Sultan Uncle placed several glossy brochures in front of Arif and Meena. “I recommend this one.” He tapped the brochure for the Tree Tops Lodge & Resort. “Top class luxury. It will be the ultimate safari. Of course you can also try the Serena. Can’t go wrong there either. After all the Imam owns that one.”
Arif rubbed his goatee as he reviewed the brochures. The hotels weren’t exactly what he had in mind. “Actually, Cha-cha, I think Shakeel would enjoy a camping safari more.” He turned to his son, who was slumped on a chair behind them, playing with his Game Boy. “What do you say, buddy?” Arif pointed to a poster behind Sultan Uncle’s desk. The poster showed a group of white campers, hair rustled, unshaven, sitting around a fire and holding out bottles of beer to the camera. A Masai man stood in the background, wearing a warrior’s shield and holding a spear. The sign above the campers read “Discover Kenya in Livingston’s Footsteps.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Shakeel said as he pushed up his glasses. “That would be cool.”
“Oh-ho, don’t be so foolish.” Sultan Uncle scratched his thick belly between two buttonholes. “Those packages are meant for the Europeans only. You know how they are. So much money and still they want to sleep on the ground. What all is the point of being uncomfortable if you don’t have to? Doesn’t make any bloody sense. Besides, what the hell do you think your father would say if he heard? He would kill me only. No, absolutely not. You are my guests and I will not allow you to live like paupers. Am I right, Meena, or what?”
Meena nodded as she tucked her tortoiseshell sunglasses into a case that hung around her neck. “We don’t even camp in Canada, so why would we camp here?”
Meena had not wanted to come to Kenya for a vacation. She would have rather gone to one of their usual vacations spots—Cuba, Jamaica or Mexico, where they stayed at all-inclusive resorts, which provided all their meals and also provided activities to occupy Shakeel.
“It isn’t safe there,” Meena had said to Arif. Both Arif and Meena’s parents agreed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Arif’s father had said. “Things aren’t the way the used to be.” They all told him told him countless stories about daylight robberies and carjackings. “I’m telling, these golas, they are waiting, waiting for any chance to rob you, to do God knows what else. Why take such unnecessary risks? Especially with Shakeel. Why do you think they call it Nairobbery, hanh?”
But Arif insisted. Going to Kenya would be an adventure. Not only would they go on safari, but it would also be a great way for Shakeel to better understand his roots. “Well, they’re not my roots. I was born in England.” Meena said. “And in case you’ve forgotten, your son was born in Toronto.”
Meena’s parents were from Zanzibar and were studying in England when they met. Their families forced them to marry when Meena’s mother fell pregnant with her. They stayed in England until the recession in the 1980s prompted them to emigrate to Canada. Meena found the transition from London to Toronto almost impossible. She missed her friends and couldn’t stand the weather. But then she met Arif at university and things changed. Suddenly, she had a full life—filled with friends and activities. Soon after they were married, they opened a dental practice in Fairview Mall at Sheppard Avenue and Don Mills. Arif was a dentist and Meena a hygienist. The practice grew quickly so that before the end of their second anniversary, they opened additional office, this one in Parkway Mall, only ten minutes away at Ellesmere Road and Victoria Park.
Their workload increased significantly—both of them working daily from seven in the morning until nine in the evening on weekdays and nine to five on weekends. They often ate their meals at one of the many restaurants in the food court, some of which were owned by other Ismailis, who generously offered them discounted prices. (Arif and Meena obviously returned the favour—offering excellent rates to these businesses for their families’ dental care.) It was tiring, but they both agreed it was the only way to build a business, to build equity and get ahead. Long term, it would pay off.
But after taking maternity leave, Meena decided to quit. Arif encouraged her to come back to work. Don’t waste your education, he told her. But Meena refused. She found it all too overwhelming. Soon after Shakeel’s birth, they had been appointed Regular Mukhi-Sahib and Mukhiana-Ma at the Unionville Jamatkhana. Besides working every day, they were now required to lead the ceremonies at the prayer hall each evening, not to mention the many meetings and dinners they also had to attend. Meena had wanted to say no to the appointment—there was hardly any time for anything else as it was. But in the end, she knew that they had no choice. She had never heard of anyone refusing an appointment. Besides, it was an honour and privilege to serve the jamat, and not everyone in the community was given the same opportunity.
Sultan Uncle shoved a tray of samosas leaking grease, fried mogo and green chutney toward them. “Come on, eat some more. You know how I don’t like such formalities.”
Arif took a samosa. Meena refused. “No thanks,” she said.
She had signed up for Weight Watchers a few months ago after Munir, the husband of a friend, had joked during a group excursion to the water park at Ontario Place that she still hadn’t lost her baby fat. “Don’t get me wrong, Meena. I love ’em young.” Munir winked and then sprayed her with his water gun. The Weight Watchers guidebook did not list samosas and Meena had no idea how many points one was worth. (Three like a bagel or eleven like a latke?) She certainly did not want to take any chances.
“Take one, sey,” Sultan Uncle urged Meena. “Just because you are such big-big people living in Canada now doesn’t mean you have to be so skinny. Eat, eat, and I’ll send you looking nice and healthy. Just like me.”
Meena relented and took one, but she only nibbled at it.
They can take many things away from you, he would say to Shakeel, quoting the Imam, but no one can take away your education.
