The Day The Kiln Did Not Fire

This yellow batz glaze is highlighted with terra sigallata underneath to show off the great texture. The texture was hand stamped with an old batik stamp. My friend Todd over at Peace through Pottery was kind enough to let me illustrate the story using this lovely piece. It reminded me of the vibrant pottery produced over the years at our Gallery, Paa Ya Paa in Nairobi, Kenya. Please visit his blog and esty shop .

The Day The Kiln Did Not Fire - a Short Story by Hana Njau-Okolo

Saturdays usually started early, when Baba’s booming gramophone record player interrupted dreams and their endings.

Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira Guantanameraaa…

The 1970s song was Baba’s favorite; about a man’s longing for his chiquita bonita from Guantanamo Bay. I remember the chorus well since its first release; we had the 78 rpm vinyl.

Back then, I liked the way the singer held the “aaa” in “Guantanameraaa…” I still do, because endless possibilities lie within that note; it captures freedoms, young and old.

I remember an immense feeling of sadness on the day the kiln didn’t fire at the gallery. I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old and up until then, my worries were minor. Days were filled with episodes at school and escapades at home.

Classwork. Homework. Avoiding red ants. Ducking chameleons. Hunting for Black Mambas. Hands made of clay.

As sure as the cock cried crow Timothy had fired the kiln every day since he’d finished building it.

“Come,” he would announce, “look inside!”

All the mugs, jugs, heads, hands, plates, bowls, and vases would be lined-up, waiting to be fired. Some were baked clean, others with color and gloss.

The difference was in his face that morning. He moved noiselessly about, placing decorative items in the kiln. I was not sure, but the downturn in his lower lip hinted at a scowl.

“Good morning Timothy?” I smiled and looked for his every day honey-sweet grin.

“How are you?” His whispered and disappeared into the kiln.

Fresh and stale purple trumpet shaped Jacaranda blossoms littered the small paved area surrounding the kiln. Fagio [broom] in hand, I started towards a pile. I fancied the repetitive motion of sweeping the area every Saturday morning. It was soothing. It reeked of life and rhythm. I still to this day, fancy the repetitive motion of sweeping, of mopping the floor on my knees, of really connecting with labor. Question is how will I ever instill the value into my good wife, the one I am looking for?

In and out he went, his herky-jerky movements drawing attention to the muscles beneath the off-white T-shirt. A furrowed brow tentatively hovered over his eyes. They were the color of fury.

We all thought we knew him. He had single-handedly built the kiln and become a master at working with clay. And he was generous with his knowledge. Baba, Mama, artists-in-residents, and workers on the compound, we all regularly gathered around to watch him work the potter’s wheel.

He’d lean forward, to the left or to the right as he coaxed the sludge into shape. Hands gently melding soft moist clumps of clay; his thumb pressing, smoothing, widening, thinning, and applying the right pressure, all the time. And when he stooped to scoop water from the bucket, his movement was fluid, in rhythm with the foot pumping the pedal.

That day, like a ball of tightly wrought yarn, he began to unravel. As if he was trying to undo history.

That day, surrounded by his lovely works of art, something triggered the hurt rippling beneath the surface. The months of abuse endured at the hands of Idi Amin Dada the brutal, despotic dictator known as the “Butcher of Uganda”.

That day, Timothy the refugee, and matters previously inadequately attended to, reared ugly heads.

That day, I saw a grown man cry. I saw a man go mad. I heard the thunder in the clip clap of his malapas [flip flops] striking against soles hardened by life’s rough path as he stormed off the property, responding to a command only he could hear.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!”

I remember a torrent of abuse spilling from his lips; don’t ask me specific words. I remember he did not come back for many days…

The day the kiln did not fire ushered in a new consideration, one that revealed itself further in adulthood; a draft blueprint for navigating life’s more trying situations.

Au siyo?

Mama Shujaa

This story is a condensed version of one in a collection of short stories I am writing for publication.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Wonderful descriptions! I feel like I’m right there with you. You make me want to try pottery again. It is a delight seeing the dull brown glaze take a brilliant hue after firing.

