Indian Ocean Parables
Where do the near deaths congregate?
Amani sunbird, Sokoke Scops owl,
East coast akalat. After spotting the local
endemics David and I are on his
motorcycle when we are nearly run over
by a bus to Lamu called ‘Deliverance.’
We dismount on the shoulder, re-calibrate. Death
hovering in the margins of a Sunday morning.
Afterwards he takes me to the junction
and I board a matatu to Watamu. Everyone
on board so kind to the ghost in their midst.
Why are the things we most need impossible?
Dusk on the roof terrace. My first Mosque swallow
arrows across the sky etching silhouettes of now
and never. I’ve been listening to it on Bird Calls
of East Africa while gliding through skyscrapers
on the Docklands Light Railway.
Their call is wind threaded through the muezzin’s
lips. They’ve spied you from the eaves in the lime
dusk, stalking the infinity pool with the sprung step
of an impala. The know the reverse ecstasy of betrayal,
negatives with their ghost silver nights, black suns.
Can I accept my fate?
We learned about exoskeletons, the scorpion
and solifuge have them, how they protect the
damp cathedral of the heart. I’m reassured
the matatu drivers of Mtwapa still want to kill me,
even if some stubborn ally won’t let them.
What logic keeps me here running in a
dhow-hued dawn, African paradise flycatcher
lisping in the trees? The askaris from the plantation
mansions walking home after the nightshift
leap into the air, shout in Swahili, ‘keep going sister!’
How old is Swahili civilisation?
Amelia the forensic archaeologist was digging on an island
off Lamu where they discovered bone much older
than previously thought. Arab traders from
the Yemen in their slim dhows, bull sharks
trailing them, were here as early as 800 BC.
Not far from here is a haunted beach staffed by
the ghosts of ruined German missionaries. They came
to Christianise the infidel and died
of madness. It is said that anyone who camps
or sleeps on that beach will die soon after.
Where are you?
We were tested on tracking. I can follow a hyena,
tell which paw and whether it was walking or
running. On the road in the Plantation morning
a snake track, giant millipedes, the press of boda-bodas
buzzing past last night. Dawn comes, a sick sun blaring
through Baobab. I slide through hunger days
buying oranges, and at night watch waterbirds fly home
along the creek and the ocean gather thunder.
Sullen humid days in slaughtered gardens. The house
on Bofa Road has no windows or mesh, only iron grates.
At night a wildcat rummages in the kitchen and I wake
to find a snake coiled around the lamp in the living room.
A staircase of salt-bracked cement spirals into vats of seaweed,
a foam of jade breakers and a greased Kusi sky.
The house is teak doorhandles, louvred windows
in mint and ochre. Dhow-brought chests of Lamu
driftwood and mangrovewood. It has only three walls,
like a theatre; the fourth is the ocean stalked
by an infinity pool. At its bottom shimmer
blue azulejos. Thin black men lugged sacks
of cement so that we could flourish in the
white limitless burn of the Indian Ocean. We wonder
who has rusted so that we can prosper.
Three dhows sleek out of the creek
at 5.30 in the morning into silver breakers
and a parchment sky, the Common bulbul
and a reluctant dawn their only witnesses.
The muezzin begins at 6.15 from the small green
mosque across the creek. I run through the dark sisal
plantation. Even now it is twenty-five degrees.
The future lives in gravity’s shadow. In my mouth
the warm iron taste of blood. I earned it
running through an inner city
on the edge of darkness.