I had that dream again last night. The one with the blood-stained tree. A magnificent Mjozi that looked like the hand of God had picked it up clean out of the ground and dipped it into red paint – or the Red Blood Sea – and substituted it upon the sandy shores.
The Mjozi is Swahili. It’s a walnut tree. I’ve never set foot on African soil, never encountered anything vaguely authentic of African culture, I don’t think. Those tear-jerking TV appeals they do each year to raise millions for African countries can’t count. But yet for some strange reason, I’ve started to pick up Swahili in my dreams. Just words but they tinge my brain and when I awake, I find myself spelling them out in a morning daze, writing them down in a notebook that now sits on my bedside table. I kept waking up with these words swilling around my head, spelling them as the cereal dropped into my breakfast bowl, repeating them over and over while I brushed my teeth. It was no good, within an hour, they had disappeared and I couldn’t be sure of their structure. So I started writing them down.
I have fourteen words now. The spelling is always accurate and I presume the pronunciation is. The words I keep to myself. I mentioned it to my brother after it happened a few times.
‘Gareth, do you know any other languages?’ I asked. He was rummaging the fridge for sandwich contents – wafer thin ham, cucumber, coronation chicken, pickles.
‘Not unless you count my French GCSE. I scraped a D.’
He replied with his head half in-out of the fridge as desired ingredients were being thrown onto the kitchen counter opposite.
‘I’ve started to pick up some words in Swahili. Is that strange?’
‘Why do you want to learn Swahili?’ He was making as much noise as possible now.
‘I’m not learning them. They’re in my dreams.’
‘So how do you know its Swahili, and it’s not just your subconscious making up words for fun?’
‘I… I write them down and I’ve Googled them. They’re always Swahili words.’
‘Maybe you’re haunted by some voodoo witch in Kenya.’ He was pushing down on his sandwich now, leaving finger marks in the white bread and returning to his computer.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I was fifteen, too old to be scared of fairy tales and ghost stories but also old enough to know that strange things like that did exist outside of my current worldview. I’d always enjoyed tall and magical stories, I was a keen reader, but now it seemed that the more I learned about the real world in textbooks and TV documentaries, the scarier it became.
I’d dreamed about the blood-stained tree three times before last night. I didn’t know it was a Mjozi tree, that was new and additional information. As much as I could try and articulate this dream for you, it’s tiresome and futile. It is short and tenuous. What I can try and express is how the dream makes me feel, about the tree and the way it seems to be chosen, picked out from the rest and placed in the golden sand by the cool river. I sense relief and peace when it is there. But why the tree is blood-stained? Why it must be removed from the woods? I have no idea. They are silly ideas that when I wake up in a cold sweat seem like the most important riddle to solve, but before long school sweeps in and distracts me. The two ideas, the two worlds – School and Swahili – cannot co-exist.
I look through my notebook. Mkate. Wimbo. Maji Safi. Matunda. Kisu. Wingu. Uchafu. Ndege. Tamu.
They are always like this. Mostly one word and simple in meaning. Bread. Song. Clean waters. Berries. Knife. Cloud. Dirt. Bird. Sweet. I can’t make any sense of it. Perhaps there is a story, I know I could make one up if I must but there is no clear narrative. It seems worse to even try to solve it away. The beauty is in the unknown. The dreams and the words do not frighten me, they only interrupt my waking. In that way, I don’t want to share them with others who might try and explain them, rationalise them. It is my corner of exotic. A secret junction where the mysterious meets my comfortable existence.
The dreams themselves, besides the blood-stained tree one, they are what I would call normal dreams. Shopping, at school, sunbathing in the park with friends. They are nothing out of the ordinary. Except when I speak in Swahili. That’s a new experience and I sometimes worry that these words are, deep down, a mother tongue of my subconscious and they are going to burst out in a science classroom or in a coffee shop. Then I really will be frightened, with no explanation. The fifteen year-old white girl from York who speaks Swahili words and no one knows why. No stroke. No holiday. No explanation. Msaliti. Traitor.
I can only hope my dreams stay private, that my Swahili words are locked in the dream world. I am the Mjozi tree, tinged, longing to be planted on a secret horizon, far away from the watching eyes of the forest.