The Island of Touches

Before I left, I called a friend of a friend. Oh yes, this person said, Africa had changed her forever. I asked how; she told me she’d been in Kenya for only a week. But once a woman had touched her gently on the shoulder.

*

Dusk, I was sitting on my terrace, the bay pearling below. In my first two weeks, I’d shot pictures of the animals like all the other tourists, but for the last month of my trip I wanted to find that village of gentle touches. So after landing on the island that morning (and looking at a few trekker-like hostels in Lamu Town), I walked forty minutes along the sea wall to Shela, the smaller village on the beach.

At the village café, I asked if anyone had a room. Hamid, an elfin-like man, leapt up, led me to his unoccupied guesthouse. “Ah well, it is June, he said, sounding like the queen. “The tail end of the monsoon season,”

I asked when the monsoon would stop. He appeared as if he didn’t hear me.

But after showing me the top floor, the room I wanted, he said, “Do you know Peugeot?” Sure, nice car, I said. He pointed at the tiered villa across the alley. But Madame Peugeot came only for the month of August, he said, because she could not bear to eat alone. Hamid flitted about, imitating her in a squeaky voice: “Will you dine with me? Please do-o-oo.” Then Hamid told me that the Monacos owned six villas in Shela and some barons and dukes other properties.

“But it’s not so much work,” he said, “paddling out every morning to the jungle island to milk my cow.”

Shela didn’t seem like the village of touches I’d wanted—unless, I was thinking now, as I moved to the hammock, I touched other’s people shoulders first, who would in turn touch mine.

Someone was banging on the guesthouse door below.

After I unlocked it, a man in a squashed cap and cutoff pants—his pencil mustache looked vaguely criminal—marched right up the stairs and straight to my terrace, telling me all the while that Hamid’s wife was his sister and that afternoon his own wife had just made a fresh batch of fish samosas.

“Barracuda,” he said, plopping a basket on my table.

He yanked out a clear plastic bag—at the bottom of which sloshed several inches of yellow oil.

I watched it drip from side to side.

“But my wife and children are hungry,” he said.

I handed him a fifty shilling note. Taking out a sheet of newspaper, he wrapped three samosas in it.

“I am Mahmoud,” he said. “Everyone knows me.”

“Okay, Mahmoud—”

“Hakuna matata.” He cut me off. He knew I didn’t want his samosas.

He then swiveled towards one end of the terrace, staring at it, then the other. Why? There wasn’t anyone else up here. He leaned towards me. “I can get you lager,” he said. He leaned in further. “Or spirits,” he whispered.

I thought I’d have to forget about a cold beer on Islamic Lamu Island, but it seemed Mahmoud had his illegal supplier. Again, he whispered that lager cost only 150 shillings a bottle, which was a little pricey I thought, but on the other hand, everything had to be manhandled in on the little sputtering ferry.

I handed over six dollars’ worth of shillings for two lagers. He held up each bill, examining them one by one, then shouted, “Pilsner? Or Tusker?”

Tusker was fine. But why was he talking like some kind of tough guy now? I realized he wasn’t that bad looking with his polished tan, broad face, but something was running behind his eyeballs.

It occurred to me he couldn’t be making much money off the lager—or the samosas. “How many children do you have?” I said.

He didn’t answer. Shoving the money in his pants pocket, he thumped down the stairs.

I ate one of the greasy samosas. It wasn’t bad either.

*

In the morning, a scream awoke me. I rushed out to the balcony.

I never knew a donkey could squeal so loud. A entire train of donkeys stood along Madame Peugeot’s wall, saddled with baskets filled of rocks. Men started unloading the rocks. Other men started to shovel at mounds of sand and gravel. More men arrived to saw and hammer. Soon, twenty men were pounding and sawing and shouting, and I’d moved in on a Friday, the day of prayers and rest, I thought grimly.

A woman’s voice shrieked. Below me, at the other end of the terrace, in a courtyard hung with laundry lines, a woman with a sharp chin was screaming at someone hidden from view. A voice shouted back, like the voice of an old man, hollering as he was deaf.

With minutes, more yells and screams and even the normal conversations emanating from the alley below were detonating in my skull.

I pulled on a dress and left.

*

When I reached Lamu Town, a lone voice wailed through the alleys, wide enough only for a donkey. And there, in the town square stood a bony man in a tattered robe with matted ashy hair. He punched as he shouted in Swahili at the fifty or so idly chatting men. But for all the attention he attracted, he seemed a fixture, like the TV that’s always on.

As I stood watching, a bare-chested beach boy wearing purple-mirrored sunglasses came up to me. He asked if I wanted a dhow ride, then if I wanted to buy khat. In his glasses’ purple lenses, I could see only my own mauve fish-eyed reflection, glaring back at myself.

I decided to ask the beach boy about the shouting man.

