‘He spoke slowly, his smile constant, as if he was about to deliver the good news we so yearned for.’
Extract taken from How Beautiful We Were
By Imbolo Mbue
Published by Canongate
Woja Beki walked up to the front and thanked everyone for coming.
‘My dear people,’ he said, exposing the teeth no one wanted to see, ‘if we don’t ask for what we want, we’ll never get it. If we don’t expunge what’s in our bellies, are we not going to suffer from constipation and die?’
We did not respond; we cared nothing for what he had to say. We knew he was one of them. We’d known for years that though he was our leader, descended from the same ancestors as us, we no longer meant anything to him. Pexton had bought his cooperation and he had, in turn, sold our future to them. We’d seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, how Pexton was fattening his wives and giving his sons jobs in the capital and handing him envelopes of cash. Our fathers and grandfathers had confronted him, after the evidence had become impossible to dismiss, but he had beseeched them to trust him, telling them he had a plan: everything he was doing was to help us reclaim our land. He had shed two cups of tears and swore by the Spirit that he hated Pexton as much as we did, wasn’t it obvious? Our young men had conspired to kill him, but our old men found out about the plan and pleaded with them to spare him. We’ve already had too many deaths, our old men said; we’ve used up too many burial plots.
Woja Beki continued looking at us, dreadful gums still exposed. We wished we didn’t have to look at them, but there could be no avoidance. They were the first thing we saw whenever we looked at his face: gums as black as the night’s most evil hour, streaked with pink of various shades; tilting brown teeth, wide spaces between.
‘My very dear people,’ he went on, ‘even a sheep knows how to tell its master what it wants. That’s why we’ve gathered here again, to resume this discourse. We thank the kind representatives from Pexton for coming back to talk to us. Messengers are good, but why should we use them if we can talk to each other with our own mouths? There’s been a lot of misunderstanding, but I hope this meeting will bring us closer to a resolution of our mutual suffering. I hope that after this evening we and Pexton can continue moving in the direction of becoming good friends. Friendship is a great thing, isn’t it?’
We knew we would never call them friends, but some of us nodded.
In the glow of the fading sun our village looked almost beautiful, our faces almost free of anguish. Our grandfathers and grandmothers appeared serene, but we knew they weren’t—they’d seen much, and yet they’d never seen anything like this.
‘We’ll now hear from Mr. Honorable Representative of Pexton, all the way from Bézam to speak to us again,’ Woja Beki said, before returning to his seat.
The Leader rose up, walked toward us, and stood in the center of the square.
For several seconds, he stared at us, his head angled, his smile so strenuously earnest we wondered if he was admiring a radiance we’d never been told we had. We waited for him to say something that would make us burst into song and dance. We wanted him to tell us that Pexton had decided to leave and take the diseases with them.
His smile broadened, narrowed, landed on our faces, scanning our stillness. Seemingly satisfied, he began speaking. He was happy to be back in Kosawa on this fine day, he said. What a lovely evening it was, with the half-moon in the distance, such a perfect breeze, was that the sound of sparrows singing in one accord? What a gorgeous village. He wanted to thank us for coming. It was great to see everyone again. Incredible how many precious children Kosawa has. We had to believe him that the people at headquarters were sad about what was happening to us. They were all working hard to resolve this issue so everyone could be healthy and happy again. He spoke slowly, his smile constant, as if he was about to deliver the good news we so yearned for.
We barely blinked as we watched him, listening to lies we’d heard before. Lies about how the people who controlled Pexton cared about us. Lies about how the big men in the government of His Excellency cared about us. Lies about how hundreds of people in the capital had asked him to relay their condolences to us. ‘They mourn with you at the news of every death,’ he said. ‘It’ll be over soon. It’s time your suffering ended, isn’t it?’
The Round One and the Sick One nodded.
‘Pexton and the government are your friends,’ the Leader said. ‘Even on your worst day, remember that we’re thinking about you in Bézam and working hard for you.’
Our mothers and fathers wanted him to offer specifics on exactly when our air and water and land would be clean again. ‘Do you know how many children we’ve buried?’ a father shouted. His name was Lusaka—he had buried two sons. We had been to both of the boys’ funerals and wept over their bodies, darker than they’d been in life and adorned with white shirts soon to merge with their flesh.
Lusaka’s departed younger son, Wambi, was our age-mate and classmate.
Two years had passed since Wambi died, but we thought about him still—he was the smartest boy in arithmetic, and the quietest one too, except for when he coughed. We’d been alive for centuries combined, and yet we’d never heard anyone cough the way he did. When the cough hit, his eyes watered, his back hunched out, he had to hold on to something to steady himself. It was sad to watch, pitiful but funny in the way a heavyset man falling on his buttocks amused us. Doesn’t your father know the path to the medicine man’s hut? We would say to him, laughing the careless laugh of healthy children. We knew not that some of us would soon start coughing too. How could we have imagined such a thing would happen to us? That several of us would develop raspy coughs and rashes and fevers that would persist until our deaths? Please stay away from us with that ugly cough of yours, we’d said to Wambi. But it wasn’t just an ugly cough, we would later find out. The dirty air had gotten stuck in his lungs. Slowly, the poison spread through his body and turned into something else. Before we knew it, Wambi was dead.
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue is published by Canongate, priced £14.99.