Our Memory Like Dust

OUR MEMORY LIKE DUST

GAVIN CHAIT

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS

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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Doubleday

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © Gavin Chait 2017

Gavin Chait has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473527225

ISBN 9780857523686

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

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Contents

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Dedication
Prologue
Part I: When the Gods Misspell Wrath
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Part II: Our Memory Like Dust
Chapter 17
Tales from Gaw Goŋ: Casamance, l’homme qui mourut deux fois
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Tales from Gaw Goŋ: Baana, le génie des eaux indomptables
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Tales from Gaw Goŋ: Dragon, la brèche dans le mur de la honte
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Part III: From Flame More Than Heat
Chapter 35
Tales from Gaw Goŋ: Harmattan, la mémoire comme de la poussière
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Epilogue
Chapter 52
Author’s Note
About the Author
Also by Gavin Chait
Copyright

Also by Gavin Chait

Lament for the Fallen

For those we forget.

For those we remember.

For the wings and tail.

But most, for her.

Amongst those of the Ghimbala of West Africa, the river genii are neither angels nor demons but – like them – have the capacity for good and evil. The priests of the genii, known as the gaw, sing their songs and lead their ceremonies, inviting the genii to enter their bodies so that they may speak with these spirits and learn what is hidden or ask that they intercede in complex matters. This is dangerous, for the genii have great power and can overwhelm those who lack the will to master them. Get too close and they may change the narrative of the world in unpredictable and destructive ways.

For stories are not only told, they listen and gather the memory of those with whom they are shared. Names, places and experiences may reappear but be utterly transformed, creating new stories carrying an essence of what it means to be these characters, while telling of lives and paths which may differ entirely.

This is the story that Goŋ, the greatest of the gaw, told me many years ago, and now I tell it to you.

I

WHEN THE GODS MISSPELL WRATH

There is an arc of fire burning across Africa, its flames now scorching the beaches of Europe. Will we recognize the suffering and hope in the journey of these refugees? Or will we raise a wall of steel and drown their faith in the waters of the Mediterranean?

Dr Ettien Enkido, Special Rapporteur to Federation of European States, March 2055, closing remarks at emergency spring summit

Of course I ordered the boats destroyed, and of course it isnt a solution. But we cannot allow a marauding swarm of illegal migrants to break into our country unchecked. We need time to prepare. There are over six million people trying to get across, and this is only the beginning. We need time.

Glenn Thibault, Minister for State Security for England and Wales, December 2057, in answer to a heckler at a community forum

The genii are not testing our faith or punishing us for some historical wrong. It is worse. It is as if they have absent-mindedly forgotten their role in our lives and – in writing the future – have misspelled wrath and enjoy observing the chaos this brings.

Sidiki Cissoko, parliamentary candidate for Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, campaign speech, 2064

1

Sticky, chalk-like dust coats the naked man as he lies curled tightly on the cave floor. There is no light, no sound, merely continuous heat from the rock sweating all around him, and the distant plink of water dripping from the calcified ceiling.

With each drop he imagines waves rippling across the unendurable blackness and rasping against his skin: relentless sensations haunting his sanity.

He crawls towards where he knows the bars of the cell to be, finding the bucket of water and drinking sparingly. There is no regularity to when his captors replace it. No way of knowing how long it must last or how much time is passing.

He had howled and wept the first few days here, demanding they listen, offering any ransom. They kept food from him until he became silent. He tried calming himself, but his fear is crippling, stalking him, restless in the desolating dark.

Relieving himself in the soil bucket he returns to the rear of the cave where he can feel the smoothness of the wall against his back.

Something warm and furry brushes against his legs and he flinches, pulling his knees in and holding his ankles. His keening mewl rattles along hidden passages, echoing, haunting and feral.

Something grunts in answer in the darkness. An outline, squat and with rounded shoulders glowing like dust in a shaft of light. The prisoner no longer trusts his mind and holds up a hand to ward off the growing brightness, doubt and terror clouding his senses. His arm is a silhouette without feature against the gathering shape.

The beast takes form, a burst of olive-grey fur surrounding a long snout, the canines curved and hugely terrifying. The baboon’s eyes are brown, warm and filled with curiosity.

Even in his mental anguish, the naked man notices that – though the baboon appears as brightly as if standing beneath the desert sun – he can see nothing else. No light escapes to cast aside the blankness of his prison. His throat is raw with his shrill wailing, and he cringes back against the stone.

The baboon grips a two-headed metal stave in one hand. He advances on the naked man, who cowers and presses further into the wall, gesturing with his other as if stirring a pool of water, searching in the rivers of memory that coalesce on this place here in the heart of the ancient watercourses of the genii carved through the bony chitin of the earth.

