She sits there as if in wait of a photo-shoot. No whistling, no sad song, and no mumbling. You hear her tsk tsk tsk, but not easily. She is there like a ghost. Mute.
Her eyelids never meet. Even when she yawns, they stay apart. She scares you with the way she intently stares at a thing without blinking. You look at her eyes and the object she stares at- mhm nothing deserving a long stare.
A tear drop seems a second away but her bloodshot eyes can’t leak. Her pale cheeks remain too dry with a look of brackish water.
The thin skins at the base of her fingers are dirty and black. She holds a necklace made of glittery wooden beads that hang on a woven thread. The attitude of her fingers on the necklace shows it’s a rare make- antique perhaps.
On her forehead, the laughter lines deform down to a blue motif. Her face carries a storyline smudged with pathos, just like the other hundreds of faces at this place.
…tata… A heavy crawler, stuttering in her own language, approaches Tchayi. You look at the crawler’s face and you are assured Tchayi was once a cherub.
Dzakuno mwananga. Dzakuno-dzakuno.
And now, the current of air suddenly starts to pick up around here. In one, two, three seconds it is stronger and biting. The look of the whole place runs into an opaque shell. After some minutes it is calm. Slowly, the hundreds of bivouacs reappear like a sprouting bud and people come out of them rather cautiously as if they are afraid to step a foot on a landmine. You look around; the picture of this place is still the same. A noble artist, say Da Vinci or Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, would draw and paint it with rainbow colours, yet it will appear dark-dark with a sombre background.
Jade. With the dappled sunlight falling on Jade’s face, you cannot tell whether she is French or Swiss. There is a badge pinned on the chest pocket of her overcoat. It depicts two olive branches in a mutual concept with a big weird ball. Well, Jade bumps into Poloto, a young man deep dark in a cardigan which has bold abbreviation WMO sewn on the right arm. Both of their balance jiggle as a note-pad and a bottle of water fall from either side due to the bump. Ooh, Jade screams. Ouch, Poloto yells.
The air hasn’t cleared, didn’t see you. Sorry.
It is okay.
He reaches out for his note-pad on the moist ground. She scratches the back of her head. She does this when embarrassed. She is even thinking of brushing his cardigan with her hands to show it was never intentional. He suddenly does not like her look of worry:
Come on! It is okay, Ms. Well, what news on the fallout?
Death toll rising – running into hundreds, thus just here in Shire Valley- according to the Red Cross team. Many casualties. Oh you are with the WMO! When’s it going to halt? The El Niño.
Jesus… The current is not going to stop anytime soon. It still runs- three weeks conceivably. Evacuation process has been arranged. In days to come, it is not safe even here. Your fellow UN guys and the government here will carry out the process. Next morning, any day possibly…
Jade is no longer listening. She has diverted her attention to a mother siting there:
That woman, worst fallout. Almost all her people, swallowed in the floods. Poor Shayi, she says.
Her name is Tchayi. It’s Sena language, TC at the beginning. I spoke to her earlier. She needs therapy, true. And the wound on her left leg is really bad.
Well, Tchayi and her crawler and her toddler, the surviving family, sit there outside their bivouac. Ah Tchayi! Finally she flops in avoiding eye contact with her kids and she looks away as if a girl too shy to be asked out. She cries just as she has been doing when it is quiet and dark here. Every detail from five days ago that pops into her mind, destroys her, rips her downright apart.
She wishes she had died with the floods, together with everything that made the life she has lived. Now everything, everything, seems to be taking off from her and getting gone like the next line of an old song. But particularly it is not what is gone that makes her this sad. It is because she is bereft of hope. A life without all she has known and had? No slimmest imagination!
Shire River was a big-big cobra hissing with rage at everything. It flew at you before you got on your toes. It spat venom from a distance before getting its hunt, Tchayi remembers with a searing pain. The floods started in the gloaming. Tchayi was indoors, like many other people, due to storms that had been showing its elemental fury for weeks now. She had heard a petrifying clap of thunder which was followed by a huge swoosh. She peeped outside; it was like magic; houses were being forced down easily as if they were all made of sand, and the sight of the world was changing rapidly. Fowls, trees, and human bodies splashed every second.
She recalls her mother throwing something at her and dinning into her the words the sun will shine before she heard her sloshing away like a weightless thing. Tchayi gripped something, holding on to two little lives and hers. Objects of all shape and touch hit her hard but she gripped tight-tight until the big flying cobra would leave her alone.
Bwera, zolika msolorwako, pepa unvesere, ndinamaluphathwako koma kwacha ukoye khosi mkanda wakuchena unajavala mwananga.
The moon is too shy to show a face above the leaden skies. The night is real dark. Crepuscular, yes!
There is someone inside the night.
Her foot clips a stone and her face goes on to hit the ground. She wastes no time to feel the texture of the pain. She rises up and starts running again- motoring forward. As bad as the fall was, the papaya she has been holding is still in her hands and intact. She breathes as if somebody has just rescued her from being smothered by a pillow and she drags herself like she is a cruise missile target.
