Ten harvests had gone by since the evening when Pastor Manueli, self-professed messenger of the holy realms, stood under the jacaranda tree in Makutano and said the town was no place for music people, for khat chewers, for chang’aa brewers. That evening, the sky rendered a deep mauve, he had detailed the evils of music for pleasure: it bred bad thoughts in people, made them susceptible to sin. The quickening disease would stay, he warned, as long as all the places of pleasure in our beloved town continued to operate.
And so, as if washed by a wave, bars which played twist music were forever closed, khat stalls made of carton brought down, kibandas where old mamas served chang’aa in peeling-paint cups cleared. For ten years, the only songs in Makutano were the Rose Muhando gospel tracks blasting from Pastor Manueli’s zinc-walled church every evening, accompanied by a keyboard player who missed the notes. The women, including Mama, spoke of how Pastor Manueli was a Bible-believing man, how this town was different from our neighbour-towns which held parties and invited local Kamba artists to play.
“Thereafter,” Mama would say, “the artist is paid in alcohol. What a shame!”
Until Guitar-man, dressed in a frayed suit, bleached from a lifetime of washes and rain-soaks, appeared in Makutano. The man’s face had a million wrinkles and I imagined each wrinkle as a year in his lifetime, fun ones folded into miserable ones. He stood in the doorway to our shop, looking in. He said he could play a live song on the guitar if I paid him ten shillings.
I remember the flash of his teeth, which were the colour of curry, and the veil of expectation that draped over his face, an expression of waiting and hoping. I remember the slight tremble in my legs, at the thought of music, at the thought of listening for pleasure. I had only known music as an act of prayer, a delicate preserve stored in a delicate place, meant for worship.
After all these years, I would picture the same music that Pastor Manueli banished, lurking behind in the stream of time, waiting for the perfect host to embody itself into, and doing so in this old man, willing itself into being.
“Music?” I asked.
My voice broke.
He stared at me with the kind of eyes given to a drunk who wakes up at noon, unaware of the time of day. If I was a wayward child, he was the teacher who brandished a whip, ready to strike.
Before he answered, Mama came from the back of the shop—which was also our house—and told him off.
Mr Masivu, the dentist who practised in the stucco building next to our shop, and wore suits in whose jacket pockets he slipped a red faux-rose and sometimes sold pawpaws in the back of his Peugeot 504, would say how this was the beginning of an era, to me and Saku (his son), as we licked frozen cubes of sweetened water. He would describe the arrival of the Guitar-man, as a truly telling moment in the history of our town, stopping to repeat the phrase “telling moment”, peering deep into our faces as if searching for a sign that we shared in his sentiments.
Sometimes we caught Mr Masivu reading months-old newspapers, the ends curled and browned, or covered in blotches of spilt chai. Saku was my classmate and barely knew how to read the English Comprehension that Madam Nzyoka asked us to during lessons.
I played with Saku because most of the children in our street were old, and he was my classmate and knew how to make a football stuffed with old clothes and nylon and all. Also, he knew a lot of songs that played on the radio and was always humming a new tune. Kanda Bongoman, Papa Wemba, Awilo, Oliver Mtukudzi, name them. So, when Guitar-man landed on our street, it served me right that Saku was there. He knew a thing about songs.
Before Guitar-man arrived, in the evenings after adults came home from work, Pastor Manueli held revivals under the jacaranda tree whose purple petals fell on people’s laps, or littered the ground. He would stand on a wooden podium, his voice almost a whisper, and thank everyone who attended, pointing to the closed doors of the bars, which stood under chains and locks, rusting, with the paint peeling off to reveal spots of red brick. Most of the bars had been closed for years, the owners choosing to move to other towns. Years before, he had blamed the quickening disease for the actions which happened in those places, and now, when someone died with ribs sticking from their chests, he blamed it for a lack of faith in people’s hearts.
People said the plague began when a truck driver spent a night in the lodge behind the town bar, that he had carried it from the coastal towns, passing it in his stops as if it were a gift. Others, including Mr Masivu, said it was nothing serious—surely there must be a cure, and had we exhausted all the methods with which our ancestors had used to cure their illnesses? Had we tried the potent leaves of the neem, which when crushed and taken in spoonfuls, killed every germ in the body? And yet others agreed it was a sign of the end times. After all, they said, secular music had diluted every essence of our culture so much that our town had become a host for the devil himself.
And so, all evenings, Pastor Manueli ordered the attention of all, lest this thing—as he called it—wiped everyone.
Saku and I were playing football in the dust path outside our shop the next day when we saw Guitar-man again, in the same suit, his gait funny.
