In her mind, Twosmo said a thousand further goodbyes to Asha. She recalled her delicate beauty in spite of her age-weathered dark chocolate skin. Her haunting eyes accentuated her great silent intelligence, her face sharp, chiseled but round in features, and her silky flaming dark tan-brown off-orange hair, tufts of it exposed at the edges of her tight colored cloth wrap. There was also the presence of natural white in the under growth of the new hair not yet touched by the regimen of the henna dye she used on her hair.
She was preoccupied within her thoughts, and kept quiet to herself. The big-bellied driver was sweating already. Even though it was still very cool and the day had just broken, the cabin was literally on top of the large noisy engine, only protected from its heat by a cover that was supposed to keep the heat out. Unfortunately, this was an already worn and old vehicle. The use of that cover barrier had long since dissipated, but in this part of the world, such vehicles lived way beyond their naturally allotted machine years by the shear will and tenacity of the individuals who owned them.
Vehicles were a rather large investment, and were kept going with not infrequent makeshift mechanical local interventions when one could not find parts or trade-ins with ease. The vehicle roared on in an open expanse, drier than the dense green that made for most of the way along the great river up to the coast. This was more of a low land, and there were nomadic encampments in the middle of nowhere, a mark of arid land as they continued in along with more light and a rise of temperature as the sun commenced in its axis of ascent.
The rains had recently hit this area and the girls as usual where delighted to see the magnificent variations on the beige tan of camel coats in the midst of all this growth from the rains. They were bewildered by this large yet slow vehicle at times, but at the same time they had their heads almost poking out of the window, past their mother who was seated between them and the large cabin door. The driver was pleasant and patient to them unlike the other men who were either hung over or into themselves. He seemed aware of the girls, as he kept his attention on the road. When the girls exclaimed their joy at seeing this or the other. Whether it was trees or wildlife or the family encampments, he would go out his way to explain these things to them, paying very close attention to bringing his language to a level the girls could enjoy and learn from. He seemed to really enjoy talking to them.
Twosmo thought this a little weird because most of the men in the city were more like the other two men during the previous journey than like this one. The men in the city were all men of big affairs. They were not very serious when it came to anything about children and women other than their obligation to take care of them and treat them with kid-gloves. Despite their definite positions in the running of things within the family construct, males had a certain kind of resolute respect in general for their wives, their mothers, and their daughters. The oppression of the house hold through maltreatment of yours so to speak was considered by the Somal as cowardly and unmanly behavior. In other words, the affair of rearing the girls, the household, and, as it were, the local government were all the bastion of women. Men who entered the affairs of the kitchen were considered quite beneath the pale.
The children now referred to this older man as they would any other Somal, as their uncle, their Adther. In this manner, he continued with his sensitive conversation with the girls. He did not say much to Twosmo who was also non-committal. She had a lot going on, and at this point there was no telling what she did or did not want to speak of. He, on the other hand, did not ask much other than the usual Somal identifying questions –Where she was from? What part of that? Who was the children’s father? And, if the regime had not made it unlawful for the public to engage in this age-old tradition, he would have asked directly what the children’s clan was, rather than the geographical route, which gave one a roundabout way to ascertain a person’s clan along with their accent of speech. The driver then informed Twosmo of the answers to pretty much the same questions, giving her a very good idea of who in turn he was.
The young worker was called Ki-rish boy after the type of work he was engaged in, which was everything that had to be done on the truck. He looked after the truck during the slow travel checking the cargo, slept in the truck when the driver was out gallivanting with the amorous women he had all along the route he plied. Drivers in these stops brought modernity to the doorsteps of these remote places scattered far off from the capital. They brought people and things that were often new and unheard of in these places. The smaller the town or village the higher the celebrity status accorded to the driver of this massive machine that carried all manner of things in its belly.
Even the Ki-rish boy was liked for his irreverent city ways and his rapid talk, inflected with the modernisms of the city – an Italian word here, an English one there, altogether a much spicier, rhythmical Somal, which some in the periphery thought was just amazing. Particularly for those who related the city to progress, wealth, and a connection to a much larger universe, drivers were a door to imagery from the international shortwave broadcasts from the B.B.C Somal Service, long since incorporated into the fabric of the Somal’s life. The Somal driver was the precursor to the pilot, and, like the pilot, he maintained a certain aura and general mystic that makes a very attractive figure for the ladies, and a subject of much discussion and envy amongst his fellow nomads, who he had seemingly left in the dust of ages, motionless in time.
