Ice walked morosely towards Mombasa bus terminus. He had spent the last three nights sleeping on the beaches south of Mombasa. It had been just what he needed. The trip through Somalia and being sneaked over the border without a passport had been exhausting and hair-raising. Luckily his 'pirate' friends in Mogadishu had excellent connections and even on the Kenyan side of the border there had been someone assisting him to find his way to Nairobi.
In Nairobi he had made his way to the SA Embassy and told them his tale of woe. They were very helpful in an aloof sort of way. They had not liked the bit about sneaking over the border. It had still taken a week of backwards and forwards for interviews, affidavits and fingerprints and eventually a phone call to Beth. She had been great. They sorted his passport out and she sent him money.
As soon as he had everything, he headed for Mombasa and the beach. It had always been a major goal on his journey only he thought he was going to make it in six months, instead it had taken nearly six years. He had always had a feeling about Mombasa; that it was important for him to come here. He had spent a fabulous three days recuperating on the beaches but he felt that he should not waste any more time. Still, it felt like an anti-climax, being here and just leaving again.
He looked up and realised he was lost. He had thought he was following the same road he had found the bus-staion in on the day he arrived in Mombasa. But he should have passed it by now. He looked around him. There was a bookshop across the road. A bookshop! Okay, well maybe it was just a stationers. He crossed the road and went in.
"Can I help you?" A husky voice floated up from behind the counter on his left. He turned towards it and she stood up. "I was watching you across the road. You looked a bit lost." She was almost as tall as him and although she was obviously African, she was as fair as he was dark. Her hair was not much darker and was piled on top of her head in a haphazard fashion.
Having never had much interest in women, Ice had no idea that a woman could have such a perfect body. He looked her in the eye. That was a mistake. Her eyes were like large pools of honey. Woman is not supposed to do this to him. He wanted to sit down. His mouth was so dry he could not answer her.
She smiled at him. "Are you alright?"
"Do you have water?" he managed to croak.
She pointed out the water cooler at the back of the shop. Thankfully he turned away. After three cups of water he felt brave enough to face her again.
"Hi. Sorry. Yeah, I'm lost. Oh, I'm Ice." He put his hand out. She took it gently and looked into his eyes, smiling almost pityingly.
"They call me Sista-Boodycall." That husky voice again. He felt his knees wobble but kept his cool.
"I'm looking for the bus-station."
"Oh, it's not far. Where are you going?"
"Home, I hope." She looked at him. "South Africa, er, Johannesburg."
"By bus?" She looked at him disbelievingly.
"Well, not all in one go."
"Yeah, yeah. I haven't stopped for forever. I left England like eight years ago."
She looked at him strangely, blankly, as if she could not decide whether to believe him or not. "And you never carry any luggage?"
"Oh," he shrugged. "Can I sit down somewhere?"
"Sure, come." She led him off to one side of the shop where there were a couple of sofas and a small table. It was a very strange shop.
"I was carrying stacks of luggage. In fact it was a monumental burden. Then while I was in Somalia some enlightened person perceived my predicament and rescued me from it. Unfortunately he took my passport too."
"They robbed you."
"I don't think it was 'them'. I prefer to think it was some emlightened person."
"Who perceived your predicament. I like the way you say that. I feel like I'm back at university. I presume that's what you were doing in England."
"Yeah. I left there in 2004. I don't know why you bring it out in me like that."
She laughed. "So what were you doing between England and Somalia?"
"First I lived in Spain. Fabulous climate. Serious. I travelled in Europe a lot but I kept my base in Spain."
"What were you doing? I mean just travelling? For eight years."
"I was exploring Europe studying the history of the holy roman empire and the older roman empire. It's interesting stuff."
"Are you doing a doctorate?"
He laughed at that. "No, nothing like that. It's a good idea though. Maybe I should write a thesis or two. Actually I dropped out of University. My studies are private. I had a mentor, whose house I used in Spain."
"So what was the point of your studies?"
"I just got intrigued by European history and when I started scratching it got more and more fascinating. I learned a lot about why we're in so much shit."
"We are? What shit?"
"Just the mess the world is in, like environmentally, politically, financially."
"Oh just that," she shrugged. "Do you have to leave today? Where've you been staying?"
"Huh? What? Why? On the beach."
"In one of those expensive hotels?"
"No further south, just on the beach."
"You been sleeping on the beach! Don't lie."
