Now Is the Time for Running


By Michael Williams

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When tragedy strikes, Deo’s love of soccer is all he has left. Can he use that gift to find hope once more?

Just down the road from their families, Deo and his friends play soccer in the dusty fields of Zimbabwe, cheered on by Deo’s older brother, Innocent. It is a day like any other ..until the soldiers arrive and Deo and Innocent are forced to run for their lives, fleeing the wreckage of their village for the distant promise of safe haven. Along the way, they face the prejudice and poverty that await refugees everywhere, and must rely on the kindness of people they meet to make it through.

Relevant, timely, and accessibly written, Now Is the Time For Running is a staggering story of survival that follows Deo and his mentally handicapped older brother on a transformative journey that will stick with readers long after the last page.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page





The game is 2-2 when the soldiers come in their jeeps down the path to Gutu.

Javu shouts at me. "Kick, Deo, kick!"

I catch the ball between my foot and the earth and point. "The soldiers are coming," I say. The boys stop playing. They turn to look at where I'm pointing.

The president must have sent them. Perhaps he has heard how hungry we are? Grandpa Longdrop said that when there was no more sadza, no more cassava, and when the people cried with hunger, then the soldiers would come. He says our president will never let us go hungry. Grandpa Longdrop is never wrong, but I have never seen soldiers bringing food.

"We can still win before they get here," shouts Shadrack. "Kick, Deo. I'm open."

I turn back to the game. Javu is out right, running wide. He has his hand up in the air, calling for the ball. If I pass to him, he will be blocked by Pelo the Buster. Javu could never get around heavy Pelo, the best defender in Masvingo Province. Better to make some Deo magic myself.

I scoop the ball up with my foot, flick it up in the air, and head it past Bhuku, who is the plodder of the group. Shadrack runs into the space to my left. This is going to be so easy.

The old one-two-three move. First touch to Shadrack, pushing the ball through the legs of Pelo, and then Shadrack sending it back onto my right foot. A quick glance up at Lola in goal, crouching now, ready to save my cannon shot—or so she thinks!

I move to kick the ball with my right foot but don't. The reason? Pelo the Buster is sliding toward me in a slow-moving heap of knobby knees, thick shins, and big feet to collect the ball and to upend me. I toe the ball into the air, jump over his legs, and kick with my left foot as hard as I can. The ball sails past Lola's open arms.

"It was too high!" she shouts. "Too high!"

"She's right, Deo. That's too high." Bhuku points at the imaginary bar my ball supposedly sailed over.

Innocent goes mad on the sidelines. He runs up and down, with his arms outstretched like the wings of an airplane, screaming, "Goooaaal!"

"Innocent said it's a goal," I point out. "And he can see from where he's standing."

It is always like this. When Lola misses, then the shot is always too high. I'm not sure why we let a girl play with us, but nobody else wants to be goalie, so she's useful. I like Lola and I don't like her. She can be friendly one moment and moody the next. Innocent says that's why he stays well away from girls—he can't make up his mind whether he likes them or not.

"He's your brother. Of course he thinks it's a goal." This is Bhuku again, all hands on hips, head cocked back as if he has been robbed in broad daylight.

"No use asking that one. He's crazy," says Pelo, tapping his temple with his finger. "What does he know about—"

Pelo the Buster does not have the chance to finish what he's saying because he has to deal with my fist in his mouth. Nobody talks about Innocent in front of me. Pelo should know better.

Shadrack wraps his arms around me and pulls me away. Pelo is looking to give me some of my own medicine. I glare at him, daring him to come at me, but he looks past me. Pelo the Buster can beat me any day of the week, but right now something else is more important to him than busting my brains.

The jeeps carrying the soldiers.

I hear their engines. They are closer now.

The jeeps bump and rattle down the path where only cattle and villagers coming from Mlagisa Town and Embandeni Kraal have walked. There are five, maybe six, soldiers in each jeep. Some of them are in full battle fatigues; others just wear army waistcoats and belts with ammunition. They all carry guns, porcupine quills pointing at the sky. They hold their guns as if the weapons weigh nothing. As if they are not dangerous. But I know the terrible noise they can make, and I have seen a cow cut in half from a burst of one of those guns. The soldiers look at us but don't see us.

These men have been all over Zimbabwe. They went to Zaka when the people cried with hunger, but now the people cry no more. They went to Chipinge when the people were angry from hunger, so angry that some of them were killed. Auntie Aurelia told us that her niece was one of those who were hungry. She did not say how she bled to death. Auntie Aurelia cried for seven days and then spoke about her niece no more.

