That Time of the Year

It was buried that October. The seeded fear I’d enshroud my uncle with after my parents died, was planted that unbelievably sunny-for-5-O’clock Friday when Hajj was insisting on the important function of period blood as an anchor to the supernatural. Our school bus, meandering through the Lights’ Kongowea traffic, advertently was mobbed by hawkers flashing their sellable to assailable passengers in public transportation; exhausted from their onslaught of identical days. The hawkers, pitiful in their natural state; their unfathomable mundanity, bathed in sweat sticking their shirts to their backs― the beads on their foreheads iridescent like glints of orange glazed by the sun, would stream down, unleashing an acrid salty taste to their rhino-skin faces ― kept strutting, being constantly shut down without a loss of enthusiasm by a huge part of the masses, who viewed them as irritants, denying them the simple decency of eye-contact, as they carried packed sugarcane in clear polythene, pacing alongside the roaring forest of honking vehicles, as the traffic lights turned green. Students, suspended waist-up, hanging from the windows like branches, reaching for change or an unfulfilled order were cocooning back inside the bus as the hawkers dispersed and we swerved away onto Nyali bridge.

Hajj sneezed inside his arm. By the short-sleeve of our white uniform, blew his nose, not wiping the faint line of perspiration on his upper lip, then carried on with his narration, undeterred by the sliver of disgust creeping on me, my neck turtling inside my shoulders. “This I’ve heard,” he continued, “To summon a jinn, one must really cross the line. Like, imagine now, taking the vilest form of blood, that even the woman’s body refuses to house, and using that to scribe the ayahs of the Qur’an.”

He shook his head frantically as if to rid himself of the image materializing inside it, then drifted his eyes out, depressing them to the body of water clasping its wobbly arms around Mombasa, our city built in layers. My eyes kept burning the side of his face, taking notice of his feathery sideburns glowing a light golden against the sun, pointing to a blotched cluster of pimples strategically centred on his cheek. Gentle, like a whisper, he turned his head and looked ahead, sighing in deep thought.

“I think it’s the water,” he finally said. “Too much gets washed up on our shores.” He turned intently to me, coiling his leg and sat on it. “Like, everything disposed of by the world, seeking some form of absolution finds its way here. We’re the cesspit and the gatekeepers of tradition will never let us get away from that. However how much outsiders flock here and marvel at this tiny civilization we have, there’ll always be that. Those secrets. Outsiders remain heedless of our innings because that’s how good we are at hiding things. My uncle once said: It’s our compounds that are clean but the homes inside… Subhanallah.”

The quiet engulfed us and the murmurs of students that had been deafly drowned seeped back in. I was fiddling with the threaded handle of my bag, coiling it around my finger wished-for-words, as Hajj disentangled his leg and wore his shoe.

We were past the junction at Buxton when Hajj pointed to a ramshackle by the look of it, abandoned house. The seemingly originally cream paint, had, for the most part, peeled off, moulded to a dense green, the walls brushed by a rusty brown with skids of black. “This I’ve also heard,” he said, “That that was the first storeyed building in this neighbourhood. And the original owner used to breed jinns.” He cast a side-glance at it a little longer, downcast, as it faded from our field of vision. “He was rich ma shaa Allah, like Allah opened up the dunya for him, and yet… he bred jinns. Or maybe he was rich because he bred jinns! you can never tell with these things. That sadly is the source of some people’s riches in this city it’s said.” He stared blankly at me, the tone of his voice becoming more sombre. “You must realise, summoning a jinn is only the beginning; the start of a partnership, and depending on what you’d want after, sacrifices will have to be accorded.

What happens is: a partnership is formed, the jinn at your disposal and all of a sudden, everything you ever wanted is within reach. Wealth. Fame. Fear of the people. But then again, you’ll discover, these people lose a significant member of their family periodically. Like every couple of years, mostly ones they love. These are the sacrifices. I’ve also heard of jinns feeding off of one of the family’s children for a long time. So, in these families, we usually have this one child we call kiti, chair; a droopy drooling down-syndrome type with a dash of polio in their limbs. Literally useless astaghfirullah, and they hide this child from the outside world. Some families too extreme just lock him up in a room, where no one is allowed to enter. Imagine that.

