In a Running Ditch in Bangladesh
By Fredrick kang'ethe Iraki (Kenya)
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November is normally a cold and wet month in Bangladesh. In this god-forsaken neighbourhood, there are pertinently more hoods than neighbours. The shadow of poverty and utter deprivation hover over the people like a nightmare. Time, for one, has no meaning here. Yesterday, today and tomorrow flow seamlessly into each other, bringing nothing but blankness and despondency. Here, thieves and marauders sell off your clothes and shoes while you are still wearing them! One Formula One fan told me that the hoodlums lift you up and remove your clothes and shoes in like fashion as they remove tyres from suspended racing cars. Another story (which I will tell you another time) is about how the devils strangle you from behind holding a metal bar across your Adam’s apple. The diabolical technique is called the ngeta. Apart from making you shit on yourself, especially if you had been stuffing yourself with something as light as rice or vegetables, the grip on the voice box cuts off the stereo from your voice. This means you cannot scream but squeak like a half-starved mouse. Then when the grip is relaxed, you now pee in your pants like a swaddling baby. It is not uncommon for you to lie on the rubbish dump onto which you drop until some scraggy and dirty dog kisses your mouth in the dead of a cold starless night.
Anyway, so far, you will be forgiven for thinking that Bangladesh is in India, where it seems people are proud but poor. Actually, Bangladesh is a neighbourhood in the backwaters of the City of Nairobi. It responds to various aliases like Kariobangi, Kario or even more graphically as Chonjo Chonjo. Let me explain each of these terms. It could be a coincidence but bangi in the name also refers to Cannabis sativa, a much sought after mild drug in poor as well as rich neighbourhoods. But it was in Kariobangi that the drug got its letters of nobility. Young men would smoke their lungs and minds out in dark alleys before setting off to kill and maim.
The second name Chonjo chonjo comes from corrupted Kiswahili meaning on the ready. Need I explain further? In this kind of a hellish rat-hole, you eat and avoid being eaten, if you are deft. But if you are daft, you get mauled. For instance, you do not walk in an alley (all alleys are dark there) at any time of day or turn your back to a door or window. Be streetwise. And most importantly, wear comfortable shoes for running for your dear life should a push become a shove or when the police turn up. This type of running was quite common and it kept the residents in enviable physical condition. In other words, you had to be chonjo or ready 24/7 or you got beaten to pulp or altogether dispatched to your Maker.
As I slept (do poor people sleep or lie in bed?), I could see some small round circles of light on the wall opposite my mat. The moon was high and the light had little problem in passing through the myriad holes in the corrugated iron roof. The landlady had been promising to fix it but of late she has turned cynical. When I asked her about it fearing that when the rains start the whole roof (because our house was a single small room) would be like a tea strainer, she reminded me sardonically, “Young man, tell your mum to pay her four months rent first!”. That was the end of my human rights crusade.
The most vexatious thing was the noise of flying roaches (believe me, the bugs can fly!) and the rumbles as they chew papers, especially my English textbooks. I hated English anyway and hoped the roaches could swallow them whole. And why not go and eat away the evil landlady? There’s only one way to deal with roaches. Scientifically and environmentally safe. Just take a swat and swing it with all your might against a roach. I particularly relished moments when I surprised two, one on top of the other, and splattered them on the wall with a dull thotch sound. The fights with roaches at night can be entertaining and let’s face it, the roaches do not molest you so much.
The real vermin is the mosquito. Ah, mosquitoes! These small devils are invisible day and night but they emerge from their lairs and start singing war songs right into your ear. The bite is stealthy and painful. Some scientists say it’s the female anopheles mosquito that is actually the culprit. Women again, you see! Nice songs then a bite. And the bite can be fatal.
The last musketeer is the mouse. This tiny chap breeds very rapidly. Before you can say Ba-ngla-desh you have enough of them to feed an army of young men with bristling handlebar moustaches. The worst thing about these tiny angels of death is that they gnaw your feet at night! To fix these bastards, you need a mouse-trap, which is another expense that our household can ill-afford. Luckily, my uncle, a confessed rat-eater is a proud owner of one and occasionally he comes over to replenish his rat stock. You will not believe this but in his house not a single mouse visits. Eat and avoid being eaten…
Then there is my older brother who shares the topside of the bed with me. My two sisters in the lower-side are not spared the torment either. The bloke cheerfully pisses in bed sprinkling us with the smelly stuff as if we do not have enough agony already. The problem is that the guy can also beat you up if you dare berate him.
So, when you rouse from bed, it’s like rising from your own ashes. On this particular occasion, I woke up and made it to the communal toilet. As usual, it was in a squalid state. Why can’t people shit into the hole instead of depositing their evacuations all over the place? Anyway, I pee then I get back to the house to get a bowl of water for cleaning up. Water is not scarce but expensive. I wash my face with my small hand like a single wiper blade cleaning a big windscreen, and jump into my school uniform.
In poor families, there are no good day mum, oh don’t forget to eat your snack, will pick you up, take your medicines, do not drink water there and many other trappings of the over-anxious middle class homes. As I was mechanically leaving the house, no breakfast as usual, Cocky came running to our door. Cocky was my classmate and somewhere between a friend and an enemy of mine. He was difficult to like partly because of his dubious demeanour and partly because of his selfishness. It was easier to get water from a stone than get a favour from Cocky. I hear now he is a pastor of some church somewhere. Pity his congregation!
Anyway, on the material day, Cocky was a harbinger of bad news. And now I understand why in ancient times, harbingers of bad tidings were drowned (who told you to bring us bad news?). Now, it sounds like burning down a post office for delivering a bad letter to you. But today, Cocky is dead serious for once.
“They have killed your brother Nyoo!”
The sentence rang in my ears like a distant gun shot. I stared in his eyes and asked in utter disbelief:
“He’s lying there in a ditch!”
One thing about poor people is solidarity in times of disasters. Death is such a galvanizing force that liberates formidable internal energies in people. Within seconds, the entire neighbourhood had followed the now-all-important Cocky to the ditch near the Kariobangi Primary School. That was my school. And there I came upon the lifeless body of Nyoo.
The first natural reaction was to check whether he was the one. He lay in a ditch of running dirty water, face turned to the side and his legs folded toward the chest. He must have felt very cold at some time before giving up the ghost. Then the tell-tale open gash near the ear told it all. He had been cut with a sharp object, probably an axe. No more blood was oozing from the opening but it was clear that the open wound had emptied his entire brain. The dirty water passed near his mouth and continued undisturbed. It was still early in the morning and no police had noticed the corpse. Someone had called them in and they, in their characteristic contrived way, had cordoned off the area and started taking fictitious measurements aping those cops we see in Western movies.
This was the morning of my Certificate of primary Examination and I now had twenty minutes before writing it. Cocky and I were asked to go to school and leave it all to God. I looked at the school sign-board and wondered whether I should go in or not. But something strong in me urged me on. When I sat down, warm tears flowed down my cheeks into my side dimples and I felt miserable and irredeemably sad. I had never in my entire life felt so devastated. Finally, that was the sting of death. My brother gone. Forever.