Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile from A Memory This Size and Other Stories was written by Stanley Onjezani Kenani and published for the Caine Prize by New Internationalist in the UK, and Kwani? in Kenya. We are delighted to reprint the story here for msafiri readers to enjoy
Gathered here on the shores of our lake were men of various ages and sizes, tall, short, fat, thin, some in torn clothes and others in new attire, such that I, in a shabby brown suit and gaping shoes, standing before this red-eyed government official, felt like a drowning man. This, perhaps, was the feeling of everyone around here, for all our faces were sad as though we had received news of a funeral. Probably it was a funeral due to the possible death of our beloved lake, because, once the extraction of oil commenced, as announced by this burly government official, all the fish in the lake would likely die, and, as we all agreed, a lake without fish would be of no use to anyone.
The official, speaking through a megaphone and surrounded by about nine men in camouflage attire, all carrying guns, said: ‘I greet you in the name of His Excellency the President of our Republic, with whose authority I now stand before you. He sends his greetings and wants me to assure you that he loves you all. The government is aware that you are a fishing community; that your lives depend on the lake. I am here to allay fears that arise from misinformation by those who do not wish our government well; I’m talking about opposition political parties. We have identified powerful equipment that gives us confidence to guarantee no oil spill. I repeat, no oil spill. Without oil spill, the fish will not die and neither will your livelihood. The government hopes for your co-operation. Any acts of sabotage will be met with force. Thank you for your understanding. God bless you, and also our President.’
The government official furiously drove away, leaving us covered by a cloud of dust and frustration. A few metres from where we stood was the lake, which had been a silent listener as it lay in its usual calm way, its blue waters caressing the shore with the tenderness of a loving mother. I looked at my grandfather, who was standing next to me, leaning on his stick with great difficulty, tears streaming down to his white beard as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. I feared he might collapse, the weight of the government official’s words combined with the weight of his own years having become too much for him, so I held him by the hand and started walking him home. Slowly the crowd grabbed a cue from us and broke up, some walking on the long, sandy beach towards the north, others to the south, in groups of twos and threes but with hardly any conversation among them, each probably reflecting on the verbal guarantee given by the government. The sun was now about to set, its orange glow reflecting on the surface of the blue water like a torchlight in a misty mirror. Above us, white egrets or perhaps herons flew in beautiful formation, all lined up in single file. A fish eagle soared, leaving land to hover above the lake, and for once I felt a sense of brotherhood with birds as their predicament was, strictly speaking, not so different from ours, especially with regard to the fate of the lake.
We walked past the holiday resort where the rich from the cities often came at the pretext of buying fish but mostly to hide with their secret lovers – although, with the threat of oil, nothing was going to be certain even for matters of bodily pleasures, since the water would in all probability cease to be attractive for such purposes.
Next to the resort was our village where, for generations, fishing had been the only trade we had ever known. Women and children poured out of the houses to welcome us, clearly anxious to hear the latest from the government, but soon, on noticing the sadness on every man’s face and the tears of my grandfather, the sorrow appeared to spread to the women and children like an airborne epidemic, dampening the spirits of everyone, such that after the sunset, as the orange glow gave way to darkness, all was quiet on the shores of the lake.
Although the government was not known for putting its words into action with speed, within days several trucks appeared on the shore. Many of us from the fishing villages – men, women and children – gathered like frightened but curious sheep, watching from a distance as strange men unpacked their equipment and pitched tents. Within weeks, office blocks of the oil production centre began to take shape, while deep-water drill-ships and offshore support vessels emerged onto our waters, circling every day like flies on a wound. In the middle of the lake, where every summer we watched the sun gloriously rise over the shimmering waters, the oil company erected a giant structure that resembled an air traffic control tower, only much bigger, its two large pylons jutting out like the antennae of a grasshopper. This facility, we came to learn, was going to be an offshore oil platform which, from then on, was to forever block that part of the horizon from us. Not all the oil company staff were foreigners. There were mud engineers, pump operators and drillers who came from other parts of our country. These spoke our language and regularly came to our village to buy fish and to satisfy our curiosity by answering some of the questions troubling our minds. The actual drilling, we learnt, was still months away. A lot more work was to be carried out to lay out the required infrastructure. We mingled with these oil men to learn more. We laughed with them and made them feel welcome among us, though in truth our relationship was like that of a cow and the tick sucking its blood.
