“Comrade Dimitri, stay with me please!” My cries and pleadings eventually fell upon deaf ears. Even in his dying moments, Dimitri Masego exhibited intimations of immortality. He held on for dear life. The blood gushing from his stomach wound instantaneously soaked up by the only piece of fabric I had at my disposal. With the supply bag containing our first aid kit abandoned in the distance, the vest I ripped off my body served as an alternative ligature whilst anxiously compressing his abdomen. “We…will…arrive Sis’ Dorothy”, he battled to articulate his final words. “Com’ take it easy…” I replied apprehensively. Rushes of anxiety consumed my spirit, highly heedful that Dimitri was exerting too much pressure on the wound by going off on his typical philosophical speech tangents. Every blink taking longer, my fingers kept on reaching for his windpipe to ensure his eyes had not eternally shut. The attempts he made at speaking were, however, good indications I had not lost him, just yet. He was now talking to me with his eyes closed, smiling as if he was replaying all the scenes that had made his life worthwhile. Perhaps snapshots and images of a paradise behind his shut eyelids. “It took forty years…” Comrade Dimitri’s urge to relay this final message to me was evident through the endurance he had for the pain every utterance ushered towards him. His words interspersed by wet coughs and graphic images of blood regurgitating through his mouth with each wheeze. He continued speaking through the torment. “…Forty years of antagonising pain and perseverance Sisi’…but they arrived,” I listened attentively to Com Dimitri’s words, without any interruptions.
“The…Israelites, Sis Dorothy…it took them forty years…forty years to get to Canaan…I will be there…the promised land…rejoicing with you and Toni…” His last words, his final breath. I stared as he let out a gasp. My emotions burdened but remaining numb and nonchalant to his death. The words he left behind seemed nothing more than a facade. False fables of a utopian fantasy. My hands were still damp from his blood. Symbolic of how I felt at the time. Commandant Kunene had warned me of a day like this. No amount of repentant tears could wash away the stains of guilt. His blood is on my hands…I should have been here. Convictions in my mind that manifested themselves into burdens of guilt. The government troops would often raid villages and leave with souls. Spirit-barren bodies deceased in the pits. This time around my life was spared but my soul died with Dimitri Masego’s final gasp for oxygen in the winter of 1968.
That winter, 16 July 1968 commenced as an ordinary day under the shade of Augustina’s yard in the Chokwe Village of Mozambique, yet it forever marks an engrained memory of my exile epoch. Augustina’s dung shanty extensively served as an asylum for refugees like my son and I. I had studied her unique temperament during the duration of our stay. She became an obsessive cleaner after such traumatic events. Her expanding strokes on the sandy surface of the yard caused reddish soil grime to cover her sandals as she swept rhythmically. The sound of her wooden broom raking across the gravel was a sign that she was irked by Toni’s continuous slurps on the fish mango Chokwe villagers had brought for MK and ZAPU militia. My incapability to be vexed by Toni’s swigs and slurps was not, however, merely based on the fulfilment I got as a mother seeing the satisfaction of her offspring. I was just grateful to hear him make a sound. Toni had been awfully quiet since the burial of his best friend, Pedro. Superstitions amongst some villagers enabled for theories to travel from hut to hut like fire flames on their thatched roofs. After Comrade Dimitri earlier went out to purchase cigarettes from the shops, he overheard the locals suggesting we, the guerrillas, returned with a dark cloud from the fighting we left in Rhodesia. I could sympathise with their trauma. When a seven-year-old boy gets his life taken by landmines and explosives planted in his homeland, it’s difficult not to see it as some kind of omen. One of my utmost concerns was that the civil disorder was eating up Toni’s chance to be a child. Seeing his friend’s leg amputated from the body seconds after kicking a soccer ball around with him must have been horrifying. It definitely took away the desire to run wild and play. To do what boys do. His vow to silence was accounted for by the grief birthed by tragedy. Even though it was difficult to watch him emotionally wounded I gave him time to mourn in his own way. Young Pedro’s death had erased all hopes I had of reconnecting with my son after two years spent in what Rhodesian black natives called The Second Chimurenga. Massive media outlets from all parts of the world called it the Rhodesian Bush War. When the order came in from Commandant Kunene and other leaders of the ANC who were running the operation from back home, I jumped at the opportunity of retreating to Mozambique with the camp I had spent the past week getting to know before upcoming field work. My intentions were in actual fact directed at getting the chance to rekindle a relationship with Toni. It had been two long years spent in Rhodesia. Days of laborious groundwork and nights of internal reflection. Dusk arrived at a leisurely pace in the Harare bush camps. I would whisper prayers with my eyes closed even though the absence of light would make this Lutheran indoctrination seem nothing more than futile. The prayer had become a customary ritual. Words strung together and murmured with the slightest faith that a celestial being, a deity of divinity, would offer some prophylactic measure over my son.
Our Father, who art in heaven, I am grateful for the gift of life which grants me the chance to speak to you once more. Protect my child, I have left him under Augustina’s care, protect them from the Malaria outbreak. The situation is not so good in Mozambique. Lay your hand upon them until we return there in the next few months. I ask for all of this in the name of The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit.