The soldiers have been to faraway Kamativi, but no one speaks about what they have done there. And now they are here—in Gutu, my home.

The president said the people should not be angry. He said we were hungry because the white man was blocking the food from coming into our country. He is right about the problem of our food. We eat only enough to keep us hungry. I have heard my amai talk to Grandpa Longdrop about food that is supposed to come from America, but it has not come yet. My amai is a teacher in Gutu. She has been writing to a church in America and telling them about how we have no food here.

The truckers no longer come from South Africa. They no longer bring stuff to fill the shelves of Mr. Singh's shop in Bikita. Grandpa Longdrop said that the road from the south is quieter than he can ever remember. Amai grows quiet, too, when he speaks of the road and its trucks. She has long since stopped going to the gas station, hoping that one special trucker might come back.

I have stopped thinking about him too. Amai doesn't talk about him anymore, and it's hard to ask questions about him. She cries or gets angry when I mention my father.

The soldiers drive past us. In the front jeep, a soldier sits with his boot up on the dashboard. He wears a red beret and sunglasses. He raises his hand, and the jeep stops with an angry spurt of dust. The soldiers standing behind him grip the crash bar. One nearly topples to the ground. The other jeeps pull up behind. Red Beret climbs out and walks toward us. His face is a mask. I notice his black belt, his revolver in a leather holster, his heavy boots, and his shiny sunglasses. I do not see his eyes but see myself twice in his glasses. I look small and bent out of shape, just a scrappy kid in blue shorts wearing a no-longer-white school shirt and standing in the dust.

"You've got a good left foot. Bring me the ball." He speaks, but I do not move. I am watching both of my scared reflections in his glasses. My mouth is open. I close it and swallow.

Pelo runs over and hands him the ball. It is no proper soccer ball. It is a pouch of cow-leather patches sewn together with twine, stuffed with tightly rolled plastic.

Red Beret throws my ball into the air and kicks it. The ball folds into itself. The men in the jeep laugh. He turns toward them, and they shut up. This man has broken my ball.

I am only half scared now. The other half of me is angry. He didn't need to break the soccer ball Grandpa Longdrop made for me.

"I hear there are dissidents in this village. Is that true?" His words are soft. I cannot trust them. In his question I can feel the metal teeth of a leopard trap.

I look blankly at him. If I say no, then he will know that I know what a dissident is, and then he will want to know what I know about dissidents. If I say yes, then there will be more trouble than I can even imagine.

"Who does your father vote for?"

This is a question I can answer easily. "My father does not live here. He lives on the road."

"And your father?" He looks at Pelo.

"The president," says Pelo the Buster.

The man snorts as if this was the wrong answer.

"Your game is finished."

He steps on the ball, which lets out a long fart. No one thinks it's very funny.

"I will speak to the people of Gutu and find out if what you tell me is true." The soldier is talking to all of us now. I see us in his glasses. We all look the same: small, scared children in the red dust. He turns around and walks back to the jeep.

I look around for Innocent. He is no longer standing beside the pitch. He is scared of soldiers and must have slipped away when the jeeps arrived. I should go and look for him, but I cannot take my eyes off Red Beret.

He jumps back into the front jeep. We are forgotten now. He lifts his hand and makes a cutting gesture in the direction of our village. The driver puts his foot down, and the jeep jumps forward, causing the men at the back to grab hold of the crossbar.

As soon as the jeeps are gone, we scatter.

I throw away the rolled plastic from my dead soccer ball. The leather pouch is all I need to make a new one.

I must find Innocent. Soldiers make him nervous. And when he's nervous, he talks too much, and then there could be trouble. Blood trouble.



The jeeps are parked in the center of Gutu. They are empty now. The soldiers are everywhere. I look for Innocent, but he is gone. All around me, people are moving toward Red Beret. He watches us as if we are cattle being herded across a river. His soldiers move from home to home, holding their guns in the air. Their faces show nothing. They neither smile nor shout. They neither push nor pull. But still the people move as if they are being shouted at, as if they are being pushed and pulled.

"Deo, where is your brother?" My amai has found me. She looks frightened.

"He ran away when the soldiers came," I say, not looking at her, knowing that she will be angry with me. Innocent may be ten years older than I am, but I always look after him. I should not have let him run away.

"You must find him, before they do. Deo! Are you listening to me? Find Innocent. You must look after your brother." Amai is worried, looking around but not seeing her special son.

But it's too late. One of the soldiers walks up to us. I cannot slip away. Behind him, I see Grandpa Longdrop coming out of our home. My amai calls to him, and the soldier allows her to fetch him. I feel better now that Grandpa Longdrop is here.

