Abdoulie Sey, The Author
By Abdoulie Sey
(A narrative on the logic of terror; a tribute to the power of resistance)
The editor of The Courier yawned and rubbed his eyes not out of boredom but to protect them from the unsettling light issuing from his office window where the sun’s rays formed several parallel penetrating lines and momentarily blinded his sight. As a man who loved his solitude, the tranquility in his office located in the quiet town of Batara was greeted with silent but welcome relief. He lit a cigarette, pulled hard at it in quick succession, clearly enjoying the quiet moment and wishing it would never come to an end. Except for the intermittent shuffling of feet in the newsroom where a lone reporter was busy writing a story from his coverage of some public function earlier that day, nothing else moved or sounded that would have arrested the flow of his thoughts. The source of all noises, his staffers had called it a day, leaving him with the time and space to begin his serious reflections. With the litany of noises in the building a distraction whenever they were around, it always took some great effort to keep his train of thought on track. As a journalist he could not afford to live without the clarity of mind that facilitated the lucid flow of his writings. The serenity which the hushed afternoons guaranteed him made up substantially for the mentally destabilizing chaos of the busy morning hours when The Courier offices were crammed with people combusting with energy – chatty typists, querulous secretaries and talkative cub reporters.
And then there were the nagging visitors who came with one-sided accounts of their travails and expected them in print the next day, their limited layman’s world oblivious of the sacred injunction binding journalists religiously to the other sides of the story in the inviolable tradition of objectivity and fairness. He had always stuck with the simple but effective analogy that stories are supposed to be like a river of many tributaries, literally drawing from two or multiple sources to communicate an idea or a set of positions in a way that spoke about a certain professional detachment from it all by the author. What captured his attention without fail when articles were before him was the eternal question of whether they had the right combination of different sources to sufficiently inform the story the same way tributaries fed a river.
He yawned for a second time, cleared his throat, rubbed his eyes again and looked around his chaotic office. It was tight with even no room to swing a cat. Everything there beggared one form of attention or another. It was a paper fortress with crumpled old parchments in disarray, personal keepsakes in desuetude, wilting stacks of old newspapers and books on rickety shelves that looked like giving way at any moment and walls that have not had a fresh coat of paint for ages and cried silently for deliverance in that regard. His table had been untouched for a long time. Occasionally, his typists had volunteered to tidy up but have not done so for a while until they had grown used to the messy sight and did nothing to amend it. There were more pressing matters engaging his mind than fretting over an untidy office.
In days gone by when he worked as a salesman in one of Mustia’s bigger hardware stores, his life had been quite uneventful, even uninteresting. All that changed when he beat a path to journalism. For a long time he loved putting his thoughts into writing and journalism offered him the platform not only to wage his own war against the injustices of the world but also that of others without the leeway to do so.
And truly engrossing the profession proved to be in the course of all those years of trials and tribulations, challenges and moments of happy fulfillments. He was turned into a busy man to the extent that he became a rare husband at home. He was used to wrapping up from work very late, leaving the marital home to his wife for much of the day and in most cases half the night. Several years down the line, that situation hadn’t changed. He was never in any hurry to leave for home where now not even a nagging wife was there to welcome him anymore, having been divorced after twenty years of childless marriage with a woman who was desperately hurting herself for anything resembling the shadow of a child she could naturally call her own. Every strain of her muscle was dedicated to having her wish for a child granted. Providence though never intended it that way while she stayed married to him. For his part, the demons of his frustrations over the same childless woes have been exorcised from his system a long time ago but one thing he was unable to deal with was her feeling of remorse at herself, at him and an indifferent world for the misfortune they had shared and suffered in silence. He was condemned to live with her incessant tears of anguish every single day and the more he had tried to console her, the more he painfully realized that she was irredeemable in her despair and he powerless to deliver her from the clutches of the emotional sinkhole that was slowly but surely swallowing her up. He was decent enough to hold that they were still a normal couple even though there were more things that kept them apart than brought them together. One thing he did not go as far as acknowledging was the absence of any form of emotional attachment after all those miserable years of marriage. The opposite was true. The joint misfortune of staying without children was expected to create and even foster a common bond and bring them closer together, physically and emotionally but the experience had instead driven a wedge between them. He thought it was no fault of his that this was happening but he was also unable to account for the other person’s feelings no matter how hard he had tried to connect with her at an emotional level.