“Good girl,” he said and then turned to Arif. “I’m telling you, these days things have gotten worse and worse only. You have to be extra careful. These stupid golas are looking for a chance. Any bloody chance to rob you, to do God knows what else. Last week only a gang of them robbed Badru Popat. In broad daylight! No shame, I swear. Not only did they take his money, but they beat him senseless and then they stripped the old man of all his clothes. Dear God, what has this world come to? Poor man had to walk home looking like a Masai—holding only The Kenya Standard for cover. A picture of President Moi covering his backside and a picture of Kimathi covering his you-know-what. How bloody embarrassing.”
Arif shook his head and laughed. “You make it sound worse than an American ghetto.”
“It is. Believe you me, it is. And at least in America, you can call dial 911 and the police are there mara-moja. But here? The police themselves are corrupt bastards. Don’t trust anyone, that is for sure.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. People travel here all the time, without any problems at all.”
“All it takes is one problem,” Sultan Uncle said.
“I really want Shakeel to have a once in a lifetime experience. Kids learn by doing. It will be like an educational adventure.”
Education was a top priority for Arif. They can take many things away from you, he would say to Shakeel, quoting the Imam, but no one can take away your education. For Arif, there was a lesson in everything. Every problem could be turned into an opportunity. Despite his busy schedule, Arif was fully involved in his son’s life: he tutored Shakeel daily, helping him patiently with his homework; he attended his hockey games, drove him to his elocution classes. Arif encouraged his son to push himself to the next level in everything he did. They even had a weekly games night; their family room was stacked with games like Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy.
Recently, Shakeel was featured in Ismaili Canada for all his accomplishments: first place in Toronto’s Annual Sci-Tech Fair, best attendance for Mission Class, most funds raised for World Partnership Walk (in his age category), top class honours at the provincial championship for Junior Toastmasters and Most Valuable Player for his team, Africana Lions, in the Midgets Ismaili Ball Hockey League. (Arif had sponsored the team since its inception; on the team uniforms’ sleeves—“Dr. Arif Somani Makes Your Whole Family Smile.”) Arif had cut out the article and placed it on the fridge, next to the calendar, each day marked with the various ceremonies they had to attend at jamatkhana (besides Friday evening prayers) and Shakeel’s weekly activities.
When Arif and his brother were growing up, their parents owned a medium-sized grocery store located not far from the Dundas West subway station. The boys would go to the store after school and on weekends, doing their homework by themselves in the back room as their parents helped customers, shelved products, mopped the floor. His parents were always so busy with the store. They attended parent-teacher interviews and rewarded him for bringing home good report card, but they never had time for any extracurricular activities—Arif’s soccer games or school plays. Arif understood that his parents were strangers in a new country and that their priority had to be the business, so he learned early on that he had to rely on himself. But, once in a moment of anger, Arif confronted them about their lack of involvement in his life, telling them they were unworthy parents and that they had no idea how much their children were suffering. His father never reprimanded him for his outburst. Instead, he had just said, “What can I do? We’re doing all this for your benefit, bheta.” Arif did not want the same childhood for his son. He wanted Shakeel to know his father and he wanted to be a father who was fully present—a term he had learned from reading Today’s Parent and from listening to Dr. Phil’s advice on Oprah. (There were TVs installed above each dental chair, for Arif’s patients’ comfort.)
“Please, dhikro,” Sultan Uncle urged. “Listen to me. You won’t enjoy camping one little bit.”
“There’s no way I’m going to go camping. I just won’t do it.” Meena swung one leg over the other, dangling her cork-heeled sandal off her raised foot.
“Wow. There’s no winning against a united army.” Arif was disappointed in Meena. There had been a time when she had been so much more open to new ideas. She wasn’t an athlete like him, but even still, she willingly went on ski trips with him or took up running as a way for them to spend time together. It was her “get up and go” attitude that had attracted him to her in the first place. But over the years, Meena had become lazy. Arif accepted that she refused to work. But then the least he should expect was a well-managed household. There shouldn’t be any excuse for not cooking every day or for keeping the house in tip-top shape—all four washrooms were rarely cleaned on a weekly basis. Arif never asked, but he often wondered what Meena did with all her time.
“Excellent. You won’t regret it. You will enjoy yourselves immensely. This I know for sure.” Sultan Uncle rolled his chair toward the windowed wall, which separated his office from the reception area, and wrapped his knuckles on the one-way glass. “This way, I can keep an eye on the operation. Otherwise they’d have their fingers up their asses, doing nothing all day.”
No one responded to the knock. “See what I mean? These people, they’re useless, absolutely useless.”
Sultan Uncle pushed back his chair and stood up. He walked with a slight limp, one palm on the small of his back, his heavy belly hanging over his pants. A large wooden tasbih dangled from the fingers of his right hand. He leaned into the reception area and said something harshly in Swahili before returning to his chair.
He wished Fumo would say something, stand up for himself, refuse to be treated with such disdain.
Soon after, Fumo, Sultan Uncle’s driver, came into the office. He removed his Chicago Bulls baseball cap and nodded at Meena and Arif. He wore a pair of jeans and a loose white T-shirt with a large decal of Princess Diana.
Fumo explained why he was late to Sultan Uncle. He had had trouble with the combie on the safari that he had just returned from. He apologized several times, his eyes darting from one wall to another.
