Anybody could write, if he understood how to sort his thoughts, select the verbs and nouns most fitting.
Anybody, anywhere—in Africa or America South, in Syria or Singapore, in Korea North or Kenya, Karen or Kakuma—could write, a poem or story, if it blazed in him, and the smoke smoldered his heart and incited his thoughts.
He could tell a story.
These sentiments, more or less, a boy, of sixteen or seventeen at the time—an estimation I reached given the vibration of his voice and the density of his beard and the texture of his face and the style of his conduct—infused in me one evening, in the accent of his former country, while he and I sat on a bench, at the edge of Napata grounds, Kakuma Refugee Camp. He was a boy of tall stature, and dark complexion, out of South Sudan, in search of safety; I was a young man of twenty-and-seven, on a mission for my media company, in search of news. He was a boy who had encountered this and that and all, as happens in a zone of conflict; I was a young man who possessed views of life as can be absorbed by kids who live in places devoid of conflict . He was called Biel, and I, then, and even now, Taifa Mkenya.
“My Friend, your work is finished?” said he, on that bench upon which we sat side by side that evening, the third sitting since we met. And the sun was still hot, and the rain was still missing, and little boys were still playing on this ground.
“No, no. I am here for three months more,” I said.
“You say to me yesterday you write for newspaper?”
“Which one? Me, I hear Nation¸ Standard…and even of outside, like Guardian and New York Times. Which one is—?”
“I don’t work for any of those. Mine is small—it is a startup company. One that is just beginning.”
“Me, I understand. You say you write story of life in this camp, but let me tell you—”
“Wait—” said I; he never allowed me to expound what I did there.
“—no, you wait, my Friend. Me, I read stories on this—” said he, lifting his smart phone and tapping it “—I read stories here. Many is not correct—”
“What is not correct?” I said.
“The stories I read here,” said he, tapping his phone still.
“My Friend. You come here, and talk to one, two, three people. Then write story. But me I live here, many years, since I was like this—” he estimated the height of an infant with his palm, off the ground “—you see. So me I understand. But you come here, talk to small people, and write story which has many wrong. Maybe you only write story of Somalis, or Congolese, or Rwandese, or even of Dinka only. So the story is true on small side and wrong on big side. I—”
“Ok. So, in your view—” said I.
“No, it is not to do with my view. And don’t feel bad, my Friend,” said he, tapping my shoulder, “me, I don’t say you are bad person. I don’t say your work is bad. Me, I know ni kutafuta unga. In Kiswahili you say like that, sindio? You understand? Me, I want to write stories of here, because me I live here. I understand what happen. So I have one beg. Can you help me?”
…TO TELL A STORY_06
Wednesday approached, and evening followed. When evening followed, Ayen and Biel arrived at the bench by Napata Grounds, where I had waited for them, thirty minutes past.
This time Ayen wore a white dress and black slip-ons, and she carried a notepad; while Biel, a black t-shirt and a grey short, with sandals. On one side of me, the right-hand side, they settled after greetings, and Ayen begun:
“My brother, I told you the other day that I have three little girls whom I mentor?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes, so, brother, these little girls have years between nine and thirteen, and they all go to school—in that primary school at the center of the camp. I tell you brother, these girls love learning, and so when I leave Arrupe Centre on weekends mostly, I go and sit with them in one of their houses, and teach them math and science, and in turn they sing for me folk songs from their countries. By name, the girls are”–she opened her notebook–“Jetti, from Congo—well, she was born here. Her mother came to the camp when she was seven months pregnant. She is the funniest, she sings Ndombolo Ya Solo (which she said her mother teaches her), and dances as if she has no skeleton. Then we have Nana, from Burundi. She is the tallest and lightest, and a runner. She is very good at writing. Then we have Bilan, who came all the way from Baidoa—”
“Yes, brother,” said she, continuing the enumeration with her fingers, and checking from her notebook time to time, “she is shy, this Bilan, but very sharp. Then we have…we have Nyabol from Sudan. Her father was Nuer, and her mother is Dinka. But when the war broke, as she remembers, I am not sure if she remembers correctly—because it happened when she was five years—but she said her father was killed during the skirmish in Malakal, by a Dinka man who was seeing her mother. The last one is Uwimana from Rwanda, we call her Uwi for short, and she is the most beautiful of the five. Now brother, as I have told you, these girls, Jetti, Nana, Bilan, Nyabol and Uwi, are very promising girls as I see it, and with your help, I would like to give them hope. I want them to get the picture”—here, placing her notebook on her lap, she raised her hands, and formed a globe with them—“I want them to get the picture of the world, so that they may know that…that there is more beyond the camp. One time some woman from UN came here, I was still young, but what she said I still remember. I remember she said,
give a girl education and hope, and the future of the world is guaranteed.
“So my brother, as I told you, through your support, I want to connect these girls to other girls outside of this camp, for them to exchange letters, emails, books, and stories. Maybe I can even start a blog, and call it something like…something like—Voices from the Camp, or A Girl Speaks…or something like that, and then…and then post their stories there. What do you think—what do you think, Biel—” said she, jostling Biel’s knee with hers.
“Me,” said Biel, “Me I think that is a very good idea—what do you think, Taifa?” he said to me.
“I don’t know what to say—it is…is a very good idea!” I said. I remember. “In fact, Ayen,” I said to the girl, who sat between Biel and me, “Ayen, I got the list I promised–of the names of the girls we can pair with your girls, for pen pals.” From my pocket, I removed a paper on which I had scribbled some notes, “Here, this, this—” said I, pointing at the first name “—this.”
“Anne,” said she, observing the list.
“Yes, Anne. She is from Nairobi. She studies in a private school there, in class seven. I am a friend of her father. And, this is her email. And this is the father’s email. I have included the emails of their parents, to be copied in their correspondences. Just for…just for—”
“Yes, I understand,” said Ayen.
“Then this is Alice, from South Africa. This, Jude, from Romania. Eva, Brazil. Aiko, Japan. Here, take. So,” said I, joining my palms, “you can go ahead and link them up. And share with us the stories and the songs they write. About the blog, as I see I want to run out of the camp just now, let’s talk about it next time.”
She folded the paper and enclosed it with her hands. Biel, all this time had held his practice book in the hand, and so I stretched mine to receive it from him. I flipped the pages to where the current writing started, and intended to close it, and carry it with me. But I saw the first words of his writing, which attracted me. The sentence begun thus:
Only eternity, but everything else ends. Love ends, hate ends. Wars end, peace ends. Drought ends, floods end, and even a boat ride, but at the instigation by someone. To the other bank on the east of the White Nile they reached, and Gat paid Kamau—the boat rider from Kenya, who had recounted to them about his experience in Kisumu, while they rowed. Now the four, Gat, Deng, Luok and Adut left the boat and waded onto land…
Upon reading these beginning sentences, I turned to Biel, and asked him if he wrote them himself. He lowered his head, and rubbed his sandals against the dust. “Did you help him?” I said to Ayen, and she nodded.
#To be continued…
A week goes and languages grow; my stories so.
[The typer of these words is a breaker of English. Creator of words. Attempter of waggish things. Marveler of nature. Enjoyer of life. Lover of strangers. Taster of cultures. Writer of Tom James. Editor. Snap-shooter. Storyteller. Future husband. Teacher. Learner. Soon a traveler. And he wants to entertain you]