Sand in the bottle [excerpt]
There are many reasons why this small island is the African Hawaii. Timeless attractions such as lighthouse whose trademark is fresh crunchy kachri that one can eat Cliffside while watching the guy sliding his knife effortlessly on the hard coconuts. Fresh mahamri and viazi every morning and the bhajia, viazi and ukwaju in the evening at almost every corner. The warm breeze swaying around the towering palm trees all over the compact island. The vibrant culture pulsating through the ground and its people. The beautiful and breathtaking sandy beaches, crowded town streets where one can find handmade goods and really cheap second hand imports.
Mombasa is a fusion of culture, religion and language coexisting in perfect unity. It’s amidst this diversity that I’ve created my own space where I can sit on top of a huge rock facing the sea, La Marina English Point standing elegantly on my left and the vast ocean on my right. Behind me, Fort Jesus and sporadic greenery where the sun hasn’t scorched it, the concrete amphitheatre seated like a flight of stairs into the fort. The sound of the sea murmuring and the trees rustling behind me form the soundtrack of my little space. Once in a while I can hear people exploring the corners and taking pictures with a few people shouting ‘emu simama vizuri ndio nipate bahari pia.’
Swahilipot Hub has been my creative retreat since they first opened in a year ago. Sitting on a rock, my earphones locked in, I watch the water dance with the wind, wondering about an entirely different world that must be taking place below there.
To get the pleasantries out of the way, I’m called Khalid Abdulsahad, twenty five years old, currently jobless(not that I was actually looking for a job) and living at home with my recently single dad and my two younger brothers who have mental capacity of a toothpick and rabid hell-raisers in high school.
It was early January and my dad was pestering me every single day about getting a job at the local butchery to earn a few shillings to pitch in the house and help give my younger brothers food for school.
In all honesty if I gave them that cash they’d just buy miraa or smoke it all up. My sweat would have gone to waste entirely on two branch looking rascals. Plus dad had enough shamba in Kwale to sell an acre and we’d have been sorted for a while. I know he was whining just trying to get me off my lazy ass.
As I watched the sea hit the metallic pipe skeleton of the sea wall, something caught my eye. It was a bottle that floated a few feet away from the red frame structure of the sea wall. The bottle was upright and had a shiny Gold top. I stared at it for a while as it rode on the gentle waves.
Nudged by the need to explore, I headed down the shore and took off everything except my boxers and swam towards the bottle. I picked it and within seconds my curiosity peaked. There was luminescent light blue flash disk in the bottle. I looked around the sea to see if anyone was watching but the few people around the shore weren’t interested in whatever I was doing.
Minutes later, I got to my room to inspect the bottle, taking a lot of pictures and posted them on my social media handles, hoping that with every snap, the bottle would reveal its story. Carefully, I turned the heavy golden knob and pulled out the flash disk and inspected it. Nervous I called my neighbor and best buddy, Cheupe. He came in less than ten minutes in his boxers and stretched out white vest.
‘Mazee! I’m starving. Do you have anything I can munch on?’
‘There should be some coconut rice and meat curry in the fridge,’ I said, still inspecting the flash disk. Cheupe rushed to the kitchen to build a hill of rice and curry, placed it in the microwave and brought himself to my room with a glass of my dad’s tamarind juice. ‘One day mzee will kill you for always drinking his juice.’
‘Usinitatize! Even mangoes ni mbao mbili markiti! Mshow mzee, hata sungura huchoka kukula carrots kila saa. Tumechoka na ukwaju!’
As he stuffed his face with rice that constantly kept on falling back into the plate, I explained to him how I found the bottle. He didn’t seem overly amused with my situation.
‘Sasa what are you waiting for? Connect it we see. Labda kuna pesa ndani.’
‘I don’t think there is money in the flash disk,’ I said shaking my head. Everything of his always had some monetary importance and when it didn’t it had no value in his life.
‘Then why am I here?’
‘Because I’m scared.’
‘Of a flash disk?’
‘Ah weh, how often do you find flash disks in bottle floating by the sea?’
