by Dennis Mugaa
BWR 49.2 Fiction Contest Winner
I remember the day Gumato disappeared so clearly. We had just arrived from Johannesburg at six in the morning. We were outside the airport arrivals terminal. Our history teacher, Mr. T, was calling our school van to come collect us. The driver was late, and we were tired. Yellow taxis were parked around us, the taximen surrounded Mr. T, vying for his attention. Tendwa was listening to music on his headphones and Naila was watching the sunrise. I was reciting lines for our school’s Easter play adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Gumato walked towards me and asked me to hold her phone. “I’m going to the washroom,” she said. She took her luggage on the trolley with her. I didn’t think much of it, because sometimes, despite being popular, Gumato was a strange girl.
Our school van arrived, and Naila, the only girl amongst us, was sent to fetch Gumato from the washroom. She went begrudgingly; she and Gumato had gotten into an argument about Gumato’s overweight luggage in Oliver Tambo, and they had not spoken since.
“She’s not there,” Naila told us when she came back. She said it in an offhand way while folding her hands as if she didn’t care. We thought Naila was lying. And so I was sent. An elderly woman cursed me as I entered the ladies washroom. I looked around. I saw a mop and a bucket, but there was no one else there. There was no trace of Gumato, no luggage, none of her collection of make-up and perfumes she purchased in Sandton.
“It’s true, she’s not there,” I said to Mr. T.
Soon after, Gumato’s phone started to ring. It was her father calling. I didn’t pick up, but he kept calling. Naila, Tendwa and I were suddenly afraid. Mr. T asked us not to pick up and he went to look for her with two security guards. I suppose he too was afraid. Everyone knew Gumato’s father—the whole country knew Gumato’s father. We saw them run up and down the terminal, through the washrooms and the cafés. Mr. T came back two hours later, short of breath, his eyes puffy and his fingers shaking. They could not find Gumato. It was as if she had walked through platform 9 3/4.
“I’ve called the school and informed them,” Mr. T said. In the school van, Gumato’s father called again. Naila picked up. “Sir, this is Naila, Gumato’s friend. Gumato has disappeared.” After she said that, our lives came undone.
The four of us: Naila, Gumato, Tendwa and I were in Brookhouse School. Gumato and Tendwa were eighteen, Naila and I were nineteen, and we were all in Year 13, our last year of A-Level. Our friendship had started in Year 12. We were an odd pairing of friends. Naila was the school’s most gifted musician. At lunchtime in school, when we had mini-concerts, she played the piano or the guitar for us over vocals which cracked portals open. Tendwa played football with mild success, but sometimes, in the Year 12 vs Year 13 derby, he played like Mesut Özil. I was in the school’s drama club and acting was my dream. Gumato was class representative at the student council and our school’s most popular girl. She created content on Instagram and YouTube. We were all in Mr. T’s history class.
I joined Brookhouse in year 12 as a scholarship student. My mother could never in her dreams have afforded the fees at the school. I got the scholarship when I turned eighteen, on the
condition that I performed in all school theatre productions. I had acted in a film, Nyota Ikianguka, about the life of a seventeen-year old boy who tries to cope as his mother descends into depression and alcoholism. The film received rave reviews at the Nairobi Film Festival, and we were invited to showcase it at the New York Film Festival. The film’s producer, however, embezzled the money and we ended up not going. Everyone who saw the film praised how real my acting was: how true it felt, how honest. They didn’t know it was my life. It was the first time I felt I didn’t have to wear a mask while acting. I was performing the role as I lived it. My mother watched the film as she drank a bottle of wine. She congratulated me, but immediately kept quiet as if she had recognised herself too, as if my presence in the film exposed something she wanted to keep hidden.
