This place, where his elder brother has been for three months now, unsettles Mahad, with its large compound strewed with tall grass and groaning garbage piles, and its old, squalid office buildings and wards. His arms feel heavy and his body is tense. His gut feels as though it is falling—a constant feeling lately. He has just flown back into the country two days ago, to see his brother, after studying abroad for five years. As he walks in through the door manned by a tall youth, they rise from the floor and circle him, and they tug at his arms and touch his face. Surfaces glint in the March Nairobi morning sunlight.
They jump onto his path, running, tripping over the others spread all over the floor. The tall youth points to the center of the floor. “Ndo ule Farah,” he says. There is Farah. A few feet ahead a figure lugs itself up, lumbers towards Mahad and embraces him, staggering. Mahad catches a whiff of urine mixed with sweat.
“Bro,” the figure says.
The figure is obese, sluggish and slobbering. The mouth is contorted sideways, the face twitches, the skin is dark with grime and flares and the body teems with lice. Then Mahad recognises the distinctive facial features: the slanting forehead, the bushy eyebrows, the drooping lower lip.
The name comes out as an involuntary whisper out of Mahad’s mouth. His lungs tighten. Adrenaline shoots through his body, from his scalp to his toes. Dizzy, he sits down on the floor. Farah follows suit. His belly spills about him, floating, more like a life vest than a part of his body. Mahad recalls what Ma liked to say, “This thing that you think is flesh is evil air that needs to be purged.”
He thinks of Ma.
Ma: religious, strong, calmly indifferent but caring in the way Somali mothers are, and concerned with people’s opinion of her and her family, especially her children. Mahad used to be close to his mother, and everyone knew he was her favourite child, and the other children—chiefly Farah—envied him for this. As a child, Ma and Mahad were inseparable; he would sleep in her bed every night and was always curled up on her lap or playing at her feet. As such, he and Farah have never seen eye to eye since they were kids. But Mahad and Ma drifted apart since he went to secondary school in a town far from Garissa. Later, when he and Farah went to university abroad (Farah first, then he), they drifted further apart. Then Pa died of kidney failure around that time. Ma felt lonely and deserted, even though she had two younger children to care for. Though she later married Uncle Hussen, Pa’s younger brother, and became his second wife, she was never the same again.
While he was away it was Ma and Uncle Hussen who took care of Farah back in Garissa—the town the family had always lived. But mostly it was Ma. Men never really suffer these things the way mothers do. Ma watched him. Ma washed him. Every night for five years Ma cleaned the sheets he soiled. Ma ensured his kikoi did not fall beyond his buttocks as it always did, leaving his privates out in the open. She fed him—even though he ate food enough for an entire family. She withstood his violent attacks (which happened often, whenever he was off his medication, which was too expensive to buy). She would be worried sick when he ran away and got lost for days until a distant relative would recognise him and bring him home. Though she never showed it, she constantly feared he might harm her and his two younger siblings, especially on the fortnight out of every month that Uncle Hussen spent at his other home. She lost sleep at night because he would roam the house until dawn, creating a racket. She prayed for him all the time. She took everything he threw at her. She would say, “How can anyone disfavour a creature God has favoured to be alive?”
It begins this way: Farah’s friend calls home from Lille, France, where Farah has been studying for a year to report that Farah is being sent back home to recover. The friend mentions depression, but no one in the family, including Mahad who is in Form Four, knows what it means. Uncle Hussen puts on his travel jacket and leaves for Nairobi to get Farah from the airport. He and Farah arrive back home two days later. Farah is taken into the thatched house with the sand floor which smells of incense. He lies on the mattress lain on the ground. He seems normal, except Mahad notices the drool and the slow speech.
The following morning, they file in at ten o’clock just as the women sling the slaughtered goat from the stump of a tree. Mahad stands next to Uncle Hussein to usher them in. They eat. Then, they begin.
Farah stares into Mahad’s eyes for minutes, lips sealed, nostrils flaring. They are large and creamy, his eyes, and he pushes them out of their sockets. His eyes are plead-accusing. The indictment in them is creamy and clear: “You let them do that to me!” they scream loud enough to scare chickens into frenzy. “You went off when you were the only one who could help!” Mahad’s eyes try to say, “I tried brother. Wallahi I tried but I was a helpless child who couldn’t’ do anything. And I went off because I couldn’t watch it anymore.” This answer, however, is not enough. They sit in this silent exchange until Mahad’s eyes avert.