“Oh yes, of course, the combie is useless.” Sultan Uncle said, running his palm over his pitch-dark hair and wiping the oil off on a handkerchief. “All the time, one excuse or the other, hanh? This time, the combie. Next time what? Your dead mother?” He shook his head. “There are lineups for your job, lineups I am telling you, and still you don’t want to listen. How many bloody chances can I give you?”
Fumo looked down and bent the visor of his baseball cap between his two hands.
Sultan Uncle pointed his pen at Fumo and addressed Arif. “Would you tolerate this in Canada? Never. Of course not. But this is what I have to deal with day in day out. How much can one man tolerate? Believe you me, if it wasn’t for them, this country would be far more advanced. More advanced than even America. But problem is they want everything easy-kama-easy. Lazy bastards! Learn by example I say. How is it our people came to this country with hardly anything and built such empires? Simple. Hard work. Hard bloody work. But these people, they are born lazy and they will die lazy.”
A black fly buzzed near Arif’s ear. He swatted it away. He felt an overwhelming sense of pity for Fumo. He wished Fumo would say something, stand up for himself, refuse to be treated with such disdain. That was the only way to make change. Take things into your own hands. After all these years, Arif thought, not much had changed in Africa. A picture of Giselle, his childhood nanny, formed in his mind. Arif was playing in his bedroom when he heard a loud wail followed by a door slamming. Arif’s mother had locked Giselle in the hallway closet and refused to let her out until she confessed to stealing a cup of dhar and some eggs from the pantry. Arif slipped some Digestive cookies under the door, but Giselle flatly refused. “You go, tell your mother I must use the toilet. Otherwise I leave a mountain of shit in here.”
Arif rushed outside to the verandah where his mother was sitting on a small stool, separating stones from rice. His mother shook her head. “Let her try. Then we’ll see what I’ll do to her.”
Arif’s mother released Giselle an hour later. She rushed out and into the bathroom. Arif’s mother banged on the door, threatening Giselle. She was not allowed to use their bathroom. She was supposed to go outside to the servants’ quarters. Giselle stayed in the bathroom until Arif’s father came home and coaxed her out, promising that nothing would happen to her. After Giselle finished her day’s chores, she was fired. The next morning, Arif’s mother hired a new ayah and supervised the fundi as he installed new locks on all the cupboards.
Arif knew he couldn’t say anything to Sultan Uncle, especially in front of Shakeel. Children learned by example and he did not want to teach Shakeel that it was all right to talk back to elders. But the least he could do was protect his son from this nonsense. “Please Sultan Uncle,” Arif interjected, titling his head toward Shakeel.
“Ah shabaash, bheta. What is wrong if the boy listens? Let him learn once and for all what Africa is all about. Thank God you got out when you did.“ Sultan Uncle took a bite out of a samosa. Some ground meat spilled out of the side of his mouth; he tried to stop it with a finger and stuff it back in. “But your father, he’s too easily influenced. I told him back then, don’t listen to all the fear mongering at jamatkhana. What the hell can Idi Amin do to us? We’re in Kenya not Uganda. But did he listen? No. Instead he followed the entire bloody lot of them—scrambling to new countries like a bunch of pigeons to crumbs. And what all for? So you can be treated like second-class citizens. What kind of man would stand for that? I’m telling you, bana, it would have been far better if he had stayed put. Besides, what kind of crazy person prefers living in a deep freeze instead of this top-class climate, hanh?” Sultan Uncle turned back to Fumo. “And come tomorrow at six am sharp. My family here want to go on safari. Masai Mara.”
“Hotel or camping style?”
Sultan Uncle shook his head. “See what I mean? Nothing in here,” he drummed two fingers to his forehead. “Hotel of course. Now go. And don’t think for one second that the cost of the repairs is not coming straight out from your pay.”
Fumo squeezed his cap flat between two hands. “Sawa, okay.”
“If I hear one more excuse from you”—Sultan Uncle leaned back in his chair and wagged his finger at Fumo—“by God, it will be the end of you.”
The creases of Fumo’s eyelids quivered as if he had something caught in his eye. He nodded, then turned and left the office.
- • •
“Mummy!” Shakeel yelled as he struggled to climb into the combie while holding a bunch of ripe bananas and his disposable camera. His floppy sun hat had fallen down over his glasses and one of the straps of his Ninja Turtles backpack had slipped off his shoulder.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Meena said. She put her bottle of Fanta between her thighs; the straw, which was stained with a circle of fuchsia lipstick, bobbed up and down in the orange liquid. “Give me those.” She reached for the bananas and then turned to Arif. “Why’d you buy so many? As if we’ll even see any monkeys.”
“Of course we will. We always did when we were kids.” Arif lifted Shakeel into the combie. “There you go, buddy.” Arif had never been on a proper safari to see the more majestic animals like the lion or leopard, but on their way from Nairobi to Bamburi Beach for their annual family vacation, he had seen countless animals on the road—giraffes, gazelles, zebras, monkeys. They would stop several times on the five-hour trip to the coast, to go swimming or to eat lunch at a hotel, but the highlight for Arif was stopping to feed the monkeys. Arif’s father would park the car at the side of the road and before long troops of monkeys or baboons would gather, hooting and bouncing off the car. Arif and his brother would inch open the window and throw out the bananas, one at a time.
Meena pulled her sunglasses off her head. “That was a long time ago. Things must have changed. With all the filth and pollution here, the people are barely living. What about the poor monkeys?”
