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Chapter 3. Operation Fetish
Shore. Lamu Island 1980, Maskat is 12 years old
Maskat and Jay would always come back to shore full of energy. They would run across the villages by the shore creating endless childhood fantasies about police hot pursuits, superheroes saving the world, or some script from a blockbuster movie they had seen. Over the years Maskat and Jay went from acting out movies to talking about sex and smoking their first cigarettes. Sometimes they had money to buy something from the market, other times they just stole whatever it is was they wanted. They eventually got so good at stealing, and challenged each other more and more, somehow managing to never get caught.
Jay had a big smile and glistening teeth that were unmistakable and allowed him to speak to anyone. Maskat envied his courage and appeal to other people, and sometimes felt invisible next to Jay’s electric charisma. It felt like at least one person was ready to greet Jay at any given corner and village they turned to. By the time they were both 12 years old, Jay had already done some sort of business, delivery, or trade-in almost all the villages of Lamu Island.
The town was made out of narrow streets that were only habitable for humans and donkeys but not cars or vehicles, which made it a heaven for inhabitants with far less pollution than any other island or town on the East African coast.
“Lamu island is like a golden coin” Jay told Maskat one day.
On one side, the UNESCO heritage Lamu Town, bustling with Swahili culture and the villages where Maskat and Jay lived. On the other side, Shela, with its high-end guest houses and the wide, rarely crowded beach which attracted a significant number of wazungu- which was what they called western white European foreigners in Swahili.
Maskat and Jay would only see those classy wazungu establishments from the outside, where they so cruelly belonged. As locals, they were not allowed on the inside. On the beachfront of every hotel, there was a private sunbathing area with chez-longues where a layman sat on the entrance to the beach, protecting the hotel’s precious customers from the local beach dwellers. Among those locals were the sailors, fishermen, tour guides, craft sellers, weed dealers, dhow owners, coconut rum makers, and various other hustlers trying to make a shilling or two from wazungu.
All of them were exclusively men, but they varied widely in how they looked and talked. From modern-day Bob Marleys in dreads and jeans, all the way to the traditional Massai folk in their red turbans and hiking sticks going about their semi-nomadic lifestyle that has prevailed throughout the ages. The Swahili women were only to be found in their households though, at rare social gatherings or in the market in their buibuis- the traditional black garment that covered every inch of their bodies except their eyes.
Islam had arrived at the coastal towns of Kenya on a boat from the Arabian Sea during one monsoon in the eighth century and stayed there forever. It spread so effortlessly and gave the people their name: Swahili. It stemmed from “ Sahel”, the Arabic word for the coast. Islam was widely adopted into the East African culture as both Shiaa and Sunni migrants from Oman, Yemen, and later Iran migrated seeking political refuge on the beautiful African beaches.
The only women found on the beach were foreigners and tourists. The local Swahili men understood that those commercial beach hotels were sources of income, and any form of sexual aggression was not very common. The elder men always taught their boys to respect the foreigners, for they brought goods and wealth to their society.
By the time they were 12, Jay had understood that very well and knew that behind every mzungu (European man) there was a shilling to be made.
One day, as they walked back from the beach, Jay had a strong proposition.
“How would you like to make a few shillings, Maskat?”
“Sure thing but I need to be home by 5 and I can’t be late this time.”
“That is plenty of time. I have it all figured out so it won’t take us too much time.” Jay said with his typical confidence.
“What is it that you want to do, Jay?”
“Just a quick delivery to some mzungu.”
“What are we delivering?”
“ Do you know what a fetish is? ”
“Hah! You do not know what a fetish is! Maskat you need to get out with me more.” Jay said with his big glistening smile.
“Damn it, Jay, just tell me what it is already.” Maskat said impatiently
“A fetish is when someone likes having very strong sex.” Jay put his finger through a ring he made with the opposite hand, and smashed them into each other loudly.
“Yes like fantasy sex. You know like the one we saw on the videotape I have at home.”
“Oh, the one with the 2 ladies and the leather gloves?” Maskat asked still confused with the images they had seen the other day at Jay’s house.
“Yes of course I’m talking about that one.” Jay said impatiently.
“Ok so I know what a fetish is, yes.”
“Great, so an Italian is here staying at Aasir’s guest house by the beach, and wants some traditional buibui’s for his fetish. Aasir will pay us 350 shillings if we deliver fifty buibuis to the mzungu.”
“Fifty buibuis!!” Maskat demanded an explanation. “What is he going to do with the buibuis? I thought you need to take your clothes off to have sex. Why does he want a buibui to cover them from head to toe?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care Maskat! Ask him about it when you see him you curious monkey.” Jay started walking faster.
“Where are we going to get them from? “ Maskat said trying to keep up.
“From the market, they are ready for us but we need a donkey. I know where to find it but we’ll need to create a distraction. I have a plan though, so don’t worry. Remember my friend Chiumbo? He got us some firecrackers. All I need from you is to light and throw them from the rooftop to create a distraction, I’ll grab the donkey.”
“ Stealing is something that people get sent to hell for doing, Jay.”
“Maskat…do you think God is so small to spend time thinking about such things as 2 kids stealing a donkey? God is far more important than that, He has much more to deal with like murderers and terrorists. “
“This is so stupid Jay we will get caught and I can’t get into trouble at home this time Jay.”
“ Stop being so scared Maskat, be a man.”
Maskat had no choice but to accept. He could not let Jay think he wasn’t ready to take chances. The plan was so elaborate though and was going to require more than one day to bring all the moving pieces together.
They planned their little heist for days. Jay had it all drawn out on sketches. They decided to do it just afternoon when the market was the busiest. “A busy market would be key to our success” Jay explained. The firecrackers would cause enough ruckus and panic for Jay to grab one of the donkeys that were always tied down on one of the side streets which he knew by heart.