The large vessel of modernity had now been in motion for a while. It was almost noon, and the sun was cast overhead scorching the already very hot cabin in the furnace of the diesel engine. The sun was also taking its toll on the vitality of the girl’s excitement for the wondrous landscape dotted with surprises just waiting for them to see. The vessel turned onto a side road a little off the main road, and into a small town. Twosmo was on pins and needles all along, waiting in heightened suspense for the eventual interruption of her journey by the authorities.
The driver continued his playful banter with the girls, explaining the name of the town, and that they were stopping for food and something sweet for them if they finished their food. Twosmo was really appreciative of the gentleman’s preoccupation with the girls. It was clear to her that he had a lot of experience with children, and she wondered what the reason behind his taking sympathy through entertaining the girls was- if he had some idea as to what was going on or was he just a kid buff.
The truck stopped at a small hut type of hotel that had an open air extension to it. There were several elderly men sitting outside sipping tea. The truck came to an upheaval of a halt in front of this small adobe type structure with faded light green paint on the top half, and white lime plaster on the bottom. Outside of this sat the men on tables and chairs, with transparent glass cups of sweetened spiced tea with milk, another much loved staple in Somal.
As the vehicle came to a halt, some men stood in some form of stirring recognition, others just continued sipping their tea nonchalantly. The driver was someone who it turned out was well known and welcomed by the elderly men. The owner of the little establishment fussed over him, loudly calling to arms whoever was in his service to prepare a large portion of goat meat for the traveling group, shouting out orders to someone or some people that were yet to be seen by the travelers. Then, all of a sudden, as if from nowhere a group of women and men joined the girls and Twosmo along with the driver on the now cleared tables. The old men had moved to standing positions around the retinue of visitors. Some were pleasantly listening to the to and fro of the conversation between the driver, some of the men who clearly knew him well, and the owner as he went along his business of catering to the new stream of arrivals.
At the head of the other group that appeared out of nowhere was the lanky youth talking in a crackling voice very rapidly saying, “The food is great here, the meat is only the best.” “And the prices!” he said with a sharp whistle to emphasize the many incredible points he was making to his audience.
All of them were much older than he, but this didn’t seem to cower him in the least. He took charge as the knower and city guy who had traveled many times to this place. He recommended the choice foods, while the grown-ups became quite comfortable with this ad-hoc arrangement, there was just a few of this crew that ignored him and sat elsewhere and ordered their food. All these travelers were actually in the back sitting on top of the load the truck was transporting to the border – of sacks of rice, and other items such as sugar from a closer destination.
The driver asked for soda for the girls, while Twosmo protested, in a way, but didn’t mind. She was not interested in all this, and was more in tune to what might happen in terms of whom she might know or who might show up in this small town. Every village had a replica of the State in a more provincial form, usually much more powerful than their counterparts in rank in the city. She was just waiting for the normal to happen because there was no way the small government outpost in this town would not notice the large vessel caring goods and people, a veritable endless moving violation of many, many obscure laws both real and manufactured. She knew they would come to this rather large event sooner or later, and she kept vigil for the signs of them. Eventually, this ruined her decision to eat something so as to keep up with the girls and the rest of the trip.
The owner starting placing a rather huge portion of meat on tin trays. He placed some brown rice along with a lot of knives for individuals to cut the meat into eatable measures. The boy was now gorging himself with the group of adults he was with, and he had oil from the meat all over him. Twosmo half-heartedly ate with one subconscious eye open for the village officials. The driver was also busy eating and sweating from the exercise of having his lunch.
The girls just thought of this whole affair as quite splendid. Sometimes gawking at the young boy’s very mature ways, they would stop eating and just stare. They somehow discerned that what he was doing was not normal. They knew from their home life the difference between how children his age acted and how this guy had mature beyond his years. They continued in this way until the shadow of a uniformed man came and stood in front of the driver as he ate. He flashed a smile, and greeted the driver by name. There was an all around return of his greeting, after which the driver started to speak with a mouth full of meat.