“One of his legs is shorter,” Saku said.
“No, he may be hurt,” I said.
I stepped on the ball as we watched him enter the kiosk which sold Fanta and Coca Cola, and then moments later, as he walked out with his head lowered.
“They turned him away,” Saku said.
The shops always turned away these kinds of people: Jehovah Witness testifiers who had already planned for all the rich homes in Makutano they would inherit after the rapture; shoe cobblers with clinking tools; people selling cockroach poison as if the shops didn’t stock enough; big-bottomed women multi-marketing teas that made you slim. Who would spare ten shillings when bread cost fifteen shillings a loaf?
“What do you think they will do to him?” I asked Saku.
“Pastor Manueli and others.”
“Hang him?” and he laughed, kicking the ball from below my feet, dribbling it into the makeshift goal post of arranged stones. Surely, after all these years, the people of Makutano would want something to thaw away the silence which had wrapped itself around the town. Surely, music played from a guitar would be welcome, just in time even, I thought.
Guitar-man approached our shop and I heard Mama say, “I know you are just bragging that you can play. Can you play Brenda Fassie? Suzanne Owiyo?” I had expected her to turn him away, just as the day before.
Before the quickening disease, Mama’s generation had grown up dancing to Zilizopendwa, turning the spindles of ended tapes with biro pen points so they would replay. A miscalculation sent spools of coffee-brown tape tangled on the floor like endless hairs. Other times, Mama would fumble with the radio knob, sifting through a muddle of static until she found the KBC Eastern Service. Those were the times when Saku’s mother plaited her hair on the veranda of our shop, spitting out gossip in quiet afternoons when heat mirages rose down the street like melted mirrors.
No customers had bought any fabric that day, so Mama was idle, sometimes shouting to Saku’s mother over the veranda wall asking about the price of cabbages.
“I can play all of those, rahisi kama ABC,” Guitar-man said, his voice like water, gurgling. The sky outside was cerulean, and a minute plane streaked it with contrails as if it were a white crayon dashed across a blue canvas.
Saku was getting excited, muttering about this song and that. You see, when Saku’s mouth opened, it went on and on. That boy had no manners.
“There’s this song your father used to play when you were a boy, when we sang so loud until the neighbours came to see, what was it Kasee?” Mama asked me. I saw the fondness of a time gone by glaze her eyes, a tear almost falling onto her cheek.
“Malaika?” I said.
And how then, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember such a song, and thus uttered blindly, desperate to block the picture of Baba going away to fight a war, as he loaded army bags into a jeep. After all, his absence chipped my memories of him each day. A shade of greyness blurred my mind when I thought of him—it seemed as if he was walking away forever. Thinking about him in such an altered state felt as if I was forgetting him.
“No, not that one. Can’t seem to remember it.”
Then as if alerted by a soundless gong, she said, “Yo Lele. Yes, play that one.”
Guitar-man was tuning his guitar and Mama said, “Are you stalling because you don’t know what to do with that thing?”
He raised his head to her, a quick movement as if to say, “I know my trade well” and continued tuning his guitar, tightening and loosening the strings. His eyes had a milky film over them, and his cheeks were caramel bobs with black freckles. He strummed the guitar lightly and said something about the hot weather loosening the wires. The whole time, he leaned his head toward the instrument, listening. And then he started singing and playing. The walls around us seemed to melt, like a screen of ghee, they were giving way to his voice. Mama’s eyes bulged, the way they did when she first tasted food cooked with ginger, or when Baba sent her a gold-coated necklace with a card that read, To my Dearest.
His voice was old and yet mellow. Like aged honey strained through a sieve. Later, in the middle of the performance, Mr Masivu walked in. Guitar-man’s version of Yo Lele modulated, then came to a diminished end. Everything was still. Someone said, “He is a walking radio.”
“Shut your throat like a chicken,” another one said.
When he finished, some women who sold vegetables some metres away were crammed in our doorway, necks craned. It was a long second before Mr Masivu said, “This is wonderful. Where did you learn this art?”
Now, Mr Masivu had this habit of asking about the origins of people’s gifts. A girl who lived in our plot could balance four pots on her head and one day, Mr Masivu asked her where she learned to do that. I imagined him in his methylated-spirit-stinking office, jotting the origins on his notebook. And then, while everyone was asleep, balancing clay pots on his head until they fell off, shattering into shards. Why did he want to know the origins of Guitar-man’s gifts anyway?
Guitar-man said he had learned his art while playing with a Swahili band in Mombasa.
