R A N G I Y A B A H A R I
Ativa was the finest sailboat captain in all of Lamu. Up the mast, flawless straight, cleat the boom, nine meters long and with Shakwe alert at her shoulder she was unbeatable. Maulidi was Ativa’s favourite time of year and this year a warm offshore breeze blessed the annual celebration and the famous race as it graced the surface of the Indian Ocean. Proud, bold and feared, she had come from behind again, stealing that breeze with an artful tack and with a crisp snap of the hand-stitched mainsail gained the lead and the final buoy. A lead she would not relinquish under any circumstance.
Ativa’s father was a skilled craftsman and boat builder and had presented the mahogany dhow to Ativa as a birthday gift and with the help of her father had hand carved the ekki stem in the image of a broad-bladed sword. This was back home in Matondoni when Ativa was just eight years old, where she learned to sail off the main pier and before her father disappeared. Ativa had hand stitched the cotton sail herself.
Back turned to her competitors, hand resting on the scimitar shaped stem Ativa sliced open a lane towards the finish line. Spectators and tourists, men and women, arrived from all corners of the globe to catch a glimpse of the young mariner, to hear the stories, or perhaps catch a bit of the magic. At twelve years of age this was Ativa’s one and only dream.
Shakwe sat perched on the edge over looking the alley-way keeping a keen eye on the happenings below. His pride was ruffled his back ached and he badly needed to wash away the persistent cloy of feral odor. Appetite was edging out dignity, comfort and personal hygiene at the moment however, and though he preferred fresh fish first thing in the morning, one or two of the deep-fried disks would do. His morning shadow agreed as it shrank before the sun and hid directly behind him.
Cats were overrunning the place and matters were getting out of control. He had been at the market when the sun had first set fire to the horizon and it was also then, just as the fish were being counted and weighed, that things had slipped back into predawn darkness. Passing up the larger kingfish and caranx Shawke shuffled amongst bins of rockcod, mtumbuu, songoro and rabbitfish until he found the mackerel and to his delight the shimmering shape of sardines.
It was the case, more often than not, that several sardines had slipped the seine netting as it was being dumped into the plastic crates. That number now lay wide-eyed on the hard pack floor, mute in the dirt and dusted with a fine red silt. Though seemingly out of nowhere, the attack had come from behind a basket of crabs, and much to his embarrassment Shakwe was caught off-guard, knocked senseless from the blow and forced to leave without his usual breakfast.
But for now the warmth of the early sun on the coral rag blocks beneath his feet provided some comfort and as a familiar sound tickled his finely tuned ear he tilted his head in that direction. Detecting the trace of grey soapy water as it bubbled its way down the old stone drainage from up the way, Shakwe cried out to Ativa not once, but twice exposing his presence and announcing that the neighbors too had begun their day.
the previous evening
Punda covered the distance in an hour, the seven kilometers or so from Lamu to Matondoni, a trip Ativa made at the end of every week encouraging the old donkey. It was not unusual for households to be fatherless, and it was Ativa’s mother that operated the small farm, but it was on the back of Punda that each round trip made a profit, and it was that back that bore the weight of overlapping burlap bags full of maize, cow peas, cassava, bixa, tomatoes and kale for Ativa’s aunt, and for sale at the market.
A coconut-sized conch shell reflecting pink-orange hues had washed up on the beach, quite a find for Ativa as she weaved in and out of the water’s broken edges on a solitary evening stroll. So now she stood there, pondering the vagaries of the sea, deep in thought about the precious find before her. Meandering about the mashwa and rough-looking assortment of hori and canoes she had reached that point where her own dhow lay dormant and neglected on the sand, the sail worn and weathered, a patchwork of thinned and thinning, hull propped up on stilts nailed to its ribbing …one day that sail …will be me as before, …sailing again …a sail she had labored so hard four years ago to fashion by hand.
If she had not been looking back over her shoulder at the curiosity of her own bare-foot prints back-filling with seawater she would have missed the shell completely. So in the end the shell was not placed before her, but rather behind, and as it rocked in time with the rhythm of the tide it was apparent that it was not the footprints at all, but a sweet melody woven within the lace of ocean breeze that had turned Ativa’s head. A melody as light as the scent of jasmine that had followed Ativa from Lamu to Matondoni that now seemed to be coming from the bite of the conch. Shells, shillings, needle and thread, she would be able to sell the prized shell within the square on her way to school. She would be able to repair her sail.
Ativa’s return to Lamu that Sunday evening was as the sun was setting and a shawl of lavender twilight cloaked the old stone town. Beneath that cloak, bone weary, soiled cotton skirts clinging to her calves, bare-feet padding silently in the wistful powder of dirt and manure that never seemed to leave the bricks of the main street, Ativa could only smile at the now familiar tune.
