Home Page African Writing Online Home Page [many literatures, one voice]  
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsSubscribeFictionPoetryThe Call to ActionArtReviews

  A. A. Waberi
  A. Garriga-Lopez
  Alex Smith
  Arja Salafranca

  Bashir A. Adan
  Belinda Otas
  Chika Unigwe
  Chinua Achebe
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Damilola Ajayi
  Diana Evans
  Don Mattera
  Farouk O. Sesay
  Laila Lalami
  Lola Shoneyin
  Maxim Uzoatu
  Memory Chirere
  Mukoma wa Ngugi
  Mwila A. Zaza
  N Brew-Hammond
  Ovo Adagha
  Peter W. Vakunta
  Rose Francis
  Sarah Manyika
  T Mushakavanhu
  Tola Ositelu
  V Ehikhamenor
  Zainabu Jallo
  Zoe Norridge

Submission Guidelines

African Writing Archives




Paula Leyden

Paula Leyden

Leyden was born in 1958, in Nyeri, Kenya.  At five, she moved to Zambia until her teens. She then relocated to South Africa where she studied English and History at the University of Natal. She did a teaching diploma at the University of Cape Town. She taught at secondary school for a number of years before working for a variety of human rights projects on issues such as political prisoners, the death penalty and unlawful detention.

She was also involved in preparing submissions for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In 2003 she moved with her partner and their five children to Kilkenny, Ireland where they now live on a farm. She started writing when she moved to Ireland and has recently signed a two-book deal for two Teen/Young Adult books set in Zambia.


 Wingless Locusts


She never imagined that this would be the way she would come back to Zambia. Sadness and anger all around her. The stench of death in her nostrils. Guilt, deep unforgiving guilt turning her stomach. Her Zambia was filled with colour and light; the greens and yellows of the chitenge cloths ; the rich blue of the infinite sky and the raw red of the earth. The warmth and contentment of her unknowing childhood.

This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.

She felt the heat of the day pouring in through the half open window of Jimmy’s old Peugeot, and a slow trickle of sweat made its way down her back. She had forgotten the intensity of the sun here and the way it warmed her heart. She leaned out of the car window as they passed Longacres shopping centre and let the hot wind blow her memories in.

Longacres, the first place in Lusaka to get a machine that produced whipped vanilla ice cream. She was twelve years old and that first taste of it was still with her. It was almost impossible now to eat an ice-cream cone without thinking of her granddad. It was he who had taken them, all four of them, for their first Choc ‘99. A perfect day for an ice cream he had announced, as if there was ever any other.   

Tall as a mountain in her eyes he got into the driving seat and banged his head on the roof. He always forgot how small the car was. He settled in and started whistling, Frankie and Johnny, his favourite. If they were good he’d sing the song to them and they would stay quiet while his deep voice, full of jazz, sang them the story of poor Frankie and her man who did her wrong.  They reached the shop and poured out of the car onto the hot soft tarmac. Not one of them, apart from him, had shoes on their feet and they danced their way to the entrance.

They waited at the counter until he joined them, then listened contentedly as he said, ‘Five Large Choc 99’s please Ma’am.’ Her brother, only five at the time, grinned and grabbed hold of granddad’s hand. She got the second cone, she remembered that, as she was the second oldest in the family. It looked even bigger in her hand than it did on the picture outside the shop.  

Granddad, who had a weakness for sweetness, was able to take large licks of his. He beat the melting sun. They were a little slower and the magnificent cones starting wilting before their eyes, runny ice-cream dripping off their hands and sizzling on the tarmac. It didn’t matter. There had never, since then, been anything quite so delicious or cold.  

She leaned back into the worn leather seat and smiled at the thought of it as she watched the back of Andy’s head. She had never asked him about his first ice cream. He felt her looking at him and turned round, a question in his worried eyes. He had not seen her smile since they had heard the news. Jimmy her brother was driving, he looked straight ahead. She sat in the back with Sarah, her beloved daughter, but Sarah sat apart from her now, holding herself tight. Looking out of the other window. 

‘Are we going the right way, Jo?’ Andy asked her.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Jimmy knows the way Andy, he lives here still.’ She was closing Andy out, she knew that and couldn’t help herself.

She had no clothes that would do for a funeral. They were all too hot. She didn’t like black anyway, clutters of human crows gathered round gravesides. Black would make no difference to how she felt.

She had been warned, there were power cuts in the centre of town so the fridges were not working in the mortuary. They had not worked since he had died. His mother didn’t say much to her when she went to the house, she avoided her eyes, but she had told her that he was not supposed to be in there. Jo knew that but it was too late. 

They passed the sports ground of the wingless locusts. That was where he had first kissed her, so clumsily. And so surprised. He had followed her there, she knew that now. Till then he had been nothing, only an irritant in her life. Older than her but annoying. Always so serious. He didn’t joke like the other boys.

That day they found themselves both watching the locust man. He was an old man, his face wrinkled and patient. He was sitting on the end of a bench with two bulging hessian sacks in front of him. They were full of almost dead locusts, some still with wings on their bodies and the rest clumsy without. The old man sat above a shimmering carpet of disembodied wings. He worked deftly, pulling both wings in one swift movement. His hands were deft, out of one sack into the next. He explained to them that some people ate the wings but he didn’t, he ate only the body and the legs.  

Jo watched and imagined small locust faces peering out of the sacks trying to see which wings used to belong to them. Without them they were nothing. For some reason this made her cry and she walked away. Paul, kinder than her, thanked the locust man for explaining his trade to them and then followed her. He put his arm around her shoulders and she didn’t shake him away. She felt comforted by him and they walked together, not speaking. When they reached the other end of the grounds they stopped and looked at one another. She had stopped crying and Paul said, timidly, ‘Your nose is runny Jo.’ She burst out laughing as she looked at him.