Cheupe put his plate on the bed and sneakily wiped his hands on the edge of the bed thinking I wouldn’t notice. That was a fight for later. He grabbed the flash disk and stuck it in the laptop port. He did the quick virus scan that only recognized one file and smirked my way. He opened the file explorer and saw one video file. He opened the video and pulled himself back and continued eating.
There was a black screen then webcam footage of three girls dancing in front of the camera in what looked like a warm yellow background with a large vase of flowers. They were all in buibuis singing along and laughing when something happened in the background. Behind the girls, the room door swung open to pitch black and the blink of a pair of yellow eyes focused on them. In a split second the eyes were gone in the background and something black came over the screen and the camera tumbled on the floor knocked the visual to a blur. Two big dirty dark legs moved in to view and stopped. The screen went to a black background and had ‘come find us’ in big bold right in the centre.
Cheupe’s mouth froze open with half-chewed food oozing out as the screen claimed his attention. The parch of dryness at the back of my mouth felt uncomfortable as I tried to swallow hard.
‘Bro,’ I begun.
‘Those girls are hot!’
‘We just witnessed what could be a possible kidnapping and you think they are hot?’
‘There is no way that’s real. Ni jokes tu. I’m sure these girls are casually enjoying themselves taking selfies and updating their statuses. This isn’t Hollywood, no kidnapper has such video making skill mazee. No kidnapper makes a video of kidnapping. We send text messages and make calls. Na hiyo hata when we have credit.’
I pulled out my phone to search on any news for something similar. Cheupe was right in his twisted ways; things like these don’t really happen here. I casually typed knowing that I would probably see some prank news or some Facebook post or if I’m lucky something on MOMBASA CRIMES where some salty thirty-something Indian with enough bundles and time on his hands would write a whole paragraph on such video footage.
Scrolling through my search engine, I bumped into a picture of three girls faces side by side which made my heart drop into the emptiness in my stomach. I felt my heart beat harder against chest. It was the same girls we had just seen on the footage with a big red MISSING sign right above. I turned the phone and put it right on Cheupe’s face.
The light-skinned girl with green lenses was called Halima, the chubbiest of the group with more powder than a baby’s bottom was called Aisha and Zainab was the one with heavy eye bags and an almost rectangular face.
‘You know what you need to do, right?’ Cheupe asked his voice now apprehensive, eyes bright.
‘We need to go to the police and give them this video.’
‘Yes. And we need to help them. It’s no mistake that you picked this up.’ He paused momentarily, gathering his thoughts to gauge for my reaction. ‘No fucking way man! Throw this flash disk back in the water and forget the whole thing. I’ll keep the shiny bottle!’ He admired the golden top that attracted me to the bottle in the first place.
‘It’s not real gold you know,’ I assumed at the time. Not that I was an expert at identifying it, it’s just who would have a gold cap and throw it in the sea?
‘Many fools don’t know that,’ he said, shrugging.
We quietly watched the video a few more times trying to pick any details we could from the different frames. ‘I think we should just go give it to the police and stay far away from this,’ I said hoping to convince Cheupe to take me there.
Cheupe gurgled the tamarind juice in his mouth, ‘I feel like I recognize the chubby girl but I can’t seem to place her correctly.’
We went back to the beginning of the frame where she was on the complete left. I looked at her soft chubby skinny and her not so subtle red and blue eye shadow. I stared at her for a while but nothing came to mind except fruit scones- the ones you used to see advertised on those twenty bob buns back in the day.
‘Do you see it?’ Cheupe asked.
‘She reminds me of fruits scones. The yellow ones you see hung up on shops when we were young.’
‘I got it!’ He tapped my shoulders a few times. ‘Budaa I think that’s KK’s kid.’ KK was the nickname we gave Kasimu because he owned a Kibanda.
‘No way.’ I moved my face closer to the screen.
‘Look closely. They have the same fluffy nose and big brown eyes and that weird face that looks like they weren’t completely molded.’
He was right. ‘Do you have Kasimu’s number?’
Cheupe got his phone from his boxer pocket. The screen had so many cracks he could barely see the number he was looking for. He called and grooved his frail body to Zilizopendwa on skiza as he waited for the phone to be picked up.