He called to the owner as best he could, “Bring some more meat for the Major. Forget about the rice. Just bring meat, a portion for a lion.”
The officer convulsed with roaring laughter at the prospect of being called a lion and spoke to the driver in very friendly terms. “Stop joking, you know if we go according to what and how much one eats, then you are the one who is a lion.”
This he said with a roaring laugh. The elders were slightly less animated as were the rest of the passengers. The uniformed man seemed to cast a subdued feeling to the previously animated conversions. The owner looked on wide eyed and betrayed a subtle caution as he looked on at the interaction between the uniformed one and the others. Somehow this uniform unsettled everyone except the captain of the vessel. The restaurateur brought another large quantity of meat, the entire side of a goat cut into large pieces and set it in front of the uniformed one. He washed his hands in the water basin while the owner poured water on him, while he leisurely rubbed his hands before and after the soap.
He continued to talk. Taking the place of others who had been sitting on the other side of the driver, he was now facing the girls. He played a little with the girls who were all around their friend the driver.
“Are these your beautiful girls?” he asked the driver pretending to be quite pleased with the girls, though everyone there could see he was faking the rather awkward dialogue he attempted to have with the girls in a playful manner. The words came out in quite the opposite of what he intended. The girls lost attention almost right after the first word.
“No these are my relatives. They are traveling, going nearby.”
With that, he also lost interest. He was more interested in other things – whether the driver had brought him the better quality chat they had in Kismayu, as he normally did when he passed this town. The quality in this small town was atrocious because there were not many clients here. Twosmo looked at this man very sparingly out of the corner of her eyes. To her, the uniform he wore seemed to merge his humanity into a grotesque thing beyond her control. She noticed he was a one-stripe private, but he hardly had the gauntly look of this position of poverty.
He was large and very well fed. His Private’s uniform was well pressed; the top khaki was shinning from starch of the press. He carried an officer’s stick, usually carried by commanding officers, under his arm.
His tunic shirt fit him very tightly. The buttons around his portly midsection strained to keep the khaki tunic wrapped around his stomach. The buttons looked like they could pop at any minute into the eyes of the diners finally losing the battle to his pot belly. In essence, this was a man of power, non-negotiable power for those who came through this little village whose only claim to fame was that it was on the way to the border. Twosmo pretended to eat, keeping her head down as she hoped the village king would forget himself in the meat. She knew very well that if he was so inclined he could frustrate all the travelers at the drop of a hat. She was trembling inside. Inevitably she cast fate to the winds of the driver’s wisdom, in the hope that he would prevail over this greedy official.
The lunch went on with a two-person conversation and only minor interruptions from the girls and the loud smacking of mouths enjoying themselves. She sat there almost paralyzed by the prospect of what could happen in the blink of an eye, and under her breath she murmured incantations to Allah for deliverance from this potential misery in the form of a fat overfed one-stripe who seemed just above the bottom of ranks but in reality was the king of this village.
Though nothing moved without his approval here, he was powerless as soon as you stepped out of his domain. His power lied in the waylay, in the remoteness of his location, where no one could assail his power, however misguided. You just had to deal with it within its moment of exercise.
The officer dismissed everyone but the driver. He ate and chatted pleasantly with him and him only. Everyone might as well have not been there.
“Everyone to the truck. Lunch is over,” the Ki-rish boy announced, consumed with his own authority. “Everyone who is riding in the back of the truck, let’s go! Let’s go! We need to make good time, we have taken too much time for lunch. Okay everyone, onto the truck. The time for those who want to answer nature’s call is almost over. There will be no stopping once we get started on our way.”
The passengers started moving towards the truck, one by one. The boy’s crackling brashness was the most pleasant stirring Twosmo had heard since Asha ‘s admission she was going to help them get out of town. Twosmo took the girls and washed them in haste. She deliberately tried to avoid any facial or verbal contact with the busy eating private. She had her eyes on covering the small distance between the eating area and the safety of the cabin, where she thought she would be out of the gaze of the officer, and as close as possible to the moving away from this town toward the safety of the unknown. In perpetual motion there is the hope of evasion sort of carried forward. She finally got the girls and herself to the safety of the cabin.
