THERE had been another lynching in the night. Even as Bibi stepped outside she could smell it on the air: the taint of burned rubber, the scorch of human flesh. She slammed the shack door behind her. “Lock it,” she hissed, and only when she heard the keep-safe clunk of the bolt on the other side did she step into the Hell’s Gate dawn.
In the alley it was grey and cold, grey sky weighing on grey iron roofs. Bibi’s breath rose like mist. She hugged Papa’s woollen jacket round and followed the trampled paths of red Rift earth, on and on past red-mud houses. Now and then, the narrowness of the lanes, the house roofs jutting out, forced her to stoop or turn sideways. But she did not falter; she ducked or turned without breaking step. Nimble as any Hell’s Gate native, she thought. As she went, others joined the path, some ahead, some behind, but there were no greetings, and she did not expect them; after a lynching everyone kept to themselves, a thing hard to do in the heaving shanty town.
She hurried on, past mud-brick hovels, house after rackety house until she reached the sprawling track that was the slum’s main route to the outside world. Here, beneath the barely lightening sky, the files of slum dwellers who were lucky enough to have jobs swelled into a small departing army that spread out across the track. Security guards, house servants, drivers, mechanics, petrol station workers, hotel staff, clerks and shop assistants, all were bent on the daily trek to up-town Greenvale where, like princes for the day, they could leave behind their despised slum-dweller skins and assume the form of respectable employees.
Bibi joined them and at once felt the lack of the usual early morning banter. Moving now amongst so large a crowd the quietness was unnerving. Unnatural. People were withdrawn, their faces closed. No one wanted to catch another’s eye, and she for one did not want to see the guilt or worse, the spark of glee that said: “Good. One less gangster to steal from us. One less crook for the police to let off for kitu kidogo.” Or worst of all to see those looks and know she felt the same way too. In Hell’s Gate everyone knew the police set robbers free for a share of the take, just as they arrested innocent bystanders. More often than not they charged a resident for reporting a crime. So either way, whether criminal or victim, your freedom could only be bought by handing over ‘a little something’. Kitu kidogo. It was how the cops made up their stingy wages. It was the way things were in a land where most people were poor and believed themselves powerless. And so in her heart, though she knew it was wrong, Bibi cheered on the lynch mob: let them necklace every last crook in the slum if it would keep her children safe.
But then her fierce stance soon crumbled. When she passed the patch of waste-ground, the place of grim execution, she felt only horror at what had happened. The black tea breakfast burned up in her throat and she clamped a hand over her nose. Did no one else notice? The smell was dreadful – it drowned out the stench of the public latrines – the deadly meltdown of kerosene, rubber and live flesh. It lit a fuse in her brain – her own slow burning, and she wanted to yell: Why? Why? And why?
Why had she been brought to such a place and to such a life? Why had a so-called loving God let her parents be killed on their way to an upcountry funeral? Why had the trusted family lawyer made off with the money from the sale of their good stone house, and her father’s relatives massed like a locust swarm to grab all their possessions; even her precious sewing machine they had snatched – the very thing she needed to make a living. Now she was struggling to get through each day as mother and father to five brothers and sisters, to live in this terrible slum; to work like a slave and have NOTHING.
Inside her head Bibi howled like a dog. Outside, she pulled the jacket closer, and moved swiftly on, keeping pace with her fellow workers. She must not feel sorry for herself; it made her weak. She was the eldest, nearly twenty, while the youngest, Tom, was only six. It went without saying that the youngest ones came first, however hard the struggle. And so as she moved with the crowd out of the slum she repeated the words that steeled her like a warrior’s oath: Have to be strong. Will be strong. Have survived Hell’s Gate eight months, three weeks, two days. Will survive today.