Translated by Lori Hetherington
Copyright © 2015 by Cristiano Gentili
Translation Copyright © 2016 by Lori Hetherington
All rights reserved.
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I fear you because you are different.
I hunt you because I fear you.
You are different, you are few, you are unearthly.
Suspended between two worlds, you are out of my control, and, just like the gods, you may be our blackest disgrace or the gold of our fortune.
And yet you cry and laugh as I do.
Are you, or are you not, human?
This is what I want to know. But…who am I to ask?
The mother’s body broke open to make way for the baby’s entry into the world. Wild cries traveled beyond the sheet-metal door of the mud hut and into the crowded courtyard on Tanzania’s flat scrap of an island. Ukerewe was a jubilant explosion of greens—from apple to emerald—framed by the rich blue of Lake Victoria.
Sefu—the father of the newborn—looked beyond the virile, though softening, sun. He considered the great bounty, the brawny progeny it had produced. That sun, too, would rest for the night. He imagined his son being born before the Spirits’ sun sunk into the vast water. He thought of how everything was as it should be. It was almost sunset, and the cool air soaked in reddish light from the day’s final rays. Soon, too, our golden crown will shine, our own sliver of the starry canopy, thought Sefu as he waited outside the hut.
More time had passed and the sheet-metal door remained firmly shut. It was the beginning of the rainy season so the weather was unstable and capricious. Sefu smelled the unmistakable scent of rain. He sensed that the darkness of night’s first hours, assisted by monsoon winds, would coax heavy clusters of cloud that had been formed from the Indian Ocean. Water will be dumped onto the land by the rise of the next sun, he thought.
At last, the door to the hut opened. A woman gestured to Sefu. He could now enter. The courtyard grew quiet. He crossed the threshold, and the smile he’d worn since hearing the child’s birth cries vanished.
He saw his newborn asleep on a bundle of rags in the corner of the room. His eyes opened wide, and he grabbed his hair with both hands. This cannot be, he told himself. His body stiffened as the tiny creature hypnotized him. He attempted to summon his finger to touch its belly, hoping this thing before him was but a figment of his imagination. Then, with its subhuman powers, it turned him to stone. She was a curse, a judgment. He repeated to himself the name of what she was, denying it at the same time.
The air in the hut was drenched in deadly silence. Only Sefu’s breathing could be heard, and its rasp increased as rage filled him.
How could I have begot such a thing? he asked himself. He wondered if evil spirits possessed him while he had coupled with Juma. Or maybe this demonic being is the fruit of another man’s seed? That must be it, he affirmed to himself. His wife had to have betrayed him and unleashed a curse by the Spirits of the Lake. His body could not have made that.
“It has to die,” declared Sefu. Without so much as a glance at Juma, the mother of the phantom, he turned and left the hut.
Lying on her pallet, covered in brilliant-colored fabrics, her howls numbed by the murmurs of surrounding women, Juma registered this birth and her death were one and the same. She thought of how, in past seasons, she had miscarried two times, followed by boundless hemorrhaging that seemed to drain her soul as well as her body. When she was with child this time, in her mind’s eye, Juma had seen the fetus gripping her womb with its tiny fingers, stubborn and determined.
She remembered when news of the conception had spread across the island like wildfire over dry grass. She saw the streams and lake rejoicing and swelling beyond their banks. The trees had generated hearty sprouts, giving shape to longer shadows. The sun’s light was clear and golden across the crimson earth. As her belly burgeoned, she trod the grass that grew greener and denser. She’d heard birds sing and caw louder than ever. The rain fell with the violence of gunshots. All of nature rejoiced with her, celebrating her baby’s tenacity and perseverance. Her child would live. Juma knew that this time she would hold a crying infant in her aching arms.
And so she had. Though as she looked at what her body produced, she felt only scorn and disgust.
Juma was unable to explain what had gone wrong. She had diligently followed every directive given her by the women of the clan. To ingratiate herself with the Spirits of the Lake, she had avoided arguments and malicious gossip. She had refrained from having relations with her husband during the last months of the pregnancy. She had avoided carrying water from the spring so that her child would not be born with water on its brain. And she had been faithful to Sefu—in body and spirit—a loving and devoted wife.
Yet she had borne this monstrosity.
If Juma had not felt it emerge from her own body—seen with her own eyes—she would have believed it came from another woman, from another clan. A wicked woman who deserved such a thing.
She seized the newborn with both hands and held it out to the midwife to calm its cries. The older woman shook her head; she would not touch this cursed nobody. Juma squinted at Nkamba—her mother-in-law, more ancient than even the midwife and shaped as a crooked shrub. She saw Nkamba’s fear and Juma wanted even more to annihilate the voice of that which came from her own flesh. In a fit of fury, she pressed the end of the swaddling cloth against its face. No one would blame her. She felt silent support from the ring of women encircling her and her offspring. However, the maternal instinct was stronger than Juma and—even though reason prodded her and she did want the child gone—she felt the cloth slip from her grip. She could not kill her own, however wretched it was. She drew the child to her left breast and felt it latch on and suckle with vigor. She recognized the lusty will of the thing that had inhabited her womb. Juma winced at the contact. From the corner of her eye, she scrutinized the tiny creature on her nipple, its pale skin against the dark flesh of her breast. It has happened again, she thought. I’ve given birth to death. A white thing. If it lives, my husband will leave me.
Juma pried the infant from her breast and set it on a bundle of rags in the corner of the room, farthest from the bed. A sweet scent radiated from the child, and it bayed like a homely pup. Overcome by fatigue and pain, Juma collapsed onto her palm-leaf bed, embraced by despair. Finally, she burst into a convulsive cry, clutching the bedding in her fists. That distant corner of the room was, for her, the forest where it, the nobody, would evanesce. The women surrounded her as Nkamba moved closer to the newborn, and one of them cradled Juma’s clutched hands, murmuring soothing words, as a woman had when she had miscarried.
Then Yunis, her dearest friend and cousin of Sefu said, “Juma, it is time to bring in your husband.”
Out of the stillness that followed Sefu’s pronouncement and departure, Nkamba watched a stream of women trickle into the hut. Their voices trampled each other, echoing like the squawks of hungry crows in the cramped space.
“It’ll have red eyes like the devil.”
“It’s a zeru zeru with witchy, magical powers.”
“Disaster will move into our village.”
“Contagious hardship will follow in its wake.”
“Listen: Before it’s too late, leave it in the forest.”
Juma, in a stupor, stared at the emptiness in front of her as the baby bellowed by the mud wall.
Nkamba observed the scene and her forsaken mjukuu. From the moment she helped deliver her granddaughter, she had closed herself inside a remnant of silence, hypnotized with awe by the baby’s indomitable spirit. Little by little, nevertheless, the comments of the women wormed their way into her heart like black mamba venom, reawakening a poisonous memory from tens of rainy seasons before. Nkamba’s vision blurred; she lost her balance and dropped onto a stool.
Two women noticed her collapse and hastened to help her, flapping the hems of their skirts to yield a breeze on her brow, to give her much-needed air. When Nkamba revived, she went straight to her granddaughter and nestled her against her bosom. The others watched in shocked silence.
Nkamba understood what the clanswomen wanted her to do, expected her to do. She stared at the infant whose face softened and cheeks puffed as she rocked her to the rhythm of her heart. She thought of what had happened so long ago when she was a woman as young as Juma, and Nkamba decided the exact opposite would be this baby’s destiny. She was disappointed by her son’s cruelty toward one so helpless. She wondered how he would have treated his older sister. Nkamba slowly wrapped her mjukuu in a soft rag, which had been submerged in sweet grass to protect the baby’s delicate skin.
Sefu hadn’t yet been born when the event occurred that would change Nkamba’s life forever; thus, he was unaware of her secret. And he was unaware of her oath to the Spirits when her only daughter was taken from her. One of her callous hands covered her belly; a rush of shame surged, and, immediately thereafter, an incredible strength purified her mind and heart. The Spirits of the Lake were bestowing Nkamba with the courage she needed to ask her son to spare the child. Or, at least, to convince him to call on the herd to spare her. With the tiny thing pressed to her chest, protected by a soft cloth, she left the hut under the gaze of the women, their necks craning to follow her movements.
A birth is an event that brings together the entire community. Villagers, clan members, and strangers alike congregated singly and in clusters around the edges of the giant baobab, not far from Sefu’s hut. A thick layer of cloud cover shrouded any hint of star or moonlight, and a deep, dead cavernous darkness hid the agitation that spread across the community from the affliction that had been brought into their sphere.
Nkamba spotted Sefu speaking with Kondo, the village chief, who had been Nkamba’s friend from when she was a girl and belonged to the same clan as her husband, Kheri. If only Kheri had been home at the birth of their daughter, Nkamba’s life would have been different. All of their lives would have been very different, she was certain, and Sefu would have an unshakable love for his newborn. Zuberi, the shaman or, rather, the witch doctor, with his darting teeny eyes, sidled up to Sefu and Kondo, adding in a poisonous word, Nkamba was sure. He seemed to be always collecting information that he might store in sundry glass jars with acrid solutions or in wooden boxes. With her head held high, the old woman—baby now soundly asleep and hidden from curious and hateful eyes—foisted herself near the triumvirate. Behind her son’s shoulder, she touched his arm as she would have, so long ago, when she had been taller than he who was now such a colossal figure.
“Turn to face me, Sefu,” she said.
Her son spun around, embarrassed by her public boldness.
“Give her one chance,” said the old woman in a stoic whisper. “If you are the man who Kheri and I raised, the man who lovingly lowered his father into the earth and led him to his afterlife, you will not abandon this innocent baby girl in the forest.” Nkamba felt the Spirits rise up her spine as she spoke.
Sefu was silent, examining his mother’s tired yet animated face.
“Follow the example of our neighbors, the Masai,” she continued, holding his gaze. “Tomorrow, at dawn, place the baby on the ground in front of the gate where the community herd is kept. Let the beasts decide her fate. If the cattle trample her to death as they leave their pen, that is her destiny; if she survives, I will raise her.”
Sefu took his eyes off his mother. He let them travel toward the treetops. Then they veered down to Kondo and Zuberi, who were silent during Nkamba’s appeal. Finally, he gazed into the crowd that had gathered and were meandering all the way from the hut to the sprawling tree. Sefu looked to the elders of the clan—Kondo and Zuberi—as though for a solution. Kondo’s placid expression was one quite familiar to Nkamba, while Zuberi appeared anything but serene. The deep crease between Zuberi’s eyes twitched as though, Nkamba thought, in his mind he was concocting a muddy potion from the chaos of the situation.
Finally Sefu spoke: “This evil spirit cannot be my daughter.” He turned his back to his mother and continued his conversation with the elders of the clan.
“But she is.” Nkamba held up the child in front of him, forcing him to look at her. The baby hiccupped, inhaling too much air. “First she is the daughter of God and the Spirits of the Lake. Like every child is. And after that, she is your daughter.”
The elderly woman had doubts about allowing a herd of cattle to decide the fate of the newborn, but that custom was her granddaughter’s only alternative to imminent death in the forest, so Nkamba grabbed it. Like everyone in her tribe, she believed in the Spirits of the Lake. Those Spirits asserted that a zeru zeru be left to perish in the heart of the forest. She also believed, though, in the words of Father Andrew who, during Sunday Mass, spoke of a God who loved all living things indiscriminately. Nkamba saw God’s love flow through this angelic soul that she cradled in her arms, and Father Andrew’s God wanted the baby to live.