They spent the upcoming weeks rehearsing and preparing. Jay practiced tying and untying knots on a rope similar to that used to tie down the donkeys. Hey walked Maskat through setting up the firecrackers and how to safely light them up using a long 2-meter wire.
Remember, set the crackers, light up, give me the sign and then run down to the meeting point!
“Thanks Jay, this is only the millionth time you tell me this.”
“We’re creating our future Maskat, there is no room for mistakes.”
They both thought the plan was simple enough to do. It felt that way until the night before, when Chiumbo arrived at Jay’s place and opened a carton box, unveiling the firecrackers and wires.
Maskat felt his stomach twirl into knots. He started to imagine how everything that could possibly go wrong, will go wrong.
“You are the man, Chiumbo!” Jay greeted him enthusiastically with a big hug and slap on the shoulder.
“You should see me with one of these buibui’s on, you might change your mind.” Chiumbo quipped.
Chiumbo reached to the second, bigger carton box he came in with 50 different buibuis of different colors and sizes. He pulled out a long bright pink robe and threw it over Jay’s head, letting the garment fall down covering his whole body from head to toe in its majestic loud, and relentless pink. Jay gave them a show acting like he was a shy little girl.
All three of them cracked up, but Maskat could still feel the anxiety in his belly and shoulders. He was desperately playing it cool though, energized by the calmness of Jay and Chiumbo.
On the day of the heist, all three of them showed up on time at the meeting point a few streets away from the busy market, but close to the roads that lead to Shela where the delivery point was. They smoked their nerves into a final cigarette.
Maskat carried the firecrackers in his school backpack. He found the destination roof and quickly passed unnoticed into the building, going past a large vegetable and fruits market on the bottom floor.
He went all the way up to the rooftop was excited to see that it was clear.
He started setting up the wire, to go around the rooftop and the firecrackers closer to the market side. He peeked out from the corner and saw Jay making his way into the side street and gave him the thumbs up.
Maskat took out the box of matches, lit the wire, and ran down to the street. His heart was pounding as fast as the sparks were catching the wire on the roof, and it felt like it will explode along with firecrackers.
He took a shortcut through one of the front-yards of a nearby house and suddenly there she was: Leila. Thoughts of Leila had occupied his mind since he first saw her. He had imagined kissing her lips and touching her tongue with his.
Her brown eyes glistened in the sun looking straight back into his. Leila’s eyes were fierce and vibrant. She had a beautiful nose that was wide and curved on the edges creating space for a glorious smile around her mouth.
His heart seemed to stop completely now.
He quickly looked down on the floor and started walking faster, acting like he never saw her, despite the fact that he was walking inside her own home and shouldn’t even be allowed to see her hair and face.
“Hey Maskat!” Leila said with a greeting smile that made the time stop.
“where are you off to? Do you want to step in for some food? I just finished cooking a delicious Sakuma.”
“Leilaa…I uhh…thanks!” Maskat fumbled.
“I didn’t know that you lived here.” He said with great difficulty.
She laughed. “Yes welcome to my house. ”
Her soft voice commanded his heart to start pumping again, and as the blood flowed once more through his body, he started remembering the wire, Jay, the heist, and what was about to go down any second now.
“Sorry, I must go!” Maskat said regretably
“Where to?” she asked curiously.
“Uhh, meeting Jay. See you soon Inshallah” He said as he started running away.
He was so full of excitement; he might have a chance with Leila. She seemed into him! The care she naturally radiated in her invitation filled him with hope and vigor. In the next couple of seconds, he had created an elaborate story of them running away together on a dhow and sailing away from Lamu.
Just as he stepped out of her house, he heard the explosion.
First the sound of birds flying away from the market, then the bang, and then a couple of screams and the sounds of chatter. That was all he expected, but a few minutes later as he approached the meeting point, he heard a massive singular scream that was followed by equally alarming shrieks, and the second wave of bustle happened.
That sounded odd, the screams got louder and louder and the commotion grew bigger. A few seconds later he could smell smoke. He knew he shouldn’t leave the meeting point but he couldn’t take it anymore, he went back to one of the side streets to see what was happening.
As he approached the main area, the smoke grew thicker. His heart completely sunk as he saw it: the food shop on the bottom floor of the building he was in had caught on fire and was burning to the ground.
He could not move and was too afraid to go and help. He felt guilty but knew that he could not stop, he went running back to the meeting point and there they were as expected: Chiumbo with the buibuis, and Jay with the donkey.
"Man o’ man! Hakuna Matata! These 350 shillings will change us forever Maskat!” Jay said
“Did you see what happened!!!" Maskat screamed
Shhhhhhhhh, you’ll blow it for us! We must stay silent, forever!” Jay firmly said, “The past is the past, let us focus on the success we have created."
They agreed to never talk about it, and they got away with yet another thing. No one could ever think that three twelve years old was behind burning a whole shop down to the ground.
The owner of the shop had a long-time quarrel with one of his neighbors. The shop owner had refused to give him vegetables at a cheaper price for his neighbor’s restaurant and had no doubt that the burning down of his shop was an act of retaliation.
Everyone in town spoke about it for months, except for our three musketeers who acted uninterested in the topic.
After a long walk to the Shela, delivering the buibuis and making it back to Lamu town, Jay dropped Maskat off at his village and continued his way back home on his new donkey.
Maskat rushed through the sandy streets and narrow passageways. He knew he would be late anyway as the day was already breaking into dawn, with the old grey houses turning purple in response to the sun’s momentary farewell.
Whatever it was that they did during these walks over the years, Maskat loved being out and always dreaded the moment the sunset. That’s when he had to be home for dinner. The home was everything the world wasn’t - safe, predictable, and boring.