• Don Stoll

"Dust"


Red dust coated the top sides of the leaves of the maize and pigeon pea plants that lined the two miles of dirt road leading to the village. Tim remembered that when the main road had been dirt, red dust coated the top sides of the leaves of the maize and pigeon pea plants most of the way from Babati. But the Chinese had paved the main road. The thirteen miles from Babati to the turnoff for the village represented a tiny fraction of the paving that the Chinese were doing.

“They know this is a rich country,” Mkame Murungi had explained. “Why can’t you Americans see the riches?”

Tim wondered how the Chinese could see them. He wondered how anyone could see riches that lay buried underground. Did one simply thrust a spade into the ground here and there, hoping for the best? But the ground would be pockmarked everywhere. There had to be a scientific way to reduce the element of randomness and make predictions with some accuracy. Tim wondered about the science.

He wondered if the red dust on the leaves was heavy. Did the leaves sag beneath the weight? He and Joanne had always visited Wajuwatinga during the dry season. Would the leaves hang differently after being washed by the rain? In the dry season, beneath their coats of red dust, small like the clothes made for dolls, the leaves remained absolutely still, as if embarrassed to make a move in front of the foreign visitors.

There seemed never to be any wind to force them to move even though Wajuwatinga stood a mile above sea level. Wasn’t mountain weather supposed to be changeable, and didn’t that imply wind? Tim wondered about the science of weather. He thought it was one more thing among many that he would never understand.

Tim looked at the red dust on the maize and pigeon pea plants as the driver maneuvered the four-by-four over the dirt road leading to the village. Mkame Murungi would be among the welcoming villagers. Tim remembered Murungi’s story about moving, many years before, from the slopes of Mount Meru near Arusha, the homeland of his people, the Meru. To make a good impression on the Gitahi people among whom he would live, he’d bought a pair of dark slacks. But the slacks had been cuffed. As Murungi traversed Wajuwatinga’s dirt paths, the cuffs filled with red dust. Mrs. Murungi had solved the problem. She undid the stitching and turned the cuffs under and redid the stitching. Murungi wore his slacks cuffed on the inside.

Joanne had made a different kind of concession to the effects of the red dust. Every summer, as she and Tim prepared for their annual visit to Wajuwatinga, she would buy armloads of brick-colored T-shirts, half of them in her own size and the other half in his.

“They’ll match the stains that our khakis pick up,” she would explain, and Tim never argued.

They agreed that they didn’t want to look like twins. So Tim wore a gray jacket over his brick-colored T-shirt and Joanne wore a blue jacket over hers as they approached the village and the welcoming crowd.

*

Over the years, Murungi had often spoken of secrets to Tim and Joanne. The year before, Joanne had reached a conclusion about Murungi and his secrets. She thought it had to do with his tenuous command of English.

“Take the secret of the porridge,” she said to Tim. “He means the recipe is complicated. It requires several steps, so Mrs. Murungi does this and this and this.”

Tim and Joanne had recently learned Mrs. Murungi’s first name. But Murungi and his wife preferred “Mrs. Murungi” or “Mama Mizengo,” because their son, Mizengo, was their first-born. Tim and Joanne observed the local custom, as they did with Murungi himself. Several years earlier, during a visit of two or three weeks to Wajuwatinga, Tim had made a practice of using Murungi’s first name because he’d started to feel close to him. But after noticing that the villagers always called him Murungi and recalling that he’d seemed surprised to hear Mkame, Tim went back to saying Murungi.

“He married a Meru woman partly because they know the steps in making porridge and the other foods he grew up eating,” Joanne continued. “But that’s a mouthful, so he talks about the secret of the porridge.”

Was the secret of the Diocese reducible to complexity, though? Tim and Joanne appreciated the tiny agricultural institute in Wajuwatinga almost as much as they appreciated Murungi’s management of their work in the village while they were in California nearly all year. The institute had dormitories and a cafeteria and three hours of electricity every night. This made life relatively comfortable for the volunteers they brought to work alongside the villagers to build schools and clean-water systems. But Wajuwatinga’s remoteness probably explained why the institute had struggled, ending its classes soon after Tim and Joanne had begun their work. Why had the Arusha Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church chosen this location twenty years before? Why did the Diocese maintain a staff that had failed to prevent the stealthy invasion of the institute’s borders by the bush?

Murungi had planted the institute’s original fruit trees, and dug and stocked its tilapia ponds. Now he would shake his head while strolling with Tim and Joanne past an unpruned tree or a dry pond.

“It is a secret of the Diocese. Maybe that boy has some small or big influence.”

