Authors: Ngugi wa'Thiong'o
The corpse was in a somewhat threadbare suit. Was there money
in the pocket? At the thought, all fears about touching the body disappeared and the three searched frantically but found nothing. No money. They noticed that the corpse still clutched a bag on which it partially lay. It had to contain something important for its owner to cling to it so tenaciously through his death throes. The three read one another’s minds and unceremoniously they quickly turned the body over and searched the bag. They were so sure that the bag was full of money that they became very angry at the corpse when they found it held nothing but rags; one of them started cursing the corpse as if it were alive. You stupid liar. I am sure these rags are your real clothes and the suit you have on is stolen property. Have you no shame, stealing other people’s clothes? And you did not even have the good sense to steal a suit less worn out; at least we could have taken that.
They were about to go when they suddenly realized that their fingerprints were all over the body. They could not leave the corpse there and decided to bury the evidence of their involvement. Dead men do not speak, especially if they and their bags are buried in a rubbish dump. So many were dying of hunger or illness, not to mention the ones in despair who took their own lives, that the police would have no reason to search for yet another corpse amid the stench.
Maybe I should let them bury my body, he told himself, or rather his bird self: What use am I in Aburlria? The body is a prison for the soul. Why shouldn’t I cut off the chains that now tie me to it, let the body and the soul say good-bye to each other? That way my soul shall be free to roam across land and all over this sky. Yes, to go wherever it wishes without the endless restraining demands of the body: I am thirsty, I want water to drink; I am hungry, I want food to eat; I am naked, I need some clothes; I am out in the rain, I need some shelter; I am ill, I must find a doctor. I must catch a bus but I have no money. I must pay school fees, taxes … isn’t it simpler to let everything go?
But when he saw the men actually lift him, or rather his body, and throw it onto the pile of rubbish in the back of the lorry headed for the dump, he heard a voice from within cry out that the body was the temple of God and the soul had no right to cut loose its connection to the world before it had completed its sojourn on earth. I am human, I am a human being, a soul, and not a piece of garbage, no matter how poor and ragged I look, and I deserve respect, he heard himself say time and again as he descended to and repossessed his body.
The stench, which hit his nostrils, was so strong that it made him sneeze even as he tried to sit up. He started removing garbage from his face. About to get into the passenger side of the lorry, two of the men heard the sneeze. They each stood fixed to the ground. The driver also froze, his hands on the door, one leg on the rung and the other still on the ground. What was that? he asked. But his men did not answer. Having gone to peer at the body risen from the dead, they just ran away. The driver also fled the lorry after his friends, beseeching them not to leave him to the mercy of the Devil. But the word
only served to spur them on; the three were now screaming out Satan! in different pitches. Not until they saw a group of young men and women with crosses and a banner on which was written the words
OF CHRIST did they stop to compose themselves and ask for help …
The three garbage collectors were trembling as they told their tale of how they had found a dead body and were about to bury it in the dumpsite when it came to life, or rather rose from the dead, and started chasing them around the vehicle, trying to ensnare them, all the while threatening to put them into the huge bag he carried and take them home to his evil angels in Devil Land. And was that not the site of the everlasting fire, the garbage collectors asked, and the Soldiers of Christ said yes. The collectors could not recall how they managed to escape from the Devil’s grasp, but when they saw their chance, they seized it and fled.
It was a story of sadness and terror and relief—oh, what a narrow escape—and even before they were done with the tale one of them was saying that there would be no more garbage collection for him; all three agreed that they would never again touch a body, no matter how dead it appeared to be. The dead were truly deadly.
“Don’t worry” the Soldiers of Christ told them, nodding their heads knowingly to show that they were well aware of all the wiles of Satan. “It was Jesus calling on you to leave these earthly brooms behind
and become cleaners of the hearts of men,” they assured them as they now broke into a hymn.
The Lord told the fishermen to follow him
And leave their fishing nets behind
He told them he would take them to Heaven …
The hymn and the singing made the Soldiers of Christ feel courage course through their veins, and a couple started weeping with bravery, eager to go to war immediately.
The garbage collectors said thank you and they allowed that they now felt safe being, as they were, in the company of believers; but when asked to take the soldiers to the scene of their recent woe and narrow escape, they at first refused and agreed to do so only when they were told that they could hide behind the banner and that the soldiers would guard them with crosses on every side. The Devil lives in terror of the cross, the soldiers assured them. Didn’t he stop chasing them the moment he saw them heading toward the cross? And they sang,
At the cross, at the cross where I found the Lord ….
And so behind the safety of the banner and the cross, the three men were able to point to a lone figure walking toward the center of the city. They were able to confirm that it was the Devil himself because they recognized the bag he carried. And now they said very firmly that they would not take another step in the direction of the Devil. They hurried to get back into their truck before Satan changed his mind and came back to collect them.
With their crosses and Bibles held out in front the way Bishop Tireless had done at All Saints, the Soldiers of Christ followed the figure from a safe distance, for as they said they must not be fools who tread even where angels fear to tread. They must keep in mind that Satan had been a leading angel before he was banished from Heaven for plotting a rebellion against God. A being who had almost pulled off a palace coup against God was not to be taken lightly. But they kept their eyes on him, for with Jesus leading them they were bound to succeed in containing the Devil. As one of them pointed out, Satan had succeeded in misleading so many angels to join him in his coup attempt because Jesus Christ was then not born.
What happened next, however, only went to confirm their fears
about the devilish wiles of the figure before them. Even today the Soldiers of Christ swear that they never once took their eyes off him, but still they cannot explain how the figure disappeared right in front of their watchful eyes. All they know is that when they reached the street they, too, had seen the figure enter, they met so many people with similar bags that they could not tell who was whom among the hundreds pushing and shoving one another for the right of way. The Devil had vanished.
