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The Brief Wondrous Life of Demian Grey

Joshua Wangia '25

Esilaamo. A curse. A will that brings itself to fruition. Who better knows Esilaamo than Demian Grey?

Born between continents, Demian never really knew who he was. Starting first grade at 5 years old, he was much smaller than all of his mzungu friends. His school was full up with people who looked nothing like him. Whose hair looked nothing like his. How was he supposed to love himself? Skinnier and shorter than them. Demian didn’t know why they told him to “Play somewhere else.” He just assumed they were mzuri and he was mbaya and went on with his day. Alba, his mother, told him to just love himself, and his beautiful brown eyes. Demian used to hoist himself up over the vanity to look at himself in the mirror. His eyes were nothing special, really. Plus, Mom was the one with the beautiful eyes. Blue, like the sky.

Alba would take him to his school to play.

Wacha tucheze, he said.

They just looked at each other.

Eventually, Demian would understand that they didn’t understand his funny language, the one his Dad used. When he wanted to play soccer, they would play football, and he would get used to playing by himself. He would talk less and less, until, he would practically stop talking altogether. When he was 7, he got sick of being kimwa.

Demian opened his mouth and words flew out. My god, that kid was annoying, He wouldn’t stop talking. The thing is, he had decided to put an Esilaamo on himself. His will was that he would be at the top. And you couldn’t be at the top and invisible at the same time. Still, no one liked him, but now it was a different kind of way, he was the kid you just couldn’t get rid of.

His household was the only one he was used to, and he thought it was normal. His mom, Alba, is not just a white woman, but a blonde white woman. As far as Demian was concerned, that was like double white. Everywhere she went, she got smiles. People offered to help her, for no reason. One time they got pulled over while she was driving Demian to school and the officer saw her smile and walked back to his car.

Here’s a scene: shopping at the supermarket with little Demian in the front of the cart, a woman stopped Alba and told her how good a person she was. Alba was confused. The conversation went something like this;

Where’d you get him?

What do you mean?

You know, that sweetheart in the front. I admire people like you, I really do. Doing something good for those little fatherless boys.

Ma’am, I gave birth to him.


Contrary to this woman’s opinion, Demian was not fatherless. Quite the opposite: his father, Moses, could be described as nothing less than fiercely present. A negro from Kenya, Moses was strength personified in Demian’s life. He was at work most of the time, but when he came home, he could simply not be ignored. Sometimes he would get angry, and that’s when it’s best to hide.

Like most children, Demian continued to grow. Not much in stature, but in his mind and emotions. When he was 12, he met Lila. She walked into the room and her hair sort of floated in the air behind her. Can’t blame the idiot, it wasn’t often someone looked at him the first time they walked in the room, but Demian fell in love. Maybe in another family, it would’ve been bad, but Moses had had a vision of his grandchildren playing at his feet, and they had been all different colors, so he wasn’t surprised when his son went for a white girl. Much to Demian’s surprise, Lila loved him back. I’m not sure you could call it a real girlfriend, but she was Demian’s first girlfriend. But, Moses had raised him in the Christian tradition. No sex before marriage. Period.

However, enda yiwuma amachwi.

One late night in Demian’s 13th May, Demian snuck out again on his bike. He rode down to Lila’s house and climbed up the ladder they left, just like every time before. They laughed and talked like every time before. When Lila suggested something new, Demian decided he would go along. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with this girl. With Lila, he never felt out of place, or in between. I personally think he also liked that a mzungu loved him like they hadn’t when he was little.

What a fool.

Riding back home at about 4:00, he felt the difference. This was the thing everyone talked about on TV and the radio. He reasoned that this meant he had become a man. He climbed in his window, turned around, and his heart stopped. Moses stood there, towering.

Where have you been, Moses thundered.

It was the first time Demian had ever seen his father cry.


A Kenyan road. The Dirt is red and the sun is white. Many little kids are playing soccer with a ball made of plastic bags. One is pushed and falls to the ground. He starts crying, and the other kids stop playing but not out of courtesy. They surround him and look at him angrily for interrupting their fun time. Crybaby, they mocked him. Kicked red dust at him and walked off.

