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Impostor Students

Snippet from

All Our Names  

- Dinaw Mengestu

Social Drama

Context: A young man in a small African village is inspired by an article in an old newspaper to become a writer. Feeling that he must go to the university in the capital city of Kampala, the narrator sheds his name and begins a new life in the city. While posing as a student at the university, the narrator meets another man posing as a student and a friendship begins. This charismatic, yet mysterious man, is only named Isaac and his goal is to study politics as he dreams of aiding his country in the times to come.


When Isaac and I first met at the university, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths of the rural villages we had grown up and lived in until only a few months earlier, even though neither of us had ever been to a city before and had no idea what it meant to live in such close proximity to so many people whose faces, much less names, we would never know. The capital in those days was booming, with people, money, new cars, and newer buildings, most of which had been thrown up quickly after independence, in a rush fueled by ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream that, almost ten years later, was still supposedly just around the corner, that, according to the president and the radio, was coming any day now. By the time Isaac and I arrived in the capital, many of the buildings had already begun to show signs of wear, having been neglected or completely forgotten, but there was still hope in the brighter future to come, and we were there like everyone else to claim our share.

On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five but, by any measure, much younger. I shed those names just as our bus crossed the border into Uganda. We were closing in on Lake Victoria; I knew Kampala was close, but even then I had already committed myself to thinking of it only as “the capital.” Kampala was too small for what I imagined. That city belonged to Uganda, but the capital, as long as it was nameless, had no such allegiances. Like me, it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it.

I spent my first few weeks in the capital trying to imitate the gangs of boys that lingered around the university and the cafés and bars that bordered it. Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries. On campus, and in the poor quarters where Isaac and I lived, there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Césaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive-green costumes of their heroes. I couldn’t match them, so I let the few strands of hair on my chin grow long. I bought a used pair of green pants that I wore daily, even after the knees had split open. I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions. A decade earlier, there had been an important gathering of African writers and scholars at the university. I read about it in a week-old newspaper that had finally made its way to our village. That conference gave shape to my adolescent ambitions, which until then consisted solely of leaving. I knew afterward where to go and what I wanted to be: a famous writer, surrounded by like-minded men in the heart of what had to be the continent’s greatest city.

I arrived in the capital poorly prepared. I had read the same Victorian novels a dozen times, and I assumed that was how proper English was spoken. I said “sir” constantly. No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer. Until I met Isaac, I hadn’t made a single friend. With my long skinny legs and narrow face, he said I looked more like a professor than a fighter, and in the beginning that was what he called me: Professor, or the Professor, the first but not the last name he christened me.

“And what about you?” I asked him. I assumed that, like others, he had another, more public name that he wanted to be known by. He was shorter but wider than me, each of his arms tightly laced with muscles and veins that ran like scars the length of his forearms. He had the build but not the face and demeanor of a soldier. He smiled and laughed too often for me to imagine he could ever hurt someone.

“For now, ‘Isaac’ is it,” he said.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

From the beginning, it was harder for Isaac than for me to be in the capital. This had never been and, I understood later, would never be my home, regardless of what I imagined. It was different for Isaac, however. Uganda was his country, and Kampala was the heart of it. His family was from the north, one of the tall, darker tribes that a man in Cambridge had decided were more warrior-like than their smaller cousins to the south. Had the British stayed, he would have done well. He had been bright enough in his early years to be talked of as one of the students who when older could be sent abroad, perhaps to a public school in London on a government scholarship. But then the whole colonial experiment ended in what seemed like a single long bloody afternoon, and boys like Isaac were orphaned a second time. And although Isaac had arrived in the capital only a few weeks before me, he knew enough about it from rumors and stories to assume he would easily find his place in it, and then rise to the top of whatever circle he found himself in. The fact that he was poor and completely unknown when we met was his most obvious well of frustration, but I suspected there were other sources of anger and heartbreak that he had yet to acknowledge.

Isaac and I became friends the way two stray dogs find themselves linked by treading the same path every day in search of food and companionship. We had taken up residence in the eastern quarters of the city, in the harder-to-reach, hill-rich region prone to mudslides. He was living with friends of cousins, who had agreed to house him on the floor in their living room. I was renting a cot in the back of a dry-goods store that on the weekends became an impromptu bar for the owner and his friends. On Friday and Saturday nights, I wasn’t allowed to return to the store until 2 or 3 a.m., after the bed had been used by the owner and his friends to entertain themselves with some of the young girls in the neighborhood. With no money and nothing else to do, I would circle the neighborhood—a maze of rutted, narrow paths that wound slowly up the side of a hill, at the top of which was one of the city’s newly paved roads. From here, one could look down upon our shanty village as it descended into what had been a lush, green valley, rich for grazing cattle but had become, with the mass migration to the capital, a dense cluster of tin roofs and wires, ringed by shallow pits of trash and feces. Twice I saw Isaac up there before we ever spoke to each other. On both occasions he was standing on the side of the road, staring at the passing traffic instead of the city beneath him, as if he were preparing to sacrifice himself to one of the cars at any moment. We acknowledged each other with a quick nod of the head. Neither of us could have done more without alarming the other; had I not seen Isaac at the university shortly afterward, we might have spent years nodding to each other from the edge of the road. A few days after that second meeting, however, I saw him on campus. We were trying our best to belong, standing near but never too close to a group of students. It was the second week of August, and with the start of a new year there were students gathered on every square inch of the central lawn, which was ringed by towering palm trees that gave the campus an air of tropical grandeur far greater than it deserved. When I saw him, I knew he was at the university not because he was supposed to be, but because, like me, he felt that was where he belonged, among the bright, future generation. Like me, he had told everyone he knew and met that he was a student, and at that time both of us were convinced that someday we would be.