…that melody, again what it is …my imagination …Ativa did not bother to look back this time, but if she had she would have seen them escape the bell of the horn, the very notes, as they rang out in muted concert for the stars.
“Screee-aah screee-aah,” simultaneously bobbing and rocking a broken alarm clock of this way and that and side-to-side.
At the sound of the high-pitched cry Ativa looked up from the rust colored liquid that filled her cup, finishing that first careful sip, testing the temperature.
“Ah, there you are, I was wondering, wondering that it’s Monday.”
Observing Shakwe’s dishevelment from the baraza of her aunt’s house Ativa sat cross-legged in a corner beneath an open window sipping her morning tea and watching her younger cousin Iffat crush freshly chopped hot pilipili with the cold stone bluntness of mortar and pestle. Soon bajia would be sizzling in a pan of hot oil releasing the aroma of onion and garlic into the morning’s fabric, a warmed wealth of spices and fried chickpea flour would stitch the air. Before long Ativa would be on her way to market, a trip she made every Monday morning, on her slow circuitous march to school.
Shakwe dropped from his perch, wings a thrumming of urgent beats to stay aloft snatching the spicy fritter offered at the end of Ativa’s outstretched arm. The toe of one web-foot hooked the red and black bracelet Ativa had tied around her wrist sending a scattering of beans and seeds that bounced and skipped about the smooth stone porch and into the house and into the street and into the frothy grey flow of the rough stone gutter.
Ativa stared at the naked threads …but I am fearless …then her thoughts interrupted, words for Shakwe caught in her throat, enchanting verses of adhan from the Riyadha mosque forced recollection. …it’s time, the market …and as she loaded a wooden barrow and secured the ill-fitting harness to Punda’s ever-nodding head, Ativa’s aunt knowing the young girl, reminded her well.
“…go straight …market …no stopping …feeding …and make sure …Ativa are you! …and to school …no.
But the words that reached Ativa were not her aunt’s, but the weighty caw of the crow that then gently swelled full to a siren’s song. Head full of dreams she had already set sail in her own secret world where she was Shah Rukh Khan, a flamboyant hero, a dramatic sea rescue, some long-lost archipelago showered in song, dance and colour.
Their musky odor reminded and the acrid fragrance of urine hung in the spaces between the stone walls that separated earth and sky leading from one end of the maze to the other. Some three thousand donkeys lived and worked on the island and now Punda joined the caravan of carts and flat-bed wagons in a stream of early morning commerce, a life’s blood that lead to the heart of Lamu. Ativa knew most of them on sight, had fed the tired and neglected with fresh produce from the back of her own family cart, but of the striped legs of the ass before her now she had no recollection.
Shakwe followed behind hopping lightly from rooftop to rooftop collecting more of the grey and white gulls along the way, knowing and patient. It was Ativa’s aunt that prepared her meals for the day. Today she had prepared a pouch of warm bajia, ripe mangoes and fish that would feed them all including the insistent cat, ripe with kittens, that mewed and weaved between Ativa’s feet as she considered the dull surface of the schillings secured from the sale of the conch to a man with no shoes as he stepped from the German Post Office Museum.
From day-to-day and how the story would change and no one knew the truth of it, or how long she had been there, but she was always there and she always called out from the depths of her rags and always begged and always moaned a woeful pain. She was old and she lay there on her side in the dirt on the stone steps leading from the edge of the square beneath hand-carved wooden doors, art that opened in upon the fort.
“Here mama,” and the shillings she had received from the sale of the conch now rested in the palm of the old lady’s hand leaving Ativa’s pockets empty and her dream of repairing her sail for another day.
Ativa observed the striped-legged donkey, this time in the shifting shade of the ancient maembe tree, scrounging through a pile of cracked coconut shells stripped clean of their flesh when the beast turned its head and locked eyes with Ativa. A bright wink and a bristle lipped smile stole Ativa’s attention and her cart hit a rut, an imperfection of stone that dislodged a wheel and slipping his harness Punda was free and en route for the sea.
“Punda… aaeeyyy… oh no …wait …come back!”
“Scra-heee scra-heee, scra-heeeee,” crescent winged silhouette stark against the cloudless sky.
“You’re right! Fly, and fly, I can see you, can you…”
And the political posters of ‘Bario 2013’ faded and torn, pasted in layers over the sun-washed paint of once fresh stained walls. Ativa had no time to notice, bursting under the smooth curve of the archway and knocking the gate, whining on hinges salted with rust, eye on the gull as he soared. Shakwe leaving a trail of shadow tracing the edges of the alley-way.
