Read time: 20 mins

Fatou vs the Dictator

by ML Kejera
5 November 2020

‘Fatou vs the Dictator’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.


Fatou, who was five feet eight and 167 pounds, stood in the corner of a crowded lobby at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. In the opposite corner, at a Starbucks, sat The G’s ousted dictator — the man who had drowned Fatou’s uncle in the Mediterranean Sea. She estimated that he was six feet three and 240 pounds — big but not so big that she couldn’t take him on. 

He wore a white boubou and blue jeans.  Without the propaganda to smoothen him out, he was an ugly man. Wrinkles lined his pitch-black face and he carried a globular stomach. But whenever he shifted in his seat, Fatou saw the sinewy remnants of the thirty-one-year-old general who had overthrown The G’s first democratically elected president.  

The glass wall of the lobby threw back her reflection at her — a medium-sized figure wearing loose sweatpants and a grey hoodie. The reflected airplanes taxied and twirled like ballerinas across the transparent bodies of the rushing travelers. She looked the image of calm. Underneath her skin, bitter waters raged. From deep within her mind, a voice spoke to her, bubbling with insults and songs from The G. 

“You’re gonna get in there, Fatou, and you’re gonna kill him. No pity in business, eh? And this’ll be the bastard’s cleanest transaction. Quick left hook to the head. All you need is one punch. I beg, Fatou, I beg—kill him.”

An announcement cut through the din of the airport. 

Attention all passengers on Royal Air Maroc Flight 616 to Casablanca. Boarding will begin at Gate C23 in forty-five minutes.” 

She moved from her end of the lobby and took a seat near the Starbucks, her fists clenching and unclenching. The voice inside her head grew louder, drowning out the clamour in the lobby. 

One punch, Fatou, that’s all you needAim for the head and Boom! 

Fatou followed the map of wrinkles on the dictator’s face and felt a rush of hesitation. The retired despot was only about a decade younger than her parents. Was it right to beat an old man even if he was a purulent sore on the face of the earth? 

But that inner voice insisted, A soldier is still a soldier however ancient. Wars don’t end, the combatants simply die. 

Who’s to say that he wouldn’t retaliate, or that he hadn’t already seen and recognized her as one of his citizens and was planning a pre-emptive attack? What if, as her fist was about to connect with his head, he ducked, spun on his heels, and gave her a gut shot faster than a cheetah’s swipe? 

She imagined him towering over her slumped body saying, “I recognized your parents in your face.  Never forget that, even now, I am still your master.” 

Ding! Ding! 

Memories flooded her head. Her mind took her back to a big school where the uniform was tie-dye blue. An endless field of sugarcane. Palm trees piercing aquamarine skies. Clear coconut water  drank straight from the fibrous hole, running down her cheeks. Her grandparents with skin like raisins. Sandy beaches on river banks and ocean shores. The billowing faaraa strands of the kankourang. Skinny men on stilts during the festival night before Ramadan. And she, the little girl who spoke Mandinka, Wolof, Pidgin, and French instead of the woman she has become whose dreams of The G were silent films — all fraying threads held together, tight, by the dictator’s fist. Only now, he wasn’t the dictator anymore. He could’ve been any of the scattered citizens of The G. 

He had been exiled to Guinea; was not meant to be passing through America, after enjoying a vacation in God-knows-where. 

Fatou had been raised in the diaspora that had fled The G after the dictator’s coup d’état. Her country’s history had been fed to her the way her parents fed her foods whose names she couldn’t pronounce. 

The G’s currency had been strong then, her father would say, fingers slimy with supa kanja. “You could buy 20 American cents with it.” 

The country’s first president had filled his cabinet with his schoolmates.  Boys who had walked barefoot on dirt roads to St. John’s High School had, overnight, become big men who drove the newest Mercedes on those dilapidated roads. 

“Corruption was rampant,” her mother would join in, “but a little bribery never hurt anyone. What matters is that the media were free. The people were free. Some of us were hungry, yes, but we didn’t live in fear.”  

“We left right after the coup, when you were seven,” her father would add. “When the river ran red with blood.” 

