The People of Gehenna – Michigan Quarterly Review

The People of Gehenna

Published in Issue 63.2: Spring 2024

Spring 2024 | Translator Richard Prins Reads “The People of Gehenna” by Tom Olali MQR Sound

A note about the short story “The People of Gehenna” by Tom Olali from translator Richard Prins for the Michigan Quarterly Review's Spring 2024 issue “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations”: As a translator of Swahili literature, the texts I find most compelling are the ones that might show something new to the English language. When I first read Tom Olali's novel Watu wa Gehenna, I had the thrilling experience of never knowing what set of rules the author was going to defenestrate next. This particular excerpt often reads like a Socratic dialogue, but the interlocutors form a mind-bending trinity of God, Satan, and Self. Elsewhere, reality turns out to be dream and dream turns out to be reality, the dead are resurrected and the resurrected are put to death, and characters shapeshift like they're the author's imaginary playthings – which, of course, they are! By reveling in the artifice of narrative, I feel Olali reveals a great deal about the artifice of human society and consciousness.

Why We Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Hank Hietala on why he recommended “The People of Gehenna” by Tom Olali and translated by Richard Prins for the Spring 2024 issue. You can purchase the issue here.

“Reader, his name is Eks.” From the first line, Tom Olali’s writing declares itself. This is a bit of a narrative feint: the successive pages of prose—excerpted from the novel The People of Gehenna—unfold as a series of conversations between Eks Ngwenyama and his Self. Other voices join the chorus, including his wife and a trickster figure named Old Refiçul. What began as a monologue quickly transforms into a series of dialogues, as Olali moves elegantly through time and space. 

Like many great writers, Olali exhibits a flexibility of style. There are moments of metafiction, philosophy, and domestic drama. What sets Olali’s work apart is the humor; the prose pulses with irony and unconventional proverbs. (My favorite: “If a chicken doesn’t know the law, don’t put it on the witness stand.”) Whether Eks is dispensing nutritional advice, learning about a chess algorithm, or meditating on the nature of death, he does so with wit and verve. 

In a meeting about MQR’s special issue on new African writing, guest editor Chris Abani encouraged our staff to seek out translations, and not just from French and Arabic. I was excited to discover, after reading “The People of Gehenna,” that the English version was translated from Swahili. On rereading, Richard Prins’s translation, I saw the story of Eks Ngwenyama as, among other things, a commentary on the act of translation. In Prins’s brilliant rendering, he reinterprets the original, riffing on it like a jazz musician reimagining a standard. Through translation, Prins lends additional meaning to the description of Eks’ Self as “a distant voice, from far away.”For a language spoken by over 200 million people worldwide, Swahili is criminally underrepresented in literary translation. If the pages here are any indication, Prins’ translation of Olali’s novel, The People of Gehenna, will be a gift to the English-speaking world. MQR is fortunate to publish this excerpt from it.


Reader, his name is Eks. Last name Ngwenyama. His full name is Eks Ngwenyama. Best known as Eks. Next, Eks’s self woke up. At first it was asleep. This was quite strange because his self didn’t usually sleep. But today it slept. Eks was not aware that his self had fallen asleep. But a distant voice, from far away, told Eks his self was sleeping. He wasted no time. He begged it, beseeched it to wake up. This was even stranger; how could Eks wake up his self when he required a self to instruct him how to do the waking?

Eks volunteered to be asked some questions. He relaxed every joint of his body, giving his self a chance to say what it wanted to say. It woke up. His self came alive and got right to work on the task of interviewing Eks. An interview about being human.

Eks’s self began by asking, “Eks, what is a human being?” 

Silence.

The self asked again. Bolder.

“Eks, WHAT IS A HUMAN?”

“I’ll answer you. Just give me a minute.” Eks looked weary. Exhausted, from some rough confrontations. Confrontations from the day prior. Today, he faced new confrontations—confrontations between him and his self. This question—“Eks, what is a human?”—was one his self had been asking him for many years. Those years now added up to an eon. The question still hadn’t been answered, and this lack of an answer was taking its toll on Eks’s health (if what was left of him could be called “health”). It was some time before Eks mustered the strength to reply.

“Why do you ask?” Eks asked his self.

“Why do you not answer?” Eks’s self asked him.

“It’s a tough question. I don’t know what a human is!”

“What a joke!” Self snorted hard enough to split a rock.

Followed by an echo: Jooooooke. Jooooooke. Jooooooke.

“I definitely don’t understand the meaning of being human,” Eks insisted.

“Another joke!” His self was equally insistent. “You understand PERFECTLY well what it means to be human.”

“I don’t,” Eks defended himself. “I really don’t.”

Laughter. Self laughed. And abruptly went quiet. Then, “You don’t know yourself?” asked Eks’s self.

“I know myself,” Eks answered.

“Then talk. What’s a human?”

“A human is me. I am human,” Eks spoke with a philosophical hauteur. 