Arif asked Fumo about the likelihood of seeing monkeys before reaching the Masai Mara Game Park. “Maybe, bwana. It is all depending on our luck.” Fumo slipped a cassette into the stereo socket. Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up blared from the speaker.
“I have a feeling that our chances are good.” Arif turned to his son. “So it’s your job to spot them, buddy. If you see any, let the driver know. Okay?”
Shakeel nodded enthusiastically. He turned on his knees and planted his palms on the window. His bright yellow camera, which was now strapped around his neck, clinked on the glass.
“Careful,” Meena warned, pulling Shakeel back down.
“But it’s disposable, Mummy. It can’t break.” Arif had purchased the camera in a bulk package of ten from Wal-Mart. This way, he told Shakeel, he could document his trip. Won’t it be so much fun to show your friends? Shakeel agreed. Arif then spoke to Shakeel’s teacher, Mrs. Henry. She agreed. It would an excellent learning opportunity for the students. When they returned from Kenya, Shakeel would make a slide presentation to the class entitled “Shakeel Somani: Where I Come From.”
The combie raced along the rocky and unpaved road to Masai Mara. Fumo expertly manoeuvred around the potholes; even so, they were often bumped out of their seats.
“Incredible, hmm?” Arif said, leaning into Meena and pointing to the rolling foothills of the Great Rift Valley.
Shakeel’s camera whirred as he snapped picture after picture.
“Hmm,” Meena said, fanning herself with a copy of her Vogue, one of the magazines she had taken from the plane. “Could you please turn on the aircon?” Meena asked Fumo.
Fumo fumbled with some knobs. A blast of hot air shot out and then stopped. “Aye. I am very sorry, mamma. It is not working.”
“God, does anything work in this country?” Meena said and flipped open Cosmopolitan.
Arif rolled down the window. “This should help.” He leaned forward toward Fumo, his elbows on his knees. “You have been working for Twiga Travel a long time?” he asked, meeting Fumo’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Yes, sir. Maybe seven years. I come from a small village close to Narok. You know it?”
Arif shook his head.
“We will pass it by. It is on the way to the park. But I am coming to Nairobi for work, you see.”
“Do you have kids?”
“Yes, yes. I am a blessed man. Five. Three boys and two girls,” Fumo said, smiling. “They are staying in Narok. I am coming and going. When it is high touristic time, I am coming to Nairobi.”
Five kids! How could Fumo support such a big family and all by himself? Fumo seemed so young, twenty-five at the most. “You should start your own travel agency, Fumo,” Arif said, remembering the terrible assault Fumo endured in Sultan Uncle’s office. “Work for yourself. That is the only way to get ahead, you know. And you shouldn’t let anything come in your way. Just take charge.”
Fumo laughed. “Yes, okay, sir. Maybe, one day I will save enough money and then I will open my own business. Ah, but your uncle, he is a good man. He give me job all this time.”
“Don’t rely on anyone, Fumo. No one. You can only count on yourself.”
Fumo shrugged his shoulders. “Yes, okay.”
Canada. Yes, I have people from there also. It is very cold there, yes? In wintertime, you watch ice hockey.
Arif felt good that perhaps he had planted a seed in Fumo’s mind. How else would he survive, support such a big family. “So is this the best time to go on safari?”
“Oh yes, bwana. Any time is a good time, hanh.” Fumo described how, in a few months, there would be a mass migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti. “They stay here for some months. Eating, eating. Then they are going back. All the time, here and there. Here and there. They have no home, you see. Always on safari.” Fumo smiled into the rearview mirror. “They are like me, hanh?”
There was yet another reason Fumo needed to get into business. “I could help you, you know.” Arif offered. “I could help you with a business plan. I’m a dentist.”
“A dentist, hanh?” Fumo paused for a moment and then tilted the rearview mirror toward himself. “Maybe, bwana, you can remove this.” Fumo pointed deep inside his mouth to a molar. “It is causing me too much pain.”
“Ah, but I don’t have any of equipment here.”
“I have pliers, sir. Is that helping?”
“No, no. I couldn’t use that. Besides, it’s not like I have a dental licence here. But listen, I can definitely help you draft a business plan.”
“Okay,” Fumo said, his eyebrows knitted together. He titled the rearview mirror back in place.
“You think we’ll see the big five on safari?”
“Ah yes. You will see the all the big animals. No problem, bwana. But next time, you must come for the wildebeest. So many animals in one place and only one purpose. “
“Is that when most of the tourists come?”
“The tourists, they are coming all the time. From all over the world, they come here to Kenya. We are very lucky.” Fumo looked up and into the rearview mirror at Arif. “And you, sir, you are from where?”
“Well, I was born here,” Arif said proudly. “But we live in Toronto. We’d like to come back here to retire.” Arif liked the idea of spending his last days here, of being buried in the country of his birth.
Meena mumbled something as she turned a page of her magazine.
“Oh I see. Canada. Yes, I have people from there also. It is very cold there, yes? In wintertime, you watch ice hockey. You like this very much. But you do not like the French people. They are causing you too much trouble.”
Arif smiled. “You know a lot about Canada, hey?”
“I am learning from my customers.”
“See, you already have a customer base. You’re well on your way to starting a business.”
“Maybe you are right, sir. I have many friends everywhere.” Fumo tapped his head. “You see this hat? My friend, George, he is living in Chicago. He send me this. Chicago Bulls. He like basketball very much.”
“Now you have a friend in Toronto.”