The proposal to end their marital union was her idea. She had woken him up at an ungodly hour and told him to relieve her so that both of them could be free to pursue their chance of a dream child with some other more virile partner. He had listened to her keenly and did not object. Perhaps it was the best possible way to deal with this negative energy and end their emotional quagmire together. The regular mood swings, the grumpy silence, the mutual even if muted hostility was smothering out the little that was left of the love that was no longer sufficient to save the conjugal union. When it was reaching a difficult point where encroaching on each other’s space was going from being the least desirable to being a possible recipe for husband and wife rubbing each other the wrong way and spark some needless domestic bickering, perhaps it was expedient to call time on their marriage. And so by mutual consent it happened.
The parting of ways was swift and amicable. They were occasionally in touch with polite enquiries about each other’s wellbeing. Both of them were still singletons a couple of years after the split although to him interest in her no longer mattered more than the culture of mutual pleasantries had required to wish the best for each other in all possible worlds. He had made up his mind. He was remaining wifeless. He preferred his life to revolve around The Courier which as he used to joke was his mistress even during all those years when he was married. It was no longer just an empty metaphor now that he was not. In truth the newspaper literally took all his energy and breath away in ways that would have left a female competitor for his affection green with envy.
Today his mind touched her memory. It was her birthday which he was never good at remembering in the past. For some inscrutable reason, after so many years, he remembered it, this time. During the early years of their marriage, it was celebrated with a couple of friends and family and the atmosphere was electric. There were still photos and personal mementos harkening to those moments of childlike happiness when the pressure for a child was not there unlike the latter years of their matrimony. Those early innocent years were their best time together, he thought. Beyond that half a decade, beckoned an intervening decade and a half when things had hit the rocks and like a devastating shipwreck consigned their marriage to a crumbling spectacle starved of any refreshing attempt to save it.
By now half of his cigarette was turning into ash and the heat was creeping on to his fingers. The burning sensation left a scorching feeling on his knuckles and momentarily checked the flow of his thought. He took a final draw before puffing up the resultant plume of smoke which fanned high up and spread above his head like faint curly lines of clouds receding with the rains.
It did not take long before his supple mind began drifting further afield, reliving the ordeal of the beaten reporter as if he had been there when it happened. He could almost feel how they surprised and pulped the poor boy, how they tortured and demoralized him and left him with his pride wounded and inflicted the mental scars that may haunt him for the rest of his life. He considered long and hard the idea of litigation but eventually came off it. The army would never cooperate where its members were to be paraded as the accused. It was that bad! It had happened many times before when soldiers had enjoyed the culture of impunity for so long that they could afford to be confident that the status quo was not going to change overnight. He needed no further reminder that the men in uniform were insulated from the heat borne by the law, civilian law because Kalero was first and foremost one of them, a soldier. A snake may shed its skins many times over but it was always going to be that creeping reptile nature had fashioned it out to be. From the perspective of a neutral it was difficult to admit but His Excellency’s dispositions made it easy for his critics to overlook all the innocent arguments surrounding his occupancy of the presidency as a civilian. Forget the people and the illusory power of their vote! In Mustia it was the soldiers who really mattered in the distribution and maintenance of state power which even by Orwellian standards was in a league all its own. Kalero ruled by them and was essentially there for them. Besides, the courts and the laws and their interpretations were the exclusive preserve of the hawks of Mustian officialdom. They controlled everything, even the judges who readily buckled under pressure. There was no shortage of references to archived cases in which their unapologetic, arrogant resolve had turned even the most straightforward of law suits on their heads especially those resonating with politics.