“I will consider it,” concluded Sefu.
A murmur of incredulity snaked its way among the villagers. Each of them had something to say, and soon voices rose, not in conversation but as individual threads that wove into the voice of the land.
“The birth of a white shadow is a bad sign,” declared a young fisherman on the fringes of the crowd.
“Zeru zerus must be left in the forest from the moment of birth as an offering to the Spirits.”
“That is how it has always been. She has to die alone, far from the community.”
“The entire population benefits when she is sacrificed to the Spirits—wealth and riches,” added an elderly man, waving his staff in the air.
“Why is she so different?” asked a boy whose legs were so long and thin he looked like a gazelle. He was in that in-between age when childhood gives way to adolescence.
“It’s obvious,” said one adult. “So that she who is sacrificed for the well-being of the community can be easily recognized among the newborns. Though, traditional sacrifice should be avoided. If the police find out, they’ll arrest us.”
“Well, then, what do we do?” asked the boy.
“We protect the father who allows the zeru zeru to die in the forest or who poisons it.”
The boy nodded with gravity.
“We have a lot of problems,” muttered a snaggletooth fisherman in an I ♥ NY T-shirt. “We haven’t caught many fish lately, and the rice and cassava harvests are increasingly scarce. A limb of a zeru zeru woven into a net will make it impossible for fish to hide.” Nkamba was aware that the fisherman had many worries of late. His fifth child had been recently born and the family was always short of food, keeping him awake with worry at night, his wife had told her.
“If that thing is allowed to live, we’ll have even worse luck. Let’s get it the second it’s dead so we can make amulets.”
“While it’s still alive!” cried one of the elders. “Everyone knows an embulamaro vanishes at death.”
A tall man, thin like a brittle branch and with pinhole eyes, approached the group. He had been standing on the sidelines up until then, silent and preoccupied.
“Listen to me!” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “You know if we can recover it while it’s still living, the disgrace of its birth will transform into bounty, bringing us wealth and good fortune. Through its body, gold will rise! And when it’s old enough, our village will have our own cure for AIDS.”
Several of the men nodded, others whispered, and a growing hum emanated around the baobab.
Sefu gazed at the ground, his left eye dominated by a nervous twitch. Though Sefu was of large stature, some part of him was always moving, like a boat being bounced on the lake when the waters were choppy.
Zuberi seemed to take in that the new father had lost his bearings. He looked to the village chief and capitalized on Kondo’s inertia by grasping Sefu’s hands, snaring his eyes and attention. Like the tall thin man, Zuberi saw an opportunity staring him in the face. “Let the Spirits of the Lake decide through the beasts.”
The baby’s father inhaled with resignation. After the shaman had spoken, he had to obey.
One of the clansmen crowding around the tree also let out an expression of irritation when he heard Zuberi had decided to abide by the old woman’s request.
Nkamba was amazed that Zuberi, not Kondo, had taken her side. One never knows through whom the Spirits will speak, she thought, and that the words came from Zuberi, a self-important dolt, only reinforces that the Spirits of the Lake are protecting my mjukuu. Swaddling the baby, Nkamba quickly withdrew from the crowd and returned to the hut.
As she opened the sheet-metal door, Nkamba ordered the loiterers out, protecting the babe in her arms.
The stream of women left without saying a word. One of them, however, the daughter of Nkamba’s sister and a longtime friend of Juma, stayed behind.
Since Yunis was of childbearing age, it was possible the taint of the birth would cling to her, curse her own future children. To protect her progeny, she knew she had to follow tradition. Yet, since the time she and Juma were children, the two had been inseparable, together taking the sheep and goats to graze. Not having a sister, Yunis took Juma as hers. Though they were born in different rainy seasons, they seemed to have a common destiny, at least until nine months before. As girls, they learned from Yunis’s mother—side by side—how to sew and mend clothing. They both grew to be tailors. When they married, they shared the dream of having a home full of children. Then Juma had conceived but Yunis had not. When Juma’s first pains came and she was certain this one would be born, Yunis felt like a dry stream. Why can’t I have children? she had cried as she watched her friend’s belly grow, repeating the whine to herself while attending the birth.
When she saw that the creature was not a baby but a zeru zeru, Yunis felt dismay and relief. Certainly it was better to wait many rainy seasons before conceiving, she told herself, than to give birth to a disgrace.
As a young woman of the clan, she had to follow the custom to ward off a similar disaster from striking her. However, a sense of guilt and fear of offending Juma and harming their friendship made her hesitant to go through with it.
The last of her qualms were brushed aside when one of the old women of the clan said before stepping out of the hut, “You have to do it. You belong to Sefu’s clan. The spell will latch onto you all the more.”
Juma will understand, Yunis told herself. This is how it’s always been done. Juma would not want me to suffer the same disgrace.
She stared at her friend’s belly in silence. Then she sipped some water to rinse her mouth, and she began: “Wretched zeru zeru.” She spat with force at Juma, aiming directly for her navel with the intent of poisoning the root of the evil. She tilted back her head and spat a second time and then a third, as though she were releasing a scream of pain. And she continued to spit until she had no more saliva. Then she left the room.
Nkamba spent the night praying to the Spirits of the Lake and to Father Andrew’s God—the God known as both the beginning and the end, the God with power over every human being.
“You give and take away, you create and destroy. Mungu, Mulungu, Ruwa, and Ishwaga, Creator of the universe, of man, of woman, of the trees, the mountains, rivers, lakes, and animals, the rain and the dawn, Jesus Christ our savior. Every element is Your representative on Earth and reflects Your face. If something does not go well, it is because You are angry with man; every event occurs because You—Mungu—desire it. You were yesterday, You are today, and You will be tomorrow. You are pure, infallible, and wise.”
Thus, Nkamba prayed. Thus, Nkamba reminded the Spirits of the Lake of her long-ago oath. The baby, however, cried and cried in her grandmother’s arms before finally falling asleep, exhausted and hungry.
In the dark of night the old woman, crept to the pen where the cattle were kept, each one known to her by name. She stayed there only long enough to collect some urine from a cow to dampen a rag.
“This way you will recognize her as one of your own and do her no harm,” Nkamba whispered, perhaps to convince herself.
The sun shimmered pink on the eastern horizon the next morning. Nkamba, in her house, pinched the baby’s arm fiercely and released the flesh just before damaging it. She wanted to make her scream. The infant needed to be heard—and heard well—by the animals in the pen. Nkamba said another prayer, and then wrapped the baby in the damp rag and left to take her granddaughter to the ritual that would determine all of their fates.
In the presence of the head of the village, along with the witch doctor, members of the tribe and others who had gathered to witness the event, Nkamba set the yelling bundle on the ground, right in front of the pen’s gate. She asked her son if she could be the one to open it. After a nod, Sefu waited, a motionless ebony statue against a gray sky that threatened rain. Most of the villagers hoped to see the hooves of the milk cows trample the newborn and, thus, ward off the curse that risked destroying their island world.
Nkamba observed her son out of the corner of her eye. If the baby was trampled, she would mourn for Sefu as well as for her grandchild. The evil that lived in her boy and allowed him to let his daughter die would condemn him to the same destiny that Nkamba had suffered. Kheri would have behaved differently, she told herself. She remembered the day he returned from Mwanza at the beginning of the long rains, all those years ago. When he had heard what had happened in his absence, he held Nkamba all night long, and together they cried and mourned and prayed.
She opened the gate.
The beasts bellowed and moaned and crowded the pen’s entryway. They were restless and impatient to free themselves from the enclosure.
The first cow trod forward with uncertain steps. The animal lowered its muzzle toward the infant, obstructing the others behind it. It sniffed at the bundle and stepped over it. The second and then the third cow distinguished the presence of a living thing on the ground and sidestepped it too.
The pressure of the herd behind the few beasts that were loose began to build. They bellowed more and bucked, causing a frenzy as they jostled through the gate. The stench and the dust generated by the herd obscured the infant. Many hooves pounded the earth, one landing violently on the bundle. Nkamba held her breath; she had done all she could. The rest of the villagers were straining to see signs of life in the small bundle that the cattle had now passed. The din of the cows receded. In the distance, a crack of thunder sounded. A silence from the crowd of spectators could be felt by Nkamba.
Then, out of the hush, an acute and distressing cry from the tiny creature issued forth. A small white arm broke free and waved in the air.
Nkamba felt her heart do a flip. She was alive! Her granddaughter had survived certain death in her first day of life. The old woman looked at Sefu. Her son nodded, and she rushed to pick up her grandchild.
The baby cried and thrashed about. Nkamba held her tight, rocking her in the way a shell and its mollusk are moved by the rhythm of waves on the lake. The newborn had escaped her first threat, though Nkamba knew the dangers of life would never be over for her.
“What will become of you when I go to your grandfather?” she whispered.
The baby quieted. The older woman extended her mjukuu toward her firstborn son, presenting him with the gift of a small white body with its sparse, curly blond hair. Nkamba’s tight-lipped smile transformed her eyes into two slits while her arthritic hands trembled under the slight weight of her naked granddaughter wrapped in a rag. It began to rain, and the raindrops released the sour smell of urine from the swaddling cloth. The sound of boughs and branches shaking in the wind shrouded the buzz of the villagers’ pronouncements. The restless herd moved on, moaning, oblivious to their part in the drama.
Sefu looked to the side, in search of the head of the community who, in turn, locked eyes with the witch doctor.
Under the pounding raindrops, the baby had begun to whine again. The newborn’s father waited for the pronouncement of the leaders of the clan. Kondo and Zuberi took their time. Finally the shaman tilted his head forward, ever so slightly, and the head of the village responded in kind. Nkamba inhaled deeply. For the shaman it was clear the Spirits of the Lake had spoken through the beasts. Sefu understood that it was their will that the zeru zeru live.
Looking at his mother, without so much as grazing the baby with his eyes, Sefu said, “May your will, as well as that of the Spirits of the Lake, and my word be done. It lives. However, it will remain unnamed and will not belong to my clan, and from this day forward, it shall live with you. As for me, I leave this house and shall return to live with my first wife and children.”
Juma stared at the ground as her husband spoke. He had made it clear to her that he would never forgive what he considered her impure betrayal that led to the birth of the curse.
The racket of rain on sheet-metal roofs echoed the downpour of words from the villagers. Mindful that disgrace from the birth would affect them all—from the young to the old—they wanted to express opinions and participate in deciding the fate of the zeru zeru whose destiny was tied to theirs with a double thread.
Nkamba answered her son with a smile, pulling the child toward her bosom, and then she took two small steps to the side until she was standing in front of Kondo and Zuberi. Sefu understood that his mother wanted to receive their consent, face to face. She was looking for a single nod that would spread across the entire island, like a ripple of a wave to the water’s edge. She had always been hardheaded.
The two men were stoic. Kondo broke the impasse when he commanded, “Go, Nkamba,” accompanying his words with a gesture of his hand. The old woman shuffled in retreat without turning her back to them. Sefu and those gathered watched Nkamba until she disappeared inside the hut with the newborn, fully aware that until she was out of sight, the decision could be changed with the rapidity of clouds that clear for a beam of golden sunlight.