Fatou imagined the bloody river extending past The G’s borders, the snaking waters seeping into the rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and the drains of the nations that her family had fled to — Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and America. Every cup of water she ever drank had left a tang of blood on her tongue. 

Now the man responsible for all that bloodshed was about twenty feet from her, across a sea of incomprehensible chatter, rainfall-footsteps, and the roar of engines taking off. 

Ever since his overthrow, Fatou had been walking on precarious ground. She’d thought that he would be in power till his death. She was still adjusting to the fact that she could return to a home she had never really known. Her parents had taken the first flight back; had begged her to join them, even if it were for only a few weeks. She had cut the laggy video call when they asked her to speak to an old aunt who didn’t understand English. 

“Bring gifts, especially for your younger cousins,” her mother had texted her later. She had agreed but was unsure what gifts to bring family members whose names she didn’t even know. 

So what if she couldn’t bring the bastard’s corpse back to be paraded and pummeled throughout the capital? That did not mean she must return empty-handed.  

Get him here—now If the useless international courts won’t prosecute him, if God might allow him to die an old man, it is your duty to punish him, Fatou. Before your plane takes off, you have to punch him. 

Ding! Ding! “Attention passengers on Royal Air Maroc, Flight 616 to Casablanca. Boarding will begin at Gate C23 in thirty-five minutes.” 

Fatou tried to quieten her thoughts but found herself mouthing them. “Remember what Baba Modou taught you.” 

Baba Modou was her mother’s brother who visited the family when they lived in Tunisia. A jittery, dreadlocked man whose veiny neck jerked at any loud noise. He blamed the dictator for the frequent nightmares that kept him from sleep. With his sunken cheeks and pitted eyes, he barely looked human.  

Fed up with the dictator’s rule and the lack of employment in The G, he had come to wish the family goodbye before crossing the Libyan portion of the Sahara desert. From there he’d throw himself to the Mediterranean Sea on tattered rafts to reach Europe, along with hundreds of other black bodies. 

“You’re willing to die just so you can sweep some streets God-knows-where in Europe, Modou?” Fatou’s mother had said. 

“Babylon. We call The West, Babylon.” 

The day before he left, Fatou had tried to punch Baba Modou to stop him from leaving. She had hit him on the side of his head. He lectured her while her thumb ached. 

“Listen, don’t ever hit anyone. It’s not good to hurt people. That said, you might as well learn how to punch right. The key to a good punch is a strong fist. It’s all about where you put your thumb. If you put it above your pointer finger  like you’re having a thumb war—your fingers will be too loose. If you tuck it inside your fist, you’ll hurt your thumb. Best place for it is on the backs of your fingers, right below the middle joints. That way you can use your thumb to tighten your fist. Really dig your fingers into your palm.” 

“Like this?” 

“Perfect. A good punch is concentrated physics. Boxing’s a science, you know? A philosophy. Ali used to call himself a professor. And you gotta swing your hips into the punch. Understand? That’s how Ali knocked out Foreman in Zaire. Clean left. Now, hit my palm. And keep your wrist straight.” 

“Is it gonna hurt?” 

Ding! Ding!  “Attention passengers on Royal Air Maroc Flight 616 to Casablanca. Mild turbulence is expected for your flight.” 

Fatou’s cerebellum wallowed in pugilistic thoughts. C’mon Fatou, you got this. Wrist straight, tight fist, swing your hips, and WhamWoy, Babili Mansa 

Woah, River-Conqueror! That’s one of your self-appointed titles, correct? You’ll be king over a river of piss when Fatou’s done with you. You’re gonna go down so fast they’re gonna call our girl the Greatest One-Hit Wonder of All Time. You’re gonna get destroyed. Not even Iblis will want you after Fatou’s done with you. You say you’ve got djinn and all manner of supernatural creatures at your side, but today you’re gonna see a real miracle worker in action. You might’ve survived a few coups but that’s cuz’ you saw them coming. Fatou only delivers the coup de grace. Pow!” 

Now she was Ali in Mobutu’s coliseum where blood and torture ran underground. In her mind, the airport staff and travellers became a whirlpool of babble and flesh hungering for blood,  “Fatou, Bumaye! Fatou, Bumaye!” 

