If Even the Spirit Child

Mohammed Said Abdulla

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

Bwana Msa had reclined for a while on the lounge chair he had brought topside, but now he rose to lean against the iron guard-rail that, for the passengers' own good, lined the edge of the deck. As was his custom when he traveled, he'd brought his chair outside so as to watch the sea. Now, their prancing vessel sliced cleanly through the swells. Other passengers, too, came out to stroll back and forth across the deck, their amblings hemmed in by the ship's small size. Even the captain—who just an hour before had been wretched with worry as the ship nearly veered off-course—came to stand beside Bwana Msa, where he let out a sigh.

"Whouf! We're all right now, Bwana Msa," he said, resting his arms on the rail. The captain was young, no more than twenty-five. Not yet much experienced at sea, he was new, still, to the task of captaining a ship. "Did you see how it was, Bwana Msa?" he continued. "That whole time, my heart was in my throat. When a ship's so wildly tossed, you fear a storm is coming. Although our own instruments predicted a calm sea, for that whole hour after we left Dar es Salaam, Bwana Msa—my heart nearly stopped beating. But, thank God, it's all right now, and Inshallah we'll reach Unguja in safety."

One of the strolling passengers ceased his pacing and stopped to listen to the captain's speech; he seemed taken by what he heard, for he could not keep his distance. In fact, he took hold of Bwana Msa's empty lounge chair, pulled it close, tossed himself upon it, and sat rooted there, listening with ever-greater concentration. But had he hoped to acquire from the captain's few words some instruction in the elements of seafaring, he was quickly disappointed, for the captain, after stopping briefly with Bwana Msa (whom he'd known for many years), walked cheerfully away and was soon lost among the passengers who milled about the deck.

No, he hadn't come to hear the captain's words. Something else had brought him; of that, there was little doubt. This was particularly obvious because the young man didn't rise to go after the captain, who'd continued on his way; he stayed in his seat, watching as Bwana Msa puffed on the pipe he always carried, loosing into the air mouthfuls of smoke that, the moment they appeared, vanished in the sweeping breeze.

This young man was the captain's age, but, unlike the captain, he was of an ambiguous color. His face was beautiful with the beauty that is proper to men. But his features and complexion made it difficult to place him firmly among any one people—to say, for example, that he was an Arab or an Indian, or something in between; might he be both, or either? What did stand out on his face—what was, so to speak, his 'sign,'—was a single stain, or birthmark, at the corner of his mouth just beneath his bottom lip. The clothes he wore betrayed his terrible poverty: ancient trousers paired with an equally old shirt, which, torn along the hem, left a bit of his belly exposed. The shirt had been repaired so often—here and there, across the shoulders—that it resembled a quilt of stripes and chevrons.

Bwana Msa, seeing that he had a visitor, was glad for someone to talk with. He began, "Man is remarkably audacious, placing his faith in a vessel such as this, fragile and helpless as a hollowed coconut, leaving that little shell to its own fate on such a slippery sea—how many fathoms deep!—with nothing to hang on to. He might just as well flirt headlong with the grave. Our elders were right to call our sea-going vessels 'Mungunitwae,' 'Take me now, oh Lord!'"

"Sir . . . Bwana," the young man said, choosing his words with care, "I heard the captain call you 'Bwana Msa.' May we assume—that you're—you're—the famous 'Bwana Msa,' that—brilliant private detective whose name is on—on everybody's tongue . . . whose skills are so amazing some think you're not human but a djinn, while still others call you 'the Sherlock Holmes of Unguja'?"

Bwana Msa frowned, for he could see that whatever talents he had were required of him now. He blinked and blinked, then said, "Young man, what could I possibly say to that?"

"Oh, Bwana, I'm just asking," he replied. "I heard the captain call you 'Bwana Msa' and I thought, 'Ah, maybe this is the day I meet the celebrated private detective.' So I asked if you are he—"

"If I am who!" Bwana Msa angrily cut him off. "You ask me, 'Am I he?' The 'famous private detective'! Or 'a djinn'! Or 'the Sherlock Holmes of Unguja' If that is what you want to know, well, let me tell you this: I am not a private detective. Nor am I a djinn. Nor am I Sherlock Holmes." Bwana Msa looked upset. At the very least, the young man's words displeased him.

"But you are Bwana Msa?"

"Yes, I am."

"Look, forget about the djinn and Sherlock Holmes. Aren't you a detective?"

"I am not a detective. I am an observer of human goings-on."

The young man was astonished. "But—is there any difference! Between a detective—a private investigator!—and an 'observer of human goings-on'!?"

