I, Charles from the Camps: A Novel is a 2018 dystopian novel by Joel D. Hirst portraying the life of the fictional Charles Agwok, a young man who grows up in the refugee camps of Uganda. Hirst examines how camp life–the result of war, dictatorship, and the fallacies of poverty perpetuated by relief organizations– have demoralized Charles. In this excerpt from the novel, a cynical Charles, who has left the camps to work as a hitman in Kampala, is in love with Ruth, a beautiful young woman from a middle-class Kampala family. Charles and Ruth have left the city to spend the weekend together in an upscale resort. There is love-making and luxury, and Charles struggles to understand that Ruth, an egoist, plans to leave him to study medicine far away from Uganda and the misery there.–MM
“What do you want to do with your life?” Ruth said.
“I want to live it,” I responded.
“But aren’t you living it? You know that’s not what I mean.”
“I know,” I said, without offering further insight.
“For me,” she said, to my relief. I’d learned that if silence abides for long enough, people will return to talk about themselves. “I want to be a doctor. But not here, dealing with the horrible diseases of poor people. Or of those filthy unfortunates who sometimes cross the river from the north.” I grimaced. “No, I am going to study in London or maybe Canada. Working in a neat clinic. I want to be a plastic surgeon. You know how much they earn? Making people beautiful–that is so much nobler than just keeping them alive.”
“Life is not a beautiful thing,” I responded carefully after a time. “It’s dirty and dark and violent.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Ruth retorted. “I’ve seen the magazines. Lovely people. Grand hotels. Crystal beaches. Vacations, castles, restaurants with Champagne and food too beautiful to eat–chefs in white with those tall hats. Fields of flowers, painters and writers talking about the great ideas. That’s the world I believe in, but I can’t find it here. Kampala is too backward, lost.”
“Camps. Food lines, lines for water and for the next idiot know-nothing nurse. Dysentery, disease. Stench. Boredom. Poverty. Death. Those are the conditions for more of humanity than the Champagne,” I said but mostly to myself. “And nobody writes novels about the misery.”
“Yes, I know there are those places too,” Ruth said. “And I see the people standing beside the street, bored and hungry. But we can’t let that define us.”
“Why?” I asked, but not harshly, and Ruth, who was used to my caustic reactions when the theme of poverty emerged, turned to look at me. “Why can’t we?” I repeated. “It defines them.”
“I know,” Ruth said. “I don’t know. What can we do–be miserable all the time?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “But what are our responsibilities? It can’t be to ignore. It can’t be to flee to places far away that are cold and clean.”
“Maybe not, but they are bigger than we are–those problems. Destroying our lives because their lives are already destroyed doesn’t seem to make sense.”
I knew she was right, that there was no answer. But that didn’t make it any easier, because she was talking about random people she saw through bulletproof glass of her four-by-four, while I was talking about myself. My brother and my father and my mother and my friends. “No, it doesn’t,” I said finally. “But we’re here now,” I said, “and we should make the most of it.”
We both watched as a gecko crawled down the inside of the tent canvas, slowly and painstakingly stalking a fly that had come to rest upon a strawberry, which had been left as a welcome by management in a basket of other strawberries surrounding a sliced pineapple. Slowly moving above the creature, carefully descending down, down, down until at the last moment it released a burst of energy and fell upon the insect, chewing it and swallowing quickly as the fly struggled for its life, until finally it ceased–the life-fight finished. In its primitive, tiny brain, it accepted the fate it knew was part of the order of things.
“Yes. You know, I think that there is beauty in even. . .” Ruth started to say, but I stopped her, my finger on her lips, and then I leaned in and pressed lips against hers. At first haltingly, gently, tenderly. Then she met my mouth more firmly, her lips pressing against mine. I was hungry now but also somehow angry, and I turned over to lie atop her as we became lost in each other, our lust, and youth. Alone under the great expanse of the African skies, we explored each other, finishing together in an explosion of passion that required no words. Afterward, we lay beside each other for another time, not saying anything, only reliving the moment, the experience. The lack of shame, not needing a future, not acknowledging a past–just together, there, natural and animal and perfect. We must have fallen asleep, because when we came to, the sun had moved closer to the horizon and we could hear voices, other guests making their way on the paths above to dinner. We rushed to dress, Ruth covering herself with her blouse as she threw on her clothes, and we hurried up the hill, fearing being late and missing the last meal.
