Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Whale 

 

 

Despite our love of Mkame Murungi and our gratitude for his steadfast execution of our work in the village of Wajuwatinga, we weren’t sure we understood him.  

He faced us across the plastic café table. His plate held a mountain of the cornmeal mush consumed three times a day to sustain the villagers and their care of their children, milk goats, maize, and banana trees. The café was out of Mkame’s favorite, beef gravy. The cook for the tiny and all-but-abandoned agricultural college where Jo and I stayed when in Wajuwatinga had promised beef gravy that evening. But we’d suggested the café, where we could treat Mkame to beer or soda to celebrate his work on the current project. With our chicken and chips, Jo had Coca-Cola and I had Serengeti Premium Lager. Mkame sipped tea, having confessed freely that he found soda too sweet and grudgingly that he considered alcohol sinful.

“Miss Jo,” he said. “Why do you want me to marry a woman who is not Meru?”

“Mr. Murungi,” Jo said. “I only wondered if you ever considered marrying a woman from another tribe.”

Building schools and clean-water systems across the sprawl of Wajuwatinga would have been impossible without Mkame. Regardless of the money Jo and I raised in California, the work couldn’t have been completed during the ten days every year we could spare to be in Tanzania. The money could benefit the villagers only with someone like Mkame permanently on the ground. But who else if not him? Jo and I agreed that the only one like Mkame was Mkame himself.

He knew everything about his country’s wild and cultivated plants and everything about construction. His English was less reliable, especially when he was tired. That evening he was exhausted, but in a buoyant mood because of the work. Jo’s own good mood provoked her to tease him about Mrs. Murungi.  

“Never,” he said, digging his spoon in. “It is because of the secret of the porridge.”

Ugali, Tanzanians usually call their flavorless staple, which absorbs other flavors and serves as a filling vehicle for them. I was intrigued to think that ugali held a secret.

“A woman who is not Meru does not know the secret of the porridge,” he continued. “She will make it in a wrong way I cannot eat.”

“May I?” I said.

My mind had been made up about ugali long ago. In Tanzania I favored white rice, which lacked ugali’s gluey texture. But I wanted to show respect for Mkame’s conviction. He nodded. I took a spoonful from his plate and chewed and searched for the secret as Jo probed him about Mrs. Murungi.

“You’d traveled,” she said. “You’d studied at the agricultural college in Kenya and fought in Uganda.”

Not finding the secret, I remembered that this was café ugali, not Mrs. Murungi’s porridge.    

“But how did you persuade Mrs. Murungi to leave her family and her tribe?” Jo said.

A hundred and thirty miles separate Wajuwatinga from Mt. Meru. Mkame and his wife settled in Wajuwatinga shortly after his discharge from the army that had defeated Idi Amin. That was three decades before the paving of the road between Wajuwatinga and Mt. Meru, five years ago. Mkame had never owned a car.

He squinted beneath the harsh café lights and put on his familiar aviator sunglasses. He explained that the girl he wished to marry had been seventeen years old. She had not wanted to reject to his face the forthcoming marriage proposal. He was kind and handsome. Unfortunately, his training had earned him a job offer in a faraway village where he would help establish a new agricultural college. The morning she saw him approaching her door with a determined expression on his ordinarily relaxed countenance, she slipped into the back room and out the window. Furiously sweeping the smooth dirt floor of their home, Mrs. Moshi—Moshi was Mrs. Murungi’s family name, Mkame revealed that evening in the café—was oblivious to her daughter’s departure.

When she opened the door to Mkame Murungi, Mrs. Moshi was resolute. Her opinion, shared by her husband, was that the young man’s skills might assist in building a better Tanzania and that he made in all ways an excellent match. She took his hand and led him to the place her daughter loved most in the world, the tree-lined pond where Mr. Moshi raised tilapia. In subsequent years, Mrs. Murungi would speculate about the forces that had been in play to motivate her choice of such a deficient hiding place. 

“My dear,” Mrs. Moshi said to her daughter, “you know that man Jonah, who tried to hide from God to avoid going to a place where he didn’t want to go? Poor chap, he ended up in the belly of a whale. Common sense told him this was punishment. But something besides common sense was at work. Jonah would see this once the whale had saved his life and revealed his whereabouts to God. The lesson for Jonah, my daughter, was that he must go wherever God might direct him.”

Mrs. Murungi would remember that she could see the destination of her mother’s argument as soon as she heard Jonah’s name. The instantaneous appearance of the argument’s entire course and conclusion certified its infallibility, and in that instant her mind changed. Good manners motivated her to wait as her mother brought superfluous additional support to her case, citing the verse in Jeremiah in which the Lord declares possession of plans that will yield a future filled with hope. Mrs. Moshi ended with these incontrovertible words:

“God has commanded you to go to Wajuwatinga, Esther.”

Esther.

Jo and I had known Mkame for several years and known his wife only as Mrs. Murungi.

Mkame’s ugali was cold.

He asked me to help him finish so it wouldn’t go to waste. I declined. I said that I thought I would prefer Mrs. Murungi’s porridge.  

 

 

Don Stoll writes: “The Whale” is based on my work in the last decade with the nonprofit my wife and I founded to bring to three contiguous villages in rural Tanzania new schools, clean-water systems, and clinics emphasizing women's and children's health. I've published in academic philosophy journals, but I began writing short fiction only a few months ago.

Fiction is forthcoming in The Broadkill Review, Xavier Review, The Main Street Rag, Wild Violet, The Airgonaut, Between These Shores, Close to the Bone, Pulp Modern, Yellow Mama, and Frontier Tales, and recently appeared in The Helix, Sarasvati, Eclectica (tinyurl.com/y73wnmgq), Dark Dossier, Erotic Review, (tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), Cliterature  (tinyurl.com/y5m8arzn), Down in the Dirt and Children, Churches and Daddies.