    I imagine Timothy found refuge in the kiln, as a beautiful respite from his grief. I’m hoping that I’m right in my inference that he came back to the kiln days later. It amazes me how people can live with such tragedy without cracking every day.

    Your stories have message and a strong voice. You write very well and from the heart. When/where is the collection being published?

  2. Mama Shujaa - So good to hear you're working on a collection of short stories!! Please let us know when they are published so I can get a copy (or two!)

  3. You do have such a beautifully descriptive way of writing Mama Shujaa...makes you feel like you are right there watching the event occur.

  4. Mama--What contemplative writing! It transported me to the time of barefeet gliding lightly and carelessly through dewy grass. You have been and I trust will continue to be an inspiration to me and other aspiring writers. May you continue to be inspired!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Beautiful; such depth and color. I can hear the song, Guantanamera-I have the Celia Cruz version now playing in my head.

  7. Sarah,

    Thank you, I really appreciate your nice comment. I too want to try pottery again!!!

    Yes, Timothy (not his real name) did come back. He was never the same after he suffered the nervous breakdown.

    They say once you cross that line...

    He continued to work as an artist, but was perhaps not as successful as he could have been.

    With regard to my collection of stories, I'm not sure yet where the collection will be published.

  8. AO - thanks for the encouragement! I'm working! I'm working. :-)

  9. @ Angie - I will strive to take you with me every single time!

    @The Phoenix - Thank you! So nice to see you here!

  10. T. Allen-Mercado,

    Thank you, Celia Cruz certainly was hot!

  11. Ahh, the beautiful prose that slips from your fingers, Mama Shujaa. I heard the sweeping sound of the broom, I envisioned the steady motion of the potter's wheel and the pottery taking shape in those hands, under the gaze of a brow "the color of fury". Your writing is real and captivating, unglaublich schoen und bewegend. J'attende le livre.


  12. I look forward to the day that your story collection finds a home. These aren't good times in book publishing, but the economy is bound to recover. We writers can keep writing.

  13. I am honored to have my vase here. Your words are so rich and vivid. I can't wait to read more!! :)
    Todd in Santa Fe

  14. you have a way of capuring thoughts & emotions with words-kudos!i love that guantanamera song its so infectious and currently playing in my mind!

  15. Oh Hana,

    Your words are rich and full of grace...

    You paint the picture with such ease, such poignancy and eloquent beauty...

    I'm in awe!

    Blessings on you my friend,

    Put my name on the pre-order list please,

    Love~Light, Maithri

  16. Rose-Anne: Merci beaucoup ma cherie!

    Sarah: Yes, we writers can continue to write!:)

    Todd: I am so thankful to you for inspiration and for permitting me to illustrate the story.

    Nairobian: Asante sana nashukuru.

    Maithri: Thank you, your name is on the list!!

    Best always,

    Mama Shujaa.

  17. hi.. coming by here to give u a drop and reading a nice post here..

  18. Mama Shuga, I just love that phrase, "trying to undo history" so true that a refuge can be found in creation. It doesn't take the pain away but maybe it makes it matter more...or it's good to look at what came of the suffering...your story created striking images in my mind. Thank you for sharing. <3

  19. Reanaclaire: Thanks for stopping by to drop and for taking the time to read the post.

    Cynthia: Thanks for the nice comment.

  20. So glad to hear you are writing something for publication.

  21. As a Cuban it made me proud that you started with a line from a well-know song from my country although it has become sadly the standard play-for-foreign-tourists track that so many musical ensembles in my nation default to. I loved the vivid descriptions in your short story. I look forward to many more.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Ms. Bar B: Asante, kidogo, kidogo tu!

    A Cuban In London: Thanks for your nice comment. I understand what you mean about the play-for-foreign-tourists standard.

    My feeling is that it takes a great work of art to draw capture the attention of droves, to the extent that everyone wants to take ownership of it. It becomes iconic, a trademark; the hallmark of a great piece of music, of art; like the Eiffel tower or the Statue of Liberty.

    Mama Shujaa.

  23. My name, too, must go on the pre-order list. A beautifully written, evocative and a richly lyrical work. And one to re-read again and again. You are a truly awesome woman, Mama Shujaa.


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