Airplanes from every corner of the world were circling them as she danced around the dictator’s blows. She would tire him out without throwing a single punch, preparing this sacrificial beast for the kill. Her hands would never leave her pockets. She would draw her clenched fist only to unleash a bullet train to the dictator’s temple. 

Ding! Ding! 

Or perhaps she would go with an uppercut. He would unleash a 16 hit super-combo of high kicks, shots to the gut, and elbows but she would parry each move. Her body would become a crouched spring. She, like the video game character, would shout, Shoryuken! as her knuckles connected with the dictator’s chin, sending him flying through Babylonian skies. 

       News of the punch that would put a true end to the dictator’s psychic control of The G; would land in the country before she did. Half the population would be awaiting her arrival. Baba Modou —returned from the Mediterranean — would be among the crowd, his skin pickled by the saltwater. He’d be shouting, “I taught her that! I taught her how to punch!” 

They would call for her to stand for elections. The present president would stand down. She would deliver a speech. No one would mock her accent. Wrestlers would practice her punch. Imams would thank God for creating such powerful young women, and would interrupt their sermons with shadow boxing displays. 

All newborn girls in her family would take her name. Griots — fingers tearing through kora strings — would have already penned the Epic of Fatou. Her mother would have to translate it for her.  

“Sundiata conquered Sumanguru but who conquered the River-Conqueror?” 

In the pistol that was the African continent, The G  no more than a river and two banks—would be known henceforth as the sole bullet in the chamber. 

Ding! Ding! “Attention passengers on Royal Air Maroc Flight 616 to Casablanca. Boarding will begin at Gate C23 in 15 minutes.” 

The dictator rose and headed towards the bathroom. Fatou almost jumped out of her seat. All eyes in the lobby were on her while the dictator walked without a care in the world, whistling a tune that soared over the crowd. He walked like a man unfamiliar with the scent of blood; who had never castrated, gutted, raped, drowned, sacrificed, and cannibalized hundreds of thousands.   

C’mon, Fatou. Do it. Knock him out. The bastard walks so light, why does he even need an airplane to fly? 

She followed him across the waxed marble floor. Her gray, flat reflection leaning into his with each step. 

Seeing him upright and vivacious, Fatou realized that her own father would die from this walking miasma. Her parents would die fearing his return. So many of her countrymates died believing that he would rule forever, which he had said was written in the Qur’an. He was the eternal president for each body he had ever buried and like Pharaoh, those who had been his slaves in this life awaited him in the endlessness of the next. 

Baba Modou had taught her concentrated violence — a simple and effective punch.  

He entered the bathroom. Fatou waited for him outside by the water fountain. She drank deep. 

Ding! Ding! “Attention passengers on Royal Air Maroc Flight 616 to Casablanca. Boarding will begin at Gate C23 in ten minutes.” 

The water numbed her tongue and emptied her. Its coolness drained her of purpose, anger, and homesickness for a country in which she would always be a stranger. Her thoughts were quieted. Even the airport was silent. Forgiveness—or perhaps disinterest—seeped through her tongue and spread to her toes. 

The dictator flushed the toilet. Fatou expected to hear him washing his hands but he never did. 

She tasted blood in the water. Its iron coated her tongue. 

Their eyes met. By the way he cocked his thin eyebrow, Fatou knew he recognized her as a citizen of The G. She became pure instinct, a shark swimming towards a drop of blood while the creature’s mind still slept. 

Ding! Ding! “Attention passengers on Royal Air Maroc Flight 616 to Casablanca. Boarding will begin at Gate C23 now.” 

She walked briskly through the crowd to her gate. 

Her wrist and knuckles were sore. 

About the Author

ML Kejera

ML Kejera is a Chicago-based author from The Gambia. Though born in Bakau, he left the country with his family in 1999. He has lived in Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the US. He speaks English and French and can understand Mandinka. His work has been published in riverSedge, The Cafe Irreal, Sleaze Mag, Strange Horizons, Riddled With Arrows, Popula, PanelxPanel, and The Outline. He […]