“You practically built this place, Murungi,” Joanne said. “Won’t the Diocese tell you anything?”

Murungi put his hands up. His face assumed the expression of a man crossing a street who suddenly fears that the oncoming car won’t stop for him.

“The church is a place for me to pray to Jesus,” he said. “I want nothing to do with the business of the Diocese.”

There was no one in sight. Yet Murungi lowered his voice.

“I don’t trust the Diocese, and I don’t trust the new pastor.”

He lowered his voice even more.

“You are Christians.”

Tim had explained more than once that he was not religious. In a place where everyone was assumed to be a believer, it hadn’t registered.

“So I’m sorry to tell you that some Christian men are bad,” Murungi whispered. “But I think this new pastor can be bad.”

*

The boy that Murungi thought might have some influence was Martin Luther Murungi, the new manager of the agricultural institute. He was in his forties. Mkame Murungi called Martin his “prodigal son.” Martin had lived away from Wajuwatinga for a number of years until his recent return. Murungi didn’t know how Martin had occupied all of his time away. He’d thought it best not to ask.

When Tim and Joanne had first met Martin and been informed that he was Mkame Murungi’s second-born, they’d assumed that parental affection motivated Murungi to call him a boy. Then they noticed that Murungi also referred to Tim, who was Martin’s age, as a boy. Tim was still a boy. He wondered when Murungi would consider him an elder.

As the institute’s manager Martin had little to do, but much to say. On an afternoon when Murungi had detailed for Tim and Joanne the measures needed to revive the tilapia ponds, Martin spoke as he approached the three of them across the institute’s expansive and unruly lawn. He spoke with effort because he was out of breath.

“It’s not good to say these things so others can hear,” Murungi frowned.

“We are the only ones,” Martin replied as he looked around.

“You are loud,” Murungi said. “Wait until you are with us to speak.”

Martin’s story was that the village’s best furniture-maker, a man named Léoncé, had been hired by the Lutheran pastor to fashion some pews. But Léoncé had begged off. A certain old woman didn’t want Léoncé to perform this labor. Murungi and Martin knew everyone in the village, but nobody knew why the old woman had threatened Léoncé. What mattered was the adequacy of her power to enforce her wish.

Martin was taller than his father and twice his bulk. He bent toward the smaller man to hear what he had to say. He flapped the ends of his red and black Maasai robe, seeking ventilation on the warm afternoon. Murungi rolled his eyes. He’d told Tim and Joanne that Martin wore the robe only for wazungu—white people—because “they have never heard of the Meru, but they love the Maasai.”

Martin stopped flapping his robe. He used a hand to mop his brow.

“Do you have some question, Maasai?” Murungi said.

Murungi winked at Tim and Joanne.

“What is to be done, Murungi?” Martin asked.

“Maybe some small or big money paid to the witch,” Murungi said. “She is poor.”

“Would the pastor pay?” Joanne said.

Murungi removed his aviator sunglasses. He nudged the visor of his Cincinnati Reds cap upward. His outsized hands massaged his eyes.

“The pastor is new, so I don’t know that boy. Maybe he will say the church is rich compared to the witch, so the church can use this power to defeat her. But maybe he will say the witch has no power, so wait for the furniture-maker to see that the threat is only some small or big game.”

Martin straightened up.

“You can ask if he will pay, Maasai,” Murungi said.

Martin received his father’s teasing with equanimity. He rearranged the robe over his T-shirt and blue jeans.

“Don’t wear if you are warm,” Murungi said. “Now go.”

“Go?”

“Ask the pastor. The furniture-maker can finish in time if the witch is paid.”

It was Monday.

Martin didn’t go.

“Is there a problem, Maasai?” Murungi said. “I am your father. You can speak.”

“I don’t think the pastor will. . .”

“You can ask, he can say no.”

Murungi turned away from his son. Martin left. Murungi took a deep breath.

“The Gitahi boast that their witches know all the local plants,” Murungi said. “But maybe that elder will not use them to mix poison if the pastor will make her not poor.”

*

Tim and Joanne cared about rebuilding the village’s schools. They cared little about the pews in the Lutheran church. They received information about the pews passively; they didn’t seek it. Perhaps two days after learning of Léoncé’s fears, they heard that the new pastor had decided against paying off the witch. Perhaps another two or three days later—on Friday or Saturday—they heard the witch had died. Murungi explained that she had fallen some six meters from the bridge over the river that bisected the village. Falling that distance had been possible because during the dry season the water level dropped and the river became a trickle.

