Other people die and stay dead. Others leave and never come back. But not Farah, my younger brother, who left one day and only came back after he was dead. At first, I thought I was the only one who could see him. That was before Bibi, whose roaming eyes were the colour of old beads, saw him in the corner of our large but old tent and asked him, Ala! What are you doing there instead of coming to eat with the rest? He did not respond. My parents, who had been trying to tuck away the memories of Farah’s leaving like one does with old clothes, thought Bibi was wicked to evoke the memory of Farah. Is it to spite me? Mama asked Bibi who stayed silent and shifted the piece of meat she was chewing from the left side of her mouth to the right.
At a different time, on a different day, I would have said Bibi was finally getting the old people disease that ate away at the brain like weevils do with maize in the granary. However, I had seen Farah a few days before this. When he came to me, he came in three parts: a low wind that made the opening of the tent flap – once, twice, thrice – and carried his musk of stale engulfing my room, stinging my nose and eyes; the prolonged cough that is the sound of the tractor engine as it tears into the earth in readiness for planting season; and then the body, full in all of its 6 ft. 2in. that startled me when I saw it. He looked like he had stumbled on the opening of the tent by mistake. But this was no mistake.
No one ever prepares you for the eventuality of your dead brother coming back home looking like an escaped prisoner of war. His skin was tight against his bones and his hair looked like it would fall off his head. I wanted to give him a hug, but I remembered Bibi’s warning, Allah will punish you if you welcome back the dead. Let them go. Bibi always said things that didn’t make sense. Her language was laden with metaphors that rolled out of her tongue like they were honey and the sap of aloe vera rolled into one concoction. Like how, on the day Farah left, as mother cried and sucked her teeth for her son, Bibi leaned against her cane and said, I saw death in that boy’s eyes the day I pulled him outside you.
Farah died the same way he had lived; like a dog.
Not that he deserved it, no one deserves to live and die in a way that doesn’t fulfil Allah’s purpose on this earth. But when you are born in the largest refugee camp in the world, you grow up thinking you don’t deserve anything better. The sound of the trucks coming and leaving is the way you think of the heartbeat of the world. And Farah, Farah always wanted to follow that heartbeat. As a child, three years younger than me, he would always run after the white UNHCR trucks that roared, shaking the ground and leaving fine gusts of dusts rising in the blazing heat. Farah, in their trail. He swam in that dust, sometimes clinging to the metal rail and only jumping down when the track got on the fringes of the camp, joining the tarred road.
Bibi, who said the things our mother was expected to say when she found her voice, sent me running after Farah. On our way back, I would warn Farah, “Younger brother, life is not to be lived dangerously.” He would half-turn to face me, shirt tied to his head like he had seen the older boys do, and with a grin plastered on his dusty face, tell me, “Older brother, even Bibi, who is almost blind like new-born mice, has more curiosity than you. What do you do with your life?”
“Curiosity,” I started, seeking to warn him, but he was already gone, his voice screeching in the wind with the water songs he had learnt from men who had been to war.
Before Farah, I never knew that life expects from you more than it gives. And so on the day that I came back home from the makeshift school that I attended at the west side of the camp and found Farah packing his belongings into a small plastic bag, I did not understand what was expected of me.
“Younger brother, are you going on a journey?” I asked, lowering my tone so he wouldn’t be defensive.
“Yes, older brother. I am afraid I must.” His voice was brittle and firm at the same time.
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Kenya.”
“We are in Kenya.”
“Ah, older brother, you know what I mean.” He smiled. I knew what he meant. To live in the camp – Daadab – is to feel forgotten. To feel like you are the red ink on the canvas that the painter put there without knowing.
I sat on the floor and watched Farah’s hands work as he threw the clothes in the bag.
“What will you do there?”
“Put these hands to work.” He pauses, and spreads his palms towards me. Moments of silence pass between us, interspersed by the joyous sounds of children playing outside.
“Nairobi, younger brother, is the mouth of a shark.”
He laughs, a nervous laugh that asks, “How would you know?”
“Did you tell your mother and father?”
“There is no need. They will know when they find me absent.”
“Does Bibi know?”
“Haha older brother, Bibi knows everything.”
That was the last time I talked to Farah. That was the last time I saw him alive.
The news of Farah’s death comes to us in trickles.
First, it gets to us by way of the small radio that father has had since before we were born. He says he met mama when he went to buy the radio at the store she was an assistant in. The old world allowed people to love, to be loved.
We sit around and listen to the voice of the announcer, which is the croaking of a bullfrog during mating season, and we listen.
Police have shot two suspected gangsters today in Eastleigh Nairobi. The gangsters are believed to be part of a group that terrorises shopkeepers. One of them, identified only by the name of Farah is a seventeen year old from the Daadab Refugee Camp.
Bibi humphs. Spits on the dirt.
Mama breaks into tears. Chanting. Invoking the name of Allah.
In a camp full of seventeen year olds named Farah, I do not think of my brother. He was never one to steal. So I get up, pick a bucket and go to the back to take a bath. I do not know if it is tears or the water I have poured over my head, but I know my face is wet.
The news then comes in the police truck that tears through the dust and stops in front of our tent. Mother breaks into a howl that I have never thought her capable of producing. Father paces around, his shuka flailing his ankles. Bibi slaps her thighs and says, “Allah knows it is my time to leave when my grandchildren start behaving like moths; following the light and getting burned.”
I stand inside and listen to the police truck leave. To the sound of the heartbeat of the world fade. To the pattering of Farah’s feet on the dirt go tap-tap-tap then silent. To the wind as it carries my brother’s laughter.
Farah appears to me first.
He knows I am angry at him, and so he says nothing until after Bibi sees him. I can’t ignore him now. I listen to him coming to the tent.
“Older brother…” His voice is a whisper.
“Younger brother, you came back.”
“You came back all the same.”
“The one in my head hurts more than the one in my chest.”
“And the other guy?”
“I did not count. Too many.”
“But you came back.”
“Wallahi, I did not do it. I was just walking when I heard gun shots tearing through the afternoon and people were running. Feet on concrete. I ran too. Then the first one tore through my chest, and the guy next to me fell. I wanted to help him but then I saw it was my blood falling out of me like a fountain.”
“I know. I know. Younger brother, I believe you.”
He sits down on the floor, where I sat down and watched him pack. My hands tremble as I put the faded green cardigan in my bag. The wind wails and the heartbeat of the world grows stronger. Farah, a silhouette in my memory tells me, “Don’t go.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has launched a new campaign dubbed ‘LuQuLuQu’, a major funds drive for refugee support in Africa. At least 20.2 million people are displaced on the continent with Kenya hosting nearly half a million of these (489,239). Some 78 per cent are women and children while 57pc are under the age of 18 years.
Despite the rising number of refugees across the continent, UNHCR has so far only received 35 percent of the critical funding required to assist refugees in Africa. They are asking you to help by spreading the word about the initiative by joining the conversation #DoItLuQuLuQu
Donations can also be made through the online donation page donate.unhcr.org/luquluqu and pay bill number 329378, account name LuQuLuQu.