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Crossing the one pole barrier into the Nukha Mountains had been easy enough. Captain
Yemenu had read the General’s authorisation twice and ordered a thorough inspection of
the lorry’s cargo. While that was going on, amid protests from Jack Rivers that it would take
all week to unload and load again, the Captain had sent a signal to the base at Adan. Then
as abruptly as he had ordered it the Captain stopped the inspection and ordered them to
The road beyond the barrier was, as the General had warned, mostly not there. From time
to time the driver stopped to allow Jack to roll some boulders out of the way before they
could go on. On that first day they covered a mere fifty kilometres, the heavily loaded lorry
creaking and groaning every metre of the way. The road had long ago degenerated to a
deep gully that carried rainwater down the mountainside into the rocky ravines.
The driver was sweating profusely, licking his lips, shaking his head and muttering in
Talacina, leaving no doubt he was wishing he had turned down Jack River’s offer of two
hundred dollars to get the lorry to Kalam and back. By the second day, it was too late to turn
They had started the long painful climb to the first ridge before the gorge, the road getting
narrower and narrower before opening into -the plateau itself. On one side was the rough
and rocky wall of the mountain. On the other side the road fell over a hundred metres into a
ravine without end. There was no way they could have turned back.
From the look of it, Jack Rivers realised that the only way to go back was to travel the
hundred kilometres down to the central desert turn the lorry and come back. No wonder the
soldiers never went beyond the outposts on the northern slopes of the mountains.
It was on the afternoon of the third day of this tortuous journey that it happened. They were
coming out of the second series of mountains towards the gorge when suddenly an armed
man stepped from behind a boulder onto the road and signalled the lorry to stop.
They were travelling at such a slow pace it seemed superfluous to signal them to stop.
However, instead of stopping, the driver panicked and accelerated. The truck leaped
forward, swayed, and came dangerously close to flying off the edge into the ravine. The
driver swung the wheel and, as the lorry came back under control, a dozen rifles opened fire.
Jack Rivers ducked under the dashboard as glass shattered and flew all over the cabin. The
driver lost control. His head was blown off and the lorry rammed into the mountainside and
There followed a moment of total silence. Then, slowly, Jack Rivers raised his head to the
level of the windscreen and looked out. Heavily armed men surrounded the truck, their guns
at the ready. Their leader, a bearded giant with tobacco stained teeth, watched Jack Rivers
for a moment then raised his rifle and aimed it at him. Jack watched, petrified. Instead of
opening fire, the guerilla leader beckoned with the rifle.
Jack pushed the door open and hopped out. As he did so, a couple of men grabbed him,
one on each arm, and shoved him to the ground. They frisked him quickly, efficiently and,
taking his passport, let him go. They presented the passport to their leader who was at that
moment barking orders to the others.
Jack rose and dusted himself. The lorry stood by the roadside, its cabin dented from its
violent contact with the bank, its windscreen shattered, and the steel body pockmarked with
bullet holes.
About a dozen heavily armed guerrillas watched two of their colleagues drag the body of the
driver out of the cab and, as ordered, take it into the bushes for burial. Their leader, a huge
black man with tangled wild hair and graying beard, watched briefly then turning ambled
over to the shaken Jack.
“Your driver was a foolish man,” he said.
Jack Rivers turned on him eyes that burned with anger.
“That’s no reason to kill a man.”
“Maybe not,” said the guerilla leader. “But still he was a foolish man. Why he no stop?”
“You could see he couldn’t get far,” said Jack Rivers.
“Me, yes, but my men they do not see very good.”
They stood by the edge of the road where the ground fell two hundred metres to the rocky
floor of the ravine. A small black stream trickled through the rocks and boulders at the
The guerilla leader perused the passport in his hands. He glanced at Jack Rivers and spat
tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth.
“My men do not trust big machines,” he said.
Jack Rivers said nothing but continued to size-up the guerilla leader. The guerilla leader        
went on perusing through the passport. He studied the various visas intently and spat
tobacco juice.
“So you are Jack Rivers,” he said.
Jack Rivers said nothing.
“American,” said the guerilla.
Jack Rivers eyed him quietly.
“Pop singer,” the man appeared genuinely puzzled. “What job is that?”
“Music,” said the American.
“Musician even,” he went on shaking his head. “What do you want in my country, American?”
He spat tobacco juice at the feet of the American and handing back the passport said,
“I too play music.”
