Whenever Obadia looked back to those years he spent in the forbidding Kilangwe forest, he always recalled that the camp was buzzing when two particular things happened. One, a raid on the supply convoys or the settlers’ plantations had been successful which usually meant more food than they could eat or two, when Sunday came rolling in. For all their faults and deficiencies, the settlers and their oppressive government had a devotion to their religion that was inspiring. Which meant that the rebels could hang loose on Sundays without worrying about surprise attacks from the colony corps. The older members of the ragtag band would spend the free time with their spouses and children, while the younger members spent the day engaging in pastimes like racing and wrestling. For more than four years Obadia reigned supreme in the wrestling ring . So they called him Simba, because no one who challenged him lived with their pride intact afterwards. Recently, he had been thinking of revisiting that part of his past, taking it slow, until he could find his form again. Now the doctor in front of him was dashing those plans with his complicated talk about open aortic knuckles and hypertension and…
“How long do I have?” The words escaped his lips before they fully formed in his brain.
The doctor smiled his famous smile, which had the effect of momentarily reducing the tension Obadia felt but then irritated him as he waited for the doctor to explain himself.
“I was just thinking that if I were a movie doctor, I would have led with, ‘I have good news and I have bad news’. Yes there is good news, Mr Obadia. The reason I asked you to stay calm was because I’ve seen patients panic when they were told something was wrong even when their condition was perfectly curable. Hypertension is not cancer. It won’t kill you, in fact years from now it may stop being a bother if you stick to the dietary changes i am about to recommend, and take the medication prescribed seriously. In the meantime, I would recommend you avoid any activities that involve too much…uh, excitement.”
By the time they left the hospital, the sun’s heat was bearing down on them more forcefully. A soft easy breeze carried away the heat, and a delicate balance between pleasantly warm and unbearably hot was established. A procession had begun, heading further inward to the city, in anticipation of a demonstration weeks in planning to vent anger towards the incumbent tyrannical president.
Pleased with himself for having completed his duty, the son skipped off to school. Obadia was ready to go home, but he had something to do first. He followed the crowd which grew thicker and thicker the further he went, so that a journey of fifteen minutes took him more than one hour. Outside the building he was aiming for, the crowd was biggest and gathered around a black bulletproofed car where the torso and head of the incumbent president’s most vocal opponent popped through the car’s roof, a megaphone carrying his voice far and wide, an umbrella wielded high above his head to insulate him from the sun. He sang promises of better healthcare and education, more jobs and equality for all. Obadia chuckled as he wondered whether the crowd would be this big if the young politician spoke what was really in his mind. Then the car moved on and the crowd eagerly followed.
Inside the cyber café, Obadia noticed three college-age boys and a girl behind their computer monitors. One of the boys was playing a video game, occasionally shouting at his invisible opponent for being too competent. The girl was reading a news article that talked about the government planning to add censorship regulations which would see some types of books already in circulation end up banned. They all seemed oblivious to the commotion just outside. Obadia sat behind one of the monitors and called the café attendant to help him write an email.
His distrust of people who came from Europe, itself another scar from that war for freedom they fought ages ago, had grown even worse when his eldest son had taken up a scholarship offer from there, against his father’s protests, and then stayed there permanently after landing a job. There was a long fight, and then father and son had stopped talking to each other. One of the two mobile phones Obadia carried with him was a dedicated line which only received calls from his son. Almost five years ago the phone had stopped ringing.
“Same address?” The young man who owned the cyber asked. Obadia nodded back. He stared at the screen for a long time, unsure of what to write. Scolding his grown-up son wouldn’t improve things. Giving him another lesson about the values of his forefathers and explaining to him how he was violating them wouldn’t help either. He sighed and dictated to the young man who typed as fast as he could:
I have yet to think of any force that is strong enough to wedge a permanent rift between father and son, besides death that is. Whatever it is, whatever petty argument brought us here, may soon be insignificant.
Your old man is not what he once was. Doctor Hamud tells me I have a condition, I don’t understand it yet. Frankly I still don’t believe him, I feel fine most of the time, I feel great right now. But I would give anything in this world if I could see or hear from my son at least one more time, even if we continue to hold radically different opinions about everything.
Your loving father.
