Two hands yanked me out of the crumpled car. My back scraped against the mangled door, but I felt no pain.
I looked around me in shocked daze. Everything was a blur of smoke and crackling fire. I heard shouting nearby. The man in the Tanzanian police uniform let go of my arm and doubled over coughing. It was a rough, gagging cough. His face was glowing, not from sweat but from the reflection of fire.
That was when I felt the heat. The grass around us, tall enough to hide a fully-grown African elephant, was ablaze. The fire was climbing the acacia tree we’d hit moments earlier, its leaves curling inward in pain. I gazed in horror at my parents’ small Fiat, engulfed in flames. There was a familiar shadow inside. A darkened head collapsed forward. Another shadowy head leaned against the steering wheel, now a ring of fire.
“Oh my god!” I struggled to my feet.
“Get back!” someone yelled.
“Mama! Papa!” I had to get to them. Save them. Before I could do anything, the officer grabbed my arm and pulled me up. He pushed through the hot grass, half carrying, half dragging me like a raggedy doll. I kicked at the dirt and struggled all the way, almost losing my precious red sandals. “Lemme go! Lemme go!” I screamed. He dumped me on the asphalt and flopped down, with one hand holding tightly onto my shoulder, the other wiping his face now drenched in sweat.
The cackle of fire and the blaring of sirens were getting louder. I felt hands pull me onto a stretcher. People were shouting at each other and at me. Someone was forcing me to lie down, their hands on my shoulders pushing me down. I fought to get up. “No! Mama! Papa! Got to save them!”
“Hatari! Danger!” a sharp voice said behind me. “Can’t go back!”
The man who’d pulled me from the car came over and reached for my hands. “Huwezi kwenda nyuma,” he said in a soft voice, shaking his head. I didn’t understand and not because I didn’t know the language.
“But we have to go back! Mama and Papa are still there!” I lunged forward. Hands clamped me down. The officer slowly shook his head.
“Pole, pole, miss,” he said in resignation. I stared at him through the smoky haze. I knew enough Swahili to understand he’d just said “sorry.”
I collapsed. My mind heavy, foggy. This is a nightmare. This isn’t happening. I’ll wake up soon.
The fire was now more than four feet high. I couldn’t see our green car anymore. Then the world went black.
“It was an impala,” whispered a female voice. “A pregnant one at that.”
“Ah!” replied another, “How tragic for everybody.”
Who’s talking? I couldn’t see a thing, but the voices kept going.
“I tell you Elizabeth, these foreigners don’t know how to drive here.”
“Every time we go on those roads, I tell my husband somebody should put up signs. Great big signs or someone will get killed.”
A big sigh.
“If we had signs about lions, do you think these tourists will stay away? They’ll follow it with their fancy cameras, I tell you.”
“Only the white muzungus do that.”
“Not these days. Everyone’s on safari now. Have you seen those busses full of Japanese these days? Even the wahindis are running around with their cameras now.”
“The good lord’s looking over this little wahindi. Only a few bruises. They’ll heal.”
“Let’s call that Hindu priest to come and talk to her.”
“How do you know that’s her church? Maybe she’s Sikh.”
“Or Muslim. Or Christian. Oh my lord, how do we find out?”
“Well, we need someone to bless her parents.”
Bless her parents? I pried my eyes open and was immediately blinded by bright fluorescent lights. I shut them back tightly.
“The girl’s up!”
“Get the doctor, Rosa!”
I opened my eyes more cautiously. Two nurses in starched white aprons and stiff caps were standing on either side of my bed, staring at me like I was an alien. I stared back. They couldn’t have looked more different from each other. One was stout and round, and the other was thin and tall.
I looked around me. I was the lone patient in the small windowless room. I was in a hospital bed with machines all around me. On the wall in front of me was a wildlife calendar with a photo of a sandy coloured antelope leaping over a bush, its long ribbed black horns leading the charge. I did a double take. It reminded me of something, something urgent, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of what it was.
