© Berten Vanderbruggen

Leestijd 11 — 14 minuten

What a mess

A short story by Ogutu Muraya

Not far from where the old man was murdered, there was a pine wood forest. A deep and dark forest with tall pine trees that stretched up high. Some say the trees are so tall that their tips touch the sky. The circumstances of how the old man was murdered remained a mystery and ever since his body was found, no one dared to venture into the forest, not even to collect firewood and kindling. There is a silence in the forest, an uncomfortable silence, a dark silence, even birds don’t perch and rest in the old forest. Being a superstitious people, the locals believed that the forest was haunted by the disgruntled spirit of the old man seeking revenge for his sudden death.

On the night that the old man was murdered, Tawi woke up with a strong feeling that something wasn’t right. She looked around at her room; everything was in place. She then walked over to her grandmother’s room to check up on her. Cucu was fast asleep. She stirred in her bed and Tawi pulled away. She walked to her brothers’ room to check up on them. They seemed fine, snoring like baby ogres. She turned her attention to Rex. The family dog lifted his head, then waggled his tail, then turned back to sleep. All was quiet in the predawn hours. Tawi went back to her bed. But she was too anxious to fall back into sleep. She could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. But she could also not articulate what it was that was wrong. She lay in bed staring at the ceiling, her thoughts racing in endless loops, repeating over and over the name — Ne’anoaya.

At the old man’s funeral, Tawi was the only child that dared to see the old man’s body. She stared at it with an intensity that disturbed her grandmother. There was no fear in her eyes. Only wide-eyed wonder, examining a body that was once full of life and now lay there lifeless. Some interpreted her intensity as morbid fascination and asked that she be watched carefully. Others dismissed it as childhood curiosity.


To be honest, no one liked the old man. He was one of those people who did not age well. He never surrendered with dignity to the accumulation of time. He lived a lonely and loveless life. He was bitter and constantly grumpy. In fact, no one was surprised when the old man’s body was found by the roadside. If it was not for the flesh wound that he sustained during his fatal attack, no one would have made a fuss about his passing. The visibility of a struggle and the blunt force trauma left no doubt that he was murdered. Had his killers used more subtle means, he would have been buried and that would be that. But finding someone with enough motive to kill the old man would be very difficult. Because literally everyone had a grudge against the old man. There wasn’t a soul he had not managed to offend, malign, or frustrate. He was foul mouthed when drunk, and venomous when sober.

It’s important to mention that the uncomfortable and dark silence found inside the old forest is layered. The old man’s death near the pine wood forest was not the only incident that made people superstitious about the forest. Not long ago the body of a young boy was found hanging from one of the trees. However, it was easier for the community to discuss murder than it was to discuss suicide. Tawi knew the young boy, they were in school together and were preparing to undertake the national exams that marked the end of their primary education. Of course, in school the students were told that the boy died of sudden illness, but Tawi knew better, since she was the one who discovered the boy’s body while foraging in the forest on one of her mini adventures. And not only that, she also found the suicide note that the boy left behind. It had only a few words — ‘I tried. I’m sorry I was never enough… dad.’

The old man was obsessed by mess. It’s the nature of mess to pile up. The piling up of mess is one of the bizarre rules that the universe is compelled to follow. It’s easy for mess to pile up. All you have to do is nothing and time does the rest. Clothes pile up into a mess, utensils pile on, so does dust and cobwebs and garbage and memories and grudges, and misunderstandings and trauma, and dead organic matter, and plastic waste and promises and dreams and unlived lives and desires. Daily life can sometimes feel like a perpetual ordering of mess — psychic mess, household mess, collective mess, political mess, environmental mess, economic mess, natural disaster mess, family mess, interpersonal mess, intergenerational mess.

© Berten Vanderbruggen

The old man spent his life telling people: ‘We live in a universe of mess. You think you can keep it in order? You are fools.’

The boy’s suicide was devastating to his family. He was the son of the chief of police. While the rest of the family mourned and tried to come to terms with the sudden death of their boy, his father descended into a bottomless mess. When the suicide note was revealed to him, he ripped it to pieces. He became convinced that his son was possessed by evil spirits, that he had been bewitched. It was easier for him to assign blame than face his own complicity in his son’s sudden death.

Although the old man was a mess, it’s not exactly true that no one liked him. Tawi’s friendship with the old man was unrivalled. It started when she followed a dung beetle straight into his compound. She was trespassing, but she was not scared of him like the other children, and she was not overly apologetic like the adults. She was just there, looking at him like he was just another brightly coloured bug. And the old man allowed her presence. For some unknown reason he started to cry — I think it had something to do with the fact that for the first time in a long while, someone had seen him, seen through him and it liberated him from his masks and armour of irritability. Tawi walked up to him and offered him a ball of dung as consolation.

