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The Lion’s Tears

By Ken N. Kamoche (Kenya)


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Nobody noticed them steal out of the dormitory. Everyone was preoccupied with their own activities. Some boys played cards, others played draughts with bottle tops on cardboards, but most just chatted and told jokes. There was not much else for them to do after dinner. The Reformatory Home was new, and the main priority was to rescue homeless boys from the streets. Finding things for twelve year olds to do in the evening would be gradually worked out, as Teacher Joshua kept reminding anyone who asked.

‘Wait here,’ said Timothy, rushing back into the dormitory.

Minutes later, he reappeared, a timid-looking Kasala by his side. Mbatu glared at them in the semi-darkness. ‘Where is he going? You know he can’t …’

‘Quiet. I'll explain later.’

‘No, I want to know now,’ said Mbatu. ‘Are you forcing him?’

‘He wants to come but he's not sure, so ...’

‘Ah! So you’re his teacher now, eh? Kasala, do you want to go to Mama Mboga's or not?’

Kasala hesitated, glancing at both Mbatu and Timothy as if wondering which one to trust.

‘Hey! Talk!’

‘I ... I'm not going to drink anything. I'll just come and see.’

‘It’s alright, Kasala. Timothy won’t force you to do anything.’

‘So I can come?’

With a puzzled expression, Timothy turned to Kasala. But Kasala was already walking towards the secret escape route behind the storerooms. A few minutes earlier, Mbatu had checked that the security guard was fast asleep at the main gate. At the fence, they parted the barbed wire and glided away into the shadows. In the distance the lights of Nairobi city sparkled and enticed, reminding the boys how they once ended up there.

They trooped down a disused footpath on the other side of the fence, every so often casting a wary glance over the shoulder. The darkness was like a thick, black fog. The boys could barely see where they were going. There wasn't a soul in sight, and the only noise was that of maize plants rustling in the light wind. The abrupt hooting of an owl sent a chill down three spines. The boys came to a momentary stop and then moved on, groping through the darkness with their hands as though to ward off an unseen enemy. Only Timothy dared laugh at their fright. The moon was playing hide and seek, one minute sneaking behind the clouds and winking from the corners, and the next moment emerging as though to sneer at the three silhouettes scuttling away from the safety of the Home into the unknown. A few stars winked as though conniving in the boys’ mischief.

Kasala’s teeth clattered and his eyes bulged out to see the danger he believed lay ahead. He glanced back hopefully, but there was nothing to see there. He would never be able to find his way back by himself. This was the farthest he had ever ventured from the Home. A small voice told him he was letting Teacher Joshua down. But he convinced himself he had been coerced into going on this adventure. If Teacher found out, he would say it was Timothy’s fault.

Yet a part of him was anxious to see what it was the others went to do at the slums on the outskirts of Nairobi. What was this chang’aa drink they kept talking about which was made from the tears of lions? Or this glue they sniffed which sent you flying to heaven? When he lived on the streets he stayed out of trouble and kept himself busy begging. When others talked of going ‘flying’ he turned and walked the other way.

‘Okay, Timothy,’ said Mbatu, breaking the long silence. ‘Tell me how you persuaded Kasala to come out.’

‘Easy. I said I would tell rumours. That he claims he slept with that girl in the kitchen.’

‘That's not fair.’

‘Fair! You think our life is fair? Living in this stupid, boring Home, and we can’t have the freedom we had in the streets. We can’t even go look for our families …’

‘Your family?’ muttered Kasala. ‘Look for them? You left them yourself!’

‘Don’t say that! You think I don’t want to see my mother?’

‘So why did you leave her?’

‘You can’t ask me that, Kasala! I was small, I don’t know, I can’t remember!’

‘And why just your mother?’ said Kasala, ‘why not your father, your brothers and sisters?’

‘Hey, leave me alone!’

‘Stop that,’ said Mbatu. ‘Can we just go and have some fun?’

Timothy cursed and spat into the darkness.

They arrived at the slum area of Korogocho and started to make their way through the narrow alleyways. The slum district was illuminated by a reluctant moon and dim points of light along the streets which came from hurricane lamps and charcoal cooking stoves. Dogs barked, children with distended stomachs played on the streets, squeling and chasing each other through the narrow alleys that separated the hovels. Babies cried and adults argued. A woman was singing a hymn, but it sounded like a dirge, her voice rising and fading, then breaking, as though cowering with fear under the tyranny of the wind. The smell of maizemeal ugali filled the air.