Grandpa Longdrop puts his arm around my shoulders and leads me to where everyone else has gathered. His hand may be wrinkled, but it is strong. His face may look like the cracked, dried mud of the water hole, but his eyes are always kind.

"Have you seen Innocent?" I whisper to him.

He shakes his head and lifts his finger to his lips. Perhaps he has hidden Innocent. I've learned to expect the unexpected from Grandpa Longdrop. He knows so much about everything that sometimes his words make me dizzy. He can tell you about the planets. When it will rain and when it won't, when to plant beans and when to watch for the calves to drop. How electricity works and where the dead go when they die.

Of course he would kill me if he knew I called him Grandpa Longdrop. But the story of how he was born made me laugh so hard that I always think of him as Grandpa Longdrop. Amai told me how her grandmother gave birth to her son while she was sitting on the long-drop. She pushed too hard going to the toilet and if it weren't for the umbilical cord, they would have had to fish the newborn baby out of the shit. Your grandfather is a survivor, she said to me. He survived his birth, the liberation war, running the white man's farm, and now old age—he can survive anything. His real name is Grandpa Doro.

We face Red Beret, who waits for us to be silent. Lola and her family are brought forward. She has two older brothers, who look scared. The soldiers hold them by their arms. Perhaps they were trying to run away?

We wait for Red Beret to speak.

"Bring me the food."

This is not what I expected. Does he not know we have nothing, that there is no food here? I see the adults look at one another as if he has asked them for diamonds, or gold bars, or television sets.

Food? Why would he want what we do not have?

"Bring. Me. The. Food." One of the soldiers repeats Red Beret's command. His words sound like the hiss from a snake.

All around me, the adults talk at once to one another. The men send the women back to their homes. My amai looks at Grandpa Longdrop with a question in her eyes, and he nods to her an answer I do not understand.


She waits for Grandpa Longdrop to tell her to go. She is the last of the women to go to her home. I look up at Grandpa Longdrop, and he squeezes my shoulder.

"We need to listen to these men, Deo. These are our president's men. He has sent them here with good reason."

Grandpa Longdrop loves the president. He fought with him in the war for liberation. He's told me stories about how he met the president when he was a younger man, how they fought together in the bush, how the president promised them freedom, and how they won the war against the colonizers. Because he was loyal to the president, he was given a farm. It was good for a while, living on that farm. I don't know why we had to leave. Grandpa Longdrop doesn't talk about the farm much. But he loves the president and is a proud member of Zed, the president's political party.

The women return with pots of porridge, a few ears of corn, plates of offal, pumpkin leaves, okra, black pap scraped from the bottom of the pot, a basket of eggs, chickens tied up at the ends of poles. The pile grows in front of Red Beret, but he does not look at it. If this is all the food in Gutu, a village of more than a hundred people, it is not very much. Looking at what our neighbor has, I see that he has no more than we do. Pelo's amai has brought her goat. It is skinny and bleats to be let free.

Amai brings our food. Red Beret watches her as she places it in front of him. He smiles at my amai with the grin of a hyena.

Grandpa Longdrop feels my muscles tense. He squeezes my shoulder in warning.

"This is not the food I am looking for." Red Beret speaks again and pulls a paper from his pocket. "Who is the teacher in Gutu?"

I feel my amai stiffen beside me. She steps forward.

Red Beret holds out the paper and calls her with the finger of his right hand. She walks forward, takes the paper from him, and reads it. My amai is braver than I've ever seen her. She stands with her shoulders straight. He is taller, much taller, but she holds his gaze.

"It has not arrived yet," she says.

He nods. "When will it come?"

"Any day. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next."

He nods again, sends her back to us.

"Amai, what's going on?" There is something she is not telling me. She glares at me with that if-you-speak-one-more-word-you'll-feel-my-wooden-spoon look, so I shut up.

A few of the soldiers move forward to collect the food and start loading it into the jeeps. We look on like dumb animals as the food is taken away from us. What is going on? I want to scream, This is all we have. Why are you taking away our food?

Red Beret speaks.

"I am Commander Jesus. I am one of the president's men. I was once a leader of Five Brigade. The president has sent me here because he is unhappy with how you voted in the election. Most of you know that this country was won by the barrel of the gun. There are some among you who fought in the war of liberation. I see it in your eyes. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of your neighbors. You know what sacrifices were made for the freedom we now enjoy. Should we now let it go at the stroke of a pen? Should one just write an X and let the country go just like that? You voted wrongly at the election. You were not thinking straight. That is why the president sent me here.