And then they remembered the tribulations of Maritha and Mariko and the same thought chilled their hearts: what if Satan had played his devilish tricks on them to pin them down in the central streets of the city while he went to Santalucia to snare Maritha and Mariko and pluck out their souls, leaving their bodies empty shells on the roadside or by some dumpsiter
They decided to go back to Santalucia. But before they had gone too far, they heard steps behind them. It was one of the garbage collectors.
“I have decided to leave the earthly brooms behind to become a cleaner of the hearts of men. I too want to become a Soldier of Christ,” he told them.
The Soldiers of Christ were amazed at what had just unfolded before them. God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. After days of trying without success, now, when they least expected it, in the most unlikely of places, they had just gotten their first convert. They accepted him as their new brother in Christ and they baptized him Sweeper-of-Souls.
And suddenly they saw the light of their next act and within seconds, accompanied by their new convert, they were on their way back to Santalucia, where they set up what would become a nightly candlelight vigil for the Satan who had appeared before the garbage collectors in the wilderness and later disappeared in the central business zone of Eldares. With Sweeper-of-Souls now among them, they would no longer have difficulties in identifying and then catching the Devil.
A little dazed, his belly aching with hunger, Kamltl stood on a sidewalk to collect himself. He did not want to lie down because he feared a recurrence of what had happened to him earlier at the dumpsite. This was not the first time that he had felt himself ease out of his own body; he had had this sensation at night in the wilderness. There, in the open, lying on his back, looking at the stars and the moon, he would see himself abandoning his body for the sky as if pulled by a force intent on impressing him on the grandeur and mystery of a universe with no beginning or end. He would think of the prophets of old, Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Moses, John the Baptist, Mügo wa Kibirü, who had all retreated into the wilderness to commune, in total silence, with the law that held the universe together. Were their lives not enhanced by what they had picked up during their pilgrimage? He would roam free in the universe the whole night, endlessly fascinated by the being of things, and when he returned to his body in the morning he would feel his spirit imbued with fresh energy, ready to face another day of walking about the streets of Eldares, knocking at every door, hoping for something that would improve his life. Thus he retained hope and even looked forward to his free flights into the universe as relief from the wounds of fruitless quests. But he had never experienced in the sunlight, at a dumpsite or anywhere else for that matter, what he just underwent in the noon of day; he took it as a warning to keep away from dumpsites and take a different path. Surely the Universal Sharer, who looks after creatures that fly and those that crawl, can’t do any less for the ones made in his own image?
He saw a piece of chapati carried in the air by the breeze and followed it with his eyes. Now the bread was floating just above his head. Instinctually, with whatever energy he still had, he retrieved it and put it in his mouth. Oh, no—it was only a piece of paper. He felt sick. He took the paper out of his mouth hastily but instead of throwing it away he looked at it as if he had intended to read it all along. It was a bit of newspaper.
On one side was a picture of the Ruler. His head was torn off so only a headless torso with hands holding a club and a fly whisk remained. It was a little grotesque and he felt like laughing, but that required energy.
On the other side was a four-man Global Bank mission that had come to Aburlria to discuss the proposed national project of a palace aspiring to Heaven’s gate. Machokali, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was going to host a reception and a dinner at …
Dinner? Food? Apparently there were people in this world who still had food to eat. Where was this dinner? He looked at the fragment again but the words were missing. He threw it away but it did not fall to the ground; it was picked by the breeze and continued floating in the air, mockingly, conjuring images of food so near yet so far away, making him a Tantalus in Eldares. He felt dizzy again. He leaned against a post at the nearest shop, his eyes taking in the human masses in the streets as he held his nose at the stench in the air.
Kamltl had always had a strong sense of smell, and even as a child he could scent things in distant places. His power of smell was so strong, animal-like, that he often knew the identity of a person before he appeared. He could follow, if he concentrated hard enough, the trail of a person. He was sensitive to the different smells in a crowd.
But the smell he had recently begun to detect was very different from any he had come in contact with before. At first it was only a whiff among many others, but it intensified to a point at which it assaulted him from all around. He could not tell whether it was coming from the mountains of uncollected garbage, the factories in the industrial area, or simply from human sweat: it did not smell quite like rotting leaves; it was more like the stink of rotting flesh—not of dead flesh but of a human body at once alive and decomposing and yet … not quite; it was intensely familiar and unfamiliar. The rot was
stronger in some people than in others. When he first became aware of it he used to wonder if it emanated from his own belly because of hunger or fatigue, but then, in the wilderness, deep in the forests away from Eldares, the smell was absent no matter how hungry, thirsty, and tired he was. Walking among people in towns and cities, Kamltl often tried to suppress his sense of smell and pretend that the nausea he felt was an illusion; that way he could get on with looking for jobs without constantly thinking about odor. Now leaning against the post he tried reading the names and the ads on storefronts to suppress his hyperactive sense. They were mostly in Hindi, Kiswahili, and English,
NAMASTE. KARIBU. WELCOME, SHAH DRAPERIES, SHA KA H
The Indian shop owner came out and threw orange peels into the street, and as he went back inside he cast an evil eye at Kamrö, as if warning him that if he did not move from that post quickly the owner would call the police. Kamltl’s eyes fixed on the peelings that seemed to beckon him to pick them up and see if when squeezed hard enough they might yield drops of sweetness. A voice within cautioned him: What did you say to yourself this very morning about picking things from the rubbish? Have you already forgotten the fate you were about to suffer at the dumpsite when you broke the law of your own words?