"Naam. Absolutely there's a difference. And a significant one at that . . . "

The young man didn't ask what the difference was. Instead, he took another tack. "But you must know, Sir," he began again, "that someone has reported all your exploits in a series of books, the best known of which is The Elders' Shrine, and that in these books he's portrayed you as a really talented private investigator?"

"You're just speculating here," said Bwana Msa angrily. "And others like you are just speculating, too; but, as they, say 'a person bent on slandering you will not mind what sort of dirt he slings.' Really. Referring to me as a 'private investigator'!"

"Sir, is there anything wrong with being a private investigator?"

"Naam, of course there is. It's an enormous insult, especially to me, as it would be to anyone with any self-respect. If being called a private investigator is no insult, let us start calling you one, then, if you will allow it. For Sherlock Holmes, it's true. Sherlock Holmes's claim to fame was being a private investigator."

"But—this is so strange," the young man said, lowering his eyes. "It's so very strange." Then he looked up at Bwana Msa. "Why would someone being celebrated for his gifts as a detective find that praise upsetting?" He was silent for a moment, then, suddenly and with great resolve posed another question. "Sir, do you accept that what's written in The Elders' Shrine is true?"

"I accept it," Bwana Msa replied without any hesitation.

"If you're Bwana Msa, then—well, I read that book, and, in it, your expertise as a private investigator was clearly on display—even that police inspector, what's his name? Inspector Seif. You outdid him in that case. What do you say, Sir?"

"I am saying," Bwana Msa replied slowly, "that I have read the book; in fact I read that book before anybody else, since the author, the one who put it all together, brought it to me when it was just a manuscript so that I could see what he had said. And—although the book is very clearly written—I did not see a single instance in which, as you are asserting, the author said I was, or even implied in the slightest way that I might be, a private investigator. And if he had insulted me in such a frightful manner—in what would then have been no more than incoherent scribbling—I would have dragged him to court for slander. Now are you satisfied?"

"Oh, Bwana, you're incredible!" The young man was baffled. "You're really, truly denying that in that case you performed any private investigation whatever?"

"That's right. I deny it."

There was silence. Then the young man came up with a more powerful objection. "Bwana Msa—now that I know your name—please forgive me for what I'm about to say. I'm not doubting your honesty, not at all. I just want to remind you of some things. Wasn't it you who figured out who'd murdered Bwana Ali? Wasn't it you who guessed that Bwana Ali had sold all his worldly goods to that Banyan, Seti Sumatra? Wasn't it you who realized that Bwana Ali wasn't killed at the shrine, but that his body was moved there after he died? Wasn't it only you who knew who did it, as well as many other things that others didn't know? No one discovered these things but you."

"Yes. It was me," said Bwana Msa, giving the young man a look that said, 'So what?'

"You found out all those things, and yet you're still insisting that you did no private detection whatsoever?"

"I did no private detection."

"All right, Sir."

"It is not all right. It is not at all all right—yet," said Bwana Msa, emphasizing 'not at all' and 'yet.' He looked thoughtful and stubborn. "You say people call me the 'Sherlock Holmes of Unguja,' correct?" he began. "Then let's just take a look at what Sherlock Holmes was like. His work was to dig up secrets, or, as they say in his language, he was a private detective by profession, and people hired him to find things out for them. To this day, who has ever hired me to spy on their behalf? In The Elders' Shrine, that book you've mentioned, there's no Holmes-like figure being hired to do anything, there's no private detective involved. There's me, Bwana Msa, just an ordinary person, accompanied by my two friends Najum and Ahmed, on a visit to Ahmed's farm—that's all! Where's the 'private detective' in that? It just happened that I was there and decided to find things out for myself. Now, without a doubt, you must agree that there is an important difference here, between an observer of human goings-on who takes an interest, one who considers the matter for his own satisfaction, and a person who is habitually hired by others as a private investigator. The difference between 'considering' and 'investigating' is this: the first entails observing a situation with care and steady effort, together with discretion and attentiveness, in order to find out the truth of the matter—so that you can understand how something came to be, and for what reason. Whereas 'investigating' is cruelly invasive, it's a dastardly intrusion into other people's business, which you then turn upside down, worrying and poking at it until it completely falls apart."

"In that case, Bwana, I have to agree," the young man nodded, "because no one ever formally hired you to do any detecting on their behalf, to investigate or find out anything for them. In everything I've read about you, some problem arises, and it just so happens that you're there; moreover, you only get involved if you want to, if you feel like it—except maybe just the once, and even then you weren't exactly hired, rather you were approached and persuaded by that young woman—what was her name? Mwanatenga, to find her missing sweetheart, Saidi. And let's not forget that other time when, likewise, you were asked by that police inspector to help locate the property of the well-known businessman, Mr. Hakimu Marjani. Very good, Bwana Msa."