He also thought about spearheading a total boycott of the state by The Courier and its sister papers but quickly realized that this would be playing into the hands of the authorities and their syndicates who would heave a huge sigh of relief and tap themselves at the back over the welcome prospect of going the long haul without being called into question. There was no better alternative worth its weight in gold than constantly telling truth to power and countering the ridiculous spins churned out by its mouthpieces, its beastly propaganda machines through the agency of a cynical, manipulative television station and a pliant newspaper with no serious hoot about journalistic scruples. The only rationale for their existence was to satisfy an indecent obsession with massaging the ego of government figureheads and defending their actions, regardless of whether the whole of humanity thought it was a crying shame in the face of excesses which were undeniable in the best of times and indefensible in the worst of circumstances.
Suddenly, an unexpected, rude intrusion! It was the telephone. Its tone sounded harsh, even angry and urgent, shattering the afternoon stillness like a shrapnel smashing glasses into smithereens. The absent-minded expression on the editor’s face suddenly lifted in the short interval as he bid his time, allowing the phone to ring again and again. It did several times more, the noise each time seemingly louder, angrier and more urgent than the previous tinkle, shaking off what remained of his daydreaming. With a shaky hand, he lifted the handset and pressed it to his ear just in time to hear a soft, cooing voice, a familiar one at the other end calling his name. It was a female on the line, his estranged wife. Telepathy is a strange thing, he thought. That was the only way he could explain the wireless bond between two people physically removed from each other’s presence but using other senses to communicate under the same wavelength, the influence of distance shrinking to an inconsequential patch as ants would appear in a summit of elephants.
“I am reminding you of my birthday, which is today” she was saying with an intimacy shared by only people beyond first name terms.
“I know. In fact for the first time I remembered” he retorted without sounding very convincing to the female voice at the other end.
“For the first time, I need a special birthday present from you, remember you promised to be good to me always” she said as her voice trembled softly and tingled his ear.
“Yes…yes I did and what’s this…this special birthday present you so seriously desire” he asked intrigued if not confused why his former wife could make a request from him when they were no longer tied down by man-to-wife obligations. It had never happened, all the more reason why he felt it strange and somewhat pressing if not inappropriate from her to him. But it was not his place to play the impolite monkey, certainly not to the one woman who had hoodooed him with her beauty and later spent many topsy-turvy years of marriage with him before providence intervened and ended it at a moment’s notice. During that time, she had no mouth for requests of any kind other than to God to bless her with children. She was not the asking type, leaving him to wrack his brain all the time plotting pleasant surprises with which to thrill her. It had worked for them both for long spells of their marriage. Now it surprised him that she would come back to him with a demand draped in entreating words, for indeed that was what it truly was, a demand. He was wise to the wily old ways of the world and saw through the translucence of her words. In a world where demands are sometimes made without conveying them in words that command others to do one’s bidding, it was good to develop haunches to deflect them. There was a long pause. It was an awkward, uncomfortable moment for both of them before she spoke up again, her silky voice unfurling the secrets of her mind to him.
“Leave this country for now” she said coldly.
On face value, it came as a request all right, but it knocked the daylight out of him. Her voice although still succulent, carried an unspoken but unmistakable murkiness to it, a threat, perhaps not physically from her but from some lurking danger creeping inexorably toward him, details of which she may have been privy to. For the first time words deserted him. He was struck dumb by this sensational, wild, grim, rude, unpalatable, intrusive and extraordinary request and what it meant to him and his newspaper. He cocked his ears for more. Her voice came on again, this time soothing but still menacingly suggestive of a real risk out there waiting to hurt or even destroy him.
“The greatest birthday present you can ever gift me is spending your life elsewhere other than Mustia. Don’t take this as any free joke. To me it’s a matter of life and death and you are at the exact centre of it all” she quipped, hanging up on him before he could even recover from the shock generated by her words. They left him tongue tied. They were few words but still carried with them the power to shock and awe. They had physically immobilized him like a giant spider’s web to which he had become entangled and could not extricate himself. In the militaristic metaphor of his day, they were like a bomb to the ground, leaving a deep crater in him upon impact. He needed quick answers to fill the void. He tried to her call. The line at the other end rang for a fourth, fifth and then a sixth time. No answer! He lost heart and dropped the receiver to its place. She had left him to pick up the pieces from her ominous words. He did not like the ring in her voice as she uttered them. He admitted to himself that they were words he was never prepared for. They did not succeed in making him feel intimidated but they were not easy on the mind either and hit him at the wrong place like a stray ball to the groin. It was simply not her way to demand things of anybody. But then, the human being is a complex creature and this unpredictable performance by her suddenly conjured up an image of her as someone with an mysterious side to which he was never alive. He knew that there is always something about people that cannot be fully understood. The fact that she was at the centre of his confusion did nothing to diminish the strangeness of the human enigma. If anything, it had only helped to strengthen it and make him self-conscious.