After the old man had emptied himself of tears, he started to talk to Tawi and she listened to him, deeply listened even though she was too young to understand most of what he was saying. The old man opened up to Tawi as though he knew that death was coming for him, and he needed to pass on this information to someone. The old man told Tawi that he had been fighting a monster for most of his life. Tawi’s attention tuned in the moment the word ‘monster’ was mentioned. She listened avidly as the old man started to describe the monster. He called the monster Ne’anoaya, a life-sucking, shape-shifting, deceptive creature with the capacity to both endear and devour. Unlike most monsters that attack indiscriminately the Ne’anoaya specializes in one particular prey. In this sense it is more like a parasite that is linked to an individual at birth. For a long time, the Ne’anoaya is dormant, but the initial conditions at birth or the first seven years of one’s life can either keep this monster slumbering or awaken it. Tawi asked the old man if he thought the Ne’anoaya had infested her and he gave her a sharp glance. The old man was quiet for a long time and then he started to cry again. Tawi didn’t know how to respond.

Like all ecosystems when a dominant species is removed, invasive species appear and thrive unchallenged, growing and reproducing quickly, spreading and dominating aggressively. Invasive species don’t care for spectacle, they appear in small numbers, often seeming harmless, inconsequential, friendly even, not ugly, not beautiful. Their goal is commonness — to appear so much like a natural part of life, blend in, be invisible until their numbers grow. Their strength does not come from a single spectacle of awe and fear. Their strength comes from numbers. They operate much like a group organism — once they’ve achieved a certain threshold, you kill one and five appear. This is the type of monster that plagued the old man’s life — a new age monster that should inspire new mythologies, new legends, ones in which the plot does not turn on the act of a single brave individual, but the community pulling together.

The itch to know consumed Tawi more than the average person. While most of her childhood friends were content with simple explanations, she dug deeper and deeper. Eventually she dug so deep that her obsessions had isolated her from other children. This solitude worried her grandmother more than it worried Tawi. In fact, she loved it. It allowed her to follow her intuition without any distractions. It was for these reasons that knowledge of the Ne’anoaya fascinated her more that it frightened her. She wanted to know everything about this monster. She wanted to see it with her own eyes. She wanted to sense it with her own skin. And so, she developed a practice of visiting the old man to listen to his stories.

© Berten Vanderbruggen

Through Tawi’s friendship, the old man started to experience life again. The day he was murdered he was hurrying home after returning from the city, where he had bought Tawi a beautiful magnifying glass, gently wrapped as a gift, with a note inside. When the police finally opened the wrapped gift and found the note addressed to Tawi, she was called in through her grandmother to answer a few questions. At the police station, Tawi and her grandmother responded to all the questions that the chief of police asked. It was obvious that they were not suspects, the chief of police just wanted to understand Tawi’s friendship with the old man in order to find any clue as to what kind of life the old man lived, hoping that something would help to break the case.

The fact that the old man lived alone at his age made him a target for rumour and speculation. It was inevitable that chit-chat would start to spread that he was possessed by evil spirits. That he practiced witchcraft. Those of his age who knew him did little to quell these rumours; some actively participated in their spread. In his younger days the old man told anyone who would care to listen to him that the Ne’anoaya monster was real, and it had possessed the entire community. He told his teachers at the boarding school, his classmates, his close friends, even his family. They all thought that he was going mad. His inner circle started to shrink until eventually he was alone and loveless. The worst part about the Ne’anoaya was having the parasitic beast awakened in you but being oblivious to its presence. Most people tend to be unaware of their Ne’anoaya, the monster within, such people tend to project their monsters on others.

The revelation that Tawi had been good friends with the old man had greatly disturbed her grandmother. Out of grandmotherly concern, when they arrived back from the police station, Cucu unravelled into fits of rage. Tawi didn’t understand what she had done wrong. After their first big fight, Tawi ran away from home. She did not understand the impulse to run away. In fact, she was not thinking. She just did it, fuelled by perplexing contempt for her grandmother. She ran into the compound of the old man and sat in the spot the old man used to sit to calm her racing thoughts. She then retrieved the spare key from under one of the garden perimeter rocks and entered the old man’s house. She sat in his rocking chair and cried uncontrollably, as if for the first time she had finally allowed herself to truly mourn his death. When she had stopped crying, she looked around the room, not sure what she was searching for and saw on top of the mantle above the indoor chimney a photo of a couple. At first, she did not recognize the young man as the old man, but without a doubt she recognized the young lady, it was Cucu. Tawi had seen enough photos of her as a young woman to know what she looked like.