I noted, each passing day, that my grandfather was perhaps becoming the most worried of us all. As well he should, because, being the chief of the village, he carried on his shoulders a load of hopes and dreams for his people. And so, in the mornings and late afternoons, he stood on the shore and shook his head as he watched the oil men work in the waters. On those occasions I joined him, he would say, ‘We must do something to stop this’ – the only words he uttered before returning to his house like a tortoise retreating into its shell. Once, after standing by him in silence for a long time, staring at the offshore oil platform and the oil people working on it, Grandfather said: ‘Do you know that there are spirits in this lake?’ He must have seen the alarm on my frowning face as I shook my head. ‘Hundreds of years ago, when slave-traders came here, many of our people opted to throw themselves into the lake to avoid being captured as slaves. Their spirits are there, because this is their grave. These spirits can sometimes be angry. I don’t think the oil people are aware of this.’
On one occasion of gazing at the lake, which was in the afternoon, Grandfather said, ‘Can you please take me to the oil people?’ I complied and at once walked him to the office blocks of the oil company.
One of the men who often came to our village to buy fish, a tall fellow with a huge gap between his upper front teeth, rushed to greet us, as others went about their work, welding, plastering one of the office blocks, painting, or working on some machines whose names I did not know. ‘Welcome,’ said the man, leading us to one of the completed office blocks. ‘May I offer you some tea or coffee?’ he said, when we were seated in his office.
‘No,’ said my grandfather.
After a bit of awkward silence, the man said: ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Stop this rubbish and leave,’ said my grandfather in a calm but emphatic deep voice, the voice only a chief such as he could carry, with a tremor reminiscent of those distant years when he had extra authority as the most powerful traditional healer in all the villages of the lake.
‘Leave?’ the man said, with a chuckle. ‘Why? What wrong have we done?’
‘Can’t you see you’re destroying our lake? You must stop this nonsense now. Pack your things and leave.’
The fellow laughed nervously. ‘No, I don’t think that is the case, sir. Your lake is not going to die.’
‘That’s not true. When the Leader of the Opposition held a rally here last year, he said the fish will die. The water, too, will become dirty. He said something needed to be done first, which our government has not done. I believed him and so did many others.’
‘What needs to be done?’ asked the man.
‘Something… what did he call it?’ Grandfather turned to me.
‘An environmental impact assessment,’ I refreshed his memory.
‘That’s it!’ said Grandfather. ‘Perhaps I need to tell you that to us, fish is everything. If you kill our lake, we are dead.’
The man looked out of the window in thoughtful silence. Clearing his throat, he said, in what came across as a carefully measured tone: ‘I blame ourselves for not quickly engaging you, our wonderful hosts. No harm is going to be done to the lake. We have invested heavily to ensure no oil spillage. Please, bear with us. You would do well to understand that the world needs this oil. It has become a thirsty world, burning 13 billion litres of oil per day. You too want this oil. At night, when you’re out fishing, I see lanterns in the middle of the lake. Isn’t that kerosene? Now you’ll have it at lower prices. Our country, too, needs it, because oil will bring a lot of money. Don’t you want our country to be rich?’
My eyes strayed to a huge drawing on the wall behind the man’s seat. He must have sensed that I was looking at something, as he said, pointing at the drawing: ‘You see, this is where we have sunk the drilling template into the lakebed. Oil will be sucked from the earth and travel in these pipes up to the offshore platform, and you see these here? From the platform it will travel in these pipes up to this spot on land, where production will be done. So, as you can see, everything has been worked out to ensure the ecological system is not disturbed in any way.’ He smiled, his eyes moving from Grandfather to me and back.
‘Thank you for your explanation,’ said Grandfather, ‘but my mind remains unchanged. You’re here to kill our lake, and I ask you to stop this and leave.’
‘I’m afraid we can’t stop just like that, sir,’ said the man. ‘We’ve signed an agreement with the government. We’ve spent too much money already. I beg you, sir, to understand us. We’re already planning to buy a motorbike for every man in your village. We also plan to build a maternity clinic for your village. All these are just for a start. We will do more in future. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? ’
‘I don’t care,’ said Grandfather. ‘Go away. We don’t want you here.’
The old man rose, and I had to hold him to prevent him from falling. He was shaking with fury. We began walking out, but the oil man stood and walked in quick strides to close the door and to stand facing us. ‘Let’s talk,’ the man lowered his voice. ‘If you promise not to tell the rest of the people in your village, we can give the two of you some money. I’m talking about good money that no fishing can make you in your lifetime.’ Grandfather suddenly pushed the man with force that shocked me, a reaction that must have taken the oil man by surprise as he staggered awkwardly and hit the door hard with his backside. As the man yelped, I jumped to stand between the two.
‘Stop this, please,’ I said to Grandfather, whose trembling was now intense.
‘This man is evil,’ said Grandfather. ‘Evil, I say! How can he suggest to me to betray my people?’ Turning to the oil man, who was now trying to straighten up his ruffled clothes, the old man said: ‘Do you know me? Do you? Get lost! You are a dog; a filthy dog.’ He spat. ‘Let’s go,’ he said to me. We walked past the man, opened the door and closed it behind us.