He tried to recover from the knock quickly and refused to countenance himself trapped in a dilemma over the issue of abandoning his work for exile or ignoring it totally and leaving her languishing in emotional tenterhooks. Her request stood no chance even though he understood and appreciated it as perhaps springing from the fountain of fear pouring forth from her heart to preserve his life. As any human being would, he shared her fears but he had made a covenant with himself that risk or not, Mustia did not exist to be abandoned by its citizens because it had suddenly become a difficult, impossible place to live a dignified life unfazed by tyranny’s oppressive and ungraceful hand. He was staying put. He would live with Mustia’s humanity and to an extent her inhumanity, which would be endured as long as possible but never tolerated while it meant subhuman existence for its people.
He remembered what a plucky John Rambo had told an old militiaman on the dangerous, bomb-strafed plains of war-weary Afghanistan when he was reminded how hopeless his mission was to defeat the enemy. The response from the blockbuster hero was: “If I die, then I die”. With those words the bare-chested warrior had tempted fate, sealing his life to the struggle, daring death from all dangers imaginable. The editor saw himself as no smash-hit but could not help dismissing his former wife’s unspoken fears down to the spineless spills of a woman’s intuitive mind which saw everything in horrid shades of grey and black. He had no reason to go anywhere. It was a resolve he made a long time ago, never to run away when he could stay put and suffer like all Mustians who had no other realistic choice outside their country’s borders. He knew he had choices but as a Mustian, it was an insult to his country and the morally-driven sense of outrage he shared with many of his compatriots to even think of jumping the sinking ship, which Mustia had turned into with everyday evidence of state-sanctioned violations that left everybody gasping for breath. “If I die, then I die” he mimicked Rambo, saying it loud to himself as if reassuring himself about the covenant. Running away was going to be as laughably futile as trying to run away from oneself. If there was one thing he feared, it was how history was going to represent someone of his station to his people long after he was gone. It won’t make his country better for it either if any of her sons allowed himself the easy walk from oppressive Mustia to the freedoms offered by other lands. In fact tasting the fruits of liberty elsewhere was only going to whet his appetite for them in his own country. He was going nowhere, he repeated to himself. It was as simple as that.
The editor’s constituency, the dedicated readers of The Courier would be worse off if he was to skip into exile or boycott the state. By implication they were going to be some of the biggest losers. It would diminish the voices of reason and deny people access to an independent take on what news originating from the corridors of power was always like. It was still an impossible situation but he had not gone that far only to flinch from the cause and let the hawks be on the ascendancy. How he was able to come this far with his newspaper was some improbable story and all those sacrifices, frustrations, adrenalin rush and critical and clinical thinking that went into the making of that extraordinary narrative should not be in vain. Whatever happens, that part of the press still with the sanity of mind and moral purpose should learn the tricky curves and soldier on. The Courier would continue to be a voice of reason even in the face of monstrous hostility. In the true nature of objective reality he was quick to recognize that their existence gave some credence to the regime no matter how negligible it was and how grudging it was to openly admit irrespective of the level of official intolerance of opinions other than the ones favouring them and antagonism towards journalists who insisted on guarding their turf. But when power and its confederates brooked no dissent and constantly insisted that the stories should be told their way and no other way, when they determined to move heaven and earth in their bid to give their thoughts, feelings and positions bold prominence and blunt out all else that did not conform to their concept of what’s right or wrong, when the social and political narrative was supposed to idolize and fete power and its brokers and no one else and when they somehow managed to succeed in keeping their political dominion even in the face of a burgeoning but loose condominium of disaffected moralists, it was still a huge miracle for any semblance of an independent press to exist let alone survive. It was an achievement that was no mean feat, a small but significant and defiant breath of fresh air against the backdrop of stifling oppression, a little wonder in a world with an enforced culture of silence and non-disclosure.
