Swahili women in black buibuis,
bustling in Biashara Street,
bobber down the lanes of the Old Town,
into the Fish Market,
past Mkanyageni Mosque,
Memon and Bohra ironmongers, tinker, tailor,
Tirthankar Temple, Tononoka, tatarika tatika, tatua taabu;
Haki ya Mungu, chungu ya watu!        

Taciturn and incognito, mysterious masquerade of women:
buibui also baibubi  - cloak of woman, head to foot;
also spider,
spider women in black.

Houses of coral rag,
roofs of tile and palm thatch,
balconies with lattice barriers,
kiss each other over narrow lanes;
intricately carved Lamu doors grace the entrances.

Smell of sea, fish, mango, jackfruit, fenesi, papai
mingle with aromas exuding across Indian shops
selling spices, vikapu, vitunguu, khanga, kila kitu.
Pilipili manga, Banyani kanga!
Fry the Indian Trader in hot pepper!
Banyani ganga, pilipili  manga, chini ya kitanda!
Indian Trader, make some medicine under the bed of the patient,
By burning black pepper!
Banyani mbaya, kiatu chake dawa!
The Indian shopkeeper may be nasty,
But even his shoe is like medicine!

Arab vendors on Salim road
clink clank clunk brass cups in one hand,
dangling the three-footed coffee container on the other,
atop charcoal brazier bubbling the djinn
in the yellow metal,
hissing Kahawaa! Kahawaa!

Feet on hot asphalt, melting tar.
Bitter strong Arabica jazzed up by ground ginger
poured out of an old cuticura talcum powder tin,
burn brassy lips.

On the edges of the town, water, wind and sand.
Words take flight, fly away…
lingua lugha
funga franca
Kiingerza hiki,
Kiswahili maneno yako haki.

Cool turquoise patches in navy blue;
shimmering white sand beneath,
Palm fronds line the shore.
The world is green blue,
fertile, fecund.
The world is life and death.
Wacha maneno, palaver prattle Funga mdomo!
Empty noises.
Hatutaki kelele!

We board the third class steam train from Nairobi.
We see the engine fired up by the Sikh driver,
Red-hot fire burning logs,
steam hissing out whish whoosh whish whoosh,
monster bellowing furnace,
stroking, stirring.

The steam whistle pierces our eardrums.
We run back to the compartment
to where my uncle has laid the rough woollen blanket
on the length of the wooden bench.

The wheels set in motion.
We rush past the railway quarters,
past Shauri Moyo, my heart is tender,
only here they already have Shell and Caltex tanks.

Then the city’s game park on the right
herds of zebra, punda milia, skedaddle away;
twiga, the giraffe running around acacia thorn trees
twigtwigaing in ungainly strides,
gazelles gracefully sprinting,
swala granti, swala tomi,
Bwana Grant, Bwana Thompson,
get to name all things living ----
Here cometh the White Man, the end is at hand!

That time I went to Thomson’s Falls.
Was he the one who fell out with the Maasai duiker
dik-dikking peterbearing
the end of game Milenia ya historia!
Ua wanyama wote?

We cross the river Tsavo.
The engine stops under the station trunk hose
thirsty for water.
It was here the Indian coolies got dragged away
by man-eater lions.
We saw it all in the Capitol Cinema,
one Shilling for evening matinee show at 5.15,
just opened to Natives and Wahindi, the non-Europeans.

I got to see Bwana Devil in 3D
wearing cardboard dark lenses.
The lion jumped straight out of the big screen
and unwary ones screamed!
Big hero Patterson, Stewart Granger,
facing one man-eater in front
the other charging from behind – quick!
Turn around!
Warning shouts from the audience
and he felled both monsters
in a flash.

Early morning,
restless night on luggage rack,
my nostrils get gingered up by the sea air,
the sight of the first madafu on slenderbending palms ---
elixir in whitesoft unguent flesh,
hard shell sliced open by the coconut vendor
at the station in Mazeras,
the air stickymoist.

Arabs and Swahilis in khanzus,
big-hipped women in bright yellow orange khangas,
intoxicating promise of adventure…
like in the movie
at the Empire Cinema
they didn’t let me in
to see ‘West of Zanzibar’,
for adults only.

We guzzle the milk of coconut
on the steps of the third class carriage
We jump down on the red brown earth,
run towards the engine hissing streamjets,
the voice of my uncle calling, Quick! Quick!
past the red hot charcoal logs burning,
clouds of moistwet steam,
enveloping us------
I hold tight to my cousin
The swishing whitegrey wet serpent gushes
out from the bellows of the monster

In a mighty blast,
joy pierces the air.

We run back and collapse
into the seat of the carriage
convulsing with laughter!

Too soon the train enters Mombasa,
the sea calm on both sides.
I look at the big ships brooding
passively at Kilindini …

All is stillness,
we slowly cruise down Makupa Road,
Indian shops and dukawallas,
whitwashed houses slide by

We are in the belly of the Station
and come to a stop,

My brother is at the station
in the open boxbody Chevrolet.
He tells us
Gandhiji is shot!
Gandhiji is dead!

Something dreadful has happened in the world!

Rasik Shah

(Edited by Abdulaziz Lodhi, Professor Emeritus, Uppsala University)

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 February 2018 15:35
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  • Comment Link
    Oonagh Oonagh Posted on February 09, 2018

    I love this poem .. All my senses are engaged as I read it over and over. The vividness of the language is so brilliant
    Thank you Rasik