To be frank, the offer of a motorbike was appealing to me. Not only because every man in the village would be given one, which sounded fair to me, but also because I needed it. I had all along been thinking about how to acquire a motorbike, yet there was no way I could afford it. With it, I could make extra money by offering transport services to areas with bad roads, where cars could not go. ‘I think the motorbike idea is a good one,’ I said to Grandfather as we entered the village.
‘Don’t sell your soul,’ said Grandfather to me. ‘A motorbike is nothing. It is here today, not there tomorrow. The lake will always be there if you defend it.’
‘The man sounded sincere to me,’ I said. ‘He smiled and was polite.’
‘Those who clap hands for a smiling crocodile realize their mistake when it is too late to learn from the error.’ With these words, Grandfather detached himself from my supporting hand and limped into his house.
Weeks before free motorbikes were distributed, Grandfather asked me to call a meeting. A good crowd showed up. The old man spoke from a moored boat. The crowd looked at him and listened attentively, because, if there was any man who could do something about a precarious situation in these parts, then Grandfather was the one. He was a battle-scarred giant who had tussled with the Fisheries Department over the years and won, having compelled them to reverse the introduction of unaffordable fees for the annual renewal of fishing licences. Raising his hand for more silence, Grandfather said: ‘I am aware that the oil company wants to distribute motorcycles to all men in the fishing villages. This is a trap. I ask you not to exchange your lake for the motorbikes. In fact, what we should be doing at present is to consider a protest. I ask God to join all our hearts as one, so that we should be free from fear. Let us march to the oil company and ask them to leave. Let us block their men from entering the lake. We can form a human wall and stop any oil worker from going into the lake. If the police come, that’s even better, because our message will then reach the authorities.’
There was, strangely, a murmur of disapproval. Somebody in the crowd cracked a derogatory joke, something suggesting that the old man’s age had made him lose his grip on reason, and the crowd laughed. In fact, even as Grandfather spoke, many people began to leave. I overheard a retired police officer saying: ‘Militancy of any sort would be overboard. The government has already given its assurances that there will be no oil spill. I guess there will be a way to hold the government responsible if the guarantee is not kept.’
I said to the man: ‘Beware of the government’s promises. Do you remember that the Leader of the Opposition, when he addressed us last year, said an oil spill would take 700 years to clear? Even if we were to hold the government accountable, the lake would still be gone for 700 years. That is eternity, if you ask me.’
‘Regardless,’ said the man, ‘between the old man’s overreaction and a motorbike, I would choose the latter. I don’t know what others think, but I am speaking for myself.’
When the meeting ended, Grandfather began to show signs of being increasingly disturbed, perhaps because this was the first time he had noticed open defiance to his authority. He spoke to himself and preferred to be alone. ‘Sad,’ he kept muttering. ‘Nobody understands the severity of the matter.’
To be clear, I loved my grandfather, for he was the only person I considered my parent, since both my mother and father had died in a boat accident when I was in the third class of primary school. Grandfather and the now-deceased Grandmother saw to it that I grew up without lacking anything – money, clothes and the love that only family could provide. He was the one who taught me the art of fishing, and he did it well in those days when his youth and blood were warmer, before age curled his back. Over the years, therefore, any word Grandfather said to me I regarded as a commandment that could not be broken. But when it came to the matter of the motorbike, I was prepared politely to disagree with the old man, my love for him notwithstanding.
I therefore registered with an official from the oil company when he came to the village to take the names of those interested in free, brand new motorbikes. I asked other members of the family to keep it from the old man until I found ways of breaking the news to him myself.
Somebody must have betrayed me because Grandfather found out that I had accepted the motorbike barely a week after I received it. He called me to his house one morning and said, by way of greeting, ‘How is the motorbike?’ I had never felt more embarrassed in my life. All along I thought I had succeeded in staying clear of his path each time I took the motorbike and rode out of the village. Each time I kept it hidden at a friend’s place, each time I pushed it way down the road to start the engine out of his sight but, no, the old man had found out my sleight-of-hand and, going by the sadness in his voice, he was far from amused. ‘As you can see, not many days remain to me. I was hoping that, when I’m gone, you might lead the struggle against the oil people; but my hopes, as I can see, were misplaced.’
There was no way to describe my feeling, except, perhaps, by using clichés such as stung and gutted, none of which expressed half the guilt that consumed me at that moment. Worse, the returns I thought the motorbike might bring me weren’t worth the shame, because it turned out I wasn’t the only person thinking about offering transport services, which still left fishing the only realistic option of earning a living.
‘Call a meeting of all those who fish in our village and the neighbouring villages,’ he said.
‘A meeting?’ I said, arching my eyebrows in surprise.
‘What shall I say is the agenda?’
‘Tell them it is an important meeting that cannot be missed.’
