Chiseche Salome Mibenge
Art by Uman
I’m on my laptop watching the State funeral in Qunu. Zuma is singing Thina Sizwe. We, the Black nation, we are lamenting for our land, our land which was seized by the whites. Let them leave our land.
It is well.
Kenneth Kaunda salutes Mama Maria, wife of his greatest friend Julius Nyerere, before he acknowledges the chief mourners, Mama Winnie and Mama Machel. He is Mandela’s contemporary, and he reminds us that he negotiated with three Boer prime ministers for the release of Mandela. He starts strong but almost immediately begins to falter and lose his words. An usher approaches the podium and whispers in KK’s ear, a warning about time management. And KK ends the eulogy with a sad jest about a young man controlling an old man who has fought Boers.
Black Africans recognize their elders. We chuckle across Africa and the Diaspora when Kaunda refers to the folly of our Boer brothers and Zuma sings a fuck you white people song.
It is well.
And at the memorial service, at a stadium in Soweto, it is raining and Mama Winnie Mandela is standing before Mama Graca Machel. Winnie bends towards Graca, they kiss on the mouth and embrace and they don’t let go.
It is well with my soul.
I am speaking with my father, he is in Zambia and has watched days and days of Al Jazeera and South Africa Broadcasting’s live reporting of Mandela’s death announcement, the tributes, the service, burial and memorials. He is catching me up on the interesting bits I have missed out on, as I am watching from the US, relying mostly on YouTube ‘Mandela funeral’ searches.
I say, Poor man, he should have lived another twenty years if those miserable whites hadn’t tortured him in prison for 30 years.
I don’t know about that Mama, my father counters. Maybe if he wasn’t arrested he would have suffered more, maybe a letter bomb. Like the old Bishop.
At your mother’s Church, he’s retired.
Aay? The white man! At the Cathedral? That’s how he lost his arm?
He was the ANC chaplain in Zambia – when they were our guests, all exiled here. The Anglicans made him a Bishop.
My father goes on to talk about South Africans assassinated across the continent, and the white woman, an exile in Paris, he can’t remember her name, shot in the head at point blank range, before he returns to Mandela.
Or maybe a fight Mama – Madiba could have died fighting in a bar, over a woman.
All of the inebriated boys and men we have loved that died, by misadventure, flit through our minds. He laughs softly and I join him.
You can’t know Mama. He was 95. Isn’t that enough time? So many of his friends died young and they weren’t in prison like him. They were younger than you when they died.
He has a way of smothering my flames before they consume me.
Do you remember where you were the day Mandela walked to freedom?
I was playing hockey.
There was a British girls’ boarding school in Limuru, on the edge of the Rift Valley. There were Black girls, the Mibenges: Chisala, Mwenzi, Chimango and I, and the Adnans: Huda, Mina and Hanan. There was a tea plantation to the right of the pitch – a steep incline that we were made to run up at dawn when we were being punished collectively. And on the other side, the dorms housing just under 60 girls.
It took me a couple of weeks to figure out hockey. I was sloppy about the offside rule and passing across the D, but I made it onto the team before the close of the Michaelmas term. I was an even-tempered player even in an ugly or tough match because I didn’t have strong feelings about either winning or losing. This made me a useful member of the team because Kelly, our headmaster, a former soldier, made us compete against boys’ and older girls’ teams and adult club players. I was able to calm the hysterical players – the ones who were talented and could not stand to lose. We could leg it, we were nippy, but we lost almost all of the time. Games. We played every day.
tea and biscuits
tea and biscuits
We were playing hockey. We ran and hit hard, and gave a black eye to our snakiest player, she liked to sneak up behind you, steal the ball and send it. Shot! But once a term or so, she walked right into a high backswing.
Mandela is free! They’ve freed Nelson Mandela!
Someone was shouting from the dorms, neither an Adnan nor a Mibenge, the messenger was a white Kenyan. There was a pause – puzzled, almost contemplative - we lowered our sticks. We glanced at Kelly, our umpire, but he didn’t give us any clue as to what emotion or action should follow this announcement. Mandela was like Fidel Castro, Ali, Samora Machel and Muammar Gaddafi to me – a symbol of Black resistance against white power in my parents’ liberation fables. I needed them to demonstrate the correct response to Mandela’s freedom.