Sefu left with the elders of his clan. He promised himself that he would never so much as glance in the direction of the hut where he had lived with the mother of the zeru zeru. The crowd dissipated behind the leaders’ slow steps; the two men were absorbed in a discussion that no one could hear.
Juma, all alone, stared at the door of her hut. Crossing that threshold meant entering a prison without bars.
Your life as a shunned bride begins today, she said to herself. She looked at the room full of ritual objects for a propitious birth—libations, semi-precious stones, bones for divination. She thought about her joy during the previous months of pregnancy, before the skin of her daughter became whiter than the cloth in which she was swaddled. For an instant, Juma felt the creature move again inside her, recalling the vital force that filled her from the first moment she knew her womb was inhabited. Hate for this zeru zeru replaced her love for her real daughter, and the mother cried out for mercy, imagining her husband there with her. She thought of Afua, his first wife, many rainy seasons older than Juma and a big gossip. Juma had been so proud to have a husband who could afford two wives, and she had been convinced that she would always remain the favored wife. Rain began to fall again, and the fat drops pattered on the straw roof like twigs shaken by the wind. Then Juma heard a cry, and her breasts began to lactate.
Nkamba had been inside the hut, waiting for her. She walked in her daughter-in-law’s direction, holding the baby out toward her.
Juma’s body stiffened.
“My dear,” Nkamba said with a smile, “you must feed your child.”
Juma did not react, except to turn her face to the tiny window near the door. The sun will come out soon, she thought.
The baby wiggled in her grandmother’s arms. Nkamba went to her daughter-in-law and unveiled the young woman’s breast. Juma did not resist, and the baby latched onto her nipple. The new mother watched, her arms down by her sides. Nkamba held her granddaughter to Juma’s breast, her hand supporting the baby’s back. Then, with a surge of affection, she passed her other arm around Juma’s neck and pulled her close. The tiny creature, who was between them, drank greedily from her mother. Juma wished a real baby was suckling, not a zeru zeru.
“I need to confide something, but I must be certain you will keep the secret,” Nkamba said quietly in Juma’s ear.
Juma shifted. Her mother-in-law might have knowledge about her condition. “My tongue shall fall in the lake and be eaten by crabs if I speak of it.”
“My husband had gone to Mwanza. We did not have a field to plow nor a boat from which to fish; he was forced to look for work elsewhere. Otherwise, he would never have left me alone while I carried our first child. He would never have allowed her to disappear.”
“The time of the birth came. I was happy, just as you were yesterday. My husband was far away, but I was surrounded by the affection of our families. I did not suffer pain and gave birth as quickly as a hen lays an egg. I offered the infant my breast, and the sensation gave me wings upon which to fly beyond the shores of the lake. Watching her latched to my breast, sucking my heart into her…It was the first and last time I nursed a child. Did you know that Sefu took milk from Arafa?”
“What do you mean, the first and last time?” asked Juma. “And who is this girl if my husband has no sisters?”
“Shortly after the birth of my firstborn, she, too, became zeru zeru, as my grandchild has. They used the same words with me as they have with you. They insisted the zeru zeru belonged to the Spirits of the Lake and it was to our gods she had to return. I believed and trusted them, that it was the best solution for the child and for me and for my husband. Had Kheri been present, destiny would have led my daughter along the path to our home. Instead, I placed her in the arms of another woman, knowing she would be left in the forest.” Nkamba shook her head and looked out the window. “Time passed, and I had another baby, but I was unable to nourish him. My breasts remained forever empty. The moment I gave up my daughter, I was cursed.”
Juma could feel her mother-in-law’s labored breath on her cheek and the mouth of the infant on her breast. Still, she remained frozen.
After a pause, Nkamba spoke again. “I do not want you to live with the remorse that has imprisoned me. We have saved her. Help me so that she grows and leads a rich life. I am old. How many more rainy seasons will I live?”
Juma twisted free from Nkamba’s determined embrace and wrenched her breast from the baby’s mouth. “I will not help it live!” she shouted. “I want to live with my husband! I want my previous life, not this zeru zeru that has destroyed my family!”
“I understand your pain,” Nkamba replied, “but if you nurse the infant, I promise I will convince my son to return to you.”
Juma’s breath came in gasps. Sefu had always been deferential to his mother. Her only hope was her mother-in-law’s influence over her husband.
“As long as I have milk, I will nurse it. After that, for me it is dead.”
Nkamba had prepared meat soup and had brought it to Juma, a delicacy to help the new mother recover from fatigue and produce good milk. The dish sat on the table. Juma ignored it. She went to the mirror, searching her reflection. What she saw disturbed her, and she turned the looking glass toward the wall.
The sun was setting. The last ray of light made its way through crevices in the roof and fell on Juma’s drawn face. She felt as though she had aged ten rainy seasons since the previous sunset. She undressed. Naked and confused, she searched the hut with her eyes. She saw an unused cloth, left from the birth, lying in a corner, a long, narrow piece of white linen. She seized the bandage and began to wind it around her chest, tight and then tighter, promising herself to do so until her breasts went dry. She lay on her bed of palm leaves and held her husband’s pillow close. His scent of nut and mango made her weep.
The baby always took her mother’s milk under Nkamba’s vigilant gaze. Sometimes Juma, while nursing, would fall asleep with her daughter. The grandmother, noticing the serenity of the young mother’s sleep, shook her head. If only Juma had the courage to confess to herself the peace she found having the baby near!
Only once did Nkamba trust her daughter-in-law to be alone with the infant. She was so happy seeing them close; Juma’s long tapered fingers patted the little one’s gold hair. Nkamba felt the need to share her joy with her husband. She went to his burial site, closed her eyes, and murmured, “Kheri, our baby has returned and is stronger than ever. This time she will live!”
Going back toward Juma’s hut, the old woman quickened her step until she was running as quickly as her arthritic body would allow. Her granddaughter was screaming, desperation inflaming her voice. Naked under the cruel sun, the newborn lay on the yellow earth in front of the sheet-metal door. Nkamba threw herself on the tiny creature, snatching her from the jaws of the sun’s rays, and carried her into the shade of a tree. She railed against her daughter-in-law, who stared at her—dully, lifelessly—from the doorway.
“I thought the sun might change her color,” said Juma.
Nkamba gathered the baby’s few things and walked away with short, rapid steps.
“You told me you would convince Sefu to come back to me if I fed the zeru zeru!” Juma shouted, running after them.
Nkamba wanted to yell back, “No, I will never keep my promise,” that she would prefer to see Juma drown in the lake and be eaten by fish than meet her again in the market. However, she knew that keeping her word would be beneficial for the baby’s future. If her son took back his second wife, perhaps he would also accept his daughter into his home.
“It is more in my interest than in yours,” Nkamba said, turning away with the baby in her arms.
Night after night, Juma bound her chest before going to bed. As she slept she was haunted by nightmares and stabbing pain. Her breasts felt like blazing embers. One evening, she decided she would rid herself once and for all of the cursed milk that insisted on flowing from her breasts. She took a long strip of fine cloth, dampened it, and tied one end to a pole in the hut. From the farthest side of the room she began to turn in circles, winding the wet cloth around her chest so tight that she could barely breathe. Juma could have saved herself such suffering; Nkamba had already decided that would be the last day the baby would suckle from her mother. Starting the next morning, she would give the child goat’s milk.
Mosi—Father Andrew—was born on Ukerewe and lived there until he was fourteen years old. He was a solitary boy who did not like to participate in the diversions of other youngsters. By age eight, he was certain he would leave the island.
It happened on an afternoon when the houses assumed the color of the sun and the air seemed to shine with its own light; Mosi passed under the great baobab and spotted an unusual gathering. He squirmed his way to the front of the crowd. Two men, dressed in long black tunics, were talking about the life of a man with a foreign name.
“His eyes shone like rays of light, and his gaze was so blinding no one could look directly at his face,” one of them said.
Slowly, as the news of the strangers’ presence spread across the fields and among the village dwellings, the number of people under the great tree grew. The villagers listened with fascination to stories about this special man who spoke of justice and refuge and who defended the weak and oppressed. They were surprised to hear he had cured illnesses and deformities and that he was awaiting good, deserving men in a kingdom of light beyond this earthly life. Mosi was lucky enough to claim one of the books the men were distributing. “Here is salvation, justice, and eternal life,” the Jesuit said as he handed the boy the leather-bound pages.
“I’ll never sell it or feed it to the fire, I promise,” said Mosi, who ran home clutching the volume in his hands.
He often went to listen to the priests talk about Jesus of Nazareth. Gradually, Mosi fell in love with He who dispensed justice and love, and every day he read a part of the book that told the story of Jesus’s life.
One evening, after he had stayed too long at the shore, tossing stones into the lake, he arrived home for supper only to find the table bare. His mother was waiting, furious, and his apologies were useless. He would be punished: His kerosene lamp would be taken from him, the one he kept next to his bed. Thus, he spent the night in darkness, unable to read the Gospel. At dawn, he extracted the book from under his blanket and read the story of Jesus receiving a group of children whom adults had tried to keep at bay so as not to disturb Him. Mosi was such a child, and he was certain that Jesus wanted to receive him. It was then Mosi decided to follow His example: to help others. That would be his work. To spend his life without Him would be like living in a darkened room without the light of a lantern to dispel the gloom.
So it was that at the age of fourteen, Mosi went to Mwanza to enter the seminary. It was a challenge to convince his father he didn’t want to marry. In the end, his mother’s intervention and his own stubbornness prevailed. After long years of study and finally ordination, he began to travel among the villages in his service. Every Sunday he returned to his island to lead Mass. The day his aged father saw him for the first time after many rainy seasons—tall, well fed, and dressed in a black tunic—he was in awe and bowed his head. Father Andrew wrapped him in his arms, blessing him in the name of the one who had become his only God.
It was several months after her granddaughter’s birth that Nkamba waited until the end of Mass to approach Father Andrew. She tired of her son’s persistent eschewal of Juma. She had given up hope of his ever accepting his second wife and their daughter and had been trying to, at the very least, convince Sefu to agree to name the child. She decided to ask Father Andrew for his help on persuading her son. He was a learned man and came from a respected local clan. If anyone could help her, it was he. He was a representative on Earth of the One who embraced the excluded, wasn’t he? she asked herself. That was what Mosi always said.
The infant was sleeping, wrapped in a sling on her grandmother’s back. Nkamba waited for the others to leave the priest’s side. Once he was alone, she shifted the sling so the baby was in her arms, and she walked with determination toward him.
“My mjukuu does not have a name,” she said, revealing the baby’s face. “No one wants to give her one, neither her father nor Zuberi. Please, try to convince them; perhaps they’ll listen to you.”
The priest seemed to stifle a grimace. “Certainly they will listen to me. Only I—God’s representative—can give a name to the child. Or rather,” he pointed his index finger skyward, “only He can.”
Nkamba looked at the sky, her granddaughter, and then at the young man who appeared annoyed. Her wrinkled face revealed contrasting emotions. For her, any god would do as long as the babe in her arms was given a name, and she imagined Father Andrew knew what she was thinking.
