A mixture of African tradition, classic crime fiction and the supernatural, Bound to Secrecy is a captivating, exotic tale, an account of the complexities of Liberian society and an transporting exploration of the differences and inevitable clash between modern life and ancient cultures.
|Publisher:||Global Book Sales|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Vamba Sherif was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973. In his early teens he moved to Kuwait, where he completed secondary school. The First Gulf War compelled him to leave Kuwait and settle first in Damascus, Syria, and then in The Netherlands, where he read Law. Vamba is also a journalist and film critic. His passions include music of every kind, film, and the collection of rare books on Africa.
Read an Excerpt
On an oppressive day in the dry season, a man stepped off a bus and crossed the main street of the border town of Wologizi. He approached a young man who was bending over a cistern filled with water. The youth had been gazing for quite some time at his own reflection, and the face that greeted him in the clear water wore a beatific smile. Though the stranger walked with a limp, over the years he had learned to conceal his handicap cleverly by strutting, so that the youth who heard his footsteps and turned fully to face him assumed he was arrogant. In fact, the youth was less fascinated by his suitcase or tailored, three-piece suit than by his manner of walking. It was the assertive gait of a man well aware of the effect his appearance had on people.
The stranger sat down on a bench under a leafy tree not far from the youth, and he heaved a deep sigh that betrayed his contentment. Wologizi fulfilled his expectations, for as he glanced across the dusty street, he could see several old men: two of them were stretched out in hammocks, and the others were lying on mats, whiling away the stifling hours in the shade of a breadfruit tree. The border town was asleep, in the thrall of the heat. While travelling to the town, the stranger had toyed with the idea of yielding, like those old men did, to the lethargic spell of the heat without a care in the world. And as if to confirm that thought, a gentle breeze started from his right, from the direction of the youth, and drifted peacefully towards him. He closed his eyes to savour it to the full.
'Come here,' he called to the young man.
The stranger watched him cover the short distance between them, his gestures languid, his gait remarkably feline, but not until the youth stood before him did he notice the fear in his eyes.
'Can you show me the way to the mansion?' This was how the house was called in that part of the country, the mansion, and the stranger knew this. The youth raised a slender hand and pointed to a house in the far distance. The hand, the stranger noticed, was pocked with burn marks, which did not appear to be ritualistic, but he stood up, choosing to ignore them. Beyond an ochre hill through which the main road had been carved, the stranger could see the mansion perched proudly on another hilltop.
'Who lives there?' he asked.
The youth did not answer.
'Tell me who lives there?' he insisted.
Although the identity of the occupant of the mansion was common knowledge, the youth remained silent.
'Come on, don't be afraid. Tell me.'
The stranger's tone was reassuring, even appealing, but the young man continued staring at the ground. Perhaps, the stranger thought, the young man's reluctance was due to his timidity.
'Why are you so silent?'
It was at this point that he reached out to pat the young man on the shoulder, a gesture he immediately regretted, for it triggered a reaction that baffled him. The youth recoiled, broke into a run, and never looked back until he disappeared behind a curtain of dust.
The incident still disturbed the stranger even after he had traded the pleasant shade for the terrible heat, and when he turned to the old men he saw that they had not stirred from their positions.
The road he took to the mansion was punctuated by dust-swathed houses, from which an occasional voice could be heard, subdued to an almost sensual whisper by the noonday heat. On reaching the town centre proper, he saw a Lebanese man, one of many who traded in that country, standing before his shop and munching a loaf of bread with the avarice of a child. On his right, he saw several youngsters gathered around a poster, in front of a cinema, discussing the film – its heroes and heroines and the murderous tactics of its villains. It reminded him of his own childhood. The stranger passed a gas station where some men were playing checkers beneath its rusty roof. Incited by a handful of spectators, the two main players were slandering and insulting each other, cursing and swearing in the most exaggerated tones, as if locked in a duel of death. The first threatened to defeat the second, warning that he would forfeit his wife and property to the winner and never play checkers again. The stranger ignored them, but could still feel their eyes boring a hole in his back, even after he'd rounded a bend. On turning around, certain he would face one of them, he saw nothing but a cloud of dust rapidly heading his way.
Soon, he arrived at a junction with divergent paths which went on to enclose collections of thatched huts and mud and brick houses. Instead of taking the road to the mansion, he opted for the main one that led up a mountain and down a valley. He wanted to see the river that formed the border between his country and the other, and how the border was manned. However, the ascent was difficult, the heat unbearable, and soon he was sweating profusely. The stranger loathed the smell of his own sweat, which was acrid now despite the fragrance that he wore, and more than once he had to stop to dab his face with a handkerchief.
