Ogres of East Africa, by Sofia Samatar
Read by Derek Johnson
This story originally appeared in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Unfortunately I (the host, Margaret Killjoy) gave the reader the wrong information about where it first appeared and the audio does not reflect that. The fault is mine alone.
Ogres of East Africa
Catalogued by Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa
1. Apul Apul
A male ogre of the Great Lakes region. A melancholy character, he eats crickets to sweeten his voice. His house burned down with all of his children inside. His enemy is the Hare.
who calls herself only “Mary,” adds that Apul Apul can be heard on windy
nights, crying for his lost progeny. She claims that he has been
sighted far from his native country, even on the coast, and that an Arab
trader once shot and wounded him from the battlements of Fort Jesus. It
happened in a famine year, the “Year of Fever.” A great deal of
research would be required in order to match this year, when, according
to Mary, the cattle perished in droves, to one of the Years of Our Lord
by which my employer reckons the passage of time; I append this note,
therefore, in fine print, and in the margins.
“Always read the fine print, Alibhai!” my
employer reminds me, when I draw up his contracts. He is unable to read
it himself; his eyes are not good. “The African sun has spoilt them,
Apul Apul, Mary says, bears a festering sore where the bullet pierced him. He is allergic to lead.]
A grave–dweller from the environs of the
ancient capital of Kush. The ba’ati possesses a skeletal figure and a
morbid sense of humor. Its great pleasure is to impersonate human
beings: if your dearest friend wears a cloak and claims to suffer from a
cold, he may be a ba’ati in disguise.
second hour after dawn. I am curious about this reserved and
encyclopedic woman. It amuses me to write these reflections concerning
her in the margins of the catalogue I am composing for my employer. He
will think this writing fly–tracks, or smudges from my dirty hands (he
persists in his opinion that I am always dirty). As I write I see Mary
before me as she presents herself each morning, in her calico dress,
seated on an overturned crate.
I believe she is not very old, though she
must be several years older than I (but I am very young—“Too young to
walk like an old man, Alibhai! Show some spirit! Ha!”). As she talks,
she works at a bit of scarlet thread, plaiting something, perhaps a
necklace. The tips of her fingers seem permanently stained with color.
“Where did you learn so much about ogres, Mary?”
“Anyone may learn. You need only listen.”
“What is your full name?”
She stops plaiting and looks up. Her eyes
drop their veil of calm and flash at me—in annoyance, in warning? “I
told you,” she says. “Mary. Only Mary.”]
A female ogre of Somaliland. Her name means
“Long Ear.” She is described as a large, heavy woman, a very fast
runner. One of her ears is said to be much longer than the other, in
fact so long that it trails upon the ground. With this ear, she can hear
her enemies approaching from a great distance. She lives in a ruined
hovel with her daughter. The daughter is beautiful and would like to be
married. Eventually, she will murder Dhegdheer by filling her ear with
information we have received from Mary that he has decided to camp here
for another week. “Milk her, Alibhai!” he says, leering. “Eh? Squeeze
her! Get as much out of her as you can. Ha! Ha!” My employer always
shouts, as the report of his gun has made him rather deaf. In the
evenings, he invites me into his tent, where, closed in by walls, a
roof, and a floor of Willesden canvas, I am afforded a brief respite
from the mosquitoes.
A lamp hangs from the central pole, and
beneath it my employer sits with his legs stretched out and his red
hands crossed on his stomach. “Very good, Alibhai!” he says.
“Excellent!” Having shot every type of animal in the Protectorate, he is
now determined to try his hand at ogre. I will be required to record
his kills, as I keep track of all his accounts. It would be “damn fine,”
he opines, to acquire the ear of Dhegdheer.
Mary tells me that one day Dhegdheer’s
daughter, wracked with remorse, will walk into the sea and give herself
up to the sharks.]
Iimũ transports his victims across a vast
body of water in a ferry–boat. His country, which lies on the other
side, is inaccessible to all creatures save ogres and weaverbirds. If
you are trapped there, your only recourse is to beg the weaverbirds for
sticks. You will need seven sticks in order to get away. The first two
sticks will allow you to turn yourself into a stone, thereby escaping
notice. The remaining five sticks enable the following transformations:
thorns, a pit, darkness, sand, a river.