Unloading, carrying suitcases balanced on shoulders, porters for the daily arrivals. Hustling to get their handful of paper or coin. Crafty insistent negotiators, unaware of the tune and the horn and the sail. There children splashed and giggled, where the coarse steps entered the ocean, and they could be found swimming between boats in the roll of the wake. Children know in the back of their minds that mermaids can sing.
Nzuri, it’s so beautiful …in the distance, a thin black line where the pale blue sky and the azure of the sea collided bled like spilled ink. The flow forming a fleet of small craft coming into focus powering to the old wooden jetty on the short trip from the airport at Manda. By the time Ativa set foot to the jetty Punda was nowhere to be seen.
“Ativa …this is not the way to market,” …lost in a nimbus of music as soft as new feathers it was the force of the grip of the hand on her shoulder and the familiar stern tone in the words that stirred Ativa and she spun on her heels, spun to her right to break free. Only empty space, not a hand or an owner of a hand where one should be, but the touch and the sound of his voice remained …what games are these …then she saw.
A squared frame of raw beige canvas fronting the sky, reflective under a sheen of moisture, tear-shaped droplets trembling with the smooth adjustments of the tuning slide. An abstraction of slender bronze fingers gripping a knot of brass spirals, bright scarlet lips caressing the mouthpiece, cheeks smooth and then blowing to produce the vibrations.
...it can’t be they’re alive …how is it, it’s my boat ...and that sail …then the wind billowed and extended the sheet and the mermaid side-eyed Ativa over the top of a golden french horn.
Braided cords of burnt orange danced from her head as the mermaid sat on the back of the hump of the whale and her own split fish-tail overlapped in a sheath of diamond-shaped scales. A fine balance of sea marine greys and ocean deep blues set below a fountain of pink hearts as they blew high from the spout of the whale, and a bounty of sea creatures, lobsters, octopus, seahorses, and eels filled out the fringes of the sail.
Striped-legs held in his blunt teeth a thick measure of worn ropy cabling that reached over the seawall to the bow of the vessel. Half on the beach and half in the water the dhow was braced on bent sticks. With a short blast, the whale’s breath filled the lateen and the curved wooden hull slipped away from the sand and striped-legs released the heavy tether. Without hesitation, Ativa lunged for the boat and grabbing the gunwale made a sharp smack, bare-feet landing squarely on the dry deck.
Looking back to the shore dozens of donkeys had gathered that were blinking and braying a fine bon-voyage, and dotting the rooftops massed in all shapes and sizes grey gulls were flocking in hundreds and crying their wishes of fair sailing. Right there beside her, Ativa found Punda, smiling controlling the rudder, and a final Scra-heee from the top of the mast saw the odd crew of three setting course to the north. Ativa reflecting now of the voice and staring at the sail, right with the knowledge that she would not be going to market or school today.
Favorable trade winds came to assist the breath of the whale with the luff of the sail blowing Ativa into the rush of the morning fleets, slipping further and further from the slope of the shore and the bustle of the main street. Plastered walls, artfully carved wooden doors, and the towering minaret were the last of the city’s watchful eyes to measure Ativa shrinking into the distance.
Holding tight to the privacy of their favorite grounds, fishermen heading back out to sea. Day excursion operators seeking a calm spot to snorkel in the lee of live reefs. The islands, Kiniyka and Manda Toto teaming with colorful flashes of marine-life against a background of white-sand beaches and the peace and solitude of crystal clear breezes.
Ativa was only vaguely aware of a crease at the point of the arc of the earth where the sea met the sky and what lay beyond. Things to the north mapped out only in stories read or overheard. Laying flat on her back, admiring the textured brush-strokes of the hand-painted sail, laughing to herself now about the illusions and strength of imaginings. Daydreaming.
And as Ativa lolled with the rhythm and heartbeat of the ocean, the ocean played against the rugged corals of the reef. Punda gave up his navigating and was now napping in a pocket of shade cast from the full broadness of the lateen. To the east, Shakwe assessed fair-skinned snorkelers turning bright pink as they roasted, and the sleekness and dark skin of skilled spear-fishermen, catch netted and tied to their waist. All under a full sun.
From a tin pot near the base of the teak mast of a nearby tour boat, the sweet waft of coconut rice was teasing Ativa as she was considering such untouched slices of beach that reflected the sun. She let the joyful splashes of laughter and unbound banter of the swimmers find a place to rest in the shell of her ear.
It came as lucid images of flocking birds that whistled and chirped and the brash crashing of a brass band that reached a crescendo of split-crack blue and cloudless day thunder. Disrupting fogged thoughts about her aunt and braiding her cousin’s hair and that she would be missing school and the evening’s madrasa …that is when the first fish fell from the sky.