Moses was always emotional: since he was too little to pick apart his mifuka ya samaki himself he’d cried, but once he reached a certain age, people started to look at him weirdly. Called him a baby. It didn’t help that he kept sucking his thumb until the age of four. They kept telling him, Wanaume Hawalii. Men don’t cry.

One day he realized that crying helped nothing. Nobody would come to his rescue. His focus would turn in a different direction. Anger. He started shouting, pushing the people who teased him, and he started pushing the people he didn't, That’s until his grandmother told him to stop. She said it wasn't right.

He, like all of his peers, got initiated into manhood. A painful ritual, but you couldn’t cry. Wanaume Hawalii. He took it like a man and visited all the men in his life who told him what being a man was about.

His grandmother told him about Jesus, a God of love. She told him about her visions too. She prophesied that one day he would fly across the sea. One day he would eat with the Wazungu. His parents didn't believe her, but he always did. He put an Esilaamo on himself, that he would be the person his Grandmother saw. He studied and studied until he finally got a letter. Lincoln, an HBCU had accepted Moses. He went.

When he went, he saw a vision that his wife was waiting here in America. She had blonde hair, that’s all he knew. He kept on the watch for the woman that he would spend his life with. When Alba welcomed him to church on Gray Street, he knew.

Moses knew his child would have to go through so much in this country. In Kenya, he didn’t have to think about being black because everyone was. Here, his child wouldn’t just be his child. In the world’s eyes, he would be a negro. Or maybe, because of Alba, he would be something different. Something in between.

He wondered, years later, what he should name his firstborn son.


Demian, being the imbecile he is, told him everything. His dad was beside himself. He never wanted to have to deal with this, a lying son. He went to his den and prayed and prayed. Finally, he got the answer.

He called Demian in and asked him if he thought he knew what it was to be a man.

Demian, this time, kept his mouth shut.

Moses explained that Demian was born with two cultures. The one he lives in, and the one that lives in him. He offered Demian a chance to become a Kenyan man and claim his hybrid Identity. He warned him that it would be painful and that he couldn't cry.

Wanaume Hawalii.

Demian thought about it. The Wazungu never liked him. America had never wanted him, but he had followed their directions to the letter. Here was Moses, his dad, his leader, offering him a way out. He accepted.

He flew to Kenya and got initiated. He didn’t cry, didn’t make a sound. Just like before, he was kimwa. Then his uncles and granduncles told him about what being a man is: ______ _____ ______ ___. (But of course, every man has to find it for themselves). He felt whole, he knew he was Kenyan. Either way, he had stopped being in between.

Or so he thought.

Whenever he walked in the street, children followed him. They would dare each other to go and touch him. They asked him if he was diseased, his skin odd. There was something wrong with him. They called him Mzimu.

They called him Mzungu.

They went to the coast and learned about the funny language, Swahili. They said it was made by the Swahili people, a race extinct, a mix of Arab traders and African women, their language in between. Grey, like him. They were extinct, killed by the wazungu diseases that swept inevitably through Africa.

He went to the ocean that the Swahili loved. In the distance, he saw an Island. While his father slept, when the sea was calm and the tide was low, he swam to that island. No more than a mile, but to him it felt like hours in the water. Only Demian knows what he did on that island. What Esilmaao he put on himself.

He emerged from the Indian Ocean onto land and emerged out of that red land into the sky, and flew over another ocean, to a continent that now seemed far away. Somewhere along the line, on that plane, or maybe on that island, Demian Gray died. He was reborn with his real name, the one God had given him. Not Grey, not Mzungu, not Negro.

But ______ ______ ______.


Esilaamo - A curse or will that is made manifest

Mzungu / Wazungu - White person / White people

Mbaya - Ugly, Bad, Evil

Mzuri - Beautiful, Good

Wacha tucheze - Let’s Play

Kimwa - Silent

Enda yiwuma amachwi - Abanyala Poverb: Stomach (pregnancy) has no ears.

Hunger (desire for sex) does not listen to advice.

Wanaume Hawalii - Swahili Proverb: Men don’t cry

Mzimu - Ghost

Luyali - The pride a father feels for his child

Wangia - Antelope / Family Name

Works Cited

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, Penguin Group, 2008.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. HarperCollins Publishers, 2019

Hesse, Hermann, et al. Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth. Harper & Row, 1965.


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