When I arrived in Brookhouse, I felt I was in a magical world. Everything dazzled me. It was a private school for the country’s elite, diplomats, and foreign ministers’ children. The school’s reception was lined with over a hundred small flags of the different countries students were from. Every student I saw seemed to have an elsewhere they were from, or, if they were Kenyan, an elsewhere they were going or had been to. It felt like a slice of the world, a microcosm in which all cultures of the world were contained. I had not contemplated how people could be so rich until I looked at the worth of my scholarship and my mouth almost dropped. The auditorium, the first place I went to, was large and was housed in front of castle crenelations which formed the lower classes. I later learned school architects had modeled it after Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There was a student that day on the podium talking about her summer exchange program in Switzerland. “In the afternoons, for school games, we would go skiing in the Swiss Alps.” She had a tilt in her accent of high snobbery as if she wanted to sound like she was in a reality TV show. It was Gumato. I disliked her immediately. However, I was wrong about her.
We were taking History with Mr. T together.
“Hi handsome, you’re new,” she said to me. I blushed. She was the first person to say hello to me. She spoke a lot, and I thought she was the type of person who revealed too much of themselves on a first meeting. She was telling me about her YouTube channel, and how she was used to nasty remarks people left on her comment section. “It used to make me cry when I started,” she said. And then she suddenly brightened up. “Nowadays I don’t care. I wear my hijab with my hair showing a little. I like it that way so that when old fashioned Muslims look at me, they can ask: ‘What in the haram is that?’” I laughed until I teared up. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard.
We were five in History class. The four of us and Céleste Umwiza, a hot girl from Rwanda who I had an enormous crush on. She rolled with a clique of sixth form francophone girls at our school where they spoke French and oozed elegance. She was tall and light-skinned, her cheekbones were well defined—regal like a princess’ and she had a nice ass. Her father was the Rwandese Commander who led rebel troops in the taking of Kinshasa during the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko. Sometimes in class she would forget English and say to Mr. T: “Pardon Monsieur, le livre d’histoire n’est pas correct…” and when she realised, she would say sorry a few times.
Naila, Gumato, Tendwa and I became close friends when we went to a People-to-People Conference in Barcelona. I was able to attend because it was part of my scholarship package, and it was also my first time travelling out of the country.
We didn’t do much at the actual conference, and Mr. T, being the nonchalant exchange program coordinator, allowed us to go around Barcelona on our own. We went to Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, and Camp Nou. One day, we went to Castell de Montjuic. It was Palm Sunday, and we were allowed in for free. We took the cable cars to the castle. Gumato recorded our trip. “I’ll put it up on my channel,” she said.
Tendwa was taking several photographs so he could show his father later in the evening. It was the only reason Tendwa had come for the trip: he had planned to see his father, a wealthy businessman who fled to Paris after being indicted on charges of corruption three years before. His father had told him he would use the train from Paris to visit him in Barcelona during the trip. Tendwa was excited about this since he had not seen his father in three years, and they had a close bond.
When we were at the top of the castle, we took pictures beside a fluttering flag of Catalonia. Behind us, a child blew bubbles into the sky, and our pictures, when we looked at them later, gave the feeling of us being in an amusement park. I felt my heart warm towards my friends. Later, we walked down a street with designer stalls and left Tendwa and Naila in a street restaurant near a rotunda waiting for Tendwa’s father.
That evening, Gumato came into my hotel room. She brushed through a copy of a play I was reading, Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman.
“I like to read,” she said. She told me she was reading a book, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.
“I want you to kiss me,” she said. I was confused. She sat on the side of my bed and moved towards me. “Sometimes, all I want is a kiss, like in the movies.”
Her breathing was slow and heavy, and so was mine. I wanted to tell her I liked Céleste, but I didn’t, so many other boys and even girls liked Gumato. As she neared me, she pushed back suddenly. “No, I can’t, my father would kill me.”
The room darkened, and she didn’t answer. I didn’t say anything because I thought she would change her mind and kiss me. Suddenly, the door to my room opened and Tendwa and Naila walked in.
“My father is not coming. He’s not coming. He said he would, but he isn’t,” Tendwa cried, tears on his eyes.
Gumato leapt and hugged him. “Everything will be alright.” When we reached home from Barcelona, Gumato uploaded our trip on YouTube. On the description box, she captioned it, Vibes and Inshallah.
