Rose Mary Boehm

Mbaya

As soon as he climbed on board he knew. This was mbaya, very bad business, but he had been seduced by the snake and its whisperings of a new life for those with the heart of a lion. Of course he had to go.

No, not go, he had to run. There were the memories, all jumbled, he never knew which one of the demons would pop up suddenly and possess him today... there were the eyes of the woman—he'd seen those eyes even in his drugged state—eyes that had followed him long after he'd hacked off those arms that protected her extended belly and... and the old man whose thin old body had not resisted; the tongueless scream of the young man in yet another village... all mbaya, all bad demons.

And he'd been so small; he remembered the day they gave him a gun that was bigger than he was and at first almost impossible to carry. But those who'd killed his mama, the warlords, they'd held his nose and made him drink something terrible that had filled him with hate and strength. There were many other boys, just like him. Then they had told the boys what to do. Mbaya, bad things.

Now he was trapped in this ship. But he would not, could not allow the worst to overwhelm him. Much from those years was covered in a dark swirling mist, even though he knew that the drugs had transformed his mama's little man into a monstrous, frenzied killer. He certainly never wanted to take a closer look.

Then he thought of the people who worked for this 'NGO' who wanted to 'rescue' him. Rescue? Him? How could he go back to school? Smile politely? Be nice to the teachers? He had needed food and clothing, so he'd stuck it for a couple of weeks. He'd been one of the few who still had their limbs. And every time he had looked at the others, they looking back at him from an unfathomable, black well in their souls. They had confirmed it to each other silently: We have come back from hell. We have been branded. We are contaminated. We are dead.

Before the beginning of the fourth week he ran. There was a small diamond in the lining of his kofia, his old baseball cap. He hadn't allowed people at the school to take his kofia from him. They thought he was too attached to it for whatever reason and had allowed him to keep it. Of course they would. Those do-gooders, they knew nothing.

When he'd got to town he'd gone to the place he'd been shown, hidden right in the center, protected by the law of silence and fear. A bad place. Mbaya. The old muuzaji the traderman, squinted at him, took his diamond and offered him pittance. That's when his whole being remembered who he had become, and his eyes had told his story to the muuzaji, and the old man had understood, had almost jumped back a step and had bowed: "I am sorry, master, I was mistaken. Please accept my respect and something over and above the stone's value." Satisfied, he'd taken the money and shoved it carelessly into his new khakis. He had walked out into the sun and—almost without his knowledge—his legs had taken him to the harbour.

Leaning against metal railings or sitting on wooden planks, there were many of them, too many—men and women, from many countries, many tribes. Some of the women were heavy with child. And he remembered those eyes. He looked away.

He had given almost everything he had to the man who promised to take him across the big ziwa, the big lake with the huge waves and monsters lurking in the deep. They said they'd take them to the place where everything was made of gold, where life was sweet and the demons couldn't follow. They'd said he'd have papers and work, a house and a garden, a wife and children.

He had learned at the re-education center that nobody was anybody without papers. He wasn't quite sure what these papers were, but he knew with certainty that he wouldn't survive without them. He had also learned that the moon and the stars were not for him, peace was not his for the taking. Still, he was young and something in his heart yearned.

The noise of the big ship's motors drowned out most of the other sounds, but inside his head he could hear screams. The ship lurched from side to side, and as it sighed and moaned, some metal screeched. Many people were grey and ill. He fought his way to the railing to be sick. The wind slapped his face with vomit from those who were sick upwind. He didn't care. He just wanted to die.

Suddenly, in the middle of endless waters, the engines lost their urgency and the ship stopped moving. Someone shouted orders he couldn't understand, but he knew an order when he heard one, and then the sailors started to kick their passengers, pushing and herding them towards a rope ladder on the outside of the ship. Bobbing in the water far below, he could see tiny boats filling with people. Some looked as though in shock, others were moaning and babbling to themselves, some of the women were crying. He didn't understand why they had to leave the big ship. How could these little boats survive those enormous waves?

He knew what he had to do. He had to stay on the big ship because those little things would surely be devoured by the monsters of the deep. So he crouched down low in the shadows. But they came for him. He fought like a man, but he had no weapon and there were too many.

He tasted salt. The salt hurt the wounds on his lips. His tongue had swollen and filled his mouth. His head hurt and so did his rib cage. Breathing was difficult; he felt cuts deep inside him. His head seemed to be somewhere else than the rest of his body, and he could sense his hands and feet far, far away. He wasn't sure whether he was alive, but he assumed he must be because—as far as he could tell—the dead no longer feel pain. So he tried to move this huge stone which was his body, seemingly forever embedded where it had fallen.

When he felt strong hands turning him, he realised he had been lying on his belly. The same strong hands forced him to sit up. Something touched his lips and, even though he didn't understand the words, he knew he should drink. He tried to open his eyes without success but soon something moist and soothing covered his eyes, wiping them gently. Now he could see. And now that he could see and looked around, he knew he was in the realm of the mashetani, the evil spirits, ghosts.

Even though the sun nearly blinded him, he saw white, pink and brown people standing, sitting, or lying on blankets in white sand; they had no houses or huts—some had beds and umbrellas; some had big fat bellies; some were so skinny they looked like the hungry in his country; there were white and pink breasts, small colourful pieces of what appeared to be clothing, shiny bodies, hair of all colours, some round heads with no hair at all, and big faces moving in and out of his vision, everyone talking loudly in no language he could understand.

He shook his head and tried to stand. Some pink naked beings helped him to his feet, and slowly, with great difficulty and much pain, he began to walk. Pulled one foot after the other, an old man dying. Mbaya.

But his lion heart beat fiercely, he recognised something that felt like hope, and his soul longed for a miracle.

—Rose Mary Boehm

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