A fragmentary image of a man with strange blue eyes, and the naked man moans in tepid outrage. The baboon presses at the moment, like a wound, and follows the liquid thread towards a thin, silvery track like a river in the vastness of the Sahara.

The dust trail of the vehicle ahead lingered in the air, and it was easy to follow behind. The five seekers – two men, two women and a small child of indeterminate gender – clustered in the vehicle with him believed that he would take them to Nouadhibou, and he intended to, but first there would be a reckoning.

They travelled for hours, always roughly northwards, with the clatter and smash of stones on the undercarriage the only sound, and the sun was beginning its descent when the dust source ahead began to near. There was nowhere to hide amidst the rocky desolation of the hamada, and he simply ordered the vehicle to park alongside the stationary Haval.

Its occupant had been sitting inside waiting. Now he stood and walked towards them, surprise and unmistakable anguish on his face.

‘What are you doing here, Oktar?’ he asked, his strange blue eyes bright, even compared to the clarity of the sky.

‘I might ask you the same thing,’ said Oktar Samboa, triumph in his thin smile.

‘You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get us all killed,’ said the man, glancing into the vehicle where the seekers were equally confused and uncertain.

‘They know where the planes are,’ said Samboa, nodding at the seekers. ‘They stumbled on them the first time they tried crossing the desert. Now we’ll see how much your information is worth to Ansar Dine.’

A shimmer, and twelve jihadis set aside their invisibility cloaks. They had walked unnoticed over the nearby dunes. They were black-clad and inscrutable inside their turbans and djellabas. By their bodies and posture, though, they appeared to be young, and they held their weapons nervously.

They began shouting, pushed the blue-eyed man aside and dragged the seekers from the vehicle. The child screamed in terror; the women were sobbing.

Clearly, they were demanding to know who all these people were. Why was he not alone as agreed?

Blue-eyes sought those of Samboa and, even here as the prisoner sees this once more, he struggles to understand the expression on his face. Of grief and loss.

Samboa trembles and shakes, his body prone upon the cave floor, the moment swirling before the gleaming eyes of the baboon. He had felt so certain the jihadis would listen to the seekers and then depart, leaving the blue-eyed man with nothing. Instead he cannot tell who is more panicked: the seekers or the jihadis.

The blue-eyed man began to speak quickly and firmly; he stepped between one jihadi and the tallest of the seeker men. Smiling, he grasped the man by the arm, as if they were old friends, speaking all the while.

‘What are you saying?’ Samboa shouted, willing himself forward as the blue-eyed man’s rims translated loudly.

The jihadis were more insistent, shoving again at the blue-eyed man, pushing one of the women to the ground.

The blue-eyed man put up his hands, continuing to smile warmly.

Samboa was close enough to hear him speaking under the translation. To hear him say, ‘This is Oktar Samboa, a colleague, and these are our guides. You would not expect us to find our way here without the support of the Senegalese military?’ A statement that condemned them all.

Gasping. A moment frozen as the jihadis reacted.

The shooting did not stop, even after one of the seekers managed to climb inside the Haval, hammering on the controls until the vehicle lurched and drove south, back along the track. His legs jammed between the seats and his torso hanging limply out where it dragged in the dust.

‘What did you do?’ shouted Samboa as the jihadis grabbed him, tore his rims from his face and shoved him to the ground. ‘Simon!’ screaming his name. The blue-eyed man looked down at him in sadness before he too was thrown to the dust.

The baboon places his hand close to the face of the naked man, stifling his scream, digging deeper, following the path into the lives of others, seeing shapes flying over the desert, pressing at the horizon and casting shadows against the sky.

2

‘Can you see anything yet?’ asked João, peering over his co-pilot’s shoulder.

They were flying low over the desert, the moon painting a blue line on the crests of the shadowy bruise of the erg almost brushing the fuselage below. The A380 was an ancient carcass salvaged for this one flight. At forty years old, it was still younger than any in the convoy flying behind them.

Vitor, his eyes hidden behind the disposable visor incongruously wrapped around his temples, flicked his eyes instinctively out to the horizon. For a moment, it was almost as if the face of a beast, with a burst of fur surrounding a long snout, stared at him from the dark sky.

He shook his head, glancing down at the flat console stapled over the cockpit controls. A clutch of wires snaked from it and into the control panel, rewiring the obsolete systems into its more modern computer.

For the last hour, their concentration on navigation had given way to a strident fear. They were almost out of fuel.

‘Either that transponder has a really short range, or we missed it,’ said Vitor despondently.

João opened a bag of chocolate biscuits from the pile behind his seat and chewed on one. If they missed the landing zone, they would have to ditch the planes well beyond any chance of rescue.

‘Two days’ work and retire forever,’ said Vitor bitterly, repeating the pitch which had led them there.