For once he was going to let discretion get the better part of valour. On any day he would readily take that partial freedom over nothing. Inasmuch as it was somewhat degrading to admit under the circumstances, half a loaf was better than nothing. He attributed this half-full, half-empty glass cup scenario pitting the private press up against the state to grit. Tenacious courage had always paid off generously even if it did not appear to be that at first glance. This could not have been truer in his case and that of the few remaining published voices of reason still swimming against Mustia’s tyrannical tide. It was one of his teachers in high school who had impressed on him the idea of constancy in social behaviour, chipping away stubbornly at a monstrosity until the final chip primed the colossus open and let the world in on its secrets, the bottom line being learning from the experience and moving on. That’s why ideas are quite easily humankind’s most potent weapon for they can resist the rustiness of time, the irrepressible creatures of the mind they always will be. He reasoned that tyrants can fashion a way round weapons of the hand, but an arsenal of ideas originating from the mind was simply unbeatable by despots who by nature fear them to their bone marrow. How such a nugget of wisdom fed to his young mind could still resonate with the times decades later, bowled him over. Newspapers like his were the proverbial tools chipping slowly away at this Mustian monstrosity. They would continue to walk the talk despite the dangers, pain, frustration and desperation. Someday they would be rewarded when they see the first faint shafts of light at the end of the long and dark tunnel. How many times had he reminded himself that the struggle was usually hardest when the ultimate prize was in full sight?
After the despondency of moments before, the latest thought rallied his feelings to a newfound sense of optimism and courage. He loved books and sought solace in them. They were of therapeutic value. Excerpts from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Driss Chreibi’s Heirs to the Past, Machiavelli, Soyinka’s The Man Died and Achebe’s Anthills of the Savanna tolled in the innermost recesses of his mind and made his brow twitch subconsciously. The invaluable pages of those priceless books pulsated with the power of wisdom and spoke directly to the frustrations of the masses of oppressed people wherever they were and in whatever circumstances they found themselves. Their celebrated authors had one thing in common, their courage to not only smell the stink in tyranny’s mouth, but also the temerity to tell how and why the odour was bad for everyone. Theirs was a preparedness to learn, listen, reason and even negotiate with the bullying might of tyranny, bidding their time, sowing and consolidating the ideas of their works discreetly in the minds of men, leaving the rest to the confluence of chance, time and space. Generations later, people were still around who remembered and quoted them in all their timeless majesty and poise in the cause of humanity. On the other hand the tyrannies of those bygone generations have long gone, decaying and crumbling under their own weight and eventually lie buried as worthless rubbles beneath the undulating sands of time.
He thought it was not hard to imagine why contemporary examples of tyranny have their backs to the wall fighting for their lives irrespective of how far the tentacles of their power could reach or whether people are paralyzed with fear at their mere mention. Inevitably they await the same dreadful fate, effectively foundering in a heap of social crises. Conscientious writers of old and new will always see in it a fatal flaw as people through neglect of their political space allow it to flourish and blight their existence. Eternally in no mood to flirt with open society initiatives tyranny saps the useful life out of the finest prospects for the fulfillment of the human potential with the aid of the state’s heavy hand. But being sufferers in despotism naturally gave tyranny’s victims everywhere the moral authority to raise their voice against it if this was the least they could do to counter it. To him, anything short of this was literally standing logic on its head because the powers that be were always ready to ride their luck and step on people’s fear to fly and hover above their heads and render themselves sacred, untouchable birds to be dreaded and hero-worshipped as immortals. It was even incomprehensible to him how within a short time, otherwise responsible people couldn’t just be themselves in the face of political and social privation. To his utmost distaste, they had faithfully played along as Kalero and his acolytes helped themselves to a ticker tape life and encouraged people to keep shrines to him in their offices and homes. What else could explain the warped logic behind keeping large, smiling portraits of the Warrior Leader in the most public and private of places other than holding him as an item of slavering reverence and worship? He felt an uncomfortable tic in his spine. It was bile taking over him. He was coming to grief with the fact that Mustian intellectuals who were supposed to carry the conscience of the nation on their once proud heads were drawn into the same rot, their human dignities all but in tatters. The urge to judge them was irresistible for in his eyes they were nothing better than rotten eggs with little or no redeeming features about them to inspire hope for the future, a future in which justice would be served the right way.
