The Pilgrim Was Last Seen at Home: by Karest Lewela 

The endless chatter felt as if someone was re-assembling waste shrapnel in some form of convoluted reconstructionist dilemma. It reeked of that need to keep moving to ward off vertigo, of the same family of emotions that keeps millions of workers returning to their miserable cubicles day after another as if circling opiate smoke rings puffed by scary puppet masters.

Soludo, dancer by wilful desire, legal filing clerk courtesy of disappointed parents’ ambitions, always knew he was no marionette. He had charisma and zesty charm earned from years of being talented, jobless and impatient for absolute success. Absolute insofar as being self-evident in the way claimed only by self-determination. Some charmers are born so gifted that snakes volunteer to be groomed by them, but not Soludo. His aura had been manufactured by grafting sentiments collected from the necessitated gift that works its will up strangers’ anxieties in such a way that makes them willing to rescue a homeless soul from yet another night sleeping cold and hungry exposed to the vagaries of profit-making. Soludo’s gracefulness was the rickety dance cultivated out of forced humility, the humility that makes the downtrodden automatically generous for fear of seeing in another’s countenance the physicality of defeat. Like the children of the Narm, he carried with him the ambition seen on the face of impatience and impertinence. He was fierce as fear and very bothered by the lackadaisical wherewithal of mundane paperwork and wealthy clients that characterised his workplace. The only thing that made his job remotely bearable was Dalisani.

Anyone who had ever heard Soludo wax lyrical in favour of Dalisani’s virtues would have doubted that Soludo was a filing clerk. There’s valiance in being smitten that raises an African man above the embers of otherness to radiance. Watching Soludo tell his flatmates about the air that was displaced every time Dalisani walked into a room was akin to watching a chemist explain how petroleum ether suspends fats and lipids without damaging them.

However, for cynics like Themba, Soludo’s folly was not amusing in any way other than as the butt of ridicule. Where Soludo saw Dalisani and felt urges for that medium rare steak at the up-market Soho Club, Themba warned him that such thoughts would one day turn him vegan if Dalisani made so little as acknowledge his shoe laces. For Themba, all of life’s experiences could be metaphored around shoe laces – most are black and unacknowledged, like the King’s African Rifles. There was always one in your family, talking about glorious days of the war and how it led to independence – shoelaces were great for holding things, like families, together. They created form and function but beyond that could never explain why youthful dreams would raise the ire of the elders like dust on a stormy day trying to embrace the bruising jabs of the monsoon.

Soludo the dancer was a dreamer, unlike a shoelace, his dreams were often impractical. Its impracticality that had led to his homelessness. It was the rifle in his genealogy that set him straight to go on to study a masters in criminology and landed him squarely filing other people’s claims. If he had paid attention to post independence talks, he would have heard how his parents came back from foreign soils, with graduate degrees and became the first lot of civil servants in the 60s starting out as filing clerks. History replicates itself because knowledge is always shy to expand its Overton and as such family branches expand only as much as the pot allows and the pot is always keen to ensure its relevance over time.

Clerks, like clergy, are the black keys holding ivory keys together in that minor tone that faith kumbayas oppression together turning it into hope of hopes. Themba always said that in life, people tend to want to spice things up, getting coloured shoelaces so they can stand out. In his punchlines, he would mock how one expected laces to stand out given their proximity to soles. Soulful people, to him, were like shoe soles, even with ambition could never aspire to the heights that a pair of socks is forced to live up to. Even with the best of intentions, soulful ambitions could not be pulled up. Themba had life figured out: the less expectations one had the more likely they would be successful beyond their expectations, so went his magnus opus. Let him who has ears like Soludo close his eyes to elements out of his reach. A lass like Dalisani was to be left to life’s vagaries, only to be approached once youthfulness had lost its lustre.

For Soludo, the moment, this moment, any moment now, was the only guarantee in life. Every moment Dalisani was within reach and he did not do anything about it was like courting homelessness again, something which he had vowed to never return to. So precise was his obsession that he felt he could tell her pulse just by looking at her, running himself wild with worry when it was high and overworking his heart whenever she would smile walking past him. Last week he had mustered the courage to embarrass himself and did a remarkably good job at it. It had made her laugh and Soludo was no stranger to Abrahamic-type sacrifices. This week he was determined to ask her out for lunch and when he did he was astounded that she was glad to oblige. Themba was quick to quip that the joy of the mountain is in climbing it, not being parachuted to the top for a photo opportunity like a politician. He would later be heard telling Soludo to don tarpaulin dungarees for his lunch date as the fall from grace bruised more than the grass upon which one lands if fortunate enough.

As is often when his wisdom had been ignored, Themba channelled Joseph Hill, chanting to himself out loud: I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried to make them understand…but they just can’t understand…but they just don’t understand. Soludo was quick to retort, the mouth of the wicked and the deceitful is open, eh-eh! For Soludo, Themba could as well have been one of his workmates, average to a stereotypical fault but basking in the comforts of a steady job, avoiding rocking the boat and expending needless amounts of energy being cautious. He would never enlist him in his army, if he had one.

***

Dalisani’s grandmother always said that no one is born to embarrass themselves, that people do so repeatedly was evidence of reverse miracles. Reverse miracles were the chips accumulated during the week that needed to be taken to the altar every Sunday and given up for cleansing. So she raised Dalisani with reverence for chaste, and in the process denied her the illicit joys of learning by mistakes. For some people this can be empowering creating bulwarks of virtue but for others it would leave that incessant doubt that comes with inexperience. Fortunately for Dalisani she had been schooled in gracefulness, that heavyweight pot of water that needed to be carried without support atop her head from the river making it look as effortless as self-doubt. Ever since she could speak she was reminded that she was a Dalizo, meaning blessing, and that to mar her family heritage would be courting broken yokes. Though she never understood what that meant, she inferred that it was some sort of insanity. As she grew more and more aware of her beauty, insanity is not a load she could afford to take on. So with grace she had learned to cover her inadequacies and insecurities by keeping her distance. Distance had a way of making her appear composed, knowledgeable and confident. It is this thin veneer that Soludo was enthralled with.

In agreeing to meet with Soludo for lunch, Dalisani knew she was opening herself up to possible scrutiny, possible crumbling, but when one is in the prime little seems risky than the idea that in a few years the journey off that beautiful peak would be indulged in solitude and the compact of muscles of grace would naturally wither due to overuse in youthful days. However, she was intrigued by Soludo, by the way in which he was so ill-fitted to their common workplace like a Lingala dancer in a reggae session. Something clumsy in Soludo made her think that beyond the appearances they could be feathers of a bird – flurry creatures of the same family of outward appearances like a fibreglass cast, composed and hard on the outer layer having grown stubborn over time like lime scale, but with a soft layer of padding on the inside.

***

An independent observer would chronicle their lunch date as anaglyphic. Where Dalisani was looking out for loveable vulnerabilities, Soludo was exuding exuberant confidence as required of a man who ought to be entrusted with another’s life. There were magnetic forces alright but poles of the same side. I happened to be manager on duty at Dukani restaurant where they had met. The entire dance appeared like the haphazard run that the hen does when a cock is after its heart (let’s call it that) and Soludo was acting all capon. As the independent observer I knew from the onset that they both needed rescuing but I had no desire to be famous for boiling eggs over a volcano. It was intriguing to watch them mimic the mime motions of mediating talks between warring factions. One appreciates this kind of effort because its essence expends energy knowing full well that the same energy would need to be repackaged and used repeatedly in the battle fields because egos were not made for surrender, only victory.

When I had taken them the bill at the end of their meal, tears were protectively occupying Dalisani’s retinas like they were wall street and Soludo was as spent as Rhodes after his scholars demanded he must fall. So I grabbed a seat and invited myself to sit with them and let my foolish altruistic self take care of their meal expense. Humility has a way of listening to strangers and at that moment they both needed salvation and like the evangelistic influence I was, philosophy student lying patiently for my original idea to find me, I explained to them what I thought Heraclitus had figured out which they had missed altogether.

Before Heraclitus, there was an eSwatini elder who opined that a shoe lace cannot step into the same river twice because it is in not in its nature to be wet. I told them their lunch date was the river and that which brought them together was a shoe lace. I said to them that relationships like shoe laces depend on the temperature of the water that they dip into every tomorrow. Little did they know that I had learnt early in my ministry days that the trick to catching peoples’ attentions was playing contrarian positions – like a peddler of enhanced tomorrows I had them hooked and only I could rescue them.

“Have you ever simmered tea with river water?”, I asked. Both shook their head in confusion. I wrote down my mobile number and asked them both to go and try it out and once they do to call me and I would explain. Why the river I hear you ask? Well if you are in the middle of Croydon, then you know that the closest river you can get to is the Thames and would you drink that stuff? Definitely not Soludo. Dalisani on the other hand called me two weeks later from Bourton-on-the-water full of excitement. She had tried it and it was amazing and could we please meet up so she could share what she had learned?

In my village they say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So I did, and soaked in her effervescent spirit, and sagely counselled her, and at the end of dinner I invited her home so she could hear me develop my original philosophical idea in my element. As privacy is elemental and as essence is instrumental, she became part of my original idea timelessly like the gospels.


Karest Lewela (@kklewela) is an avid believer in, and a passionate worker towards African Renaissance and more recently anti-thingification. He believes strongly that literature, music and philosophy are the primary components of culture and that a world view that integrates these three facets could be the ingredient that reimagines alternatives to current politico-economic models if social justice is to be attained. His idea of a glorious day is when Africa adopts herself as an aspirational frame of reference. He is a contributing poet and short story writer whose works have so far have received audience in publications such as AFREADA, Itch, Pambazuka News, Storymoja and Oxford University Press in East Africa. His research interests investigate the nexus of popular culture, protest art, and human rights law.

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