The Caracas Cartel had been shedding its pilots as it transitioned to entirely autonomous drones. Offered the choice between flying model planes at amusement parks or a one-time suicidal freight delivery, there had been more than sufficient volunteers from amongst those laid off.

Five Airbus A380s, average age forty-five, had been acquired. Their seats and fittings had been torn out and their control systems patched. Ten pilots were needed to fly the planes, masked and damped to prevent remote observation or interference, to a specific region in the Sahara, wait for a transponder signal to locate a temporary runway, and land them there. The pilots were then to be smuggled to Dakar and flown back to Brazil on a commercial flight.

Their pay from this one job would be sufficient to allow them to enjoy a wealthy retirement.

The catch was that they would be carrying five hundred tons of weapons and one hundred and fifty tons of synthetic heroin destined for Europe. A convoy of planes worth $75 billion would be hunted by both law enforcement and any of the other criminal syndicates. And the planes would be landing in the middle of the world’s most violent and hostile failed state, deep within an aggressively policed no-fly zone, to be met by its most violent and hostile occupants: the jihadis of Ansar Dine.

‘You worry too much,’ said João. ‘We’ve done this hundreds of times. Remember when we ditched an entire convoy in the Atacama when that Yanqui corvette caught us offshore?’

Vitor stifled momentary nausea. They were not inside those planes when they crashed but had been safely piloting them from a distant control room. What had the man said?

‘You will be flying blind, without anything but the most basic navigation, low and at speed to avoid pursuit, and no one can help you until you land where you’re supposed to.’ The words delivered in a quiet staccato by the stranger in the Panama hat who had arrived the day before they were due to leave.

‘Be sure, they will be listening,’ he had told them, his face obscured in the twilight of the room, and his strange blue eyes hidden beneath the white of his brim.

‘Who?’

His smile had been wicked. ‘Everyone.’

In the darkness, each plane followed the lights of the one before and hoped that their leader knew where he was going.

At a specific time, and for a specific duration, a small short-range transponder was supposed to be turned on to guide them to the landing site. That time had passed and, almost two hours later, they had not yet heard it. In ten minutes, their agreed landing window would end, the transponder was due to be switched off, and they would be lost.

João reattached his visor, and the augmented-reality display flickered. He could see Vitor holding his virtual controls. He nodded, and authority was handed back to him. Vitor busied himself searching through the aether for the transponder signal.

As time ran down, they unconsciously began preparing for the inevitable. There was no way to let the other pilots know what they were about to do and, without a prepared runway, these vast planes would be difficult to land.

‘How far do you want to fly? It looks like we have about thirty minutes of fuel left,’ said Vitor.

João shook his head. ‘We’re getting further away from the transponder zone, and we’ve already risked too much. I’d rather land and hope they find us than be shot down by drones.’

‘And that box?’

Vitor had happened to observe as their bosses arrived to inspect the final cargo load. Saw them usher the man in the Panama hat up the ramp for a brief secretive visit into the hold. He was carrying a small square case when he arrived, and he left without it. Vitor hunted amongst the bales of heroin and crates of small arms. He could not find it.

‘It’s still better than being shot down by drones,’ said João.

‘OK, the others will have realized we’re lost by now,’ said Vitor, his hands numb with fear.

‘Brace yourself,’ said João, grinning, a chocolate biscuit clenched between his lips.

Landing went about as well as could be hoped given the uncertain terrain. João pancaked into the sand and skated over the tops of the erg before their aeroplane shoved its nose into the ground, coming to an obliterating stop. Two of the other A380s managed to land in parallel in a similarly shattering way.

The last two collided as they landed.

An overly high, unfortunately cambered peak flung the one into a rolling tumble and into the path of the other. They crumpled together. Their surplus fuel expanded and exploded, casting a sudden red glaze over the fury of the last few minutes.

There were survivors. João, Gabriela and Carlos stood blinking under the stars as fine white powder settled on them, like a surreal desert snowstorm.

They built a small cabin in the wreckage. They had a party that lasted two days, until Gabriela overdosed. A day later, João and Carlos ran out of water.

Within a week, the steady blast of the harmattan covered everything and buried the planes, and their cargo, in the desert.

In the sky, a face blurred within a burst of fur narrows his close-set eyes and grunts. There is so much more to know. He turns his gaze forward in time and further into the deep desert.

3

‘Duruji, what does he say?’ asked the youngest of the men, his invisibility cloak worn out and only partially covering his black djellaba.

Wind rattled where the men were huddled together inside the wreck of an ancient aircraft, its nose still buried in the sand of the erg. Its hull had been torn open, either after its original crash or from decades of tortured wear by the motion of the desert.

Two men were out on watch on the crest of the surrounding dune, their Igla-AD14s, the flat-nosed anti-drone radio-frequency guns Ansar Dine had made their symbol, pointed at the sky.

