Caesar in Africa

11th February 2005 at 00:00
There were about 35 of them, mainly boys. They said they had walked miles to reach us and their ragged jeans and soiled clothes confirmed it. One had a torn smelly blanket over his head and dragged an AK47 along the ground.

"Is this military barracks?"

"No, it's a friendly camp for former child soldiers."

"We're playing a game called Julius Caesar," Isata explained.

"OK, I'm coming." As he unfolded the blanket, cups and ammunition cascaded down.

"No weapons allowed here!" I warned. "There's a store over there."

The boys who trailed after him were speaking a variety of languages, but in spite of their raggedness continued to march in line, left-right, left-right, as a matter of habit. I recognised the boy at the end both by his smile and the drum he was carrying: it was Corporal Kalashnikov bringing up the rear with Sally.

"They attacked our camp," Sally told me. "We walked days to reach here."

The newcomers did not take long to settle in, thanks to our hospitality and their quick-wittedness. There was to be a formal initiation, a ritual led by Peter and encouraged by Bemba G, in which company rules would be devised and posted on a tree. When this was completed, K.T. (who I noticed had one foot longer than the other) read them aloud, stopping just long enough after each item for the company to respond: "Agreed!"


* Make sure everyone eats plenty of fruit.

* Always work on mathematics first thing after breakfast.

* Games everyone can learn or join in: animal games, tag, arm-wrestling, hide-and-seek, and dancing.


* Playtime: work with words for Juliohs Siza!

* Child soldiers' stories.

* Rest.

* Share food.

* Sleep (don't make noise).

They had finished their mathematics - an introduction to trigonometry - and Hinga had put on 1970s soul music for them to dance to, their most popular pastime now that they were free to relish the suppleness of their bodies.

"Put Barry White!" K.T. bellowed to Hinga, who obliged, making this the first hit of the day's session. The children joined in the singing, trying to make their teenage voices as gravelly as possible. And the moves? For Citizen, lewd and suggestive gyrating; Peter made brilliant leaps into the air; Victor, twirling palms like a chorus girl; Abu, limbo dancer extraordinaire. Such dazzling exuberance from the girls too. At the instant when Bemba G shouted, "Playtime!", everyone stopped what they were doing and focused on their story work. No one missed the moment, no one complained about the hard work.

Then they were at it for several hours until early evening: learning to combine words with actions - standing tall with arms raised, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," and bending down, palms open and outstretched. "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."

Everyone was given something to do. Even the smallest ones were enthusiastic about learning new words. They enjoyed reciting long speeches in unison, and when Bemba G said this practice no longer made sense and they would have "roles" instead, the result was not good. How careless we were not to realise they would look reproachfully at this idea of "rank". A rapid explanation about sharing and fun had to be posted for all to see.

Bemba G took charge of casting, calling us to assemble around Black Rock for his pronouncements:

"The big man is Julius Caesar, a great soldier," he explained. "He comes back from war but people plot to kill him."

"Oh, shame," murmured the child soldiers.

"But his ghost comes to haunt the plotters," he went on.

"And they die?"

"Yes; they fight among themselves."

"Good," said Abu. "I want to be in the plotters' group."

"Me too."

"And me."

"Yes, you two. Abu, you will be Cassius. Hinga, you will be Antony. I think I will play Brutus."

"So it won't be just the child soldiers?" I asked. I was unsure whether I had slipped in an awkward question, as for a moment Bemba G sat there stiffly, continuing to look at the cast of characters.

"They will have enough to do. I will play Brutus." I knew by his intonation that he wanted to play but I did not care; I was content to assist in whatever way seemed necessary.

"All right," I agreed. Then I repeated to the group, "Hinga is Mark Antony.

Abu is Cassius, you, Bemba G, as Brutus - that was quick and easy."

"And I want to be the great soldier," added Peter.

"But he gets killed." Abu sounded concerned.

"But his death is the main event - everyone has to think again," Bemba G assured them.

"Do they plot and fight in the bush like us?" asked Victor.

"Yes, in the bush, like you."

"Will there be a part for me?" Miriam had left Baby with Hinga again, but Isata had followed closely behind her.

"How about the wife of Brutus?"

"Who is Brutus?"

"Me," affirmed Bemba G.

"Oh, Mr G, you are too old for me!" She giggled behind her right hand. He took the other hand and said:

"You are my true and honourable wife As dear to me as are the ruddy drops That visit my sad heart."

"That's beautiful." Isata put her hands together to clap and off went the two girls.

"You will be soldiers and townspeople." Bemba G waved his hand over several heads. They bobbed away leaving the two of us sitting on Black Rock.

"Those are the main parts, but I'd like Citizen to have one of the smaller roles," I said.

"But he hasn't opened his mouth yet."

It was my turn to negotiate for something. In all the days I'd known Bemba G, I had been cautious, patiently expecting his decisions but clearly not pushing my own. "We might have to work with him to learn a few lines, but I'm sure he can do it." With a look of incredulity, he put the playscript to one side, stood up and scuffled away a few feet. I shouted after him:

"He just needs time, a bit of time."