It took him nearly an hour to reach the river which lay at the foot of the mountain. Long before he could see it he could hear it gurgling softly, as though it was whispering a secret. Contrary to his expectation, there was no building on either side of the river to indicate where one boundary ended and the other began, no custom officers, in fact no sign of life at all but an occasional call of a lone bird or an animal. Even the river was carelessly bridged. Some logs had been thrown across it, which were now old and worn out. Beside the bridge, tied to the trunk of one giant tree and extended across the river to another, were strings of woven ropes, a phenomenon known in that part of the country as the monkey-bridge, a bridge used only during rainy season when the river overflowed and covered the main bridge. What manner of a border town was it without clear-cut borders?
The stranger turned back and headed for the mansion. Long before he could reach it, the house rose before him, majestic and imposing, overlooking Wologizi with evident pomposity. The three-story building was cut off from all sides – from the valley at its rear and the town sprawled below it – by walls of cement bricks topped with shards of bottles. The first thing that caught his attention was the radio antenna which towered over the house. Then he saw a warning boldly written on the gate which read: BEWARE OF MY PRESENCE. He reasoned that perhaps it referred to a ferocious canine trained to pounce on intruders like him, so he shouted to lure it out but got no response.
On drawing closer to the legend, he noticed that unlike the rest of the walls it had been repainted recently. The gate stood open, and he entered with some reluctance. On his right was the one room-radio station which he approached, listening for any sign of movement. It had no door and its windows were broken. The stranger entered and discovered that the radio which connected Wologizi with the outside world was out of order. All of a sudden he had a distinct feeling that someone was spying on him, and he left the radio station as if in a daze.
Climbing the stairs up to the first floor of the house, he emerged into a spacious living room with a high ceiling, stained at the corners as a result of leakages. Everything was covered with dust: the once beautiful chairs and tables with the flag and seal of the country carved with precision in them, the wooden cupboards with an impressive display of Chinese porcelains and vases, and the gilt-framed portraits of various dignitaries, were all entangled in mass of cobwebs. Even the walls were not spared. Spiders were perched in many corners, the windowpanes grimy. The smell of decay lingered in the air, dominant and pervasive, and for a while the stranger stood still, taking in that neglected splendour, overwhelmed by it all.
Outside, at the rear of the house, he searched for an explanation for the condition of the mansion but was offered none. There was a kitchen without utensils, and a well beside which stood a rusty bucket. He paused to gaze at a mountain rising up before him, just one of a long chain of colossal mountains that enclosed Wologizi.
Once again he felt a presence behind him, furtive but persistent, and he turned around only to face a tiny, emaciated old man in a homespun baggy gown, his jaws moving determinedly as he chewed a kolanut. The old man looked wary of the stranger. The sun was at its zenith now, beating down with cruel intensity on the two men; the air was still, trapped momentarily in the oppressive silence of that deserted place.
'What a beautiful mansion you've got here,' the stranger said.
To this unusual form of introduction, the old man initially responded with silence but could not resist the disarming smile of the stranger who moved towards him, his hand stretched out in a greeting.
'That's what everyone who comes to Wologizi says.'
The stranger's handshake was firm, and as it tightened around his hand, the old man felt an unbearable pain but chose to conceal it.
'One cannot miss it,' the man went on, his voice carrying the same note of spontaneity and charm as at first. 'When I stepped off the bus I saw it in the distance and decided to admire it from close.'
Only then did he let go of the old man's hand, and he quickly moved to the front of the compound where he stood gazing with rapture at the mansion, as if he was seeing it for the first time.
'It looks so out of place here,' he finally said.
'The mansion was built a long time ago for the president who's yet to visit us and occupy it. Until then we've decided to keep it empty. Every once in a while we come up here to dust it.'
The old man, as he said this, noted the stranger's every reaction but apart from the warm smile on his face he betrayed no other emotion.
'It's indeed a house befitting a president.'
The old man moved a few paces away from the stranger, as if he was about to leave him, but suddenly turned to him.
'You said you stepped off the bus here?'
'I was just passing through.'
'Never been to this part of the country?'
'It's my very first time here, old man.'
'Then you should have known that a bus comes this way once every few days and sometimes once a week.'
'Once every few days?' the stranger asked.
The old man nodded. The two were standing under an acacia tree, facing the radio antenna to which the stranger's eyes often turned, as if wondering about its relevance to Wologizi. In silence both men pondered the exchange, each lost in his world, each weighing what to say next, and then one of them spoke: 'There is nothing I crave right now in this unbearable heat more than a cold palm wine.'
It was the stranger. This frankness brought a smile to the old man's face, for it confirmed what he'd been thinking at that every moment.
'Then you've come to the right place,' he said.
Both men laughed. The sun was at their backs, fierce and implacable, as they climbed down the hill.
On the roadside, in front of them, a snake lay basking in the sunlight, but on noticing the two men it slithered into the grass, becoming one with the bush. When silence fell in the wake of the footsteps of the two men, the snake emerged out of hiding and glided languidly to the roadside.
