I eat cockroaches. I live with them too. Not in that order. My story with cockroaches dates back to the year I quit university.
They said I was a promising student, so one day the principal invited me to his office. It was around 7pm and silent, with winds howling through a square facing the administration block and the darkness that engulfed the building whenever there was a power-cut – as was this night and many others before and after. The campus prophets who had encountered Jesus in exam rooms – appearing to them in two forms, the first amnesia and a red x-like cross on answer sheets and the second in their withdrawal and return to the institution at his grace – were yet to start their rumblings against the devil who they were yet to meet. I hurried in and he shut the door.
Yesterday I launched a deadly offensive, pursuing them through to the shower room. I had woken up from two nightmares – in which in one I wrestled with a monster that had a grey face, dark bags under its red eyes, long teeth standing spaces from each other and a mixture of fractured bones and torn flesh drenched in blood. I dragged my body on bare feet into the tiny room cut out of my apartment and hit the switch on the murky white wall with grey soapy stripes running from the ceiling to the floor. I had thought I was hallucinating in the other nightmare when cockroaches crawled all over me in bed whispering things I did not comprehend until I found them crammed around the tiny hole on the floor through which water escapes from the room to the government-knows-where. I threw myself on them, thumping my feet around like a hippo destroying out fire.
‘Do you think I am a politician?’
Yes. I mean, I wanted to say yes. But to sound intelligent, I said everyone was. He dropped his eye glasses slightly above the nose, and stared at me for seconds. Like how he had done when I was a freshman and one student had raised his hand to tell him Jim and Huck Finn in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were gays. He turned around, wandered from where we were to the other edge of the desk, and returned – his hands tucked inside his trouser pockets – this time looking at the lone poster hanging on his office wall. Patriotism is a big lie.
‘Young man, you will graduate soon. Between you and the world stands a mountain everyone is trying to drill a hole through.’
I had always loved it when he spoke like this in class before he became principal. I had missed him – how he had started pronouncing course as ko:z in ko:z outline on his return from the University of Leeds and everything about it. He always spoke with passion, like the characters in the books he read to us had been carved out of his own flesh. This time around though, he had abandoned the long laugh he used to give whenever he asked us if we had read so and so and we hadn’t.
‘In front of you is a man with keys straight through the mountain’.
I can’t seem to recall whether I grabbed the keys or did something stupid like just telling him I had to go finish two essays that same night.
The cockroaches have taken over much of my conscious – and I am thinking even the sub-conscious. Today, they have turned my reading space into a war zone. I mostly spend my days reading stories of Africans – us – living off English teaching in the small cities of China, most of us known to our schools as having a Canadian and a German and a British mother and an Ashante and an Igbo and a Sotho father. Or as black Americans who got their evil African names through their parents’ homecoming.
The cockroaches are lurking everywhere – on the floor, walls, and on a rice cooker and a kettle that stand amidst plates and the plain rice from last night’s supper. That’s where they have hit me hard, they are thinking. They imagine me wondering what could’ve possibly gone wrong for my body and soul to be caged in this tiny box alone – seemingly for eternity.
He had said he wanted me to excel because he loved my resilience. He said he had gone through my files and knew where I was coming from. That he didn’t know anyone who – except my dad or mum – would be more proud than him if I did well to the end. It was our first time talking intimately – the other exchanges had often been on his way back to his office. I was always part of a group wanting one or two things from him after every class. Him speaking highly of me; my dad would have been proud of me wherever he was – and mum, her ghost was a good one, always with me. I could feel her hugging me and smiling. She passed on when I was only 6 – old enough to remember she was also my father. She had returned from market one day and complained about headache. She never woke up the following day.
‘I can’t promise you anything. I want you to know though, that you’re just a man away from the president.’
I knew he wasn’t bluffing. He had a PhD from Leeds and shared a clan name with the president. I had neither, so it wasn’t like I really had options.
Now I remember how I grabbed the keys through the mountain. I told the principal that I would do that simple task since he had my back. Besides, I would only be a side guy. He had introduced me to a senior student they had worked on other missions together before, who would be the main guy.
Protests were looming. It was a culmination of problems but what mattered to us was tuition. It had been hiked threefold. Our job was to persuade our friends to back off. It already was a problem nationwide – we didn’t have to aggravate it. So, the principal and I shook hands. I returned to my dorm with an envelope and the vague statement that had the irony of serving as a promise of some sort. The principal headed towards the car park and disappeared in the night.
I bought a bottle of Raid on my way back from interviews at an English teaching centre in Hangzhou last week. I had told them through phone I was Gregory Morgan – and when a man in black skin popped up they asked me why I had lied when I was African. I said I got my skin from my mum and the name from my dad. But before the interview, they showed me their salary ranges so I had to make an informed decision.
