“At the Fishouse” by Sean Pears

Issue 10 / Summer 2017


For three years in the 1970s my father lived in Malawi in an abandoned fish warehouse that he converted into a home with the help of his friend Vaughan and a group of Malawian day laborers. He moved there to avoid conscription into the army of the South African apartheid government. Years later, when I had lunch with Vaughan in Washington, D.C. (where by some coincidence we both happened to be living), he told me about the energy and excitement that had surrounded the project. The laborers spoke little or no English, and my father and Vaughan none of the local languages, so the work had to happen almost entirely through signs, gestures, examples. When the house was finally finished, Vaughan tells me, they organized a party, and all of the men sat around a fire late into the night, using whatever means they could—shouts, laughter, tears—to express that this was the best project any of them had ever worked.

That day in Washington when Vaughan told me this story, versions of which I had heard many times growing up, I allowed myself to recklessly imagine this project, completed without language, or with only its bare rudiments, as a brief utopic moment. Like dancers wearing neutral masks, I imagine them cast into a clumsy freedom by their disability, set loose from the yoke of language. The hundreds of thousands of disorganized speculations, and the laws and institutions that supported them, all of which we now generalize as Colonialism, were and are always attended by language as a tool for domination. As Walter Mignolo writes, the idea of “one language, one territory” was an obsession of the colonizing mind. In practical terms, speaking one language makes for easier business. The languages and uses of language that were produced in colonial projects now bear the stamp of the hierarchies of power, and one can no more easily unhinge these hierarchies than one can neutralize the disturbing force of, for example, racial epithets.

Never was this more starkly apparent to me than when I asked my parents one day whether they had ever heard of Fanagalo, a Bantu-based lingua franca that was used within multinational mining companies in southern Africa. When I said the word—“fanagalo”—my parents laughed. What I had not realized was that the word “fanagalo” had infiltrated South African English as an idiom for “bullshit,” “nonsense,” “gobbledygook.” This might be the inevitable fate of pidgin languages: the colonial institution teaches a simplified version of a language to indigenous peoples, and then ridicules the speakers for their simplified language. Even the word, “pidgin,” which is the technical term used by linguistics to describe a grammatically simplified version of a language, has an uncomfortable pejorative feel, maybe as it should; the commonly accepted etymology is that “pidgin” derives from a Chinese American pronunciation of “business.”

Fanagalo too was a language used for business, or at least used for work, hundreds of years by millions of hands, most of which will remain anonymous and unrecorded, lives, usually short lives, spent down in the warrens of mines below Johannesburg and across southern Africa. The Phrasebook, Grammar, and Dictionary of Fanagalo: The Lingua Franca of Southern Africa As Spoken in the Republic of South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, first published in Johannesburg by Hugh Keartland in 1951, and then in new editions every few years at least through the 1970s, is a slim booklet, designed so that it can be slipped neatly into a back pocket and used at a worksite. It provides a basic grammar and vocabulary, but it also includes pre-translated phrases:

Loskati mina hambile, lalela lo basboy gawena: When I am away, listen to your bossboy.

Mina tshelile lomuntu hayikona yena hamba pantsi, ndaba yena dagiwe: I told this boy he must not go underground, as he is drunk.

In its introduction, the book proudly claims that that language can be learned in only fifteen hours by following an instructional course developed by the South African Iron and Steel Corporation. Miners sit in a “sound-proof glass cage” and listen to a tape recorder, into which they then record back until they have mastered pronunciation. The name of the language, according to the book, derives from “enza fana ga lo,” or “do it like this.”

Reading this grammar, the most comprehensive study of Fanagalo I have been able to find, one gets seduced by the idea that that entire language—even an entire population—was little else than an apparatus for industry: parts of the machine that pulled gold and diamonds out of the South African ground. But I wonder if instead one can attempt a reckless sort of negative reading, whereby the book becomes a limit or boundary of intelligibility, one that is broken as it is drawn. This is no consolation or retribution, but it might serve as a reminder of fugitivity, which is maybe why on a September weekday morning I kneel down on the soft wood of my living room next to the table at which I write and recite the list in the back of the book of “Supplementary Vocabulary.”

a badge
a bandage
a bank (shaft bank)
a belt
to breathe
broken rock (blasted rock)
a broom
a bucket
to build something
to burst, to crack

Though it is no worthy memorial, and in fact must be read in the first place for everything that it fails to include, out of the complete alphabetized list of words (the excerpt above are the bs) one can construct a brief biography, an anonymous biography of labor, lives that we must, if we care to, build into and around these small fragments.