"Well, that's how it is, young man," Bwana Msa concluded. Then, he began again. "As the matter stands right now, if I were to tell you that you are a native of Unguja Island, I would be 'investigating' you; if I told you that you're not doing very well—even going so far as to say that you have no clothes but those on your back, you have no others to change into—I would be 'investigating' you—" (The young man looked about him anxiously and then down at the deck floor) "If I told you that you left Unguja for Dar es Salaam in the hope of improving your circumstances, and that no good came of it, I would be 'investigating' you; if I told you that right now you are traveling back to Unguja with some prospects before you, and that someone else has paid your way, I would be 'investigating you;' if I . . . "

"Enough, Bwana Msa, enough!" The young man leapt from the lounge chair and stood up perfectly straight. "I give in, Bwana; have some pity, what you're saying . . . it's embarrassing!"

Bwana Msa cocked his head and studied the young man, then inquired, "What makes you say you give in—what makes you ask for my pity? Have I dug up your secrets?"

"Naam, indeed. Everything you've said is true. People can keep calling you a djinn! But since we've come so far—where might we talk in private? Bwana Msa, I'd like to tell you everything that's happened."

"We can talk right here," Bwana Msa said. "What's wrong with where we are? We're just talking. Who's going to care? You sit back down in your seat, and as for me, I'm just standing here, listening to you. Nothing strange about it, what do you say?"

"All right."

The young man sat back down and looked up at Bwana Msa. Bwana Msa was lighting his pipe, which had suddenly gone out. The young man began his tale.

"Bwana Msa, my name is Amanullah, and, from the moment I first opened my eyes, I was in the care of a woman in Kwahani. I don't know if she's still alive. Her name was Binti Abdalla. I'll make this story short, Bwana Msa. I wasn't alone living with that woman. There were four of us, girls and boys. But for some reason, I and another child, a girl called Sichana, fell out of the woman's favor, maybe because both of us have birthmarks on our cheeks. You know, some people think a person with a birthmark or a mole on his face is a bearer of bad luck, a kisirani, some ill omen. Maybe that was it.

"Two years ago, that woman turned on me and on Sichana so completely that she didn't even feed us; we were lucky to get an empty plate to lick. And never mind having any clothes or any pocket money. We suffered like that for three months. Then, at the start of the fourth month, she told me and Sichana to move out, that she didn't have the means to look after us anymore. This was a catastrophe, Bwana Msa, and what I couldn't figure out was that she only sent the two of us away. The other children were orphans, too, but they weren't told to find some other place to live.

"My schooling is just up to Standard Eight. It wasn't enough to help me get a decent job; I looked for any manual work, anything at all, and in the end I turned mud into clay for the Ministry of Public Works. With the first month's pay I found a room, also in Kwahani, and Sichana and I moved into it. Luckily, she got a job minding the child of a man who worked as a clerk in one of the government offices—she'd take the baby for a stroll in its carriage in the afternoons. Bwana Msa, Sichana and I lived together as a man and a woman do, and we struggled to keep going for a period of three months. After three months, there were layoffs at my job, and I was among those who got let go. Things got worse when only Sichana was working.

"Then, Bwana Msa—I don't know if you'll think I'm brilliant, or crazy. More than twice and more than three times, even, it was as if I could hear someone talking in my dreams, saying 'Go to Dar es Salaam; your fortune lies in Dar es Salaam.' This dream kept coming back every now and then, and the urge to go to Dar es Salaam took root deep inside me; finally I discussed it with Sichana, and we decided that maybe I should put my faith in God. Sichana managed to borrow some money from her employer, enough to cover the fare to Dar. There, I stayed with a friend I'd met at my old job. I'm really grateful to that man for taking me in and trying to find work for me. But the days were just passing and passing, and the very shadow of a job seemed impossibly distant from me, let alone my actually nabbing a job and hanging on to it. And I was so worn down from depending on someone else for food and a place to sleep—but what was I to do?

"The other day, when my friend got home from work, he told me he'd been called to the police station, where he was questioned about me. They asked if he'd had a guest from Unguja who answered to my description, and he admitted that yes, he had an Ungujan guest like that—because the police specifically mentioned my defining feature, my trademark—which you yourself can see right here on my face, Bwana Msa, this birthmark near my mouth, this stain that's been like a curse on me. Even if I tried to hide, this mark would give me away. When they asked my name and he told them it was Amanullah, well, they were totally convinced I was the man they wanted.