"In the back of my jeep there is a drum filled with blood. The blood came from people who voted wrongly. My life is to drink human blood. My supply is running low. I have come here to kill dissidents and not to play with them.

"You are going to eat eggs, after eggs hens, after hens goats, after goats cattle. Then you shall eat cats, dogs, and donkeys. Then you are going to eat your children. After that you shall eat your wives. Then the men will remain, and because dissidents have guns, they will kill the men and only dissidents will remain. That's how we will find who they are, and then we will kill them."

The groaning starts behind me from some of the older women. Some of the people begin crying. Pelo's amai grabs her head and wails as if she has been burned. Lola's brothers whimper. The ha-ha birds rise from the trees and screech away across the sky.

In my nose I smell something terrible. It is worse than burnt sour milk, worse than dog crap, worse than a day-old dead rat.

It is the smell of fear.

I stare at the jeeps. I can see no drums. What is Commander Jesus talking about? Grandpa raises his hand and steps out of the group. My stomach somersaults.

"May I speak to Commander Jesus?" he asks in a voice that stills the groaning women.

Commander Jesus nods and watches Grandpa Longdrop with interest.

"My name is Dixon Nyandoro, once Sergeant Nyandoro, veteran of the struggle for liberation and supporter of the president. I fought to free this country from the white oppressor and did not rest until such time as the snake's head had been cut off. I was given a farm when we took back the land from the white man, and I have been a loyal supporter of Zed all my life. There are no dissidents in Gutu. I know of no one here who would betray our president, and—"

"You know of this?" Commander Jesus flaps the paper he showed Amai in Grandpa Longdrop's face. "You know that there are people starving while you accept food from foreigners who will steal this election? Are you an imperialist? Do you support the puppet of the West?"

"My daughter runs a school that is supported by a church in America." Grandpa Longdrop's voice trembles. It is hard to tell if he is angry or afraid. "This church has sent some food because we have nothing here…."

"Nothing! That is a lie. See the food that my men have collected. Masvingo Province was lost in the election to the oppressors' puppet. Your village's votes were counted, and we know that many of you voted wrongly. Now lie down!" Commander Jesus raises his hand. The soldiers lower their guns toward us.

A great wail of agony fills the air. We know what is coming and can do nothing to stop it now.

"On the ground," the soldiers scream. "Lie down! Lie down!"

My cheek hits the ground, but Grandpa Longdrop remains standing. "But you cannot do this to us. The president would not allow you to—"

"I said lie down!"

I hear an awful crunch and see Grandpa Longdrop collapse in front of me. His eyes look dazed. He tries to get up, and I try to reach him to tell him to stay down, but then Commander Jesus kicks him. He crumples. The sense goes out of his eyes. Someone is screaming. At the moment when I realize who is screaming, I see him.


Innocent runs screaming toward Commander Jesus with a stick raised high above his head. He cracks it down on Commander Jesus's outstretched hands.

"No! Innocent, don't!"

It is too late. The soldiers are on him.



The soldiers beat Innocent with their rifle butts.

What is worse than the sound of wood against the bones of your brother? I cannot think of anything worse than that.

Innocent does not cry. He lies like a baby, curled up, his hands and arms covering his head.

Commander Jesus holds his injured hand. I wish it broken, but then unwish it. If his hand is broken, he might kill Innocent.

Amai cries for them to stop. She runs toward Commander Jesus, but he pushes her away. Grandpa Longdrop is still on the ground. Tears roll down my face.

My brother is dying before my eyes. And it is my fault. I should never have let him run away. I should have kept him close to me at all times. I should have brought him home from the soccer game. I should have held his hand when we were gathered before Commander Jesus. I want to run to Commander Jesus and throw myself at his feet and beg him to stop the soldiers, but my amai has both her arms around me.

Finally, Commander Jesus stops the soldiers.

Innocent is pulled to his knees. His face is crooked, his eyes black balls. Blood trickles from his broken nose.

"When you strike Commander Jesus, you strike our president," Commander Jesus says softly. "How many here would like the opportunity of striking me?"

Cries of fear come from the people of Gutu. They know what will follow. Some of the soldiers have taken long sticks from the jeeps. The others stand with their rifles lowered, pointing at us. There is nothing we can do.

The soldiers beat us as we lie on the ground.

At least they have stopped beating Innocent. They have thrown him at the feet of Commander Jesus.

Useless hands against hard sticks. Elbows cracked. Heads smacked.


Flashes of wood. Soldiers grunting.

And pain. Lots of it.