“Yes, yes.” Fumo smiled and met Arif’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Me, I love Shaq. Best player in the league. Who do you think my son is named after?” Arif laughed. “You like basketball, Fumo?”
“I do not know how to play. But I like America. One day, maybe I will go there. They make everything very nice.”
“Well, I could send you a Toronto Maple Leafs T-shirt or even a jersey.” Arif paused. “Not that they ever win,” he laughed. “Not since 1967.”
Fumo shook his head. “I am sorry for such bad news, sir. It is terrible.”
Arif nodded. When Arif was growing up he had rooted for the Maple Leafs, but after years of cheering and nothing to show for it, he decided to cheer to switch allegiances to the Edmonton Oilers. He watched as they slowly rose up to be the best team in the league. Hard work and perseverance—it was the only surefire way to success! A combination the Leafs never seemed to get straight.
But when Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, Arif had felt so betrayed that he tore all his Gretzky cards into little pieces and threw them down the toilet. As he flushed, he vowed never to watch Gretzsky play again. Arif and Shakeel were avid hockey fans, but to this day, even though Gretzky was retired, Arif insisted Shakeel turn the TV off when the Los Angeles Kings were playing.
- • •
The combie sped ahead, passing a boy on a bicycle, a goat strapped to the handlebars, and many women—some with their babies tied around them with kanga cloth, tilling the fields, others walking on the side of the road with baskets on their heads, and lines of barefoot children in tattered clothes. The children screamed and waved as the combie drove by.
“See how lucky we are to live in Canada?” Arif said to Shakeel.
“Did you used have to bicycle with a goat too?”
Arif laughed. “No. But these kids hardly have anything to eat. It’s just very hard for them.” Arif tapped Fumo’s shoulder. “Is it all right if we stop? We’d like to meet the children.”
Fumo turned the stereo volume down. One Love was now barely audible. “But, sir, they will only ask you for money.”
“That’s fine.” Arif wanted Shakeel to have as many first-hand experiences as possible.
Meena looked up from her magazine. “What for, Arif? At this rate we’ll never get to the hotel.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Fumo veered onto the shoulder and stopped the vehicle. The children rushed to the vehicle. Their noses were blocked with thick mucous and their stomachs bloated.
“Hello, sir, hello,” they chanted, each of them scrambling to get their hands into the open window.
Meena pulled away. “Shoo, shoo,” she shrieked, waving them away.
“One shilling please. One shilling.”
Fumo stepped outside and tried to control the clamour. He swatted the children’s heads and pulled one of the boys off the vehicle. The boy had gripped the inside of the combie through an open window and was trying to climb in.
“No, Fumo,” Arif said. “Please, don’t hit them. They’re only children.”
Fumo stood aside.
Arif tried to engage the children in a conversation. He introduced Shakeel to them, asked them where they lived, what they liked to do for fun. But the children were single-minded. They wanted a shilling.
“Good God, just give them some money and get it over with,” Meena said, twisting her watch around her wrist.
“Money’s the easy solution,” Arif retorted. Who knows what they would do with the money? Buy beer or drugs?” Arif preferred to give them food. He reached for the bananas, snapped one off, and offered it to the children.
“But the monkeys, Daddy!”
“It’s okay, buddy. We’ll get more.”
The children refused the bananas.
“See how ungrateful they are,” Meena said. “Just give them the money. What’s a few shilling to us? A few cents, if that.”
One of the children pointed to a stall. “Milk.”
Fumo warned that the children would only sell the milk for money. “No,” Arif said. “They need milk for healthy teeth and bones.” He escorted Shakeel and the rest of the children, each of them fighting to hold Arif’s hand, to the confectionary stall. He purchased a triangular packet of powdered milk for each of them.
“Thank you, sir,” the children screamed.
“You are very welcome.” Arif said, feeling a deep sense of accomplishment.
One of the girls tugged at the camera hanging around Shakeel’s neck. “No!” Shakeel pulled back so forcefully that he yanked the girl forward. “It’s mine.”
Meena beeped the horn. Arif looked over to see her figure in an L shape as she reached forward from the back seat and over the driver’s seat.
“Hurry, take a picture, buddy.” Arif gestured to the children, pointing to Shakeel’s camera. They seemed to understand what he meant. They giggled, struggling with each other as they each tried for the front row.
Shakeel held the camera awkwardly with both hands and snapped a picture; the faces of children wide open with laughter.
- • •
Soon after they had eaten lunch at a small restaurant, the combie began to gurgle. It rolled forward a few inches, rocked back, and then stopped.
Fumo cranked the gears and tried to restart the combie, but nothing. It was dead.
“What’s wrong?” Arif asked.
“It is okay. I fix it. No problem.”
Fumo lifted the cover of what seemed like a large armrest between the front two seats. He tinkered with some wires and levers, then slapped the dashboard. “We must let the engine cool it down, that is all.”
As they waited, a group of Masai women wearing colourful, printed wraps and adorned with thick, beaded jewellery—necklaces, earrings, lip and nose rings—rushed toward them from the other side of the road. Their arms were filled with wooden carvings.
Arif pointed to the women. “There’s a picture for you, buddy.” Shakeel clambered onto the seat and readied his camera.
Fumo tapped the rearview mirror. “Please, bwana, no picture. The Masai, they do not like it. They are feeling that the photo steal their soul.”
“Come on, really?” Arif asked.
