‘Seasons in Hippoland’ by Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ: An Excerpt
Captivating and enchanting, Seasons in Hippoland plays with the tradition of magic realism. Every image in this novel is a story, and every story is a call for resistance to anyone who tries to confine our imagination or corrupt our humanity.
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At thirteen, I found myself living in the middle of the marshlands. Legend has it that the slow-moving water once held hundreds of hippos. The sun bounced off their eyes and ears and nostrils as they waited for dusk, for their time to hunt among the rushes and reeds and shrubs at the water’s edge. The invaders who settled several miles north, in Londonshire, drove these creatures out of their territory and into extinction. But another legend has it that the hippos survived, that they still lived in the upper south and only showed themselves during the super moons. Hippoland, the town I lived in and that lay nestled between Westville and Londonshire, was named after them.
In Westville, government ministers zoomed about in Mercedes-Benz sedans, oblivious of the potholes on most of the road snaking in and out of Westville International Airport from where they frequently emerged, clad in oversized suits and bearing black suitcases, suitcases now empty of their contents, the contents now safely deposited in Swiss banks.
In Londonshire dwelt the remnants of the former colonial rulers of Victoriana. They built big houses, fenced them in with willow whips, smoked a variety of intoxicants, swaggered about in cravats and kept their Luger pistols close in order to contain the restive natives on whose land they had built their homes.
In the East African nation of Victoriana, the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean that marked the beginning of the rainy season always arrived with a whisper. They began by sweeping over Westville, picking up the trash thrown out of the high-rise buildings and spreading it all over the valley, and forcing vehicles off the road. Then they moved on to the southern slopes, on the outskirts, then turned north, past the tea plantations and corn fields and blew the dust from the desert plains onto the potato fields, hurled away the fertilizer, sometimes even the wheat and barley and oats, and spread the pollen everywhere so that everywhere there grew spruces and figs and mugumo and pear trees.
By the time the winds got to Hippoland, the whisper had grown into a howl, an eerie sound that reminded me that life, just like the seasons, had reason to be.
Those who toiled in Londonshire and Westville all hailed from Hippoland. They sold their labour cheap, like the hundreds of Indian men before them, who had arrived in ships and dhows and built with their bare hands the railway lines criss-crossing Victoriana. Some of those workers managed to survive the heat strokes and the wild game and chose to settle in Hippoland, waiting for the largesse they had been promised to finally trickle down to them. They began to sell mahamris and hippo tusks and skins and, of course, spices which went on to change our tastes forever. They married the locals and built dress shops, bicycle shops, dairy shops, paraffin shops and market stalls and temples and churches and bars and, in time, became well and truly part of Hippoland.
When the workers came back home, they carried with them stories to be shared at the Sunday football games or at Mexico 86.
Mexico 86 was a beer hall, a simmering pot in which stories from Westville and Londonshire were stewed, strained, mixed and served up to neighbours, friends and foes, especially after the sun had slowly set behind the hills (it was also a shelter from the cold and the rain). Mexico 86 was always dimly lit, with cigarette smoke looping around the shapes huddled at the wooden tables, over overflowing ashtrays and beer bottles and leftover chicken, over servings of Miti wine made from water and sugar cane and organic honey, fermented in wooden drums and served in calabashes and cow horns.
Whenever Westville banned a book, someone would smuggle a copy into Mexico 86. And that is how Mexico 86 became the fount of stories, factual or fictional or both.
My Aunt Sara was quite the storyteller. I did not know this when I met her. I did not even know I had an aunt by that name until my father told me that her place was going to be our place of exile.
Exile, for my brother Mito and me.