My employer is of the opinion that I do
not show a young man’s proper spirit. This, he tells me, is a racial
defect, and therefore not my fault, but I may improve myself by
following his example. My employer thrusts out his chest. “Look,
Alibhai!” He says that if I walk about stooped over like a dotard,
people will get the impression that I am shiftless and craven, and this
will quite naturally make them want to kick me. He himself has kicked me
It is true that my back is often stiff,
and I find it difficult to extend my limbs to their full length.
Perhaps, as my employer suspects, I am growing old before my time.
These nights of full moon are so bright, I
can see my shadow on the grass. It writhes like a snake when I make an
effort to straighten my back.]
While most ogres are large, Katandabaliko is
small, the size of a child. He arrives with a sound of galloping just
as the food is ready. “There is sunshine for you!” he cries. This causes
everyone to faint, and Katandabaliko devours the food at his leisure.
Katandabaliko cannot himself be cooked: cut up and boiled, he knits
himself back together and bounces out of the pot. Those who attempt to
cook and eat him may eat their own wives by mistake. When not tormenting
human beings, he prefers to dwell among cliffs.
the back of my uncle’s shop, Moosajee and Co. I cannot pretend to enjoy
nights spent in the open, under what my employer calls the splendor of
the African sky. Mosquitoes whine, and something, probably a dangerous
animal, rustles in the grass. The Somali cook and headman sit up late,
exchanging stories, while the Kavirondo porters sleep in a corral
constructed of baggage. I am uncomfortable, but at least I am not
lonely. My employer is pleased to think that I suffer terribly from
loneliness. “It’s no picnic for you, eh, Alibhai?” He thinks me too
prejudiced to tolerate the society of the porters, and too frightened to
go near the Somalis, who, to his mind, being devout Sunnis, must be
plotting the removal of my Shi’a head.
In fact, we all pray together. We are
tired and far from home. We are here for money, and when we talk, we
talk about money. We can discuss calculations for hours: what we expect
to buy, where we expect to invest. Our languages are different but all
of us count in Swahili.]
A male ogre who haunts the foothills of
Mount Kenya. He carries machetes, knives, hoes, and other objects made
of metal. If you can manage to make a cut in his little finger, all the
people he has devoured will come streaming out.
education. This would explain the name and the calico dress. Such an
education is nothing to be ashamed of—why, then, did she stand up in
such a rage when I inquired about it? Mary’s rage is cold; she kept her
voice low. “I have told you not to ask me these types of questions! I
have only come to tell you about ogres! Give me the money!” She held out
her hand, and I doled out her daily fee in rupees, although she had not
stayed for the agreed amount of time.
She seized the money and secreted it in
her dress. Her contempt burned me; my hands trembled as I wrote her fee
in my record book. “No questions!” she repeated, seething with anger.
“If I went to a mission school, I’d burn it down! I have always been a
I was silent, although I might have
reminded her that we are both my employer’s servants: like me, she has
come here for money. I watched her stride off down the path to the
village. At a certain distance, she began to waver gently in the sun.
My face still burns from the sting of her regard.
Before she left, I felt compelled to
inform her that, although my father was born at Karachi, I was born at
Mombasa. I, too, am an African.
Mary’s mouth twisted. “So is Kibugi,” she said.]
A fearsome yet curiously domestic ogre of
the Rift Valley. He collects human skulls, which he once used to
decorate his spacious dwelling. He made the skulls so clean, it is said,
and arranged them so prettily, that from a distance his house resembled
a palace of salt. His human wife bore him two sons: one which looked
human like its mother, and one, called Kiptegen, which resembled its
father. When the wife was rescued by her human kin, her human–looking
child was also saved, but Kiptegen was burnt alive.
She tells me that Kiptegen’s brother will
never be able to forget the screams of his sibling perishing in the
flames. The mother, too, is scarred by the loss. She had to be held
back, or she would have dashed into the fire to rescue her ogre–child.
This information does not seem appropriate for my employer’s catalogue;
still, I find myself adding it in the margins. There is a strange
pleasure in this writing and not–writing, these letters that hang
between revelation and oblivion.
If my employer discovered these notes, he would call them impudence, cunning, a trick.
What would I say in my defense? “Sir, I
was unable to tell you. Sir, I was unable to speak of the weeping mother
of Kiptegen.” He would laugh: he believes that all words are found in
I ask myself if there are words contained in Mary’s margins: stories of ogres she cannot tell to me.