Stupid man! A girl on the pitch, neither an Adnan nor a Mibenge, spoke up in a voice full of bile – the voice of a grown white man, her dad maybe. Stupid man! They’re going to kill him. Kelly blew his whistle and the game resumed.
I never heard Nelson Mandela’s name again at school. Not in our twentieth-century history class, not in a debate over a dessert bowl of custard and rhubarb crumble at the dinner table. However, I have never been able to unhear that promise.
They’re going to kill him.
In time, it turned into, We’re going to kill him.
And today, it sounds more like, We’re going to kill you.
That second, just ahead of Kelly’s whistle, should have marked the moment that I started to hate whites, but instead, it is the moment that I began to love them back – to understand who they were and who they thought they were. To value white love for me because it was unnatural, an affront to the world order that entitled them to a Black Africa they didn’t deserve.
More African girls were allowed into that school. Tanzanians, Ugandans, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Malawians. Never Black Kenyans. Our parents were truly exceptional. Freedom fighters and nation builders the lot of them. But for the most part, most of us were as ordinary as the white Kenyan girls and a handful of us were as exceptional as the handful of exceptional white girls. I graduated from that high school and I didn’t return to Kenya for twenty years. Anne brought me back, for a white wedding, not far from the Equator, a short drive from Nanyuki. So many happy white people, and I recognized them all, expatriates, white Kenyans, Kenya cowboys and girls, settler colonizers, white farmers, tourists. The Out of Africa soundtrack accompanied the wedding vows, and I remembered two things: that their liberation playlist was not mine, and that Mommy fell asleep watching that daft movie. But in the wedding pictures, I am beaming – happy to be back on the hockey team, and not overly bothered that after all these years I am still the only Black African they love.
Were you at Mandela’s funeral?
I am at a Church in Morningside. The old man has fallen and I am bereaved. Everyone is here. R&B singers, the children of celebrities, ambassadors, UN representatives, mayors. Dinkins, Sharpton, this Church, the reverend, the choir, I don’t know these people. This fellowship could be beautiful but I am cold and this makes me cross. I should have stayed at home, preparing for a first date with a fashion designer I met on eHarmony. But it is forbidden to grieve alone, without sisters to wail with, to hold you down, and soothe the devil that is sorrow out of you, so I came. I can’t look anyone in the face. I can’t find a wailing sister, so I give up and walk out of the service of praise and thanksgiving for the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I am composed, and smile apologetically at the ushers and the press vans.
There he is at the 168th Street station. A familiar commuter. New York Crazy. A twisty-bodied old man, hopping and shuffling ahead of me at the elevator doors, singing to himself. Maybe he needs the bathroom, maybe he is jumping to keep warm. I know that if he sees me, he will want me. He needs a sister. I have been held hostage by so many Black men in need, so I hide behind the wall of Brown people, and decline my place in the elevator descending to the train platform. I am in no hurry. The day is already wasted.
My Father has many sons.
I feel as if their fire will consume me.
A couple of weeks ago, sometime before the Thanksgiving break, right after the mid-term exams, I was idling at my desk. My office is small, a crude sub-division of what used to be a squat used by adjunct faculty in between classes. I have an open door policy so my students drop in without an appointment, and I have noticed that when students enter my office, they leave the door open. I attribute this to their strong sense of propriety.
A student slips into my office, I glance over at him lazily, but then he shuts the door firmly. He is not my student. He is leaning forward, like an athlete ready to toss or catch a missile. My mouth fills with the taste of red soil baked on a termite mound. I remember a schoolyard game. We held hands and formed an impenetrable wall. Only a heavy child, or a 6th grader could attempt to topple a piece of the wall, and plow straight through. I was the shortest girl in 5th grade and always ended up on my back, winded, but laughing with the wall as it closed around me.
So this is how it ends, I think. I have been living in the US for three years now and I still have the foreigner’s suspicion that all Americans are armed.