My night routine before being lost in slumber with the AK-47 imported by the Soviet Union rested on my duffle bag. Prayers for Toni and Augustina’s safety were always disguised in bringing up the Mozambique malaria endemic rampancy. Moral culpabilities hindered me from praying over the civil war. An internal conflict occurred whenever I thought of invoking the shielding of God with regards to Augustina and Toni’s safety in the midst of various ongoing combatant warfare around Rhodesian borders.
How does one who is a terrorist in the eyes of law plead for God to shelter their loved ones from terrorism?
How do killers ask for their loved ones to be exempt from a genocide?
Questions I battled with until I came to the rational and dispassionate reasoning that all is fair in love and war. A sentiment shared amongst soldiers of liberation. Collateral damage is inevitable in the course of armed conflict. I presume that’s how the black nationalists from ZANU would give an explanation for their actions. The controversial murder of a Rhodesian white farmer that sparked outrage from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Defence Force. A moment that signified the commencement of the Chimurenga’s resurgence. My son’s friend, Pedro, at seven years old, was also testament to the vile beast devouring humans from divergent walks of life. The Basotho, AmaZulu, AmaXhosa and other tribesmen that had passed through Johannesburg during ANC final recruitment for Umkhonto we Sizwe. Shona speaking Rhodesians taking arms through the ZAPU and ZANU uprising. White minority appointed armies be it local or immigrant manpower from countries like Portugal. Nobody was immune to the plague of war casualties.
The reddish gravel ground we walked on seemed to have a constantly growing appetite for caskets sinking slowly on its deck while families convinced themselves of afterlife reunion. I will hold Ben’s concrete hard hands again in Paradise. Perhaps these affirmations of a life-after-death were the pacifiers keeping Augustina so strengthened following the passing of FRELIMO guerrilla, Benedito Ramirèz, whom she was blissfully wedded to. Her lacerations were, however, left bare following Pedro’s recent burial. “First Ben, now little Pedro, who’s next?” Her aggressive sweeping sounds seemed to grow louder the more Comrade Dimitri and I seemed oblivious to her rhetorical questions. Toni’s pale hands were smudged by the mango juices he intentionally had not licked off himself as if he was keeping the pleasant taste for later. His clumsiness had afforded the sugary juices to stick onto his pitch black mini-curly afro. I motioned my hands through his hair after swabbing off the yellow pigments. “Mama, que cor è deus?” Toni’s subdued voice was competent enough to bring an abrupt halt to Augustina’s blaring broomstick. The question Toni had asked was riveting to an extent that it managed to have comrade Dimitri Masego and I gawking dumbfoundedly at each other. An awkward silence followed the ceased racketing. My words cut into the sudden discomforting quietude, “Huh boy, what is that?” Substituting his Portuguese dialect to English in a mocking manner, “What colour is God?” Toni uttered, now sounding like a different boy than the one who had turned aphonic for the past week. His switch from fluent Portuguese alerted Augustina, Comrade Dimitri, and I of the sense of urgency brought forth by this interrogation. I traded another question in response to his query. “Uhm, what makes you curious about that Toni?”, I treaded carefully as if I was afraid my prolonged response would impel him to be mute again. Now, Toni was a very bright boy and whenever he asked questions it was probably due to answers already made up in his own young, inquisitive mind. He spoke once more, “If God look like the soldier man, that mean Pedro not going to heaven?”.
The bucket I was seated on afforded me a vantage outlook to notice Toni’s gaze unto the blue eyed, Jesus’ picture cemented on Augustina’s shack walls. Unaware whether the question was to be followed by reason for his curiosity, I awaited him to fill the void with words. He left the question, which felt like a statement, lingering amongst our speechless stares. “Pedro is in heaven right now, Toni. All good children go to heaven. Pedro was a good boy, right?” I improvised a response to his question, but it seemed my impromptu speech would succumb to the thoughts of an eight-year-old boy grappling with reason for the life he was conditioned to. The reply his tiny voice let out in broken English left me hushed. “Maybe God only love kids that look like soldier man, kids looking like soldier man is not living with no Mama or no Papa in the village. I not see any kid looking like soldier man or kid looking like shop owner lady of Maputo, with long hair like Jesus, living here. Only kids looking like me and Pedro and Martha and Ayah and Ayubu is living here, with no Mama and no Papa…” Toni managed to vocalise these words despite the cracks that were starting to break his voice. The grievances proceeded, his eyes were opening up to a racial world of segregation and inequality within the melting pot of a war. Bad blood amongst militia unions that had made for his friend’s short-lived time in Chokwe. All this had occupied his mind throughout his momentarily evoked-by-grief silence. I let him get it off his chest, all of it, as I sat in a state of taciturnity. “Me not even looking like you mama, not looking like Auntie Augustina or Uncle Dimitri. When I also die in the big bush like Pedro, will me and you go the same heaven?”.