Kiptebanguryon, she says, is homeless now. A modern creature, he roams the Protectorate clinging to the undersides of trains.]
Kisirimu dwells on the shores of Lake
Albert. Bathed, dressed in barkcloth, carrying his bow and arrows, he
glitters like a bridegroom. His purpose is to trick gullible young
women. He will be betrayed by song. He will die in a pit, pierced by
lamp, I read the day’s inventory from my record book, informing my
employer of precisely what has been spent and eaten. As a representative
of Moosajee and Co., Superior Traders, Stevedores and Dubashes, I am
responsible for ensuring that nothing has been stolen. My employer
stretches, closes his eyes, and smiles as I inform him of the amount of
sugar, coffee and tea in his possession. Tinned bacon, tinned milk, oat
porridge, salt, ghee. The dates, he reminds me, are strictly for the
Somalis, who grow sullen in the absence of this treat.
My employer is full of opinions. Somalis,
he tells me, are an excitable nation. “Don’t offend them, Alibhai! Ha,
ha!” The Kavirondo, by contrast, are merry and tractable, excellent for
manual work. My own people are cowardly, but clever at figures.
There is nothing, he tells me, more
odious than a German. However, their women are seductive, and they make
the world’s most beautiful music. My employer sings me a German song. He
sounds like a buffalo in distress. Afterward, he makes me read to him
from the Bible.
He believes I will find this painful: “Heresy, Alibhai! Ha, ha! You’ll have to scrub your mouth out, eh? Extra ablutions?”
Fortunately, God does not share his prejudices.
I read: There were giants in the earth in those days.
I read: For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron.]
Konyek is a hunter. His bulging eyes can
perceive movement far across the plains. Human beings are his prey. He
runs with great loping strides, kills, sleeps underneath the boughs of a
leafy tree. His favorite question is: “Mother, whose footprints are
her village in the Year of Amber. The whirlwind of his running loosened
the roofs. A wise woman had predicted his arrival, and the young men,
including Mary’s brother, had set up a net between trees to catch him.
But Konyek only laughed and tore down the net and disappeared with a
sound of thunder. He is now, Mary believes, in the region of Eldoret.
She tells me that her brother and the other young men who devised the
trap have not been seen since the disappearance of Konyek.
Mary’s gaze is peculiar. It draws me in. I
find it strange that, just a few days ago, I described her as a cold
person. When she tells me of her brother she winds her scarlet thread so
tightly about her finger I am afraid she will cut it off.]
Mbiti hides in the berry bushes. When you
reach in, she says: “Oh, don’t pluck my eye out!” She asks you: “Shall I
eat you, or shall I make you my child?” You agree to become Mbiti’s
child. She pricks you with a needle. She is betrayed by the cowrie shell
at the end of her tail.
She describes the forest. She says we
will go there to hunt ogres. Her face is filled with a subdued yet
urgent glow. I find myself leaning closer to her. The sounds of the
others, their voices, the smack of an axe into wood, recede until they
are thin as the buzzing of flies. The world is composed of Mary and
myself and the sky about Mary and the trees about Mary. She asks me if I
understand what she is saying. She tells me about her brother in the
forest. I realize that the glow she exudes comes not from some
supernatural power, but from fear.
She speaks to me carefully, as if to a child.
She gives me a bundle of scarlet threads.
She says: “When the child goes into the
forest, it wears a red necklace. And when the ogre sees the necklace, it
spares the child.” She says: “I think you and my brother are exactly
the same age.”
My voice is reduced to a whisper. “What of Mbiti?”
Mary gives me a deep glance, fiercely bright.
She says: “Mbiti is lucky. She has not
been caught. Until she is caught, she will be one of the guardians of
the forest. Mbiti is always an ogre and always the sister of ogres.”]
Ntemelua, a newborn baby, already has teeth.
He sings: “Draw near, little pot, draw near, little spoon!” He replaces
the meat in the pot with balls of dried dung. Filthy and clever, he
crawls into a cow’s anus to hide in its stomach. Ntemelua is weak and he
lives by fear, which is a supernatural power. He rides a hyena. His
back will never be quite straight, but this signifies little to him, for
he can still stretch his limbs with pleasure. The only way to escape
him is to abandon his country.
