texts The Return of Shadow

The Return of Shadow, by Moses Isegawa, 2008

Every day I wait for Shadow.
I feel it in my bones that she will come back.
People like her always do.
It is just hard to tell when, for they never leave behind contact addresses or phone numbers.
They enter your life, take what you can give, and leave behind a shadow that dogs you. Making sure you keep eternal vigil.
It is now two years since Shadow last saw this pounding sun, this powder-blue sky.
I haven’t moved from this place just in case she comes and finds me gone.
Like her, I don’t give people my address or phone number.
I prefer to wait for those I want to come back.
In the same place.
Wearing the same clothes.
Before Shadow came into my life, I was dreaming of wearing a white coat and curing diseases in exchange for cows.
Nowadays my dreams are full of white coats and rolls of film.
Every day I try to trace the origin of the bond between Shadow and me.
Sometimes I believe it was all due to sheer chance: we were both in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes, I believe Shadow’s physique is the key.
Shadow is built like a cattle rustler’s dream girl: long-legged, long-armed, long-framed.
Physique is crucial in the harsh cattle-rustling plains where you need speed and endurance to survive or to command respect.
In that vast region of the reddest earth and the bluest skies there are few doctors.
With her dedication and ability to cover enormous distances, Shadow would have made a good doctor.
With me at her side, she would have cured so many diseases and got so many cows in return that children would chant: “Queen of Cows, Queen of Cows.”
I remember the day Shadow came like yesterday.
I was standing in my usual place; through the fence across the road I could see the Ice Cream Man of Mammamia Restaurant ministering to the worshippers of Italian magic.
From where I stand you can’t see the faces of the worshippers; only the backs, buttocks and upper legs.
Dismembered bodies.
Bodies I would like to capture on film and make violet or blacker than our nights.
One hour before Shadow stood before me, we received a visit from City Council enforcers.
They chased away the children who love to play between the legs of well-dressed pedestrians, sing for them, and request them to book their seat in heaven by paying a fee to the underprivileged roasting in the sun.
At first I thought the City Council had become so desperate to clear the streets that they had started recruiting from Shadow’s kind.
After all, they have been at this game for the past decade but they are no closer to victory than when they started.
But when I saw the long, green bag Shadow was carrying, I changed my mind.
It occurred to me then that she was from a charity out to dole out secondhand clothes and sweet words.
I see such types every now and then.
I always send them away.
They go down to the little ones who love to look up the legs of well-off passersby and conduct their business.
On that day, Shadow came straight to where I was standing, my back to the wall, my mobile phone in my hand.
It was a slow day, rich in frustration.
I was thinking about Epe, my beloved rifle, and how government forces impounded him and incinerated him on a bonfire together with thousands of others as they tried to erase the tradition of two thousand years in two years.
I was fantasizing about wearing a white coat and injecting cobra venom into the buttocks of every soldier that came to my hospital for treatment.
Now that Epe was ashes, I was dreaming of finding something to juggle with the white coat.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over me and I woke up from my reverie.
“Good afternoon.”
I snorted.
What did I want from an imaginary good afternoon on such a slow day?
“How are you?”
I snorted, starting to enjoy the discomfort I knew I was causing.
I almost smiled when Shadow hesitated, obviously having trouble with how to proceed on this rough terrain.
“In any case I hope you are well,” she persisted.
I snorted again, hoping that the next time I blinked she would be gone.
“May I introduce myself?”
I ignored her.
I never introduce myself to people.
I only deal with those who know me.
The last introduction I remember was a shower of bullets from those seeking to obliterate ancient tradition in a jiffy.
Besides, my people are called “People of Lightning.”
We don’t give warnings.
If you lose the element of surprise, usually you wake up dead.
Shadow stated her name, all the same.
In one ear; out the other.
She said a number of things about herself or her work, which received the same treatment.
The only positive thing I could think of was that she was shielding me from the sun.
“I want to take a picture of you,” I heard her say.
My immediate reaction was: Another misery-monger.
My heart sunk.
I started thinking: It would be better if Shadow became the Ice Cream Woman and gathered worshippers for flavours from her country.
Now and then I get requests to participate in so-called projects of tourists who want to show friends and family back home that they have been to this country.
I used to take them to places where real misery resided, bejeweled with blue-green flies. I don’t do Misery Tours any more.
Occasionally, I get local photographers working for the tabloids in pursuit of misery and the titillation it gives a certain type of reader.
I turn my back on them.
I don’t want them to interrupt my view of the Ice Cream Man.
“Why?” I whisper.
The answer makes me suspicious. “Just because.”
I believe Shadow is hiding something, like those who incinerated Epe hid behind saving us from our past.
“Can I show you some pictures I took in a neighbouring country?”
I am not in the least interested in this stranger’s pictures.
The only thing I care about in that neighbouring country is cattle-rustlers who come with guns blazing, arrows whistling, to take our cattle.
And the only thing those people care about in this country is our cattle-rustlers when they cross the border to retrieve our property, charging a tax here and there as they go along.
In that region of red earth and blue skies, this give and take means the world.
We love those neighbours and, in their own way, they love us.
It is pretty biblical: Do to others what you want them to do to you.
“Are you interested in my pictures?” I whisper.
I don’t own any pictures and the idea of possessing such fills me with disdain.
I am dreaming of a white coat and X-rays. Nothing else.
“If you show them to me I will look at them and tell you what I think.”
“Why should I be interested in your opinion of my pictures?” I say barely audibly.
The torso shielding me from the sun moves closer.
Shadow is trying to catch my words.
This is beginning to look like the confessional.
Now I want Shadow to leave.
I don’t want to be distracted.
I don’t want those famished-looking enforcers in their ill-fitting threads and ill-fitting boots to sneak up on me.
I don’t want rifle-toting policemen who patrol this city to take interest in our conversation. It is not beyond them to claim that I am harassing this colossus.
“Leave before somebody takes interest in this meeting.”
“I would like to take a picture of you,” she says more forcefully than before.
Since I can’t see her head, and I am actually talking to her breasts, I can only guess that the colour of her face has deepened with this new effort.
“I don’t want trouble,” I hiss.
“I have permission to take pictures in this city.”
With that she opens one of the pockets of her jacket and pulls out a wad of documents. She peels off a page and thrusts it in front of my eyes.
I see the official stamp, signature and the meaningless words.
It is none of my business.
I look away, my forehead furrowed.
From under Shadow’s elbow I see that the Ice Cream Man is no longer there.
I don’t like this one bit.
“Go away,” I beseech her.
I want to add that she must leave before she overturns my world.
The Ice Cream Man is part of that world. And now he is gone!
“I will go if you allow me to take your picture.”
“Go, go, go,” I snap, making sweeping movements with my free hand.
I have the impression that she has not seen my hand and won’t listen.
This makes me angry.
“But I really want to go with that picture.”
“Can’t you see that I am not interested?”
“Did some photographer take advantage of you or your loved ones?”
I want to tell her that local newspapers are full of the casualties of the war.
Killed or maimed by those trying to erase two thousand years in two years.
I am sick and tired of photographers.
Nothing good ever comes out of a camera.
It is my belief that the world was a much better place when only the eye could rove, probe, disrobe.
In one eye; out the other.
“You don’t want to know,” I whisper.
“You must think I work for a tabloid. I work for myself. I want to make a photo book.”
“You are free to do it without me. If you insist, I can talk to those girls on your behalf. They will give you whatever you want.”
“I am not after those girls. I want you.”
“There are many others like me. You will find dozens if you go down Kimathi Avenue.”
“Before you refuse, why don’t you take a look at my pictures?”
Without my permission, Shadow opens her long, green bag and pulls out a small album, the type where the pictures are protected by plastic.
I am taken aback.
Shadow is flouting my wishes with impunity!
It dawns on me that Shadow is not going to go away soon.
I am stuck with her.
My heart sinks, for her kind never take five snaps and leave.
They take hundreds, as if looking for something they will never find.
I don’t have that kind of time to give.
As she hands over the pictures, a well-dressed couple passes by.
The woman turns, fancy earrings flashing, and looks suspiciously at Shadow.
This is strange.
Normally, that woman pays me no attention at all.
And would not mind if a lynch party launched an attack on me.
Now it is her business to find out what Shadow is doing!
This fills me with rage.
Full of rage, I look at the first picture.
I see three long parcels, which I take to be corpses, wrapped in gold leaf.
I wonder what kind of person clothes the dead in gold.
Who are these people?
How and where did they meet their end?
Father, Uncle, Brother died two years ago.
Shot by the soldiers who had come to wash away two thousand years in two years.
We wrapped them in bed sheets and put them in the soil.
It was a quick, undignified burial, for soldiers were still picking up people suspected of burying guns in their kraals.
And meetings of more than two people, even the dead, had been forbidden.
I left after Father’s burial and came here to watch the Ice Cream Man at work.
Much to my surprise, tears sting my eyes.
A battle of will follows.
I can’t let this intruder see me crying.
I don’t want her to think her picture has moved me this deeply.
I pinch my arm viciously and the tears go back into their ducts.
I turn the pages.
I see a person wrapped in darkness.
They look scorched; pulled out of the fire just in time.
I don’t like these pictures that much.
The truth is that I don’t understand them.
Why is everything immersed in mystery?
Isn’t hatred for mystery the reason why my tradition is being trampled?
I have never encountered anybody selling such darkness.
Why does Shadow find it so fascinating?
Is she rebelling against something?
Does she believe that darkness is a form of light?
My head is bursting with questions I can’t ask, for after so much sullenness, how can I become chatty?
I don’t know what to do.
I feel Shadow’s eyes on me.
I want her to look elsewhere.
Why doesn’t she look at the Ice Cream Man? The conjurer of a thousand flavours, as they say on the radio.
Isn’t he a better subject of a picture?
The feeling that my world is tottering makes me want to sit down for a while.
I notice that the children who play between the legs of wealthy passersby are back in action.
They probably know that the enforcers won’t come back.
Too famished to brave this pounding sun.
Too preoccupied with their meager salary to really care what is happening on the streets.
One of the little girls starts bawling, arm outstretched at passing suits and leather shoes. I am startled by the sound of a powerful 4X4 going down to Colville Street.
In all the time Shadow has been here, I haven’t heard a single car, despite the hundreds that have sped past.
There is no doubt that the day is going back to its normal rhythm.
Or that Shadow’s spell has been broken.
This gives me a burst of energy.
“The pictures are…”
Shadow laughs, a rich, melodious sound.
I wish I could see her eyes and her mouth.
“I don’t take normal pictures,” she boasts. “What would be the point?”
My mind goes back to the trinity of corpses.
Shadow must be mad.
Only a mad person makes death look beautiful.
I am sure Shadow’s life is marked by dark secrets.
“I really want to take your picture. It would be perfect for my book.”
I don’t care for her book, maybe a little for the shadows in her life.
Do I really want to sit down with her and inspect all the crypts?
I don’t think so.
Shadow is a nomad.
Yesterday she was in that country where rustlers come from to take our cattle.
Today she is here, far away from those trying to erase two thousand years in two years.
Tomorrow she will be in that country where Africa’s greatest juggler lives.
For decades he juggled a rifle and a lump of cane sugar.
When the rifle fell, he became the sugar man, and the world drools over his sugary smile, and his sugary hair.
Africa’s living saint.
I notice that the fury of the sun has waned and the wind is cooler.
We have spent hours without achieving anything tangible.
Yet my feeling is that if a day is lost, it should be buried properly: by spending the rest of it in the same way.
“You can take my picture,” I whisper.
“Start. The day is almost done.”
“Abnormal pictures take time,” Shadow says and laughs.
“You never talked about time.”
“I was still asking for permission.”
“How much time do you intend to take?”
“Maybe an hour. Maybe more.”
“What do you expect me to be doing during that hour or more?”
“What you were doing before I came. Or anything else you feel like doing.”
I hate this imaginary freedom she is offering.
I am her prisoner and she knows it.
She just won’t admit it.
She just won’t celebrate her victory openly, like the dismembered worshippers at the Ice Cream Man’s altar.
“And don’t worry,” she adds. “In abnormal pictures you don’t make faces. You do what you want.”
“What does one need to do to become a peddler of abnormal pictures?” I hear myself say.
“Education. But vision is more important. Nobody teaches vision.”
“I understand,” I murmur, thinking that it is always about education and education means selling cows to raise tuition fees.
“I want to take your picture in the grass of Constitutional Square.”
“I hate the place. Opposite is the Central Police Station. I hate the sight of so many armed men and women going in and out of a building. It stirs terrible memories.”
Shadow ignores my remark.
It is the end of my resistance.
We walk side by side.
It is like mother and daughter.
I hate the light she projects on me.
It makes me feel naked.
I feel like telling her to go on ahead and wait for me at our destination.
Yet I keep walking, too aware of the eyes of strangers.
I am thinking of resuming my juggling routine: this time a white coat and rolls of film.
I will have to sell the cows I inherited so that next time Shadow comes I will be ready.

Moses Isegawa for Motive Gallery
September 2008