You can cause mess, you can minimize mess, you can conceal mess, you can deny mess, you can escape from mess, you can reorder mess, but there is one thing that the universe of mess denies us, and that is the ability to defeat mess. The chief of police had been investigating the old man long before he was found dead next to the pine wood forest. Unable to mourn his son and accept his suicide, the chief of police had become convinced that his son was bewitched. While looking for evidence to back his theories, he found a suspect. He watched the old man closely whenever he could. It was in one of these stakeouts that he noticed a girl walking out of the old man’s compound. He recognized her instantly, after all it was Tawi who found his son hanging from one of the trees of the old forest. This was enough evidence to convince him that witchcraft was happening in the old man’s house. There was no doubt in him that Tawi was in grave danger.

Cucu’s friendship with the old man began when they were young and in boarding school. During one of their biology classes, while waiting for their teacher, the old man had taken a chalk and started to write on the blackboard — the Ne’anoaya (NE’ — Not Enough, ANO — And Not Okay — AYA — As You Are), a neo-mythical neurological creature particular to the human condition. Ne’anoaya — close in appearance to a parasite or invasive species. Its morphology — its particular form, shape, or structure resembles invasive species of group organisms. Ne’anoaya — classified as a monster that turns the self and others into monsters. Ne’anoaya functions as a converter — turning non-monsters into monsters. There is a Ne’anoaya in all of us, whether it acts monsterlike depends on situatedness. There are no known cures or effective remedies for removing or vanquishing one’s Ne’anoaya — it’s a lifelong connection, however its monstrosity can be limited with effective awareness.

© Berten Vanderbruggen

While the old man, then a young man, scribbled away, everyone in class giggled and laughed, everyone except Cucu. The class had taken this gesture to be some kind of joke, some kind of prank on the biology teacher. The teacher wasn’t amused when he arrived in class. He demanded to know who had desecrated his blackboard. No one spoke until he threatened to punish the whole class if the culprit wasn’t revealed. It’s not clear what got into Cucu but she stood up and said it was she who wrote on the blackboard. The whole class laughed. Then the old man stood up and admitted to writing on the wall. Soon one by one the whole class stood up to take credit for the words on the wall. Frustrated, the biology teacher dismissed the class and sent them to the field to cut grass as punishment. In this way Cucu’s friendship with the old man started. And the class, thinking that he was pranking the teacher, loved him like a hero.

The next day the school woke up to find wall to wall crude graffiti with the words: ‘Your hair is not enough and not okay as it is, said the monster. Your body is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your skin colour is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your language is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your beauty is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your intelligence is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your way of knowing is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your way of life is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster. Your madness is not enough and okay as it is, said the monster.’ On and on and on, wall after wall after wall…

In school the vandalism continued: ‘Your existence is not enough and not okay as it is, said the imperialist, you must change into our civilized likeness, a likeness we force down on you through uncivilized ways, it’s the monster that drives genocide — your existence is not enough and okay as it is, and so I need to perform violence to root out your inadequacies. It’s the monster that fuels exploitative capitalism — consume, consume, more and more because you are not enough and okay as you are. It’s the blueprint of identity politics and the practice of othering, the cultural template of all types of aggressions — get out of my way you who are not enough and okay as you are.’

Eventually the old man was revealed as the vandalizer and expelled from school. By this time, he was not working alone: Cucu had joined him on his night trips, so when he was expelled she continued his work. More and more words appeared until she was eventually caught and expelled. She reunited with the old man, against the objections of her parents. Cucu’s parents thought of the old man as crazy and haunted, but she saw in him a seer and together they were unstoppable, spreading the word of the Ne’anoaya.

Where did this love go? It could only go into tragedy but that is for another story. For whatever the reason Cucu left the old man, he could never get over it. She was the only person who ever loved him for who he was without trying to change him.

The chief of police finally got his chance to confront the old man. They met on the road while he was going into the city and the old man was returning after buying the beautiful magnifying glass. It was a mess.

In his house, Tawi had found the old man’s notebook in which he had scribbled several versions of the note that was later found in the wrapped gift. Before going into the city, the old man knew exactly what he wanted to say and what he wanted to buy for her. ‘I wish someone saw me the way you see life. I had forgotten what it was like to be seen and heard. With this magnifying glass may you continue to see and hear the world in higher resolutions!’ There was a glint in Tawi’s eyes as she read the note. It was evident that she would not rest until she solved the old man’s murder. She looked up at the photograph of her grandmother, her face young and fearless, and realized there was a lot to dissect. She was determined to cut through the mess.


Leestijd 11 — 14 minuten




Ogutu Muraya

Ogutu Muraya is a writer and theatre maker with a body of work rooted in the practice of orature. In his work, he explores new forms of storytelling, seeking to merge socio-political aspects with the belief that art can challenge certainties.


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