Duruji sighed. Another disappointing journey had gained nothing of value. At least this crumpled bit of scrap was actually an aeroplane. He stared at the ugly broken hulk, the metal rusted and perforated like lace. A black shadow against the night sky.

The desert is a graveyard. Each new war adding another scattering of lost craft, their crew bleached offerings to the encroaching sands. Finding Abdallah Ag Ghaly’s missing cargo was an impossible task, but their equipment had to be replaced. Their invisibility cloaks were in tatters, their weapons needed repair, and ammunition was in short supply. Movement above ground would soon be impossible. They had to find where those aeroplanes crashed before their ability to control the region became even more restricted.

On this excursion, they had spent almost a month traversing the erg fields, using the limited access they had to the maps on the connect to try to find anything of use. Ansar Dine troops had been criss-crossing the desert for the better part of a year.

Duruji would prefer not to be out here, but Ag Ghaly insisted.

They were long past recriminations for the loss of the cargo. Duruji and his men had waited in the desert, switching on the transponder at the agreed time. He had obeyed Ag Ghaly’s instructions, staying well after the duration of safety when it became clear that the aeroplanes were not going to arrive.

There had been a mistake. They were at the landing site a day late. The aeroplanes already crashed and the cargo lost. Someone needed to be held accountable.

The Cartel were unsympathetic. They had been paid. They provided instructions. If Ansar Dine were careless with their dates, it was certainly not their problem. However, losing the pilots was unfortunate and would need to be added to the cost of future deliveries. Would Ansar Dine be interested in another shipment?

Jihadis tortured the man who had taken the details for the aeroplane arrival from the Cartel emissary. They raped his children before him. He died without revealing how he had got it wrong. Perhaps he did not know.

Duruji believed the confusion over the date was deliberate, that the Cartel lied.

‘They were greedy, Janab,’ he had said to Ag Ghaly. ‘We should never have put so much money into a single deal. We should never have paid in advance. Should we ever find those aeroplanes, we will discover there is nothing in them.’

Ag Ghaly had slapped him then, screaming incoherently, beating him even as Duruji cowered, and still continued to punish him by sending him out repeatedly into the desert to search.

Once a week, at a random time, their radio was unshielded and a brief burst of encrypted messages was broadcast on the connect. They stayed online for less than a second to minimize the chance that their position would be given away. Sometimes they would receive messages back with new instructions and new coordinates to visit.

Today, Duruji had received a message from Ag Ghaly himself. He had read it, but he had not yet shared it with the others. Each hoped that perhaps their missing cargo had been found and they could return.

The men sat in darkness, for light and heat risked attracting observers. The desert belonged to Ansar Dine, but the sky belonged to those who hunted them.

They had eaten the tasteless food bars that each carried, drunk a little water, and now they rested, preparing for the next long slog.

The young man, his face clammy, asked once more, ‘Duruji? What does he say? Can we go home?’

‘The boy is afraid of the surface,’ said one of the men, chuckling. ‘He sees demons walking on the sands.’

Each of the men suffered from a lingering agoraphobia from being above ground, exposed to the satellites and drones which searched the desert. Each hid it as best he could, except for this young man.

It was his first time on the surface.

‘I saw it. It is following me,’ said the young man, fighting to keep his terror from his voice. ‘A baboon. It pointed at me.’

‘Khalil thinks he saw Gaw Goŋ,’ and a mutter of dusty laughter amongst the others. ‘That old woman’s tale, told to scare disobedient children.’

‘He says he saw a painted dog walking with the baboon,’ laughed another. ‘He lives the stories of Gaw Goŋ and Painted-dog’s child.’

‘They are real,’ the young man’s voice trembling and defensive. ‘My grandmother told me that, up here on the erg, during the day the horizon shimmers and the dark shapes we see are the demons trying to get in. Our world and theirs are closest in the desert. Gaw Goŋ judges us. He is judging me. Please, Duruji, can we go home?’

Despite his youth and palpable fear, Khalil was enormous, a hulking giant chosen from amongst the children of the families closest to Ag Ghaly to join Ansar Dine’s elite troops, those sent out into the desert to exercise his power.

He was too young to be out so early in his training, but any sympathy would get them all killed. The men offered him none: as much as they each received on their first tour on the surface.

‘No,’ said Duruji. ‘We go west, Khalil. Our Janab orders us west.’

‘Another wreck, like this one,’ said one of the men.

Duruji shook his head. ‘He says he has captured a man who knows where the aeroplanes are. He travels to interrogate him.’

‘Without us to guard him?’ asked one of the men, his voice horrified and incredulous. ‘He never leaves the sanctuary.’

‘We are almost three weeks from him. He says it is too important to wait. We must get there when we can,’ said Duruji.