They walked with Murungi to the bridge. He led them a few meters downstream.

“There,” he pointed. “Caught by some branches.”

“I’m surprised there was enough water to carry her any distance,” Tim said.

“Not one meter deep,” Murungi said. “That is shallow, but what human being has a body with a depth of one meter?”

Tim and Joanne bowed their heads.

“During the rainy season the flow would have carried her far,” Murungi said. “She might have never been found.”

“You said she didn’t drown?” Joanne said.

“Her head was not in the water when she was found. She had bruises. Maybe the shock from many broken bones. . .”

Murungi cast his eyes skyward.

“God wished to take her,” he said.

They ascended the bank.

“Why did the villagers believe she was a witch?” Tim said.

“They say she once caused a man to die. But others say his heart was weak.”

They walked onto the bridge.

“There is now an argument,” Murungi said. “Some people say she was not a witch. They call her death a tragedy. Others call it a blessing.”

Joanne rested her arms on the railing.

“But everyone knows the fall was an accident,” she said.

She waited to see if Murungi would contradict her. He said nothing.

“Blocking construction of the pews seems trivial,” Tim added. “But if some people thought she’d caused a man to die and that she might cause more trouble in the future. . .”

Murungi stared at the water.

“We should look at Kabwe School,” he finally said. “It is the one next in need of improvement.”

*

A year later the crowd that greeted Tim and Joanne after their return journey to Wajuwatinga, ending with the two miles of dirt road lined by maize and pigeon pea plants, had dispersed. Small groups of villagers remained scattered around the grounds of the agricultural institute. The groups included teenagers dancing to bongo flava and reggae. The groups also included some elders gathered by a pond, impervious to its mosquitoes, in appreciation of the water’s cooling effect. They knew how much time to give themselves to walk home in order to arrive before dark.

Murungi’s absence from the welcoming crowd had surprised Tim and Joanne. When he finally appeared he was instantly recognizable in his pink fleece jacket with “Cindy” embroidered in rhinestones on the back. Africans called these donated items “dead white people’s clothes.” They assumed that living human beings would never give away such useful things. But Tim hoped that Cindy hadn’t died. Maybe she’d simply outgrown the childish jacket.

“He’s got a new baseball cap,” Tim said. “Yankees.”

Murungi’s liquid eyes hid behind his aviator sunglasses. His broad grin couldn’t disguise the fact that he looked to have aged five years since Tim and Joanne had last seen him. Decades before, an army medical examiner had written “173 cm” on a card he still carried, from when he was conscripted for the war against Idi Amin’s Uganda. Five feet, eight inches. Now he looked shorter.

“You look tired,” Joanne said.

“The work is hard,” Murungi answered.

“You worked today?” Tim said.

“Kabwe School is almost finished,” Murungi said.

“Thanks to you,” Joanne said. “Mrs. Murungi is well? And Mizengo and Martin?”

Murungi’s eyes opened wide.

“Chiza didn’t tell you?” he said.

Abraham Chiza was the Americans’ liaison to the villagers from his middle-class home in Babati, where he had access to e-mail and a choice of two different vehicles for the drive to Wajuwatinga. He was useful for obtaining blueprints and budgets from builders and for informing Tim and Joanne of the need for construction funds and then receiving their money wires.

“Martin has died,” Murungi said.

He shook his head.

“I have done this,” he said. “God has punished me.”

Tim and Joanne looked at each other.

“Why would God punish you?” Tim said.

“Do you think this good work that we do for the village is all God sees?” Murungi said. “God sees everything.”

He forced a smile.

“Let us pass this way,” he said, gesturing with his arms.

“What’s over there?” Joanne said.

“You must see Kabwe School,” he said. “Come. Before it’s dark.”

Two hundred miles below the equator, night would descend suddenly, like a curtain onto a stage. They wouldn’t reach Kabwe School before dark. They would need to walk slowly because of the creases and potholes in the road.

“I ask the doctor how can it happen so fast,” Murungi said. “He said the cancer is very bad. ‘Cancer!’ I said. ‘Not a stomach ache?’ I thought that boy had a stomach ache. But nothing can be done about cancer.”

“What kind was it?” Tim said.

Murungi stopped walking.

“What do you mean?” he said.

They walked for a little while in silence.

“For one, maybe two weeks before he would say, ‘Father, in my stomach the pain is bad. Can you tell me who is the best person to ask for some piomba?’”

Piomba was the bitter beer that the Gitahi made from a local root vegetable.

“I told him that piomba is not a good thing, can you just take some aspirin and pray? But I think the pain was too bad for aspirin. He went on the bus to Babati and came back with whisky. But I think he drinks too much.”