Only after the tuna’s dead weight registered with a wet slap across her lap did Ativa reclaim focus; with Punda’s hooves scrabbling against the formed curve and smooth wooden ribs of the hull of the dhow and Shakwe’s alarmed cries piercing above rapid pops and propellers. What had been a dot in the distance not a far way to the north, a bird skimming the herring shimmer just below the surface, was now becoming something else.
Shifting facets of light surface chop …a helicopter rotating …a seaplane that would soon be landing …getting closer …getting louder …traveling across the surface of fish bubbling up from the sea. More and more fish appeared, but these were not from the sky. Faces of stunned expression, eyes rounded and now lifeless buoyed up from their home in the sea.
Still early noon hour with the sun making its impression, challenging those things that would otherwise be hidden in dark places. A skiff powered by two outboard engines and the occupants too, lobbing grenades into the waves and firing AK-47s blindly into the air.
Burcad badeed …from the north Puntlands …become pirates!
Now coming up on their port quarter.
Rangi ya bahari …now mixed in with the rapid peppering of rifles and the wet rip of outboard engines. Distance closing between the pirates angling ever more acute, explosions drowning out the shouts and warning cries from Ativa. Defenseless tourists separated from their vessel and ship’s crew. And now the righting moment; there were no helicopters, there were no airplanes, they were under attack.
Dropping a daggerboard against the wind, Ativa instinctively placed herself between the dark bandits and their intended targets. Punda grabbed a length of anchor cable across his blunt teeth and began hauling. Shakwe launching himself high into the sky with a piercing alarm,
…what now what now …there’s nowhere to go …Punda groaned straining against the pull and resistance of the anchor raking the sea-bed and Shakwe burst out with a new and more shrill call of distress,
A cry that surfed the airwaves back to the old coral rags and the feathers and ears that were roosting within the ruins of Takwa and shelters of Shela and then the French horn began to vibrate in reply and the black notes that flew from the twist of gold bell were smooth and rich and the blue shades of the paint that cast the image of the whale came alive to the call and the enormous creature peeled away from the sail and entered the sea with a thunderous splash.
Another hand-grenade exploding, this time landing fore of the mast of the abandoned tour boat, sending chunks of split planks up into the air and blasting a hole clean through the thick hull of hard African wood.
Black notes now the true black that reflects back in deep purple, twisting and turning, unfolding and flapping and spiraling upward and coming to life.
Night fell in that moment, the midday sun blocked out by the confluence of hundreds of thousands of clockwise gulls and the counter-clockwise rotation in speed and density of an endless stream of incoming crows and seabirds strangling the breath from the air, creating a vacuum that corrupted the tide, generating a magnificent vortex.
Flocks circling and circles tightening, from the depths of its sounding the blue whale now erupting and striking the pirate craft from beneath, sending it into the air, and denting and folding it deeply in half and spilling the stunned occupants over the side.
And the craft fell back to the sea from an improbable height sucked into the maelstrom created below, and the aluminum skiff and the grenades and the pirates were last seen descending downward clean out of sight. The hole in the water that had been there or not had closed over behind them leaving a flat calm and a very dead silence.
Bright midday light returned to the sky and the crow wings collapsed back into note script, and the gulls too flew back to their homes of old stone. The whale was last heard breaching the surface, and at last sighting casting a shadow against the blank background of hand-stitched lateen. On the whales back a wry mermaid playing a flute.
All that remained now was bobbing at sea under the lift of a breeze. Ativa arms around Punda, Shakwe perched on her shoulder. Passengers gathered filling a bit of open square space to the stern of her dhow. Huddled together, caught in stunned silence, whispers began to release, many questions arising,
“…did that really happen? …did you see what I saw? …it’s truly a miracle …there are no other words …surely not, it can’t be?”
What was soon agreed was that it was some form of incredible luck or something else for those that believed in miracles. That while Ativa was busy pulling passengers and crew from the water that the donkey had managed to get the anchor chain wrapped around the dhow’s rudder forcing the craft off-center. Driving the broad blade of the curved stem through the side of the pirate’s aluminum craft, cutting it nearly in half.
That in a flurry of madness the seagull stopped screeching and attacked the pirates face on. The pirates who were in the process of loading a rocket for the final blow ended up losing control of the launcher, sending the missile through the thin hull of their aluminum skiff. The resulting explosion igniting a box of grenades. In the end, there was simply nothing left.
With the sail full of wind from the deep breath of relief, Ativa was a hero, and with her crew to her side set a course back to the old wooden jetty.
Spectators and tourists, women and men, from all corners of the globe, now flocked to the coastal province and to visit the ancient stone town and to catch a glimpse of the young mariner, to be close to the story, or perhaps catch a bit of magic. This was Ativa’s dream. At twelve years of age, Ativa was the most famous sailboat captain in all of Lamu.
T h e E n d