As promised here is Denise’s second placed entry ‘Tumaini (hope)’:
God does not live in Africa. I cannot believe it myself because parts of it are green and dripping and luscious as Eden. But there are snakes and bacteria and death. I understand why John says it. I’m not going to argue about God with you, I tell him. I don’t argue about that any more, he says.
Sometimes I think John is like God, the way he holds small hands and grows vegetables and cries alone at night. That is probably the drink though. The drink has hold of him, he’s told me that, but it is all the hope he has now that God is gone.
Joseph has been here since he was three. He is a man now in this land, tall and lean and knowing. We take the truck to the market to buy maize meal for the children. It is time for Joseph to leave but John cannot do it. Who will give a shite about him in this world, he says. It is fair argument.
Some days there is no place for learning. There is work to be done to feed the small mouths who sing as though the world is theirs and there are mothers’ hands to caress them at night. The children are so clear-eyed, sometimes I choke to see them walk to school. Get past it, John says, they’d prefer a decent feed.
There is a new baby who comes. She is wrapped in yellow cloth and is dark and warm and sleeping. Her mother is very ill and her grandmother cannot take her. The child too may be ill but she looks perfect as God intended. I can’t do babies, John says, but he takes her anyway because what else can he do. The big girls carry her on their backs and John says he doesn’t know how he’ll feed her.
One of the sisters finds a village woman to suckle her. The woman’s baby is buried and her milk is spilling. The new baby feeds silently, with grateful eyes and fingers curling. The sister suggests the woman might keep this baby but she shakes her head. There are already too many but she will feed her until she can take the maize meal. Feeding will stop another baby from coming. When she leaves, the sister prays the woman is not ill herself. Too late for that now, John says.
The sisters know John has lost God and they seem to ignore it, as though they all misplace things from time to time. He still says mass for them every morning. That is his job. When they take communion, they smell the hope on his breath. Sometimes I sit with him at night and he talks of racehorses and the cool breath of the old country on his skin. Serve him right for trying to save the world, he says. Should have stayed where God lives in the corner of every damn room.
The next market day we drive to town to get the new baby her injections. Sister Moira holds her in the front and Joseph keeps watch in the back. In town, I buy a goat with some US dollars in my shoe. It is a male goat for eating, not one for milking, so I get it for eight dollars. Sister Moira thinks that’s a good price and Joseph carries it to the truck. The new baby is hungry so she is squirming. She does not cry. Children do not cry in Africa unless the malaria is boiling their brain. They do not cry even when their father walks them fifty miles to the compound and then leaves without holding their faces in his hands.
On those nights I cry blood and after, when the silence wakes me, sometimes I hear John cursing to God in his rondavel. There are no corners for God in rondavels, I think. I must remember to tell him that in the morning.
John is annoyed I have bought the goat with my own money. I don’t understand why. It’s protein, I say, the children need protein. You think you’re fucking God, he says. You think your money will solve all their problems. Fuck you, John, I say.
We have stew for two nights. The sisters and the big girls cook it in an old petrol drum over a fire like the village women do. They add dark green leaves and serve it with maize meal. The children sing into the night because meat is for special occasions. John doesn’t have any because he rarely eats. He doesn’t speak to me for the next few days.
One morning when we are writing simple sentences with chalkstone on the cement floor, John comes to the schoolroom looking for Joseph. I have not seen him. That night, Sister Jude tells me she has driven Joseph to Kisumu to work in the gardens of a family known to the church. It’s for the best, she says. I wonder if she speaks to my eyes because we both understand why Joseph had to go. Or because it shreds our hearts that no-one in the world will give a shite about him. I am not certain.
I feed the new baby her first spoons of maize meal. Her eyes are deep and trusting. She rolls the paste in her mouth but swallows it down. We all laugh at her concentration. I hope God remembers her. There is a long way to go.
One morning, John does not wake for mass. Sister Paul finds him on the floor of his rondavel with wet trousers and mustard-coloured foam seeping from his mouth. He is buried beyond the vegetable garden, not far from Gracie and Peter and sweet David who lay down under the boabab tree one afternoon and died quietly the next day.
The Monsignor travels from Nairobi for John’s funeral. He says John is now with God as he was in his life. Sister Moira studies the intricate furrows of skin on the back of her hands. I think of John in the corner of some damp room in Galway.
When we clean out John’s rondavel, I find some money tucked into the back of a ravaged black bible. We decide to send it to Joseph. Jude says we should send the bible too. The blanket on the bunk smells of John: of rusted earth and the stale hope that leached from his bones. We take it for the new baby. The next priest will probably burn it anyway.
As soon as I get photos back of our winner holding our trophy I’ll posts photos.
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