“Uh-huh . . .”

“I’m different from a bird.”

“Mhm, right . . . go on.”

“I’m in the family of creatures, living and extinct, called Hominidae.” Eks was sharpening his Latin saw.

“Well done. What a fine student,” his self applauded. “And what are the characteristics of Hominidae?”

“Superior intellect, the ability to speak, and to stand upright.”

“Anything else?” 

“Like what?” Eks was getting exasperated.

I’m asking you, Eks. Is that all?” 

“Well, they are also members of the species Homo sapiens.”

“And what does Homo sapiens mean?”

“It’s a Latin phrase for an intelligent person, or a person with conscious understanding, within the Hominidae family.”

“Now, let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of humans,” Eks’s self suggested.

“Alright.”

“You said Hominidae meaning you yourself—have superior intelligence?”

“Yes,” Eks maintained. “I have a superior intellect.”

“And by superior intellect, you mean νουσ ποιητικός?”

“I’m not sure,” Eks admitted.

“Alright. Forget about ποιητικός. What is νουσ?”

“Why should I forget about ποιητικός?” Now Eks was the one questioning his self.

“It’s a terrible mistake to say that Homo sapiens has a superior intellect. Intelligence they may possess, but it’s hardly superior!”

“Hatuna akili aula?”

“HAKIKA NYIE HAMNA!”

“Why not?”

“You’ll get your answer. But not yet. Have some patience,” Eks’s self warned. “But hey, you can’t dodge my question this time. What is νουσ?” 

“I can’t answer that question. Not the way you’ve asked it.”

“I’ll ask it a different way. What are the abilities of νουσ?”

“They include the ability to make logical statements, assert executive function, engage in problem-solving and abstract thought, demonstrate knowledge of truth, and use language to reflect on and learn from experience.”

“I would add that the word νουσ is derived from the Greek noun for mind, or intelligence,” Eks’s self added.

“Why are you asking me these questions?”

“You’ll find out. Not yet, though. Be patient. Patience brings blessings.”

“I don’t think I have patience,” Eks held on to the same old razor.

“That’s the reason I’m asking about Homo sapiens and your species’ νουσ ranking.”

“Ranking?” 

“Yes, the νουσ algorithm.”

“There’s no algorithm that measures the νουσ of Homo sapiens.”

“There is!”

“Is not!

“Is too!”

“THERE IS NOT!”

“This is only further proof that humans do not have superior intelligence,” Self stated with a triumphant tone, in a voice only Eks could hear.

“Fine. You, my self, possess a superior intellect. So give me some knowledge about this νουσ algorithm.”

“Relax. If a chicken doesn’t know the law, don’t put it on the witness stand. I’ll give an illustration. An example from chess.”

***

Eks was resting on his jeuri chair. It was carved from mwaloni wood. He preferred this chair to the pillowy sofas that filled up the sitting room. Anytime Eks sat on his jeuri chair, it  felt so cooperative and compatible. His back could relax just fine on its skillfully woven seat of white yarn, elegantly stitched to each side of the chair.

He placed one foot on the prayer mat that was always on the floor. This was the left foot. The right foot he placed on top of the left. Kick and tap. Lift one up, put it under the other, then kick out the bottom one and put it on top. In the house of Eks, the right foot was host and the left foot was guest. The left relaxed, serene, while the right rubbed against the floor and then rubbed against the left. The way he was playing with his feet wasn’t just normal human fidgeting. It was more like a game. The foot didn’t rest. Was he wagging it around to ward off a muscle cramp? Maybe. It was like the left foot wasn’t even alive. These feet were just wood on top of the pile, laughing at the wood in the fire.

While Eks was sitting on the jeuri chair, he had a lot of business to attend to—even apart from wishing his self would explain whether a human intelligence algorithm existed. Above all, he wanted to know why his self was asking him all those questions in the first place. Eks tried to reach the pen on the stool. The stool was on his left side, so he couldn’t get to the pen. If only it was on the right. Then he would grab it. His left hand just couldn’t get there. He felt a shooting pain. The pen he thought he saw wasn’t actually there. What he saw was the cane he used to get around. Today, Eks mistook a cane for a pen. His eyes deceived him—daytime, schmaytime. Or is it true the day a monkey dies, all the trees are slippery?

Eks’s eyes were impaired from more than forty years of working at a cement grinding company: THE WORLD CEMENTERS INC. Sometime during his twentieth year there, Eks had a severe convulsion and was carted off to the clinic. They ran some tests; he learned he had asthma. From that time on, he had a habit of forgetting things. Things like special events, dates. He didn’t know when he was born, or where he was. He didn’t know what time to eat lunch or dinner. He couldn’t figure out what time he should wake up or what time he had to go to sleep. His brain was further compromised by his heart condition. These were all side effects of working at THE WORLD CEMENTERS INC. His lungs had to overexert themselves to perform their duties. They often failed. Breathing was heavy labor and more than a bit painful. On top of that, his legs betrayed him and caused chronic pain. Simply put, Eks’s health was terribly frail. 