It was with this understanding—that we were both liars and frauds, poorly equipped to play the roles we had chosen—that Isaac approached me. We had become part of a crowd gathered around a table in the center of the lawn where one of the boys with the neatly sculpted Afros was reading off a list of demands. Had Isaac and I not been there at the same time, we might have been moved by the young man’s call for better teachers, lower fees, and more freedom for the students, but we had noticed each other right away, and so were never a part of that gathering. All we could see from the moment our eyes locked was the vaguely familiar, possibly hostile face staring back. Perhaps only two men meeting unexpectedly in the middle of a desert after having traveled for so long that they’ve begun to believe the world was uninhabited would know what we felt like. In the province of the slums we meant little to each other. Here we were everything.

Isaac waited for the speech to end. The final words, “This is our university,” were followed by a brief applause. Everything back then was supposed to be ours. The city, this country, Africa—they were there for the taking, and, at least in that regard, our approach to the future was no different from that of the Englishmen who preceded us. Many of the young boys who were students at the university would later prove the point as they stuffed themselves with their country’s wealth.

Once the crowd had thinned, Isaac made his move. He loped. His shoulders descended and rose with each step, almost feral in movement. I felt hunted. I thought, “He’s coming for me,” and though I knew there was no physical injury at stake, I was right in assuming there was something at risk. He stood next to me for a few seconds before he said, “We should go somewhere and talk.”

That sort of conspiratorial language came naturally to him. Over the next few months, I heard him say things such as “We should talk in private,” or “Let’s talk someplace else.” Isaac was gifted at making you feel special.

I nodded my head in agreement. I was victim to his maneuvers from the beginning, instantly folded into his reality, which, for the first time since I came to the capital, gave me the feeling there was at least one place I belonged.

We walked until we were far away from the campus, in a part of the city I had never been in before. Isaac talked the entire time. He had his own version of history—half fact, half myth—which he was eager to share. He began each of his stories with “Did you know,” which was his equivalent of “Once upon a time.”

“Did you know,” he said, “until a decade ago no Africans were allowed to live near the university. This is where the British were planning on building a new palace for the king. If they had lost World War II, they were going to move all the English people here, and this part of the city was going to be just for them. They were going to make everything look like London so they wouldn’t feel so bad about losing. They were going to build a big wall around it and then change all the maps so that it looked like London was in Africa, but every time they started building the wall, someone would blow it up. That’s how the war for independence started.”

I listened, knowing that Isaac’s main intention was to amuse. Whether or not I believed him didn’t matter, as long as I was seduced. We stopped at a café on a street lined with single-story tin-roofed stores selling jeans, T-shirts, and brightly patterned ankle-length dresses. There were similar streets all over the city and across the continent. What made this one unique were the four-story concrete buildings that had recently sprung up in pairs every hundred feet. They had been built quickly, and poorly, to house the private businesses that were supposed to come sweeping into the capital. Their vacancy seemed more meaningful than the crowds and the dozens of other stores standing in their shadows, although it was impossible to know if it was because the empty buildings spoke of the imminent future, or its failure to materialize.

I pointed to a pair with blacked-out windows across the street from us. “And who is supposed to live there?” I asked him.

He stretched out his arms. “Those aren’t buildings,” he said. “Look how ugly they are. Soon everything in the capital will look like that. That’s the government’s secret plan. We built them to keep the British from ever wanting to come back.”

He put one finger to his lip. “This is just between us, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. I didn’t know yet when he expected me to take him seriously.

We took a table outside. Isaac ordered tea for us. When it came, slightly cooler than he wanted, he sent it back and demanded another. He wanted me to be impressed by his ability to command: in this case, a slightly warmer cup of hot water. When the issue with the tea was settled, he crossed his legs, leaned back in his chair, and said, “So—you go to the university, too.”

“Yes,” I told him.

“Every day?”

“Every day.”

It wasn’t until that second exchange that we were certain we were talking about the same thing. Isaac’s face softened. He dropped the constant, half-forced grin he had been wearing since we met.

“My grandfather wanted me to study medicine,” he continued. “But I have other plans of my own.”

“Then what will you study?”

“This is Africa,” he said. “There’s only one thing to study.”

He waited for me to respond. After several dramatic seconds he sighed and said, “Politics. That’s all we have here.”

I hadn’t learned to speak with such false though convincing authority. When Isaac asked me what I planned to study, I had to gather my courage before I could respond.

“Literature,” I told him.

He slapped the table with his hand.

“That’s perfect,” he said. “You look like a professor. What kind of literature will you study?”

“All of it,” I said, and here, for once, I spoke with a bit of confidence, because I believed in what I said. Many of the writers who attended that conference had already begun to make themselves scarce by the time Isaac and I had that conversation: several were already reported to be in exile in America; others were rumored to be dead or working for a corrupt government. But I still dreamed of joining their ranks nonetheless.


About the book:

All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest.

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