He joined us from a primary school from the neighborhood in July of grade 7. It was hard to point out anything about him that didn’t stand out. He had rickets, like the insides of bananas were facing each other. His shoes looked like they had been from another century. His school shorts were patched twice at the back even though he was a new student and his face looked so shiny like oiled baby buttocks. Many of us jeered at him until he got the highest marks in our maths class test. We all thought he had been lucky. It was until he also aced-better than anyone else-the other three primary school subjects: Shona, English and Content that we stopped laughing at him openly. We still whispered and laughed at him whenever he walked in front of us.
As part of our last term assessments, Mrs. Moyo-our teacher-announced the presentations we had all been waiting for. Last year, Mrs. Moyo had written topics on small papers and put them into a brown calabash. She then mixed them and we all had to pick a topic which we would have one week to prepare and present in class for ten minutes each. This year, she wrote our names on papers and called two random classmates to go and pick out a paper each from the calabash. The two names picked would form a pair that would have to meet up on their own time and discuss each other’s lives. Each person from the pair would then make a ten-minute presentation on the life of their pair mates, including any questions from the class. Out of all the students in class, I was paired with him and even though I hated being paired with him, I knew I still had to work with him.
We lived in the same location and my home was 4 streets away from his. Almost everyone knew a lot about his family, much of which scared me to the bone. They lived in Pemba Street, the last street in the location. It was next to the unfenced cemetery. Many of my age mates-and even grown ups- dared not walk to Pemba street as there were stories of weird noises coming out of the cemetery. We heard it was worse at night as more stories of fires burning inside the graveyard surfaced. Like many of the things grown ups told us, many of us would never set out to disprove such stories and we accepted them as prophetic truth. Scary as the cemetery was, his father was one of three men from the location who worked in the cemetery. But only his father was known to make weird sounds to scare off kids who made fun of him when he would walk around. We were utterly scared of him. Many also speculated that his mother was a witch because birds, especially pigeons-which are known to sense evil- never flew over or perched anywhere near their yard and also because she always wore black with some sort of crown on her head that looked more like crows had set up nests over it. People justified this assumption by giving the example of his elder brother, who had woken up one day and ran to school with nothing but shoes on. Rumor has it that the mother tried to destroy her rival by causing her to become insane through an evil insanity spirit. The insanity spirit, they say, could not attach itself to the rival as she had powerful protection and so it bounced back and latched itself to the brother-whom everyone calls Mupengo, the crazy one.
He must have known that I was scared of him. So he approached me on our way home from school as I was with my three friends from the location.
‘I was wondering when we could meet so that I can tell you about me and you could tell me about yourself’. Before I could answer, my friends laughed.
‘What’s there to know. Child of a witch!’ Taurai said as he shouted for everyone to hear. Whether Taurai expected a fight, anger or at least some reaction acknowledging the insult, I will never know. But I have never seen anyone get so irritated because someone they had insulted ignored the insult.
‘Didn’t you hear what I just said about your mother?’ Taurai shouted. He kept on walking and passed us as if he had not heard a word. Taurai’s face went from irritated to steam faced as he clenched his fists and ran towards him. Taurai pushed him from the back and he fell face first, making a nasty cut on his bottom lip. He stood up calmly and picked up his books one by one before he carried on home. Until now, I had not realized that he had no satchel. He came to school with his books held firmly in his hands.
Everyone else laughed, but I didn’t. I was petrified. I didn’t know what he would do. I feared that he would tell his mother and we would be punished that night. If only I had answered him quicker. What we had done haunted me and I decided that if I lived through the night, I would apologise the next day. When break time came-after I had lived through the previous night-and as many of the class mates were running to the door like metal pieces attracted to magnet, I decided to wait and follow him when he would go out. I waited. I waited until only 4 of us remained in class, including him. The other two girls sitting up front took out their lunch boxes and the room filled up with the nose poking smell of boiled eggs. To my surprise, he took out his mathematics book and started working his math. We didn’t have any homework! Even 15 minutes into the break his head was still down working on his math. I didn’t have my breakfast that day because the break ended with me still waiting for him .
The next day I decided to approach him directly. As I did the previous day, I waited for everyone else to leave the class. He started working on his maths. I cautiously moved towards him and when I reached his desk, he barely moved but he lifted his head up and gave me a cursory smile. The sight of the cracked and slightly swollen lip broke my heart.