He took a final, lingering pull at his dwindling cigarette before stubbing it out and immediately sparked a match and torched the tip of a fresh one. By now the rays from the sun had lost their blinding intensity to a point where his eyes could stare through them without being forced to blink and turn away. But quickly his mind drifted again. Of course it was to other books which had caught his fancy and left in him the impressions of a lifetime. To him they were enduring in their appeal to the offended sensibilities of oppressed people living under systems that did not result from a free informed choice borne out of popular debate.
It was an auspicious time to bring into perspective Albert Luthuli’s apartheid-inspired book Let my people go which tore through the heart of the racialism of the then supremacist regime in his country, tarnished for shutting blacks out from opportunities to better themselves and freedoms which should have guaranteed them the rights to enjoy the fruits of their labour just like their white brethren on the cozier side of the colour divide. Luthuli was a Moses to his people who felt the same pain as the persecuted Jews. However unlike the Jews, who dreamt of a promised land, Luthuli’s people yearned not for another land but for a fair share of the promise their own land gave as birthrights to the so-called racial overlords which were denied them for reasons of skin colour. In Mustia, it was not about race anymore but about political exclusion, the forfeiting or denial of the right to belong to the debate that should be setting the national agenda. Like apartheid it was fundamentally segregationist in practice but minus the colour. It pitted the overlords and their politically tolerable allies on the one hand versus those known as the perennial outsiders who did not belong to the right social clubs to deserve any decent consideration.
In Mustia ethnicity had become a damned factor too, a dirty word for those suddenly finding themselves outside the loop because they happened to belong to the wrong tribe. It was a stark reality of divide and rule and it was wrong even by the estimations of the perpetrators who gave it a new name in a bid to make it sound good. They called it good governance but did everything bad in its name. He felt how bloody fraudulent, how shameful and how stupid and dangerously untrue, it had been!
He had not read Henry Kyemba’s State of Blood, for a long time but the numb sensation it left in his mind after his first reading of the book was far from diminished all these years. Its spine-chilling details of tyranny perfected and personified with blood in its hands – the macabre dances of death and human sacrifices, the refrigerated cannibalism, the disappearances, the unabashed buffoonery and the enveloping chaos of despotic terror with a surreal feel – belonged out of this world.
He felt something for the main character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the victim of nefarious greed played out in the courts of the king’s palace where a treacherous coup turned the kingdom on its head. His own society in Mustia teemed with unsuspecting Hamlets, betrayed and sold many times over on the altar of ill-gotten power and wealth, the twin motivators behind all murderous tyrannies.
Ngugi made him feel good. His Devils on the Cross is a favourite parody of parodies delving surgically into the double lives of front-row politicians living off the blood, sweat and tears of the ignorant, oppressed masses but so convincingly pretending to be part of the struggle to improve their sorry lives. As far as he was concerned those inveterate frauds are the other face of tyranny! Intrinsically deceptive, they give the masses liberty with one hand and steal their recipes for a better life away from wallowing poverty with the other. But in the end, tyranny was always that, vile and evil, whether it paved streets with gold and allowed people perks to live on but took away civil liberties, or respected and observed freedoms but denied their beneficiaries the means to live above the undignified scramble for stone-dry breadcrumbs. Either way he could not help viewing tyranny with some hostile suspicion for in his eyes it was the arbitrary or willful denial of the indispensable elements that lend meaning to human existence and give people positive reasons to live. The end result of tyranny is always a collective and catastrophic human shortfall in societies reduced to fear, misery and eventual moral, political and spiritual decay. Mustia had the unenviable distinction of suffering from both varieties of tyrannies, with poverty everywhere and the absence of freedoms reducing people to cattle, acquiescing to power all the time without any right to complain even when life pinched them hard and left them scrapping the bottom of the social barrel just for something to survive on. Not long ago he had shaken his head while editing a story about someone dragged to court for saying life in Mustia was difficult.