And Like a Flame That Flickers Out Too Soon

Hassan Kassim

1.

This is the only way I remember it. The first time I had an experience outside of myself was perhaps the first time I saw the only video documentation of my childhood. We were on a family vacation – the only one we had ever been to – at Jumba la Mtwana Ruins, and I was 10 years old. If I remember correctly, my uncle was holding the camera, amateurishly zooming in and out on the rubble left of this old civilisation dating back to the 14th century. A Swahili settlement, the tour guide said, motioning his arms towards a nobleman’s quarters: many-roomed, said to belong to his many wives; a kitchen where he walked us through the motions a servant would make on the daily; the washroom; a mosque not far outside overlooking the desolate Indian Ocean; a dried-up well; and then a stone’s throw away, the city graveyard. Not much remained, save for the sense that there was once life here, bustling in and out of the place.

The grainy video would occasionally pan towards the clouds, the coconut leaves imprinted against the sky, rustled by a fresh ocean breeze. Occasionally pan down to the striped tracksuit that he tucked inside his FILA boots, glistening specks of white sand on them. Turned his focus to the beach, now harsh corals, the tide low, water yet to pour in, as he would say, before leaving us to search for a suitable swimming spot. He’d pan towards the women spreading lesos on the floor, setting up for lunch. The transitions, an admirable attempt at professional videography. And for the first time, he’d pan a little lower focusing on this group of boys who’d hog the lens, staring intensely while making cartoonish gangster faces; warping their lips, motioning their arms, renditioning the swag of a 90s rap video. And there I was. For the first time, I saw myself not at the centre of my own experience. I have loathed photography ever since.

This is the only memory I have of my grandmother outside of her house. The woman never visited us once. I once heard she told her daughters that children were not meant to be visited. As a parent, you were the centre, and the centre never moves.

The memory of that day, I hold it with fondness. It was the first time I had all my mother’s side of the family in one place. We were happy. My cousins and I made up stories on the haunting of Jumba Ruins and it had the look to back our claims. Green mould growing from the remaining stone-walled rubble. Some walls that had tired with years, resting on other walls made firm by cement that had been inconspicuously applied to conserve it while preserving what it essentially is. The disclaimed rumours around the history of the name that had been disclaimed; that it had been a centre for the slave trade. From the beach it looked like we were staring into a jungle, with a thicket of trees covering the houses, malleable branches twizzling around the walls, and one, on finding themselves here, could assume the only possible way out would be to swim across the ocean.

In retrospect, I don’t remember much of what we ate or what went on that day, except for two incidents. The first was digging holes after lunch, with my cousin, strategically behind a shooting aloe vera, then relieving ourselves next to each other while holding our noses. Two white male tourists, with their butt cheeks peeking from their swimming costumes, were bemused when they spotted us.

The second incident, I attribute its remembrance to its linkage with another one that would happen the following year.

I was seated on my uncle’s shoulders as we stepped into the water, hoisted to a point where the sun burned my eyes. He stopped where the water reached his shoulders, waves ebbing gently, drenching his beard. He was the biggest person I knew. He asked me to come down from his shoulders – to really come into the water with him, and I don’t remember resisting. I remember him holding me by his side and asking me to say the shahada after I admitted I couldn’t swim. Three years of swimming classes and all I did was hold onto the pool rail until the class was over. Panicking, I attempted to clutch onto him but slid off his now slippery skin before I could. I don’t remember the details, just that I flew briefly above the water, then was in it, the salt burning my eyes, water gurgling down my throat, and by some mystery I don’t understand, was standing in waist-level waters after flailing my arms like a mad man. I coughed up the gallons I had swallowed and before I gained full recollection, he had grabbed me by my leg and pulled me back in, right back to where we started, thrust me in again, countless times until that was the only swimming class I had that ever counted.

2.

The year was 2007, and we were at Congo Ruins. Remnants of an old civilisation, in similitude to the one we’d been to the year before. Only now, instead of the North Coast, we were at the South Coast. It was a school trip and some of my family were there as well. The school belonged to my uncle, whom we, the students, addressed as the director, and he’d employed his sisters as caterers, my mom as one of the teachers, and his two brothers as the drivers that got us there.

We had finished our exams and carried on a school tradition. This was the only school event for which we were allowed out of our school uniforms. The older boys talked about the tight pants Zahra Jailani had worn inside her in-fashion open abaya. No one knew that this would be our last school trip for several years.

Some of these things, I heard after the incident. Of the locals’ warning our chaperones not to let us swim, for instance, wary of the tide. That might have happened when I left for a class picture with the boys that is still imprinted in memory. How tiny we were. What I do remember is the combining of the dhuhr and asr prayers for the first time because we wouldn’t be able to pray again that day. Then my uncle sitting under this huge baobab tree in all his charisma, joking with students, his two daughters seated beside him. That one’s a vivid recollection. His lips furling, inaudible, then a belly laugh that still rings in memory, his being weighed down by students who erupted in celebration when he told them to get changed; we were to go swimming.

I hadn’t worn my shorts yet so I hid behind one of the trees. Or I changed in the mosque. Or maybe I had worn my swimming shorts inside all along, but something delayed me. For when I was all excited, about to step into the water, Mr Vincent was already shouting for students to get out. For some reason, I see Rajab, my classmate, with me on those shores, but it’s one of those things I’m convinced is a false memory. Perhaps planted by the stories surrounding his disappearance before the surfacing of his body two days after. It was said he tossed himself into the water around that time we were told to get out. Watching the spread of water through the filters of what I know now, from a distance I see Khadija Juma and Abood, flailing their arms, telling us, who thought were joking, to get out. I think that’s when it dawned on us something bad was going on – the possibility that they were drowning.

Teachers took us away from the scene. Back to the shelter of the baobab tree near the mosque. Locals rounded themselves up. Everything was said aloud yet I do not hear what was said. Visible confusion on all our 10- to 15-year-old faces. We were huddled in small groups, biting our nails, the mood aggravated when students started appearing in brief intervals from the side of the incident. Abood arrived tired, a tarry moustache on his upper lip. To keep him hydrated, they brought him water, which he drank, and only lay there next to us when he was done, and when we asked him what had happened, he replied he’d just drank some coke in the ocean, pursing the brown mud on his upper lip. Even then, he put a smile on our faces.

What I’ll never forget is the loud cry after. From the side of the incident. A girl in a drenched yellow shirt, Kulthum, my classmate, was running. Her faltering steps struggling not to get entrenched in the sand. This plays out in slow motion: her flailing arms, her ugly crying, screeching – all painful to watch. When she was a few steps away from the group, still in slow motion, she shrieked, “Director ankufaaa! – The director is dead!” Then collapsed at her sister Khadija Hamid’s feet, whose eyes were moist, her hands clasping onto her mouth. The quiet enveloped us.

Between us, puzzled looks were exchanged, eyes on Kulthum. Her back was inflating and deflating from her wheezing. Hot tears began streaming from my eyes without notice as my schoolmates gathered around me to offer condolence. Nothing had been confirmed yet but it was a truth that was crystallising. We were put into buses without confirmation of the surfacing murmurs and dropped back at school. My mother had directed me to go to my grandmother’s. The crowd in her house was the only confirmation I needed to be certain of my uncle’s passing.

I’d been a quiet, mild-mannered kid. When I walked into my grandmother’s house, which was bustling with people, and found the room she was in, I didn’t go directly to her. I put my hand out and greeted all the women inside. There were mumbles from a few of them wondering whose kid I was. Someone saying I was there at the incident. When I was within arm’s length from my grandmother, after shaking hands that must’ve been in the hundreds, she grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me vigorously. I was crying and she was crying. Hiccups leaping out of our sentences. She whimpered, “Is Salim alive?” I whimpered yes. “Is Musa alive?” I cried again yes, crying louder as the room’s eyes remained glued to us. She let go of me and then shrivelled in the corner, “Alhamdulillah.”

I walked outside to where the men were. Tradition dictated men should stay outside during burials. My cousin spotted me and took leave with me to play PlayStation, which made it all better.

