When you hear whispers in this part of town, it’s either hot gossip that you must partake in with an arched back, hands cupped around your ears, widening eyes and standing akimbo. Rarely do they come from the abyss yet there were whispers coming from the tree no one should touch. It had not been much of a tree for years. More of a log, split through the middle, which never rots. In the years that Sheri’s mother, her grandmother and great grandmother had been alive, the split log had sat there, unmoved by the changing surroundings and the humans who strayed further and further from themselves. Sometime in her great-grandmother’s youth, a metallic fence had been planted around it– either to protect the piece of wood or the people whose curiosities led them that way. No one really knew why.
“I think kuna mrogi amepita hapa.”
“Sheri, ati sorcerer!? Here!” said Koa, turning the maize over his hollowed stone grill for the umpteenth time. His furrowing brow made waves across his forehead and -clap!- it is at this point that you know that the gossip would be dished, not by way of whispers but delivered by Koa’s majestic baritone aided by his grasp of English.
“She-e-eri! You see, ever since that thing started growing, I have seen things, my friend. My friend, the cycle of life is a beautiful thing.” His armpits cradled his cardboard fan as he cut through the air to remove the toothpick from his mouth. “You are born. You live. Then, you die eventually and you experience the full cycle of death before you come back to life.” He spat out his last words along with the little splinters from his toothpick and they stood there hoping to see the little shoot grow from the trunk of the dead fig. “And you see Sheri, I have heard people say that it started growing when we moved here. So, Sheri…”
Koa took off his godpapa and perched it on the stone behind him. “Maybe you are the mrogi. Now tell us why this is happening!” He laughed in thunderous rolls, grabbing his hat from where it was perched and resting it on his head after fanning himself.
“Koa baba, niaje hio mchomo?“ Baati asked, a finger finding the itch in his ear.
He laughed. “Pole baba. Dakika moja.” Koa rested the fan on the mesh beside the maize waiting to meet the hot coals. He chose the biggest cob, slapped it twice and clothed it in the softest maize leaf he had. “Here you go.”
Baati scratched his ear.
“Na wewe Baati, what could be wrong with your ear?” He asked.
“Mnaskia?” asked Baati, scratching his ear more violently with the left and with the right, pointing in the direction of the split trunk.
Sheri and Koa stole a glance and Sheri asked. “Wewe unaskia nini?”
“Ku- kuna mtu anaongea hapo.”
“My friend, there’s nobody there. Sisi tu ndio tuko hapa ama Sheri kuna mtu unaona?” Koa said with a wink.
Sheri cracked and scooped an egg out of its shell with a spoon and made a slit through the centre, stuffed it with kachumbari loaded with those tiny teargas pilipili Koa supplied her with, and handed it to Baati. “Labda ni njaa. Shika…tuone kama utaacha kuskia.”
“Ni hivo Sheri, eh?”
“Unajua we have to know exactly which thing you are hearing. If you’re hearing hunger we– ”
Now when a surge of electricity runs through you like it ran through Sheri when their hands touched, there’s two things you can do. Sheri did one of them. She jumped, eyes popping, hands shaking and landed on her ass on the little patch of grass behind her cart and on the way, she caught the whispers.
“Madam, what tomfoolery are you up to?”
Baati plopped the entire egg into his mouth, letting a few pieces of tomato, dhania and onion fall as he placed his chilli lemon salted roast maize on Sheri’s trolley, tightened the knot on the overall shirt wrapped around his waist and went in for the rescue. “Sheri, ni nini unapeperushwa na upepo hivi?”
He too felt the shock when Sheri’s farm-forged palm met his. The drums in his ears became gongs and he, too, was on the ground. Koa, smelling the burning maize, stepped away from the two. “You people and your jokes. Nxa!” He hafsdahafsdad his way through the burnt maize and threw the cob in the direction of Sheri and Baati. “Are you done?”
Their eyes were cue balls and they just sat there, staring. “Blessed Heights will be yet another tree spitting out people who climbed it. When everyone is out, the tree will die.” Said Sheri. Her face gained years in those few minutes and shed them just as fast.
“Weh Sheri. Simama ata, uko na customer!”