The young man hit send and the email was whisked in a dazzling show of computer graphics. The reply came barely a minute later, buoying Obadia’s hope before crushing it completely just as quickly. It was an automated reply. The same reply he’d been receiving every time he sent his son an email. The message thanked him for asking about his son, told him his son was glad to hear from him and promised that his son would be sending him money by the end of the month, and wished him a wonderful day.
Outside, all hell broke loose. The black bulletproofed car raced past. Such was its driver’s hurry (or panic) that he drove in the wrong lane. Then the roar of tens of thousands of feet stomping on the tarmac. For fifteen minutes straight, a crowd of young athletic men raced past the window of the cyber café, yelping and yelling. Trailing them was one of the many small platoons of anti-riot police deployed around the city, wielding 2-feet long batons and menacing tear gas guns that barked angrily. Any stragglers, blinded by the gas or wounded otherwise were beaten to a formless jelly.
When the police disappeared from sight down the road, Obadia took his leave, now eager more than ever before to get back home. It was be not to be as easy as he expected.
The tiny black phone shrilled wildly, the sudden burst of life after five years of hibernation threatening to blow its speaker apart. It vibrated violently before falling off the table. The young cyber attendant caught it with his hand before it crashed to the floor. He looked at the name on the screen and shook his head in despair as he rushed outside and searched for the old man, who was not to be seen anywhere around.
At some point, Obadia must have believed he would make it home without incident. Then a few times it looked certain that he would, but the streets of a city embroiled in running battles could be deceiving at times. He dodged one group after the other until he couldn’t anymore. He found himself pinned at a T-intersection road, an angry mob to his left, a platoon of riot police to his right several yards away and another angry mob coming up the rear. Just behind the police lay the bus station whose matatus would take him home. He knew this road, he knew there had to be an intersecting alley somewhere along it between him and the bus station. He looked for it and discovered that the police line was camped behind it, leaving it absolutely open. He looked behind him at the crowd growing closer and noticed some of its member wielded machetes, some of them looked sharp enough to make him cringe. He shook his head and made his decision.
Officer Mathew Mrimwa, the soon-to-be political scapegoat, watched the frenzied crowd mill about several blocks down the street, shouting angry words and slogans and hurling banners with suggestive messages high into the air.
He never truly understood the circus that was politics and he did not much care about trying to. He’d been relieved of that burden when he joined the police force. He had a commanding officer above him, whose orders he had to follow. That officer had another one above him and so on all the way to the commander-in-chief. When the orders came trickling down the chain of command, there was no time for a “maybe let’s think about this first” discussion.
“Break their bones if you have to. Show no mercy. I want these usurpers scared so bad their forefathers will cream their tattered suits in their graves.” Those had been the orders from the guy whose orders he had to follow, though he may have used less polite language. Mrimwa couldn’t remember. That would come later, though. Right now they were to hold the line.
A loud crack sounded three feet to his right as one of his fellow officers fired a teargas canister into the sky. So sudden and loud was the sound he only barely managed to stop himself from flinching. He flipped the visor of his helmet down as he traced the projectile’s arch in the sky. A moment later it landed within the threshold of the rioting crowd and unleashed its lethal contents. Mrimwa watched, with a certain amount of satisfaction, the chaos unfold as the rioters amusingly tried to clear the radius affected by the gas, falling and tripping over one another. A second canister was fired and soon another one, all with the same effect. And then the other shoe dropped. The rioters regrouped quickly and responded with a flurry of rocks that rained down like fiery angels of doom. One of the newer officers failed to get his shield up in time. He yelled like a small boy as a rock twice the size of his palm hit his helmet, denting it and breaking the visor glass. Shards of the glass pierced his left eye and most of his face that side, drawing a stream of blood.
The rock pelting stopped and the crowd continued its shouting and whistling and cheering. That’s how it had been all of the past one hours. One side threw a punch, the other responded, everyone sat down to nurse their injuries and then the cycle was repeated.Mrimwa, however, was impatient. He wanted to end it all as soon as possible so he could escape the blistering heat.
During the lull, an old man suddenly appeared in the no-mans-land, from one of the roads that forked off the one hosting the swansong battle. He walked like a man half his age, back straight and eyes wide with either horror or hunger. He looked confused and stranded for a moment as he took in the scene. Then he looked back where he came from, shook his head pensively and started walking toward Mrimwa and the rest of the posse.
