The news segment for the pass lottery began at 9 a.m, repeating hourly until the final bulletin at 6 p.m. The routine was always the same on announcement days, the first of every month. After that, transmissions nationwide dropped to base levels as power stations operated at the lowest efficiency to conserve energy. Airwaves, radio waves, microwaves went dark, even brainwaves dipped to sub-sane level until daybreak. The city huddled and sweated its impending oblivion under a blanket of near-total blackness. The brightest lights were acid-splash eyes belonging to the seawalls, ever-blinking through the night.
The mother looked up from her work to the television mounted on the factory floor wall. She knew her family’s name wasn’t on the list. Gossip travelled faster than national news, and if her family had been granted passes by some miracle, she would know. Her neighbors would’ve either tried to rob their house as they slept or heaped the front yard with garbage, the usual punishments reserved for anybody deemed a deserter. The atmosphere at the factory would be no different. A fellow worker would’ve hissed it in her ear the second she walked in; nasty looks would’ve roasted her alive an hour ago. Nothing like that had happened. People nodded at her and the children like normal. Less nodding, less people. Every week there were fewer people on the floor.
She watched anyway, like the rest of the factory. A force compelled you to, even when you knew you’d feel used, discarded and that much more terrified afterwards. The having/not-having of hope were battling currents, roiling, shredding her stomach lining all month. Her family deserved to be in. They were good people. Law-abiding, tax-paying, community-minded, morally-upright in roughly equal amounts: fairly good. And they had paid every bribe that needed paying. Yet for the past ten months, disappointment. Passes not granted. Thunder to the chest.
“The African Vivarium Initiative! Building systems, not saviors!” the jingle exclaimed, flashing AVI’s ‘MMM!’ catchphrase onscreen. Minerals, materials, manpower! If you got it, we want it! Trade with us for a ticket inside the dome! Had she known the world would signal its demise with an epidemic of exclamation marks, she would have tried to pay her way in with perkiness. Now she’s worn to shreds, clearly lacking anything anyone would want. To trade or for free.
The hour-long special began with the usual. The newscaster, now a regionally famous face thanks to his coverage of the climate crisis, kicked off with a chat with the sidewalk citizenry. He asked passersby to weigh their prospects of survival, thrusting the mic into their faces. People sucked their teeth and pushed the mic aside. One woman spat into it. “This is my home. Where else would I go? If we die, we die,” some shrugged. Most of the shruggers were male. The mother wasn’t surprised. Men were often prepared to die for something outside their influence, something that didn’t need their heroic participation yet insisted upon it. King, country, principle. Children, hmmph. Maybe. Wife, ha! There was a job that ran itself. A self-cleaning oven; a vagina.
Then, a shock as the footage changed. A drone zoomed over a dense forest, filming over one of AVI’s many secret construction sites. The factory gasped as one. Clearings far as the eye could see, dotted with white orbs. The workers started shouting; one put her hands on her head and wailed until another dragged her out. So it was real. The biodomes, built to house the lucky fraction who won the lottery, were nearly complete. The secret was out, or the powers-soon-to-nevermore-be were choosing to reveal it. Now, when time was up. In mere months, which felt like minutes to the pass-less, it would all be over. Lottery complete. Biodomes sealed. Outsiders…extinguished.
The mother didn’t feel her tears until they tickled her chin. Mathematics had never been her strength. Still, after each announcement, she took great pains to calculate how many spaces were left, how many that left outside, what the chances were if you fled to the countryside or across the border nownownow. What would happen if you gave up and stayed. Put yourself and loved ones at the mercy of rapidly fracturing seawalls, nature, God, the ancestors. And the government, wocho! They’d spent more tax dollars painting themselves the patron saint of bountiful compassion than they had on building anything. Everybody knew it was pure fabrication how they’d bent over backwards to secure last-minute funding through international backers for the biodomes. Truth was, AVI was the brainchild of a grander ‘foreign investment group’, one that had waited years for their projection to reap out. Poor governments of vulnerable coastlines regions were a dime a dozen. Poor, corrupt governments desperate enough to try any technology and lie to their people in the process… A perfect storm decades in the unmaking.
