The wind would blow hard against their shirts and carried with it, a smudge of dust that would settle on top of their white, wide-open pages of their exercise books. Shaffi looked at the particles of dust- the tiny brown free and spiritless specks-as they uniformly arranged themselves on his English book. With one hand, he swiped across the page, cleaning it. Then he rubbed his palm onto his grey shorts. He had done this plenty of times today, until his previously clean shorts were now discoloured with brown patches.
“Al-Qaeda! Stop daydreaming!” The teacher, Mr. Onyango, blurted out. He looked at Shaffi with piercing, non-blinking eyes, until his eyes were too watery and he had to blink again. Mr. Onyango was their only teacher, of English, Mathematics and all the other subjects. He had a bald head that looked slick and glossy, like a mirror, against the Northern Frontier District heat-that merciless blast of sunrays that rendered the place arid. Mr. Onyango liked calling Shaffi the name Al-Qaeda. From the first day that Mr., Onyango saw him, he noticed Shaffi’s war-like stance; how his unkempt hair had collected into bush-like bundles. And his brown, unaligned teeth, that maybe was the reason he never fully closed his mouth. And Mr. Onyango’s mind quickly shifted to the images of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda that he saw on TV. He didn’t know Shaffi’s name, and he called him the first word that came to mind: Al-Qaeda
“Wewe Al-Qaeda, tomorrow I don’t want to see you hair untidy as it is today.” Mr. Onyango smiled to himself as Shaffi turned away to go home. Mr. Onyango looked at how indifferent Shaffi was to the heat of the ground against his bare soles. But the next day, Shaffi came to class as if nothing was said to him and Mr. Onyango called him to the side again.
“Al-Qaeda, why haven’t you done what I told you?” Shaffi stared at Mr. Onyango blankly, like a corpse. Mr. Onyango learnt with time, that with the kids, things they were told rarely stuck to mind. Their minds were hollow, thoughtless spaces. They had learnt how the passage of time could be accelerated by pushing away their thoughts and emptying their minds.
And therefore, Mr. Onyango kept calling Shaffi the name Al-Qaeda, until he forgot that Shaffi had an actual name. What Mr. Onyango forgot was that names are powerful. They have the power to compel and possess. They have origins and stories. Shaffi had heard somewhere the names al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, but never encountered them in first person. He heard it was where his friends such as Moha, Abdi and Yusuf were taken to. They were his friends who had gone missing one by one. When Shaffi investigated and asked to where they had disappeared to, is when he began hearing the stories. That is when he began hearing stories of the war. The war that was being fought. Shaffi had never heard of a war, and so it intrigued him. He heard and saw how everyone describing the war, told it with much awe, with much longingness, desire and passion. The war in the quest to eliminate the ‘cockroaches’. The cockroaches that had invaded their space, their homes, their bedrooms in their sleep and the toilets as they peed. . The cockroaches that ate their food and left them to starve. It was a war that everyone said they had to win. Shaffi dreamt about this war, some much so that he even wanted to be in the frontline. But no one told him where the war was being fought because no one knew.
Some nights, when Shaffi felt his dick itch, he sneaked into Rukia’s room, across his home, where she was sleeping alone in her bed. Shaffi came through the window and landed on top of Rukia, robbing her of her sleep. She called him Bonbon- her little nick name for Shaffi. And Shaffi would laugh. It was their little world. Sweet young Rukia, who was a couple of years younger than him, caught his hard dick that now felt like some piece of dry wood, and she would let it in her, as he thrust it slowly at first, picking up pace, until she felt her whole body light up like fire, and the little bed would creak for some time. Then he would pull up his shorts and leave her to continue sleeping. Shaffi had never clearly seen Rukia’s face. Because the only time she saw her was during those little rants at night, on her bed, in her tiny room.
However, since Shaffi had heard of the war, he began to feel a kind of incompleteness in his heart. A kind of pull towards the stories. He wanted to experience it for himself. He began having those nightmares that kept him up all night. And even awake all day, such that he turned into some sort of zombie. His mother began to worry. This was how she heard are the sins of kids soon to disappear; they don’t eat, then they become distant and then they go like the wind-Poof! She tried to follow him, but when she did, her husband complained. So she stopped. And when Shaffi didn’t come home one night, and the night after, she knew for sure, that he had gone looking for the war. He mother begged he husband to look for her, but it was as if he never knew that Shaffi was gone. So, she looked for him, in the mosques, in the hospitals, in the school, until her tears dried from her face and she went back home.