It might have been the immense heat that blurred Mrimwa’s judgement, or the relentless screams of the officer who was possibly going to spend the rest of his life blind in one eye. Or his need for a quicker conclusion to the day’s proceedings. Or maybe the way the old man boldly walked toward them undeterred by their might and numbers sparked an outrage within Mrimwa. Whatever the reason was, Mrimwa did not think through the decisions he made in the next few minutes. He tapped the baton by his side and moved to intercept the approaching man.
All through that seemingly unending trek through the scene of a battle in recess, Obadia hugged the sidewalk of the street, his eyes fixed on the ground. Yet he still walked with his back straight as he was used to doing. The alley he was making for inched thankfully closer and closer with each defiant step. Then, from the corner of his eye, he noticed one of the riot police break away from the group and move toward him, meeting him just at the edge of the elusive alley.
The policeman was mad about something, clearly, and he was shouting expletives at him but not necessarily telling him to back off. Obadia didn’t wait for the order to form in words, so he turned on heels to walk backward, disappointed. Barely half a second after he started his turn, he felt a mighty hand slap against the back of his neck and tumbled down to the tarred road, landing on all fours. He watched the shadow of his attaker retrieve the baton at his side and begin a long motion with his hand to bring the baton crushing down on Obadia’s back.
He closed his eyes and braced himself. He heard a thump but did not feel any impact. He opened his eyes and saw on the tarmac ahead of him a second shadow engaging the first in a dance without any discernible synchrony. There was a second thump and then another one and then a young European lady fell next to Obadia. She looked well-dressed and composed, the mop of short blonde hair bouncing on her head as she twisted and turned to deflect the relentless blows that landed on her. Obadia rushed instinctively to his feet to push away the policeman just as a second one rushed to his possessed colleague, shouting “Press, press” and dragged him away. Only then did the feral brute notice that the unwilling recipient of his show of affection for his commanders had been a defenseless lady and, perhaps just as importantly, evidenced by the necklace card holder and the ID card it was holding, a member of the press corps that were documenting the day’s battles. His head boiled a few hundred degrees hotter as he realized his mistake and his awkward attempt at apology was foiled by his colleague who dragged him away from the scene.
“Are you okay, sir?” The lady repeatedly asked, wincing as she rose from the tarmac.
Stunned by the lady’s concerns for him even though she had clearly fared worse from the incident, Obadia tried to process a response, then he mumbled, “I…I uh…yes…I really am younger than the stupid birth certificate says…stupid certificate…”, realised he made no sense at all, shut up, and nodded thankfully before continuing through the now freed alley. The young lady tailed him, insisting that he follow her to the ambulance behind the line of the anti-riot police where the rest of press corps furiously snapped away with their cameras, but he thanked her again, actually uttering his gratitude this time and told her he was okay.
The old man walked away, eager to get back home, hoping, praying that the altercation he had just been part of would not inflame the violence. He knew that photos and videos of the incident would soon be plastered on tv screens across the country, but he still held out hope that he would not be appointed the symbolic poster boy of another ‘revolution’, even as the riled crowd that had witnessed an old man and a lady of the press stand up to a bully, lost all trace of fear and charged the policemen, overpowering them, even as they didn’t stop there and took over a police station hours later, even as the world watched in horror a week later when an even bigger, more organized crowd stormed the state house, dying by the hundreds under the fire of an army that minded orders, not politics and even as the crowd then threw the dictator out and installed a newer, younger one in his place. He just hoped the violence would end.
He felt a sharp pain creeping at the back of his head, and grit his teeth as if hoping to smother the headache by sheer will. Avoid too much excitement, the warning echoed in his mind. He sat down on the pavement, feeling drowsy and a dark shadow eclipsing his left eye. He breathed slowly, waiting.
He thought of the selfless lady who’d stood up for him and the doctor who always wanted his patients to feel comfortable and he concluded that good people come from anywhere, religion or race notwithstanding. He thought of his eldest son, living a world away, tried to remember what they had fought over, and failed to. He forgave him and hoped that his son would forgive him too. He thought of his youngest son and all other fifteen-year-olds around the country, reading big books with big words and big ideas and smiled wanly at the yet uncertain but brighter prospect of the future. He thought of jogging and wrestling and all those other things he yearned to do again.
A breeze blew through the alley, soft as silk and in no apparent haste, a passive ever-present witness of a day in the life of a stubborn old man who would not let a piece of paper and a doctor tell him that he was not young anymore.