The newscaster popped back on the live feed. His skin glistened with sweat, his eyes as comically wide and luminous as one of the habitats he’d just seen beaded through the forest. The woman’s heart twinged with an emotion she thought she had run out of: pity. He had to know he wouldn’t get a pass; how had he not known? He wasn’t wealthy; his skill set didn’t make him essential or exceptional. Anybody could psych the streets during an apocalypse. He was wonderful at it, describing phenomena with the right balance of wonder, fear, and sorrow. Right now he sounded more biblical, hysterical, than usual. The rising sea level－ imagine a bathtub filling up, slooowly, so slowly you can’t see it, but with increasing speed over centuries－was bad thirty years ago, horrific now. He railed about disasters they’d seen worsen in their lifetimes－coastal flooding, superstorms, arable land damage, unimaginable death toll. He frothed about the reports, the warnings, the signs －the scientists told us, the holy books said it…black and white, revelations written in black and white! A species so selfish, so consumed with greed… The newscaster began to sob. “My pipo, we camin die o. Ollor us fini.”
The broadcast jumped to commercial. The mother wiped her face and let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. On the television now was a woman peddling an insurance policy blood relatives could claim if they survived the first wave, be it of flood, fire, dust, or pests. Famine was out, though. No one was stupid enough to cover famine. The continent had found ingenious ways around that other plague too often to be trusted. The mother considered it. Should she get a policy for the children? You never knew. The insurance woman called the price. “Mtssshw lookah troubo. Let’s go,” the mother shouted. Both children dropped their work and strolled out with her. Nobody stopped them. In the old world, professionalism and children’s rights mattered. In the new, nothing did.
The young woman makes art from garbage. Found material expressionism, a concept stratospheres over her head when she begins. Her first show isn’t a real one, just a sip-n-view for local crafts thrown together in a town hall. Motherboard, she names it. Common items regarded as luxuries by common women. Money, mostly old notes; tampons; baby and hair product containers; cheap jewellery; expensive lappa and batik. The most precious item is hers, secret. She bled it into the toilet after the botched D & C procedure at a ramshackle clinic down the road from her first apartment, one she shared with three other girls. It’s all out. The bleeding is normal, the nurses assured her. It was not. Two days of torturous cramping and howling later, it was released. She fished it out of the bowl before her roommates got home, trembling, sobbing. Return to me, bountifully. I sacrificed you so the others that come after may live. We aren’t ready for each other. Forgive me, my love, she prayed in her mother’s language. She wrapped and tucked it away like a gift.
Collecting and refashioning the artwork takes months. She pulps a backboard at a sawmill: sugar cane, plywood, shredded plastic, paper, fizzy drink cans. She mounts the smudge, now dried to mauve, in the upper right corner. On show day, she sweats profusely, jumbling her words. People come, so many. Someone films and posts a video. It goes viral.
She does another. The Book of Lamentations. Women recall their most emotional moments, tears streaming down faces. Babies lost, love unrequited, chances frittered. A novice films, shakily. It lends effect. The young woman drapes lappa, adds the video clips, backboards, mounts them. Performance art. A delegation of rowdy expats attend. They leave silent, stunned. Pieces are bought; funds pledged. Show follows show. The young woman matures in self and stature. She graduates from One To Watch to Sought After. Soon, she’s a Defining Voice Of Our Age. The Chaklartist, she is nicknamed. Molding beauty from junk.
‘Her latest show, Wishcraft, features new work alongside old. A breathtakingly intimidating collection. Her flair for colour borders on radioactive, her eye for detail unearthly,’ gushes a review.
“You’ve given voices and faces to the unseen,” trills one critic.
“Did you always know you were gifted?” swoons another. In dark moments she clung to art, she answers. A predestined obsession, a calling from the gods of her ancestors. This is the kind of shit she says because it pleases crowds, Before she knew what After would bring. Time makes a jester out of genius.