Each time I look back at the list I find that the words refuse to signify cooperatively, that they keep pointing in other directions. But reading the list in this way requires a reckless kind of imagination, what I believe Fred Moten is referring to when he writes that “imagining what exists requires and allows analysis.” How else, though, can we imagine those lives but from looking around and through these pieces, like the handful of photographs I have of the fishouse under construction. To my knowledge only one image exists that shows the main interior space after the renovation was finished. The slide must have at some point sat in a projector for too long because it is burnt and distorted.



Only a few weeks after my father moved in, a short, stocky man, early thirties, with a round, intelligent face, appeared at the front door of the fishouse, and told my father that he had come to be his servant.

“No, thank you,” my father told him. It was in part the culture of dependent comfort that he had intended to leave behind when he left apartheid South Africa.

“But you don’t have anyone,” the man replied. “Everybody needs a man.”

My father convinced the man to leave, feeling acutely that he had talked him out of a job, but still secure in the fact that it was better for him, and maybe better, somehow, for the world, if he did not allow this man, perhaps ten years his senior, to be his servant. So when the man arrived the next day to try to convince him, he denied him again. But the third time that he came my father said yes, and the man, named Marco, moved into a separate section of the fishouse, and eventually so did his wife and his young son.

I searched many times through the large plastic bin of albums and loose photographs, and through many rolls of slides, for the photograph of Marco that my father was convinced he had. I had given up hope, actually, that we would ever find it when one day my father snapped his fingers, and went upstairs to the small drawer in his bedside table, full of glasses lens cleaner, allergy medication, his passport, a few folding knives (which he had, for a while, collected enthusiastically), and pulled out two photographs I had never seen before.

The first had been taken from above, an image of a young woman with dark hair whom I did not recognize, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a coffee table, her face turned down toward a chessboard. My father says nothing about this image. The second was of Marco, standing with his wife and young son.

About Marco I ultimately know very little; about his wife, far less—neither my father nor Vaughan can recall her name. I cannot help but notice the way that she stands for the photograph, very square to the camera, a bit like her son, who seems almost held back by his father’s gentle hand.

There is one story about Marco that I heard many times growing up, one that contains all the drama and magic of a story you would tell to a child. It occurred toward the end of my father’s stay in Malawi, once Vaughan had already moved back to South Africa, and during a period in which Marco’s uncle was also living with the family on their side of the fishouse. My father is awakened in the middle of the night by strange, incoherent shouting, neither animal nor fully human. He has gotten out of bed and has just approached the threshold of the fishouse when Marco’s uncle comes running up out of the night, telling him that Marco needs help, he is very sick. My father steps out into the yard. Marco is out there, running in circles, screaming uncontrollably, as though in intense pain. My father runs up to him, and tries to grab him by the shoulders. For a moment he looks into his eyes, wide-open and glaring white in the moonlight, but blank and uncomprehending. Marco seems to not recognize my father.

Together my father and Marco’s uncle manage to wrestle him, writhing, to the ground. His chest heaving from the exertion, his uncle looks up at my father and says unambiguously, “Witchdoctor. He needs the witchdoctor.”

The term “witchdoctor” actually comes from New England, not far from where I was born. In 1718, British Bishop Francis Hutchinson speaks of New World tales of “witchdoctors” in his condemnation of the Salem witch trials. Two hundred fifty years later my father and Marco’s uncle hoist the shivering man into the backseat of my father’s car and start driving on the one highway south away from Blantyre.

At some point his uncle asks my father to slow down, and then tells him to turn off the highway onto a small dirt road. He directs him through random forks and turns, until the road ends abruptly at a patch of dry grass, starkly illuminated in the car’s headlights. My father turns off the car and moves to open the door, but Marco’s uncle says, “No, sir. You must wait here.” Somehow he hoists Marco, still quietly jabbering to himself, out of the backseat, and leads him down a loose trail through the grass. Beyond, in the darkness, my father can faintly see light from a fire illuminating a cluster of small buildings.

My father waits, alone, for what seems like hours. Had he even wanted to, finding his way back to the highway through the maze of darkened roads would have been near impossible. Once some of the adrenaline has worn off, he can’t say if he’s been waiting for a half an hour, an hour, or many hours. Other than the flicker of the distant campfire, there is no sign of light. He keeps waiting. That dead-end road in the tall grass was a kind of crossroad, a border zone between the confused warren of roads behind and what we call the bush in front. How long he would have to wait there, how long he had waited, my father couldn’t say. When he runs out of cigarettes, he lies down on the hood of his car, grown cool in the night air. Eventually Marco’s uncle emerges from the grass, tells him that Marco needs to stay, gets into the car, and they drive back. The next day, Marco returns to the fishouse, bashful and apologetic. He tells my father that someone put a curse on him. He is sorry for the inconvenience.

