A present for my relatives
By Lawrence Kadzitche
I once watched a movie titled Inglorious Basterds where SS Colonel Landa talks with monsieur LaPadite about the innate hostility between people and rats. While the colonel was implying that one may not find the reason for the hatred, I know why people hate rats so much. I know because my house is full of them. I live with them every day.
Believe me, rats are pesky. They make holes in your clothes. Litter the house with their droppings. They even gnaw at the soles of your feet when you are asleep. And then they disturb your sleep when they fall on you from the rafters or run across your body. And you cannot dare leave any food in the open, you will find it gone in the morning. Living with these parasites is a nightmare.
To make the situation severer, cockroaches compete with the rats for lodging space in the house. These are worse than the rats. Every night they crawl all over the room looking for food. You should have thought by now they should have known that there is never any food in the house and move on to haunt other houses.
Maybe my room provides a much attractive environment. My clothes are heaped in one corner. My work tools in another. The mound in the third corner is composed of things that I keep just in case I will need them one day-old clothes, shoes, cracked plastic plates and cups and all that kind of junk. My torn mat and threadbare blanket occupy the remaining corner.
What I call my house is rather the middle room in a block of eleven rooms. If they were clever, the pests should have known that they have the freedom to raid five rooms on each side of the room. The walls have holes and cracks and the roof has no ceiling so it means passages are everywhere. But I guess there is no food in the other rooms, too.
My room symbolises the exact state of the location. It is a honeycomb of closely built structures of every shape and size. But they have one things in common. They all look like ruins of some past gone civilization of very bad built buildings. The weeds growing everywhere complete the picture.
The eleven room block I have just mentioned looks like an abandoned barn and has only one pit latrine and bathroom. The pit latrine has only a tattered gunny sack covering the door so adults only use it at night. During the day, one has to use wits as to where to relieve oneself. The bathroom, a structure made of rusty iron sheets, covers one just up to the waist. So when using it you have to crouch.
We do not complain. At least we have got something that passes for a bathroom and a toilet. The other houses have neither. The landlords openly tell the tenants that they rent a room to sleep in and where they have to relieve themselves is none of their business. So you can imagine what happens. Every nook and cranny that can hide a person is a toilet. The whole atmosphere is heavy with the smell of urine and faeces. Combined with the fact that every place is a rubbish dump, the smell is so mixed that you cannot tell exactly say how it smells. Kids make it even worse by bringing into the location whatever they scavenge from the city’s rubbish dump.
There is this this big rat that has made a habit of waking me up every morning. And this morning, as always, the huge rodent jumps from the rafters and lands on my stomach. When I spring up from my mat, the vermin scampers away. And like that, just like countless other mornings, begins my sun-up.
I stretch my limbs to chase the kinks from joints. I pick a plastic jug full of water and shamble outside only wearing my boxer shorts. There is a line waiting to go into the bathroom. I have found a way of beating this hell. I take my bath in a river every evening after finishing my work. That way I do not have to join the queue. I wash my face. Then using some fine charcoal, I clean my teeth. I go back into the house and put on my overalls and gumboots. Then I pick up my hoe and slasher and step out again.
It is now lively outside. Women have built fires to cook morning breakfast which is invariably porridge. Those that are better off drink what they call tea but what is in fact hot water coloured with sugar. The sugar is burnt over the fire using a table spoon and when it gets brown, it is put into the water giving it a brown colour. The older kids are leaning against the wall basking in the sun as the younger ones hungrily wait by their mothers for food.
As I pass by the last room, the door creaks open and a scantily clad girl appears inside the door way. She winks at me, raise her wrapper to show me her nakedness then beacons to me. I smile, pat the top of my hand in a sign that universally mean one does not have time. She makes a sign that shows that it will not take time. I smile and put my hands together to mean ‘thanks but no’. She works the streets and I have no intention of catching any venereal diseases. She lets out a tirade of unprintable words until I am out of sight. It’s not that she’s angry. That is our normal way of greeting each other. The other tenants just ignore us. We are the only unmarried people in the block. The rest are married with litters of children. I always wonder how they all manage to fit into the small rooms.
At the market, I approach a structure made of grass. It is my favourite restaurant. I greet the owner, Mama G, and take my place in one corner of the room. Plastic crates serve as tables while pails are used as chairs.
A large, fat woman, she stretches out an enormous hand and makes a sign with her fingers that mean ‘money, please.’ The arrangement is that I have my breakfast without paying and then pay in the evening when I have received some money from my piece work. The money I get from the piece work is just enough to keep body and soul together. But for the last two days I have been very unlucky that I have been returning empty handed. So far, Mama G had been so good to give me an extra day.
“You were supposed to pay me yesterday,” she says.
I explain my predicament. “It’s so hard out there, Mama. I’m sure today something will work out and I’ll pay you.”
Mama G lets out a belly laugh. “The only way I can be sure you’ll pay me is by letting you go out hungry. That way you’ll know that if you don’t find money, you’ll starve to death.”
I know that it would be a waste of breath to argue with her. After, all she has already done me a big favour. The way I know her, she would have relieved me of my working tools until I settled the bill.
You see, I keep body and soul together by doing all sorts of odd jobs at the low density Area 47 suburb. From here, I have to walk some ten kilometres to reach where I can hope to get some piece work. Hungry, I trod off.
But today I am in luck. At very first house I approach, I get hired to dig a rubbish pit. I unbutton the top part of my overall and tie it around my waist then I start digging. The woman who has hired me appears with a young girl.
“We’re going for a walk,” she says. “We’ll be back before you finish. If you need any water, the tap is behind the garage.”
