The Passing: A climate fiction short story

An illustration of a dark brown cities up in flames. The sky is dark and the road is empty. The buildings are on fire

This piece of climate fiction was inspired by real-life examples, including the droughts experienced in Madagascar and changes to the rainy season in Nigeria that are causing shortages of what once were stable food crops. It’s also inspired by the personal experience of the writer and her family, of being immigrants in the UK on a work-based visa.

Semilore Kaji-Hausa is the winner of the University of Warwick’s seventh annual Writing Wrongs Schools’ Competition, organised by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice. This is her winning article which she reworked with Lacuna Magazine during a paid summer internship. Semilore plans to develop this extract into a longer story or novella. The story aims to explore the idea of a body acting as a passport, shaping the spaces that a person is allowed access to, whether on the basis of gender or race, etc. It urges the reader to see just how dystopian things already are.


A mother’s prayer 

I don’t know how long we have been out at sea, waiting in limbo. Grief has ravaged my sense of time since your father died. It was only his love that gave time or place or home any meaning, it was only him. All I know is that I cannot lose this baby, I cannot lose my last tie to my love. We must survive. All I have is hope.  

 *                 *              * 

As I lie in bed forcing my brain into sleep, Shadrach’s image looms over my mind like a sick raven hovering over a house: incessant, obsessed. His mouth is agape, purple-black bruises have branded his body and blisters have continued to consume his skin even in death, dirtied by the bloody foam dribbling down his face and soaking into the tarmac around his head. His body was found in front of our local Sponsor Centre, left there long enough for me to see for myself in the morning before school. 

One day I will have to bury my mother and she will look like that too, vacant all-white eyes, chewed up skin, bursting veins and a tongue too inflamed to fit in the mouth. No medicine works on the dead. Will I look like that too?  

I shouldn’t think about that. I should sleep.  

It’s no longer working anyway, I caught a blister on my leg the other day. As Ma has gotten older, she’s gotten sicker and needed more of the suppressants, giving me less of our meagre rations. I get episodes now where my brain empties itself and I feel vacuous, I forget myself and every movement feels so strained. It only takes a few hours to clear but it might as well be an eternity. Ma noticed a while ago and was furious. 

“Dem no dey fear god? Every day I dey work tire and dem still no give us final cure. Na dis country go kill me.” 

a dry cracked desert with a faint yellow sun on the horizon

Our sponsor was an old woman who needed someone to haggle for her at the supermarket in search of anything edible and to carry in the heavy bags of drinkable water. She needed the cooking, cleaning and gardening done – now that scarcity has made supermarkets unreliable – and she paid pennies for all of it. 

Ma went quiet. “It sha better pass home, if you get money you can sha-sha buy water,” she said.  

The word ‘home’ lingers in the room, palpable like a vacuum hoarding all the breathable air. I say nothing. I can’t help feeling like a vampire as she trades off her days of living for mine of freedom. Or was that anger in her voice? 

“If dem want me to work,” she said, “I can work, but I need to also live.” 

We both knew there was no chance of being given any space to live. The night before, the President, with his pinched-into-place smile and blinding teeth, had held an address on the TV. “The sponsor system is safe and efficient,” he’d said, his voice booming, “we allow the most deserving into our country to fuel our economy and make our lives easier while they get shelter and medication for the current pandemic. It’s a simple exchange. The system is working, no question about it. And regardless, there is no other alternative. We will do all within our power to keep our people safe with stricter checks and higher barriers to entry…” 

Impotent as ever. To have so much power and still spend so much time talking, not doing. 

The next morning was a blur. Half-finished breakfast, long sleeves and full-length trousers. I avoided our Sponsor Centre on my walk to school so I wouldn’t have to think about it. But it is all anyone will talk about today. Talk of Shadrach’s dead body on the sidewalk opposite the Sponsor Centre fills every mouth, suffocating away every moment of silence. The escalating anti-sponsorship violence, the big men everyone knew had done it, how it was all connected.

Shadrach was no different to the other killings across the States, he was an example and we would be forced into heeding it. As the day unravels, “what a shame”s blur into astonished “No one even knew he was one of them, no blisters or anything, imagine that”s, merging mutterings of “maybe the sponsorship system has gone too far”. All this talk is suffocating.  