The day after Gumato disappeared, we went through school under a cloud. Every student was aware of Gumato’s disappearance, even though the school administration tried to downplay the issue. In class, Mr. T’s usual booming voice was subdued. Our school curriculum followed the British System, therefore most of the history we learnt was European History. Mr. T, like a revolutionary, often inserted his own knowledge of history and taught us about the colonial expeditions of European countries in Africa, and slavery. That day, he made us watch a documentary on the Second World War and assigned an essay. He didn’t deviate much from the textbook as usual. He sat on the teacher’s chair and supported his chin with his palm. In the middle of the German Blitzkrieg advance into France, Mr. T paused the video.
“They will not show you in this documentary, but France recruited, on false promises, several Senegalese Tirailleurs,” he turned to Céleste. “Céleste, did I pronounce that right?”
“Non, Monsieur,” she replied. We laughed, and Mr. T, for the first time that day, smiled.
But this moment was short-lived because two men in dark suits walked in with the school director, a British man who no one liked. Mr. T pressed play and walked out with them. We couldn’t concentrate on the documentary as they spoke to Mr. T. After five minutes, Naila, Tendwa and I were asked to step out. The men were special investigators from the directorate of criminal investigations where Gumato’s father was the director.
My body grew suddenly cold. Tendwa and Naila also seemed to shiver. Mr. T brushed his palm against his forehead. “Officers, there has to be a mistake,” Mr. T said.
“There is no mistake,” one of the officers replied. I couldn’t see his face properly because I concentrated on his belt where a weapon holster was. I looked back and saw Céleste through the window as a map of Zone Occupé filled the screen. The four of us were taken to the school director’s office where we found Gumato’s father waiting for us.
Tendwa’s shoulders immediately dropped. Gumato’s father was a tall wiry man, and the way his face rested made it seem as if he was caught in a permanent argument in which he held the other person in disgust. It was strange because legend had it that he had negotiated a truce between warring tribes in Northern Kenya, between the Gabra, the community he was from, the Rendille, the Borana and the Burji. And that as a thirteen-year-old, he had done the national examinations while still grazing cattle and placed first in his province. He had wanted many children, Gumato told me, but he only had her. Tendwa, Naila and I sat down on a couch before him while Mr. T stood beside us.
“Sit down mwalimu,” Gumato’s father said. His tone was one of someone who was used to issuing commands. Mr. T sat. “Now, tell me again what happened.”
Mr. T repeated what we knew. “Gumato went to the washroom and when we went to check on her, she wasn’t there.”
We nodded in agreement. Gumato’s father counterchecked the information in a folder.
“It’s a flight manifest and immigration clearance,” he said looking at Tendwa. “Since your family has a history of lying even under oath, Isaac Tendwa.” Tendwa straightened, glanced at us and then looked back at Gumato’s father.
The air changed. Gumato’s father was not treating us as her friends. He was treating us as suspects.
“Do any of you know where Gumato could have gone?” He turned to me. “You? She left you with her phone.”
“No,” I said as my palms began to sweat. I wasn’t sure if I was lying or telling the truth.
We left school at five with the late bus, after a six-hour interrogation. We repeated the story over and over. They asked for minute details like: What colour was the sky? Where were we coming from? What time did our flight land? Was it 6.07 or 6.10? And then Gumato’s father checked everything again and again. Outside while getting on the bus, I saw the drama club leaving too. I had missed rehearsal. Mr. T went to the sixth form courtyard where his young son was waiting for him. We waved goodbye to them and got on the bus.
On the way home, Naila, Tendwa and I sat in separate rows without talking. When the bus wound its way past the Habesha restaurant near where I lived with my mother, I felt my heart lift. We lived in a three-bedroomed apartment in Kilimani. I found the house unlocked, meaning she was home. I didn’t like finding her at home. She worked as a doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital, and she had completed her shift. She was in the living room watching a soap opera. She was drinking gin and tonic, and the curtains were closed. She hadn’t cleaned the house at all. This had been her for almost seven years since she and my father divorced in acrimony. The divorce ruined her more than my father’s absence ruined me. More so, after he remarried less than a year later and never called. She had boyfriends who I disliked. They came once in a while and then left, leaving her hollow.