Kasimu didn’t pick up the first time and Cheupe redialed at least four times before Kasimu’s low grunting voice picked up and said, ‘watakaje?’
‘KK! Ni Cheupe.’
‘I know. What do you want?’
‘Skia. I saw a poster about your daughter on Facebook sahii and I wanted to know if everything is ok.’
KK remained quiet.
‘Have you found them?’
‘Yes.’ His voice broke off before he could say anything else.
Cheupe hinted to me with a thumb up that the girls had been found and I felt a huge relief.
‘Alhamdulillah. What happened?’
‘They were killed.’ I saw Cheupe’s mouth drop open.
‘They….they were all… killed?’ he asked quivering.
I moved closer to the phone to overhear the conversation. ‘Nashukuru you’ve called but I’m just from burying my…my Aisha…’ his voice began to shake and he gasped for air.
Some lady picked the phone from him and with her heavy Swahili accent she shouted. ‘haaaalo!’
‘Skia. Naomba mumwache Kasimu kuna-’
‘Pole mama. I didn’t know what happened. I just saw a poster and thought I’d call to ask if I could help in any way. I didn’t know…’ I saw Cheupe struggle with finishing the sentence. He listened for a while before he put his phone down. ‘Braatha…Wame-deadi.’
I leaned back on my bed and looked at the frozen frame of the girls smiling before the door even opened. ‘That’s not human…that’s…’ I wasn’t really sure what it was.
Cheupe got up and went to the kitchen with his plate and glass and washed it. He shouted from across the house. ‘I think we should take this to Kasimu to see first.’
‘Are you crazy?’ I got up and rushed to the kitchen. ‘He’s already in pain. Showing him this could throw him over the edge.’
‘But he’s the father. He deserves to know.’
‘No. We’ll make it worse. Let’s just go and drop it at the police station.’
‘Hapana. You’re on your own with this.’
I went back to the room first to pack up the items when I noticed the laptop had been shut and the flash disk placed back in the bottle.
He came running and stared at my shocked face. ‘Nini?’
‘Someone shut the laptop and put the flash disk back in the bottle.’ I said, pointing to the bed.
‘Heh! Braathaa! I’m out, this is some serious shit,’ He picked up his phone from the side table and left. ‘Drop it to the police and let it go. Then call a maalim to come home and pray for you. Sina time ya shetani!’
I left the house two minutes after Cheupe heading to central police station with the bottle safely tucked in my backpack. They took me behind to a back office with a hefty man sitting on a chair barely able to hold him up. His buttons strained to the last thread to hold his stomach intact. I carefully placed the bottle on his table as I kept thumbing the tasbhi in my right hand as I prayed ‘Subhanallah.’
‘What is this?’ he picked it up and stared at the flash disk in the bottle.
‘I found it by the sea. I took it home thinking it would be something fun but it’s a video of the three girls who went missing last week and were found dead. It could be their last video before they died.’ I explained in more detail what had happened while at Swahilipot.
‘So you’re telling me, you found this in the sea?’ he asked. Where exactly were you?’
‘By the trees up near the back of the fort,’ I answered.
He rubbed his chin. ‘What were you doing there?’
‘I usually chill there.’
‘Doing what exactly?’His questioning nearly made me doubt my reasons for being there.
‘What everyone else does there? I get in touch with my creative side.’
‘If you were so high up how did you see the bottle in the ocean below?’
I felt my mouth get dry and any attempt at swallowing would end up in a coughing fit. My answer of just chilling really wasn’t going to help him. ‘I was staring at the sea and noticed something shinning in the water’
He looked at the golden cap, rubbing it with his finger. I noticed he hadn’t once tried to open the bottle and check the flash disk. ‘Did you see anyone in or around that area who may have thrown the bottle in the water?’
‘I really wasn’t looking at people.’
He rubbed his nose like there was a foul smell coming from the bottle and opened the big golden cap, dropping the flash disk in his hand before putting it in his old computer. He went through the same footage I went through expressionless. When the footage was done he turned his attention to me.
‘How many people have seen this?’