I don’t usually skip school but Ma will have to understand that today my deepest fears have found form in a dead man’s body whose face shadows my every thought. I decide to walk and pray the crisp air blows away my thoughts.  

Where are you Micah?  

The buzzing in my pocket goes unheard. 

 *                 *              * 

It pains me that this daughter, I feel you are a daughter, will never know home but home is not as it was. There is no more water to grow pineapples or yams, few birds sing and only the wealthy can eat. The ground has grown so dry and cracked that I used to imagine the earth was opening her mouth to drink. Can you believe that? We tried to fish but the waters are dirty and the fish have grown sick from the plastic washing up on our shores. I promise you, I tried. 

 *                 *              * 

a hand draws a bird with a black body and a red head in a notebook

With no change left to pay for entry into the park, I sit on the kerb, lean against the gate and draw. This time a malimbe, bird from my mother’s childhood. Is it stupid to ache for a home that was never yours? Land that won’t love you back enough to feed you? A car speeds past, flying above the speed limit, almost crushes my feet and I can’t think what it would be like to wake up in the morning to soft cooing, not the blare of car horns or the mechanical chime of traffic lights. Even pigeons are dying out now. 

You’re worrying me Micah  

I guess this is the privilege of my existence, even if only in the shadows, under held breath, cracking mask. Both a double and a half life, one because of the other. I show my unmarked skin and I’m allowed to breathe, take up space, no one questions my presence. And I try not to think about others who’ve been caught, try forgetting the blisters forming on my legs and how my life has been built on borrowed time. 


Soon it will be over and I will have to find a sponsor and show ID and have children gawk at my skin or I will be deported — or killed — but for now I can breathe. Keep my head down. Is that the smell of smoke? 

I look up to see grey-black clouds waft across an angry orange sky. But from where? What is burning? Panic grips me as I read the scores of missed texts appearing on my phone screen. The last was from two hours ago. 

An illustration of a sponsor centre and the surrounding buildings up in flames. The road leading to it is empty and the sky is dark

Please be okay. 

How could I have been so stupid and careless? 

I run back home as fast as I can with the smoke clinging to my throat, run until I see them. The swarm of protesters sprawl every square of the street and every muscle in my body freezes as my heart slams itself against my rib cage. If they check my skin now, pull up my trousers or my sleeves, I could be their next body. It isn’t just the men everyone knew killed Shadrach either. There are more men, women, even children, and they hold signs and chant about Protecting the People from the Sponsored, as if we aren’t also people. I will my body to move but it refuses and panic crawls up into my mouth from the bottom of my stomach, as my skin begins to burn from all the eyes piling on my body. The odd one out.

    An illustration of a protest. One woman in the centre is in focus. She holds a sign which reads "Protect the people!". 'People' is underlined twice. Two others who are out of focus and behind her hold the same sign. They all appear to be near the fires happening at the sponsor centre

 A cry pierces the air, coming from the thick of the crowd. It sounds unreal at first but then it calls again and it’s a woman, her voice like that of an injured bird, a weaker victim than me. The crowd turns to her and I seize the chance and I run and I run and try not to think about the woman being beaten, trying to blot out her cawing voice and the pain building in my calves and just focus on getting home – surviving. 

When I get home, the door is ajar and my stomach begins to form knots. I step in, welcomed by resounding emptiness. Ma’s house keys are in the tray on the table like usual but her housecoat has been thrown carelessly on the floor and paper from the table litters the ground, strewn with fragments of broken glass and heavy mud prints. The TV has been left on and the news is playing, as ever. There is smoke this time, and a building burning down. I watch, paralysed as I see several Sponsor Centres devoured by flames, interspersed with footage from protests in every corner of the nation. My heart bangs against my chest, air escapes my lungs but I can only watch as a man, one I’d never seen before, speaks into the camera.  

“It was said that there are no alternatives, the sponsorship system is functional and good. I am here to tell you that it was not and that we will make these parasites cower and bend to our will. We will purify and eradicate and reassert ourselves as the People of this Nation. This is the only alternative.” 

 *                 *              * 

Forgive me my dear that your life will not be so easy, forgive me that they have taken away our home and now demand our labour in exchange for safety, forgive me that I can do so little for you, but I am fighting for a sponsor so that at least you will get to live. 

All artwork by Isabelle Broad.

Read more: