Ndege Wawili Tena, Two Birds Again
Mohamed Yunus Rafiq
I always found him sitting on the stairs outside our house, burning the dry fallen leaves of the red flame tree in the middle of our cooperative housing in Arusha town. I would sometimes sit with him, watching as the leaves were pulverised into ashes. They burnt quickly, starting with a yellow turmeric tinge followed by a fiery flame, culminating into a faint smoke, like the breath of a little bird during the short vuli rains.
On other days, I would catch him before he sat down on the stairs. He’d rake the leaves and other rubbish that our neighbours and pedestrians left behind. He would separate the dirt that burns from the dirt that doesn’t burn; plastic from dry leaves, paper from broken glass, hair (human, animal) and plants from tin cans. For the task, he used a rake that he’d cobbled together from a broken broom and poultry netting.
I joined in, sometimes, leaving serrated patterns on the ground as I raked. I would throw my hands forward, holding the rake, then quickly pull back in a motion akin to swimming, bringing back chunks of leaves, rocks, and other filth with each stroke.
We cleaned the same area every day. As the fire crackled, unsheathing its dancing thermal tongues as grey moths performed their suicidal gymnastics, we’d sit together burning our rubbish harvest. We didn’t speak much. I would look at his silver beard glowing in the light. From my vantage point, his cheeks looked so full and round, like the dome of the sky, their vestigial hairs sparkling in the glow of the fire like stars. When the rays of the fire shone upon the unwieldy hairs of his beard, I imagined them as fuzzy comets in motion. Sometimes, when the wind blew, I could inhale the essence of his tobacco-flavoured coat. It smelled like the red flame tree leaves we burned.
He would smile and nod as I raked and, like him, thoroughly filtered the desired from the undesired trash, then burnt them in separate piles. These non-verbal expressions of his were more satisfying to me than even hearing him speak. I was thereby convinced that he liked my company, despite my intrusions.
There was a strangeness in this ritual. It was done every day, during roughly the same hours at dawn. He did it alone, always in a similar manner, and with contemplative silence. He would sit on the same stairs, third row to the right, as he watched the trash burn. But what was all this burning really about? I wondered if he’d always done this, even before his mining business failed, or before his father chased him away for marrying outside his “people”, or before he’d lost four siblings to an accidental fire? I could have asked Mama, but she spoke only sparingly of such things.
One day, he spoke. We were sitting together, watching the fire-swords slicing away at the wrinkled leaves, when I noticed the pupils darting from one corner of his eyes to the other. They tracked the movement of a bird perched on one branch of the red flame tree. This lone bird chirped in alternating tempos, as it danced left-to-right. Its call grew louder as the sun began sinking into the horizon, and its dance grew more erratic. I began thinking that maybe it was a tormented mother bird lamenting the loss of her chicks, which were perhaps now a meal somewhere, warming the belly of a serpent near the grounds we raked.
“Watch,” he said.
Another bird, just then, flew across the tarmac road and landed on the lower branch of another of the flame trees that lined the front of our cooperative housing. These two birds in their individual flame trees were each 10 steps apart from the other.
The first bird called out again.
The second bird responded, dancing left-to-right, bobbing its head up and down; its tail brushed the air as if to amplify the message of her song. It then shot up fast, toward the tree where the first bird perched and landed two branches below it.
Their songs continued weaving a cacophony of calls and responses.
The second bird – in a burst of courage or confidence – jumped to the next branch and to the next after that, until it finally came face-to-face with the first bird. United, these avian lovers continued to sing, gazing at each other and stroking their wing feathers together. In that moment their songs, also united, dwarfed even the loudest sounds of all other nocturnal creatures this side of the savannah.
He spoke again. “She calls him every day, and they dance and sing like this.” Upon hearing this, I at first moved closer to him, but quickly retreated when I felt the filaments of his wool coat, like tiny knives, jabbing the insides of my sensitive nose. A single tear tumbled from my right eye, as if an egg had fallen from its nest, its contents slipping out from the cracks onto the ground.
“Now see,” he said, pointing at the birds to make sure I understood what was happening, “they meet, sing, and then go silent.” I tried to make sense of what was being described, but with my eyes all glazed, snot forming in my nose, all I could see in that moment were some blurring orbs moving away from the tree in front of us.
It has been 20 years since Paji (what we called my father) transitioned to the next world. We now live in a single-occupant house, with new and now more distant neighbours, and in a country that has moved from Ujamaa (an African-inspired socialism based on collective living and working) to Uwazi (a system of openness to markets, individualism, and freedom of speech).
One evening, as I sat close to Mama, I peered through a window assembled from a patchwork of different-textured mirrors and cardboards taped together, one of the few items we could salvage from our former home in the cooperative housing, before it was demolished to build a tourist hotel.
“I am out of salt,” she announced, “and the markets have already closed for the evening.”
“You don’t have salt?” I repeated.
“No, I don’t, but I need some for the banana soup I am cooking for dinner.”
“Why don’t you ask Mama Pendo, who lives in the red-metal-gated house, for some?”
“It’s okay, son. The banana soup will have to do without salt this time.”
“Mama, it will taste bland. Please ask Mama Pendo for some.”
“I can’t,” she insisted, and her eyebrows looked agitated, like scorpions’ tails ready to strike. “It doesn’t feel right. At this time, surely, they don’t want to be disturbed.”
I backed away. A now-awkward silence blanketed the space between me and Mama, like a thin khanga camouflaging a stained mattress.
Suddenly she asked me, “Do you think birds can be people?”
Not sure of what I’d just heard, I asked, “What?”
Looking through the missing sections of the old taped-up window, she responded, “There has been a bird visiting the house every evening, singing and dancing on the Neem tree facing our door.”
Siku zote nilikuwa nikimkuta amekaa kwenye ngazi nje ya nyumba yetu ya msajili, akichoma majani makavu ya ule mti wa mwali mwekundu. Wakati mwingine nilikuwa nikikaa naye, nikitazama majani yakichomwa na kubadilika kuwa majivu. Yaliungua haraka, yalianza kuwa tinge ya manjano ikafuatiwa na moto mkali, na kuishia kuwa moshi hafifu, kama pumzi ya ndege mdogo wakati wa mvua fupi za vuli.
Siku nyingine nilibahatika kumuwahi kabla hajakaa kwenye ngazi, na kumuona anavyofanya kazi. Alikusanya majani na uchafu mwingine ambao majirani zetu na watembea kwa miguu waliacha nyuma. Alitenganisha plastiki na majani makavu, karatasi na vipande vya glasi, nywele za watu na wanyama na makopo ya bati. Kwa kazi hiyo, alitumia reki ambayo aliunganisha kutumia ufagio uliovunjika na wavu wa kuku.
Mara nyingine nilimsaidia kusafisha na kuacha michirizi ya reki kwenye uwanja. Nilipenda kutupa reki mbele na kisha kuirudisha haraka kama vile napiga mbizi. Reki hukusanya majani makavu, mawe madogo na takataka zote kwenye njia yake.
Tulisafisha eneo hilo hilo kila siku. Baada ya kumaliza, tulikaa pamoja na kuchoma mavuno yetu ya takataka. Tulitazama moto ukichachamaa na nondo wakicheza sarakasi za kujitoa mhanga mtu juu ya ndimi zake. Hatukuongea sana. Nilitazama ndevu zake za fedha ziking’aa nuruni na uso wake kuakisi mwanga wa moto. Kwenye miale ya moto, mashavu yake yalimeta mithili ya kuba ya angani na sharafa za nywele zake mithili ya nyota. Wakati miale ya moto ilipotuwa na kuakisi moto kwenye sharafa za ndevu zake zilifanana na kimondo kinachoanguka duniani. Wakati mwingine, upepo ulipovuma ulibeba harufu ya koti lake, harufu ya tumbaku na majani ya mwali yaliyoungua.
Mara zote alitabasamu na kutingisha kichwa nilipokusanya takataka zilizofaa kuchoma na kuzitenganisha na zisizofaa, kisha kuzichoma kwenye marundo tofauti. Ishara hizi zilinipa faraja zaidi ya kauli. Zilinishawishi na kunipa uhakika kuwa alipenda ukaribu wangu, hata kama nilikuwa nikiingilia mambo yake.
Ibada hii ya kuchoma majani ilistaajabisha. Aliifanya kila siku, muda ule ule wa jioni. Aliifanya peke yake, kila wakati kwa mtindo ule ule — wa ukimya na tafakari. Alikaa kwenye ngazi zilezile, safu ya tatu kulia, huku akiangalia takataka zikiwaka. Lakini je! Uchomaji huu wote ulikuwa juu ya nini hasa? Nilijiuliza kama alikuwa anafanya hivi siku zote, hata kabla biashara yake ya madini haijafeli, au kabla baba yake hajamfukuza kwa kuoa nje ya watu wake, au kabla hajapoteza ndugu zake wanne kwenye ajali ya moto? Ningeweza kumuuliza Mama, lakini naye alikuwa sio muongeaji.
Siku moja, alivunja ukimya wetu kwa mara ya kwanza. Tulikuwa tumeketi pamoja, tukitazama panga za moto zikikata majani yaliyosinyaa, mara nikaona mboni zake zikitembea kutoka kona moja ya macho yake kwenda nyingine, yakifuatilia mwendo wa ndege aliyeketi juu ya tawi moja la mti wa mwali mwekundu. Ndege huyu aliteta kwa midadi ya kipekee, na kucheza kushoto na kulia. Sauti yake ilizidi kupaa kadri jua lilivyoanza kuzama kwenye upeo wa macho. Nilianza kufikiria kuwa labda huyu ndege ni mama, mama aliyegubikwa na simanzi , akiomboleza upotezaji wa vifaranga vyake, ambao labda walikuwa tayari kitoweo kwenye tumbo la joka karibu na uwanja tuliokaa.
Ndege mwingine aliruka kutoka upande wa pili wa barabara ya lami iliyo mbele ya nyumba za ushirika na kutua kwenye tawi la chini la miti mwingine wa mwali uliokuwa mbele ya nyumba yetu, futi ishirini kutoka alipokuwa ndege wa kwanza.
Ndege wa kwanza aliita tena.
Ndege wa pili alijibu, huku akicheza kushoto kwende kulia kwa madaha, akirusha kichwa chake juu na chini na kutingisha mkia wake hewani kana kwamba vitendo hivyo vilikuza ujumbe wa wimbo wake. Kisha akaruka kwa kasi mithili ya risasi kuelekea kwenye mti ambapo ndege wa kwanza alikuwa ameening’inia, na kutua matawi mawili chini yake.
Nyimbo zao ziliendelea kusuka safu ya ujumbe na majibu.
Ndege wa pili – kwa msukumo wa ujasiri – aliruka tawi moja baada ya jingine, hadi mwishowe alikuwa uso kwa uso na ndege wa kwanza. Pamoja wapenzi hawa waliendelea kuimba, wakitazamana na kupapasa manyoya ya mabawa zao. Sauti zao ziliungana, na kufunika hata sauti kubwa zaidi ya viumbe wengine wote wa usiku katika nchi hii ya nyika.
“Anamwita kila siku, na wanacheza na kuimba hivi.” Aliongea tena. Baada ya kusikia sauti yake kwa mara ya pili, nilianza kujivuta karibu yake lakini nililazimika kurudi kwa haraka nilipogusa uzi uliosimama kwenye koti lake la sufu ambao ulinichoma puani mithili ya visu vikali. Chozi lilinidondoka kutoka katika jicho langu la kulia, kama yai lililoanguka kutoka kwenye kiota chake; na kuyatema yaliyomo ndani moja kwa moja kwenye nyufa za ardhi.
“Ona sasa!” Alisema tena kwa bashasha, akinionyesha wale ndege kuhakikisha kuwa nimeelewa kinachotokea, “wanakutana, wanaimba, halafu wanakaa kimya.” Nilijaribu kupata maana ya kile kilichoelezewa lakini taswira ilizingwa na machozi na kamasi puani mwangu. Nilichokiona ni ukungu na maumbo yakipita mbele yetu.
Imepita miaka ishirini tangu Paji, (tulivyomwita baba) aondoke ulimwenguni. Sasa tunaishi peke yetu kwenye nyumba nyingine, na majirani wapya, walio mbali zaidi. Na nchi yetu imeshahama kutoka Ujamaa kwenda Uwazi (mfumo wa soko huria, ubinafsi na uhuru wa kuongea.)
Jioni moja, nilipokuwa nimeketi karibu na Mama, nilichungulia nje kupitia dirisha letu liloundwa na viraka vya vioo, magazeti na maboksi tulioweza kuokoa kutoka kwenye nyumba ya msajili tuliyoishi kabla ya kubomolewa ili kujenga hoteli ya kitalii.
“Nimeishiwa chumvi,” Mama alisema, “na masoko tayari yamefungwa kwa leo.”
“Huna chumvi?” Nilirudia.
“Hapana, sina, lakini ninaihitaji kwa ajili ya supu ya ndizi ninayopika kwa chakula cha jioni.”
“Si umuombe Mama Pendo, kwenye nyumba yenye geti jekundu?
“Usijali mwanagu, tunywe tu supu bila chumvi.”
“Lakini Mama, itakosa ladha. Tumuombe Mama Pendo tu. ”
“Siwezi,” alisisitiza, nyusi zake zikinyanyuka kama mikia ya nge alotayari kuuma. “Haitokuwa sawa, kwa wakati huu, nadhani hawatapenda kubughuziwa. “
Nikaamua kunyamaza, kwani sikutaka kujibizana zaidi. Ukimya ulijaza nafasi kati yangu na Mama mithili ya shuka laini lenye kuficha godoro lenye mabaka. Nilitafuta maneno ya kujaza ukimya bila kuyapata.
“Unafikiri ndege wanaweza kuwa watu?” Ghafla aliniuliza kwa upole.
“Nini?” Niliuliza, sikuwa na hakika na kile nilichosikia.
Alikagua nyufa zilizopamba dirisha letu la viraka. Kisha akasema “Kumekuwa na ndege anaotembelea nyumba hii kila jioni, akiimba na kucheza kwenye mti wa Mwarobaini ulioelekea mlango wetu.”
Mohamed Yunus Rafiq is an assistant professor of anthropology at New York University, Shanghai Campus with research interest in the intersection of state, religion and public health. Mohamed is also a fiction writer and an independent documentary maker. His documentary film Swahili Fighting Words won the Ousmane Sembène Award at Zanzibar International Festival. His recent creative works include “Hope’s Hunter” published in Africa39 and “The Lessons of Salt and Honey” in Jalada. He currently lives and works in Shanghai, China and Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
*Image by McGill Library on Unsplash