“Shaggy?” he said. He did something that sounded like a laugh.

Apparently, Shaggy had “lost it” a few years ago after his wife ran away with another man. Now Shaggy devoted himself fulltime to advising the men of the town to respect the teachings of Muhammad, and especially not to touch other men’s wives.

But what was the beach boy’s name? King, he said. I asked King if I might gaze at his eyes. He took off the purple glasses, but kept his lids squeezed shut. I was struck by how thin the skins of eyelids are.

But King didn’t open his eyes, so I decided to leave. A thumping sound stopped me. An old man with white hair shaved to a stubble, his legs and feet swollen with elephantiasis under his sarong, was banging a stick of lumber on the stone wall of the old fort. Dropping the lumber, he turned to the circle of young men surrounding him. Pleading mutely in his sad clown face, he held on a hand. The men swatted at it.

I turned away in disgust, only to see Shaggy running wildly in my direction. I ducked behind a donkey, Shaggy shot past. Then the man chasing Shaggy slowed to a walk and shrugged at the watching crowd of men, who burst into laughter.

What a nice village. Shaggy and the beggar were clearly the butt of jokes. The entertainment.

*

I left the square, stopping at various shops, open for the tourists that had not yet come. But after an hour or so of looking at tie-dyed caftans, Swahili carved bedsteads, and rusted boat nails that had washed up on shore, I definitely felt like I was making a pest of myself. This didn’t seem the place either, for touches.

On my way out of town, I passed through the square where Shaggy was still punching and lecturing, and King still sat on his empty plastic drinks carton.

“How is the day?” King shouted.

I told him I felt a little crazy for wandering up and down the alley so many times because I was the only mzungu and therefore conspicuous.

“Don’t worry about it,” King said. “Everyone goes up and down the main street at least ten times a day.”

*

When I reached my not-so-quiet village, a woman with a lazy eye lumbered out of her door. She started, then seemed to recognize me. “Eh,” she said. “Habari?”

“Nzuri,” I lied. Fine.

She was Fatma, Hamid’s wife, she told me. A teenaged girl popped up behind her. Their bui-buis, their long black robes, swished around them. “And this is my cousin Hafsa,” Fatma said.

Behind them, their opened door cast the only light into a stone-walled room, made gloomier still by the dented pots, plates of dried-out rice, and foam pads with ripped covers strewn about. A tomcat, the same ginger color as all the cats on the island, emerged, fish head in mouth.

“We are happy to have you,” Fatma said.

“Asante sana,” I said. Then, recalling Mahmoud, I asked if they had seen them.

They looked at each other. I somewhat embarrassedly asked if he had any lager.

“Awk,” Fatma spat. “That man is a liar. He is my brother, but you cannot trust him.”

Hafsa rolled her eyes. “He used to be okay.”

“Used to be?”

Hafsa ticked in disgust. It seemed that when Mahmoud was still a young man, he had worked hard (fishing), saved enough money to buy a house, get married, have his kids. Then he started hanging out with the beach boys, wandering up and down the beach in ripped T-shirts, chewing khat.

Fatma shook a finger at Hafsa. “No, no. He was never right in the head, always laughing to himself. When he was a boy, he would sing in the sea all day, from seven in the morning until ten at night.”

Waving a hand, she dismissed the thought of him. “He’s crazy.”

“Don’t worry,” Hafsa said, with a determined gleam. “We will tell Hamid what Mahmoud has done. Then Hamid will kick him.”

*

Later that afternoon, with the ceiling fan over my bed whirring on high, I was still seeing the glint in the women’s eyes, my picture of Hamid kicking Mahmoud.

There was a bang on the guesthouse door.

Below me, Mahmoud was pacing in the alley, pulling out the sides of an unbuttoned shirt, as if to cool himself.

I went down, unbolted the door. Moaning, he leaned on the frame. As he propped his head against the wood, a bead of sweat trickled from his brow, following a wet path past the side of an eye, picking up speed over his cheek.

“What did you tell my sister?” he said.

“Only that I hadn’t seen you,” I lied.

He stood and glaring, pointed at a black plastic bag sitting on the stoop. I picked it up. The two bottles felt freezing through the plastic.

“I have a little boy and a little girl,” he said.

I held out three hundred shillings for two more bottles of lager.

He muttered something indistinguishable, but took the money.

Upstairs, I opened the first Tusker. Dusk now, the fairy lights in Madame Peugeot’s garden blinked on. The bay shimmered, a silver mirror. A lone fisherman stood in his dhow, a black silhouette.

Then the boy singer climbed to the roof of the beach mosque next door. Singing out the maghreb call to prayer, he stretched one syllable over ten notes at least. But after he sang the last Allahu akbar, there was nothing but the stone houses, blue in the moonlight. A frond crackling.

I cracked open the second Tusker, and peered into the inky darkness as if I could find someone, anyone, to sit beside me.