So, about that house, it’s been unoccupied since the previous owners moved out. The families that tried to move in hardly lasted. Urban legends surround it and it’s funny you haven’t heard. I heard of a fella who moved in with his family once, and one midnight, his kid, thirsty, awoke for a trip to the kitchen. On his way, he encountered this really tall guy cloaked in the whitest white. Like, it was oozing whiteness, imagine that. The kid was dumbstruck, feet planted where he stood. However how much he’d look up; he couldn’t see a face. He just screamed, never to speak again, awakening the whole family who also saw the… thing. I hear they talked to it; there were warnings and screams. Quite scary stuff. We hear of an unusually fat woman appearing on your toilet seat when you make your way to the loo and of little girls in the families who had never had cases of possession suddenly being possessed and having to undergo ruqya now, a portion of their mornings routinely spent at ustadh Khalid’s place.

It’s funny how after all these happenings, you still manoeuvre yourself through town and see these confident signboards: Mganga: for any troubles on love, sexual vigour, luck, your wife leaving you, call the number. These practices we laugh at. They are so commonplace that we just do them in the open. Some of them are even attributed to Islam. I remember back in madrassa when my ustadh was talking to us about shirk and he got to talking about falaki. He said falaki is the remnants of the ancient Babylonian witchcraft. The mythology speaks of the two angels sent down when witchcraft was widespread in Babylon. Then moves to nabii Suleiman burying the compilation of witchcraft under his throne to stop its teaching. And ends with its digging out after his death and the claims of the dealers of black magic that what they used was just what Suleiman used: to control the wind, speak to birds and wield power over jinns but that was from the fadhl of Allah, he gives it to whomever He wills. Allah absolved his prophet of all that and revealed the ayah […It was not Suleiman who disbelieved, but the devils disbelieved, teaching people magic and that which was revealed to the two angels at Babylon…](Q2:102)

I was obsessed with the idea of falaki back then. He spoke of the dealers of it reading a few things here and there and teleporting to wherever they wished, reading other parts and you make a lady obsessed with you and that’s the part I liked the most but you must understand, falaki is witchcraft in a different name. They call it falaki because it involves the knowledge of the stars but like traditional witchcraft, there still is a long tradition of working with jinns.

The jinns soar to this point in the heavens where they can’t move past and eavesdrop on the speech of the angels; from matters of death on earth and predestination. From what they hear, they descend to earth and inform the fortune-tellers. But for every one truth, they tell seventy lies. The moment you visit a witchdoctor, you’re already desperate and impressionable. One truth is all it takes. Something else, the prophet tells us how we each have a jinn inside us that moves like the movement of blood. He is what whispers to our soul, suggesting us to sin and without a doubt knows us maybe more than we know ourselves. For God knows we don’t know ourselves! When you arrive at the witchdoctor’s place, there’re usually rules like, come in walking backwards. These things are to stall, having the witch’s jinn extract information from the jinn inside you. He gives it to the witch who then earns your trust by just giving you some commonplace information, like your name. And that’s how they get you.

Now, jinns are not supposed to interfere in our affairs nor us in theirs. It’s through these transgressions that borderline perpetrate witchcraft in our society. We do it so rampantly that we do not think much about it.”

“Do you suppose it’s because we never see it getting done?” I asked.

“Actually… I’m debating on whether to tell you this but anyways, I have witnessed it. Well, not the traditional― falaki. I had gotten into some kind of trouble with the authorities, and my family, to hide me, had me move in with my grandmother. She said she didn’t like seeing me in such a lowly paranoid state and suggested we go see this ustadh who was really good at praying things away. That day, we drove off to Shimoni, far inside the interior of Lungalunga sub-county if I’m not wrong. Alighted at this mosque. Took a motorcycle. The motorist asked us if we were going to the ustadh’s place. Like, anyone who stopped here without a doubt was headed there. To each his motorcycle, we dug even further into the interior, cutting through coconut trees succinctly arranged beside the dirt path, my ears drinking in the meditativeness of the village life.

Alas! We arrived. We paid the motorist who did not overstay.

It was hauntingly quiet, save for the cawing of crows and entrancing chants from a distance. My grandmother pointed to where the ustadh lived, a coconut-threaded mat lain outside of it. A boy about my age with a huge selection of rings on his hand came out to greet my grandmother like they had known each other. They began to catch up and she told him she’d brought his grandson because of some trouble. The boy gave me a cold stare. So disconcerted by the whole situation, I darted my eyes all over the place. He folded the mat outside the ustadh’s house and escorted us to a bush where we were told to wait and that was where I witnessed the ustadh going at one his rituals. A woman, Muslim by the look of it was covered in a white sheet making circumambulations around this… thing. A kind of flower pot with bloodlike spots burning incense of some sort. At one end, who I could’ve only guessed was the ustadh, in a light goatee chanting in Arabic, and at the other, two younger men reading from a book. It was disorienting and claustro-eerily suffocating.