As a child, this story was unreal, fantastic, fanagalo. The story of wild and raving Marco, the only story of him that really stands out in my mind, could not ultimately resolve into anything other than a series of stark images: masks set against an otherwise inscrutable and unknowable backdrop. The wide whites of his eyes in the dark, like saucers. His incoherent screaming. His open mouth. His white teeth. Without any frame of reference for Marco’s possession, because my father and myself and my family and everyone I knew had never done anything like that (would never do anything like that), what Marco did that night remained entirely opaque. It could be explained, in a sense, only by magic, in which I didn’t believe, which meant that I didn’t fully believe in Marco. This opacity made of him a kind of tabula rasa, onto which it was all too easy, not out of malice, not even consciously, to inscribe the specter of a heathen, of a wild, gnashing beast.


Years later, while reading the work of Matthew Schoffeleers, a British anthropologist who lived in Malawi in the early 1970s, I found what I have come to think is a path out of my inability to interpret Marco as anything other than a wild force of nature. Schoffeleers studied spiritual possession, and he writes of performances by a renowned Nsanje spiritual medium, Mai Menala. The performances would often reach their climax with the possession by a British colonial soldier:

He was announced by an ear-splitting rattling of a drum. Menala then marched in with an imitation rifle on her shoulder. Next she installed herself at a small table, and in a gruff voice shouted “Booooooy!”
The call was answered by a little girl who handed her a multicolored apron which she helped Menala get into. Next, Menala ordered bread and tea, which were promptly brought in with an outsized carving knife. Menala cut a piece off the hard and stale bread, and chewed it with the help of a cup of tea. While occupied with this, she kept shouting commands to her “boy.”
Thus duly fortified, she got up, shouldered her rifle once again and started striding amidst absolute silence toward the middle of the bwalo. There was a feeling that something extraordinary was about to happen. And the audience got what it came for. The drummer suddenly burst into a blood-curdling imitation of a machine gun. Menala aimed her rifle, shouted commands at an invisible platoon, and started a military drill that brought her audience to shrieks of delight.

There seems to me in this mimicry of the colonial soldier a powerfully lawless, fugitive, if short-lived, false and ultimately low-down form of political resistance. In this performance, Menala could invert the hierarchy, become the oppressor, but in a gross caricature. The possession could be used, if only for the duration of its performance, to make the servant served, to make the colonized the colonizer, and to reduce it then to a kind of game or sleight of hand, a kind of magic.

In a small note toward the end of his study, Schoffeleers writes that the exorcism of evil spirits was often performed at a crossroad, junction, or at the end of a convoluted and winding path. The hope was that the spirit would become confused, and would not know how to get home. I thought of my father waiting in his car in the darkness. But I wondered then what I had done, as I reached the edge of the tabula rasa of Marco’s spiritual possession into which I had written a narrative of political resistance that made him like me, or if not like me, at least like someone I could imagine myself to be.

Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant spent his career arguing for the “right to opacity,” in resistance to the continuous desire to know, to understand, to make transparent:

If we examine the process of “understanding” people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce. (Glissant, Poetics of Relation)

By understanding Marco, was I reducing him? By writing into this story his desire to invert hierarchies of power, to trouble colonial relations, and exorcise the evil spirit who was nothing more or less than my father, smoking cigarettes in his car late at night, was I doing anything other than alleviating my own misplaced guilt over history? I thought then that if this was the case I might as well wear the neutral mask myself, and step cautiously out onto a stage, where I might be laughed off, but where, rather than aiming to know, I might instead just aim to move.

This thought pulled me back to a poem I had written years before, shortly after reading for the first time Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a poem which I had titled, simply, “LOW.”

Enter me. Wet climate cave dweller.
Beholden to the sump pump, augur of ground water.
Any thoughts of my near endless childhood
inhabited by screens, either inside or outside of them
made a project of my little chase scene.
Looking through the backwards telescope
onto the exam-table-history
I am projected. The incision blurts white mist.



Sean Pears is currently pursuing a PhD in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo. His writing and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2, The Denver Quarterly, The Colorado Review, Songs for a Passbook Torch: An Anthology of Writing on Nelson Mandela, and elsewhere. He also edits the online audiojournal of contemporary poetry, ythm. Find him on Twitter @Sean_Pears.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *