be a catchy title.”
“Then they will read the title minus the content.”
“Well, nobody reads or listens to poets here. I am only trying to be helpful.”
“Ouch, you make it so awful.”
“Making a living is an awful business.”
“In that case I’ll carry a gun on my shoulder, hold the non-readers hostage and shout out: I will not shoot. Only listen to a couple of my poems and drop the change.”
“You haven’t actually left your first skin then.”
It was a joke but it cut deep. It was useless talking like that. With a sigh I rose up to make a cup of coffee, if only to let the trying moment pass. Biira too left the room, she often did, and then one day it was her last.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had not woken up. Would it have been better to die in the bush than to go on feeling the weight of this life as a burdensome existence? If Biira had not become weaker, grown older and finally swallowed all her valium at once, where would she be in the present life?
Meanwhile, for many months Arcadia continued to deny our involvement in the Congo. Our Commander-in-Chief, the president of Arcadia Republic would appear on the national television to assure the people that lies would not take the journalists very far.
“Don’t believe those lumpens faking stories that we are in Congo. Arcadia has nothing to do with undemocratic countries. I repeat we are not in Congo.”
As soon as the president’s statements were aired, our black flag would be hoisted and our national anthem sung in the chosen Arcadian mother tongue. Lights would go out, everyone would go to sleep and I would stay awake, close my eyes and see no dreams. We were not in Rwanda either. We were not in Sudan. We were not in Burundi. We were not in Somali land. We were not in Liberia. And we were not in Iraq. Biira and I never imagined such misconceptions at the time we joined the forces. It might have been quicker to notice our hair turning grey than the reality of national denial sinking in our brains.
Now our president has changed the constitution and is seeking a fourth term, which will count as his second term in office under the new constitution. There is a break away faction beginning to form, flagging him as a dangerous B.C/A.C man—before the constitution and after the constitution. His supporters tell us that we have to understand he needs time to implement a 20-point PIIID program—Poverty, Illiteracy, Insecurity, Ignorance and Disease eradication—that was designed in his first term. I am afraid about what might happen when he needs more time and terms to monitor, review and then consolidate the 20-point program. Many of us are too shocked to comment, to take up arms again and fight to liberate ourselves from our president. We are too ashamed to admit that Arcadia has fallen. The only lesson that we have learnt from history is that we never quite learn from history. Where is Colonel Whiff?
Biira’s aunt says that Colonel Whiff passed away, in his bed, nestled between two prostitutes and smoking dope.
The country is enveloped in a frenzy of political rallies in which our president appears to talk about his vision. I hear the masses chanting: Our man, our man, General of the Armies is here! We’ve been listening to his vision for the past 25 years. I sincerely hope that he does not go blind since it looks like this country’s past, present and future is to survive on that vision.
I do not attend the rallies, of course. I sit under an acacia tree polishing my collection of poems from the bush. I am one of a million graduates floating without a job, my army allowance run out two years ago—three quarters of it was accidentally banked on the army paymasters’ account, and father of all scandals; there is nothing, absolutely nothing in my social savings security fund! Someone utilised that money, which was supposed to have been accumulating over the years in the name of private investment scheme that turned out a hoax. And nothing has been done to the culprits. In fact, there are no culprits, we are told. The SSSF board has told us that we were to be wise and keep our money where it is safe. Arcadia! Nothing here makes sense but we are trying to live through the interval until we come to the right pathway.
I am discovering that being a poet is not bad at all, especially if it’s a poet with the heart of a revolutionary. God bless that heart, it hasn’t died yet. But, oh, how I weep to remember.