Courage brimmed in me to the point where I could not take it any longer and turned to my grandmother and said: I’ll just wait for you to go do your prayer while I sit here. She told me to stop acting funny and I just sat there fidgeting uneasily. I looked back to the ongoing ritual trying to hear the words being said. I was already a hafidh back then and none of it made sense. Some ayahs mixed here and there and then nothing, all so fast. Finally, I stood up and told my grandmother, I wasn’t doing that. She looked at me downtrodden as I went and stood under a coconut tree far away from the ustadh’s house, waiting for her.

In a bit, the ustadh in his white kanzu and this select colour of gemmed rings walked towards me bellowing, “Ustadh Hajj,” a mechanical smile plastered on his face.

I almost didn’t shake his hand, because of the rings. Hesitantly, I pulled out my hand, clenching my fingers and shook his like a toddler would, only touching the fore of his fingers. He said: your grandmother says you’re not in the mood for prayer. And I said I was okay. He chopped the air with his hands and said that was totally fine, there are many we see who trust in their tawakkul, their total reliance in Allah and have been okay through things. He wished me the best, almost sarcastic, and I honestly felt a chill the way he said it. I turned and my feet just carried me, looking back constantly to make sure I wasn’t followed. It was all bushes and shrubs and maize cobs and two ladies in buibuis heading the direction I was from. The coconut trees, the mango leaves, rustling fiercely. I looked up and down and sideways and back till I found myself at the mosque we alighted at. I courteously waited for my grandmother and after she never showed up for more than half an hour, I took a matatu back to Mombasa.

I told my mother what went down when she complained of me leaving my grandmother behind, and she only chuckled at the incident. But yeah, I moved back home and didn’t visit my grandmother for a while and I was okay alhamdulillah.

*

A lot did change in a year. The tragic passing of my parents under strange circumstances upset the balance in my life, prompting a shift from the little middle-class lifestyle I was accustomed to, to a life of excess with uncle Ali in Nyali, when he took me in.

Though hesitant at first, uncle Ali being a total mystery to me, I listened to the elders who saw this as the best move all things factored in.

The only memories I had of uncle Ali were scraped from childhood. I remember running to him when he appeared from the distance. I’d run against the path that led straight to our home shouting ‘uncle Ali, uncle Ali’ and jump at his feet, clinging, wrapping my limbs around his leg. He’d call me little monkey and then drag me like this big heavy boot into our home.

Years passed, then all of that stopped. Mother shielded me from this brother of his. The last I heard was complaints on how a lot had changed about him after he stumbled into wealth. The house I grew up in, we never talked about money unless to demonise it. Money is surrounded by too many narrations, and I, raised to fear anyone who had accumulated a lot of it. Uncle Ali became no exception.  I heard my mom once say: If money changes people like that, I pray to God not to test me with it.

Crossing the Nyali bridge from Mombasa, then a bend onto Kongowea towards the depths of Nyali was where I relocated to. Scary tall fences housing two storeys of the finest architecture painted gloomy in white and blue. It didn’t look like much from the outside but the contents of it, one had to be careful not to be clumsy. I did feel like the most easily disposable thing for everything else looked expensive. There was 2 acres of land, the like of a football pitch that remained mostly unused, except in the event of an event when it served as a parking lot.

It’s strange being introduced to family. Aside from his little wife, Farida, I discovered I had two cousins; Swabra and Fahim who we’d form a quiet understanding between us.

Fahim was the most company I got in this new home. He was 12, with a dash of polio. His legs were, for the most part, functionless, but with his crooked hands, he would wheel his wheelchair around the house, a ramp with levers beside the stairs. He had a funny way of sucking the loneliness out of me as he talked about his day; his job; ushering in guests in a nearby restaurant. They loved him and I learned to do that as well. Swabra was distant for the most part and aunty Farida seemed to be concerned with my comfort more than anything. We’d talk about a lot of things, starting from my family and how they were. She’d talk to me about her marriage, tease me about girls and we’d laugh off about it, all of it to vacuumed when uncle Ali arrived home. Silence would linger whenever he was around, save for that time of the year when he’d throw these lavish mawlids.