‘Only you and me,’ I knew it was better not to mention Cheupe; he was notoriously involved in the old town street gang who were linked to one of the tourist’s death by the fish market. Though he shaved his head and lost a lot of weight, his face could have sold him out with his thumb sized birthmark right above his lip like a Hitler moustache.
‘Do you have ID?’ I took it out and handed it to him. He took it and made a copy on the side on his small HP unit. He then took a picture of me and took down my number and I was on my way.
I was headed to Azad Ice Cream across the road for some Sugarcane Juice when Cheupe called me.
‘Skia, have you dropped the bottle?’
‘Come to Kasimu’s right away!’
‘Not now.’ I really wanted the Sugar Cane Juice to take down the anxiety from the interrogation. My mouth watering for that ginger filled drink as I stood opposite the road by the shawarma place looking over at Azad to see how many people were there.
‘Hapana. Come now!’
‘You need to see something. Njoo bana, wataka nikutongoze ka dem?’
I took a tuk-tuk from Central Police after getting my drink and headed to Kizingo minutes later. When I got there, Cheupe was in the sitting room with a cup of tea in his hand listening to the father talk. I gave my apologies to the whole family repeating, ‘Pole. Kua na subra. Ni mtihani tumepata, hiyoni safari sote tuna pita.’
‘Tumepoa,’ was the common reply. I sat next to Cheupe and was served tea by a young girl. The family carried on with their sorrows and talked about all the troubles they had been through and speculated on Aisha’s death.
‘Watu wengine ni mbwa!’ shouted a skinny lady from the corner of the room as they dwelled on who might have done it.
According to Kasimu’s sister who was heading the conversation- The three girls had gone to Zainab’s house. They never came back that night and when Kasimu called Zainab, her mum picked up saying all the girls had left their phones there. They all got worried and started calling everyone and going to the neighbors houses. Nothing. One week there was no information on them. No update in any form. ‘Hata the police didn’t know. There was no break in. It was impossible that they left without their phones. They suspect whoever took the girls knew them.’
‘They have no suspects yet?’I asked feeling out of place the moment I finished the statement.
‘Hakuna.Hakuuuuna.’ She got up and headed outside to pick up another call. Either case she seemed like she had said everything that she wanted to.
The rest went on to discuss other people who had been through similar issues as Cheupe turned to me and whispered, ‘Cheki. There. At the shelf there’s a bottle with a golden top.’ I looked at his face and saw him pointing with his lips to a big wooden shelf with glass sliding doors.
Following his pout I saw the identical bottle with the same top except this had a brand logo on it unlike the other clear one. The water probably took it off. I strained my eyes just enough to note the floral design and golden writing written ‘Rose Syrup’ across the top.
‘It’s the same one. That bottle is from here Braatha,’ he said with pride like Sherlock unlocking the key piece of evidence to finish the case.
To be honest, he had my curiosity peaked. The same kind that had me swimming in my boxers towards a bottle in the ocean. I got up and headed towards the shelf like I was going to look at an old black and white photo of a family by old lighthouse. I quickly glanced at the picture then directed my attention towards the bottle that had some sand in it. The sand was a dull brown and had small blue and purple shiny particles in it. It didn’t really look like much at first until you noticed it made the sand sparkle.
I picked up the bottle and shook it a bit unbothered by everyone behind me talking about a neighbor’s cousin who died last week from Chikungunya. Cheupe came and snatched the bottle from my hand.
‘Braatha umechizi’ he placed the bottle back on the shelf. ‘Who puts sand in a bottle and displays it on the shelf?’
‘A lot of people. Wazungus love this.’
‘What Mswahili does that? I was getting whipped left right and center for coming with even a spot of sand or shadow of a footprint?’
‘What the hell is shadow footprint?’
‘It when your feet leave a wet print on the floor when they are humid?’
‘I don’t think that science is right.’
‘What do know about my feet? Usiniletee ujuaji! I’ve had my feet since I was a baby.’
‘I’m not even going to argue.’ Cheupe noticed the sparkling pieces of the sand and picked up the bottle, opening the top and sniffing it. ‘Is that jewels-’
‘Tafadhali!’ a hefty pear shaped woman grabbed the bottle from Cheupe. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Tulizaa.’Cheupe said confidently as she went for the bottle top and covered the bottle. ‘We were just checking what’s special about the sand till you have it in your house.’