"Why not? I've got no luggage, it's real warm, I've got a net."
"Oh. I thought maybe you were a fisherman."
"That would have been perfect, but I was living on take-aways and living on the beach was restorative.'
"Good. But I can see you don't have to leave today. I want Mamarasta to meet you."
"In the shop? It's your own business?"
"This isn't the real business."
"So what's the real business?"
"That's up to Mamarasta to decide. I mean, if she wants to tell you, but even if not, still come and spend a day or two with us. It really is paradise. It's about a hundred clicks south of here so it's really not out of your way. In fact you can walk to the border from there. Do you have a passport now?"
"Yeah, thanks. I have a passport and a toothbrush. And I have cash, which is nice."
"I'm going to close now to make lunch. It's a bit early but," she shrugged. "Mamarasta will be here for lunch. The nicer the food the more receptive she is. Come."
They squeezed into the tiny kitchen at the back of the shop. Ice opened a small window and then sat on the sink to be out of the way.
"So how you come by the name Ice? You a rapper? I mean should I know you?"
"Me, I'm merely infamous in small circles. My real name is Justice."
"So now you're just Ice, oh." She laughed.
"And me? Oh, Sista-Boodycall." She rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm not blind, but who was brave enough to give you that name?"
"It was Mamarasta. Years back. Before she even was Mamarasta. We were at the same university. My real name is Bodicea."
"For real. And what were you studying?"
"Mamarasta studied law. I was chopping and changing. First doing Biology and then Medical Science. I ended up specialising in Gynaecology and Obstetrics."
"And now you're working in a bookshop. Oh, except it's actually something else that only Mamarasta can tell me about."
"Oh, be patient." She took the large bowl of salad she had just made and put it on the small table. Then out of an otherwise empty cupboard she took a home-baked bread, a chunk of cheese and a tub of butter. Rummaging in a cluttered drawer she produced a large serving spoon and some knives and forks. Lastly from a top cupboard full of recycled containers she took three 'bowls'. Ice grinned. Suddenly he felt right at home.
She left everything in the kitchen because the small table, with the salad on it, was full. As they sat down again there was a noise at the door. Mamarasta let herself in.
Ice just stared. He stood up with this crazy grin on his face. She really, really was Mamarasta. There was no doubt of that.
She was tall. In fact she was exactly the same height as himself. He remembered that. But now she was as big as him as well. She had not been the last time he had seen her. And her dreads! She had always had the nicest dreads but now they had grown past her waist. She had been his best friend the first six months at university. Then she had disappeared. Her father was a Tanzanian ambassador and sometimes they had to move at the drop of a hat.
When he had known her, her name was Retha. She was a dyke. A beautiful one. Always looking after everyone. Anyone. No wonder she became Mamarasta. The bag of files she was carrying slipped out of her hand. She stared at him, her chin dropping. She was talking but no sound came out of her mouth. Unusual for her.
But Ice had already closed the gap and put his arm around her shoulders.
"Justice!" It was simultaneous, her voice coming back with a roar. Sista-Boodycall was flapping around shrieking, "You know each other? You know each other!"
Eventually they were all sitting down, calming down.
"So how did you find us? Did you hear about us?"
"I didn't even know it was your place. I had no idea you were about to walk through the door. And your faithful girlfriend wouldn't ell me what it is you're really up to here." That sent Mamarasta into peals of laughter. Then she wanted to know, "How did you get here, I mean did you fly direct from England or have you been somewhere else since?"
"No, I left England years ago. I dropped out half way through the second year, it's a long story. Then I spent nearly three years in Spain. That was over five years ago. Since then I've been travelling through Africa, vaguely heading for Mombasa. For some reason I wanted to come here."
"You don't remember?"
"Remember what?" He looked at her uncertainly.
"The night I left. It was one of those urgent phone call in the middle of the night, catch the five a.m. plane – stories. He woke me straight away so I could pack. It hadn't happened for years and I was fuzzy-headed. Only when we were on our way to the airport I suddenly thought of you and sms'd you."
"What did you say? I don't remember. I just remember you vanished."
"What could I say? Eventually I just wrote 'Meet me in Mombasa after you graduate.' Mombasa being the one place I always wanted to live."
"Yeah I remember now, you always used to say that. And then this morning I was feeling deflated. I had spent three days, three blissful days really, in Mombasa and had not really connected with anyone. So it was time to go home. I could not remember why I wanted to be here."