Khalil was shivering, staring up at the face in the sky only he could see.

The men walked all day, sleeping briefly in the evening, and began walking long before the sun rose. It was too risky to drive, too exposed. Only during the worst of the harmattan dust storms would they attempt to use vehicles on the surface.

Two weeks previously, they had climbed over a rise and surprised a group of people out on the reg. They were seekers, attempting to cross without paying their tax to Ansar Dine. They had been unarmed and exhausted. They fell to the ground, quailing and begging not to be slaughtered. Money had been offered but too late to assuage the punishment due to those who dare travel without permission.

Some of Duruji’s men had wanted to rape the women.

‘We have no time,’ Duruji had said. ‘Do not waste bullets. We need them to last.’

They had shot the men and used their knives on the rest. The women had fought fiercely to protect their children, but they were all weakened by their journey. They were little trouble to the jihadis.

They massacred them, leaving their bodies to dry in the sun.

Duruji had noticed a look of anguish on Khalil’s face at his order. He had approached the young man, wiping his bloodied knife on a shawl taken from one of the women. Behind him, the men were looting the bodies, keeping anything that looked useful.

‘Do not worry, Khalil, there are more than enough seekers crossing. When we return, we will have more time to take slaves back with us. You will have your fill.’

‘Do you see?’ Khalil had said, pointing towards strange shapes in the shimmering mirage that lingered on the horizon. That was the first day he had seen the baboon Gaw Goŋ pointing at him, his two-headed sombé in his hand.

Khalil could no longer sleep, and in his nightmares he heard a howling roar as of a wildcat tearing at its prey. He felt something stalking him, encroaching on him, as if preparing to cross from the world of the gaw into his own. Duruji, determined to lead his men where ordered, could spare him little sympathy.

‘It is only the harmattan,’ said one of the men, as close as he could come to reassuring the traumatized youth. ‘It takes time to get used to the sounds and visions of the surface. We have all made that journey.’

‘We will rest for three hours,’ said Duruji. ‘From here, we will journey to the ouahe outside Timoudi. Your water must last until we get there.’

He turned to the young man. ‘It will be months before we are home, Khalil. Make your peace with the desert.’

Khalil trembled, his eyes locked on the horizon where the air shimmered and shadows pressed as of genii trying to reach him, the voice of the baboon, Gaw Goŋ, scratching at his ears.

Another path beckons and Gaw Goŋ, his eyes two dark points in the sky, follows across the desert to where others are gathering.

4

Amadou cherished this time of day, when the sun set behind the guelb and turned the jumble of rocks sloping down from the rough-hewn out-crop into gleaming bronze. Its shadow stretched across the barren hamada – the hard, rocky plateau stretching far into the Sahara – towards the vast field of solar collectors, and he could feel the warmth of the rock face on his back and legs.

It had been an exhausting start, and his skin was sticky with dust. He leaned back in his chair, scrutinizing his men as they completed their chores and prepared their evening meal.

Rich peanut-butter steam rose from the mafé stew simmering in the pot, its black sides steeped in coals. Dark shapes gathered at the fireside, assembled themselves into men, and sighed gratefully as they sat down. A pot of coffee was passed from man to man. Amadou smiled and waved his empty mug, motioning for a refill.

‘The genii are with us,’ he said, gesturing towards where dark eyes in a burst of fur looked down on them from the sky.

‘It is Gaw Goŋ,’ said one of the men, gratitude in his voice. ‘Perhaps he will ask the genii for a good season?’

Amadou smiled and nodded. He could smell the hivernage coming: the brief rainy season that would cool daytime temperatures down into the mid-thirties. It was still far too hot this early in May – he tapped the tracker on his wrist and grunted as he saw it had reached 43°C at noon – but if he waited too long the roads would be choked with other farmers heading out of the coastal city of Saint-Louis and from villages along the Senegal River Valley.

This way was cheaper. It had taken three hours to drive the one hundred and fifty kilometres from Saint-Louis, over the river crossing at Rosso, and to the turn-off at the tiny village of Mbalal.

Dodou had arrived with his convoy of old rental trucks just before midnight. It was coolest to travel at this time, and Amadou had hired Dodou’s cheaper unrefrigerated vehicles for his goat herd.

He had spoken softly with Dodou while watching his men as they loaded the tools, food supplies and spares they would need, then the goats, docile and heavily pregnant, before cramming themselves into the remaining space and sleeping as best they were able.

The two old men had smiled and held hands. Their skins loose, clinging like the surface of dried dates over bone-lean bodies hardened by the passing of the sun. Their friendship measured in the accumulation of years and the experience of hardy survival.

‘I will see you at the turn of the season,’ Dodou had said. The other had nodded and swung up into the lead truck. ‘Good luck with those milkers,’ Dodou had called, and cackled.