Three courses. The first, a salad, fresh and crisp dressed with lettuce and nuts and black olives and soft white cheese I’d never had before. This was served with soup, green and refreshing–cold, which was new for me. Cucumber, I think. Then a plate of wild rice beside chicken covered in mustard sauce and asparagus. The fresh burn of the mustard against the pepper was remarkable. Followed by ice cream over a cake so light I thought it would float off the plate. Never had I had anything like this, living as I did in a container and saving every penny to ward off the terror of tomorrow. Champagne to drink, and we watched as the sun set over the national park. Slowly the bright yellow sun turned to orange and then blue and finally purple before the pinpricks of the stars filled the sky like diamonds. Bats swirled overhead, and we were moved effortlessly by our hosts to the bar, collecting our next crystal goblet, red wine to deepen the experience, and down again to a little platform beside a timeless tree in front of a controlled fire crackling in an outdoor fire pit. There we were met by another man who was playing guitar, sad ballads of longing and suffering and sacrifice as we drank one glass, then another and yet another. At the apex of the evening, we heard a squeaking and three tiny bush babies, those little marsupials who are territorial and would never give up their tree–even to tourists from Kampala–as they descended curious and hungry from above for their nocturnal hunt to empty peanut bowls and overturn fruit cups while we all laughed.
Then back to the tent and to sleep. That night, I slept the greatest, grandest night’s sleep I have ever had. The sounds of the insects, the occasional squeak of a bush baby finding a cicada, rustling around in the thatch above the tent. The neighing of one of the zebras we had seen prancing around the watering hole at dusk. A light rain started to fall, pattering against the grasslands below and the rocks around us. None of this kept us awake. We were exhausted from our time together, from our walking and the anxious tension of the previous weeks, months. We lay in each other’s arms and drifted away. Even today, at such a distance, with so much time having passed, I still remember that night’s sleep, that evening together, when I again struggle to make it beyond the next minute, the next hour of camp life. When I think I cannot bear the darkness anymore, it serves to remind me that there is light out there, that it does exist and that I have known it, even if it was not for me. What is time, anyways, for us to consider it? Whether something lasts a day, a week, a month, a year? These are all fleeting, to be looked back upon in nostalgia or bitterness. During the terrible days of my violence, that night was a constant beacon, an ever-present glimmer of the goodness, tiny as the tiniest of stars, soft like a firefly in a great field, lighting nothing but proving that darkness is not all-consuming, that it can in fact be challenged by so small an act of defiance.
Yes, that night I slept.
The next morning, I awoke early, with Ruth still sleeping by my side. I delicately extricated myself from her embrace to go and stand naked on the wood terrace, watching the early-morning comings and goings of the animals. A herd of fifteen zebras was milling about, looking anxiously at a lion lying under a tree, asleep and paying them no attention. The tiny little deer that looked like medium-sized dogs were jumping to and fro, chased half heartedly by a leopard. A hyena laughed in the distance, and all the animals looked up nervously. The melee was invigorating. I felt the delicate touch of a silken hand on my lower back as Ruth glided noiselessly to my side, wrapped only in a sheet. A pot of coffee had been delivered in the early morning, and she brought me a cup, with milk and sweet with sugar, and we watched the sun rise over the African plain.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“I always sleep well in these places,” she said–and the barb went deep, deeper still because she didn’t mean it, didn’t know that what she said would be a wound that I still feel today.
“I’m glad,” I responded. “So did I.”
“Breakfast?” she asked.
“Of course, but first. . .” I grabbed her sheet and pulled it away, throwing it over the wooden railings of the terrace and onto the rocks below.
Excerpted from Hirst, Joel D. I, Charles, from the Camps: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1494-1495). iUniverse. Kindle Edition. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author.