“Mum, sasa,” I greeted her. She turned to me and said: “Karis, you’re home?”
I cleaned the dishes, tidied up the dining table and threw out bottles of gin. Then I went to the shower. As the mist rose, I stepped into a memory. It was something Gumato said to me in
South Africa a week before at the Round Square Conference. We were cycling in Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. Gumato and I were at the back of the cycling line moving uphill. It was slightly misty, and we couldn’t see far. She seemed so happy, so delighted, but as we went up, she got tired and more tired. I tried to urge her on, but she didn’t move. Soon, we couldn’t see anyone else.
“I’m tired Karis,” she told me. I looked at her and there were tears in her eyes.
“It’s only a hill. Come on, we can even push our bikes.” “No, I mean I’m tired of not being myself,” she said. “It’s like I’m wearing a mask all the time. I am someone else at home, a good daughter to my father. I wear a mask as a content creator. And in school too. I want to go somewhere where I don’t have to be someone else. You’re an actor, you wear masks all the time, you have to be someone else every time, do you know what I mean?” She didn’t let me answer; instead, she lifted her sweater and showed me a new tattoo on her arm. It was theatre masks: the Muse of Tragedy and the Muse of Comedy.
When I left the shower and joined my mother in the sitting room, she had switched the channel to the news. There was Gumato, the director of criminal investigation’s daughter, announced missing for the world to see.
“Isn’t that your classmate?” my mother asked.
Gumato’s disappearance became the only thing anyone discussed at school. Since Naila, Tendwa and I were the last ones to see her before she disappeared, we were highly sought after. There was a gazebo in the courtyard, near an artificial stream, where we used
to hang out before and after history class. One day a girl in year 10 brought a painting of Gumato’s face from the art class. It had Gumato’s phrase, Vibes and Inshallah.
Every morning, like a ritual, students started leaving flowers at the gazebo. Some burnt incense in a vase and left it there. While others from the lower classes came and said a prayer for Gumato’s safe return. It looked like a shrine. On her Instagram and YouTube profile, her pictures and videos were filled with thousands of comments and hashtags: We miss you Gumato. We love you. You inspire me so much. I want to travel like you. #ilyGumato#vibesandinshallah. Her videos went viral. They were watched over and over and it was as if her afterlife was on the internet. Some new followers would @ Naila, Tendwa and me on the posts we appeared with her: @karis_ @naila_wangari @tendwa_isaac I hope you find your friend Gumato. You must have loved her. The most famous post was the video of us in our Barcelona, and it gained about a million views. It was clear Gumato’s disappearance had not made her invisible.
I missed Gumato, I missed her laughter and lightness. I missed how easy she moved around. She was the one who helped Naila, Tendwa and me to navigate through school with an air of coolness. With Gumato, we could sit on any school bench and people would surround us waiting for her to tell stories. Without her, the three of us seemed serious. I was trying to get into an excellent acting school, and so was Naila, but for music. For Tendwa, all his desires seemed to be on hold without his father.
Often, I did not believe Gumato had disappeared, it seemed so unbelievable: she was there and then she wasn’t. When I arrived at school, I would sit on the gazebo waiting for her to turn up and tell me she had lost her way to the washroom. Sometimes, I wondered where she could have gone. Had she turned around and boarded a flight to somewhere else? Was she still in Kenya? I worried if she was even alive. The laughter of children playing would reach me, sometimes sounding near, sometimes sounding far. But I would never see the children, and when the bell for classes rang, the voices would disappear as if they were phantasms.
A question the public often asked as time passed was how the director of the criminal investigations could not find his daughter. Gumato had disappeared when several people were disappearing as well. Every day, there would be a missing person on the news. If Gumato’s father could not find his daughter, was anyone in the country safe? Or was he complicit in the disappearances like the days of the dictatorship when people were disappeared by the authorities and never heard from again? A petition was presented in parliament to have him removed for incompetence.
