African Toys

Arid ground – granulated in texture – was the arena, the test track outside the school building in Kampala.  Thomas Musinguzi had acquired components from Gabriel’s landfill. He’d visited the site early one morning the week before – outwitting flies, vultures and traders in detritus to get to the prime scrap wire. The subsequent five evenings, after he’d collected the materials, were spent building. He didn’t wait for the paltry electrical supply, that flickered, gave false hope before vanishing. No, he put faith in wax and matches to illuminate space. His fingers fiddled with electrical wire, using pliers to bend it into shapes. Thinner electrical wire, cut with snips, was used to tie thicker wire shapes together. Thomas was guided by his own sketched plans and a faded magazine containing super wire designs from Kenya.

When completed the wire structure looked fragile, shaky – similar to the borderline nourished frame of its creator. In reality both had inner solidity and strength.

Thomas, with his back to the school building, pulled the string levers controlling the wiry puppet. It moved awkwardly across the dry surface. Light dust plumes appeared after every step the toy structure took. A crowd of Thomas’ school friends gathered behind him, he noticed them, happy they were excited and interested. But there was someone missing from his life who he’d happily replace the whole crowd with: Shimit Thakkar.

Shimit was in Kenya, he had always been there, however Idi Amin had driven his cousin Urjit Thakkar out of Uganda. The cousin was the connector. He had lived next door to Thomas and boasted about Shimit’s famous wire toys – so good they regularly featured in the Kenyan magazine Creation.  Thomas was shown magazine cuttings of Shimit’s work by Urjit, which he’d received from uncles visiting from Kenya. Thomas took inspiration from the cuttings and started to create his own wire toys. After he’d created a wire toy he was proud of he would go to the library and pay for the use of the camera to take photos of his craftsmanship. Once the film was developed he would ask Urjit to give photos to the latest visiting relative from Kenya, with the clear instruction to put in the hands of Shimit. Shimit was impressed with his pupil and started writing directly to Thomas.

Maybe now that Idi Amin was no longer in power, a lost friendship could be rekindled. Thomas remembered his last exchange with Shimit:

Dear Thomas

If only your president was as welcoming as you are, in these letters, the world would be a better place. But let us focus on the beauty of our inventions. Please find enclosed a magazine cutting of my latest drawings.

My cousin Urjit said he will also write to you shortly, he misses being there with you. He misses his country, which Idi Amin continues to deny him.

Your friend

Shimit Thakkar

Dear Shimit

Thank you for the drawings. As always they will be of great reference as I endeavour with my own wire creations. I am however a little disappointed that you criticise my president. I ‘am a patriot and do not share your troubled opinion of my dear president.

Best wishes

Thomas Musinguzi

Thomas didn’t have the courage to write again, the silence from Shimit, and also Urjit, told him everything he needed to know. His ink on paper had cut deep. Thomas had, however, left his political opinions in the 70s. He had turned fifteen in the new decade and politics was now confusing, moving at a pace he couldn’t keep up with – too many interim leaders and then the presidential commission. Too much for a boy, not yet out of school, to know what to think. Now everyone was telling him Idi Amin was a mistake. A friendship through letters broken by a mistake.

Thomas focused on moving the puppet, trying to get it to imitate human movement as much as possible. The crowd clapped and cheered as it gingerly moved along the earth. Thomas was smiling, sweating and hiding regret inside.

About Kofi Mensah Kramo

Kofi Mensah Kramo is an English literature graduate who has studied at the University of Essex and University of York. He is the author of the Novella Modern Mania.

Kofi Mensah Kramo is an English literature graduate who has studied at the University of Essex and University of York. He is the author of the Novella Modern Mania.

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