A shiver ran through me. This place was cold and sterile, and smelled of disinfectant, like they’d scrubbed everything down with bleach. Something nipped my arm. I looked down to see plastic tubes sticking to my forearms. What’s this? I pulled my arms up and instantly, a searing pain rushed through my body.
“Aaarg,” I said. I struggled to get up. “Where am I? What am I doing here?” I tried to speak, but heard only a strange raspy sound. I put my hand on my throat. My back hurt and my legs felt heavy. Something somewhere was hurting badly, I felt tears well up in my eyes.
“Now, now, you’ll be fine, my dear,” said the stout nurse putting a hand on my shoulders and giving me a sympathetic smile. Her hand felt warm to the touch.
“Don’t pull on these now,” said the other nurse fixing the IV bag near my bed. “These are for your own good, honey. See, you’re already feeling better, no?”
“Where’s Mama?” I croaked. My throat was drier than the Sahara.
“Relax. No talking now, my dear. Take it slow. You need rest,” said the plump nurse pushing a button on the side of the bed to bring it upright. The other nurse leaned towards me. She was holding a plastic cup with a bent straw in it.
“Drink. This’ll help,” she said. “You’re going to be fine now.”
I reached for the cup with shaking hands and put my lips on the straw. As I took tiny sips watched over by the silent nurses, the fog in my brain started to clear. Then I remembered. I remembered it all.
We were on the highway to the safari camp. Papa was driving fast, as usual. Mama was telling him to slow down, as usual. An impala, just like the one on the calendar in front of me, jumped across the road. The car swerved, tires screeched, red dust swirled around us. Mama’s cake boxes went flying all over the backseat. I grabbed them and tucked them on my lap. I wrapped my arms around my legs and bent my head over the boxes. I guess I was braced for impact. It was Mama’s fairy cakes that saved me.
The nurses were now bustling around the room, taking readings from the screens, writing on charts. The black phone by the door rang. One of them picked it up and started talking to it, nodding every few seconds “Yes, Doctor, no, Doctor.”
I sat motionless trying to make sense of what happened, why I was here. The last image in my mind was of our small green car in flames with the shadows of Mama and Papa inside, unconscious. My body went numb. Panicked thoughts came rushing in like a sand storm in the desert, roaring, swirling, filling every crevice of my mind. Where’s Mama and Papa? Did they get away? Are they OK? Why aren’t they here with me? Where are they??
“Stop dawdling, Asha.” Papa was saying to me. “And please get in the car.” He was huffing and puffing, hauling our big family suitcase into the trunk.
“Don’t forget to bring your homework now,” Mama was saying to me. “I promised your teacher this time you’ll do all your assignments.” She put a brown paper bag in the back seat next to me and the stacks of Tupperware. Each of these containers had twelve fairy cakes, tasty pastries I could down in four bites. It took all the iron will in the world to not open the boxes, especially the one with the dark chocolate cakes. Other than not nibbling on the food, I had a very important job in the backseat, and that was to make sure the cake boxes always stayed upright. “We can’t have the pretty icing get squished, can we now?” Mama used to say.
“Again?” I said peeking inside the brown paper bag she’d just deposited next to me. Inside were five large Sweet Onion Buns. I pulled my nose out quickly. “Can we get something from the market this time? Please Mama?” But she’d already gone back to the house to get some last minute thing. Mama brought onion buns on trips because they’re easy snacks for the road, fast to make and fast to eat. She liked to make them on days when she had a lot of office work. These buns were made of onions, chilli and Maldive fish, spiced with curry leaves, tamarind pulp and cane sugar, baked inside a homemade butterball bun. It was our traditional road trip snack. They were yummy, but smelled to high heaven, the sharp, tangy smell of the sticky tamarind overpowering everything else. And by then, I felt I’d had a lifetime’s worth, twelve whole years, of smelly onion buns.
That day was supposed to have been a typical family day. We were on our way to a safari, our annual weeklong getaway hosted by the company in Dar es Salaam where Mama and Papa worked. I looked forward to it every year because it was one of the few times my parents spent time away from their computers, research work and endless talk of mining, sanitation, environment degradation and other complicated stuff. I knew their work was important, but sometimes they lived in their lab coats and books.
So every year, I circled the date for the safari on the fridge calendar using the biggest and blackest pen I could find. I packed my bags three weeks ahead and spent the rest of the time reminding Mama and Papa of the big trip. On those days, I’d drift to sleep at night dreaming of the mighty rhinoceroses, funny looking warthogs, beautiful zebras, and the impossibly graceful giraffes I’d seen before at water holes on the savannah lands.
It was always exciting to pile into our trusty green car. I never cared where we headed as long as it was far away from school. By twelve, I’d gone to five different international schools in four different countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana, if I didn’t count the three-month stint in Namibia and another one-month stint in Zimbabwe where Papa and Mama did environmental studies at uranium mines. All this moving meant I had to learn to adjust to different classes, subjects, teachers and classmates.
My teachers, foreign expatriates like Mama and Papa, worked in the international schools for a year or two before moving onto another country, another continent or sometimes back to their homelands in the US, UK or Australia. Most of the teachers I liked, but my favourite teacher of all times was Ms. Stacy from Canada who taught Grade six at my new school, the International School of Dar es Salaam.
She was the youngest teacher in my school that year, and the smartest as far as I was concerned. With a happy go lucky smile on her pretty face, she was friendly and approachable. Everyone liked Ms. Stacy and Ms. Stacy seemed to like everyone. She was also the teacher who taught me to think for myself. I still remembered the day I handed in my first book review essay.
“I didn’t want you to summarise the book, Asha. I wanted you to critique it.”
I looked at her worried. She was looking at me worried. My heart sank. Does this mean I’ll get a low grade? I really wanted to do well in school. My parents expected it. No, they demanded it. They always gave me time to adjust to a new school but from previous experience, I knew three months was all they gave and my time was up.
“How do I do that Ms. Stacy? Papa said Jules Verne’s the best writer in the whole world.”
“Your Papa’s not wrong.” Ms. Stacy looking thoughtful now. “But whether he’s right or wrong, it doesn’t mean you read blindly.”
“Read blindly? How do you do that?”
“Your dad has his opinion of this book, right?”
“Now tell me what’s yours.”
How could she even imagine Papa could be wrong? To tell the truth, I didn’t like some of the things my parents made me do, like finish my homework before supper, eat all the green veggies on my plate, and go to bed by nine, but I was confident they knew everything there was to know about the world. They were scientists, after all.
“I’ll give you two extra days to think about this, ok?” said Ms. Stacy. “Give me something new. Tell me how you would write this book.”
I stared at her. Doesn’t she know I’m only in grade six?
I took a long look at the book on my desk, an old copy of Around the World in 80 Days, its title barely visible on the faded cover. Papa had given it to me for my class assignment. He’d been more excited about this project than I’d been. When I announced my homework over supper, he’d rooted through his small library to find the “perfect” book. There were several books he carried with him wherever he travelled, tattered tomes, some barely readable, most torn, but they were his treasures. This one was Papa’s favourite, so it was with great anticipation I’d turned the first page.
Once upon a time, began the book. I sank comfortably into my chair clutching my book. The world around me was already receding and I was slipping into another world. Once upon a time, said the book, a rich English man called Phileas Fogg decided to travel the world to win a bet by his friends. On his adventure, he escapes a kidnapping and dodges a devious detective who is certain Fogg is a bank robber. With his French valet and travel partner, Passepartout, Fogg manages to rescue a young Indian princess named Auoda, who was on her way to die by fire at her dead husband’s pyre. They band together and cross three continents and two oceans by boats, trains, elephant and a wind-powered sledge to finally arrive safely back home just in time to win the wager.
It was the perfect story to get lost in, a story of characters beyond imagination, and a tale about travelling the world, one that only the greatest writer in the whole wide world could conjure up. By the time I’d turned the last page, it had become my favourite book too. For the life of me, I couldn’t find anything to criticize.
After two sleepless nights and two chewed up pencils, I wrote a one-page answer to Ms. Stacy. Fogg and his friends had travelled to faraway places in Asia, Africa and Europe. It was their amazing adventures and the magical places that made me fall in love with the story, but one thing was glaringly missing. Why didn’t Jules Verne tell us what they ate as they hopped from one country to another? I was certain Fogg loved his puddings, Princess Auoda her gulab jamuns and Passepartout his cherry crepes, but imagine the extraordinary exotic foods they must have encountered along the way. I would have loved to read about the cuisines of the different people all around the world. I salivated at the possibilities. That, I wrote, was pretty careless of the mighty Jules Verne. A missed opportunity to spice up his book. Somebody, I wrote, should put a recipe book together for all the countries Fogg and his companions had travelled. Ms. Stacy seemed to like my answer. “Perhaps you can take on that challenge, Asha,” she wrote on my paper, with a happy smile at the end.
Papa and Mama had told me all human beings are the same, wherever they came from. Eating, like breathing, is a universal thing, but with a tantalising twist. This common thread came in all kinds of flavours, aromas, colours, textures. While the Americans love their apple pies and the Thais their coconut rice, the South Africans make snowballs, the North Africans, sweet potato pancakes, and the Turkish their delights.
You’d think this excitement for all the different things in the world would’ve been shared by my classmates at the international schools, but that was not the case. I sat next to politicians’ and diplomats’ kids or children of wealthy business families, some of whom owned the biggest mining companies Africa. Some owned cattle ranches, airlines, railways and even shipping lines. Their time was filled jet setting to the Disney lands of the world, shopping at overseas mega malls, and staying at luxurious hotels. Their lives, while I envied them, were not something I could ever understand.
While everybody at school got chauffeured in shiny black Mercedes, I took the bus home. Some days, I’d sit next to my teachers, and other days, I’d sit with the school gardener or cafeteria cooks going home for the day. While the other students flew overseas for their vacations, my holiday trips were in Papa’s small green Fiat. When it was time for lunch, everyone used their pocket money to buy burgers, chips and ice cream at the school canteen, while I ate smelly onion buns from a brown paper bag day after day. My classmates’ lives were a world away from mine.
Our differences were not just in our lifestyles, but also in what our parents did for a living. While theirs worked hard to build businesses across the continent, mine worked hard to inspect and investigate those same businesses’ practices. At the dinner table, I often heard Mama and Papa talk about the very companies that belonged to my classmates’ families. I often wondered if my classmates’ parents talked about Mama and Papa around their dinner table too because no one seemed to want to hang out with me at school.
I spent most of my time alone. The one place I felt comfortable was the school library. There, I hung out for hours with my best friends—Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, Jack London, C. S. Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. These friends of mine never judged and I could take them with me wherever I went, from old school to new school, old home to new home, and wherever my parents decided to move to next. To me, books were enchanted gates to other worlds, worlds that enthralled, delighted, and at times surprised and shocked. They were my escape whenever I felt sad or lonely. They took me on adventures and stirred my emotions, making me laugh or cry or letting my imagination soar. The stories, places and people I discovered within the pages remained in memory long after I put the book down. Books were my friends, so I didn’t mind too much being the black sheep at my school.
There was one other black sheep in my school in Dar es Salaam, and that was Jurgen van de Vaart from South Africa. His father was a senior official from Johannesburg. After Jurgen joined our school, there was always a car full of police officers parked in the back parking lot. Jurgen was tall and athletic and had liquid brown eyes. He looked like a teen Hollywood star, the kind every girl would want to date. I couldn’t help having a crush on him.
“Stay away from him,” said Papa when I casually inquired about the police car. I wondered if Jurgen and his family were really that terrible. “These are the people who kept Mandela in prison.” Though Jurgen sported a hip hairdo and rode to school in a luxury German sedan, no one in school wanted anything to do with him. Even Ms. Stacy looked uncomfortable talking to him. Then, after two months, Jurgen disappeared. The rumour was that his family had run away to The Netherlands. I missed him. I’d daydreamed of the two of us becoming friends, maybe even having a date, holding hands, hanging out. He was the one who’d made me feel marginally accepted. When he left, he left me back at the bottom of the barrel.
It was the Friday before our safari trip when I learned what my classmates really thought of me. The librarian had gone for lunch and had asked me to keep an eye on things as usual. She used to call me her unofficial book assistant, given the time I spent at the library. There was an old armchair near the window at the back, hidden behind the bookshelves, where I spent every lunch hour curled up with a book, munching on my onion buns. With the sun streaming in through the window warming my face and shoulders, it was a cozy place to spend my lunch hour.
A few minutes before the bell rang for us to get back to class, the library door banged open. I looked up startled. There was a tiny crack between the two bookshelves through which I could see a gaggle of girls stomp in and take over the reading table at the centre of the library. They didn’t notice me in my corner, behind the shelves. Pens and books came out of designer bags in a flurry of giggling. Someone opened a large white paper and placed it in the middle of the table. All heads bowed over it silently. They looked like they were planning to invade China. I sat up wondering what’s going on.
“Do we have a caterer?” said Tanya breaking the silence. She was the tallest girl in my class. With a pretty face and beautiful ebony skin, she was the girl everyone said would become the world’s next Naomi Campbell. Most importantly, she was the daughter of the American ambassador and Tanya’s word ruled over everyone else’s. From hearing Mama and Papa talk about world news every night at supper, I couldn’t help feeling like my class was a mini United Nations, including the power play that happened between the countries.
“I got Mother’s favourite caterer to bring us treats,” said blonde Bethany. “They catered to the queen’s birthday celebration party last month, and everyone loved them.”
Bethany’s father was a high-ranking official in the British diplomatic corps, and their embassy parties were the most popular in town.
“I remember. The food was delish,” said Tanya.
“Do you want to know what we’ll be having, girls?” said Bethany with a coy smile.
“Yes!” said a chorus of voices.
“Listen to this. They’ll be bringing cucumber sandwiches, mini quiches, prawns on sticks and a plate of cold meats and cheeses,” said Bethany with a big smile. Satisfied murmurs went around the table. “And for those of you who can’t do without sweets, we’ll have lemony bars, butter scones and a fancy chocolate cake smothered in Belgian chocolate icing.”
From my corner of the room, I looked down at the last bite of onion bun in my hand. It had lost what little appeal it had.
“My sister just got back from Jo’burg and brought a huge bag of macarons,” piped up Sophie, the French girl in my class. “It will be my pleasure to share them with all of you.”
When Sophie had introduced herself on the first day of school that year, she’d named all the mining companies her father owned on the continent. I recognised some of them because Mama and Papa had inspected them for Environ Africa. From what I heard over dinner, young children, as young as nine, worked in those mines.
“Those supervisors beat them,” I remembered Mama saying, shaking her head. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing that’s happening right under our own noses, and how many times have we complained?”
“No one cares as long as they’re making money,” replied Papa quietly.
That night, I had nightmares of Sophie dragging me to an underground mine to work, a deep, dark place where Mama and Papa would never find me. I avoided Sophie like the plague after that.
“Ooh, macarons!” said Bethany. “How lovely.”
“J’aime les macarons!” said another girl.
“I love them too,” Sophie said. “These come in all sorts of gorgeous colours and flavours.”