Mahad cracks his knuckles and squeezes his fingers. “Hayyeh?” he says. So? This is his favourite word. It’s a good icebreaker and gets anyone talking. It has served him well because he is not much of a talker himself. But it does not get Farah talking. Mahad probes further: “Made any friends here?” Farah stares through Mahad as though he were paying attention to something in an alternate universe.
When he first heard of the diagnosis a year ago when Ma had called him, Mahad ran to google it. Schizophrenia did not sound so ominous, until he came to the words permanent, incurable, delusions, hallucinations, jumbled thinking, odd movements. Neither were the medications he was put on to manage the symptoms. Aripiprazole. Haloperidol. Paliperidone. That is, until he read what they could also do: weight gain, drowsiness, sexual problems, dizziness, anxiety, constipation, nausea, seizures, urological problems, low blood pressure… Mahad stopped before he exhausted all of them.
The diagnosis came when Ma took Farah to Garissa General Hospital’s mental. It was the first time in the four years he was unwell that he received any psychiatric help. And it did not happen because Ma and Uncle Hussein believed in psychiatric care—they did not. She and Uncle Hussen and everyone believed that people were either normal or mad. That, if someone was mad—like Shimooy or Dahir Biif or the other mad people of Garissa—there was nothing you could do except pray for them or recite Quran for them, and sometimes they would become normal and sometimes they did not. They said that some people went mad because they stepped on some evil jinn which slapped them into madness. When he was little, people had said jinn had entered the girls from his duksi who would faint and have fits because they stepped on the jinn’s children that lived on the garbage pile next to the duksi. Since he was a boy Mahad always feared madness and jinn possession. In his dreams he saw the jinn as red-hot, smokeless wind, with arched ram horns, sinuous humanoid body, forked snake-tongue and eagle-claws. He worried he would go insane and strip off his clothes and walk around naked, trailed by children who would call him “Mad Mahad” and couple with mad females right in the streets until the shopkeepers covered them out of discomfort.
People also said some people went mad when they were entered by the evil eye of an envious human or jinn. They said that the human eye is so potent it can dry up a tree. They said others went cuckoo because they were bewitched by witchdoctors. But the mad are a lucky bunch, they said, because, like children, God will grant them Paradise without question. So Ma and Uncle Hussen did what they knew best: they prayed for him, and spent every penny to have sheikhs recite Quran for him to cure him of jinn. She finally took him to the doctor when Farah, on one Friday morning, squeezed his younger siblings’ necks.
On this Friday morning, Farah, and Ma too, had not slept the previous night because he roamed the house and the compound, looking for food every one hour, stepping on utensils in the dark, waking people up, watching the small television in the room where Ma and the kids slept, performing the azan in front of the house, while naked, his large body soaking under the glimmering under the security light.
In the morning, Ma found him in the spare room he occupied. Before she walked in, she knew something was wrong. “They usually visit him on Fridays,” Ma had always said. She found him watching pornography on his phone and masturbating—the walls splayed with semen. She knew he was attached to his phone, but, shocked and traumatised, she tried to take it away. His eyes ballooned. His nose flared. He stood up, butt-naked, his kikoi around his ankles, and brushed her off, sending her flying to the wall. He clobbered her, and she wailed, and when his younger brother and sister tried to rescue her, he squeezed their little necks. Ma’s wails were heard from the most distant mosque. The neighbours flocked to the compound, the women and children amplifying Ma’s wails into a chorus, the men, including Uncle Hussein who had rushed back from the mosque, trying to pluck him off the suffocating children. After this Ma was willing to try anything. The following morning, she and Uncle Hussen took him to the hospital, barely seeing, her black eye visible through the narrow slit of her niqab.
“Moha is nice,” Farah answers Mahad’s question after a while, nodding towards the youth manning the gate. You would ask him ten questions and he would answer one. When he did, he would do so with a start, as though he was jolted back into reality. He would answer casually, as though the question was disrupting important forays into his other universe, a place he would then go back to. Whenever he spoke, he would caress his cheek and speak nonchalantly. Back when he was well, he did these things to appear confident; now, to demonstrate sanity. “The rest are all crazy,” Farah says and laughs.