$3500 native speaker, $3000 any other Caucasian, $2500 blah blah until I said I couldn’t see where I fitted in. The lady who looked like the Laoban pointed her finger straight to the bottom of the list. Batman $1000 per month. I wanted to know why. But I have been here long enough to know what not to ask. They texted two days later notifying me they had opted for someone else. I wasn’t surprised. My previous school had axed me for an Afghan who choked three-four times every time he uttered a phrase in our early hand-over chats at the school’s coffee shop.
A night before the protests, my friend and I wrapped up our enlightenment campaign. We moved from dorm to dorm sharing all the bad stories there were about both government and opposition – that it was all up to us as individuals to help ourselves out first. Some said no, that’s where my friend often came in.
‘Did you know there was a time the South Koreans – immediately after the war – settled on doing away with retrogressive tendencies in certain freedoms?’
I didn’t know either, but we were both so glad nobody ever alluded to the persistent threat of war from Pyongyang. Of course they wouldn’t, we would laugh out loud before retiring to our rooms.
That night, my friend had brought in more facts. Organizers of the national protests usually met in hotels and walked away with hefty allowances, while us, we would just run around with the police dogs and teargas and button sticks and injuries on lucky days.
‘Does anyone of you remember the Rodney riots in Kingston? Or the Bay of Pigs in…?’
That was his way when he noticed there was a lot you were yet to hear. But sometimes, like in times like this, it was also out of fear that some never talked of the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall and everything in between. He would always come back once confronted. As he had done with a lady who had shouted out loud she wouldn’t date a drunkard and a chain-smoker.
Protest day morning, my friend – the main guy – was found lying near a drain behind the campus library – his head crushed to the concrete floor extending to a car park nearby. I was amongst the first to arrive. His face swollen, the eyes popping out, his lifeless body soaked in blood, I stood there numb as everyone – with fever and fear taking over. When a police van pulled up, I jumped in, first to the morgue, then to the police station.
That was how I became a batman – first running into the night as friends came burning and looting to my dorm, then following the river that traversed the city into Mozambique, from where I worked my way across Limpopo to further south. Here I cleaned houses and did laundry. I ran from police. Ran from the angry citizens. Ran from rabid dogs in the streets. Until I met Mr. Bao Chuang and nobody ever heard of me again. My friends probably think I’m already in heaven. My granny too. It is thoughts of her that sometimes I think of just running to the train station with my passport in hand. Then to the airport. Then to my country. Especially when I think of days that I have to eat the cockroaches because I’ve spent all my earnings on apartment and hospital bills. At first I felt prey to them, until the tables turned around. I bumped into an article that said yes I could eat them – just not the ones ….fuck that. Because there’s plenty rice, all I do is reserve some in an uncovered plate, turn off the lights and wait for relish to come add itself up. I’ve become a Viet Cong, nocturnal and ruthless. But I will go home soon. There has been a new government, and everyone has forgotten about my friend – about the night we parted ways mocking how we wouldn’t be dragged into the power of unionism in recent times when we dug up tired men like comrades Walter Rodney and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
After the death of my friend and the looting and the burning, the police said the main suspect was on the run but they would get him soon. I only read about me several months later when I tried finding out what had happened after I vanished. Confronted once or twice by my friend’s family, they said I was the only one who knew the whole story, and that my capture would help them solve the mystery, and that they wanted me badly. But they couldn’t find me. Because they never came looking. So long I never reappeared. That’s what drew me back from thinking much about a return to my native land – but now that it is all calm there, I can even find myself one fine lawyer and absolve my name. I just need a few more years of savings.
Today, while travelling to my new workplace, a young man curious about me sat on my right in the train. He asked me about how it feels to sleep in houses whose doors are as flimsy as his skin knowing there are lions and even tigers lurking in the night hunting prey. He also wanted to know if given a chance I would stay here forever because the summers back home made my skin dark. I asked him if he had ever seen a cockroach. I also asked him if he knew a bat, a man, and a batman.
‘It’s not something good’.
But he refused to tell me what it implied, or meant – or both if they weren’t one. As he was about to disembark, he tapped my right shoulder, leaned forward – towards my head, and whispered: ‘bats eat cockroaches’.
Beaton Galafa: "I am a Malawian writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. My work appears/is forthcoming in Mistake House, Fourth & Sycamore, Stuck in the Library, Birds Piled Loosely,The Shallow Tales Review, Writer's Egg Magazine, Love Like Salt Anthology, 300K Anthology, Literary Shanghai, Every Writer’s Resource, The Bombay Review, The Maynard, Birds Piled Loosely, Atlas and Alice, South 85 Journal, Corpses of Unity/Cadvres de l’Unité, and elsewhere."