Three hours pass. I have almost finished digging the pit when she appears in the distance. A dog passes close by. In know a diseased dog when I see one. In the locations they are quiet common and they don’t cause problems because we kill them as soon as we notice the signs. And this dog has all the signs of a mad dog. And the rabid dog is going towards my employer.
She also notices and screams. I burst into action and sprint towards the mongrel which does not change speed but charges straight at the small girl, saliva dripping out of its mouth. As the rabid canine leaps at the girl, its head collides with the head of the handle of my hoe. Furious, it rears on its hind legs and lunges at me. But its head collides with the handle of my hoe again, the impact almost shattering its head. I club it to death.
With gratitude, the woman invites me into the house and I end up enjoying my first hearty meal in years. And to my disbelief she pays me a thick ward of money. I thanks her profusely and head straight home.
Normally, I stop at Mama G to eat my dinner which is basically nsima with dried fish or beans. After that, I stop at the Video Room, a big crumbling structure that acts as a movie theatre. I love movies and that’s where I saw the film I was talking about. I do not stop at any of these favourite haunts of mine.
I go straight home. There, I lock myself in my room and only witnessed by the rats and cockroaches, I count the dosh. It is more than I get in a year. I kneel down and pray to God for His kindness. Like the good meal I had at the woman’s place, it is my first prayer in years.
I am now on my feet. I have already planned what I will do with the dough. I will use the bulk of it to start a charcoal selling business. I will use the remaining it to buy some nice clothes and pay for transport to see my parents at home. I have not been back there since I left village five years ago. It was not that I did not want to go and see them but how could I visit them when I hardly earned enough to feed myself?
I go to see my foul mouthed friend. I tell her the goddess of luck just passed my way and I would like her to accompany me to the market. “I’d like to buy clothes that’ll impress my relatives.”
Before she asks what is in it for her, I slip several notes into her blouse. She hugs tightly and plants a juicy kiss on my mouth. “Boy, I’ll chose clothes that’ll make them think you’re a prince.”
She chooses the clothes, the shoes and crowns it all with a black Wilson Hat and sun glasses. “I’ve the experience, boy. I always go home dressed to the nines and they believe I work as a secretary. Not for a moment do they imagine I sell punani. By the way, try me, you’ll know what you’ve been missing. And it won’t cost you a dime.”
Two days later, I am on my way to my home village. I am in a black suit with matching pointed shoes. I have on my felt hat and sunglasses. I somehow feel like I look like a character from the movie coming to America. But if Amanda, that is the girl’s name, says I look bullet then I look bullet. I know nothing about dressing while in her line of work dressing is key. As my home village come into view, I am surprised by the throng that is waiting to welcome me at the bus stage.
“What a reception party!” the bus conductor remarks as I get off the bus. “Are you a prince or something?”
My heart swells with pride. “The same thing happened when I was leaving for town. All my relatives came to see me off.”
The conductor looks at the crowd. “To me it seems like it’s the whole village.”
“You’re right; it’s the whole village,” I agree with a smile. “In my village, we’re all related in one way or the other.”
The bus tears on and I am soon lost in the waiting crowd. Women ululate. Men hug me. Children surround me.
I feel like a Ngoni warrior chief returning from a victorious battle. I go straight to my parents’ house. There, an endless stream of people come to greet me. Food arrives from several relatives. The relish is always chicken. I eat until I can eat no more. Everyone’s attention is on me. They want to hear about life in town. “Is it true there are tall buildings? Is it true there are very long cars?”
All my answers are lies. I want to impress them, make them think the city is a paradise.
That is what happens on the first day. Since I plan to spend only a few days in the village, the next day I decide to visit all my relatives quickly. This is where I note a great change. On my arrival at each house, I am happily welcomed-
“Mwachita bwino achimwene kudzationa,” they say. “Pochoka musayiwale mutengeko ka nkhuku.”
But all that change when I am bidding them farewell. The issue is always the same. “Tsono simutisiyirako machenji a m’tauni?” or “Tsono mwatitengerako chiyani m’tauni?”
The moment I answer that I have not brought them any presents, their attitude changes. They somehow forget to give me the chicken they had promised to give me when I was arriving.
By the end of three days, no one in the village is interested in me. It is clear they are disgusted with me. I am now treated like a visitor who has overstayed his welcome.
My uncle, who always prides himself with speaking openly, is the one who opens my eyes.
“Mphwanga, kodi umadzatani kuno?”
“To see my relatives,” I answer.
“Did someone send you a message that somebody was sick?”
The question surprises me. “No. Did I do the wrong thing by coming?”
“Yes. Can a sane person come to the village from town without bringing his relatives presents? You should at least have brought us something-timayembekeza timva kuti malume landirankoni jeketeli, zakhali nachi chitenje, agogo nayu ya shuga,” my uncle complains bitterly. “Ifetu muja unabwera muja timati ayi tionako kakhobiri.”
“Uncle, I thought you’d be happy that at least I’ve come to see you. Others do not even come.”
“Those that do not come if they’ve no presents do well. What have we benefitted from your visit apart from wasting our maize flour and relish feeding you? If I’d known, I’d have been better off selling the chicken I slaughtered for you.”
I feel my heart start beating fast. “Uncle, we also have financial problems in town…”
My uncle cuts me. “If you have financial problems in town, then why do you continue living there? The issue is that you shouldn’t have come if you knew you’d no money to buy presents for us. Period.”
I close my eyes and the image of my vermin infested abode comes to my mind, then I recall the days without food and finally the sacrifice I had made to come and visit my relatives. And what did I get in return?
A tear falls. My uncle does not notice. Like everyone else in the village, he is done with me. When I am returning to town nobody accompanies me to the bus stage.