He looked confused, but not for long as he suddenly leaned down and kissed her, softly, on her lips. It had startled her and she ran, not knowing what else to do.

That was the beginning of it.

The end of it was Sarah. Their own wild Sarah, born when Jo was scarcely out of childhood herself. Sarah who was now going to have to look at her father for one last time, lying in a funeral home that had no defence against the relentless heat.   

Sarah who would not talk to her.

Paul loved Sarah, more than he had ever loved anybody. Even her. When she was little Jo had watched him through the doorway one night as he settled her to sleep. He was holding her hand even and Jo heard him talking to her. One sentence came back to her now, ‘you make me remember to stay alive.’

She had taken Sarah away from him and he had forgotten.

The night before she left he had wept. He knew she would not come back. Sarah wept with him, she did not want to leave. She was eleven then and did not understand why her mother was taking her away. Jo did not understand herself but she had to go. She was unhappy and restless. She blamed him for it. She had decided that if she left him she would leave Zambia. That was what she did.

He had come to visit them the first year they had settled in Edinburgh. He was uneasy in their home, too tall for it; he needed more space. He said he could not breathe in the damp, stuff air. He was awkward with her, like he was when he was much younger. He said to her one night, incredulous, ‘You left Zambia for this? This crowded, dirty place where the sun is always blanketed by dirt and cloud?’ 

The laughter that Sarah had given him had gone. He had not come back again after that visit, but he wrote to Sarah every week. Long letters filled with the smells and sounds of Lusaka. Letter bursting with love and warmth. Jo would read them sometimes when Sarah was at school and they made her sad. Sarah started locking her letters away because she could tell.

Andy, sitting silently in this car with them, had come into her life by accident but it seemed as if he wanted to stay. She had not asked him to come to the funeral, but he’d insisted. She wished now that he hadn’t come. He was a stranger to this place, she did not want to see it through his eyes. 
They reached the funeral home. It was squashed between two taller and more recent buildings, its name barely visible.   

‘You stay in the car Andy, please,’ she said, ‘We’ll go in.’ Andy did not answer. 

They walked in, her brother going first with Sarah, Jo following a little way behind. The stench overwhelmed her in the tiny hot room. It filled her head. She held her hand over her mouth and felt as if she was going to faint. This was not how Paul smelled, she knew that, he was always dusty and warm. She looked ahead of her in the gloom and saw that Sarah and Jimmy had stopped, tears racing down Sarah’s cheeks as she held her uncle’s hand. There was nothing she could do to make this better.   

She stood alone to one side as they approached his coffin. Why had they given him one so ornate, so gleaming? Only to lower it into the red soil and leave it there, far down in the cold. Why had they put purple satin around him, he would hate that. Dressing him up in death in a way he never was in life. She watched as their daughter leant over him, oblivious to the smell, willing him back to her. Her thin, seventeen year old body wretched with sobbing. 

Jo left and walked outside into the brightness. She sat down on the cracked pavement. Curious looks from the few passers by did not reach her. She had her head lowered onto her knees. Forgive me father for I have sinned. My last confession was eighteen years ago. I confessed then to the sin of sex before marriage, with this man dead inside here. I confess now to the sin of cruelty. Cruelty to him and cruelty to my child. No penance is enough Father.

Andy watched her from the car, she looked so helpless sitting there on the dirty pavement. She was far, far away from him. She had been right that he shouldn’t come but he had not listened. Mainly for Sarah’s sake. Sarah would not want to travel alone with her. He knew that.

He wanted to go home now, with her and Sarah, leave this strange country that Jo had spoken to him about so often. He did not understand her love for it. Everywhere he looked he saw broken people, broken things and chaos. He saw houses that people should not be living in, and heard street names full of hope: Independence Avenue and Freedom Road. The traffic lights were like damaged ornaments, lopsided metal carvings adorning the streets. He saw the Zambian soil through the potholes in the roads and it felt to him as though the earth could just shrug this whole shaky edifice off its back with ease.

Jo had spoken so often to him of the gentleness of the people here, of the way they looked at life without impatience. Of how everything connected to something, nothing and no one was lonely, even the dead. That those who had been dead for generations were as present as the living. She said that where he came from that was missing, death was too final, people too alone. He did not understand this.

The dust of Lusaka had entered every pore of his body. He wanted to go home. Maybe Sarah and Jo would heal back in the soft Scottish air, where the rain fell gently and you could breathe. Maybe when the letters no longer came in the post, to be snatched up eagerly by Sarah, Jo would learn to love him. Maybe if they got through these few days, then it would all be alright. He would go to her now, as she sat on the pavement, and hold her. Perhaps now she would welcome him.

Jo looked up as she heard the car door close. He looked so bewildered, his shirt sticking to his body and his hair flattened against his head. He was a kind, good man. More than she deserved as Sarah had said to her last night. ‘Don’t do to him what you did to daddy,’ were her words. Harsh words spoken in loathing and grief and there was truth in them.

Paul was gone now, too late for her to say sorry. Too late for her to tell him that his child was planning to come back to him. That she had not settled in Scotland, that like him she found it too small and cloudy. When she turned eighteen she was leaving and coming home to Zambia. It was to be a surprise.  

It was too late for anything now.

Jo had lost her child forever the minute Paul had picked up the gun and placed it in his mouth. She had lost him a long time ago when she took from him the only person who made him remember to stay alive.

She would get neither of them back.  

Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.