“That’s wonderful of you. Merci.”
“Mon plaisir,” Sophie said with a self-satisfied smile.
“How about drinks?” asked Tanya, who always kept everyone on track. “We have to have drinks. Serious ones, ladies.”
“I’ve already made plans for punch and wine,” said Ana proud of herself. Ana was from Spain and came to school with her five brothers in a long car as big as a limousine. “My brother said he’ll ask our driver to get a few bottles for us. He’s got connections at the duty-free shop. No one will find out.”
“Oooh, is it Pedro?” asked Bethany.
“You have a crush on him, don’t ya?” said Tanya wagging her finger at Bethany.
“Don’t know what you see in him, Beth. He’s such a pain,” said Ana scrunching her nose. “But he’s a good brother to get us drinks.”
“Girls,” said Shanti with a worried look on her face, “Please, please don’t get caught. If Papa ever finds out we’re having drinks he’ll never let me talk to you. Ever.”
Shanti was the doe-eyed daughter of the Indian High Commissioner, and the only other Indian girl in school. She’d told us she wanted to become a diplomat like her father when she grew up. She was the prim and proper girl in class, except for the over-sized Madonna cross earrings that dangled dangerously from her earlobes. She bought her clothes from Harrods in London where she went for a shopping holiday every six months. I knew this because she reminded me every time we met.
“Okay, what about the invitations?” asked Tanya.
“Got everyone,” said Sophie.
“Hope you didn’t invite that one,” said Bethany.
“Gosh no, I’d never do that.”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Ana.
“The new girl,” said Tanya.
“You mean the stick insect?” said Ana. I almost dropped my book. I’d always been smaller, skinnier and shorter than my classmates, so the boys often taunted me with “runt” or “stick insect.” The latter particularly troubled me because I was frightened of insects of any kind, and images of long legged crawly things jabbing at me haunted my nightmares many a night. I was sure Mama’s fairy cakes would help me grow faster and taller, sooner. That was one reason I loved them so much. The only problem was Mama allowed me no more than three fairy cakes per week. Yes, per week. “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing,” Papa would say whenever I pleaded for more. One day, when neither of them was looking, I helped myself to three cakes in one morning. Mama came by just as I was licking the last crumbs off the wrapper. The half-licked wrapper in my hand quietly screamed my crime to the world. “You spoiled your dinner, child,” said Mama shaking her head. I said nothing and looked at the floor, feeling bad for disobeying her but also because my tummy was feeling like lead.
“Oh, you mean that new Indian girl?” said Sophie.
“She’s not Indian,” said Shanti with such vehemence it surprised me. “She’s lower than the lowest caste. If you call her Indian, you’re all insulting me. Trust me, I know these things. I’m from the Brahmin caste.”
“Whatever you say. You know these things,” said Tanya with a shrug.
“Shanti’s right. She’s a mulatto,” said Sophie. “Her mother’s from some island or something.”
“Hey, do you know the mulatto’s mother sells cakes at the market?” said Bethany.
“No!” said a few horrified voices.
“Our cook saw them at Uhuru last Saturday.”
“Who buys cakes at the market?” asked Ana.
“Who sells cakes at the market?” asked Sophie.
“Only someone who takes the bus and hangs out with the teachers,” said Tanya. Her voice was almost sympathetic. “She doesn’t belong here.”
“Don’t her parents work for that environ company?” said Bethany. “Mother said they’re worse than hippies.”
“Why do they let common riff raff in here?” said Ana. “Shouldn’t they have put her in that local school, whatever it’s called, down the road?”
“I’ve no idea, but I know why she smells like strange,” said Sophie. “She’s always hanging out with the locals in the fish stalls and eating those smelly lunches.”
“She dresses weird too like she comes from a hippie commune or…,” said Tanya.
“Or a slum,” said Shanti making a face.
Coming out on 5 December 2017 at Amazon.com near you!