Not many people came; in fact the correct way to put it was that only a handful showed up, mostly from our village. I could tell by the deepening contours on Grandfather’s forehead that he was not pleased by the snub, but he showed signs of willingness to proceed with the meeting. I dutifully carried him to the boat. ‘Leave me alone,’ he said, and I did.
Leaning on his stick in the middle of the moored boat as usual, about 20 metres or so into the lake, he shouted: ‘I’m disappointed by you all. How can you exchange your lake for these motorbikes? This lake is going to die – doesn’t that make you afraid?’ None of us answered him.
‘If I must die to let the lake live, then
I will,’ he said, and I flinched, not sure what he meant by that. He continued: ‘I believe that my spirit, together with the spirits of our fathers, will be angry enough to stop this nonsense. And so…’ He threw away the stick he was leaning on and suddenly plunged into the water. He swam as we gasped but, instead of heading towards the shore, he went the opposite direction. He was an agile swimmer despite his age, and in those few moments of indecision as we stood watching him swim, he went farther and farther. Then his body suddenly sunk into the water, leaving his head temporarily bobbing like a fishing float before disappearing into the water.
I dived into the water, as did many others, but I was ill-dressed for a swim. I gave up after a few metres, afraid I might drown. As I staggered back onto the shore, I turned and looked at the others who had swum to the spot by the boat. I hoped for the best while shouting and crying to attract the attention of passers-by who might help. After a few minutes everybody realised the futility of the search and returned to the shore. All of us dripping wet, we stood on the shore to gaze at the calm lake that had now become the old man’s tomb, unable to comprehend why he had taken his own life. I had been aware that the matter was of great importance to him, but it had not occurred to me that he considered it an issue big enough for him to take his life.
I rushed to the police to report a suicide and to request them to help us trace his corpse.H
The official from the government returned to address us through his megaphone. It was a week after my grandfather’s death. As we gathered to listen to him, I noticed something about the water. To begin with, it had receded too far from the shore, so far, in fact, that the lake began to look like an empty pit. This frightened me, especially with the silence that engulfed the place as though we were inside a tomb. And then, just as the official ascended to his makeshift podium, I saw the mass of water rise in the distance, slowly but steadily, as if a magnetic force was pulling it from the sky. The height of the water was increasing by the second and, just as the official opened his mouth, the lake became a mountain of water, silently moving towards us. I thought of leaving, of running away, but I dismissed the thought, fearing that the gun-carrying police protecting the government official might misinterpret my actions and open fire. In his gruff voice, the official said: ‘The government wants to make it clear that counter-revolutionary activities of any kind, suicides, protests, strikes, and so on, will not deter the nation from extracting oil. If there are any grievances, channel them through the appropriate authorities. We want a peaceful coexistence between your community and the oil company. Anybody planning further shows of such attention-seeking acts as suicide, self-immolation etcetera should be reported to the police. The government will also make available to your villages a psychiatrist to provide psychosocial support, as it is clear some of you are failing to cope with the reality. The President, who loves you, and sends his greetings, in whose authority I . . . .’
The water was now so high that the offshore oil platform was already buried under it, and the huge mountain was now too close for anybody to stand it. I began to run. The meeting ended at that point, as everyone, including the government official and the police, started running towards the higher ground, the latter without their guns.
It was not until I was at the top of the hill to the west that I stopped to survey the situation below. The water had gone beyond the shore and was sweeping everything in its wake. I saw the government official’s vehicle tossed like a toy car before being swallowed by the angry waters. I saw our houses collapse, and the oil company’s offices brought down. I saw trees uprooted and the water rise to even more frightening heights, charging towards the hill where I was. I turned and looked further west, searching for the next hill to run to. But just before I took off, the water calmed down at the foot of the hill. I looked at it in fear as I tried to comprehend it all. Surely this could not have happened without the power of angry spirits? I wondered about what had happened to other members of my family, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. I sat down and began to shake. ‘Oh, Grandfather, your spirit is too angry,’ I said. ‘Please, don’t be too hard on us.’
I went back to our village after a week of staying with friends from inland villages. Everything was destroyed, and the motorbikes were all gone. Various organisations, both local and international, donated tents, food, clothes and medical care to us. The only personal items of ours that survived were our fishing boats. The offshore oil platform was gone, uprooted by the angry waters like a tooth from its root canal. Since the offices of the oil people on the shore had also been destroyed, the company announced its immediate but temporary withdrawal to study a thing or two about the incomprehensible behaviour of the water before making any further decisions. There had been casualties not only among the oil people but also in every village, with 11 of the oil men confirmed dead and 16 villagers, including a cousin of mine. Whenever I walked about, I heard many people express relief for having survived, or, in some cases, sorrow for a loved one lost, but it was clear to us all that restarting our lives was going to be a challenge of unimaginable proportions.