“You never knew your parents. Do you love garbage because you were abandoned? What was it like growing up in an orphanage? Your country is synonymous with so much strife, yet here you are, a triumph,” a TV host grins. The Chaklartist laughs. All she ever learned to do was laugh at sharp truths as they cut her.
The mother fed the children. Invented an elaborate game to drown out her thundering thoughts. In the late afternoon, the siren wailed. Three beeps, long pauses, on repeat for fifteen minutes blared through the streets of their neighbourhood. The city’s seawall had hit Dangerpoint 3. She guided the children through backboarding the windows and doors, securing edges and rifts where their hands couldn’t reach. They returned to the game. Fake-laughing felt like chewing glass, but she belly-busted, jumped and danced better than them both.
The man swept in and bounded upstairs. He had become a bounder and strutter of late. He did neither properly.
“Oh, you here.” His teeth glistened, wet bedsheets on a washing line. “We’re in. I’m finish sorting it out.”
The bedsheets retreated. “My work with the ministry is critical. That your kata-kata chirren drawing, you think it will save us? They’re giving passes to serious people, not people who paint walls.” The children played on, eavesdropping. “What’s this, ehn? Water can’t reach here,” he flapped at the boarding. “I don’t want this asstry in my house.”
Maybe it was true; maybe they were finally in. But where were the passes, which dome were they in? There had to be more to it. She offered herself after the children slept, facing away as he pumped behind her. Brief, rough and underwhelming worked for them both. He never lasted long; she finished quickly and drifted. No more questions tonight. She couldn’t bear it and could tell he had no answers. They were in, she believed because she had to.
Unbidden, her mind recalled a lover from her unmarried past. Compact, bearded, laugh lines. So unlike the man beside her, with his hairless, meaty arms and unending skkrrrgrehn of phlegm raking down his throat. It’s the red dust. It’s finishing me. How can you blame me for something falling from the sky?
The woman rose to urinate. The seawall siren pulsed at D4 while the man slept.
The Chaklartist, exquisitely dolled, meets the man at a gallery run by a painter friend. The man knows her work, ingratiates himself by staying at her elbow half the night, firing arid jokes. The Chaklartist chuckles politely but otherwise isn’t interested. They meet again months later. She is grubby, sweaty, splattered, undolled. He pretends not to remember her; at least she thinks he’s pretending. She jogs his memory over drinks she pays for. The slight feels deliciously deliberate, makes her churn like plywood dust under a saw. She baits; he circles and bites. The cycle repeats for three years.
“I don’t get you. You fight for things that never fight for you,” sighs the painter friend. The Chaklartist grates at her constant negativity but smiles through it. She knows her own mind.
“Marriage is a jewel in your crown. Now you can sparkle till the end of the world,” says her adoptive mother at the wedding. Years pass. Children appear. The painter friend fades.
By the time the seawall construction project is underway, the Chaklartist has cataloged a list of evacuation initiatives. Superior ones, miles better than what her country has to offer. These talent troves will preserve creative minds in bunkers and domes, behind stronger walls. Most of them are abroad. All require stellar credentials and are run by the very people who once called her brilliant. The Chaklartist is certain she can get in with her family. No one is interested. She calls the painter friend. A whiny, disembodied nostril of an assistant answers each time. OmigaaadYouAgainNoThePainterIsNotAvailableI’llGiveHerTheMessage. The Chaklartist breaks down, begs, sobbing shamelessly. She knows the painter is there, listening.
They waited a day. Three. A neighbour got passes and left. More drifted upcountry, to the highest or farthest reaches. “Wait,” the man said.
One week. Then two.
She found him burning papers in the garden. Flames and smoke ate the night sky. There are hardly any neighbours left to report them. He choked on a warbled explanation, then shook his head. Orange firelight danced in the sheen of his eyes. She left him in peace and went inside to weep in hers. It was over.