*

In the morning, I threw the empty bottles in the plastic bag, stashed it in a trash bin outside. I didn’t care about more lager, Mahmoud could keep my money.

I set out to look for him.

At the café, Hamid was sitting at a table, in the midst of a cadre of beach boys. He pulled me over to the porch. “You better hold on to your shillings.”

“But I just made my second order last night.”

Hamid tapped a forefinger on his temple. “And to think that I married his sister. Sometimes I wonder about her.”

Dark clouds started rolling in. I felt a few drops, then ran to the shore, to the shelter that the beach boys had built, a little cave under low-arching doun palm fronds. One of the two hammocks was occupied by a beach boy I hadn’t seen before. “Jambo,” I said. “Jambo,” he repeated, rolling over, going back to sleep.

Relieved I wouldn’t have to make conversation, I lay in the other hammock, admiring the decorations the beach boys had stuck onto driftwood poles—glass bottles, bleached plastic, rubber flip-flops separated from their partners—more junk that had washed up on shore. Then I only watched the waves, wondering if I could live in a doun palm cave, if this was all I needed to be happy.

But I shouldn’t be lying here. I didn’t think Hamid would kick him, but I saw Mahmoud wandering up and down the alleys, shouting at people, getting chased, swinging a stick of lumber at a jeering crowd. I didn’t know why his head would be shaved, but I saw that too.

Then it started to rain harder so I didn’t get out of the hammock.

*

The rain stopped an hour or so later. On my way into Lamu Town, Fatma was strolling towards me along the sea wall, her bui-bui whooshing, smiling as if she was daydreaming.

I called out but she didn’t hear. “Fatma,” I said again.

“Oh . . . nzuri,” she said.

“You can forget about your Tuskers,” she added.

Last night, she said, Mahmoud had broken the lager man’s door and all his windows too. The lager guy wouldn’t sell him anything unless he brought back the empty bottles from my first order. Either that, or pay him a deposit.

The bottles I had thrown out. “But where is Mahmoud now?” I said.

“In the jail,” she crowed.

*

In Lamu Town, the district commissioner’s black sedan gleamed officiously on the pier outside his office. Why he had to have a car I didn’t know, there weren’t any roads on the island.

I knocked; a large man filled the doorway. Yes, he was the DC, he assured me. “And how do you find our little island?”

“Nzuri sana,” I lied. “Actually, I came to ask about a friend.”

His grin froze. He led me into a back room, surprisingly bare for a district office, I thought. With his empty desk separating us, he tilted back in his chair.

“Yes, Mahmoud told me you were helping him,” he said. “But Madame, you know purchasing lager here is illegal.”

I hadn’t been sure about that, I mumbled. “But what will happen? Where is the jail?”

He tsk-ed. “No visitors except for family.” His chair thumped forward. “But if you are truly concerned about your friend . . .”

*

Early the next morning, King shouted at me in the square. “How is the day?”

“Nzuri,” I said. But after I had paid Mahmoud’s fine, the cost of a new door and windows (and an added amount to the lager man for his monthly payoff to the DC), I was broke. I tried to say goodbye to King, but all I could manage was, “See you next year.”

Another lie. Here comes the lager lady, people would say.

King looked disappointed. “Well, next summer we’ll take that dhow ride, my friend,” he said.

After confirming the noon ferry departure, I started back to Shela to pack. Walking towards me beside the sea wall, Mahmoud appeared.

“Mahmoud!” My shout surprised both of us.

He grinned, took off his squashed cap. The police had shaved his head, but left his little mustache though. “I was in prison,” he said, smiling, twirling.

He seemed proud, as though he had a role to play, an identity to uphold, that of crazy Mahmoud. Then I thought of Shaggy and the beggar.

Mahmoud turned serious. “I have jumbo shrimp,” he said. He held out his palm, pointing with the other hand to above his wrist—clearly, a nine-inch long shrimp.

But there wouldn’t be time. I was about to go on my way, but Mahmoud said, “Come. Meet my little boy and girl.”

I followed him down a twisting alley, past anemic chickens pecking at goat dung, past children in ragged clothes who stopped their playing at the sight of me, past a stream of sewage. We came to a mud hut. In the doorway, Mahmoud pulled aside a burlap sack. We entered a narrow dirt-floored room filled with smoke. Mahmoud introduced me to several women, many children—it happened so fast, I couldn’t keep track of which woman was his wife, who was his little boy, his girl. Everyone ducked back so quickly, so shyly into the smoky corners.

The oldest woman yelled at a small boy who disappeared, returning a minute later with a plastic bucket of twigs for the fire under a cauldron. Samosas bubbling in oil. The woman squatted and stirred. She smiled. She offered.

Our hands touched gently. Very gently.

And I imagined all the other islands with touches.

The Dos Passos Review. Spring 2008.

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