3.

Shortly after picking the parcel that had arrived from Dar es Salaam, I flagged down a tuk-tuk and the driver took the mattress and roped it on the roof. I paid him before boarding to give the change to the stranded traveller or conman, depending on whether his story was true. It was a silent ride as I stared outside from the back of the tuk-tuk at the electricity lines, noticing them as if for the first time – an intricate web of crisscrossing hanging lines going through the town. I remember the tuk-tuk driver pulling his arm out to get a feel if the mattress was still there, and, just like that, losing balance. The single front-wheel twisted as he tried to pull himself back in but then it was too late. I remember the tuk-tuk hanging imbalanced on one side, toppling to skid on the tarmac as my eyes instantly closed and tapped into a different reality. This movie scene where, as the vehicle tumbled, the windshield flew inside, as shards pierced the faces in a horrific bloodbath. I did not scream and I’ve questioned myself since, on why that was. In an effort to make it make sense, I go back to that day when my uncle held me in the water and asked me to say the shahada. If you do that before you die, you’re going straight to heaven. With my eyes closed before impact with the ground, I mumbled twice, “La ilaaha illa-Allah,” as I quietly closed my eyes. Ready.

It must have been not more than three seconds before I discovered I was still alive. As I heard the driver’s groans asking me to lift the tuk-tuk, which was crushing his leg on the tarmac, I ran my hands over my body to check for injuries and found I had none. I stood on the door of the three-wheeled taxi. I tried to lift it up, and by luck, some passersby who had been running towards us, were already lifting it. It was about a few seconds drive from home, so some witnesses considered me their neighbour. They called me by name and asked me if I was okay. I nodded. The tuk-tuk guy, with his hurt leg and his arm bleeding, asked to leave – perhaps out of fear of dealing with the traffic police. He ignited the tuk-tuk then dropped me home. Later, I discovered some scratches behind my shoulder and inflammation on my forehead.

The tuk-tuk driver looked at himself, at his bloody hand and asked me if I thought he’d punctured an artery. I didn’t know but reassured him based on the pressure of the flow that it was only a vein. I tied his hand with a piece of cloth from his tuk-tuk. I unroped the mattress on roof by myself, and told him to rush to the hospital, forgetting the small parcel I had at the back of the tuk-tuk. However, he called me two days later, having searched for me since the accident. He told me he’d had to go back to the bus station, where he asked around and got my number. We talked about the accident, which had puzzled him because he’d been a tuk-tuk driver for over 10 years and that had never happened. He said that he simply did not understand.

Neither did I. How easily I accepted my fate. I didn’t fret even one bit, as if the odds of dying were better than continuing with this life I lived – underlived.

I have seen the deaths my family die. They say my uncle was saving his students, and while the legend behind his dying has varying narrations, what reigns true is that he fought to stay alive until he could not. The sea wore him down, and death, like a vulture, took him. My grandmother’s death would be prophesied due to her health but she would keep fighting. My father called me once while I was at the university, asking me to come home soon because everyone was visiting, noticing she didn’t have much long. She’d fight for two more weeks till the crowds in her house subsided because their lives had to go on and the woman was not letting go. When I finally got the call from my mum to come back home again for my grandmother’s funeral, two days later, I came. I wasn’t sad at her death. I simply stared at this formidable woman, lying with this triumphant expression at the very spot she had shaken the daylights out of me 12 years before.

And there I was. When it dawned on me the tuk-tuk was going to roll over, I realise I let go in that instant, and I’ve been asking myself why. My spirit extinguished and my head, at the most critical moment, decided it would rather visualise something else than what was going on. A decision outside of my control. Since then, I question whether this existence is incalculably small – so small that I am better off resigned from it. That easy. Without even a scream.

Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan creative non-fiction writer and Kiswahili literary translator. In 2020, he was longlisted for the Toyin Falola Prize and his non-fiction essays, “How to Plot a Renaissance” and “Maybe it’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die” were published in the anthology Twaweza. He was also a PenPen Africa resident.