Mahad notices Farah’s front teeth are missing, and his remaining teeth are bronze with years of poor oral hygiene. The absence of Farah’s teeth confirms to Mahad something too painful: that Farah has accepted his condition. Mahad took for granted that Farah would still be fighting to break free of his condition. He had never once lost hope that Farah would eventually get well. He was sure of the day when he would have enough money to take him to the best psychiatrists in the world and they would fix him. He realises for the first time that he has lost his brother. It seems it’s not what happened to Farah that would snuff out Mahad’s hope, and not the diagnosis, not the permanence and incurability of his condition, not the effects of the drugs, not the scars on his skin, not the lines of bugs that were now checking patterns into his plain blue uniform. Instead, it is mere missing teeth that would do the job. What is a person without their teeth? Mahad feels sick, and the ground beneath him feels too filmy to hold him.
They begin by blowing the azan into Farah’s ears through a pipe. They recite the Quran at the top of their voices and spit lightly on him after every few verses. This continues late into the evening. They pick it up the following morning, and the one after, and the one after.
On the seventh morning, they say, “Mahad, climb that neem tree and bring fifteen of the best.”
As Mahad brings the canes, Ma raises her hands heavenwards. “Oh Allah make them the best cure for him.”
Mahad goes around the house and sits beneath the window, across the chicken coop. Every time the whip cracks he clenches his fist until his nails dig into his palms and his toes into the fine, silver sand.
They say, “Now they are feeling it.”
Later they say, “Tell us where you came from. Tell us what you want from this young man. Tell us your name.”
Neighbours and relatives flock into the compound. They are more curious than concerned. Like the slain goats hanging from the trees, they oscillate, only from shock about what happened to suggestions on possible interventions. They whisper, “Who would have thought the brightest, most gifted child of the entire town would become like this?” More sheikhs join ranks. They shift Farah from the house and set up camp outside. Their faces sparkle with sweat, their beards with spittle. They roll up their sleeves. The whips crack and crack and crack, until the skin on his back is flayed, like a peeled tomato.
Mahad opens a plastic wrapper he has brought and removes the contents. He gives Farah and the patients cupcakes and soda. Farah holds his, unaware of it. His hands shake, and his grip is weak.
The other patients eye Farah’s snacks. Mahad asks Farah whether he is not hungry. Farah stares into the distance. Later, he says, with a start, “Maya.” No. Instead of going back to his absent gaze, he stares into Mahad’e eyes with intensity, caressing his cheek, silent.
Mahad says, “Hayyeh?” Farah remains quiet. Mahad cracks his fingers. He tries to talk to the other patients.
A patient says, “Farah never fights for plates. Here you must fight for plates.”
Another says, “He does not eat porridge and cabbages every day like us. We eat for him. He is our friend.”
Farah’s eyes light up. “Bro can I ask you something?”
Mahad notices Farah has a lisp now. “Of course.”
“Bro can I go back to university?”
“Of course. But you need to get well first.”
“I like university.”
“Bro I like to be a neurosurgeon.” Farah roars with laughter. His belly pushes out beneath his shirt. Then he leans back and looks at Mahad. Sometimes when Farah speaks, he leans back, his arms dangling from his knees, and looks at you with anticipation as though your answer will confirm his sanity.
“You always knew what you wanted since you were little, unlike me.”
Farah smiles, his sanity restored by the answer. He lights up again. “Bro can I ask you? I like 50 Cent. Do you know “In Da Club”?”
“I used to listen to it when I was in Université Lille.”
“Hayyeh?” Mahad says, again trying to induce Farah into conversation. This time Farah is happy to talk. He talks about his life in Lille with remarkable detail. He pronounces English words such as Medicine with a French accent, extending the sound of the last syllable. He talks about his friends, the fun weekends, the lively campus life and the incidents of explicit racism. “They gesture to you to remove your ‘mask.’” He avoids the darker stuff that caused his depression, like being broke in a foreign country with no financial help from back home, the shock and cognitive dissonance of a poor youth who lands smack in a prosperous society, the inability to reconcile his genius and the dismal material opportunities of his life, and the fatigue of having to outrun people that ran on a smooth track with shoes on while he ran barefoot in a thorny swamp.
Instead Farah says, “Bro, I like Man United. I like Cristiano.”
They talk about Farah’s likes for a while: English football, movies, Tupac. Mahad is heartened by the fact that Farah still cares about the things he used to care about. It means that somewhere in there, Farah, the brother he had always known, still exists.
Mahad pulls out his phone and plays “In Da Club” on YouTube. Farah lights up. He raps the whole song with his hand fisted into a mic and his arm miming a rapper performing on stage. Mahad jumps on the track. They laugh, and the other patients laugh too.
After a month.
“Tell us your name.”
“This must be one of those hafiz jinn that recite alongside you, blocking your prayers. Tricky fellows.”