"The way my friend told it, I got scared. Me!? Wanted by the police! What could I have done, I ask you? Me, alive only by God's grace, on this earth which is God's alone; me, just trying to make do in a foreign land!"

"Your fortune lies in Dar es Salaam," Bwana Msa interrupted, relighting his pipe. "And didn't you fly, seeking?"

"Being sought by the police," the young man said. "Well, Bwana Msa, that's not fortune, that's misfortune. But my friend reassured me, he told me to calm down, that everything would work out for the best. There was a man in Unguja, he said, who was looking for me; he said that man was my kin; he'd sent the government a letter, and a postal order in my name, so I could collect two hundred shillings and use it to come home to Unguja. He told me that this relative of mine would be waiting for me at the harbor back in Zanzibar.

"My friend and I went down to the police station together, and there I was shown the letter they'd gotten from my 'relative.' Bwana Msa, you must have guessed already from what I've said that I don't know my parents or any of my kin. But that's not what surprised me. The thing was that this 'relative' summoning me to Unguja had a Goan name—'Soarez.' And that my name isn't Amanullah, but Emmanuel. Declaring in front of the police that that Goan man was no kin of mine, well I couldn't do that. It was impossible, since I myself don't know my own family, and since that 'relative' had mentioned the mark on my face, taking it as proof that I was who he said I was. How could he know about my birthmark and my name if he didn't actually know me?

"So, I took the check, and I went to the post office to get my money. I arranged the journey, and now here I am heading back to Unguja to meet with my Goan 'kin.' This is the situation, Bwana Msa."

With a kind look on his face, Bwana Msa said, "This is good. It proves that there's something to our dreams, that dreams aren't a foolishness at all, as so many of us imagine. How could dreams be foolishness when the Holy Koran discusses them and also tells us that every dream has a meaning of its own? 'Go to Dar es Salaam; your fortune lies in Dar es Salaam'—you were told this in a dream—and so you went to Dar. Don't you see that fortune's on the rise? Receiving two hundred shillings so you could come home is already a fine sign, and all the while this benefactor is a stranger to you! Who but God knows what's ahead for you once you reach Unguja?"

"Inshallah, it will be to the good, Bwana Msa," Amanullah said hopefully.

"Amen," Bwana Msa intoned. "I wish you goodness and blessings only, Inshallah." Bwana Msa paused a moment to relight his pipe. "Your dream reminds me of a story," he began. "It's a story I read about long ago—and it's not really a 'story,' it actually happened. There was a man from India," he went on, "who was living in horrible poverty just as you are, Amanullah. This man also had a recurring dream, and, in his, it was as if someone was saying, 'Your fortune lies in Egypt, go to Egypt to fulfill your destiny.' At first he thought it was meaningless, but in the end it began to seem very meaningful, and he decided to go to Egypt. Imagine what a long trip that is, all the way from India to Egypt! And he couldn't afford any kind of transportation! That man walked for three months. When he got to Egypt, it was time for magharibi prayers; he found a mosque and entered it, intending to sleep there until morning.

"In the middle of the night," Bwana Msa continued, "a thief broke into the house right next to the mosque. The people who lived there were awake and they sounded the alarm. The thief ran off and people gave chase. Then those who were chasing him thought the thief must have hidden in the mosque; and when they entered the mosque they found our visitor from India, and, assuming that he was the thief, they arrested him. That poor traveler protested desperately but no one listened; in the morning he was taken to court.

"In court, he had a chance to explain himself from start to finish, and the kadhi who heard the case took pity on him, and in the end asked him very reproachfully what could possibly have driven him to walk all the way from India into Egypt for the sake of such meaningless foolery as a dream?

"'How many times have I dreamed,' this judge said, 'that in India, on a certain street (he called the street by name), in such and such a house—that in that house there is a channel that water runs through; that beneath that channel there's a chest, and that I ought to go and get it; yet I've never paid that dream any heed. Why would I leave all I have right here, and run after a dream? That would be crazy!'

"The judge's verdict," Bwana Msa said, "was to order the man to go back to India immediately; the government would pay his way.

"Now, that street the kadhi spoke of, which he'd heard of in his dream, it was the very street on which the Indian traveler lived, and his house was the very house the judge described. When he arrived home, it wasn't hard for him to dig into the channel and find the chest that was buried under it. But before being granted his due, it had first been necessary for him to go to Egypt. Amanullah! Do you understand?"

translated from the Swahili by Nathalie S. Koenings