I didn’t notice the tears rolling down his red cheeks until he started raising his right arm to wipe his face due to the unusable hands covered in mango juices. My absence as a mother in Toni’s life for the past two years, running around in the bushes, praying he’s protected from mosquito bites and malaria. It was all being exposed. War ridden environments speed up the process of childhood. At eight years old, Toni was coming to terms with his identity, how influential race was into constructing the world of torment he was subjected to. Not only was Toni discerning that his looks were not of the same state as that of the messiah hanging on Augustina’s wall. Toni was also grasping the surface apparent fact that he did not look like his mama. Same big round eyes, same nose with enlarged nostrils, wide rounded tips and a lack of protruded nasal bridge. All these similar features were not of much relevance when I had told him of an infernal region where I would have faced legal scrutiny for carrying a child that looks like him on my back. That region was South Africa, 1832 km southwest from our current setting of refugees. An infernal region I call home, where men in SAP uniform were shooting those of black ethnicity on their backs for engaging in peaceful protests. What kind of mother am I? I pondered on the shamefulness of not having any words to comfort my son. Comrade Dimitri came to my rescue, calling out to Toni from a fragment of the yard Augustina’s broom had not yet swept over. “Boy boy, come to uncle”. He reached out his arms as if to welcome Toni into a safe haven before his resumption of speech in deep baritone-esque articulation, “Remember when uncle told you of his days on the sky bird neh?” Toni, now seated on Com’ Dimitri’s lap, bobbed his head slowly. Like Augustina and I, he looked confused by Dimitri’s question. Dimitri would occasionally tell Toni of the many adventures he had in the Soviet Union at Moscow. Days of operating a chopper. Toni, still with tear droplets on his rosy cheeks, glanced back at Dimitri, indicating that he was looking forward to hearing another one of his sky-bird tales even at that sorrowful moment. “You know there are many things I saw whilst soaring on my sky-bird”. Dimitri took a puff from the Camel cigarette stick and swiftly exhaled micro clouds of smoke in unison with words clearing the foggy texture as he spoke, “I saw many things Toni, including the big man you ask of right now. God. Deus. One thing I can tell you is He does not look like the lady that owns shops in Maputo City. He neither looks like that image on the wall, nor me, Auntie Augustina, and your mama”. Toni interrupted Com’ Dimitri as he was set to inhale again. “Then what he look like?” Dimitri noticed Toni’s stutter breathing had halted. Seconds grew in between each hitched breath Toni let out. Comrade Dimitri resumed, “1958, my sky-bird was not working properly, you could say it was sick, haha. Mid-air it decided to fail on me. It was going down at a very quick pace and I had no control over it…I left it in God’s hands. I saw Him. In the body of seawater I crash landed on, and that’s exactly how he looks like” Toni interrogated with genuine awe, “He look blue? Like my T-Shirt?” Dimitri let out a bigger laughter with that baritone voice of his before responding, “I guess he can look like your T-shirt because of the sky during a bright clear day. Or change and look dark like smudges of used coal during the night.” He could notice the confusion in Toni’s face even though Augustina and I grew aware of where he was going with his story. He lifted up the bottle of water from our military supply bag and started motioning it around the air. “See, this is what I mean, if I place it on my jacket the water inside is looking green. When I place it on your T-shirt it looks blue. When I throw it on the ground it looks like the red dust on your Aunt Augustina’s feet”.
Toni finally let out a giggle after looking at Augustina’s grime covered feet. He excitedly dangled his legs, hovering over the ground that shared the same hue as Augustina’s feet and let out a statement of exhilaration in his tiny, squeaky voice. “Oh, uncle, I see, I see. God not looking like me, you, mama, auntie, shop owner lady from Maputo City, soldier man or Jesus picture. He look like everyone all at once”. Dimitri nodded gleefully in agreement whilst concurrently drawing in the tobacco smoke. A eureka moment for my son. Short-lived smiles and elations from all of us punctuated by a familiar sound rumbling from a distance like the thunder that yelled at us whilst lying amongst tree banks back in Rhodesia. The procedure was simple for the villagers. See, hear or even smell that the troops were near and run for your life. Mothers started darting towards their children. Children at play sundered from their friends in racing tempo, dashing towards their mothers. The remnant trail of tears could nourish Chokwe’s dry soil for eons. Commandant Kunene had warned me of a day like this. Not necessarily of the troop aircrafts that would eventually invade our exile camps with parachutes descending upon the ground like dense and murky rainfall after balmy days of late summers. Of course, I was prepared for the calamitous foray convoyed by 16 July 1968 into the village. AK-47, check. Banana clip magazine upon my bayonet, check. Thirty rounds of bullets to penetrate the flesh of man like a kitchen knife on warm butter, check. Fear of that battle was lost the day we transversed the Botswana forestry. A battle I was never prepared for, however, is the one I was internally presented with at that moment. Which is exactly what Commandant Kunene had warned me of. The day I would be presented with a choice.
To be a martyr of the struggle or to be a mother to my son.
Image: Danish Ahmad via Pixabay