‘Don’t touch things. Kilichokuleta ni machozi ya maiti, watia pua kwa vitu zetu ukitafuta nini?’
She stormed off with the bottle cushioned under her molten underarm
‘The first ones always get scary,’ Cheupe whispered.
‘What?’ I watched as she struggled to hold her red and black leso that awkwardly clashed on her beach-colored dera.
‘That’s Kasimu’s first wife.’
‘The mum to-’
‘No. That’s the lady near Kasimu there. The one who has those heavy eyes,’ Cheupe continued with udaku wa mtaa background. ‘Mzee Kasimu had married Gulamu from high school. It was a love marriage, but she couldn’t give birth. He married a second wife but she died of anaemia. It was messed up. She was four months into her pregnancy. Then he married her, Asha. She’s the mother to the only three children Kasimu has. That’s why I say the first ones always get scary. Gulamu is scary. Imagine not being able to provide kids to your husband.’
‘Yeah.’ At this point a quick thought came to mind. It was more of those cliché stories you always hear mtaani right before the magrib Adhan; stories of resentful wives who usually made life a living hell for the husband’s other wives.
‘I’ll marry just one or none at all,’ Cheupe clarified. With his dating trend he would reach the latter faster.
I was still engrossed with the thought of Gulamu being somehow involved in the girl’s disappearance and thought of gauging Cheupe’s reaction. ‘Imagine how weird it would be if it was Gulamu who killed those girls.’
‘Wallahi. It’s true.’
‘We should tell the police to-’
‘Excuse me. Do you get paid their salary? You keep on wanting to do their job for them.’
‘But it’s the right thing to do.’
‘Braatha! Stay out of their business. You have a flash disk that moves around. If she’s the one doing that shit you don’t want to be on her wrong side. Look at her.’
I don’t pray five times a day and once in a while I find myself having a drink here and there but I try to always do right by Allah. My mother told me the key to opening heaven was a clean soul.
KK went on about how Aisha had gotten a scholarship to USIU to study hotel management and when done she would have a trip to continue for one year in Norway. She was the oldest of the three by five years and was an idol to her siblings. ‘Everyone,’ according to her mother, ‘loved her. Not a single person hated her. She had a pure heart.’
‘Braatha! Sitaki. Leave it alone. You can’t just tell the police that the other wife did it and expect them to do anything about it.’
‘I’ll just say I saw it at their house and they’ll do the rest.’
‘This isn’t some CSI that you watch online. What connection do you have to the girls? They’ll start making links and you can’t say wanijua because there is no way I will meet them. They will throw my ass in jail. Braatha. Let. It. Go.’
I wasn’t going to let it go, but I understood what Cheupe was saying. I would get into trouble for simply being associated with him. I had to find another link and how I would phrase this to the police.
Gulamu stormed back out of what looked like a small store room and headed back to the guests. She passed a quick angry glance warning us not to pry then sat near Asha.
‘Wallahi. The first time I saw her I had a nightmare of her holding me down slowing stabbing me asking me where it hurts the most. Braatha she just has those bad vibes,’ Cheupe said frowning in her general direction. He was right; Gulamu had that cold vibe taround her like looking into the face of a snake up close: are they smiling with you or at you before they eat you? ‘We should leave ki-sniper,’ he added turning towards Kasimu.
As I gave my hand to give my regards I asked a question. ‘Baba Kasimu let me ask you, what do you think happened to those girls?’
‘Look at all this unrest in the country, people think they can do what they want? I have no wealth to give. No job worth coming after. What reason would they have for taking and killing my blood?’ He paused to look at everyone around him. ‘This wasn’t because of my daughter. This is the curse of one of those two girls.’ I noticed Asha throw a quick glance to Gulamu who kept her eyes fixed on her husband.
Cheupe intervened, ‘Mzee. We should go and let you rest.’ He nodded and we stepped out.
‘What are you doing braatha? Gulamu looked at you like she wanted to eat you.’