“Yes, it is true. And if she see you, she will ask for money. Not shillings, bwana. No, no. Only American dollars.” He laughed. “You see, free trade has reached us here in Kenya even.”
The women shouted excitedly, thrusting their wares into the open window of the combie. “Jambo! So nice. Good price.”
“Take a look, Meena. They look beautiful”
Meena shook her head and waved her hand at the women. “Forget it. Let’s wait until we get to the hotel. I’m sure they’ll have a gift shop.”
But Arif was suddenly intrigued with a thin black carving of a Masai family, the woman cradling an infant and the man standing behind them with spear. “How much?” he asked, leaning over Meena and pointing to the statue.
The woman turtled behind the combie and appeared at his window. Meena rolled up her window. The other women left to sit at the side of the road.
“For you, bwana, special price. How much you like?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe three hundred shillings?”
“How many you take?”
“Just that one.”
“No, no. Too small price. Five hundred shilling.”
“Five hundred shillings?” Meena asked. “That’s outrageous. I’m sure I saw some in Nairobi for much less. Don’t waste your time with her.”
Arif turned back to the woman, shrugged his shoulders. “Three hundred shillings.”
Fumo tried to start the vehicle again. The engine roared back to life.
The woman shoved the carving into Arif’s hand. “Basi, bana. Three hundred shilling.”
Arif ran his finger up and down the crevices of the statue. It was smooth and delicate, yet it felt strong. The craftsmanship was impeccable. “I’m sure it’s ebony,” he said and handed it to Meena. “Take a look. It’s terrific.”
Fumo braked suddenly, throwing Shakeel forward and down onto the floor of the vehicle.
Meena examined the statue. She pushed her thumb into the faces, then turned it upside down and wrapped her knuckles to the base a few times. “No, it feels fragile. It might break before we get it home. Don’t let her take advantage. Offer two hundred shillings max.”
The woman pulled back the kanga slung around her to show her baby, his nose dripping, his eyes yellowed. She cupped the baby’s chin. “Me mamma. You mamma. Please. Three hundred shilling.”
Meena looked away, tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear. “Two hundred shillings. That’s our final offer.”
As Fumo stepped on the gas, the woman reached in and grabbed Arif’s wrist. “Please, bwana. Three hundred shilling.”
Fumo beeped the horn. He then turned back and said something to the women in Swahili and tried to wave her away. The woman refused to leave.
Meena snatched the statue from Arif’s grip and threw it out the window. “No means no!” Meena tapped the back of Fumo’s seat. “Let’s go. We’re done here.”
Fumo started to drive away. The woman leaned down and picked up the statue. She chased the combie, running next to it, the carving held high above her, her baby bouncing up and down. “Basi, bana, two hundred shilling. Between hundred shilling!” But the combie was rattling ahead at full speed. Arif turned back to see the woman shrinking so that soon she was only a speck in the far distance. Suddenly, he felt angry. What was Meena teaching Shakeel? That it was all right to treat people unfairly? He would have to make it a point to discuss the matter with her when they arrived at the hotel. He did not want to start an argument in front of Shakeel.
“Sir, if you like I can take you to my village,” Fumo suggested, his head cocked back as he looked at Arif in the rearview mirror. “My friend, Patrick, he have a nice shop. You will find very good carvings there. It is all locally made. Better price than this lady.”
“The village it is close by,” Fumo continued. “Just before Masai Mara. If you like, we will also make a tour of my village afterward.”
“Really? What a great idea.” Arif turned to Meena and Shakeel. “So what do you guys think? It would our chance to see a real African village.”
“Yeah, Dad. I’ll get lots of good pictures.”
“Forget it,” Meena said. “The sooner we get to the hotel, the better.”
“Come on, Meena. Who gets to shop in the jungle?” Arif joked, slipping his fingers under her T-shirt and tickling her stomach. “It will be an adventure. And I’m sure we’ll get excellent prices. Isn’t that right Fumo? You’ll be able to get us a good discount, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course, bwana. No problem. You are my friend now. I will make sure you get big discount.” Fumo said, tapping the steering wheel to the rhythm of Buffalo Soldier.
Arif raised his eyebrows to Meena. “See?”
“Okay, fine,” Meena said, smiling. She moved Arif’s hand to her thigh and pulled down her T-shirt.
“That’s my girl.” Arif leaned in and kissed Meena. “Full speed ahead, Captain Fumo. Narok it is.”
- • •
Shakeel turned back on his knees, planted his chin on the backrest and stared outside.
“Daddy, when are we going to see the monkeys? We haven’t seen any yet.”
“Soon, buddy. I’m sure of it.” Just as Arif reached up and rustled Shakeel’s hair, he saw something, monkeys perhaps, moving in the bushes. “Stop, Fumo!”
Fumo braked suddenly, throwing Shakeel forward and down onto the floor of the vehicle. Meena was jolted forward. Arif braced himself. The combie screeched to a halt.
Shakeel sat on the floor, his arms and legs tangled. Arif quickly reached down and lifted his son onto his lap. “You okay, buddy?”
“Give him to me,” Meena reached over and grabbed Shakeel. “Oh God. You okay, sweetheart?” She held him by the shoulders and examined his face.
“What’s wrong with you, driver?” Meena yelled. “You almost had us all killed.”
Fumo turned around, apologizing profusely, his hands together in prayer.
Arif felt a surge of frustration and anger rise in him. Why can’t this man just stand up for himself? He has no idea, but he would be such a different person if he only learned to be confident instead of constantly cowering to others. “Stop apologizing, Fumo! I’m the one who made you stop. I’m sure I saw some monkeys.”