In the semi-darkness the boys saw rows of wooden huts stacked up against each other as if to lend each other the strength to stand on the uneven ground. The only other people in the streets were drunks who staggered, cursed, sang about their cows and goats and keeled over to vomit on the nearest mud or cardboard wall.

A man in a thread-bare coat tottered towards the boys, blocking their way. He staggered this way and that, then steadied himself against a wall. A dog walked up to him, sniffed at him and then started to piss on his legs. The man cursed and swang his leg to kick the dog. But he lost his balance and fell to the ground, blocking the boys’ way and vomiting in rhythmic spasms that rocked him so vigorously the boys thought he was going to die. Mbatu and Timothy squeezed their way past the trembling body.

Kasala stood still, as though paralyzed. He wanted to call out to his friends to wait for him but he couldn’t find his voice. Mbatu walked back and reached a hand out to him. Kasala grabbed it and quickly hopped over the man who was already snoring. Kasala raced to catch up with Timothy who was laughing at him, and aimed a punch in his ribs. Timothy ducked and Kasala went crashing into a wall. Someone inside fired off a volley of insults.

Kasala gazed at the huts, wondering how they managed not to collapse. But the huts appeared to have an indestructible will to hang on to the ground. The City Council often razed them to the ground, hoping to clean up the city and get rid of illegal squaters. But as soon as the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the slums germinated and a busy, robust community grew like weeds in the rainy season.

They three boys stopped in front of a green door and Mbatu led the way in, after a perfunctory knock on the door. The hut was surprisingly clean inside, and it was a relief to get away from the smells outside.

A warm fire burned in the middle of the room and a paraffin lantern on a small table in a corner provided just enough light. A heavily-built woman sat on a low gaturua stool. Her eyes seemed to glow in the dim light. She greeted the boys and studied their faces, her eyes lingering on each timid face as though she was examining some rare ingredients for a special brew. She went to the door, peeped outside and waved them to the single bed before resuming her seat.

Mbatu and Timothy did not need prompting. They fished into their pockets and put their money together. It had taken a long time to save fifteen shillings from their share of the sale of the vegetables and flowers they grew in the Home. Still, no words were uttered, but everybody seemed to know what to do. Kasala watched the ritual with fascination, as if it was a silent film.

The woman reminded Timothy of his own mother, who also used to sell chang'aa, or machozi ya simba, the lion’s tears, to raise the family. Every time he saw Mama Mboga, he was transported back to a life that had, over the years, gradually wafted away, like a mist at the break of dawn. He was only four when he left the slum in another part of the city, attracted to the city streets by the bright lights, the tall buildings and the promise of coins scattering like birds’ droppings into little eager hands.

Mama Mboga took the money and wrapped it in a dark blue handkerchief, which she inserted in the cleavage of her bosom. Then she rummaged under the bed and pulled out a jerry can and some empty aluminum cans which served as cups. Kasala's earlier sense of trepidation began to assail him again. When Mama Mboga handed him a can he accepted it with such a sense of resignation that she was tempted to snatch it back and sell it to someone who appreciated the taste and potency of Lion’s Tears.

‘You have been here before,’ said Mama Mboga, remembering Mbatu’s unsmiling face.

‘A long time ago,’ said Timothy.

‘You are so young.’

‘But old enough to drink this stuff!’ said Timothy, laughing. ‘Like men.’

Mama Mboga chuckled. ‘Men indeed. Yes, like men. But where are the real men in this land? Everyone's drinking it. How else can people like us eat? You’re so young. It seems wrong. But if you can handle it, and you have the money … And if I don't sell it to you, you'll get it at my neighbour’s. You chose me, and that’s my blessing.’

‘Don't worry about us,’ said Mbatu. ‘We can take care of ourselves.’

‘Of course we can,’ added Timothy. ‘The problem is money. Expensive, you see.’

‘Not just for you, my children. The way things are, you would think the end of the world was near. I ask you, what is this poverty that came upon us? Where did all this suffering come from, eh? This government! Only God can help us now.’ She paused and laughed, a loud, hollow laugh that made Kasala shiver. Then she went quiet and her chin dropped into her chest, as though she was embarrassed by her outburst.

The boys sipped their drinks in silence. Timothy looked at Mama Mboga and saw his mother. He saw the pain etched on her face, and longed to see the face break into a smile. But Mama Mboga’s face was just like his mother’s, stubbornly unsmiling.

‘Before it was just one party, that Kanu,’ Mama Mboga went on. She spoke as though to herself, oblivious of her young audience. ‘Kanu was our father and mother, we were constantly told. These politicians! The father who gave his son a stone when he asked for bread. A snake when he asked for fish. I would rather my father gave me chang’aa to drink and forget my sorrows. Now they say there are other parties. They’re calling it democracia. It sounds like a disease to me. This government! Tell me, who left this curse of poverty upon our heads?’