All the previous sweatiness from the internal heat of the engine coming straight into the cabin was not even a consideration now. She got there and sat in tense anticipation as to when the driver would restart their journey back. In the fervent hope there would be an escape from the king. She sat there for what seemed to be hours but was in actuality just minutes, maybe ten, maybe twenty, to Twosmo this seemed an endless reserve of grueling expanded sections, each seemingly longer than the other, from an endless reservoir of expanded sections. The driver finally got up from his extended eating fest and washed his hands deliberately.
The officer also did the same, and they commenced toward where the restaurant owner had his wooden drawer, which was his register. The driver paid for the bill for the officer, Twosmo, and the girls.
Then the driver yelled to the boy, “Bring the wrapped bundles where we put the fresh chat, bring the whole thing here.”
The boy quickly brought something wrapped in soaked sack cloth, over large fresh banana leaves, tied with dried strings also from the banana plant.
The driver handed the officer the whole soaked wrapped bundle of chat and said, “Special choice of the big shots. Take your pick. Take what is enough for you and leave some for me.”
The officer received the bundle as others would receive some very important mark of distinction; he celebrated with every part of his body. His eyes seemed to be dancing around, his being seemed to exude a joy, and he was constantly keeping his mouth in check from wide open gaping and the attendant drooling while he examined and opened the bundle of proffered treasure.
He was standing with the driver somewhere off at a little distance from the eyes of people at the restaurant and the truck. The uniformed one’s roar of laughter could be heard punctuating the animated staccato verbal back and forth between the two. Twosmo watched and listened from a distance, physically looking away acting as if, she did not have a care in the world.
The Private slapped the driver on his fleshy back as they now started moving towards where the truck was, still engaged in conversation. The wrapped chat was now securely tucked under his armpit replacing the officer’s ceremonial stick. The driver laboriously climbed the little mountain between him and his seat in the cabin behind the wheel, while the official went around the other way, stone-faced, looking straight ahead, looking scantily at Twosmo, in a huff to get to the back.
The Driver started the vehicle somehow not concerned with the official who lifted himself up by latching onto the closed half door which exposed half his body to the passengers, and gave himself a head peak into the canvassed enclosed area of the large flat bed with long wooden benches fixed to the edges of the flatbed. He greeted the passenger to a quick look around with his eyes and then let go of the half door dropping himself back to the ground that was about four feet in distance. He then went around to the front where the driver was and motioned him off with gesturing waves, as the driver took his cue and started the slow paced movement toward the main road.
Twosmo kept her composure so as not to manifest her trembling inside through her outer belly. She was still ambiguous about relief because the man was still within distance of catching the truck. The driver was busy exchanging his by now usually familiar voice with the children. He was now getting ready for the festivities of the evening by slowly opening the chat and chewing on the tender miniature stems of deep red and green. Twosmo was glad he was preoccupied, otherwise he might have noticed her heightened sense of nervousness. Instead, he told the girls to take a rest so that he might engage in his chat session without too much noise from the girls’ enthusiasm.
He wanted to start this part of the journey in silent reverie of the stimulant. Twosmo began to believe in the possibility of escape more and more as the cantankerous vehicle made its slow gains further and further away from the clutches of the lowly official. Who in that environment had morphed into a much higher ranking official, very powerful and what was worse was that he only had this aggrandized self image for counsel. It was not bad for himself, but rather for those who where grasped within his greedy talons.
Twosmo had gotten used to the slow metallic grinding force of the truck’s movement coupled with the heat and the smell of diesel during the now many hours before the stop for food and the call of nature. But at this moment she wished more so than before that this snail pace would abate, leading further and further away from that puny official, she wished the truck would merge itself to the distant horizon, out of reach from the overfed one.
She was thankful to the turn of events and mumbled her duas graciously thanking Allah for the good fortune. The girls weary from the heat of the afternoon sun and slow burning temperature of the cabin, were lucky to fall so blissfully asleep, Twosmo thought. Their cheeks looked flushed from the daunting combination of the sun and the high combustion diesel engine, of the over ten ton vehicle.
The vehicle was finally at a distance Twosmo approved of, and she forgot the official, only to get lost in the things that were possibly laying in wait for her. The scorching sun was slowly sinking by and by, as the time rolled by gruelingly slow, and as the truck plodded along forward determined to reach its final goal the border, if you will. The border got closer as the sun became less potent and the light of the day began to fade, the driver continued his chewing taking one green stem after another lost, it seems to the unfolding world.