Amadou had ignored him, fastening his turban across his face, his eyes shining in the dark cabin.

The trucks had engaged, electric motors silent in the sleeping streets, and wound their way through the endlessly sprawling city. Shattered glass outside an immigrant shop, stones and blood on the road from one of the mercifully dwindling fights between old residents and new arrivals. Lamp posts dense with election posters promising change, and every yard an assembly of awkwardly leaning temporary shelters filled with seekers.

He was ten when his father had decided they could no longer risk their herd to the dry season. They had lost the majority of their pregnant does and all their ewes to the heat that year.

Villages to the north of them had emptied. Towns like Mederdra and Beir Tores given back to the desert. Hundreds of thousands had migrated: a hostile, frightened mass of different nationalities and tribes, antagonized by their differences of language and culture, united in their pursuit of refuge and opportunity. Some to the river valleys of West Africa, some to Europe.

Then had come the wall of steel built across the waters of the Mediterranean; the civil wars triggered by the unending drought had cast millions more from their homes, their harsh journey tempering them into the tenuous nation of seekers, and Ansar Dine had taken what was left and made an empire of it.

The border had migrated north of Nouakchott following Mauritania’s collapse. Senegal had no wish for the destitution of that land, but they had required a buffer between the valley and the violence of Ansar Dine jihadis. Long columns of dust shadowed soldiers moving back and forth from the border.

‘We are Senegalese now,’ Amadou’s father had said. ‘Let us seek a living amongst our new people.’

He had walked his family and their herd south, along the Senegal River to Saint-Louis. They had been lucky, arriving before the surge of fleeing farmers plunged goat prices to mere centimes, and had been able to sell most of their herd. He had bought land outside the city where they had built a shelter for their remaining goats and a one-roomed house for themselves. He had hired a drilling rig and returned to their farm, striking the aquifer fifty-five metres beneath the surface.

Amadou had helped his father as they set up a small solar-powered pump and laid out drip irrigation pipes. Each year, during the cooler rainy season, he and his younger brothers would join his father to extend the range of the pipes. They had planted a row of palm trees, interspersed with tamarisk bushes and swallowworts, enclosing two acres around the guelb.

Slowly, they had claimed life back from the desert.

This was not land for the soft-of-hand. The guelb sloped up to stark shards of rock face, like the jagged teeth of some ancient desert beast, its skull buried in the hamada, and the scorched scales of its skin scattered across the earth. The ground was burned, and the surviving trees were blackened and bent. The horizon loomed, pressing in, searching for weakness.

Those years had been difficult. Amadou had seen famine sweep away familiar faces and leave barren land which used to support sheep and goats. He would not wish this life for his children and was grateful that they worked in the city and would not need to depend on the herd.

He had given himself another five years before he sold up and retired. Until a year ago. The year he met the man with the strange blue eyes.

First had come the surveyors with their maps. They had shown him the extent of his farm and had given him the formal title. Amadou had grown uneasy, concerned that this was a prelude to men with guns coming to take his land away. They had assured him it was not so, but that he was to get a new neighbour and that man had insisted he would only buy land with clear ownership.

A few days later, just as his does had begun to birth, an electric helicopter had flown from the direction of Dakar and landed on the hamada. Amadou had been standing nearby, on the far end of the farm, the calls of his men, whooping through the dust as they counted and digitally tagged each new kid, rising from the plain. He had been holding a console, watching the numbers change as each kid was sexed and added to the herd tally.

A toubab – a white man – in tailored trousers and shirt had left the helicopter, placed a white hat on his head, looked around and walked towards him. He had stopped at the farm’s invisible border and waited patiently until Amadou looked up.

‘Azul, ma idjani?’ the man had asked, speaking in Zenaga.

‘Azul. Ijak alxer da iknam,’ Amadou had said, pulling back his turban, his head tilted and eyes squinting in surprise at hearing a language few still spoke. He had stared up at the man standing so much taller than himself. His hair was greying where visible beneath his hat, but his body was strong and young-looking, like one of those laamb wrestlers. Amadou had met few toubab and could not read much from his face.

‘You have a fine herd,’ the man had told him, continuing in French.

Amadou had nodded, acknowledging the respect shown to him. He had looked back at the helicopter and out on to the hamada. ‘What will you do here? You cannot farm,’ he had said.

‘We will harvest light,’ the man had said. ‘You will be the first person to see it happen.’

Amadou had squeezed his eyes to disguise his confusion. Sable de Lumière. He tried to imagine buckets of light.

The blue-eyed man had grinned at him. ‘I’m building a solar generator. There will be some noise at the beginning. I wanted to apologize for any nuisance and introduce myself should you need anything from me.’