“You are a priest,” she said finally, “but you are also the son of a farmer. Zuberi will not want you to give the baby a name.”
“She will have a name and will be baptized in the open before the community,” he said, smiling. “Return to me in a week.”
Zuberi, bent over his mortar, ground the pharmaceutical tablets to powder. With each strike of the pestle, he imagined his fame growing, stretching outside the limits of the island, reaching throughout the country and, perhaps, beyond. People would come from far away to request his services. One day even white men would appear. He puffed out his chest as he reminded himself that his family had been healers for twenty generations, and when future shamans spoke of Zuberi, the stories of his magic would be shared and swapped—they’d say he defined the Golden Age of the divinatory arts.
Jane, Zuberi’s vervet, was sitting on the table watching her master, captivated by the sound of the pestle in the mortar. Her bright eyes—black like roasted coffee beans, white fur framing her thick-skinned face—skipped from Zuberi to the row of colored tablets.
“Lucky little monkey, how proud you must be to belong to the best healer in Tanzania. One day my name will be on everyone’s lips!” he said, transferring the powder from the mortar into a wooden bowl.
There was a knock on his workroom door, and his daughter announced the visitors. Zuberi hurried to put the tablets back into their plastic vials, hiding them in a large drawer under his worktable. Drying the sweat from his brow, he opened the door.
Father Andrew entered, followed by his elderly father, Idi. Even though Idi was a humble farmer, he was considered one of the wisest of village elders and could not be ignored.
“Idi, welcome to my home. And I welcome your son too,” Zuberi said with condescension. What can this priest want from me? he wondered.
“Thank you for receiving us,” replied Idi. “I hope you and your family are in good health.”
“I wish the same for you and your family.”
After exhausting the required pleasantries and inquiries about the health of members of their respective clans, Father Andrew said, “I am here about Sefu’s child. Don’t you believe it’s time to give her a name? Soon I will baptize her, though I’d like your approval.”
Abruptly, the smile disappeared from Zuberi’s lips, leaving in its place an indignant grimace.
“Never,” he replied with irritation. “An embulamaro is without name. We must abide the Spirits of the Lake.”
Father Andrew struggled with the temptation to leave the house and slam the door behind him. He remained silent for several moments as he considered how to reply. “Think, Zuberi. In our village every lamb, every cow, every goat has its name. Even your monkey has one! What could be wrong if we give one to the child?”
“It is simple. A zeru zeru is not a person, not even an animal,” he replied, petting Jane, who obediently rubbed herself against the witch doctor’s incongruous Western-style button-down shirt, a red cloth tied over his right shoulder to identify his tribe.
“What is a zeru zeru in your opinion? Do they not eat our same food? Do they not speak our same language?”
Zuberi shook his head and huffed, striding toward the door. Vexed, he opened it. “Zeru zerus have never had names. Why should that change now? Excuse me, but I have important things to attend to.”
Alone once more, Zuberi considered why he chose to let the zeru zeru live. Money is power and magic, he thought to himself, and let’s never forget the riches that a zeru zeru can bring. I must hatch a plan to wrest from it all I can. It will be the centerpiece of my Golden Age.
Although Father Andrew had studied and led a life very different from that of his family, he had not forgotten his origins and held deep respect for his father. When he had requested Idi’s advice after Nkamba approached him about naming her granddaughter, the old man had reminded his son of the importance of precise, unwritten rules that had to be followed and that it would be most advantageous to appeal to the clan’s elders rather than to act discretely. “Your one God may be stronger than the Spirits of the Lake,” the old man had said to his son, “yet it is here where the zeru zeru must live, and to give it a name behind Kondo’s and Zuberi’s back would be a grave offense. Try to convince them to collaborate with you. Be kind and respectful so they will want to indulge you. Then you may act according to the wishes of your God.”
Standing before Zuberi, Father Andrew had felt as if he were taking an examination given by a man who he held in disesteem; however, he had been aware that he needed to ingratiate himself, and he had prayed for strength to hold his tongue, which, with the help of God he had, until he was outside the hut. “Who does that charlatan think he is? God will punish him for his arrogance!”
Idi walked alongside his son. “Your God is powerless against our traditions. Changes need time not threats. Forget about Zuberi for now, and let’s pay a visit to Kondo,” he said, placing his hand on his son’s shoulder. “He knows the secret of balance. Plus, he has always been especially fond of Nkamba and might be inclined to extend her the favor. You’ll see that he knows what to do.”
Kondo’s house sat in the central part of the village, protected by mango and acacia trees. The chief was expecting Father Andrew’s visit. He remembered well Nkamba’s countenance on the day of her granddaughter’s escape from death—the expression of a suffering mother. He had seen her attend Mass and imagined her solitude. He knew that sooner or later she would go to the priest and his God. It was for this reason that he had deferred the decision on whether the zeru zeru should live—any request she brought to him would be difficult to deny.
“And, so, Zuberi sent you away from his house,” said Kondo. “He is ill-mannered, but do you want him as your enemy?”
Idi hastened to respond on his son’s behalf. “No, the shaman was preoccupied with other things when we intruded on him. We are ready to forget his offensive behavior so long as my son can give a name to the child, according to the will of his God.”
Kondo rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I speak to you, Idi, with an empty mouth. As a village elder, I trust you understand how difficult this situation is.” Kondo paused.
The only sound in the room came from a fly that lifted in flight.
“Idi, if I follow the will of your son’s God, I will disappoint many people. If I listen to the Spirits of the Lake, I will disappoint fewer, yet other problems will remain.” Kondo drank some tea and filled cups for his guests. “…The most important one has to do precisely with a name for the zeru zeru,” he added, as if he were talking to himself. “Never mind that the father made a public pronouncement that the baby would have no name.”
Idi nodded. Father Andrew shifted nervously on the mat where he was sitting.
“Allow me time to think of a solution. When I have decided, I will let you know,” said Kondo.
That evening Kondo refused the supper his wife had prepared. In the depths of the night, he stepped out of his hut and withdrew to a place under the great baobab. He needed solitude in order to reflect. Although for many, many rainy seasons, he had mediated the relations among inhabitants of the village, his old soul told him that this time was different. Too many forces conflicted, and the traditions of his people were like leaves on the winds. Idi was a good man. He came with respect to ask for justice from the head of his village, and he deserved to be satisfied. A slight breeze uncovered the full moon from behind wisps of sheetlike clouds. Yes, Idi’s request deserved to be granted. As for Zuberi, he had the manners of a wild buffalo. His ambition made him blind, and his wisdom was barely as deep as a rice bowl. Many of the villagers—too many—were enchanted by his authoritative ways and his inflated promises. People follow those who speak loudest without paying attention to the meaning of their words, he thought with a touch of bitterness. Allowing Idi’s son to give a name to the zeru zeru could be the perfect opportunity to establish a new equilibrium. It might reduce Zuberi’s influence in the community, even if, in doing so, he would give greater credit to Father Andrew’s God. Hadn’t the Spirits of the Lake already decided that the child should live? Almost certainly, in this circumstance, the gods of Ukerewe and Father Andrew were in agreement. And how relieved Nkamba will be. In consensus, there is peace, asserted Kondo, and if the Greater Spirits are in harmony, there is no reason why men should not be so as well. He leaned his head against the trunk of the tree and looked up. The baobab was in flower; it was the blooming season. The large white hairy blossoms that hung among the leaves would bloom for only this one night. It could only be a good sign.
It was decided. He would go personally to Zuberi. Dawn appeared in the indigo sky. On Kondo’s way home, red beams—streaking through the chill and the sun, seeming so close to Earth as to threaten it—rose with haste above the horizon.
Zuberi did not expect a visit from the village chief, nor did he imagine Kondo would take Father Andrew’s request seriously. Just the same, the leader had come to his home in person to raise the question, a sign of respect and consideration of his position. They shared ugali and fish, and Kondo spoke with him as if they were equals.
“There cannot be any harm if the zeru zeru receives a name,” he said. “The Spirits of the Lake have already spoken through the animals, choosing life over death. Am I wrong?”
“Yes, so true. If, however, Sefu refuses to give a name to that creature, we have to respect him,” declared Zuberi, his face solemn.
Kondo was quick to explain that neither he nor Sefu would be burdened with that inconvenience. “The priest and his God will give a name to the embulamaro.”
A shadow of doubt crossed Zuberi’s mind. What sort of power did Kondo attribute to the priest? he wondered. Who gave Mosi the right to decide the name for a member of the community? He considered if Kondo was plotting to depose him and replace him with the one-god priest! Ah, he forgot, they were speaking about a zeru zeru, a nobody that would never be accepted as a living being. Mosi could do what he wanted. Zuberi took three black cowrie-shell amulets from his pocket, threw them to the ground, pronounced magic words, and declared, “Nkamba shall choose the name, not the young charlatan. On this Earth, people follow the will of the Spirits of the Lake, not the futile desires of a foreign god.”
Kondo nodded in silence.
“Although he is called ‘Father Andrew’ now, to us, he is always Mosi, the son of a poor farmer,” added Zuberi, his eyebrows pulling down tight over his eyes.
The head of the village left Zuberi’s hut to complete his final task: to speak with Sefu so that he would feel included in the decision. He set out for the father’s house as soon as the sun was beginning to set and a breeze cooled the way.
Sefu sat outside his hut, resting. He listened to Kondo without commenting, his eyes locked on the fire below the lamb that was cooking for the evening meal. Though the sun had vanished beyond the horizon, darkness had not yet come, and the earth radiated the heat it had absorbed during the day. The sheet-metal door was ajar, and the sound of female chatter hovered in the air along with the scent of the searing meat. Kondo could hear children laughing in the distance and a woman’s sharp voice, Sefu’s first wife’s, Kondo imagined.
“You have the final word, Sefu,” said the old man after having set out the matter.
“Why ask my opinion on something I am completely indifferent to?” said Sefu. “You decide. You’ll make my mother happy. She will be the only one to use the name. I, surely, shall never utter it.”
Though Kondo was able to quash the conflict around the zeru zeru this time, he anticipated that future battles would arise that would cause casualties. He prayed to the Spirits of the Lake that they wouldn’t tear his village apart.
On the Sunday of the baptism, as Nkamba sang a soft tune, she bathed the baby, rubbing her with a cloth soaked in warm water and soap. She wrapped the child in bright-colored fabric she’d bought the day before. At the service, no one from Nkamba’s family was present, nor was the baby’s mother. Nevertheless, standing before Father Andrew, cradling her granddaughter, the woman was happier than she had been for many rainy seasons.
“What would you like to call her?” asked Father Andrew.
“I believed you’d give her a name,” she replied.
“I told you I would baptize her. You must choose the name.”
Nkamba thought for several moments and then looked at her child’s serious countenance. “She will be called Adimu.”
Father Andrew nodded. “What could be more fitting.”
Yes, she is special, just like my own first child, Nkamba thought.
At that joyous moment, the old woman couldn’t have imagined that before too long her beloved granddaughter would be taken from her as her own unnamed daughter had been.
The night Adimu was conceived, as well as on the day of her disappearance one year after her birth, Charles Fielding was on Ukerewe Island near the village of Murutanga. Mr. Fielding, a white African and owner of a gold mine in Mwanza—on Tanzania’s mainland—was born and raised in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, as were his parents and grandparents, descendants of the first English colonists who landed in the Empire’s possessions shortly after the colonization of the southern hemisphere.