A stray shadow appeared from the horizon, a tiny skinny figure, walking slowly from beyond the eye’s vision. A lone mother, winnowing the grains, stopped and squinted her eyes, trying to map out the figure. She suddenly let go of the winnower, leaving it to drop to the hard ground, as each grain bounced off the ground, a testimony to the months of rainless skies. The mother grabbed her oversized buibui , with her hand, so that she doesn’t trip on it, and she moved towards him. With both hands, she grabbed the skinny figure, and with a rare smile on her face, she hugged him. . Her son. She was glad that Shaffi had returned. Each day, for the past two years, she would look into the distance, to try and see if Shaffi had returned.
No one knew why he had come back. Or even how he was still alive. Because people who disappeared rarely came back. So, they prepared a skinny goat for him; the most they could do, to feed his skinny bony body, in order for him to feel at home. Or it was dangerous not to welcome someone who had returned; otherwise they would soon go away the same way they had come.
Shaffi returned to class. He sat, in that open-air room, and looked at the teacher. And at the queer subjects that he now heard-Chemistry, and Physics and Geography. He didn’t even catch the other names. The teacher was new. In truth, every term, there was a new teacher; they never lasted more than one term. For fear would creep upon them, day by passing day, in that distant land, so far away from the rest of the country, that they did not consider the place as part of the nation. The fear would manifest itself in the shadows, and in the deep dark nights, and it would fill up their hearts and souls. It would gobble hem up until they became paranoid, and they wouldn’t have it any longer.
Shaffi was happy he was home again. Home to the place where he could sleep a peaceful night. Home to the place where he would once again have a warm meal and not go a week without clean water. Home to his mom and dad, to his brothers and sisters. Home to Rukia, his beautiful Rukia. When he crept up to Rukia for the first time since he was back, he could feel that her breasts had grown bigger and more provocative. He could clearly trace the more sensual curves on her body. Rukia whispered into his ears,
“I missed you Bonbon.” Shaffi smiled again. Wildly, he held his laughter this time. “Bonbon, promise me… promise me that you will stay this time…” Shaffi could feel the tear in her voice, “…please Bonbon, stay… for me…”
“I’m here now,” Shaffi whispered back to her.
Days, weeks, months passed. It started to dawn on Shaffi that he was happier, and the war was something distant that he should have not been part of. Evilness. He smiled and closed his eyes as he felt the morning sun on his face.
But what is it with war? Eventually, it caught up with him. He began to miss it. The need to go back. Back??? He would remember the connections he formed, the brotherhood, and the belonging that he got nowhere else. He had become addicted, to the togetherness in combat- The brothers in arms.
Shaffi recalled what he felt the first time he wielded an automatic. How the cold hard metal met with his hands. How the trigger conjoined with his finger and the blood in his hand coagulated for a moment. He remembers the sensations of power that he felt erupt from his sub-system as h exercised his muscles. The inertia and the sheer force of pull back from the reaction. He felt his mind wobble in and out of consciousness, like a drug. He would count the bullets, from the first, until he lost count:
One, two three, four, five, six, seven…
His could feel his cheeks slap against his cheekbones, like a thin piece of cloth. But after a month or two, they became sturdy, and rigid, fixed to his face and indifferent to the action.
Murder. The first time he shot someone, he looked at his victim, a fairly old man, how his eyes remained wide open, and how he fell to the ground. They didn’t call it murder over there, at the war. They didn’t want to, because murder was a little too bare, a little too raw, and a little too personal. They preferred calling it killing, or even better, ‘putting them to sleep’. Murder, in itself, changes people, and it did change Shaffi. You learn to take, like a god; at will. And the feeling you get is insanely electric. They called it a Killgasm. Shaffi wanted it again. He had become broken inside, broken into hundreds of pieces, and he had to reconcile himself.
Shaffi woke up one clean warm morning. And as usual, he went to school, but never came back home.