“Where, where?” Shakeel said, as he scrambled for camera.
Arif rolled down his window and pointed to the dense bush. “Let’s see if we can get their attention.” Arif hooted, his back hunched over, fingers under his armpits.
“You’re funny, Daddy.” Shakeel giggled.
Fumo turned back to Arif. “Sir, we must go.”
“No. Let’s wait a little while. We just got here.”
Fumo pointed to three men approaching from the distance.
“Who are they?”
Fumo shook his head. He cranked the gears and stepped on the accelerator.
The combie zoomed by the men. All three were in jeans and fatigued army jackets, scarves tied around their necks. They carried rifles strapped across their backs. One of the men walked with a pronounced limp.
Shakeel poked his head out the window and snapped a picture.
“No!” Meena yanked him back down. “You’ll hurt yourself again.”
“But Mom, they look like Ninja Turtles.”
“Sit down. And put that stupid camera away for God’s sake.”
Fumo changed gears. The combie began to sputter, gurgling for a few seconds as it began to slow.
Meena swung her head back to the men. “Don’t stop!”
The combie came to a full stop.
Arif turned to see the men approaching. “Who are they?” His mouth suddenly dried. His hands shook slightly as he reached for a bottle of water.
“Go!” Meena ordered. “Those hoodlums are getting closer.”
“Ninjas, Mom, not hoodlums.”
Fumo tried to turn the engine, but it would not budge. One of the men slapped his palm to the driver side door. “What is the hurry, my friend?” he asked, smiling, his top two front teeth glinted gold. He opened the driver’s side door, leaned in and peered over Fumo’s head and into the back of the combie. He said something to Fumo in Swahili. Fumo shook his head. He reached in past the stereo and turned it off. He ejected the cassette of Bob Marley and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
Arif silently wished for Fumo to fight back, to do something. Don’t just stand there. The only way to get respect was to command it.
The first man, whom Arif mentally named Goldteeth, walked to the side door and flung it open. Meena leaned back. He stepped one foot in and leaned an elbow on his knee. A toothpick dangled from the side of his mouth. “Jambo. Karibuni Kenya. Welcome to this great land.” He smiled.
One of the men jumped onto the hood and sprawled out, one leg hanging over the side of the vehicule.
Fumo stepped out of the combie. The third man grabbed him by the shoulder and easily pushed him aside. The men laughed. “Could you tell us why you’ve stopped us?” Arif asked with what he hoped sounded like confidence. “We don’t want any trouble.”
Goldteeth turned to his cohorts. “You hear this? The man is saying we want to make trouble? Is that true or false?”
“False,” the men chanted. One of the men, a pink Band-Aid taped across his cheekbone, lit a cigarette, took a long slow drag, and then titled his head back and blew out the smoke.
“This is a border crossing here,” Goldteeth continued, moving the toothpick between two teeth. “You have to pay the toll. It is a regulation of the Kenyan government. Nothing we can do.”
“A border crossing?”
“Yes, you are now on our land. All foreigners, they must pay. It is a touristic tax, you see. A head tax.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth.
“But we’re not foreigners. I was born here.” Arif said matter-of-factly.
“Just give him some money,” Meena whispered angrily.
“Is that right?” Goldteeth leaned back outside to his partners. “We do not have foreigners here. We have our brethren.” He turned his gaze back into the combie. “So, my friend, this is your home, hanh?”
“Yes,” Arif said, encouraged “This was one of the main reasons we came here. I wanted my son to learn more about his history. To understand his roots.”
“I see,” Goldteeth pursed his lips and nodded. “But you are living in America, no?”
“You can come and go anytime, hanh? That is very nice for you.” Goldteeth pointed to Shakeel with his toothpick. “What is your name, bana kidogo, little boss?”
“Shakeel,” Shakeel said, adjusting his glasses.
Goldteeth reached in to examine the camera around Shakeel’s neck. Shakeel was forced forward.
“No!” Shakeel screamed, pulling back. “That’s my project for school!”
Goldteeth dropped the camera, raised his palms. “Okay, okay! Your son, he is like a lion.”
“Ah, but this is Africa, it is filled with problems, yes? Let us try to solve one today.”
Yes, he had a strong son, Arif thought. “Go ahead, buddy. Tell the man your project.”
Arif hoped that hearing the story might help pacify the man.
Shakeel explained the project and the purpose of the camera. “And Mrs. Henry, um, she said that she liked my idea best of all. She even gave me an extra gold star. ’Cause not all the kids can teach other kids something special. I can teach them all about Africa.”
“Oye-yo-yo, bana kidogo.” Goldteeth shook his head. “You are smart. An expert on Africa, hmm?”
The man on the hood of the car banged a fist to the windshield and said something in Swahili. Goldteeth shook his head and waved his hand.
“Is everything all right?” Arif asked.
“Yes, everything, it is fine. He is only impatient. He want to go home. His woman, she is waiting.” Goldteeth winked and then tilted his head toward Meena. “Big trouble if you keep her waiting too long, hanh?” he laughed.
Arif laughed, but stopped when he saw the scowl on Meena’s face.
Fumo stood up and tried to say something. The man with a limp punched him in the stomach. He planted both palms to Fumo’s shoulder and pushed him into the ditch.
Goldteeth waved Shakeel forward. “Come, bana kidogo.”