From the time of his birth, Charles had been away from Africa only for three interminable years. That period spent in England had been the worst of his life. The doctors called what he suffered “depression.” He knew, though, the diagnosis was incorrect. What was destroying his very soul and body was “homesickness.” His one desire was to return to the African continent. The specialists who had examined him had never set foot in Africa. They had no notion of how the land entered one’s blood or of the true color values behind the words “green,” “orange,” “yellow,” “blue.” No, not the shades one glimpses in this chilly urban penitentiary with the odor of combustion and exhaust but the tones of my homeland, he thought, with not the slightest trace of England’s epithet gray. The colors in Africa, so pure, so alive, drenched in the scent of the flower, fruit, plant that lend their names.
Homesickness it surely was, and to simply survive, he basked in memories of his experiences on the golden continent. When he gazed at his good luck charm, he felt less alone. The small gold nugget had been mined by his father who had given it to him for his fourteenth birthday. The stone was the size of a walnut—rough and bright yellow like a canary with ochre bands—embedded in a cage-like setting and attached to a chain. Rather than set it on his desk, he hid it in his pocket. He would always keep it with him, he had assured his father.
At Oxford, where he studied economics, he’d met Sarah, the woman who would become his wife. From the day they first kissed, they were inseparable. Charles proposed on one knee, slipping on the ring that had belonged to his grandmother, which had arrived, via his mother, from Zimbabwe. The two lovebirds blushed when, awkward young man that he was, he placed the ring on his beloved’s index finger, and Sarah gently guided him to her ring finger. The three-carat white pure Asscher diamond was the most beautiful gift Sarah had ever received and the only jewelry she would ever wear. She promised him she would not remove it until the day they gave it to their daughter.
Once he obtained the piece of paper that attested to his university degree, Charles convinced his wife to drop out of university, and, saying goodbye to Europe forever, Charles returned to his Africa with his Sarah by his side. Although he was unable to live away from the land he considered home, Charles, like his parents and his grandparents, felt “European”—English, to be exact. He would come to realize, eventually, just how much his perception was distorted.
From the time he was a child, Charles was attracted to any object that captured light. As an adult, he developed a proclivity for small shiny things with a value of tens of dollars or more per gram.
It was during his early years that his father taught him the power of wealth. Mr. Finley Fielding was forever traveling, either for business or between bed partners. Once Charles learned how money made the man, he could not do without it.
One hot day, when Charles was playing alone in his room with a couple of gold nuggets, he heard his father’s car being parked in the courtyard, and he saw the man enter the house. Finley had been away on a business trip for quite some time, and, overcome with anticipation, the son ran down the long staircase to the ground floor, threw open the door of his father’s study, and lunged toward the man, hugging him about the hips.
“What are you doing? Stop behaving like a dog,” Finley said, shaking his son and holding onto his arm. “Don’t you see I’m speaking with your mother?”
Charles, excited, waved the piece of paper he was holding in his hand. “Now you’re up to ten nuggets all together!” he shouted.
“Never a request for a horse or toys suitable for your age,” the father said with good humor as he looked at his son while digging into his jacket pocket to extract a silk pouch, embroidered with his initials. “However, I believe your calculations are incorrect. Ten nuggets are too many.”
The boy read from the piece of paper in his hand. “Two because you forgot to come to my end-of-year recital, two more because last year you were away.”
The woman looked at her husband, an expression of reproach in her eyes.
“Two because Mama and I always dine alone,” continued the boy. “And two more because you’ve never taken me riding. And the last two because you forgot to come see me play cricket, even though you had promised. All together that makes ten. Nuggets or gold coins!”
The father gave the pouch to his son. “Count them carefully,” the man said.
Charles counted eight small gold nuggets and seven coins. “Yes, I have what I need.”
“Are you sure? Did you take exactly ten?” insisted Mr. Fielding, jerking the bag from his son’s hands. “Now we’ll count them together, and if you took more than ten, I’ll keep everything because you lied,” he warned.
Charles became hysterical, thrashing his fists at his father’s chest. “I didn’t think you’d count! Give them to me; they’re mine! You’re never home, and I deserve them.”
The telephone rang and Charles’s mother ran to answer it. “Finley, the minister is on the phone. He says it’s urgent.”
“Here, take them and stop whining,” Mr. Fielding said, handing the pouch to his ornery son. “We’ll talk about this later. Now Daddy has important things to do.”
That evening, the boy cried himself to sleep, clutching his treasured gold.
As an adult, Charles would awaken at six. Though he had stopped smoking ten years earlier, every morning, he would light a cigarette without touching it to his lips. He’d set it on the ashtray and let it burn. It was his way of testing his volition. Once his cigarette ritual was performed, he checked prices quoted for precious metals and the official exchange rate for principal currencies. He read the first page of the Times and the Sunday Mail that his faithful assistant, Jackob, set on his desk before 6:45 a.m. and, after completing his morning rites, he went into the kitchen where his wife prepared his breakfast.
Sarah had followed Charles to Africa without a moment’s hesitation. He had been her one true love. Less than half a step behind him at all times, she saw herself as his shadow. Though she became a shadow of a person, before he had entered her life, she had been popular and formidable, a spirited young woman who was the sun to many satellites. She contained a powerful magnetism that she never acknowledged, and it was that which attracted Charles. Although Charles was drawn to her strength, she was drawn to his vulnerability. When it came to business he was a bull, and she loved his confident, commanding presence, but she sensed something tender behind his bluster. She heard a harmonic minor scale reverberating from his spirit and that reminded her of her father.
She had dreamed of having a conventional marriage and desired children—something they hadn’t discussed until after they were wed, though she had mentioned a daughter when Charles first proposed. As it turned out, she couldn’t conceive, and he didn’t wish to adopt, a frequent topic of conversation in their first years as husband and wife. In the end, she gave in. We’ll be together forever, and we’ll have our own type of happiness, even without children, Sarah repeated to herself every time the yearning for motherhood eclipsed her need to be a “good” helpmate.
On the day of Adimu’s birth, Sarah was with Charles on Ukerewe. They had bought the only building on the island that could be called a house in the Western sense of the word. It was a rectangular two-story brick structure with ten brick columns fronting it, creating a spacious veranda. That the home was white resulted in a striking contrast to that dusty place where the lightest color was the ochre soil. The doors—heavy, engraved wood—and the low walls of the patio, constructed with perforated brick, made it extravagant compared to the rest of the landscape. The natives of the island believed it had fallen out of the sky during a windy storm. Surrounding the house was a yard, bordered by centuries-old trees—so tall they created constant shade—that towered over the house itself.
“Finally a real home,” said Sarah with relief. For five years, since arriving in Africa, she had lived in houses with perimeter walls; this house, without a fence, gave her a reassuring sense of freedom. “Who was the previous owner?”
“It was built by the last king on the island, before Tanzania received its independence from the United Kingdom,” he said proudly. “I bought it from the heirs of a businessman who died when he was only thirty-three years old.” Her husband’s face became sad. Then his amused expression returned. “The homeowner’s stomach exploded because he disobeyed an inviolable law of this residence. One that will affect us, too, that is, if we don’t behave accordingly!” Charles snickered. “Jackob assured me. You trust Jackob, don’t you?”
His wife giggled.
“Ah, yes, no one but the king may have sexual relations inside the house.”
“Ours are not only sexual,” she said with an air of false reproach.
Charles recalled how amused he was when he had heard of the legend.
“It’s a matter of witchcraft, sir,” his assistant told him. “And it is not a good idea to go against witchcraft.”
He had set his hand on Jackob’s shoulder and said, “But now I’m the king of the island.”
Charles left Jackob to his anxieties. Though he loved this land, he was glad, he said to himself as his hand felt in his pocket for his lucky gold nugget, that his English upbringing placed him beyond these silly superstitions.
After a few connubial squabbles about the name, they decided to call it “White House.” Charles held that he had suggested it for its color, even if the high-sounding appellation offered association with another residence. The house was certainly worthy of an important man. The most important man. A king among the most important, he reminded himself.
Once refurbishments to the interior were complete, Charles and Sarah turned their attention to the garden and veranda. Shrubs and flowers were planted, arches and statues were ordered to embellish the open spaces, and heavy wrought-iron benches were imported from England, as were garden furniture from the colonial forge. After a long wait, every nook was ready to accommodate the Fieldings. Charles joked to his wife that at White House, they would rule over man and beast, and though Sarah laughed along with her husband, the statement couldn’t help but make her flinch.
Two coal black eyes were spying the house where Nkamba and Adimu lived, a single, rectangular room built from mud and sand brought from the shore of the lake and supported by an inner framework of woven tree branches. Season after season, rain eroded the outer layers, and near ground level, the roots of the plants used as foundation began to show. The home looked like an extravagantly shaped tree trunk, one of those oddities that nature seems to invent for no reason other than to startle humans. The roof was made of branches, held together with hemp cords and strips of palm leaves that were wrapped around a thick plastic tarp covered by a heavy mantle of long dry grass. It slanted steeply on all four sides of the hut to facilitate runoff during the rainy season. The door was made of sheet metal, rusted and reinforced by branches that Nkamba had added during Adimu’s first weeks of life. From the outside, one barely noticed the holes Nkamba had drilled next to the entrance so she could look out at night without being seen. The inside of the hut was darkened by soot from the cooking fire in a corner on the packed earth floor. On the other side of the hut were the palm mats used for sleeping. Her furnishings consisted of a small table and two plastic chairs, a container for water, a few cooking utensils, a pile of wood and charcoal. The bathroom was outside, a hole in the ground about six feet deep, partially covered by planks of wood. Behind the hut was a spacious yard, marked off by a fence made of dry, thorny branches. Originally the fence had kept grazing animals away from the house, but after Adimu’s birth, instead of a barrier to protect from intruding creatures, it had become an insurmountable limit, a border established by others to isolate the old lady and the zeru zeru. Inside the fence grew three large papaya and two imposing mango trees. Under one of these lay the body of Kheri, Nkamba’s husband.
Darkness terrified Nkamba, and she cursed the moon and the stars. From the first night of her granddaughter’s arrival, the slightest sound woke Nkamba with a start. She imagined a criminal hidden in the shadows might attack or kidnap Adimu. Nkamba developed an obsession with danger. She knew that only her rough and caring hands guaranteed the girl’s safety.
In order to confuse the neighbors, she’d spend several nights each week sleeping in the forest. She feared those with evil intentions might hide in plain sight: Moving locations would trick them. With Adimu fastened securely to her back, she ventured into the woodlands directly from the fields without going home, always seeking new, well-hidden places. Under the green forest arches, cloaked in blackness, Nkamba kept vigil, her eyes and instincts alert in the gloom, ready to sense a threatening presence. Thus, she held the child in the hollow formed by her bony legs.
Nights spent in the hut were marked by agitation. The grandmother was afraid of dogs, though always saved leftovers for them with the hope of keeping some feral ones nearby. They would be a deterrent for troublemakers and act as an alarm if someone came near. She reinforced the door with green branches—the most robust—and made arrangements for her bodily needs during the night.