He faltered to a stop and nodded. "Find him something then, give him time."

I smiled back, relieved that he understood. I searched the body of the script for a small part for Citizen; it had to be a speaking part. I longed for the moment when he dared to speak again. Then I looked around the compound for him.

Citizen was standing on top of a boulder, waving at someone approaching from the thicket. I watched the friendly glow scattered across his face, the boyish enthusiasm as his arms swung into the air when he jumped down to greet Peter. They were young boys, affectionate, true and sturdy. Off they went together, their black figures disappearing into the forest, Peter's shoulders higher than Citizen's, acting as an umbrella to the two of them.

They were brothers at arms. Citizen needed a big brother maybe more than a parent, I thought. Turning back to the list of characters, I chose for his role Lucius, a servant to Brutus. With Bemba G playing Brutus, Citizen would in effect be in his care.

Before I set off to tell Citizen to prepare to take part, I had to massage a place in my head that had begun to hurt. The scalp was very dry though not damaged, not as bad as it might have been, but in need of care. It is the only part of me that bears the scars of this journey. I massaged my head, moved my fingers over the scalp, encouraging the tired parts to relax. At last my head began to feel better. "Better," I said to myself, standing up from Black Rock. I waited by the forest edge but Peter and Citizen showed no sign of emerging. A lively mood had overtaken the child soldiers. The very idea of a play about soldiers had appealed to them.

Victor put his finger on it: "Do they fight in the bush like us?"

"Just like you..."

Now that they had movements and roles, the child soldiers were enthusiastic. Most of them wanted to act, to say something; even if they had only a few lines, or one line to shout out, they were proud of their speeches. But there were occasional skirmishes on other matters: entering too soon or occupying too much space. Miriam and Peter took it upon themselves to sort out those minor problems, sensing, I think, that a confrontation would put paid to "playtime".

Day by day the children just grew into their characters and into a company.

Miriam, Peter and Isata made bold, unstinting attempts to help others learn their lines and come and go at the right moment, projecting their voices across the scene. It was up to Isata to indicate to each actor if he was going too fast or too slow by counting his strides for him: "Four too many!" she called out at Hinga during one rehearsal. They pulled together to make it work.

Hinga had been watching me carefully, perhaps trying to assess whether I was a conventionally serious adult or a wayward visitor with nothing better to do. I caught him looking at me sideways whenever I was talking to Bemba G about the children. And the day after I had helped Victor, Hinga came to say his head was also "blowing up".

"How do you mean?" I asked him.

"It is open wide, can't you see, Julia? It is raining in my brain!" He laughed, throwing his head back to the sky.

"Well, shut it up or get an umbrella," I quipped as he ran off, guffawing while I shouted at his back: "There's no way I am massaging everyone's feet day in and day out!"

But some of the children took things very seriously. K.T. was concerned about settling back into ordinary life. He said, "If I was a rich man, I'd pay a doctor to put my foot right, but you see I am poor for now."

"What will you do to become rich?"

"Be a lawyer and pass laws to bring peace."

K.T. was an only child, with a soft-spoken manner and beautiful Krio turns of phrase that it occurred to me sounded classical. Even his simplest use of words - "I apologise for my left hand" and "I did not spoil the laws" - were redolent of an ancient world.

The next day the ground was damp and cold so we settled in one of the open huts to spend the afternoon working on the pivotal act of the play, Act 3, which opens with the arrival and murder of Caesar in the Capitol. The group was, as usual, solidly there and ready once Bemba G called. They put aside their games and finished conversations, the better to work: Hinga, Peter, Victor, Citizen, Miriam, all of them waiting for Bemba G to lead the next act, bring out something new.

"I'm not going to tell you how to start this part, just do it as you did yesterday," he said, emanating calm steady focus, "and think about the words."

Caesar and the soothsayer began:

"The Ides of March are come."

"Ay, Caesar, but not gone."

The children ran through it three times, improving in flow and movement each time. Then they began again. This was the fourth time of going for the beginning of Act 3. Peter, the only one who had not learned his lines before that rehearsal, was beginning to feel the verse. I thought I saw him shiver once or twice with recognition at:

"Be not fond To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood That will be thawed from the true quality With that which melteth fools."

He came to the end of his speech and frowned deeply. "Let's stop," he called out.

"Why do you want to stop?" asked Bemba G.

"I feel it, I feel I can't trust anyone here," answered Peter seriously.

There was no pretence in his statement. Peter was never one to lie. He was implacably and precisely honest. He was becoming Caesar, sensing that his murder was about to take place, smelling treachery as it pushed to its conclusion. He stopped still. Silent. He had everyone's attention: Citizen, Victor, all of them were there in the Capitol. They had become conspirators.

Moses, Citizen Me, by Delia Jarrett-Macauley, is published by Granta Books at pound;10.99. TES readers can get a 25 per cent discount. To order a copy for only pound;8.25 plus 95p PP call Granta on 0500 004 033 and quote 'TES', or visit Offer ends March to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

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