Wologizi was still in the grasp of the heat, but in a few hours it would shed off this numbing influence and usher in the evening with a flurry of activities.CHAPTER 2
To do justice to the palm wine, the two men began with four gourds which stood on a beautifully carved stool between them. They were seated in collapsible chairs under a mango tree and drank from a small calabash. First, the stranger took a large swig, and the old man who watched him thought he would empty the calabash in one gulp, but then he stopped. 'Palm wine is the nectar of the gods,' he said as though it was a revelation, and then passed the calabash to the old man, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. The old man agreed. 'There's nothing like it,' he said, and drained the rest.
The men teased each other about their passion for palm wine, but with the fourth and last gourd the drinking took on a solemn aspect. The two began to appraise each other anew, each bent on making the other drunk. The stranger refilled the calabash but instead of drinking he leaned towards the old man as though to bow to him, to honour him as befitted a man of his age. The old man, who could not decline the honour, emptied the calabash in one swallow, refilled it and handed it over to the stranger. The wine was strong – the old man knew this – for it had been tapped from one of the best palm trees in Wologizi. The stranger emptied the calabash; his eyes, the old man noticed, had already glazed over, and his tongue swept across the corners of his lips, lapping up the froth, and then he broke into a laughter filled with the mystery of drunkenness. He keeled over, his whole body rocking to it.
It was time, the old man thought, to pose his question, and he did so casually. 'You said you were sent to Wologizi?' The stranger sat up, poured some wine into the calabash, his hands trembling, visibly drunk now, but he gulped it all down.
'No,' he slurred. 'I'm just passing through.'
Then he passed the calabash to the old man who took a sip and handed it back to him, amazed by his unusual resistance to the wine.
'What was your name again?' he asked.
'William Soko Mawolo.'
The stranger answered curtly, his voice crisp, as if he had not had a single drop of wine. The name baffled the old man. Though it sounded familiar there was also something obscure about it, especially the middle name which was unfamiliar to him. The stranger was of imposing height, his skin so dark that his forehead glinted blue. He was much unlike the people of that forest region, whose skin colour was less sooty than his own. The old man concluded that he was indeed a foreigner, perhaps from beyond the borders, but on the other hand he spoke like them, drank palm wine with the same passion.
'Mine is Kapu,' the old man said. 'However, everyone in Wologizi calls me Old Kapu, and I recommend you do the same, Mr Mawolo.'
'I certainly will,' William replied, and turned his attention to the wine as if he was noticing it for the first time.
'What do you do all day, Old Kapu?'
'I don't want to bore you with the story of my work, Mr Mawolo. Suffice to say that it is very unrewarding.'
'Then why do you do it?'
Old Kapu did not answer but instead leaned back on the collapsible chair and then in a slow, calculated voice said:
'You look like a government minister to me, Mr Mawolo.'
'Far from it. I work for myself, Old Kapu.'
After taking another sip of the wine, the old man filled up the calabash and told William to drink the rest.
'Our palm wine is the very best in this region.'
The fourth gourd was empty, but William insisted that Old Kapu send someone to buy more wine.
'Don't worry, Old Kapu, I'll pay.'
The old man ordered another gourd of wine. Meanwhile, as the two waited to begin another round, the household awoke with the return of most of its members from farms or from performing daily chores. Some women were preparing food at the back of the house, and William could hear a few of them trading insults with an ease bordering on revelry. In the midst of the bustle he would turn his gaze to anyone who entered or left the house, especially the women. Whenever one greeted him William would answer in a voice so imbued with charm that the woman in question would end up bursting into laughter. 'Old Kapu's life must have changed for the better the day he laid eyes on you,' he would say if she turned out to be one of the old man's many wives. If not, he would say: 'Perhaps I'll wed you before I leave, Beauty.'
Old Kapu, amused by it all, was silent.
The women were not offended by William's conduct but would disappear in the house, giggling like young girls.
At a certain point, one of them came out to ask Old Kapu for some money to purchase food in the market the next day. She was of indeterminate age, with austerly plaited hair and cracked lips, her ample hips disproportionate to her thin body. Except for her hips, which were round like a calabash, the woman was not endowed with any particular beauty, William could see that. The wrappers that covered her tender figure were worn out, her blouse faded, but she stood before the two men aware of the stranger's gaze, basking fully in his attention. 'Fend for yourself,' her husband shouted at her in a dismissive tone.
She seemed taken aback by the sudden outburst, and was about to leave when William reached in his pocket and placed some money firmly in her hand. 'For tomorrow's food,' he said jokingly. 'But don't tell Old Kapu. Otherwise he might throw me out of his house.'
She left them, her laughter ringing like a noon bell.
'You are spoiling them, Mr Mawolo. What would I do if you were to leave tomorrow and I was left alone to face them?'
'What you do every day, Old Kapu. I'm sure that after I've left they would have forgotten I was ever here.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bound to Secrecy"
Copyright © 2006 Vamba Sherif.
Excerpted by permission of HopeRoad Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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