Although her life had been upended by the arrival of her granddaughter, Nkamba did not neglect her husband. Upon returning from the fields of cassava and corn, she often sat under the mango tree and prayed at his tomb. Immobile, eyes half-closed, she’d whisper prayers and confidences while the baby sat on a straw mat in the shadiest spot under the thick, oblong leaves.
Most Sundays, grandmother and grandchild went to Mass. Nkamba believed there were never enough blessings for her little treasure. Surely some god would take her under his protection. For this reason, she prayed to them all, in particular to Mosi’s one and only—the one that procured Adimu a name—known to have special regard for the weak and defenseless.
However, on one particular Sunday, after Adimu had completed a cycle of seasons, the child’s restlessness prevented church attendance and an unexpected event occurred. On that Sunday, Adimu fidgeted on the mat and refused her manioc mush. Nkamba would get some milk for the baby, leaving her inside rather than exposing her to the sun, the child’s true enemy. Most of the village was at Mass, at home, or at the lake. The old woman peered through the peepholes before leaving her hut. No one around. Nkamba slipped out. In her hands she held a bowl to collect the milk she would get from her small herd.
Two coal black eyes, belonging to a young woman who was concealed behind a pile of stones and bushes, watched Nkamba leave the hut. As soon as Nkamba disappeared behind the first curve of the path, the clandestine woman, her face wrapped in blue fabric, came out of hiding and, with quick steps, approached the house. Adimu was lying on the mat, her white arms stretched out by the sides of her small body. The woman in blue lifted the baby, careful not to upset her, and she withdrew into the forest.
Charles and Sarah spent the following morning preparing a list of things they needed for their domestic milieu. Jackob, who understood how to satisfy Mr. Fielding from years of close contact with his employer, took note of each request. The assistant had worked for white men since he was a boy and knew from experience how exacting they could be. Mr. Fielding, though, was distinct from other bosses. He was white and African, and Jackob considered him a great man, through and through.
Midday, Jackob languished as he read the things left to do on the list: call, buy, invite, extend condolences, order, arrange, reserve, inform about changes and preferences. He was nearly prostrate with fatigue; nevertheless, he stayed at work until every detail was crossed off the list with a straight line of his pen.
Jackob kept an efficient agenda and carefully set reminders to eliminate any oversights. He would not forget anything, ever.
He knew Charles inside out: his mania for details and his perfectionism, the satisfaction he got from jobs well done. Jackob labored to provide his boss with what he wanted and needed, intuiting, at times, his boss’s desires, even before the man himself was aware of them. Jackob understood him at a glance and wanted little more than his boss’s approval. Charles was much more than an employer: for him, Charles was a mentor, a man he looked up to and modeled himself on. Jackob had everything he had ever wanted. His salary was the envy of his peers. He had a car, landline phone, and the opportunity to work for a tycoon.
As soon as Jackob had received confirmation that the purchase of the house had been concluded, he notified a friend from university, the director of one of the most exclusive resorts in Zanzibar, to start training cooks and service staff for White House. Jackob personally selected the six guards for the residence as well as the gardeners and driver. He hired his cousin as staff supervisor and house manager. It was Jackob’s wish that every detail would delight Charles and Mrs. Fielding, that even their most frivolous whim would be satisfied.
However, it was Jackob himself who took care of lunch on that Sunday. He had the table set in the garden in the shade of the enormous trees, dressed the table with bright cultivated flowers and fruits—a cluster of bananas, mangoes, and pineapple. He ordered an abundant meal of fried mandazi, stuffed zucchini, and sweet sausages from the kitchen, and he saw to it that a bottle of chilled wine was in a bucket.
Lunch was ready. The Fieldings were seated, admiring the well-laid table and anticipating the meal. Jackob waited until the couple was settled, and then drove home in his old Toyota sedan to spend his free afternoon with his wife and newborn daughter.
The young woman’s steps were uncertain. She fought the temptation to look at the child as she tried to hurry. Adimu had awakened, and she fidgeted under the batik cloth she was wrapped in, chattering and emitting baby sounds. The woman kept repeating to herself that it was not a baby but a zeru zeru, that it was nothing. It could not be admired; there was nothing to love. In any case, the woman was struggling to not think about the small body hidden by the fabric. To fight the seduction of the tiny thing, she held it out in front of her and away from her body. When the breeze would drift toward her, she’d catch a hint of fresh milky baby scent.
In the clearing, where the vegetation was thinner, the young woman looked around with anxiety, turning right and left to be certain no one followed her. The forest shouted, became dense, and the paths before her grew confusing, hostile. Rustling. Animal sounds. Penetrating odors. The vegetation pervaded—opulent, intertwining, snaking so as to fill every space. The woman tried to concentrate on the right path to follow, holding at a distance the tangle of sensations that were moving from her stomach to her head until the corner of the fabric slid to the side and the baby’s gaze met hers. With a toothless smile, Adimu put her chubby hand in her mouth. For a moment, they looked into each other’s eyes. The little one smiled at her. The young woman shook herself, covering the tiny face to protect her body from the baby’s charms, and she walked as quickly as possible.
Light from the midday sun worked its way between the weave of branches and bush. Though the woman felt hot, she hastened her steps, tripping on a clump of exposed roots. Right before the moment of impact with the earth, on instinct, she used one arm to break her fall, protecting the baby with the other. Adimu cried. The young woman stood and, without hesitation, continued walking. She reproached herself for her behavior. She should have let the zeru zeru fall to the ground, even if she risked crushing it with her body. She reminded herself that she had taken it to keep away bad luck. Was she not crossing the forest to reach the place where it could be abandoned to the will of the Spirits of the Lake? A place known to few, though well-known to the rain that falls from the sky and courses along the trunks of trees.
When the creature cried, the woman’s inner turmoil deepened. She tried to calm the zeru zeru by holding it close to her chest. The small body trembled under the batik cloth, and she lifted the covering to look at it. Adimu was still crying, large teardrops sliding down her pink cheeks. The woman felt cold, and her throat tightened into a painful knot. She looked around as if to search for help. She was alone. She set the bundle on the ground and examined the small body for injuries. Although there were none, she saw the infant was helpless. A small flame appeared to be lit inside the baby, directly under its white flesh. The young woman caressed the little thing, but the touch of her large adult hands seemed to agitate the child even more. She looked at her own chest, and after a moment’s hesitation, she exposed a breast. Adimu sucked hungrily on the woman’s indulgent yet empty bosom. The sense of security the maternal contact must have provided calmed the child.
The woman leaned her back against the trunk of a tree. She closed her eyes. The melodic whispers of the forest and the contact with a burgeoning life hushed her solitude. She wouldn’t be able to see her plan through. Impossible. The secret place she intended to take Adimu vanished from the paths in her mind, and a different road opened before her.
She stood up and walked with determination in the new direction without lingering any longer before the muddle of branches. The woman whose face was hidden by a blue veil knew exactly where to go.
“Listen to this story that has become legend. They told it to me the first time I set foot on the island,” said Charles to his wife, eyeing a bunch of bananas decorating the table along with other fruits. “Have you noticed there are no banana trees on the island?” He picked up the chilled bottle of wine, looked at the label, and poured some for them both.
Sarah searched the horizon, looking for a point of reference. “No…”
“Imagine. They say there was once a banana tree for every inhabitant.”
“It’s strange there are none now…Why is it?”
“It’s because of their stupidity,” the man said sarcastically. “In the eighties, a politician maintained that because of mosquitoes in banana trees, people were dying from malaria.”
Sarah placed her fork on the table and leaned back in her chair. “And so?”
“And so…he convinced the inhabitants to cut them down. But the myth of mosquitoes in banana trees was one of many folk beliefs. The mistake was discovered too late.” Charles took a sip of his Sauvignon Blanc, laughed, and then started coughing for having inhaled the alcohol.
The woman with coal black eyes ran through the thinning forest. As there was no filter of vegetation, the heat became unbearable. She finally reached the outer limits of the garden of White House. The wazungu were dining outside. She set the child on the ground with care, making sure the fabric covered the baby’s flesh. Adimu was drowsy. She would soon fall asleep. The woman turned away, forcing herself to avoid a final glance at the bundle lying among the bushes. She took a few steps yet couldn’t help herself from turning around, overcome by guilt. The child could be attacked and devoured by an animal before the white people noticed her. She veiled her face and picked up Adimu who wiggled under the cloth and began to whimper. Calling on her reserve of courage, considering how this bundle was the product of her best friend and cousin, the young woman walked toward the Fieldings’s table, cradling it against her breasts.
Charles and Sarah were raising glasses in a toast to their new house when they heard, from the green depths of the forest, the cry of an infant drawing near. They saw the vibrant blue of a woman’s traditional dress emerge from the vegetation. Sarah searched her husband’s reassuring face.
Charles noted a flash of anxiety in his wife’s eyes. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s only a beggar with a child.”
When the young woman reached them, she placed the sobbing bundle on Charles’s lap. He looked down at the child, scowling, and was greeted with the light of small blue eyes and pouting lips that immediately grinned.
What kind of child is this? he asked himself. A white Negro? His mind lingered on the word “Negro.”
Charles shifted his attention from his knees, compelling himself not to caress the baby or look at the woman who was standing in front of him.
“It is Adimu. I return her,” said the young woman before she ran away in the direction from which she came.
Charles felt contrasting instincts—one was, shockingly, to protect the baby and the other was to flick it from him as if it were a scorpion fallen onto his shoulder from the ceiling. His instinct to purge himself of the encumbrance won out. Unable to toss it onto the ground, he jumped up and ran after the woman, clutching the child in his arms. The woman, who was younger, lighter, and much faster than him, had disappeared into the dense forest. Charles faltered, then went as far as the edge of the property and set the child on the ground. He walked back to the table, took his place, and resumed eating his sausage, his eyes fixed on his plate. He knew that beggar women often left their children with whites for handouts and sympathy, a trick well recorded.
Adimu wailed. Sarah was petrified, her eyes drawn like magnets to the infant from the moment it curled up in her husband’s arms. After she could no longer contain herself, she ran to the baby, lifted her from the ground, and hugged her, rocking her in an attempt to calm her cries. Sarah called the maids. Although at first the domestics were fearful of the zeru zeru, they followed Sarah’s lead, and together they comforted the child, cooing at it and giggling endearments.
Charles phoned his assistant. “Get over here and help us,” he growled at Jackob. “Someone has left a baby. A white Negro.” He emphasized the last words.
Jackob told his boss he’d drop everything and be there in five minutes.
Sarah paced with Adimu in her arms. The baby’s cries tormented her more than her husband’s indifference. It seemed that nothing could console the sweet bundle. She walked over to Charles.
“You hold her,” said Sarah, offering him the baby.
Charles remained still as his wife placed the baby carefully on his lap. He looked at it, balancing her on his knees to minimize the contact between them. Adimu stopped crying.
A titter escaped from Sarah’s lips. “You look good with a baby on your lap. And she feels safe with you; she trusts you.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Get her off me immediately,” said Charles, relieved to see Jackob’s Toyota driving toward the house. The car pulled to a stop in a cloud of dust, and Jackob got out, slamming the door. As soon as Charles saw his assistant, he lifted Adimu and handed her to him. The baby started screeching again. Jackob, unperturbed, held the baby gingerly as he asked the cook, Adamma, for help.