"He's been sleeping on the beach."
"It was heaven. Why shouldn't I sleep on the beach?"
Mamarasta shook her dreads at him. "You weren't afraid?"
He looked at her. "A big girl like you afraid of spending the night on the beach."
"Oh, I don't mind; we've done that." She looked at Sista-Boodycall fondly. Sista-B smiled and said, "But we never slept."
"No, I could never," insisted Mamarasta. "You are very vulnerable when you sleep."
"Yeah, I guess. But I think my size scares most people off. Besides I always remind myself how many people sleep on the street every night all over the world."
"You been sleeping in the streets, Justice?" Mamarasta gaped at him.
"Well maybe not in the streets. Usually with a tent or at least a mosquito net and mostly somewhere scenic. Anyway I got lost trying to find the bus-station this morning and when I realised I was lost, I was outside your bookshop. So I kinda wonder who was driving my legs here." They had devoured the lunch and now Mamarasta looked at her watch.
"I've gotta run. Justice you gonna stay with us at least a week. I'm not inviting you, I'm telling you."
"Yes mam." She grinned at him.
"So can I tell him?" Sista-Boodycall asked.
"About RASTA? Sure, tell him. But he's not allowed to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"About what he's been doing. Cos it's not fair if you hear it before me. Bye."
Ice laughed and waved. Then asked Sista-B, "So, seriously, you're called Rasta?"
"Yeah, the Rastas were always the underdogs. That's who we're working for. At least we don't say that to the people who come to us; but they often say it to us. But it's an acronym. We're actually 'Retribution of African Sisters: Tribunal Assembly."
"Wow. So what is that? It sounds awesome."
"The tribunal assembly is the gathering together of statements from African people from all countries, who have suffered human rights abuses. Retribution of African Sisters cos we're asking the women to speak up and we, including our other partners, are all womyn. A lot of the complaints are about environmental destruction by foreign governments or corporations.
"We have already collected thousands of statements from more than seven different countries. Usually they involve foreign exploitation of our natural resources while the people, who by rights should own those resources, are used as slave labour by the foreign 'investor'. The governments, of course, are all totally complicit so the people have no recourse to the law."
"So who are 'we'?"
"Well, Mamarasta is the founding force behind RASTA. She has two other partners who are also human rights lawyers and commissioners of oath. One lives in Zaire and the other is one of the most energetic women I have ever met. She has two law practices, one in Addis and the other in Khartoum. Then we have hordes of supporters in about eight different countries including Kenya and Tanzania. They're mostly complainants. Those people we have taken statements from as well as some volunteers. They're quietly spreading the word about RASTA. We're keeping it very quiet until we're big enough."
"You sound pretty big. How long have you been going?"
"We started about seven years ago. Our aim is to make our debut when we're big enough to open an office in every major town South of Khartoum. At the moment we could open in Khartoum, Addis, Kisangani and possibly Accra. Besides those four countries we have fairly large following in Nigeria, Niger and Zambia. Of course our two biggest communities are Kenya and Tanzania."
"That's impressive. You girls must have been working hard. Makes my efforts look kinda pathetic. What exactly do you do?"
"I run the office. That's what this shop really is. When any of our many supporters find somebody else who want's to tell their story, they're brought to whoever is closest. Me, or Billy in Kisangani. She's a bit shy, but very keen. Or they can go to either of Maia's offices in Addis or Khartoum.
"They're not actually running RASTA offices until we 'come out'. They're just collecting data and sworn statements. They're both very good at getting all the info we need. I'm the database wizard. All the info comes to me. I have two huge databases. The biggest one is all our contacts Africa-wide. The other one is all the statements we've taken, keyed by the transgressors."
"You go, girl! Hey, can I make us tea?"
"Sure. You'll find everything you need through there, but the kettle's here by me. I'll plug it. The amazing thing is, although we've taken almost five thousand statements already, the number of transgressors is barely over a hundred. But there are less than twenty who are implicit in the majority of cases."
"So what does Retha, er Mamarasta, do all day? I mean besides taking sworn statements."
"Yeah. Those are sporadic and usually arrive in groups. So whenever that happens she usually postpones everything else until she's dealt with them. I usually spend the first day or two prepping them for her. Her regular business is just as plain human rights lawyer. Mostly employment related or prison abuses. She has a huge reputation and wins most of her cases. Ah, thanks, that's great."
They sat drinking tea in silence for a moment.
"I was just thinking. We must close up and go fetch Mama at about four-thirty; that's in about an hour. Then we drive home, and as I noticed, you have no luggage. Well you have your toothbrush and we can give you toothpaste but maybe there's other things you need which might not be available in an all girl kinda domestic situation."
"Good idea. Which direction should I take? All I want is a few toiletries and a cheap change of clothes."
"Straight back the way you came, about two blocks down, on the same side you were walking. If you don't like what you see in the first shop, there are many similar shops in the next couple of blocks. Walk around, but don't get lost. It's a long drive home."
"Yeah. I wont. I'm usually pretty good. See you."
* * * * * * *
Sistsa-B manouvered the mini-bus into a parking spot outside the courts. Ice leapt out seeing Mamarasta laden with files, two cartons of work and her briefcase. Carrying the boxes he realised that one was actually filled with groceries and a bottle of whiskey.
"Guess what," she announced, climbing in the back. "No court for two days so we're not opening shop either. We got ourselves two days off in paradise, peeps."
"Yay," said Ice. "Is that where we're going?'
"Yeah," said Sista-Boodycall, "why else would we commute so far. Mombasa's fabulous. We lived here for years. But then we found paradise."
"I can't wait."
"You going to have to. Mama believes in doing the speed-limit. At least when I'm driving."
"Hey, hey, I only got two speeding tickets this year."
"So far, but it's only July."
"Huh. What I want to know Justice, is which countries have you actually spent time in. Not just passing through."
"Okay. I left from Spain. I had been living there nearly three years and I had a friend with a boat who was feeling adventurous, so he took me to Algiers."
"You started in Algeria. That's harsh."
"The city was phenomenal and after some haggling I got on a convoy that was going to Dakar, via Mali. I left them at Reggane, still in Algeria. Altogether I was about six weeks in Algeria."
"Did you go to Mali? I'm very attracted to the place."
"I spent about three months in Sikasso in Mali. The friend I was staying with was driving to Addis so we travelled together. It was kinda like a pilgrimage."
"Did I hear something special about that friend?"
"Oh, yeah, absolutely. His name is Bergen. I hope to meet up with him again one day."
Sista-Boodycall turned to him, incredulous, "You're gay!"
Mamarasta laughed. "You hadn't figured that yet."
Sista-B gave her a look in the mirror.
"What? Him too? Dropped his pants when he saw you?"
"No, just swallowed his tongue." Ice blushed.
"Don't worry," Mamarasta consoled him. "She has that effect on most men, even women. Even one queen. We all thought she was the oddest lesbian."
Sista-Boodycall laughed, "You thought."
"So where did you and Bergen go?"
"As I said we spent three months at his place planning the trip with his family and the whole village. He has an old land-rover. A really old one. But he says Africa is riddled with them and you can always get parts. He's a bit of a mechanic too."
"So where did you go?"
"Okay, okay. We left Sikasso towards the end of 2007. We drove through Burkina Faso and stayed a few nights in Ougadougou. Lovely country except all the towns are called Ougadougou."
"Oh, come on."
"No, really. Well not exactly, but it's very confusing. But the people were great. We were only supposed to stay overnight. Eventually they let us go again and we hit the road for Accra. That was the real start of the pilgrimage."
"What was the pilgrimage all about? I want to know about that."
"It's a long story. Bergen . . ."
"Okay leave that. We can hear about it tomorrow. Just where you went."
He looked at Sista-Boodycall. "Don't worry about her. She interrogates everybody like they're her clients."
"Sorry Justice. It's a habit."
"We stayed in Accra just over a year. Then we passed through Togo and Benin. From Accra to Lagos we stayed in the van on the beaches. They were awesome but the pollution! That took us about three months. We spent about five months in Lagos, then struck out across Nigeria for N'Djamena in Chad. We got there October 2009 and stayed about six weeks. From there we never stayed long anywhere. Except this little lake in the middle of Chad. We spent two months there. After that we mostly just stayed overnight in places although there were some where we stayed a week or two.
"We travelled really slowly hey. By the time we crossed into Ethiopia it was July 2010."
"And you shoulda been home for the World Cup. Did you stop in Khartoum?"
"No, we didn't even pass that way. The places we stayed more than one night were Nyala, En Nahud, El Obeid, Kosti, Sennar and Al Qadarif. We crossed into Ethiopia at Gallabat and went to Lake Tana. It's a huge lake and apparently the source of the Blue Nile. We spent three months exploring Ethiopia before going to Addis. It's an amazing country."