He patted the automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
“With this thing I play terrible music,” he said. “Music of death. Do you sing?”
“What do you sing?”
“Love,” said the American. “And life.”
“Of love, I know a little,” said the guerilla laughing. “But of life … one day you must tell me
about it.”
The American slipped the passport back into his pocket.
“No one comes this way but us,” the guerilla told him. “Where are you going?”
“Kalam?” spat tobacco juice. “Most interesting. But there is no Kalam.”
“Who says?”
“Who says? I say.”
The American watched him doubtfully.
“Wait,” he said. “I show you.”
Stepping up on the running board of the battered truck, he reached onto the dashboard and
brought out a road map. Without a word, he spread it for the guerilla leader to see for
The man shook his head firmly.
“There is no Kalam.”
“But it’s right here, see?”
“Maybe,” he spat brown juice. “But they have things on that map that are mostly no longer of
this earth. That bridge there at Hugai. It is not there. My men blew it up last year. And this
other place here you call Chemi. It is also not there. So also is Kalam not there.”
Jack Rivers looked incredulously from the bully guerilla to the map in his hands. The map
was dated a year before. He folded it thoughtfully wished he had heeded General Dinka’s
“You are going to a land that is mostly not there,” the General had said. “You see things are
not on the ground what they appear to be on the map. You wont find Bandit Territory
marked on our maps but you’d do well to look out for them.”
“Tell me about Kalam,” said the American to the bandit chief.
“There is no Kalam,” said the bandit chief.
He said it easily. Like stating that there was no water in the desert beyond. Something one
did think about it until some stupid foreigner comes around asking about it.
“How come there is no Kalam?”
“How?” the giant spat tobacco juice. “I tell you how. First the Khamsin. All crops and things
die on their feet. Then the rivers and the wells and all the Wadis and Chem-chemi dry up.
You see,” he spat tobacco juice, “no water, no rain, no anything. So the cows die, the
donkeys die, the goats die, and people die too. People, as you know die most quickly.
Dozens, hundreds of people die.”
“The whole desert smell of the dead things in Kalam.”
“Then,” he spat again, “then the planes come down from Adan and blow everything to dust.
Good, say the birds of the air, now we do not have to clean up.”
He laughed. His men smiled. No doubt, the joke had been around a while. Not less than a
year if the guerilla leader was to be believed.
“That is how come there is no Kalam.,” he said. “What do you carry in your lorry?”
Jack Rivers came to with a start. The thought did cross his mind to lie about the cargo.
They told me in Adan …”
“What do they know in Adan?” said the guerilla chief. “What do you carry, I ask?”
“Food?” There was excitement all round. “That is very good.”
“Not for you,” Jack Rivers told them. “For the hungry people in Kalam and Bahadir and
The guerilla leader spat tobacco juice and smiled ruefully. He was being very patient.
“For Kalam you are late,” he said. “But for Bahadir and Jirom you will not get there mostly.”
“Why not?”
“Why not?” showing slowly mounting impatience at the stupidity of this American.  “I tell you
why not. First, the way is too long. Second, the way is too dry. Then the way is too covered
with thorns, rocks, and some bad bandits until there is no road. So …,” he again spat slimy,
brown mess at Jack’s feet. ‘so … how do you get to Bahadir and Jirom and all those places?”
Jack Rivers looked from the bandit chief to the armed men. They seemed just a bit bored by
the proceedings. Nothing short of a shoot-up could excite them. Next, Jack Rivers
considered the shot-up truck and wondered how he had survived the fusillade of automatic
gunfire. He should have listened to General Dinka’s advise and stayed in Adan.
The guerilla chief adjusted the curved dagger at his waist, adjusted the bandolier of
ammunition over his shoulders, and spat more tobacco juice.
Jack Rivers watched, thought this was as good a time as any to admit he had made a foolish
mistake and then turn back.
“Do you carry blankets?” asked the bandit leader.
He nodded.
“Good.” said the man. “It is what we need. You see we too are victims of the drought. Open
the lorry.”
Jack Rivers ignored him.
“Better still, you give me the key,” the armed man said stretching out his hand.
Jack Rivers shook his head.
“Not so fast. It is not Christmas yet. The cargo either goes to Kalam or back to Adan.”
The bandit chief looked from the American to his own outstretched hand with amusement.
Obviously, he had never before met someone who refused to be robbed. He smiled.  
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Weapon of Hunger
HM Books cover of Weapon of Hunger by Meja Mwangi

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