He is angry and needs a moment to compose himself, so I tell him, It’s ok. Excuse me, just let me finish sending this email. Sit down. I let him watch me as I turn back to my screen. I know that I am reassuringly pretty, respectable in a thin-knitted BOSS Orange midi dress and La Canadienne ankle boots. I correct my spelling errors and press send. I had no intention of going home, but I begin to save and close all of my Word documents and finally, I put my desktop to sleep and pause, looking at my reflection on the dark screen. It is well, it is well with my soul, I say. And when I turn back to the student, he has relaxed his jaw, and I get it, that I am the balm and not the source of his aggravation.
I am a veteran, I have worked hard all my life, he begins. His history is a torrent of slights and lazy-nigger jokes, sacrifice, well-earned awards, giving 200 percent, sweating blood for a little honor. And now some asshole civilian history professor who has never done jack but jerk off in a library thinks he can mind-fuck him into believing he didn’t pass a mid-term. White fuckery! He doesn’t actually use curse words, he is vehement but polite, but I hear him. As he speaks, I take in his skin – he is very Black, younger than me, but a decade or so older than my average student. He is good-looking in civvies, and the military creases are still evident in his posture and delivery. I begin to sort the puzzle pieces that brought a Black man and a Black woman together behind the closed door of a tiny office. He was propelled by rage, ready to stand his ground with an enemy in the camouflage of an academic. As he raced past my office, he caught a glimpse of a sister. And he turned away briefly from his mission and barricaded us from the violence of the History department.
His eyes plead with me, What should I do?
My eyes reassure him. It’s ok. I know how to subdue your anger Brother.
New York Crazy. He catches me down on the platform. Sneaks up on me although his body, tightly clenched and as stiff as Frankenstein, shouldn’t allow him to be stealthy. I want to warn him that I have no gun, but I can spit, but he stands a respectable distance from me and addresses the back of my head cordially, as if it has eyes. He knows I’m family, I have no choice but to turn and give him my body.
I fell on the tracks twice. Look! He turns away, bends his knees, removes his cap and bares his dented head to me. He continues his narration with his stooped back to me, until he hears my grunt, a mix of astonishment and disbelief.
I tell people move back, they don’t listen. I was drunk. First time I was drunk. Fell coz I was drunk. See how far I stand from the track now? He pauses until I move towards him further away from the tracks. Second time I was pushed. By a kid. 23 years old! He said it was a joke! He catches me laughing but continues. I’m a miracle. Second time I was in hospital for a month. He describes the complicated layout of the station he was last injured in, the speed of the train and the rescue.
He motions for me to move away from the metal grid I am standing over. Water bugs will climb up you. He runs his hands up and down his pant legs. Into your bag too. You take them home with you.
Water bugs? What is a water bug? I ask him.
Roaches. Rō-Chez. Habla español? Cucaracha.
I speak English. I say this stiffly, in British English.
I can’t lose him on the train either. He follows me into the train car but is too polite to sit beside me without my express invitation, so he sits facing me and shouts across the aisle. I try to be unfriendly, crossing my arms across my chest and raising my eyes above his, re-reading the advertisements for mattresses and community colleges. But I forgive him when he starts to talk about his wife-may-she-rest-in-peace. I’m 59, he tells me. I’m incredulous, he is carrying the body of an ailing 70 year old. Wife died four days before my birthday. She’d been planning my party too. So, I did it anyway. Ordered myself lobster and a plate for her. When I finish my plate I had hers. This time he laughs while I wear a funereal face and offer my condolences. He tells me how rich he ought to be because of his deformities from all that falling onto the tracks. But he lives with his old mother and she’s poor too. He gives me a lecture about my finances, You know why I’m telling you this? So government don’t take your money.
We are approaching 207th station and he begins to make his farewells. I’ll see you again. My name is Ted Ellis. He waits expectantly.
I’m Chiseche. He is American, he can’t hear it, it’s too hard. Salome, I offer my middle name. He can’t hear. Sally! I’m shouting now.
Sally, you African? You from… He digs around in his battered head for a country. Somalia?
No. I’m from Zambia!
Zambia? Something has reminded him of something.
The train has slowed and the doors are open, waiting for him to disembark. He startles me and the others in the carriage by whooping, like an actor in a bad Western, Oowololowowo! The spastic motion of his tongue is obscene until he cries, Nelson Mandela oowololowowo! He is ululating, like an African woman celebrating a great man.
The train moves north, pulls me away from my wailing sister, Ted Ellis.