‘That's very sad,’ said Mbatu, after glancing about him to see if the others wanted to respond. He could not imagine the hut without the sadness which seemed as real as the hard sisal mattress they were seating on or the fire that cast dancing shadows on the walls.

‘Yes, very sad,’ echoed Timothy, recalling his mother’s constant moaning about the problems of bringing up six children on her own. His father was hardly ever there. And when he came home late in the evening, all he wanted to do was drink her Lion’s Tears. His mother asked him to support his children or pay for the drink. He yelled at her and beat her up, before turning to the children.

Mama Mboga was not listening. Her gaze was fixed on the fire.

Kasala had hardly touched his drink. The few sips he had already taken had persuaded him that neither Teacher Joshua nor heaven would forgive him. The cackling fire mocked him, reminding him that he would forever burn in hell for his sins. The taste of the Lion’s Tears set his tongue on fire, but he summoned enough courage to swallow the hot fluid. He choked and almost screamed as it burned his throat but immediately relaxed when it warmed his stomach and made his head feel light, as if a weight had been lifted off it.

Kasala noted with envy how Mbatu and Timothy seemed completely at ease. He studied their faces to understand how they could possibly enjoy drinking the Lion’s Tears. To him it was like torture.

The noisy rumble of a drunk man made everyone look up. There was a knock on the door, followed by a gruff, unsteady voice: ‘Mama Mboga! Mama Mboga, are you in, woman?’

‘Come in, Baba Nimu.’

A shadowy figure appeared, completely covering the narrow doorway. Mama Mboga indicated a stool near the door. But the man ignored her. Staggering in and cursing, he slumped onto the bed, just next to Kasala. Kasala winced and held his breath. He glanced at his friends and saw Mbatu staring blankly into his Lion’s Tears as though he expected some revelation from the colourless liquor.

Timothy glanced about him, the way the boys at the Home did when an argument started to get out of hand and they looked forward to a good fight. He watched the man closely, saw the wrinkles on the face, the unkempt beard, the graying hair. The broken nails had turned an ugly gray-brown. In his mind’s eye he saw the sinewy hand curled around a tin cup. Teary eyes peered at him over the cup. When he asked his father what he was drinking, the man gulped down the fiery liquid and threw the tin cup at him, leaving a deep cut above the left eye. The memory faded. It was too long ago. Nothing was clear.

‘Ai! Baba Nimu,’ said Mama Mboga, ‘the world is really coming to an end.’

‘Ag! Nonsense! What world! Your world - hic - Mama Mboga, not mine! Not mine, if I'm - hic - the father of Nimu. Hey!’ He let out a stream of coarse invectives, waving a hand above his head, slumped across the bed and soon started to snore.

Kasala’s neck was buried in his shoulders, like a chicken watching a hawk gliding back and forth across the barn. Mama Mboga shifted her gaze from the snoring man slumped in a foetal position to the fire which had begun to die down. She looked into the fire and recalled the fires that occasionally wiped out the whole slum village. The fire burned with a determined fury for a minute, then the yellow and orange flames grew shorter. The dancing shadows they cast on the walls went still, as though exhausted by their dance. A twig cracked once with a sound that was surprisingly loud in the quiet room. A yellow flame made a desperate leap, rose three inches and then disappeared into the gray ashes. There was nothing left of the fire but a dull, red glow.

Mama Mboga reached out to rekindle the fire, then changed her mind and snatched her hand away. The expression on her face was that of someone watching the end of her own life. Her heart beat faster as she recalled the fire in the slum. The smoke and heat woke her up. Children were screaming with terror. The whole village was crying for help. The air was filled with smoke, the smell of burning timber, and the burning flesh of the young ones trapped in their slumber. The next day the property developers sent their bulldozers to clear the site, under the watchful gaze of City Council guards.

Timothy finished his drink, and shot a glance at Kasala who continued to grimace every time he took a tentative sip, like a child taking medicine. Timothy couldn’t wait to get away from Baba Nimu’s loud snores, but as his mind got lighter, he visualized his father lying on the dirt floor, telling tales of cows and goats he believed he owned. Then he and his siblings heard the tales of the great war, the one their father called the struggle for freedom. Even as Timothy marveled at the achievements of the freedom fighters, the struggle for freedom always paled in comparison with his father’s struggle to rise from the floor onto the threadbare mattress on a rickety bed. He studied the man’s long fingers, and saw them reaching out to slap his face. Too long ago. He was too small. It was another slum. But homes were destroyed. People moved on. Like nomads. Children ran to the streets. Men abandoned their families. Women sold chang’aa. And their bodies.