“Take her away,” urged Charles. “She’s given me a headache.” Charles thought of how his own father, Finley, wanted nothing to do with him when he showed any emotion. It was how he learned to be stoic, his most serviceable quality, he thought.
Adamma reached for the baby and hurried into the house, followed by the maids. Sarah would have liked to go with them but chose to stay and listen to what the men had to say.
“I want her taken back to where she came from, immediately. How can we find out who are her parents?” thundered Charles.
Perspiring his assistant said. “I’ll take care of it. No problem, sir, I know where she’s from,” he stammered.
“Praise God,” mumbled Charles, pouring himself another glass of white wine.
Sarah studied her husband. For a moment he seemed like a stranger. Although he had made it perfectly clear he didn’t want to be a father, the man she thought she knew had a sensitive soul and would be loving to a defenseless creature. How could he place a human being on the dirt where there are snakes and insects that could harm her? she wondered. What kind of a person does that? Then the young woman who placed the baby in Charles’s lap flashed through Sarah’s mind, and Sarah considered why, in the first place, the mother might have brought the baby to her and Charles. “Maybe the baby’s been rejected by her family. If so…we can keep her.” The words tumbled out of Sarah’s mouth before she had time to reflect.
Charles froze. “What in the world?” He put his hand in his pocket to touch his gold nugget, his face a mask of shock. “Don’t even think it. We have gotten this far without problems…Why change now?”
“She must be returned to her family,” intervened Jackob. “She is part of a clan. You cannot keep her, madam, not even if sir agreed. Besides,” he added sotto voce, “it is a zeru zeru. It is imprudent to have anything to do with her. Bad luck!”
“How is it possible to trust a child to a mother who abandoned her?” asked Sarah. Her voice trembled through the lump in her throat.
“Well, with all the little snotty, needy children on this continent, why should I take care of her?” her husband asked.
“Madam,” interjected Jackob, “the family probably believes the child is your husband’s because of the color of her skin. Let me take care of this matter. I shall take her back to the village myself.”
Charles nodded and squeezed his wife’s arm.
“No, we’re coming,” she said. “She was left in our hands, and we will take her back to her parents.”
“Why on earth should we waste our time if he can do it?”
“For God’s sake, Charles. Is she an object or a human being? The child will be taken home on the condition that the family promises to care for her,” she declared.
Jackob shook his head. “Your request could be interpreted as interfering with the traditions of the island,” he said. “I believe it’s imprudent.”
“Who cares about prudence!” Sarah snapped. She got up and went inside. It was cool in the house. She stopped in the entry and brushed her fingers over a bouquet of red and orange flowers arranged in a crystal vase. The sensation that Charles was a stranger passed through her again.
“Madam, what does Mr. Jackob suggest?” The voice of the cook startled Sarah and returned her to the present moment.
“He echoes my husband’s sentiments, like always,” said Sarah, shaking her head.
In the garden, Charles and Jackob lingered, immersed in discussion.
“Your wife seems very convinced, sir.”
“She is a stubborn woman. It will be difficult to make her change her mind,” said Charles with a touch of pride. He had always admired his wife’s decisive character, even if in that moment he would have preferred her docility. “I want this matter resolved as soon as possible. Go to the child’s family and tell them to take her back and care for her.” Charles paused and sipped some wine. “I want to make my wife happy.”
“It could be difficult, sir,” said Jackob. “Zeru zerus are repudiated by the community and by their families. They are magical, malevolent beings. People are afraid of them.”
“Nonsense. I shall pay them well so long as they do as I say. With a handful of money, fear will magically go bye-bye. Let me know if this speaks the family’s language,” he said, handing Jackob a stack of bills.
Jackob left in the golden afternoon light. Although the sun’s rays stretched across the land, the heat persisted, unbroken. While he drove toward the village, Mr. Fielding’s assistant concentrated on how he could best resolve the problem. He had no intention of going to Zuberi. And he couldn’t simply show up at Sefu’s home as he knew Sefu had denied the zeru zeru was his. Be that as it may, Jackob had to indulge his boss. The solution of how to handle the delicate matter of the zeru zeru, he knew, would be found with help from the village chief.
Kondo sighed when Jackob explained the situation. The white shadow was causing much trouble. First the name, now this. What would happen in the future if only a year after its birth it was already unsettling the village? Perhaps it had been a bad idea to let it live. However, the time to reconsider was well past. The white man had the zeru zeru, and the situation had to be resolved as quickly as possible.
That same evening, Kondo, Jackob, and Sefu met at Zuberi’s home.
Sefu was furious. “Who took the zeru zeru to the white man?” he demanded in a booming voice.
“I was at home having lunch with my wife and baby,” Jackob replied, “and next thing I know, the embulamaro is in my boss’s arms. Believe me, I am as much in the dark about what happened as you. The wazungu said nothing more than it was a young woman who presented them with your daughter.”
“Avoid offending me and my clan. It is not my daughter! I don’t care where that creature stays as long as it’s not in the hands of that man. My mother is desperate. It should be returned to her today, and it will be the white man who does it.” He slammed a rice bowl onto the table. “I want to forget this whole damned story,” he yelled.
Kondo and Zuberi left to determine the verdict.
In the witch doctor’s laboratory, Kondo watched Zuberi light some candles to alleviate the darkness. Then Zuberi closed the door with a heavy deadbolt and retreated to the back of the space. A number of objects were set in a corner and thick spiderwebs hung from the ceiling. Zuberi shifted some things on the long wooden table, and a hairy spider jumped into a crack in the wall to hide.
“Open the window,” said Kondo. “There is still light.”
Zuberi pulled him close. “I have valuable objects to show you. It is best to keep it shut.” He was pushing aside pieces of worn and worried fabric, glass bottles of various colors, and piles of amulets. Kondo watched Zuberi in the weak light of the candles. Zuberi rolled up a red carpet to reveal a worm-eaten wooden chest that was bolted shut with a modern lock.
“In here are the amulets and ritual ornaments from my innumerable ancestors,” said the witch doctor as he inserted a key into the padlock. “They go back to the time when Ukerewe emerged from the water of the lake. My lineage spoke directly to the primordial spirits. These most powerful totems and jujus will remain at rest and protected until the day I need them.”
Kondo stepped forward to examine the contents of the chest: pendants, headdresses, fabric panels. What does this have to do with the zeru zeru[_?_] Kondo asked himself, looking suspiciously at the village shaman.
Zuberi closed the lid of the chest and moved closer to Kondo. “It survived the trial of the beasts, the Spirits of the Lake pronounced themselves in its favor, and now it has a name—though sanctified by that charlatan Mosi,” said the healer with a flash of irony in his voice. “We can let the zeru zeru live on the island until the time comes.”
“Like the objects inside the chest?” asked Kondo.
“Yes, like the magic inside this chest.” Zuberi flashed a knowing look at the village chief, as though they were speaking in their own clandestine language.
“I would have thought you’d be happy it was in the white people’s hands. It’s a good way to be rid of it,” Kondo said. “You must promise me that you will not harm the zeru zeru.”
Zuberi shook his head. “The time will come when it will be useful. Besides, Sefu is adamant. He wants his mother to have it,” he added.
“We have to respect Sefu’s will. We must remain vigilant and protect the embulamaro so it’s not stolen a second time,” Kondo said.
“Amulets made from zeru zeru bodies are the strongest of all,” mumbled Zuberi under his breath. “Yes, we must protect it until the right moment.”
Jackob and Sefu were waiting in Zuberi’s house proper for the two elders to, once again, decide the fate of the zeru zeru. Sefu had calmed down and was staring at the fire. Both men jumped when the door opened. The witch doctor and the head of the village walked with slow steps into the room where Jackob and Sefu sat.
“Sefu is right,” said Kondo to Jackob. “Go to your mzungu and tell him that the zeru zeru must remain in the community into which it was born. It must be returned to Nkamba.”
Jackob reached into his pocket. “Mr. Charles gave me these.” He held out the bills. “To make amends.”
“They are for Sefu,” said Kondo. “He is the one who has been offended and reparation should go to him.”
Sefu pressed his palm on the smooth blue plastic surface of the table. How can I accept payment for the disgrace of being the presumed father of a white shadow? he asked himself. He would take the money, though it wasn’t adequate compensation for the humiliating event.
He spied Zuberi who appeared spellbound by the bills. Sefu had no notion that Zuberi envisioned being handed an even greater stack of bills, one day, thanks to the zeru zeru.
Jackob drove at a slow pace toward White House. The tropical night had rolled a shaker of dice to disseminate a sky full of stars, and an orange moon hung between the interlaced branches of mango trees like a nugget pendant worn around Heaven’s neck. The mission had gone well. Mrs. Fielding’s proposal coincided with Sefu’s interests. His boss would be pleased, and the ugly event would conclude without consequences.
White House appeared in the distance, illuminated by torches in the garden. Jackob pondered the building’s magnificence: it was truly worthy of a king. He found Charles sitting on the veranda in a seagrass rush chair, immersed in the newspaper.
“How are you, sir?”
Charles wavered. He seemed tired and his eyes were puffy and red. “Have you resolved the matter?”
Jackob took on a solemn air. “Tomorrow morning you can bring the child to her family as your wife wishes. I was able to convince them to take her back and to have you present at the transaction. It was difficult sir, but I did it.”
“Thank you, my friend. Thank you.” Charles rose from the chair and patted Jackob on the back.
Jackob’s employer was stingy with compliments. “My friend.” Those two words were balm for his soul. He would have wagged his tail if he had had one. Just then, Sarah appeared on the threshold. She was wearing a light robe that grazed the floor, her hair was down, and she was massaging the back of her neck. She looked radiant. She sat in a green canvas armchair and joined the men. “So?” she asked Jackob.
“The village chief has decided, madam. The zeru zeru must be returned to her family tomorrow. He has conceded that you and your husband may bring her to them, though only if that is what you prefer.”
Sarah hung her head, pinching the skin between her eyes, and stood up. “Tonight you’ll sleep alone, Charles. I’ll stay in the room with the child.”
Charles exhaled and watched her walk away with decisive steps, her robe fluttering in the dim evening light.
“Go ahead, Jackob. It’s been a long day for you too.”
His assistant hesitated, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “There is one last thing, sir.”
“What is it?” Charles asked with alarm.
“I should like to suggest that you and your wife pay a visit to the healer to thank him for his interest in this matter.”
For Jackob, this would flaunt his connection to the wealthy and famous white man and would provide an occasion to augment his prestige in the village. Besides, a visit to Zuberi would be an extra guarantee for the child: the life of an embulamaro was precarious, and Jackob wanted to keep problems in the future from arising between Mr. and Mrs. Fielding. He anticipated at every turn what was best for his boss.
“Impossible,” said Charles. “I want nothing more to do with this baby, and, in any case, Sarah would refuse. She is English.” He paused and then added, “She has always avoided relations with those types of people.”
Jackob shrugged off the insult as he so often had to do when dealing with whites. “Zuberi is very influential in the village. If you secure his favor, the child will walk on streets free of mud. Just as your wife wants,” insisted Jackob. “Furthermore,” he added with fervor, “he is the most prestigious shaman. His skills as a fortune-teller are well known throughout the island. His friendship and influence could bring you good luck in business.”