I am to give the red necklaces only to those I trust. “You know them,” Mary explained, “as I know you.”
“Do you know me?” I asked, moved and surprised.
She smiled. “It is easy to know someone in a week. You need only listen.”
Two paths lie before me now. One leads to the forest; the other leads home.
How easily I might return to Mombasa! I
could steal some food and rupees and begin walking. I have a letter of
contract affirming that I am employed and not a vagrant. How simple to
claim that my employer has dispatched me back to the coast to order
supplies, or to Abyssinia to purchase donkeys! But these scarlet threads
burn in my pocket. I want to draw nearer to the source of their heat. I
want to meet the ogres.
“You were right,” Mary told me before she
left. “I did go to a mission school. And I didn’t burn it down.” She
smiled, a smile of mingled defiance and shame. One of her eyes shone
brighter than the other, kindled by a tear. I wanted to cast myself at
her feet and beg her forgiveness. Yes, to beg her forgiveness for having
pried into her past, for having stirred up the memory of her
Instead I said clumsily: “Even Ntemelua spent some time in a cow’s anus.”
Mary laughed. “Thank you, brother,” she said.
She walked away down the path, sedate and
upright, and I do not know if I will ever see her again. I imagine
meeting a young man in the forest, a man with a necklace of scarlet
thread who stands with Mary’s light bearing and regards me with Mary’s
direct and trenchant glance. I look forward to this meeting as if to the
sight of a long–lost friend. I imagine clasping the hand of this young
man, who is like Mary and like myself. Beneath our joined hands, my
employer lies slain. The ogres tear open the tins and enjoy a prodigious
feast among the darkling trees.]
Rakakabe, how beautiful he is, Rakakabe! A
Malagasy demon, he has been sighted as far north as Kismaayo. He skims
the waves, he eats mosquitoes, his face gleams, his hair gleams, his
favorite question is: “Are you sleeping?”
Rakakabe of the gleaming tail! No, we are wide awake.[This morning we depart on our
expedition. My employer sings—“Green grow the rushes, o!”—but we, his
servants, are even more cheerful. We are prepared to meet the ogres.
We catch one another’s eyes and smile.
All of us sport necklaces of red thread: signs that we belong to the
party of the ogres, that we are prepared to hide and fight and die with
those who live in the forest, those who are dirty and crooked and
resolute. “Tell my brother his house is waiting for him,” Mary whispered
to me at the end—such an honor, to be the one to deliver her message!
While she continues walking, meeting others, passing into other hands
the blood–red necklaces by which the ogres are known.
There will be no end to this catalogue. The ogres are everywhere. Number thirteen: Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa.
The porters lift their loads with
unaccustomed verve. They set off, singing. “See, Alibhai!” my employer
exclaims in delight. “They’re made for it! Natural workers!”
“O, yes sir! Indeed, sir!”
The sky is tranquil, the dust saturated with light. Everything conspires to make me glad.
Soon, I believe, I shall enter into the mansion of the ogres, and stretch my limbs on the doorstep of Rakakabe.]
About the author: Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and Monster Portraits,
a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has
won several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. She teaches
African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction at James
About the reader: Derek Johnson is a Queer, multi-ethnic POC and
member of the African diaspora. Writer, comic book artist, cartoonist,
documentary filmmaker and co-host of several past and current podcasts:
The Authority Smashing! Hour, TASH: Radical Report, Critical Mass, and
Where’s My Jetpack?! He identifies as a libertarian socialist and
anarcho-syndicalist and does labor organizing through the IWW. He has
been an advocate for children with mental illness, a civil
liberties/human rights and homeless rights activist, and has volunteered
at his local community radio station. He is a Philosophical Taoist and
Spinoza-leaning non-theist/ agnostic/ freethinker under the Unitarian
Universalist umbrella currently working on a series of speculative/
science fiction novels and graphic novels centering on Sci-fi, suspense,
horror, weird fiction, noir, and fantasy, genre styles and
Afrofuturism, Steampunk, anarchistic, humanistic, and Taoist themes.
About the host: Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author and editor currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is an anarchist demon hunters novella called The Barrow Will Send What it May, published by Tor.com. She spends her time crafting and complaining about authoritarian power structures and she blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.