After two months:
“Tell us your name.”
“This is no jinn. Probably something else.”
“Must be the evil eye.”
“Definitely. It’s the hardest to remove.”
“The hadith tells us the evil eye can bring down a person from a high mountain.”
They send Uncle Hussen to the market for supplies. Rue, lotus, peppermint, senna, Indian costus, black seed, camphor, frankincense and others. They peel, grind, grate, boil, blend, stir, sieve. And he drinks, retches and disgorges. Over and over. They have him lie on his back and empty the bottle down his nose. It must contain fire because the first droplet sends him flying through the roof. He tries to bolt. They circle him. He is huge and tall. He hurls men to the ground easy, like a porter hurls sacks of maize. He pants. The fear in his eyes is as wide as his arms. His kikoi comes off and trips him. He falls. They pin him down. Half naked, he tries to wriggle free but the men are too many. They bust his mouth open, pinch his nose shut and empty the bottle into his mouth, then up his nose. He cannot breathe. He gurgles. He convulses. They tie his wrists and ankles and chain him to a tree. He swims in a pool of his own vomit. He hallucinates. He stops eating. He stops sleeping.
He says, “Please untie me.”
Mahad looks at the patients. Some are sprawled on the floor. Some are curled up in foetal positions. Some fight. Some play. Some drive imaginary cars, their hands steering and their mouths making engine sounds. Some stand. Some fight invisible enemies. One leads a guard of honour inspected by the former Somali President, Siad Barre. One defecates on the floor and uses his shirt to wipe himself. Another bangs the door, trying to get away, Moha at his heels. They pin him down, pull down his pants and inject him to a calm stupor.
Mahad scratches himself. Bugs crawl on his skin. He wishes to be out of this place. Beyond the walls cars whizz along Thika Road.
He looks at Farah, who spills soda down his shirt. Since he was in Class One in Tetu Primary School in Garissa, a dilapidated, underperforming public school that was initially built by the Japanese before they left it to the government, Farah topped his class every term until he finished Class Eight. He was among the best ten students in the entire North-Eastern Province. He was always within the top three in his class in his four years at Mangu High School, a top national school. In primary school, he was a strong debater and had won accolades for the school in debating competitions. He would not stop talking about how he wanted to be a neurosurgeon and carried around a copy of Dr Ben Carson’s Think Big which he borrowed from the Garissa library, a place few went at the time. He was well-known and adored by everyone. And he did go on to pursue his dream. He became the first child of his father’s and mother’s clans combined to go to secondary school, attend university and go abroad.
Mahad thinks of what Ma liked to say: “My son’s been eaten by people. They’d been devouring him well before he could even walk. But the day he won a scholarship to France to become a doctor, wallahi they gulped what was left of him.”
Mahad had always felt jealous of his brother because he was not as gifted and popular. He wonders whether he has also eaten his brother.
After three months, the sheikhs start to leave. Some go back to the centres where they exorcised possessed people and rehabilitated substance-addicted Somali boys from America with whips and potions.
The relatives say, “There’s a sheikh in Wajir if he spits Quran on mad people they are cured. And he only takes a hundred thousand only.”
The sheikh, when he comes, says, “There is a colony of jinn inside this boy.”
The relatives say, “We knew it.”
Ma says, “I’ve always known my boy was eaten.”
The sheikh says, “Give me one week and you’ll wash your hands off this problem.”
After a week the sheikh says, “They need me in Banaaney now. May God cure him.”
The relatives say, “There’s a sheikh in Mombasa, everyone he spits on is cured on the spot. And he only charges two hundred thousand.”
The sheikh says, “There’s a city of people living inside this boy.”
The relatives say, “We knew it.”
Ma says, “I’ve always known my boy was eaten.”
The sheikh says, “Give me ten days and I swear to God I’ll fling each one of them out.”
After two weeks he takes his money and says, “There’s a boy from America I need to spit on. May God cure him.”
Farah says, “Please untie me.”
The air in the ward reeks of piss and putrid porridge. The patients get closer to Mahad, blocking the air and light. They beg him for things: snacks, cigarettes, money. They touch him on his face, his arms—touch so cold it makes him tremble. With each touch adrenaline courses through his body like an electric current. Something inside him stirs, like a dragon waking. He feels mortally afraid. Their eyes unsettle him, sucking him into their world and he feels cold and sad and his movements and speech become slow. He stands up and makes for the door. He wobbles. The patients are on his heels, and there are so many hands all over him, trying to drag him back down.