Amadou had thought quickly. Every household bolted matt solar panels to their roofs, each providing only sufficient power to run their lights and heat water or, with care, one or two small machines. Even in Saint-Louis, electricity was only available for a few hours a day. Here on the farm, there was none at all.

‘To whom will you sell your electricity?’ he had asked.

‘We will build a transmission line to Europe and sell it there.’

‘Why? They have and we do not.’

‘They have more money,’ the man had said. ‘Once we have enough capacity, we will sell here too. We will build at least seventy of these farms all across the Sahara.’

‘And the Big Men, will they not take it from you?’ nodding his head in the direction of the government in Dakar.

The blue-eyed man had smiled, his eyes narrowing. ‘It would be no different than if they took your farm. Stealing my property will leave them with nothing but sand.’

Amadou had stared at the dust and activity: a sudden vision of his farm and what he might be able to do with bigger water pumps and refrigeration. ‘Would you sell electricity to a neighbour?’

The blue-eyed man had looked at him and grinned. ‘For a friend,’ he had said, and put out his hand.

‘I am Amadou,’ and grasped the hand firmly with his.

‘I am Simon.’

And so it had been agreed, but he had not been sure it would happen until five months ago. A small substation had been built at the edge of his property and a line run to the collection of barns and sheds at the base of the guelb and on up to the living quarters on the shady slope.

Amadou had rushed back to Saint-Louis, asking his children to invest in buying electric pumps, refrigerators and tanks. He had traded five hundred of his Red Sokotos for one hundred Black Bedouin milkers.

At his age, to take such risks with his wealth – but he had felt a prickle of excitement. Rosso was only half an hour away, and there was a ready market for fresh milk in the river town. Perhaps, with permanent electricity, he could even farm throughout the year, increase the scale of his irrigation and raise sheep again.

Amadou had not seen Simon at the Sable de Lumière offices today, although he had seen some of the engineers walking amongst the solar collectors.

He remembered when they started. An enormous container flew in from the sea, supported by four heavy drones, and touched down gently on the hamada. He and his men had gathered near it, astonished at its size. It was almost thirty metres long and as high as a four-storey building.

Drones flew in equipment and piles of material, and then the container had opened at one end and out rolled a massive vehicle. Amadou had not even realized the block was a machine and that it was operating.

Simon was happy to answer his questions, explaining that the container was a printer and would produce mobile factories that themselves would print the solar collectors. When it was finished there, the container would be flown to the next farm.

As each machine had emerged, it was flown out on to the hamada and began work. After twelve days, the container had produced ten machines and was flown away, leaving behind only a small set of offices and a transmission station. This first farm was filled with engineers who were studying the efficiency and resilience of the collectors exposed to the persistent sand-blast of the harmattan winds. What they learned was used to improve the designs of the printing machines while they operated.

Amadou had joined Simon walking alongside the first machine. It was slightly larger than a bus, a waist-high gap underneath, and featureless except for a series of hoppers on its roof and narrow traction wheels at its sides.

They had watched as it prepared the ground, scraping up sand and rock from the space beneath itself, and could feel the heat from the furnace where that material was converted for use in the printer. It moved at walking speed, pausing periodically to open and embed a single solar collector in the earth.

Drones flew out to the distant machines, topping them up with some of the rare minerals and metals they needed. Otherwise, the farm was almost silent.

Amadou had watched the rows of collectors grow in number. If he listened carefully, he could even hear them. Somewhere between a purr and a growl as they tracked the sun.

Every eight hours the farm sang. He could think of no other way to describe it. He understood that each panel must clean itself, oscillating at high frequency to throw off the thin coating of dust accumulating from the continual harmattan. Groups of panels oscillated in a flowing sequence so that the noise was not unbearable. A technical process became, to him and his men, as if the entire surface of the farm began to ripple and sing.

There was a call of delight from lower down the slope from one of his men, and a man in a delicately embroidered ochre-brown boubou and matching kufi skull-cap stepped into the firelight.

Azul, ma idjani?’ said the man, and chuckled, his voice the delight of small pebbles being tumbled in a fast-flowing stream.

Azul, Griot. You are here early,’ said Amadou, standing and happily embracing the younger man. ‘Sit, please, the stew will be ready soon.’

‘How could I miss the start of your new herd? I hear your Black Bedouin are extremely fine.’

Amadou drummed his fingers on his knee. ‘I feel like a young boy, Griot,’ he said. ‘My whole life has been spent surviving the heat, watching as the sand burns and forces us from our land.

‘It is almost too much to believe that I can revive my farm. But I have hope. With that blue-eyed man’s help, I have hope,’ he smiled. The griot reached across and squeezed his hand, holding it.

Nit ku amul jom, amul dara,’ he said.

