The Late Chief M.

by JKS Makokha  (Kenya)

pentru versiunea română click aici  

edited by Robert Fenhagen

Call him Mister Matchstick, or, Chief Matchstick, for that was his official title, or, better still, Chief M. Although it had been eleven years, since we last worked together, I remember him, oh, yes, I certainly do remember him. I had been employed to assist their consensus efforts, which was run by the National Population and Housing Commission (NPHC), which had been diligently counting heads and homes since the British (Colonial Government), faced by a war of independence, thought it wise to have an accurate count of exactly how many heads and homes there were under their tenuous grasp. 

It had been rumored that ‘matchstick’ was a nick-name given to him after converting to Hinduism, while serving with the King’s African Rifles in Burma during World War Two.  Like some many ex-military people, he found his way to civil service, and a finer civil servant there never was.

    Chief M’s and my experiences in ____, always remembering that Colony K was no run- of- the- mill area; it was a Crown colony.  Some people living in abject poverty might not know the difference, but Chief M and I did—we were census takers, and we knew numbers—rich or poor.

As we all, or, at least some of us, know, the natives did revolt, and the British eventually won that long and dirty war in 1958, but in spite of that hard won victory, the colony was finally lost in the winter of 1963.  The British lost, but consensus-taking endured, and one year, it was conducted with my help. Afterwards, an exhausted, Chief M. quipped:

“The results are still in the kitchen; they aren’t cooked yet.”  Chief M. possessed a wry sense of humor.

Back then, Chief M. and I had roamed narrow village paths, visiting huts and homes, all of which fell under his dominion—one hundred and forty-four domiciles of one sort or another.

We began with none, but the odd ‘off’ occurrence, such as the banner that met us as we entered one village, bedraggled, but reading:  Nowadays To Die Is Easy.  Ask Me How.”.   This was written with ash and donkey dung.

This startling proclamation and offer of further information had apparently been placed by a normally docile man, but was one of those, who vehemently distrusted and despised any sort of government inquiry.–census taking being one of those.

Chief M. was long-serving, a trusted public servant, and stood for a moment looking at the unusually vehement banner, banged his twisted walking stick on the hard-packed dirt of the path that had led us to the village, sniffed once, and walked on with me bringing up the rear. I was carrying two large bundles of pencils, so was a vital part of our operation, but as he was the chief, had a walking stick, and cancer, so I fell in behind him.

One interruption came when a village  woman had given birth to quadruplets and wanted us to count them all  in case one or two of them perished before the census was finished for that year, and she had sent a powerful emissary to plea her case– the village witchdoctor.

After talking it over, we agreed to their requests, although it was not part of the plan for the night–counting newborns.    I was holding one of our flashlights up so that the  Chief and the witchdoctor could come to an agreement, and I ended up holding one of the little ones, who vomited on me—another village inhabitant, who didn’t care for us.

Why the chief insisted on traveling and collecting information both day and night, I have no idea, but he did, and so I did.  It was as if he felt he was running out of time, and needed to complete his duty. I felt badly for my cancer-stricken boss, so followed without argument.

    As a further proof of his leniency, along with babies, we began counting recent grave markers, and included them. This had been suggested by witchdoctor from the other village and one does not go against a witchdoctor’s suggestions too freely.  He had presented each of us with a feather as we departed as a sign of understanding. 

We slogged along, my over-sized gumboots heavy with black mud, which stuck like a demon to their soles, but we went on, and eventually arrived at another village, this one very late at night.

Soon, the exhausted Chief began the now familiar introduction ritual strictly taught to him by our pre-Census preparatory workshop facilitator. 