“Ah, really? My business is thriving without magic. In any case, I’ll go if it will help protect the child and, especially, if it keeps our paths from ever again crossing with the child’s.” He added in a low voice, “Seeing her is bad for Sarah.”
Jackob thought of how radiant Mrs. Fielding had looked. He said, “I will accompany you to his home myself. Until morning, sir.”
“Wait. Sarah mustn’t know of our conversation. Tomorrow, suggest visiting Zuberi on the spur of the moment, if you get what I mean.”
“Of course, sir. As you wish. Good night.”
Charles remained alone on the veranda. That mysterious feeling of regret, that strange sense of guilt toward his wife, welled up in him. And, yet, he had given her everything a woman could desire: houses, trips, money, Italian clothes, and his love. Perhaps most importantly, he had given her his respect. For a moment he thought of his mother. He couldn’t imagine having Sarah look at him in the way his mother had looked at his father the mornings after Finley had spent a night on the town: his mother’s eyes flat with disappointment, the expression of a dog whose joy had been beaten out of it by its master. He would avoid inflicting such pain on Sarah. He would always be true to her.
Sarah was lucky to have him as her husband. The day he proposed marriage was when her good luck commenced.
Ah, women, he thought. Capricious and moody like the weather but such delicious beings! It would be difficult, maybe impossible for him to live without Sarah—her practicality, her integrity. She was his island of goodness and happiness—a safe haven from which to depart in the mornings and where he returned at night, a place for him to go to be restored. Charles knew how angry Sarah would be if he suggested they visit the witch doctor. She abhorred superstition and religion. She had insisted they be married in a civil ceremony, even though that wasn’t his preference. “God does not exist, Charles,” she’d said. “There’s nothing up there. Each person constructs their own destiny with the help of others on Earth.” He had conceded to her wishes, though doing so went against his better judgment. His Christian faith was mercurial, but he bet on playing it safe rather than risk antagonizing some omnipotence. In the end, who could affirm God’s existence one way or the other?
Charles had heard of shamans’ nonpareil powers—how the strongest of them communicate directly with the ancient spirits—and he couldn’t help but envision how such a man might help him with the business decision he had been obsessing about. He would have to convince Sarah, make her understand that taking a short detour to visit the healer was in the child’s best interest. Too difficult to explain the truth, thought Charles as he yawned. Much better a small innocent lie.
He folded the newspaper and went into the house. Just before falling asleep, Jackob’s words returned to him: His friendship and influence could bring you good luck in business. When in doubt, best not to displease anyone, he reminded himself, a lesson he took from his father. It was preferable to have gods and spirits lined up on his side. He laughed to himself. He lay on his back, enjoying the cool silk bed sheets. As sleep came and carried him away, he was thinking how he needed all the help he could get for his new endeavor.
Sarah climbed the stairs, bearing an invisible heavy weight. How many empty rooms, she thought as she dragged herself along the corridor. The door to the room where the baby lay was ajar. Adimu slept in the queen-sized bed near the window. Sarah had surrounded her with pillows to keep her safe from the edges of the mattress and had unknotted the insect net.
In the afternoon, once she’d succeeded in calming the child, she spoon-fed Adimu ugali and creamed chicken prepared by the cook. “Good girl,” Sarah had cooed, kissing her with each bite eaten and caressing her golden hair.
She sat on a chair next to the bed and drew the insect net aside. She watched the baby’s pink eyelids quiver as she dreamed. Sarah looked at the chubby legs, her rounded, fleshy feet and felt her heart take a dive. She remained like that, absorbed, until her back ached. She considered lying next to the child to sleep with her and immediately decided against it. She would watch over her until the morning. She would stay present, vigilant, ready to protect her, though she could see that the child was well cared for and that made her feel tenderness toward her caregiver. The baby whimpered in her sleep, and a memory emerged, one that had been hiding in the corridor of Sarah’s mind since the mystery woman had left Adimu in her husband’s lap.
It was the last time she’d seen him. Her father. She was eating cereal when he lopped down the stairs. He sat beside her in the kitchen and asked her to plunk herself on his lap. She refused, though hugged him, and he hugged her so tight that it scared her. He kissed her forehead and told her he loved her and to get ready for school.
He was found with a rope around his neck, she was told when she was quite a bit older. She couldn’t help but feel that if she had said something different, if she had sat on his lap, he might not have done it. Because he took his own life, there was no priest at the memorial—just Sarah, her mother, and an aunt who she hadn’t known, a big sister to a father she adored. Her mother explained that the memorial was a way to say goodbye to him, though she anticipated his return. Sarah thought about the months that followed. Her classmates’ comments. The looks from people on the street, the silence into which her mother had withdrawn, her nocturnal tears. She remembered the meaning of the words that, until then, she had ignored—“sin,” “godless.” Suicide. The shameful word, that was overheard between sobs during a conversation between her mother and aunt. That was the day she understood she would never see her father again. That word would torment her for the rest of her life. It would be ever-present, lying in ambush like a guard dog, ferocious, ready to wake up and bite at any moment. She was certain that if she had been by his side, her father would have desisted from his purpose. She’d been incapable of protecting him.
Protecting the child would be her redemption. She looked at her engagement ring, its three carats catching the subdued light. She thought about what that stone signified for her. Not the aesthetic or material value but its promise of endless love. Nevertheless, she would give away even that symbol if it meant keeping the child with her. Her heart jumped with that secret thought.
She heard her husband open and close the tap in the bathroom. She resisted the temptation to speak with him about the yearning she was drowning in. In England, Charles had seemed sure of himself, anxious to have her as a part of his world. Strong. Determined to protect her. Why had the Charles who she had married just five years earlier seem a different man? Almost as though a twin had taken her loving husband’s place. Almost as though she had imagined the Charles she had married, the tender Charles, and this real Charles—a fearful, angry weak man—had removed a mask and was showing his true face. Adimu gurgled and coughed several times. Sarah leaned over to make sure the child was well and caressed her cheek.
News of Adimu’s kidnapping spread as quickly through Murutanga as the barking of dogs on a quiet night. When Juma heard of it, she lifted her face and opened her palms toward the heavens. But then regret took hold of her, and she quickly crossed her arms over her chest. Sefu’s first wife, Afua, was visiting her sister who’d given birth in a village on the mainland, and she had taken their children. Juma took her rival’s absence to mean this was the right moment to speak with Sefu. They were still husband and wife and, despite his denial, the zeru zeru was their offspring. Juma felt she needed—and had the right—to express her opinion.
In the evening, she washed and dressed with care. She rubbed coconut oil on her soft belly; on her breasts, which were still firm and high like they had been before the birth; and on her strong thighs. She braided her hair and put on the beaded bracelets her husband had given her as a wedding gift. She glanced at her photo of Sefu that she had set on a stool. A NGO worker had taken it of Sefu beside a flourishing crop of corn, beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. He had been proud of that photograph, as was she. Every night, since he’d left, Juma lit a candle in front of that picture of her husband. Illuminated by the soft light, his face kept her company during her solitary hours and kept alive her hope that the Spirits of the Lake would lead him back to her. Drawing on her remaining courage, she went to visit his other home.
When approaching his hut, she held her breath. Her heart raced. She heard a woman talking with her husband. Could Afua have returned? she wondered. Leaning into the front door, Juma recognized the woman’s voice. She rested against a tree trunk and exhaled. She imagined that her husband’s cousin Yunis must have come to find out about the kidnapping. Juma would hide among the bushes, close enough to hear while out of sight until her best friend departed.
The morning after the dark-eyed woman had left Adimu with the Fieldings, she returned home, upset, and told her husband her version of what had happened in the forest. He advised her to confide in Sefu that very day. And so it was that husband and wife went to visit and explain.
“I took the embulamaro. I wanted to abandon it in the forest as an offering to the Spirits. I did it out of friendship, cousin Sefu,” she said. She inhaled deeply, as if she had come up from the depths of the lake for air. “I wanted to relieve you of your burden.”
Only Yunis knew the truth. What happened in the forest was still fresh in her mind: the temptation to escape from the island with the baby held close to her chest. She remembered Adimu’s tiny lips latched onto her sterile breast. How she had wished her breasts swelled with milk to nourish the creature! She’d been trapped like a bird in a snare and coerced into desiring the child’s well-being. “Baby girl, not zeru zeru,” she had whispered to the child, rubbing her nose on the infant’s tiny one. Her joy had been so immense at the thought of Adimu safe with the white couple that it surely could not have been demonical, could it have been? Demons generate hate and evil. The sensations that had sheathed her body had been good and loving; they were maternal feelings. The woman had always hoped she’d experience the feelings of a mother: Now she had. She shuddered and put her arms around her body in shame. She banished her memories into the depths of her being, deeper and deeper where they could remain buried forever. She lifted her head and stared into her cousin’s eyes, pretending to express disdain for the baby.
“I hate the zeru zeru as much as I am disgusted by what I have done and the pain I’ve caused through my recklessness, dear cousin. I beg you to forgive me,” she said, dropping to her knees before Sefu’s rigid gaze.
“I believe you, cousin,” he said to the young woman. He expressed to her that her experience in the forest was additional proof of the maleficence of the zeru zeru, that it was best for him, for their clan, to have that fiend out of their lives.
“I forgive you, Yunis. You acted for the good of the clan. I hope you are aware of the zeru zeru’s power and that you will, from now on, behave as I do and not deign it with a glance.”
Juma listened as her friend confessed through strident tears. Adimu’s mother shivered as she pressed herself against the bark of the tree. The tremor began in her belly and radiated out to the ends of her limbs. Why did Yunis act without first coming to her? Had Juma really become so insignificant? Invisible, that’s what she was. She would be better off dead by her own hand. Her legs tired from holding herself up, and she crumpled to the ground.
Hearing Sefu’s deep voice startled her.
“Why to the white man?” Sefu demanded. “Don’t you realize this dishonors me? Taking the zeru zeru to him confirms that he is the real father.”
“That was not my intention,” Yunis stressed. “The evil creature took charge of me while we were in the forest and guided my steps. Its magic made me go to the wasungu. The white shadow possessed me.”
Juma heard her husband’s and Yunis’s words as though they came from afar. She lay curled up on the earth, her knees tight between her arms, tears chilling her face. The orange moon in the sky was vanishing behind a massive cloud front.
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Then She Was Born is more than a novel. It’s an international human rights campaign supported by eleven Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. Based on an inconceivable reality for many in the world today, Then She Was Born combines the drama and redemption of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner with the spirituality of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. A child is born and the joy of her parents turns to horror. The child is different, in a way that will bring bad luck to their superstitious community. The tradition should be for her to be abandoned, but Nkamba, the grandmother, is allowed to care for her. Naming her Adimu, Nkamba raises her as her own. Adimu is constantly marginalized and shunned by the community, although her spirit remains undiminished and full of faith. But when she encounters the wealthy British mine owner Charles Fielding and his wife Sarah, it is the beginning of something which will test them all. As Charles Fielding’s fortunes wane, he turns in desperation to a witch doctor whose suggestion leaves him horrified. But as events begin to spiral out of control he succumbs to the suggestions and a group of men are sent on a terrible mission. The final acts, of one man driven by greed and another by power, will have a devastating effect on many lives. Cristiano Gentili’s glittering prose and vivid imagery will have you captivated from the first page.