Manigua (Swahili novel) by Carlos Ríos is an ethnography of disaster. The set time and place, ostensibly present-day Kenya, fissures with each natural disaster or armed conflict. The main plot is simple, Apollo, the narrator, travels to a coastal town seeking a cow to sacrifice for his thousandth brother’s birth. One subplot is that the journey is retold to said brother on his deathbed, another is that it is rendered in carbon drawings by the hospital nurse, and the last is that it is filmed by a British anthropologist. The principal narrative is shown as a construct by the three subplots which indicate how it could be told otherwise, through oral storytelling, drawing, and film. The following translated excerpt from the novel follows Apollo from the beginning of his journey to his first encounter with catastrophe.
At the request of his father, Apollo left the refuge committed to return with a cow to be sacrificed on the birth of his thousandth brother. He asked the elders where he could find a cow. They did not know. The sandal the Kamba seer threw generated even more uncertainty. Far from clarifying the panorama, the prediction method was eclipsed by the nameless sinister thing. If he failed to fulfill the request, said the father, the clan would tie him to a pole and there he would remain, at the mercy of the kikuyus and the carrion eating birds, until the arrival of someone willing to find a cow for him to settle the commitment.
Apollo had a lapse of three-weeks to come across the sacred animal. He found a gold paper on the road that at a glance seemed like a voucher. It was a ticket to the coastal province. He walked to the station and waited there for two days, until the vehicle appeared, loaded with people to the ceiling. He asked if someone had seen a cow. No one answered. A boy showed him the drawing of an elephant and Apollo asked himself if another animal could be sacrificed. A dog would have been easier but since the displacement of the clans all the medium animals died at the hands of cooks. According to the ticket, a seat had been assigned to the buyer, whose name appeared beside the sum corresponding to a one-way trip to the capital. In order for them to let him on, Apollo lied about his identity. The place he had been assigned was occupied by a half-naked woman with closed eyes. Apollo stretched an arm to wake her and share the seat.
On the bus, a boy ate insects from an aluminum can. Apollo stared at him with his mouth agape. He had not seen young men other than his brothers for months. My father’s sons, he would answer when someone asked who the boys searching for something to eat were. And if they pointed out the women, Apollo said: my father’s wives. He laid his head on the legs of the girl that occupied his seat and fell asleep. In the future, he would recount his dream to one of his brothers, the sickest one. I searched for my mother among the women of the clan. Which had been my real mother? I needed to tell her a secret that would change our lives from that day on and forever. I never found that woman. I kept the secret in my head the way someone folds a paper in four. With time, I forgot that thing of such importance which I had to tell her.
After 5 hours of travel, Apollo told his sick brother many years later, the man seated beside the sleeping woman died of thirst. The body was removed, I took his place. When the woman awoke, she mistook me for the deceased man. Meanwhile the bus advanced at the pace of a turtle treading on bones, remainders of cities and deposits of rubble. They touched on topics Apollo had never approached in his life. She said to me: The important thing is to adjust our fidelity to the clan with the utmost rigor. And then? I asked. Renounce all hope for success. Strive to be like everyone else even if we are condemned to inequality. Kilometers further, Apollo wanted to see the desert illuminated by the moon. I wanted to see the desert. I asked her to switch seats. She refused under the pretext that sitting by the aisle made her nauseous.
Where did the hate for his father originate? He was not sure. Maybe in the way he arched his eyebrows, hurled his spear, or raised his voice to order. At what moment had his father hidden which of the women of the clan was his mother? Or had his mother died? Apollo believed that his father avoided referring to his mother because that woman had been important to him. Deep down, Apollo said to the woman on the bus, he did it to protect me. So I would not become a weak specimen. And what birthed the hatred that made Apollo pulverize bricks by looking at them? It took Apollo ten days to realize. It took me ten days. At the sight of the boy that devoured insects from an aluminum can, I remembered that our father had shamed me for my table manners in public. That day they welcomed one of my brothers by sacrificing a cow. Not you, Apollo clarified to his dying brother. In front of all the active members of the clan, our father interposed a hand between the food and my mouth. And said these words: Never lean towards food. It is what animals and submissive men do.
Something hit the carcass of the vehicle. The driver made everyone get off. He took out picks and shovels for the sixty passengers. He distributed tools instructing: dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig. He pushed the bus back and everyone saw a smooth white rock in the middle of the road. Apollo switched his pick for the shovel of the woman that occupied his seat. I explained she would work less that way. It did not matter to her. Since childhood, she had dedicated herself to agriculture in her clan. Still, accepted the gesture with a smile. Years later, Apollo told his sick brother that they started to dig around the smooth white stone. A stone as white and smooth as skin, I said to him. When the pit reached the men’s waists, they waited until nightfall to resume the task, otherwise, they would die of thirst. If you do not hurry you will all miss the bus, threatened the driver. Why do we dig? Asked the woman. It is a fossil, said the man. We will take it to the city. I will sell it. The money I receive will allow us to continue traveling. What is it? A stone? No, it is the head of a giant rat. Dig, dig, dig, said the driver, otherwise, I will abandon you in the desert. We were many, but no one dared attack him. He said to a pregnant woman: dig, dig, dig. If you do not dig, your son will not survive the heat of the desert. It took us two days to remove all the soil adhered to the bones with knives and forks. The rain facilitated our task, said Apollo. The sixty passengers cleared the roof of the bus and mounted the skull of the rodent with ropes and sticks.
Why do you travel? Asked the woman. I explained I had three weeks to find a cow. The sacrifice. Father’s threat. My brother’s impending birth. She said cows filled the city. Knew of a meat processing plant. Would accompany Apollo for one hundred shillings. I only have forty, I responded. She would only give him an address in exchange. I accepted her conditions. If all the cows were in the city, coming across one would be easy. And what do you do? Asked Apollo. The woman said: I work in demolition. I demolish houses with the mason. Another group is in charge of construction. The families go from one house to another. The neighborhoods move further from the marginal zones of the city. We are all women. Many. Running into each other on the street all day. Going from here to there. My sisters install windows, create access to water, fix hoses, prune trees. I write a manual about how to use a house, because there are members of the clan that do not know what a faucet is. We must teach them to use the bathroom, the water, the toilet. Cleanliness in the kitchen. Maintenance. Administration of energy resources. I looked at her. She noticed the surprise in my expression. It seems stupid, she said, but there are people that do not know. She never knew I did not know how to use a house at that time, Apollo confessed to his sick brother.
Why is there a swamp in the desert? The woman shouted. In place of the Elmentaita lagoon. No one answered her. In their desperation to leave, the passengers started to beat each other. Apollo told his brother: It was a curse. Our father mentioned a hole in the earth, a week before my departure. Remember? No, said my brother. He had not been born. The driver asked for order while the bus sunk like a boat. The windows shattered in our faces. I climbed a mountain of backs and arms. Apollo pulled on the woman until she emerged. I tore that woman from the earth’s womb. Only fifteen passengers made it out. The skull of the rat was left looking up at the sky, imploring for the bodies that flogged each other below to attain some air. When the cries of the ones that remained trapped were extinguished, the ringing of their cellphones remained audible under the mud.
Translated excerpt, pages 16–22, from Manigua by Carlos Ríos (Buenos Aires: Editorial Entropía, 2009).