There is nothing behind her. No torchlight. No night watchman. Only darkness and barks from a long distance. The moment she decides to break her run and look back and forth, she is startled. She is back to where she belongs…
Down here, children do not sit in twos or fours clapping and shaking hands, playing Chipapapa. They do not form a flat circle playing Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, or play Afrikaner Vroteier. Even the common Poor Mary game, they don’t play.
It is more of a barracks here. It’s normal. Each night they set a tall fire and build a circle for fighting. Like today: they have built a human circle, cast two fighters in it, soaked a piece of cloth in water (the fight ends when the cloth dries), and they cheer and jeer for the fight.
No one sees Mantete approaching with a papaya in her hands, except one little girl who hates the fights and chose to look away. The little girl runs towards Mantete shouting, big sis where have you been?
Been hunting supper.
Where did you get it?
The KK guard?
I was faster.
They make a sit-down in some isolated place. Mantete cracks the papaya against a concrete ground, removes the kernels and gets it shared fifty-fifty. While they eat they talk a lot of things without really talking about them, telepathic sort of:
Stop it Maratha. I will smack you.
Hahahaha. Silly girl.
Don’t just start.
Actually Maratha is picking up on her big sister: last month, ah Mantete! At her first bleeding, she took her old dungaree and tried to stem the period. Unsuccessfully, she cried and screamed. Maratha rushed to wake up their mama from the marble slab who would later mock and tell Mantete to be happy and stop crying because their elder sisters died before they could even bleed. The floods swallowed them all.
Even Mantete came of age last month; she is still her mother’s eye and stick. She, together with Maratha, guides their mother to places where someone would show a right appreciation of the unfairness of planet earth and toss a coin, at times a paper, into their old sack.
Blantyre is not an easy city for guttersnipes, dossers and beggars. If you are a beggar, how you look, pose and talk really matters. You got to be crafty with it or you die of hunger under the bridges. Mantete understands this, her sister Maratha knows this, and their mother too has been doing this for a long time now since the floods- she knows it all. Life on the streets here is not direct.
How is mama?
She groans too much.
Let’s go share with her.
They walk to their mother who is approximately fifty feet away south. Again, they talk a lot of things without talking a thing. They laugh a lot and look to be having great fun in their goddamn trouble stories.
Around Mantete’s neck, beads of a necklace glitter like some small colourful insects are hovering about her neck. They glitter so much that it dazzles Tchayi’s faint-seeing eyes from a distance.
Ah Tchayi! She sits there like a python that has just had a big catch into its stomach. You would think she is chained to the ground the way she lies. However, she is noisy in her groans which represent the extreme pains she is taking in.
There is a gaping, maggot-infested sore across her left leg. It is foul smelling, full of dead and dying tissue, and it oozes pus and fluid that stink high to heaven. Your suggestion would be what you see and never wish to see again on Tchayi’s leg, is gangrene. But no! It’s a sore from a long time ago that refuses to heal. From the floods.
Over the years the sore has been taken care of to draw sympathizers on begging errands. Now, in her groans she complains that her leg is burning. There is profuse sweat on her temple like she is fighting contractions in giving birth.
This is strange now. Mantete and Maratha have seen their mother complain about the sore before but the moment they see her now- mama is really sick.
Mantete rushes for Tchayi, bends down, and shovels Tchayi’s head with her hand to her palms. Mama can still say something:
It’s about time.
You know who we are?
We are a big scar from the floods.
Come on mama.
Be honey and rub off the scar. The thing around your neck gives you hope, remember?
Mama you being stupid. Come on.
I tried my daughters. But the comeback is not certain. After the floods…
Tchayi’s voice now fades like weak smoke in the sky. Every word now comes out of her mouth damaged by pain. But what she is saying is her lamentation: She reminds her daughters that after the floods, just like all other survivors, she was left with nothing. She now envies those who denied to be evacuated and chose to meet death halfway through the floods, following their beloved ones and mostly their cows. We got at Social Community Welfare in Blantyre, she says. They offered us another camp for a fortnight and abandoned us. Since then it has been a ride of hope, no hope. We were made beggars. But one day, daughters. The sun will shine.
Mamaa, Maratha screams, rocking Tchayi.
Mama you are okay, Mantete plays down the situation.
Tchayi lifts her head up very slowly and painfully. Her lips go on to meet Mantete’s left ear and she slowly lies low to the ground again, fighting the pain (now without her mortal pride).
Mantete’s face is terrified; Tchayi has just whispered something to her ear. She wanted to say, mama no! But Tchayi has been such a talented beggar in her whisper. Professional.
Mantete places her hands hard on Tchayi’s mouth and nose. A terrible thing for a teen to do. Tchayi does not fight it; she is begging for it while Maratha bawls.
The fallout is silence. Mantete’s face crumples and Maratha goes ballistic- she punches and slaps Mantete who struggles to calm her. What follows is a heavy hug and deep groans. They hold each other as they calm like a badly wounded elephant. Looking around: two of them and darkness only.