Grandpa Longdrop says that there are two kinds of people, those who believe in the Spirits and those who don't. I think I am one of the first kind of people, but I can't be sure. I understand the Spirits of the Wind, the Spirits of the Rocks, and the Spirits of the Trees are all those who have died and live on in other ways. I understand that they watch over us, that they can sometimes be angry because we forget them. And it is said that when they are angry, they can sometimes punish us.

But this thing of the beating is too big to blame on the Spirits. They would not allow such a painful thing to happen. If I believe in Spirits, why would I believe in something that causes such pain? Surely the Spirits had nothing to do with what has happened in our village.

I can think only that there must be some mistake. Perhaps our neighbors did vote wrongly. Perhaps they put their X next to the wrong name. Perhaps everyone is lying to everyone else. I cannot always tell when adults are telling the truth.

Like now, when I ask my amai what will happen to us, all she says is: "It will be all right, Deo. It will be all right."

I don't believe her. I don't think she believes her own words.

We sit huddled together on the ground and wait for I don't know what. We have been sitting here for a night and a whole day. Grandpa Longdrop lies on the ground, his head in my amai's lap. Sometimes he groans, and sometimes he is so quiet that I am afraid that he will never wake up.

The soldiers have taken my brother away. They dragged him into the bush beyond the village. I don't know what they have done to him. If they knew Innocent, they would never hurt him.

The backs of my legs hurt where the soldiers' sticks fell, but this is nothing to what others have suffered. One of Lola's brothers has a broken arm. Bhuku's amai has a split in her head that bleeds and bleeds. Shadrack's little sister could be dead.


  • A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year (2011)
    An ALA Best Fiction Book for Young Adults (2012)
    Winner of the UKLA Award for ages 12-16 (2014)
  • "A harrowing tale of modern Zimbabwe... gripping, suspenseful and deeply compassionate."—Kirkus (starred review)
  • "There is plenty of material to captivate readers: fast-paced soccer matches every bit as tough as the players; the determination of Deo and his fellow refugees to survive unthinkably harsh conditions; and raw depictions of violence... But it's the tender relationship between Deo and Innocent, along with some heartbreaking twists of fate, that will endure in readers' minds."—PW (starred review)
  • "Williams tells his story simply and unflinchingly with depictions of tremendous violence, hard-fought soccer matches, and the loving bond between the brothers. Deo's narration provides an immediacy that is only compounded by the tale's fast pacing and suspense. The author gives readers complicated and compelling characters for whom they will cheer, cry with, and love."
    SLJ (starred review)
  • "Williams skillfully draws the plight of these refugee brothers with both suspense and sympathy, and readers cannot help but root for them in their quest to rebuild their broken lives... Williams joins Beverly Naidoo and Allan Stratton with this incisive portrait of sub-Saharan Africa, a compelling mix of suspense, sports, and social injustice."—Horn Book
  • "The story is fast-paced, gripping, heartbreaking, and hopeful."
  • "A stunner... This book should be required reading for humanity."—Chris Crutcher, author of Deadline, Whale Talk, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
  • "Now Is the Time For Running is as riveting as it is important, as heartbreaking as it is uplifting, and as sobering as it is thrilling. Michael Williams astounds us with the moral dilemmas facing southern Africa; he also buoys us with a realistic sense of hope and triumph. A must read." Matthew Quick, author of Sorta Like a Rock Star and The Silver Linings Playbook
  • "We run with [Deo], our hearts in our mouths, to the very end... How lucky we are to get such a read!"—Donna Jo Napoli, author of The Wager and The Magic Circle
  • "A gripping page-turning, a tribute to the unifying power of sport, and a heart-stirring window into the life of a teen refugee in South Africa."—Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People and Secret Keeper
  • "A thrilling, beautifully told tale of survival, brotherly love, and the redemptive power of sport. Deo is a hero for the real world."—Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of Ninth Ward
  • "Michael Williams has crafted a gripping novel that celebrates the lure of soccer, the power of brotherhood, and the human spirit's ability to overcome incredible odds."—Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of Bird in a Box
  • "Gut-wrenching and moving... an eye-opening book that cries out to be read."—Carl Deuker, author of Heart of a Champion and On the Devil's Court

On Sale
Mar 12, 2013
Page Count
240 pages

Michael Williams

About the Author

Michael Williams is a writer of plays, musicals, operas, and novels, and is the Managing Director of Cape Town Opera in South Africa. He is the author of several books, including the highly praised young adult novels Crocodile Burning and Now Is the Time for Running. He has written operas for young people based on African mythology as well as the libretti for symphonic operas that have premiered around the world. He finds writing fiction to be the perfect antidote to the drama of keeping an opera company alive in Africa.

Learn more about this author