Still, despite her disappearance, Brookhouse brought me closer to my dreams, to acting, to doing what I love. Easter came and we performed our play The Crucible in front of a full auditorium. We dedicated it to Gumato. After the curtains fell, Céleste and Naila came backstage. Céleste was holding two letters while Naila was smiling. “Open them!” Céleste said. My hands shook when I saw the letters had the crest of the two schools I had applied to for university: Yale School of Drama and Julliard School. I tore through them quickly, You have received admission with full funding. I was in! Céleste hugged me; she looked so beautiful. I wanted to kiss Céleste without stopping and ask her in my most romantic voice: “Utanipenda nikikupa moyo wangu?” Naila had gotten into the Julliard School and Berklee for her music. We were so excited! I felt I was on the cusp, as if my dreams were valid, like Lupita Nyong’o said.
It was important for me to study abroad for university. By being away, I could reinvent myself. I could be anything I wanted. I wanted to be away from my mother. I was tired of seeing her defeated and my studying abroad would dissociate me from her without making me feel guilty for abandoning her. I didn’t tell her immediately of my acceptances. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t see through me. A mother often knows her child’s thoughts. When I eventually told her, she simply said: “I’m happy for you.” And then went back to her drinking.
I was in the courtyard when I heard the bad rumours. That day, Naila came to me and said, “Have you heard? They are accusing Mr. T of kidnapping Gumato.”
“Yeah, the whole sixth form is talking about it.”
I could not believe it. The whole day passed in a blur. We did not have history class so I could not confirm from Mr. T or Tendwa if what Naila had told me was true.
The next Saturday, Tendwa invited Naila and me to visit him. Often, when we went to Tendwa’s we didn’t stay in his house. He lived with his aunt in Garden Estate since his mother passed when he was fourteen, and his father was in exile. His aunt was suspicious of visitors since Tendwa’s father often sent his son’s school fees and upkeep through various shell companies and trusts in tax havens.
Instead, we would walk to an abandoned building site which Gumato sometimes used for taking photographs and videos for her channel. It was where we went that day. Tendwa put on a sweater and walked slightly ahead of us. It was during the rainy season: the tarmac was dark and smelt of earth, the green of trees was glossy. The site, as we approached, seemed larger than usual. It was a university that was being built in the eighties or nineties and its construction was halted when the owner disagreed with the former dictator. The building was covered by trees, grass, moss, and vines so that it seemed like an ancient civilization in a rainforest.
“The detectives and Gumato’s father told me to say it was Mr. T who did it,” Tendwa said without looking at us.
“What did you do Tendwa?”
“They said they would drop charges against my father. They will allow him back.”
“Tendwa no, no you didn’t,” I said.
“Is that why sixth formers are saying those things about Mr. T?” Naila asked. “Tendwa, how could you?”
“I changed my statement. They need the three of us to change for their case to work.”
I held Tendwa by his shirt. I wanted to hit him, but I still felt sorry for him. His shoulders were dropped as if he had given up, even though he was stronger than me. “Mr. T has a son Tendwa, why?”
“I haven’t seen my father in three years.”
“And you think you’re special? My parents died when I was six. Karis hasn’t seen his father in seven years,” Naila screamed at him. “Who are you, Tendwa?”
Naila and I stopped talking to Tendwa. Whenever we saw him in school, he would turn in the other direction and walk away. In history class, he came later than usual and when the lesson
ended, he was the first to leave. We never told Mr. T what Tendwa had done to him, but we worried every day the police would arrest him.
Our prom theme was announced. It would be a masquerade. It would be on the last Friday after our finals. I worried I wouldn’t have anyone to go with. I wanted to ask Céleste, but I was terrified she would say no. I also worried about what to wear. I wasn’t sure I would get enough money from my mother to buy a nice suit and mask.
