This week I’m posting an excerpt from my forthcoming anthology True Love and Other Stories
‘Damn it!’ Richard swore for the first since he had been a student union activist thirty years back.
‘Take it easy my man,’ the chairman sitting by his side whispered. ‘Swearing is not permitted in our meetings.’
Richard ignored him. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, threw down on the table the document he had been reading and stared at his audience. Eyes blazing, he pointed at everyone in the hall.
‘Each and every one of you is responsible for the mess we are in. Don’t blame government for your cowardice. The constitution clearly states that all official languages are equal. But what do you people do? When served by an official who does not speak your language, you try to speak that official’s language. Good Lord! Why?’
‘It’s the only way we will get served,’ a man in blue overalls sitting on the front row shouted. ‘How can we boycott government officials? They wield all the power.’
‘Yes,’ a woman with plaited hair nodded, standing up. ‘If you can’t get an important document from an impossible government officer you can’t tell him to get lost and go elsewhere.’ Applause and cheers filled the packed hall.
The chairman raised his hands shouting, ‘order, order,’ but the audience heckled him and drowned his voice.
‘They get angry if we can’t speak their language and refuse to serve us,’ yet another attendee shouted.
‘My point exactly,’ Richard banged the table. ‘You let the Southerners walk all over you. You allow them to get away with murder. Look, I can understand the officials insisting on speaking with everyone in their language. They have a mission. They want our language to die. But what about you? Why aid and abate them? Sellouts! That’s what you are.’ He took out a white handkerchief and wiped his brow before continuing.
‘Remind the officials that the constitution allows us all to speak our languages and so all government officials serving the public must speak local languages. Our people say: ‘the one who brings it upon himself is not wept over; it is the innocent victim we weep for.’ You all brought this upon yourselves.’
The audience was quiet and Richard picked up the document again. In a monotonous voice, he resumed reading his prepared speech, quoting long clauses from the constitution. The audience did not make any more comments.
‘Great speech,’ a reporter told him after the question and answer session.
‘Thank you,’ Richard said shaking her. She had a Mohawk hairstyle with a gradual cut across the sides and back. ‘Here is the written speech to help you report it accurately.’ She accepted in with a smile.
The following morning Richard found his name splashed on the front page of the main Sunday paper. His remarks outside the prepared speech were quoted at length and the reporter added views from political commentators who had not been at the meeting. Most of the commentators agreed with Richard and praised him for understanding the constitution. Some even hailed him as a visionary.
He had just finished reading the article when his wife hurried into the sitting room brushing off imagined dust from her brown costume. ‘You are not going to church in jeans,’ she complained. ‘Go and dress up properly.’
‘I am not going at all today.’
‘Oh Richard, as a couple we are supposed to be seen together in church. You don’t know how embarrassing it is when I have to explain your absence.’
‘Tell them I am out there reminding humanity of the teachings of Jesus.’
She snorted. ‘And what are those?’
‘To love one another like the Good Samaritan did. I want to explain to that reporter…’
‘You can do it tomorrow,’ she suggested. ‘Why waste your Sunday…’
Richard cleared his throat. ‘The Bible says: ‘Don’t put it off, do it now. Don’t rest until you do. Saving yourself like a gazelle escaping from a hunter.’’
‘Why all this fuss? This is just about languages.’
‘It’s much more than that. For me as a civil servant, making political statements in public is a serious offence. The least I can do is to clarify what I said.’
‘I am sure your bosses will understand,’ she said.
‘Besides, there is a bigger issue. Language is about who we are as a people. If it dies, we too die. Now that I have been dragged into the debate I have to properly articulate our grievances as Northerners. Don’t worry about transport. I will drop you at the church.’
An hour later, Richard was running up the staircase of an office block in the city centre. The security guard downstairs had told him exactly where the reporter he wanted to see was sitting. On the first floor, he marched to the end of the large open office and stood in front of the reporter.
‘How old are you young lady?’ Richard demanded, glaring down at her across the desk. She looked up from her laptop.
‘Oh, it’s you, what can I do for you?’
‘I asked you a question, girl,’ Richard said in a louder voice.
‘Who do you think you are to barge in here and interrogate me?’
‘Just answer a simple question, how old are you?’
‘I am twenty-five but what has my age…’
‘This makes you thirty years younger than me.’
‘Anywhere in the world, old age is respected. In Africa, it is revered.’
‘Respect is earned.’
‘Why did you write lies about what I said at the meeting?’
‘So you don’t even read your own report?’
‘Is there anything I wrote that you didn’t say?’
‘That is not the point.’
‘The facts are not the point!’ She laughed and shook her head.
‘The point is I gave you a copy of the full speech but instead you decided to harp on the off the record remarks I made.’
‘There were no off the record remarks made in that meeting. You said it in the presence of everyone.’
‘Yes, but that was not a rally. I was addressing the leadership of the Residents Association. Those were in-house remarks made to civic leaders, not the public. You were supposed to report just the official speech as you guys always do with cabinet ministers’ speeches. So, retract what you wrote and since you are interested in my personal views, I will give them to you.’
The reporter smiled. ‘That is not how it works sir. You addressed an open meeting and the public has a right to know what you said.’
Richard looked at her with a mixture of contempt and pity. ‘I want to see the editor now.’
‘He’s off today. You will have to come tomorrow.’
‘Understandable,’ he nodded. ‘I would also stay away from work as much as possible if I had you for a subordinate. You and your boss will see the buttocks of a snake!’
He turned round and strode out of the office