“Just like that?” Mr Masivu asked. He was annoying me and I wanted to tell Saku how his father was such a bore. Sometimes, me and Saku gossiped about qualities in our parents we disliked. I knew his mother snored across walls. He knew mine drank a lot of tea.
“My father—that nice man—told me that my lineage is that of great musicians, so I think it shows,” Guitar-man said. The listening women outside had disappeared and now it was Saku, Mr Masivu, Mama and Guitar-man. There was leftover rice and beef in the sufuria, which Mama served him so he kept saying, “Asante sana.” Mr Masivu brought out a Rooster cigarette, lit it, and then took a long drag so smoke unfurled through his nostrils and mouth like white tendrils. His teeth were mottling—such a pretentious man. He watched Guitar-man eat, flicking his cigarette, looking at his watch.
Guitar-man suspended a spoon of rice next to his lips, his fingers trembling. Mr Masivu asked about his time as a band player in Mombasa.
“Didn’t the heat in that place not bother you?”
“Not at all,” Guitar-man said.
“I hear there are devil mermaids there.”
“Yes, there are. Terrifyingly beautiful women during the day and devils at night.”
When Guitar-man was finished and gone, the leftover plate of rice as his payment, Mr Masivu said, “He made people miss Pastor Manueli’s revival.” Mama jumped from her seat saying, “Gai”, picked her bible, and ran off. She had never missed the revivals, often speaking of how the sermon was sublime that day, how the quickening disease would never touch our family, how Pastor Manueli was a god-man.
Mr Masivu crushed the stub of his cigarette on the shop counter, then walked away. Saku followed him.
Later, I heard Mama explaining to Saku’s mother how she suspected Guitar-man to be a spirit.
“How so?” Saku’s mother asked.
“Have you not heard of dead people coming back to life to do impossible things? Who plays Papa Wemba that well? Who makes adults miss their prayers?”
“Ni bahati yake,” Saku’s mother said. It’s just his luck.
“I know a dead woman whose husband owns a hotel. Every time at dawn, before the hotel opens, the dead woman comes alive and cooks everything. A job for five people I swear.”
“And people still eat there?”
“Yes, people are fools, heads controlled from a basin of water.”
Mama was a stern believer in witchcraft, which she kept at bay with a bottle of holy olive oil. It was consecrated by Pastor Manueli himself. Before a journey on a matatu, she would sprinkle some on herself, or before my exams, some on my face. In the letters she sent Baba, she would sprinkle some on the striped envelopes and say, “No weapon made against you shall succeed,” in addition to reciting several chapters of the Psalms every night.
From that day, Guitar-man became the talk of town. Of how he pulled a larger crowd outside our shop more than Pastor Manueli’s revival did. Of children stealing shilling coins to drop on his wide-brimmed hat as he played. Of school-children skipping afternoon lessons so they could dance Ndombolo next to him. On the day Guitar-man first played, Pastor Manueli showed up on our doorstep, carrying his leather-bound bible, conversing with Mama in the veranda, whispering when he saw me listening in. I heard words like, “Devil’s plan” and “Music is an instrument of…”
Afterwards, Mama pulled a bottle of olive oil from her purse, poured some into her fingers, then sprinkled it on the wood that lined the doorway.
“Why the door?” I asked. She turned to me, a smile flashing across her face, “He is a spirit my boy. Only spirits appear in places of calm to disrupt the living. If he’s not one, then he won’t vaporise when he enters through the door.” And she went on with her sprinkling, the golden-green droplets catching light as they landed on the brown of wood.
A light rain was falling, mingling with the scent of a waiting earth, and the unplaceable one of new fabric. Two customers bought several bales that morning and Mama said it was a sign. When Guitar-man reached our shop, Mama shouted, “Come on in.”
But Guitar-man couldn’t enter.
Instead, he leaned against the wall outside and said, “It’s very hot, come out to the veranda.”
Saku pinched me and I pinched him back.
“The wind will swallow the sound,” Mr Masivu said, from the bench outside his dentistry shop. His Peugeot’s boot was open and fruit flies skirted on the yellow skins of pawpaws arranged in pyramids. I would never offer my teeth to him. What did he know about dental health anyway? He smoked entire packs and puffed out enough smoke to tear through the ozone.
I remember then how a feeling of admiration descended upon me: I liked Guitar-man, the way he refused to enter the shop and instead sank on the veranda floor, tuning his guitar as if he had always done it his entire life, and the way too, that his face seemed to read our faces, his eyes, distant things.
That day, when he refused to enter the shop, he wore fading leather boots and a cap on his head that matched his threadbare coat. He smelled of fresh lemons.
Mama came out of the shop, and her lips were pursed. She pulled a chair and asked, “What are you playing today?”