The place spins. Mahad looks down and sees his gut falling past his knees. He feels like he is on a constant free fall, like that dream in his childhood where he falls from the roof of their house but can never reach the ground. His mind boils and fizzles. It seems to leave his body, evaporating. He sees himself from a distance. It is a fragmenting, a disintegrating. He gropes about the floor for his mind, trying to capture it, before it is too late. He circles around himself, lonely and scared, like an orphaned kitten. He thinks he can see his mind, but it is air that cannot be captured. He tries to salvage his senses. With all his strength he looks at the floor, at the ceiling, at the patients. He tries to see them, touch them.
he can’t feel everything is evaporating everything is so near but so far nothing truly solid exists everything is a great swirl
what’s happening to me what am i slipping into i’m sure it’s not sleep am i dying or going insane did people lose their minds when they died or they died when they lost their minds my mind is my life i’d rather death than insanity no no no not in this country not in this place but too late now my worst fear’s come to pass this jinn inside me has claimed my mind look i’m already having the eyes i’m staring at everything this must be how madness starts: trying to hold on to life with the eyes.
why is my speech slow why is everything slow i can see time evaporate I’m trying to capture time with my hands but it’s only air time is air i’m on my knees i’m touching my face i can’t feel my face i want to feel i can’t touch farah’s face can’t feel face can’t see i’m staggering truth is loneliness loneliness is truth
a tall wavy thing is hovering towards me
what’s wrong, farah’s bro? this is moha are you okay
i don’t know
are you feeling sick
what’s happening to me
more things are circling around me i can’t breathe
nothing is happening to you just relax ok
what’s happening to me
just relax i’ll go get some help
please don’t leave me i need you let me touch you
i’ll be back in a second
“Please un…tie me.”
Farah keeps looking at Mahad. There is an unspoken message there: please save me, I know you understand. Mahad does understand. But he remains quiet, not knowing what to do. The season shifts. The heat gives in to windstorms. Uncle Hussen closes down the shop because there is no money left. Farah starts talking to himself. First, Quran verses. Then, a poem he read in high school. Later, some random French phrases give way for gibberish. He howls these louder than the winds until he loses his voice. He threatens. Fights. Beats Ma and Uncle Hussein and the sheikhs, anyone. The chains grow bigger, tighter—the potions, more potent. He pleads, begs. With no voice, he plead-accuses with his eyes, screams with them too. He sheds his clothes. The relatives stop coming, their curiosity filled. Nobody remembers to eat or to sleep. The children are scared, forgotten.
Mahad wanders through the woods out beyond the neighbourhood during the day. He starts sleeping at friends’ houses at night. On random nights he comes home late at night and tries to sleep. He dreams of falling from a house with no ground beneath it. As the winds change into rain, a letter of admission arrives from France, having only finished high school months before. He runs without looking back. But the memory of it all starts to flutter in his stomach, like the wings of a sparrow. The guilt curdles into a lump.
The hovering thing is back with two other things they have white coats their lips are walking
tell us what’s wrong
what’s happening to me
are you feeling pain
what’s happening to me
tell us what’s wrong
the jinn inside me is making me mad
there’s no jinn inside you
i’m totally gone give me my eyes
looks like a panic attack
i’m no longer anyone save my brain
have you ever felt like this before
i shouldn’t have left him
my brother it’s all my fault
i’ve lost my dignity how can i have gone crazy
we’ll help you
i can’t be gone i’m so young
is there somebody we can call
please God why did you let me lose my mind
we’ll take care of you
the things are taking my arms they are dragging me away
where are you taking me don’t keep me in this place
don’t worry, you will not be admitted here
i know you are lying you are going keep me here
i see myself staggering on the cold floor of Mathari Hospital bits of me i have ma’s bruised face farah’s peeled-tomato skin my clay-hard gut clangs on the floor
Aress Mohamed is a writer, photographer and lawyer from Garissa, North-Eastern Kenya. Aress is blessed to be steeped in various cultural and literary spaces, including the Somali, the Kenyan and the Western, giving him a vantage position to observe and write. Aress works to bring these disparate worlds to conversation, and create spaces for characters who are excluded from prevailing narratives in Kenya and the Horn of Africa. His writing has appeared in The Magunga, The Kalahari Review and Lolwe. He has recently been accepted to an MFA program in the United States. He currently works as a defender of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Find more of Aress at http://www.aressmohamed.com
Photos by Wycliffe Moranga