Amadou nodded. ‘My father used to say that. “The person who lacks honour, lacks everything.” And this man has great honour. I know this Sablière is meant for the toubab across the sea. I hope that he will see what I can do and will also sell our people some of this electricity. It will change everything for us.’

The griot smiled gently, guarding his thoughts. ‘Sablière?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ laughed Amadou. ‘It is the name I hear the engineers calling the solar farm. The Sandpit. It is appropriate, yes?’ He laughed again. ‘Please, Griot, it is good to have you. Will you sing for us? One of the songs of our fathers?’

The griot reached behind himself and, pulling his koubour towards him, began to pluck at the strings.

His music rose up into the clarity of the night sky, lifting with the smoke, sprays of sparks and tears of flame.

The men began to sing, their voices blending with the distant calling of night birds and the gentle shifting of leaves in the breeze. They sang of home, of their wives and children far away, of their hope for the season, and of the rains still to come.

Later in the evening, after stories had been told and laughter shared, Amadou and the griot were the last two left by the fading embers.

‘You say you have not seen Simon today?’ asked the griot.

‘No. I went looking for him to give him my thanks, but the engineers said that he had gone out into the desert a few days ago. They are expecting him back either this evening or tomorrow. You have business with him?’

‘I have heard troubling news about Ansar Dine. I was hoping to warn him, but I fear I am too late.’

‘Why would the jihadis have interest in this man? Their war is to the east.’

The griot did not respond, staring far to the north where the brighter line of the dusty road ran alongside the solar collectors.

‘It is best you not know, my friend,’ he said. ‘Whatever happens, stay here on your farm. Please, for your safety,’ pointing to a column of dust growing nearer on the road, glowing in the moonlight.

They watched as an off-road vehicle dragged itself out of the desert, something hanging off the back, tearing at the hamada. It shuddered to a halt outside the engineering quarters. A light went on inside and, even from this distance, they could see bullet holes and blood in the glass and a crumpled shape in the cabin.

The griot rose to his feet and started down the hillside. ‘Stay here, Amadou. I fear he is lost.’

Amadou watched as he went, his eyes obsidian in the darkness.

5

‘What are you doing to me?’ asks Samboa, his voice invisible in the darkness, his mind an already dispersing stream of images and experiences from places he has never been and people he has never met.

The baboon ignores him, his eyes glowing in fascination at the storied threads that touch on this man’s journey, the choices and lives which led him to this cave in the bones of the earth and the dust of the harmattan.

This blue-eyed man, where else does he go? How far back? Taking up a new strand, seeing a vast, polished building and a bulky man walking briskly, pausing only a moment before his frustration explodes.

‘My name is Farinata Uberti,’ said the man, who was neither good-looking, nor charming, or patient. ‘Which of you mudak is here for me?’

He glared at the chauffeurs all clustered in their shambling distaste behind a low rope barrier, a discomforting vigil for the arrivals in Heathrow Terminal 6.

Dull eyes stared back, their gaze galled by those whose wealth and prestige allowed them to escape the degrading assembly line of semi-humiliating immigration and security checks inherent to modern travel.

Each chauffeur bore a sign revealing a small fracture of their loathing for those they waited on: barely legible handwritten names, misspelled typescript, uncomfortably small lettering, wildly inappropriate fonts. A calligraphic rebellion.

Each took a moment to consider the words they clasped, to decrypt them and interpret their meaning. To consider whether they held the name of the man irritably standing before them. Whether he was one of the elite who emerged through the glass sliding doors looking refreshed and invigorated, carrying nothing, their luggage following silently at their heels. Their expressions of merry meditation giving way to pleasant recognition as they deciphered their names and nodded ambiguously to the chauffeur who would ferry them onward.

Their reflection would not be rushed even in the heat of Uberti’s impatient fury.

A man whose black coat hung from his bony shoulders like the tattered feathers of some neglected museum exhibit expressed an anguished moan. The others shifted uneasily away from him.

The man detached himself from behind the barrier and walked hesitantly towards Uberti.

‘I am Phlegyas Quinquapotti,’ he said nervously, his skin clammy and pale, stating his name as if fearful he would be forgotten, fearful he would be remembered.

Neither offered a hand in greeting. Uberti scowled and gestured with his head towards the doors.

As they walked, Quinquapotti unfolded his console, scrolling through his list of clients and rapidly gesturing on the surface. He led his charge out of the airport and towards a sleek, translucent black vehicle slowing at the kerb. He placed his hand over the key sensor and the single door quietly swung upwards.

‘The limousine will take you to the Savoy,’ he said, reading off the words from his mental script, ‘but you can ask it to stop anywhere along the way if you wish. If you leave the limousine, though, it will no longer recognize you. You’ll find refreshments for your journey inside. I wish you well on your travels, Mr Uberti.’