1904 – 2000
I howl for words as much as I cry for food. I cry for food on the hour, yet for words even the moments are insufficient. For food we are tossed scraps of congealed maize and wild greens, for words the curses of our headman and the servant women made to look after us that day. My older sisters speak Swahili, and swear at the women in English if they take too long. At the age of four I speak no language.
A’waan Akeilo was born on the coast of Kenya, in the middle-class Kibokoni district of Mombasa, the middle child of two daughters and five sons. He was orphaned at the age of two when his mother, father, his father’s three other wives and extended family were killed in one of the many feuds between Sunni and Shia Muslim factions. His two older sisters (the only ones who survived) said in later years that he saw his mother hacked with a machete in front of his eyes, but he claimed no recollection of the event. All his half-brothers and sisters were killed.
His family were Ismaili Shia Muslims, descendants of Arabic ocean traders of the eighth century who established links between the Persian Gulf and the east African coast. They are a minority in Kenya and confined to the urban fringes; never assimilated, they live alongside their African countrymen exactly as their ancestors lived in the Middle East. Their food, music, cultural traditions and dance have not changed. Many have now become crypto-Shias, but A’waan’s family were proud of their heritage and religion, and thus became victims of it.
A’waan’s father was a businessman making a living building tourist huts on the beaches, and A’waan would have grown up with a sense of superiority if his father had lived. Instead, he was taken into the home of the Muslim headman of his district, and treated as a servant. He grew up speaking Swahili, a mixture of the indigenous Bantu language with Arabic influences, and learned basic English at primary school. The headman didn’t think he needed further schooling to become a house-boy.
As a teenager, A’waan became moody, silent and angry. His only pleasure was in taraab music from Zanzibar, which he begged from friends who had bootleg tapes. He gardened, cleaned and helped the cooks in the headman’s household. He plotted escape from his confined life, dreaming of wide vistas, of taking one of the ships at Mombasa’s port and sailing away. He didn’t know what had become of his sisters Sanura and Zenaida; the headman told him they had been given to good Muslim men in the interior. The last time A’waan saw them was when he was ten, watching them veiled and led away from the courtyard.
When he turned twenty, he told the headman he wanted to marry, knowing this was the only way to leave Mombasa with some money. He was given a small amount, and a marriage arranged with a Shia girl of the district, who was also without parents. Instead of going to the girl’s house on his betrothal day, A’waan lost himself in the labyrinths of the old city. Here, he found work on the street selling the bootleg tapes he loved, and a tiny room in one of the ancient houses clinging to the side of the seaside cliff. He shared it with another man, who was a night-worker. A’waan would arrive home just as the other man was dressing to leave. They exchanged greetings, and little else.
In a few more years, A’waan was on a plane to Australia. He had saved the money the headman gave him, applied for a visa, was accepted when it transpired that one of his sisters, Zinaida, had gone there with her husband. It was in the western suburbs of Sydney, among other Muslim Kenyans, that he began to live in his sister’s apartment and found a job as a construction labourer along with her husband. Here he met Lily and Eleni Bellou. He needed the money, so becoming a sperm donor was an easy decision. There was nothing in his religion to forbid it, although his sister was outraged.
When Eleni gave birth to his and Lily’s baby, A’waan was shocked at how much love he felt – for all three of them. He mourned Eleni when she died, committed himself to Lily and to Alia, their child. When Alia went missing in Kenya, A’waan stayed behind to look for her. Of his other sister, he found not a trace. He and Lily saw each other regularly, she traveling from Australia and back to Africa, until she became too ill to travel any longer.
Aw’aan died at the age of ninety-six, in Mombasa. He had outlived all those he loved.