The whispers were blowing through town and the starlings, the grenadiers and the weavers had caught them too. They were just finishing their dinner when Chege began to set up for his show. He’d spent the day watching them. They were different today and so was he. They flew a halo as they descended onto the food, singing a dirge as they did. He ditched his morning coffee and yoga routine for an hour in the farm and cûrû wa mûkiyo. He’d been dreamier than before and his dreams came to life. More stories were birthed from him by the day than ever before. He had lost his publishing contract because he could not write yet here he was. Is this what they mean by Jupiter rising? Who are ‘They’ though?
This would be the last live broadcast before he finally found his way home. A call came in late last week. The man on the other end of the line informed him that his presence would be required on 3rd December and that he should make plans to be there. He would follow up the call by sending a pin to the location on WhatsApp.
The whispers that carried in the wind told tales about these people. Those he hadn’t met yet somehow in those tales, a lot was whispered about him.
Chege had wondered why he needed to be there. He knew none of them. He barely even knew anything about them except the gossip on holidays at his grandmother’s in Nyeri.
“He sounds just like them!”
“Acio ni arogi!” The gossip gargled her piping hot tea, sneering through the entire experience.
With a rolling pin in her hand, the other whisperer stabbed her waist, “Nda gi teirwo! Heh, you can’t mix with people like that just fuaaaa!”
“They lost their essence though. I hear they used to have so much power!”
The whispers were relentless and Chege had learnt to block them out but since that call, the whispers were not outside of himself, they rose from a deeper part of his soul. This time, they were not speculations on that side of the family but speculations in general. About the house he lived in, the puppies he’d get, his children, what would happen to Tetu Shani’s shoe on that trip to Bali, the snakes that choked the city, the pools that rose from the cracks on the road, who would win the Olympics that one time in the future when cyborgs would be allowed to compete…everything! They made for great stories.
It would be easy to lose yourself in the whispers so Chege chose to lose himself, instead, in his writing, his showmanship… Thistory was his line of sanity. Every evening since that call, he’d host a virtual storytelling session for children. He’d write the story in the morning, make the props in the afternoon and be ready to perform by evening. On this day, he set up the big dragon cutout under the avocado tree and tested the flame pop-out. In front of that was the Nairobi skyline and he would stand between the two when he set his camera to record.
“Hey there little ones. It’s THISTORY TIME with me, Chege Wangari!! Today’s story takes us to a time, not so far from now when you’ll have the power to do anything…and I mean, ANYTHING you’d like! Isn’t that great!? – At that time, there will be invisible dragons walking among us, changing the weather the way they like. On one week they will go whooooooooooooooooh!”
He pulled the flap that shot a flame through the dragon’s mouth. “And it will be as hot as mum’s jiko when she’s making chapo. Don’t you ever step close to that fire because what does fire do?” He cupped his ear to hear the responses, “Yes, it burns! So, the next week they go whoooooooooooh! and the world is a freezer and if you don’t stay warm, you will turn into a block of ice! But they won’t have had enough fun so, one day, a dragon will find this house standing in its way and whooooooooooooooh!”
“Can you guess what will happen? Anyone?“
Chege stood at the centre of his skyline cutout and attempted to dance. He swayed this way and that way, then jumped just as the gods painted streaks of golden orange onto the sky.
“When the dragon goes whooooooooooooooooh! The house will dance and dance till no one can sit in it. It will dance and dance till everyone dances with it. It will dance and dance till everyone -falls -down!” And Chege is on the ground too. “Then you, the children of today, will have had enough! You will make a giant magnifying glass and suspend it over paper so you can blow up so much smoke that when the dragons move, you can catch them and stop them. So, who among you will be a hero?”
The only thing that stayed the same that evening was Chege’s set down and retreat to the kitchen where he would edit and upload the episode before chatting up the mothers in his inbox. He might just land a family before Christmas, the whispers said. He might just be spared the blind dates and teary stares. What were they so worried about anyway, countless men his age had no children and still enjoyed appeasing their inner child. They went with the flow, rediscovered the loves of their youth, found new appreciation for their past lives and wanted to keep it that way for a little longer. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is admirable, if you asked Chege.