Tim and Joanne were silent.

“It is God’s punishment,” he said. “I am the one who said to ask the pastor if he will pay the witch. The pastor will not pay—you remember—but maybe he has another idea.”

His voice trailed off.

“I know that my son never liked to work hard,” Murungi said. “Yet he has a good job with the institute, I don’t know why when there are men who will work harder. Maybe because he will agree to do things. . .”

Tim and Joanne wondered how far their questions ought to go.

“What did Martin say to you about the witch?” Joanne asked. “Or about what the pastor wanted him to do?”

“The pastor wanted new pews,” Murungi said. “He has them, but I will sit only in the old ones.”

Murungi looked straight ahead as they walked.

“Mr. Tim, Miss Joanne: I try not to think about this, to think only about the work. Most of the time I’m fine. I tell Mrs. Murungi what can you do? This is God’s way. And to remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return, is a great consolation. But we can’t help to feel sadness anyway. We are weak.”

Tim and Joanne each put a hand on his shoulder.

Some daylight remained. Kabwe School’s silhouette came into view. The village center, bustling during the day, was deserted. The shops had closed but there was electricity here. The electric lights of the houses in the town center had been switched on.

“Are you happy?” Murungi said.

Tim tried to think about the school.

Joanne took his hand. She wouldn’t have done that in daylight.

“This is what you have done for the children,” Murungi said.

“And what you have done, Mr. Murungi,” Joanne said, taking his arm.

They could see some of the improvements. The gray of the rebuilt and still-unpainted concrete walls was lighter than the coats of red dirt that had accumulated year after year on the old walls. The moonlight produced a glint on the windows where before there had been gaping holes.

“And concrete floors,” Joanne said. “Could you unlock one of the classrooms?”

They heard the keys as Murungi searched his pockets.

“And stairs,” he said. “Now the rain cannot bring mud under the door.”

They went inside. They stomped on the concrete.

“Mr. Murungi,” Joanne said, “you’ll sleep at the institute tonight?”

“Yes, too far to walk home. I already tell Mrs. Murungi.”

Suddenly, Tim was exhausted.

“Mr. Murungi,” he said, “from California we’ve been traveling for thirty...”

He was too tired to add up the hours.

“We should go back,” he said.

“But I have one more thing to show, Mr. Tim.”

“We’ll come back after breakfast, Mr. Murungi,” Tim said. “I promise.”

They heard a high-pitched hum. Then the classroom was illuminated as if by lightning. The room went dark, there was another lightning flash, then darkness again. Finally, the light from two fluorescent tubes suspended beneath the rafters came on and stayed on. They squinted. Joanne covered her eyes.

“It’s too bright?” Murungi said.

“It’s not because of the light,” she said.

Murungi was embarrassed.

“Now the children can read on the darkest days,” he said.

Wajuwatinga’s winter days were often overcast.

“This is a thing to be happy about, Miss Joanne,” Murungi said.

But she embarrassed him again, this time with her inability to speak.

“Look,” he said as he turned away from her. “A blackboard.”

He pointed to the words written there. He used his sleeve to wipe them away.

“You can erase like that,” he said.

In an uncertain voice, Joanne spoke the sentence that Murungi had made disappear:

“English is a beautiful and important language.”

“Before, just black paint where a blackboard can be,” Murungi said.

“We should write that Swahili is a beautiful and important language,” Tim said.

Murungi didn’t reply.

“My children, Mizengo and Martin, never have a blackboard,” he said.

Joanne started to write: Kiswahili ni lugha nzuri na

“Important. . .” she said.

Murungi’s back was to Tim and Joanne.

“How do you say ‘important,’ Mr. Murungi?” Tim said.

“Martin said, ‘Father: the school will have a true blackboard? It’s not a joke?’”

Murungi brushed the sleeve he’d used on the blackboard across his face.

“You asked a question?” he said, turning around.

“Are you all right, Mr. Murungi?” Joanne said.

He looked at the blackboard.

“Some little dust in my eyes from the chalk,” he said. “There’s no problem.”

Don Stoll's fiction is appearing this year or next, or appeared last year, in Green Hills, Literary Lantern, Xavier Review, The Main Street Rag, Wild Violet, Between These Shores, Close to the Bone, Yellow Mama, Frontier Tales, Dark Dossier, The Helix, Sarasvati Eclectica, Erotic Review, Cliterature, Down in the Dirt, and Children, Churches, and Daddies. He works at Idyllwild Arts Academy, in California.


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