"Hey, welcome to paradise." Sista-Boodycall swung the van into an almost invisible driveway cutting through a grove of palm trees. The sun was setting behind them as they drove through a glowing green tunnel with a circle of blue at the end. She pulled out onto a small patch of lawn. Only a single row of palm trees separated it from the beach. On the right, the roof of a 1970's A-frame house poked up midst a grove of tropical fruit trees. Ice could see banana palms, pawpaw and mango trees and a couple of really tall avocado trees.
As Sista-B switched off the engine, his ears were overwhelmed by the sounds of many, many birds settling down for the night. He could not hear the sea but he noticed that the tide was out and there was virtually no surf.
Once they were settled comfortably in the living room with scotches and snacks, Mamarasta wanted to know, "The big question Justice."
"Did you ever hear of RASTA in any of the places you went to, especially Accra and Addis. I want to know what kind of impact we've made."
"I'm not sure hey. I never heard the name RASTA, but as Sista-B said, you're being very discreet at the moment. However, there was one group I met with in Accra. What a fine town. They were mostly youngsters just out of school or still in. The only older dude was the one who dragged us there. Oh yeah, it was a youth centre."
"A youth centre? In Accra. Did you meet a young girl called Neema?"
"Maybe. Not very tall, very compact. Very tomboy."
Sista-Boodycall laughed, "More like riotgirl."
"Yeah, yeah. She was one of the first people I noticed but until she came over to talk to me, I thought she was a boy. Have you noticed that about kids?"
Mamarasta looked confused, "That the girls look like boys?"
Sista-B laughed again. "I know what you mean. Like you have to wait for them to come to you." Ice nodded.
"Yeah. I mean normally if I see someone looks interesting, I immediately try to get introduced or just go over and do it myself. But if you do that with kids they're like skeptical, even suspicious. You can connect far better with kids by just trying to catch their imagination and making yourself accessible, y'know, like easy to approach."
"So did Neema tell you about us?"
"Not exactly. After Bergen and I had said our bit, the kids were all very quiet. Next thing it was like an explosion as they all started talking at once, to each other and shouting questions at us. It was great. You could see we had hooked them.
"Then later, when I was talking to Neema, a group of her pals came to us and kept interupting her. They were telling her 'Tell him about those women'. She just ignored them.When they kept on, she turned on them, saying 'Can't you see he's a man. That's a women thing. Let the men do their own thing.' Or something like that. Bergen translated for me."
"Who is Bergen? I mean, ya, I remember what you said, but is he a native Malian or where's he from?"
"His mother is. His father is Swedish, extremely fair. And totally naturalised hey. At their home in Sikasso he was great. You couldn't say he was a European. And the combination in Bergen is, I mean, yeah," he looked at Sister-B. "He could be your brother."
"Yeah," she grinned. "That figures. My father is Tanzanian and my mother is a blonde French-Canadian."
"Wabona! Then there was another time in Lagos. There was a dude I met who told me about his sister. She had been working at a petroleum refinery. There was some story, I forget, but he said his sister hooked up with some women who took her to Khartoum to lay charges, or something. I couldn't get that, about going to another country to lay charges.
"Actually he wanted me to meet his sister so that she could hook me up with the address in Khartoum, but we were already on our way. I met him at the filling station as we were leaving Lagos."
"That's pretty good, I reckon, considering you're a traveller. You heard about us twice in two years or what?"
"Yeah, yeah, it was probably even less than one year."
"Justice, tomorrow I want to hear everything. What the pilgrimage was about, what's your story you telling everyone, your whole story. But tonight I just want to get drunk n talk about old times. Sista-B is just making the fire. This place really is paradise. There's a jetty on our beach and at the end of it is a fish-trap. You ever heard of such? Almost every evening it delivers up at least one fish, unscathed. If we don't want to eat it, we just let it go."
"Aren't you a teeny bit afraid of sleeping on the beach?" he teased her.
"Oh no, but the house locks up."
"I was thinking about tsunamis and rising sea-levels and stuff."
Mamarasta laughed. "That's how we got the place. We bought it at the end of January 2005 from the people who'd been washed out of it a month earlier. We had to do a bit of repairs but we got it for almost nothing. Let Sista-B tell you the story. They're her friends. She tells it well."