“No!” Arif said, holding Shakeel back.
“Aye, bwana. I will not harm him.”
Arif maintained his grip on his son. “But what do you want?”
Goldteeth shook his head and laughed. “There is a new school in my village. But we have no teacher, you see. Maybe your son, he can teach the children.” Goldteeth beckoned Shakeel forward. “Come, do not be so scared.”
Just as Shakeel looked to Arif for permission, Goldteeth ducked into the combie and snatched Shakeel out of Arif’s arms.
“No!” Meena screamed.
Arif rushed behind, his arms outstretched. “Please. We don’t want any problems.”
“Ah, but this is Africa, it is filled with problems, yes? Let us try to solve one today.” Goldteeth turned and made a line in the gravel with his heel. He placed Shakeel behind the line. “If I am to hire your son, I must first see how smart he is. “ He motioned to the other men. “Eh, Rafiki. Come. Maybe you are learning something. This boy, he is expert. He know everything about Africa.”
“But he’s too little. He can’t be a teacher!” Meena cried, clutching her purse.
“This isn’t fair,” Arif said.
The other men including Fumo were made to sit on the other side of the line, across Shakeel.
Goldteeth waved his gun in the air. “Attention class, attention. Your new school is about to open. So many children, they have no school. But today, you are lucky. You must pay attention. We have here,” he pointed to Shakeel with his gun, “an expert. He will teach us. Come, let us begin.” Goldteeth leaned into his rifle like a cane.
“Bana kidogo, can you tell the class what year Kenya is finally getting our independence? Uhuru at last!”
Shakeel raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders.
Goldteeth bent down and cupped Shakeel’s head in his hand. “You must try, little boss.” Shakeel twisted his lips to one side. He looked to his parents.
“Please! “ Meena screamed.
“I am waiting, little boss.” Goldteeth paced the line between Shakeel and his students.
“Oh, bana kidogo! Did I not say, you must try? That is the most important thing. You disappoint me too much.” Goldteeth leaned down and slapped Shakeel across the mouth.
Shakeel cupped his mouth and started wailing.
“No!” Arif stepped forward, his heart filled with a mix of anger and fear. “Please, I beg you. Don’t do this.”
“Do something, Arif. Do something!” Meena cried.
Shakeel was now crying uncontrollably.
“Please. I will do anything. Give you anything you want.”
“What can you give me?” Goldteeth asked.
Arif removed all the bills in his wallet and offered them to Goldteeth. “Please, take this.” Goldteeth did not budge. Arif rushed back to the combie and seized Meena’s purse. He held the bright pink handbag to Goldteeth. To Arif’s relief, Goldteeth took it. He held the purse, the strap bunched in his fist like the neck of a dead chicken. He then dropped it. It hit the ground with a thud. “It is always the same thing with you people, hanh? Money. Money. Money. You think you can have anything if you have money.”
“I will give you anything. Please just leave my son.”
Goldteeth poked the butt of his rifle into Arif’s shoulder and pushed him back. “The class is not over.” He turned back to Shakeel. “Let us try again. Concentrate. I give you an easy one this time. Can you name for me, bana kidogo, one member of the Mau Mau movement or even GEMA of today?”
“Daddy!” Shakeel sniffled, wiping his tears away with dusty hands. “Help me!”
Goldteeth turned to Arif, raised his eyebrows. “Okay, okay. Come. Come help him. He is your son after all. And I am not a monster.”
Arif rushed forward. He bent down and slipped his hands under Shakeel’s arms. Goldteeth pushed him away. He wagged his finger at him. “No, you cannot take him. Answer for him. If you know the answer then he will be spared his punishment.”
“Please!” Arif dropped to his knees. “Please, do not do this to us.”
“Ah, but, sir. This is your country. You cannot answer such a simple question about our history? Your people, they have been here a long time, no? Please, you must only answer the question. All you must do is name one member of the independence movement. Only one. It is a simple matter really.”
Arif put his hands together in prayer. “Please. This is impossible.”
Goldteeth struck Shakeel across the head. He screamed.
Fumo suddenly rushed forward in two giant steps and pounced on Goldteeth.
Meena ran out of the combie. She grabbed Shakeel and hurried him back to the vehicle. “Are you okay, sweetheart?” She asked frantically, patting down his hair.
Fumo and Goldteeth rolled over each other on the ground, each grabbing and punching at the other.
“Stop!” the man with the limp yelled, pointing his rifle at Fumo.
Arif pushed himself up from the ground and ran to the combie, slamming the door shut behind him. He locked all the doors and then climbed, one leg after the other, into the driver’s seat. The man with the Band-Aid charged toward the combie.
“Hurry!” Meena cried, her hands wrapped around Shakeel’s head as she pulled him into her chest. Shakeel was still crying, his mouth bleeding on Meena’s T-shirt, mumbling, “My camera, Mummy. My camera.”
The man hammered the end of his rifle to the driver side window.
Arif’s fingers fumbled with the key in the ignition. He turned the engine over and over again, desperately trying to make it work.
A gunshot fired.
“Go!” Meena screamed, shielding Shakeel’s eyes. “Go!”
The combie suddenly sputtered back to life. Arif shoved the gearshift into drive and then pressed down on the the gas pedal. The glare of the hot African sun glinted in the rearview mirror. He turned the mirror up and away, keeping his gaze focused on the road straight ahead as he sped away.