I think that my father is recovering from surgery, but actually, the surgery has killed him. Mommy knows, and she corrects me. She holds my hand and says, He is in the throes. We sit on a loveseat at the foot of his bed and watch the nurse and the doctor. They are frantic but also deliberate, as they try to pull him back into the room with its smell of vomit and blood and post-operation heating.
These are the names they call my father as he dies.
He suddenly speaks, words I have never heard him utter. Am I ok? And Dr. Malik answers immediately, dishonestly, Mr. Benjamin you are ok. You are ok now. He is Egyptian, so it is alright that he doesn’t know any better than to call my father, Mr. Benjamin.
Mommy and I share pain, and it is everywhere, upper respiratory, urinary tract, sinus, hip, lower back, vaginal.
Who is the patient?
The doctor laughs at us when we present our symptoms in one voice. He is a foreigner, Congolese, so he doesn’t know our story, how desperate we are for more relaxants, suppressants, stimulants, decongestants, anti-inflammatories and a second and third course of antibiotics. He has not understood that we are in the throes. When Mommy is escorted to the bathroom for a urine sample, he asks me if I know my HIV status, as if I needed privacy for this type of question. I lower my voice and in spite of the masks, we both lean forward, closer. I tell him the truth. My father is dead. My mother is a widow. Listen. We are not well.
In the end, it is the Egyptian surgeon who heals us.
Mommy and I are at Regent Hospital, feverish and listless. We are wasting away, waiting our turn for the rapid COVID-19 test. Dr. Malik is drinking tiny cup after tiny cup of water from the water dispenser in the reception area. We haven’t decided if we should shrink into the wall or make Dr. Malik see us. We call out to him and he recognizes us behind our masks. He sits with us and tells us that his father is dead. I remember, involuntarily, that he rushed my father towards an unplanned surgery because he was leaving Zambia for Egypt, to be with his father over the Christmas holiday. Mommy and I comfort him, we are sorry for his loss and sorry too that he had to bump into us so soon. He gazes at us mournfully and says, Anything you need anytime I can do for you tell me now don’t hesitate! We bow our heads, pray for him and release him to his patients. We love you Dr. Malik. God bless you.
As I drive away from the hospital, Mommy says in an unfamiliar, simpering voice, What about the money for the surgery? Give us back the money Dr. Malik. 30,000 kwacha! Things are not good, Dr. Malik, we are sick, we need money. That’s what you can do for us. And we shriek, and can’t breathe and cry with hysterical laughter, for the first time since forever. We start to chant, What about the money, give us the money, the money, money and then we shriek again.
They died like this.
Karen Blixen (1962)
Samora Machel (1986)
Dulcie Evonne September (1988)
(Mwalimu) Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1999)
(Madiba) Nelson Mandela (2013)
Ted Ellis (2013)
Patrick Duncan Kelly (2013)
Muhammad Ali (2016)
Fidel Castro (2016)
Winnie Mandela (2018)
Joyce Dinkins (2020)
David Dinkins (2020)
Benjamin Ndabila Mibenge (2020)
John Osmers (2021)
Kenneth Kaunda (2021)
Chiseche Salome Mibenge
Chiseche Salome Mibenge is the author of Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative (Penn Press) and a co-editor of the book series, Human Rights Interventions (Palgrave Macmillan). Her stories have been published in Columbia Journal, LARB PubLab and Taint Taint Taint. She is at work on a story collection, The Protected Party. A human rights educator, she works remotely, alternating between her two hometowns, the Bronx and Lusaka.
A sense of displacement pervades the work of self-trained artist Uman (b. 1980). Uman emigrated from Somalia by way of Denmark in her twenties, and for the past several years has lived and worked in rural upstate New York. She has had solo shows at White Columns, NY (2015); Louis B. James Gallery, New York (2016); Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris (2017), Fierman, NY (2019 and 2021); and at the Outsider Art Fairs in New York and Paris and 1-54 Fair for Contemporary African Art, NY. She has been included in group shows at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto (2020), Karma, NY (2020) and Nicola Vassell, NY (2021). Her work, whether painting, collage or sculpture, acts as a meeting point between her past and present: Somalia at the dawn of war, the vibrancy of Kenya, and the seasons of upstate New York.