One day, after lunch, Naila and I were in the library reading for exams when I opened my email on the school computers. There was an email from the Julliard School. I thought it was about our confirmation of acceptance and details on how to apply for a visa, and so I was delighted. But when I opened it, I was stunned. The school had rescinded my admission. The email was brief and heart-breaking. In light of your involvement in recent events brought to our attention by the authorities, we will not be proceeding with your admission at this time. I showed Naila my email, and she quickly opened her email. The school had rescinded her admission as well. She placed her hands to her head. We walked to the shelves on the back of the library and sat on the floor. Naila started to cry, my lips were shaking. I saw my dreams start to crumble.
“What do we do now?” Naila asked.
Gumato’s father was an evil man. He would chase a lie to protect his job instead of finding his daughter. Sitting there I remembered what Gumato told me when we were in Johannesburg. We were walking around in the Apartheid Museum. It was a sunny day and the sun filtered through in sharp slits. We read about the gold rush in South Africa, the development of townships and Bantustans, the Sharpeville Massacre and discrimination policies. We reached a section about the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island. “Can you believe they did this?” I asked her.
And then Gumato turned to me and said, “This is nothing compared to what my father did to me.”
“Aii, what do you mean?”
“No, you don’t know my father,” she got angry. “And you don’t know what he did to me.”
When Gumato was like this, I never quite understood who she was, what she meant when she opened the curtains to reveal what was hidden beneath her. I supposed she was searching for freedom, in the same way that I was with my life and acting. She seemed to have freedom, but only as far as it was allowed by her father.
“What?” I was surprised, but also intrigued. “What did your father do to you?”
But she didn’t answer because Mr. T came and told us we were running out of time, and I didn’t get a chance to ask her what she meant.
As the days went by, Naila and I did not receive a rescinding letter from our other schools. Me from Yale, her from Berklee. We were about to do our finals and it was our last history class with Mr. T. I sat close to Céleste, my palms sweating. “Céleste, will you be my prom date?” I was so nervous I didn’t notice Mr. T come into class.
Mr. T came with four similar prints and handed one to each person in class. “This is the Rorschach test, it is used in mental health examinations, but today, I will use it to illustrate something important about history. This is the first of the ten cards.” Céleste looked at me and smiled. She tore a page from her book, wrote down something and folded it. “I want you, working individually, to write down what you can see.” We took five minutes and wrote down what we thought. After the time was up, Mr. T asked us to read out our answers. Céleste saw a butterfly, Naila saw a spine and ribs, Tendwa saw a moth while I saw a theatre mask.
Céleste passed me the note as Mr. T turned to the smartboard. Oui chéri, I’ll be your prom date, the note said. I was so delighted I wanted to scream. My blood boiled in happiness.
“This is how history is. Most people see history in the way it best serves them,” he paused. “I would like you, this being our last class, to always question history. Always read more, always ask questions. Never take history from the side of oppressors. The past makes us who we are, and we cannot be defined by only one side of the story.”
Céleste left to go to the washroom.
“Keep the prints, that is the one lesson to take from this class.” He was about to finish saying his goodbyes to us when two police officers walked in. They told him he was under arrest. They told him three students could place him at the scene of Gumato’s kidnapping. He was handcuffed. Naila, Tendwa and I looked at him. He looked back at us as if he knew what we had done, as if we were the accusers of the witches of Salem.
Céleste came back as Tendwa was leaving. Her hands were behind her back, and she appeared startled.
“What happened? I’ve seen Mr. T with police officers going to the parking lot.”
“Those two are not any better than me,” Tendwa replied, grunting in disgust.
“Karis, chéri, what happened?” Céleste asked, but I didn’t reply. “Naila?” Naila only shook her head and bit her nails until Céleste left, annoyed at our silence.
Naila and I sat in class the whole afternoon, tainted, ashamed and full of guilt, looking at the smartboard as if we were watching film credits rolling up.
Dennis Mugaa is a writer from Meru, Kenya. He was shortlisted for Isele Magazine’s Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Afritondo Short Story Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jalada Africa, Lolwe, Isele Magazine and Washington Square Review. He has studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where he was a 2021/2022 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship recipient.