“Today I’m playing Malaika, a very good song.”
Mr Masivu lit a cigarette. The women who sold vegetables down the road had left their wares and now stood in a small group, giggling and pulling at their lesos.
He started singing, “Malaika, nakupenda Malaika…”
A crowd was forming and singing along.
That night, Pastor Manueli and his assistants visited Mama, and all of them wore anxious expressions, throwing their hands in the air as they spoke, moving their lips as though afraid. Mama stood in the middle, a green kikoi wrapped around her shoulders, as she listened, and replied. Soon, the veranda was filled with a chain of interconnected words, “We refuse this.” “Master of darkness.” “Take your belongings and go.”
The group moved this way and that, eyes closed, hands raised in prayer.
Crickets sang their songs to a moon bleeding yellow. The air held remnants of Guitar-man’s songs.
At school during break-time, several boys surrounded me and Saku. Dressed in our white starched shirts and blue shorts, we danced along the path which tapered towards the school hall, and as we twisted our knees and waists, bathing in the admiration of the girls who clutched books against their chests, I knew a screw had been moved, shattering an arrangement which had stayed in place for all those years before Guitar-man.
This was a Catholic school, where dancing was forbidden, and still, we moved, until someone said, “teacher around the corner.” and we all spread, as if a hive of bees had been dropped in our midst.
Later, during the school closing assembly, our names were called by the teacher on duty, whose thick-rimmed glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose.
“All of you, kneel down here!” he said, pointing to the ground where gravel pebbles crunched under our knees.
Those of us who had danced were caned with a bamboo stick, and mid-stroke, the teacher said, “This is the effect of that old devil.”
On all days, Guitar-man would sit outside on the veranda, beside a smoking Mr Masivu. He would play every song anyone asked him to. I pictured all the songs in his mind as a stack of books, and he a librarian, with all the catalogues lined for execution. The people who came to listen sometimes dropped coins in his hat and he would say, “Asante,” all the while drowned in an ocean of song and guitar riffs. And it came to pass that people stopped attending Pastor Manueli’s revivals, that schoolchildren avoided school, that housewives left chores untended, so they would watch Guitar-man.
“Enough is enough,” I heard Pastor Manueli say to Mama one day.
“The people like him,” she said.
“Woman. You speak badly,” he said.
“I’m just a mere shop owner,” she said.
“How does he know not to enter through the door?” he said.
“Cunning as the serpent,” she said.
Pastor Manueli set the day to corner Guitar-man, to know if truly he was a spirit, on a Saturday when people were off from work. He described his choice as this: “So, people would marvel at the power of faith.” The market came to a standstill that day. The sellers who screamed prices of cabbages and pumpkins in voices so high they overlapped each other like a choir were now hushed, standing under the dappled shadows of the jacaranda. The smell of rotten mangoes and tomatoes and banana peels hung low in the air. Everyone waited for a miracle. That morning, Pastor Manueli had been picked from his house by a special boda boda, and driven to Mama Wambua’s smoky café where they served him fried garden eggs and chai, so he would not be hungry while casting out the devil in Guitar-man. But had Mama’s church guild not said that some demons were not cast out with a full stomach? Next, Pastor Manueli walked to the podium, his polka-dotted tie flailing in the wind, his lips trembling, and people tried to make out what he was saying. Someone said, “I think he’s filled.”
Everyone was waiting for Guitar-man.
Saku’s mother and Mama were in the prayer group dressed in faded ocean blue dresses as though they were attending a wedding and they were praying, walking around, hands raised. Members of the Catholic Church shunned Mama’s church, because they described it as one of those spill-away churches which possessed their member’s brains so they wouldn’t think for themselves. Those members, including the catholic priest, were huddled from the sun, under shop verandas watching with disgusted eyes and laughing. I heard a girl that morning say, “I hear they will ask angels to come down.”
I suspected she was catholic.
The entire day, we waited, until people started leaving, one by one until the sun descended into the horizon, a shade of indigo spread over the blueness of the sky.
Guitar-man never came.
That day, Pastor Manueli said the Devil had whispered to his servant to set forth, away from this town. Mama stayed late with Saku’s mother, brewing cups of cinnamon chai, talking and laughing as soft orange flames cast their faces into dancing shadows. Mr Masivu gathered a small crowd at the market square, bits of philosophy radiating from his drunken mouth. He suggested Guitar-man might be a ghost or a spirit or an ogre that swallowed flies through a mouth at the back of its head.
Someone said if you had spoken to Guitar-man you had to drink holy water seven times, to which Mama said she could never be a part of, as this was a Catholic ritual.