Eks went outside. After a few minutes, he went inside. Then he went out again. After a few more minutes, he went back into his room. There was a large bed made of ebony. Several multicolored pillows were tossed and jumbled across it. Eks didn’t get far. Just a few steps past the garden door, he peed himself. He wasn’t ashamed. This was so normal it was the rule—the law of urinating whenever and wherever the need knocked. After all, trouble never asks to be invited in. And when trouble knocked, without even saying hodi, Eks was kind enough not to refuse its request. He obeyed its command, opened the door like a proper host, passed urine – and life went on like that. He pissed himself all over the place. What was the point of shame? Shame was an arrow he shot to pierce THE WORLD CEMENTERS INC smack in the heart. And there shame remained, exacting revenge.

How could he face off with a multinational corporation? Even if he got compensation, it would only be enough to buy a few pills. Eks had a chronic kidney condition, and all his income—from social security payments, not workers’ comp—was swallowed up by the exorbitant price of his medication. In the exertions of going out and coming back in, he relied entirely on his cane. His own legs couldn’t carry his body. Which had always been quite hefty, until just recently it started feeling weak and withered. His rickety bones strived, urgently, to hold up Eks’s frame, but failed. Every day, they tried, and they failed. Eks wasn’t the despairing type; he bought a cane. His cane was his refuge, his companion, his third leg. He had always been blessed, never having to ask what will I eat? so much as what else will I eat? Now he understood that health was superior to wealth. And how true it was, that old Swahili saying: You aren’t done until you’re dead. Such deep meaning, such significance.

***

Eks never had children. His childlessness could be blamed on two people. The first was Takosani binti Abdalla, Eks’s wife. And the second culprit was Takosani binti Abdalla’s husband—Eks himself. Takosani binti Abdalla had a complication with her uterus, which spread and affected her cervix. On Eks’s side, there was a sperm deficiency. Experts ran some tests and found that not only did he have a shortage of sperm, but the few sperm he did have were bloodless slackers. The doctors compared the motility of his sperm to that of a snail. For many years, Takosani binti Abdalla and her husband reassured and comforted each other with the notion that one day they would conceive a child. One day, some day. Year in and year out, they waited for that day, to no avail—but who stops eating bread for fear of heartburn? Eventually, some day came, a different day than the one they were waiting for. The day Takosani binti Abdalla passed on to the next world. Eks was mired in a desolation that aggravated his health. He found no one to help him, allowed sickness to dig in and settle. Thus he became chronically ill.

Takosani binti Abdalla’s cooking had been rich, sumptuous. She used to wake up every morning and prepare her husband something Eks liked to call A Typical English Breakfast. Of course, it wasn’t really a typical English breakfast. It was a mixture of meat, meat, and more meat. Bread on the side, double-smeared with butter. Plus a bottle of Martell, a strong cognac Eks enjoyed without his wife’s knowledge, since drinking was haram for her. Takosani binti Abdalla and Eks hated—with all their hearts—fruits and vegetables. They thought fruits and vegetables were nothing but rabbit food. They loved gorging on meat, especially grilled meat. It was a rare meal that didn’t include meat, and the butcher shop kept a whole journal just for their meat debt. Apart from grilled meat, Eks also enjoyed meat fried in copious amounts of oil, and his wife maintained that love was sweetest in their home when she fed her husband lots of greasy fried food. She firmly believed that a man’s potbelly was the ultimate testament to his wife’s cooking. She also believed that whoever picks in the sun eats in the shade. Eks’s paunch kept him from wearing the clothes he liked, or walking around as much as he wanted, or performing simple household tasks, or driving the car he loved, or even bending down to pick up his house keys, which had a frequent habit of falling to the ground due to the sharp pains always flaring up in his hands. And finally, it prevented Eks from performing a very important act—the marital act.

When Eks slept at night, he had trouble breathing. Takosani binti Abdalla didn’t pick up on this. Their lunch and dinner menu stayed the same. A week before Rabi-al-Awwal, she complained that her heart kept jolting. God’s attendant paid her a visit the very next day, during evening prayers, on the first day of mfungo sita. She went on to the next world rebuking Old Refiçul. Though she had never seen him, she blamed him for depriving her of children. “Old Refiçul!” she called out as she died, “Why have you denied me a child?”

To read the rest of this piece and much more, purchase our Spring 2024 issue (available in print and digital forms here.)

Tom Olali holds a PhD in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Nairobi. He is a two-time winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature (Kiswahili Adult Category) for the novels Watu wa Gehenna (2013) and Mashetani wa Alepo (2017).

Richard Prins is a lifelong New Yorker. His poems appear in publications including Gulf Coast, jubilat, and Ploughshares; his essays have received “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. He was awarded a 2023 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translations from Swahili.

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