‘I'll finish this for you,’ said Mbatu, reaching for Kasala's drink. Kasala yielded with a sigh of relief. Mbatu took two gulps and passed it on to Timothy.

‘Mama Mboga,’ said Baba Nimu, waking up with a start. ‘Have they come today?’ He tried to sit up but ended up collapsing on Kasala who screamed and then covered his mouth in shame.

‘Last week. They took everything.’

‘Poured away?’

‘Every little drop. It made a river. A large river, like all the lions of the world crying. They don't understand it is our life.’

She paused, realizing the man had fallen asleep again.

Even in the semi-darkness, the boys could not fail to see the points of light in her wide-open eyes.

‘Mama Mboga,’ Baba Nimu called out, ‘I'm thirsty!’

‘Not on credit again, Baba Nimu. I have to make a living.’

‘Ag! You'll get your- hic - money tomorrow, woman.’

‘That's what you always say. And now you owe me a hundred shillings.’

Baba Nimu laughed and swallowed hard. He searched one pocket after another. They all watched him as though he was a street entertainer, anxious not to miss his next trick. Mama Mboga breathed a sigh of relief when he extracted a crumpled twenty shilling note from his shirt pocket and thrust it into her hands. Timothy smiled to himself.

‘I told you! I told you I pay for my drink!’

‘Thank you.’ Mama Mboga fetched under the bed for the jerry can.

Baba Nimu’s grin showed cigarette-stained brown teeth. He looked down at the boys and asked who they were. The boys introduced themselves. Baba Nimu furrowed his brow and studied Timothy’s face intensely.

‘How old are you, boy?’

‘Twelve, I guess.’ They gazed into each other’s eyes. Baba Nimu scratched his head and pursed his lips. He turned to look at the dying embers and held his can of Lion’s Tears so tightly the bones seemed about to break through the dry wrinkled skin.

‘Twelve, eh? Mmh.’

He fished out a half-smoked cigarette from a breast pocket, then bent down to pick up an ember from the fire. But he lost his balance and his body slumped forward. His Lion’s Tears went flying into the fire, causing the dying embers to sputter into life. Everyone gasped and instinctively reached out to save him. Timothy and Mbatu got to him first, but the brown jacket brushed against the fire and started to burn. Mama Mboga snatched a bowl from a side table, dipped it into a barrel of water and doused the burning jacket. The two boys held Baba Nimu between them to stop him falling again.

Baba Nimu’s eyes were like those of a man who had narrowly missed being hit by a bus. He scanned the faces of the two boys and shook his head. He kept muttering ‘Twelve years! Twelve years! Such a long time.’ Then he started to cry. The sobs rocked his body like epileptic spasms. Timothy stared into the dying fire, struggling hard not to blink and fighting the tears that were forming in his eyes.

Without warning, Baba Nimu lurched forward and vomited in the fireplace. Timothy and Mbatu still held his arms. Mama Mboga poured herself a cup of Lion’s Tears. She shifted her gaze from Timothy to Baba Nimu, and her face started to break into a smile. Her face was like the calm, smooth surface of the earth after the floods had gone, washing the litter and garbage away. Mbatu saw the smile and followed her eyes. And then he too noticed the resemblance. He nodded to himself and stared unseeing at the red embers and the blue smoke that rose slowly to the rafters on which Mama Mboga kept her firewood and often hid jerries of Lion’s Tears.

Timothy looked up to see Kasala standing at the door. He swallowed hard. Then he took out his handkerchief and wiped Baba Nimu’s face. When he got up to leave, he took a final look behind him. The smile in Mama Mboga’s eyes urged him to stay on. He breathed hard, then raised his hand to wave goodbye. He saw Baba Nimu holding the handkerchief against his cheek like a treasured memento, eyes open wide, like those of a rabbit held up by its ears and unable to move. Timothy remembered those eyes well, as he listened to the tales of the cows and the goats he now knew his father never had. He heard the cries of his mother and siblings, as their father lashed out in their tiny hovel, kicking, punching, laughing drunkenly, looking for the hidden jerry cans. He stumbled out, supporting himself against Mbatu.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ asked Kasala as they made their way through the dark, narrow streets. ‘She reminds you so much of your mother?’

‘You’re so blind, Kasala,’ muttered Mbatu.

Timothy could barely see through the tears.


Ken was born and raised in Kenya. He currently teaches management in Hong Kong.

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