Every Muslim who was somebody in Mombasa would wheel into my new home. The pitch that day would be a testament to that there was money in these streets; Hammers, Prados, Pajeros and old-school names that would excite any car enthusiast. The house was most busy. Men in the whitest kanzus laughing out loud. Some famous people, who I’d never seen up-close, all there, most free. The helps would lead a hired catering team to ensure quality control that day. Aunty Farida would be uneasy and hesitant in passing instructions. The house would smell of incense, clouds of it dispersing from every opening.

Then at 4 o’clock, the streets would be made of music. In the distance, the mixture of thrums of drums, the beat of flutes and the shaking of the shingled drums would form this inescapably intoxicating sound that would gather on your shoulders having them move to every beat. The gates would open fully and the kids from different madrassas, dressed in whites and greens would pour in with their instruments, showing off the mastery in their moves, singing, “Mahaba yake nabia…” The rich men would stare, bemused with stacks of cash in their hands, gifting the kids who amused them most. It was a day to be generous. On the balconies, Swabri Faraj, best known for his generosity in these events would be making it rain in thousand-shilling notes and the dancing madrassa students would add to the energy as if the music had taken over while shoving notes into their pockets. Food would be moved about by the appointed waiters, carrying halwa and dates and bitter black coffee in tiny cups.

The feat would go on and the guests would hover around my uncle, each claiming his two minutes to pat his shoulder, shake his hand and gush compliments at him. He’d then look at aunty Farida with an eye of approval and smile, and she’d well with a sense of accomplishment.

The students would move to the living room, incense would be added to the burners clouding the room with smoke and the drums would be thrummed more vigorously this time and the young kids well-choreographed would keep singing and dancing and the rich men grinning, throwing money at them. Pilau would be served and slowly, some guests and all the students would begin dismissing themselves.

It was after maghrib when all the lights in the house were switched off. The remaindered men would stick to the living room, I, coiled in a corner, and the women in the room adjacent. Then a reading, dhikiri, would ensue. They mentioned it is tradition to do it at that appointed hour of that day. At the heights of it, the women would neigh like donkeys. You would start by hearing loud chanting of God’s name in the next room, repeatedly, “Allah, Allah, Allah…” and almost like they were in a trance, they’d begin to sway and all that would remain of their chanting would be heavy bellows of “Ah Ah-Ah! Ah! Ah Ah-Ah!” and someone would later explain they were still chanting God’s name. The chanting would morph into coughs “Ho! Oh-oh! Ho Ho! Oh-Oh!” The trance would turn to possession evoking horrified screams. The noises would get stranger, more incense would be burned and the reading would be louder. From my corner, visible outlines of some ladies taking off their hijabs and jumping around. Some held down so they don’t harm themselves. It’s funny how the sane take a chance at a taste of madness. In that confluence of the readings of dhikiri, the possession of the women by what they called ruhani, the heavy clouds of incense rapidly hijacked by the inhuman screams, the room would get darker and darker and the noises would rise, engulfing you in a fear that disentangled the ligaments to your every bone. An outsider in the corner. The ruhanis would be asked what it was they wanted, and they would mention blood, among other demands, and goats would be slaughtered that night, fried meat prepared from it, with white rice. Swabra would later tell me that after, their eyes that had rolled inside would kindle back after the slaughter, putting an end to the whole affair. There would be calm. Some women would have fainted and on gaining their senses, food I wouldn’t touch would be served. A long dua would be made and guests would make conversations amongst themselves, slowly leaving from the house before midnight, when it would be quiet again.

My uncle would call me to his study that night. Uneasy, I’d walk in. It’d get colder with every step towards him. On seeing me, he’d pull his glasses down, the red gemmed ring on his hand clinking on the handles, and he’d make me account for my day. “Kwenu ulilelewa kama Wahabi  wewe?” I’d shake my head and say, “No” forcing a smirk on my face. “Good,” he’d say and dismiss me to sleep.

That night I’d stare at the ceiling longer, cold and petrified. The deemed devotion of the possessed women on Allah’s remembrance, their restlessness in their fits of it, on a loop in my mind as I remembered the irony that Hajj pointed out to me in the bus two Octobers ago. He quoted from God’s word, [Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest] (Q:13:28).

Black magic, Exorcism, Mombasa


Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

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Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan-based Creative non-fiction writer, blogger and translator of Kiswahili works with over 2 years of experience. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa, and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management.

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