He was happy the girls were asleep and probably hoped for them to stay that way. The two of them became fixed on the long road ahead them, one not noticing the other, but bound together by circumstance of time.
Twosmo’s heart started palpitating again as she saw a distant light that resembled a light bulb in the wilderness of darkness, and as they moved on there were more and more lights visible in the distant. It looked like a good sized town or village, and from that deduced that this was the town before the border that was her final stop before she embarked on her journey further.
The girls had long since awoken and were silent with the intrigue of darkness that enveloped everything to mythical proportions for children. They could see distant lights, and once in a while the truck’s lights would, very quickly, flash a herd of deer, or the girls would see luminous eyes from a distance, the red of the meat eater, and green of the herbivores, this both scared and excited them into a further vigil of the mythical enveloping darkness. They were up on their knees and gawking through the large window of the truck as it moved along the wilderness of the night. Their mother kept an eye on them as they had their heads plastered to the closed window, revealing the vanishing tracks of their moist breath.
The vessel started winding around as the lights became brighter and brighter, as they came very close to entering this village town of sorts. The lights turned out to be a multitude of kerosene lambs dangling at the front of establishments, outdoor type tea drinking places, homes, and shops that had a much more powerful light made from a paraffin-soaked filament that burned with the brightness of a hundred watt electric light bulb.
The village was alive in the early evening hours. The residents looked on at the large vehicle as it passed where they were spending their evening. The driver as usual had his place that seemed to be in the heart of things, there seemed to be more prominent buildings concentrated in this part of the village.
The driver who had remained silent for most of the journey broke his silence to speak. “We have arrived; there is a place here for you and the girls. This is my home. There is plenty of room. The wife will arrange it for you. You can get down now. The boy will show you the way. I have some business to take off, but please you and the girls should feel as if you were at your own home.”
With that, the brash boy barely able to chew the chat curd he had gathered on one side of his face, stretching the limits of his thin cheeks to its outer extremities. The glowing cigarette butt was in its usual place dangling from the side of his lips. Opened the large door and his head appeared on Twosmo’s side as he stood on the step. The driver gave him instructions to first take Twosmo and the girls to the house, and then to hurry back to the truck.
“Yes, boss,” he said with his crackling voice. With that, he quickly helped Twosmo and the girls down the high seat of the cabin, and carried the little pillow case along with him while firmly grasping one of the girls. He led them at a fast pace along the narrow alley way of the border town. He was deft in how he negotiated their way in the darkness, he moved with just enough speed so as not to lose the young girls and Twosmo in the process. He always knowingly looked back, and kept silent all the way there. They entered a doorway in a yard enclosed by a hedge of dry thorn bushes, and there was a large hut type of house in the middle of this compound.
There was a light coming from inside the house, as his brashness called out to the people he knew were inside, “Auntie, Auntie! We have arrived! We are here!”
Twosmo, who was behind his brashness, could now discern some movement from the interior. She now heard the voices of children and a woman’s voice instructing them to go back to bed. She came out of the door to meet them, and welcomed Twosmo and the girls without too much ceremony. It seemed to Twosmo that she was either tired or was just used to sudden intrusions from the complete strangers her husband housed there from time to time.
“Welcome,” she said, and she took Twosmo’s belongings in a pillow case from the young boy, without any questions, only asking one herself.
“Where is he?”
“He is in the town supervising the unloading of the truck.”
The driver’s host led Twosmo with the by now groggy with sleep girls through the dim, dark tunnel of a corridor with a dim, flickering light of a lantern coming from inside one of the rooms.
They got into a deceptively comfortable room, clean with white and multicolored draping on the bed and windows. The room was very cozy and well-lit considering what the circumstances were. The lady told Twosmo where the bathroom and water were and told her to remove the sheets she had spread over the bed for decoration and to use whatever sheets she needed that were spread underneath the colorful spreads.
Twosmo thanked her hostess and began the business of preparing the girls and herself for sleep in what had become for her a familiar strangeness of other people’s houses. There was not much sleep to be had here as in the previous places, and Twosmo was now also getting used to the fitful nights of no sleep thinking about the unthinkable prospects of being caught in the act of absconding if you will.