The mother and her children skipped three days of work.
There were two ropey-muscled workers, new faces, waiting for them by the entrance when they showed up. That was no surprise. As more women left, more arrived. Where was there to go but in circles. The tension on their faces made her stomach start its queasy roil. The muscles put the children to work before leading her to a backroom and closing the door behind them. She steeled herself. Someone had reported her.
Three people, two of them strangers, entered the room and sat. The blonde woman and brown-skinned, black-haired man drilled her with their eyes. The mother darted her gaze to the supervisor’s, probing for answers. The supervisor pointed her chin away.
“Yes, I stole,” the mother spluttered. “We needed food, supplies. Just like you need our labour. How else－”
The door opened again. More workers, arms loaded with what appeared to be placards. One by one, the workers turned them right side up against the walls, spread them on the table. An atrocity of colour burned the mother’s eyes. Her canvasses. Her creations. Her babies, some from before her womb, gave life to anything, some from after. Freakkor. Lamentations. Strange Bedfellows. Dissolution. So much colour－what had provoked her audacity back then? That young, hungry girl couldn’t have imagined this now-world, pallid in shade, leached of expectations, dying. She choked back a sob when she saw Motherboard. The sob leaped from her throat as a scream when the blonde woman gutted it, stripping canvas from backboard in expert strokes.
“Don’t worry, the artwork will be preserved. That’s not why we’re here.” The woman, blue eyes sizzling hungrily, appeared to be in charge. She tossed the canvas, which the mother snatched to her bosom, and indicated the backboard. “You made these. Tell us how.”
The woman felt split in two. The mother in her mourned the defacing of her babies, but the Chaklartist leaned in. Her arms prickled as they did before she began a piece. The backboard? What would they want with that? It was a pimply eyesore, despite how much shaving, pressing, and spraying it had endured. Yet sturdy it remained. Which could only mean…
“You need another material to fortify the biodomes. You need…me.”
The blonde woman snorted. “Your methods, not necessarily you.”
The brown man subtly inclined his head, pointed at the tiny AVI patch on his jumpsuit. “’Minerals, materials, manpower, indigenous knowledge.’ So you are correct, we do need you.”
The woman/mother/Chaklartist sat back, mouth ajar. Indigenous knowledge. Disguised as an upside-down exclamation mark. Clever and sneaky. Cruel. They would take, reduce her people to data points on maps, sacred wisdom be damned. She clutched Motherboard’s canvas tighter, thinking of her other breathing babies waiting outside. Of the brown man’s skin, so soft it looked, marinated under air conditioning since he arrived, protected from UV rays and dust by dome conditions for more years to come. He returned her stare, a tiny smile on his lips.
“Give me dome passes and I’ll show your scientists how to make the material. More versions. Resin. Waterproof. Glass compound,” she said.
The blonde woman huffed. “Civilian quota is two passes per family.”
The Chaklartist folded her arms, guarding her heart against rampaging out of her chest.
The brown man cleared his throat. “We make exceptions for exceptional skills. I’m told you’re a family of four?” His smile tugged wider.
“No. Just three,” she answered firmly.
About the Author:
Hawa Jande Golakai was born in Germany, but spent her lively childhood in Liberia until the 1990 civil war. She has lived and worked in several African countries. A medical immunologist by training, she now works as an author, educator and consultant. She writes crime and speculative fiction. She is a laureate of the Africa39 list of promising sub-Saharan writers and is listed among New African magazine’s 100 Most Influential Africans of 2016. She won the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for nonfiction and was longlisted for the 2019 NOMMO Award for speculative fiction. She has been shortlisted three times for crime fiction novels. Hawa is a 2020-21 Miles Morland Scholarship winner for “Spectral”, her upcoming jujuism fantasy book. She is also working on a collection of African mystical folktales.Her works have featured in Granta, BBC, Omenana, Gutter Press, Myriad Press and other publications. Currently, she lives in Monrovia with her son.