‘But did you see how Asha looked at her?’
‘I don’t care. I called you to see the bottle design. It’s that fancy Dubai brand they import. A lot of people use it but it’s expensive. But did you notice the cap. It’s different. I remember those bottles Kasimu used to sell them a long time ago. I bought one as a present.’ He bought it as a present for his mother for her birthday. It was the sweetest thing he had ever done according to him. ‘The cap is small and light. Those caps aren’t the ones.’
‘What are the chances?’
He shrugged. ‘It’s none of our business.’
On my way home I tried convincing myself all the reasons for and against reporting this to the police. Cheupe was right. That bottle was probably pretty common. It could be anyone, but there was that aching gut instinct; the kind you get in a split of second when you realize you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be; like when you see the GSU truck braking right in front of you in the CBD during unrest or when you pass makaburini at night and some woman in a buibui starts following you.
The feeling where you know this is nothing short of God now wholly grabbing your guts and shaking them in their place to check if they are working. These feelings are absolute and final. That was the feeling I had of Gulamu and that this wasn’t over. I had to at least try and talk to Asha and see if she needed anything and maybe try and convince her to go to the police. They would have listened to her more than a twenty five year old.
It was perhaps almost seven in the evening when I went back to Kasimu’s house. I had tried calling Cheupe a few times and left a few messages but no reply. It wasn’t like him to stay away from his phone. Maybe he was just flat out ignoring me. There were still visitors at the house with two women cooking outside on makaa jikos. I walked in unnoticed by anyone. I found Asha by the kitchen talking to someone in a buibui and blue headscarf
They both cordially replied ‘Waleikum Salaam.’
‘Ma Aisha can I talk to you?’ I asked her, ‘alone,’ I added. Both women gave each other a glance.
As the other lady made her way out while adjusting her scarf and shouting at the boys running around the open space in the house, I took a quick look around for Gulamu then quickly started talking. ‘Ma Aisha. There’s something I found today morning that I need to tell you about.’ She waited, unmoved. ‘There’s a bottle I found at the sea. It had a flash disk with footage of your daughter and the two other girls-’
‘Don’t! Stop it!’ She moved closer to cover my mouth.
‘No you don’t understand…’
‘No. You don’t understand. You keep on talking and she’ll hear you and she’ll start again…’
‘You know, don’t you? You know who killed those girls.’
‘A mother knows. Gulamu has been up to no good ever since she heard that Kasimu was getting slow,’ she hissed. ‘She’s like a shadow behind the walls sometimes.’
‘If you know then you need to talk to the police. They need to arrest her and…’
‘Hapana! The police won’t catch her. Her brother works there. He’s the OCS. Anything you tell him he tells her and when she finds out she summons him. You keep on talking and I’ll lose another child.’
I was almost taken aback by what she said next. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the end of the kitchen as if to keep away from any prying ears.
‘You don’t understand. I know she’s done it. I just can’t prove it. I’ve seen her do things to people. She mixes stuff at night and prays to her spirits and the next day her problem is gone. Once in a while I get those random bags with chicken bones she hides around the house and I return them where they are.’
She moved closer; her stale breath hitting right through my nose. ‘One of our neighbors got snakes in her house out of nowhere. She woke up to snakes all over her bed. Sumara was being haunted by cats that stared at her as she slept. Rishad had things in his house thrown to the floor as they slept. All these people pissed her off at one point of the other and in less than three days they paid the price.’
‘Have you told KK?’
‘He never listens. Not when it comes to Gulamu. She can do no wrong by him.’ She was more of a third wheel in the house from the way she carried herself. ‘Leave it alone. I already lost my daughter.’ Tears began rolling down her cheek. ‘My beautiful Aisha. She was going to be a star: carried my mother’s name and determination. She wasn’t even Kasimu’s blood, but he treated her like his own.’
‘When she gets mad again she will go for your next child and then the next and eventually you. Let’s go to the mzee wa mtaa, the…the…maalims, the sheikhs. We’ll bring waombaji and…’
‘Nyamaza! This woman is untouched. Whatever she has for herself is powerful and dark.’
*end of excerpt*