    Chief M. stood at military attention, as did I behind him,  cleared his cancerous throat six times, and in his croaky, alto voice announced the arrival of His Excellency, and the Junior Officer of the Government. of the National Housing and Population Census Exercise to the inhabitants of homestead Number 119 of Village G, Sub-location 55, of Location 715, of Division A/715, of District T/A/715, of Province W of the Republic of K, East Africa, Africa, Earth to gather their information.  Please come out.”  He was so exhausted by saying all of this that by the time he reached the words ‘come out’, he almost passed out. He did this preamble using a microphone powered by a jeep battery that he carried in a canvas rucksack on his frail and bent back and he always managed to hum the first stanza of the national anthem as we stood waiting for a member of the homestead to tie or lock up animals or calm offended spirits.

I felt as if unseen eyes were glowering at us, some felt human, others felt of unknown origin, shall we say.  They seemed to come from near the house in front of us– it was hard to tell because it was so dark but   a few of the malevolent looks might have come  from livestock, but I don’t want to think of where the others might have emanated and  I was very nervous; the Chief remained unfazed.  No one or nothing came forth– there was silence and more silence.   Finally, the head of the homestead (lets call him Mister ‘Y’ came out from somewhere armed with his bone-bladed scimitar, a shield made of stitched corn cobs, and a miner’s helmet, complete with  a working light.  His naked body was barely covered with torn pants, which were decorated with the colors of our flag.  At least, this was encouraging.

    He proceeded with a war dance, stabbing right and left in the air and yodeling in an archaic form of our language, which sounded something like:

“Horeeeeaa, hai! Horrrraaaeee, hia!” This was loudly repeated six or seven times, and Chief M. whispered to me that I should dare not run away;   his whisper was perfectly timed

    We stood our ground, and then Mister ‘Y’ jumped gracefully over his gate of sisal poles and stood in front of us floating in the air a meter off of the ground!  The silence was deafening.

At some  point, I found my voice and kindly asked the floating Mister ‘Y’ if we could conduct our government business, and  after Chief M.  apologized for coming to his home unexpectedly, we continued our talk; one of the floating man’s assistants came forward and offered Chief M. a pipe full of marijuana, which the Chief accepted.  It was later that I learned of the medicinal uses of cannabis—particularly for cancer.

 The chief stood there more relaxed than I’d ever seen him,  smoking his marijuana from a wooden pipe and soon  ignoring the grumpy  Mister ‘Y’, who, again, had apparently been wholly unprepared for visitors, and it is anyone’s guess as to what we might have interrupted.

From our vantage point below him, we suspected Mister ‘Y’ might also be a hermaphrodite.  I leave the reasons for our suspicions to you. After a while, he eventually floated down to earth, and came close to me–again, I did not flee.   He was holding something, and pried opened the toes of the severed albino’s foot   he previously had kept   in his war pouch, which resembled a leathered scrotum from someone suffering from elephantitus, and invited me to smell, so I leaned over and did as was told.  He looked into my bespeckled eyes, with one raised eyebrow. We understood each other His grotesque war pouch smelled of some alien plant without a name– one normally be used in secret rites.  Ugh.

 I understood “Y’s antics and urged the chief to depart for the night as I was ready to pop.  It was the one time that I put my foot down.  I tried to convince my boss that we should return at a later time.

“We should come back tomorrow night or on a day specially set aside for his homestead,” I whispered, finally raising my voice and hissed:

Chief?  Cheeeeef!

 Silence.

  
 

Chief Matchstick finally returned from his ganja reverie, recognizing my presence, and exclaimed that I had counted this latest homestead fast and efficiently, and we are done.

“Remind me, young man, to include a paragraph on your persuasive skills in my letter of recommendation that I will gladly provide any time that you need one.” He said this with a lop-sided, slightly goofy smile. 

We left the village, with me having a new and respectful appreciation of my protective gum-boots.

Upon hearing of his demise from so many miles away in Berlin, I remember him now, so many miles from Location N. In my memory, his eyes still bear that controlled, yet lost look that they did on that night. R.I.P., dear colleague.  I wonder, with a name like ‘Matchstick’, if he might have been cremated in the Hindi tradition.

No matter; wherever you are, Chief, greetings from Earth, and rest in peace.

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