He had 28 notifications. For someone who got zero before Thistory began, this was something. Quite something. The first message was from Ana, an expat with three adorable kids. Usually, she would share a video of them watching the show or recreating it. There was no video attached to this message. Instead, he read, “TURN ON YOUR TV. CHECK THE NEWS!!”
When he did, the tablet in his hand fell to the ground as a scream cut through the silence in his home. People were like raindrops falling around the swaying building. Like a broken power line, the apartments whipped the air with such violence, cracking with every stroke. Chege wept.
The tent was up in Sheri’s home. The plastic chairs were stacked just by the door. They shook when she elbowed them as she took off her shoes and walked into an I think we should talk situation. The whispers were crowding the living room and everyone was there, silent. Her mother, Uncle Boro, Aunty Ciru, Cucu Triza and the man who never spoke and was never spoken of. He was eyes, body and silence. A wall that watched. Sheri always knew he knew more than anyone could imagine. “Have you noticed anything strange?”
“Heh! Unaongeanga?” She scanned the room, reading their faces and catching the whispers in between.
His ridged fingers straightened the beach shirt she bought him many years ago when she started her mayai-smokie business. “I speak in other ways. So, have you?”
“By strange, unamaanisha?”
“Wanjeri,” Her mother said, getting up to lead her to an empty seat across from the man. “You know what he means.”
“Ah, me I’m not a mūgūrūki if that’s what you’re trying to say!” Sheri said, swatting the whispers from around her face. How was everyone else so comfortable with these loud hisses? The whispers got louder the more they spoke.
“No one is trying to say that. We are just concerned.” Her mother said with her aunt and uncle seconding and thirding.
“I heard you fainted at work.” The man said in a soft, calming voice. “It’s not your fault.”
“Wewe unajua nini?”
“The belt is here,” said the man. Sheri’s had heard the whispers about this belt. A long leather strap embellished with 20 cowrie shells, 14 beads and three lines of copper wire that her great-great grandfather made the day he discovered his calling.
No one ever rang the bell. Someone definitely was doing that. For a moment, the whispers grew quiet. “Must be him.” The man said as he dashed to the door. Never had he ever moved that fast in Sher’s lifetime.
A lean dark man stood by the door with two duffel bags by his feet. He studied the lay of the room, took in the cracked green leather couch with doilies on the arm and back rests. They were cream and generally new, no errant thread at all.
“Kwani the belt is that long?” asked Sheri, pointing to the bag, “Na huyu ni nani?”
The old man laughed and the rest stood up. Sheri’s mother walked up to the man and took his hand.
“Karibu nyumbani, Chege!” the man said. “I’ve been waiting to meet you again.”
“We’ve met before?” asked Chege.
“You were a small, small boy. You don’t remember me?” the old man said, looking sheepish as he did.
Sheri’s mother sat Chege in the seat where she’d previously sat and knelt before him. “You look so much like Mugo…”
The whispers grew louder. Sheri, Chege and the old man sat in a trance. The old man by the door, Sheri in the seat across from Chege. They saw no one and only heard the whispers– loud and direct. The words carried in the wind were about family:the loved, the lost, the misunderstood. The words carried tales of the elder Chege wa Kibiru turned Mūndū Mugo. They saw what he saw all those many years ago and together, heard stories of the future. They heard, also, how Chege was torn away from them those years ago and how their father, the old man, had lost his voice and himself.
The belt had lived as Object no. 198057 in the Horniman Museum for generations and in that time, the ties that bound the Kibirus were severed. Their people were lost, their voices muted and the whispers gone from them. The family of seers that could not see. The old man had lost his voice as a young man, coming of age. Without the belt, he had no purpose, no voice. He was but a moving statue waiting to come to life just like the mugumo tree that died with the death of colonialism only to come to life when those born of the soil were returned.
The whispers are the voices of those trying to find their way back home and we who hear are the blessed ones. The guides who see them home. The ones whose destinies are bound to the world, those who are a part of you, a drop of you…you. We are the ones who lead us all to who we are.
Mugo wa Kibiru’s belt arrived that evening in a black metallic case and the whispers became words on Sheri, Chege and the old man’s lips.