‘I am sorry about what Taurai did’. I spoke in a barely audible voice as I feared the two girls sitting upfront would hear me.
‘Its aright. It wasn’t you after all’. He replied calmly as he went back to his math book. His response tore my heart even wider, for I expected him to be upset with me.
‘We have four days left and you don’t know anything about me yet.’ He lifted his head but avoided my eyes. He smiled weakly and in an even calmer voice he responded,
‘I am guessing you already know everything about me, right? Well, we can go outside and you can tell me what you think I should know about you.’ He stood up and started off for the door and as he walked away from me, the patches on his shorts looked so big. For some reason it made me sad and something in me longed to know why he was dressed like that. I then realised I wanted to know more about him. He led me to a tree that was behind the block, close to the Dural wall and far from the play grounds where almost all the other classmates were either playing or having breakfast.
‘Why do we have to talk here.’ I asked. I was scared of snakes because the area around the tree was very grassy.
‘I thought you wouldn’t want us to talk where everyone else would see us’. I felt embarrassed at the realisation that he knew I was a bit ashamed to be seen with him. I tried not to show my embarrassment as I pitched my new-found curiosity.
‘There is nothing much about me. But people say a lot of things about you. Maybe you could tell me what you think I should know.’
‘I thought you didn’t want to know.’ He paused, as if expecting an answer from me but I kept quiet. Then he shatters my mind with an unexpected statement.
‘Well apart from the fact that my mother is a witch, my father works at a cemetery and my brother is crazy, what more could I tell you?’ His words sounded quite sarcastic but his face conveyed a pleading, as if to say how could you believe all that? Surely that’s all I knew about him and I had never thought to question it because even grown ups subscribed to that as gospel truth.
‘I….I….’ I stumbled on my words and went quiet. I couldn’t even look at him but I also wanted to know if it was the truth. I hated the fact that I couldn’t make out my words in front of him.
‘That’s what everyone says.’ I fumbled the words.
‘I see. You can ask me anything specific and I can answer.’ He looked at me as he responded. I managed to ask the one question about him that scared me the most.
‘They say your mom is a witch’. Before he could answer, the siren rang to end the break, prompting the hundreds of school children from the grounds to rush back to their classes.
‘I will tell you tomorrow.’ With that he walked back to class, unashamed of the way his shorts look at the back. As I watched him walk, my emotions were fried. I then realised that for the second day, I had missed my breakfast, and he had not had any.
‘Why don’t you have breakfast.’
‘We don’t have much. Besides, I am used to two meals a day.’
‘Would you share in my breakfast please. I don’t like toast and the lettuce my mom put in my bread today.’ A big lie. Toast is my favourite but maybe it would be better off in his stomach.
‘Are you sure.’ He asks in an unsure voice.
‘Yes I am.’
‘Thank you. You are kind.’ He said with a smile on his face. I watched him as he finished the bread in half the time it would have taken me.
‘My mother,’ he spoke as he wiped his mouth. ‘My mother is a traditional healer. She tries to help people with little health problems.’ I was so surprised and failed to register any response to his revelation. I felt my knowledge about him undressed right in front of me.
‘But why do people say she is a witch?’
‘I really don’t know. But maybe its because of how she dresses and the fact that she does not talk that much.’
‘But that doesn’t explain what I have heard, like birds not flying over your house or….’ I stop shy of stating that people say she is responsible for his brother’s condition. I also want to know why she can’t help her son if she really is a traditional healer. I just can’t bring myself to finish the question.
‘There are some things we cannot control, like where birds fly or what people say about us.’ I waited for for him to continue but he didn’t. My curiosity was eating me up but I was scared of asking further. I decided to bring his father into the conversation.
‘So does your father approve of what your mother does? And doesn’t it bother him what people say about your mother?’
‘Did you know our house has a lot of rats. Maybe they are attracted to the smell of my mother’s herbs I don’t know. We have tried to fill up every possible hole in the house and I clean up everyday but they still find a way in.’ He paused, and I am busy trying to figure out what rats had to do with what I had asked when he adds;
‘It does bother him but thankfully not everyone believes what they hear. Many people actually come to my mother for help. Including my father himself.’
‘Oh. So have you heard of the rumours that your father is able to work at the cemetery because your mother washed him in some muti so that he is immune from being harmed by spirits that hover in there.’
‘I think break time is almost up. Are you free today after school.’
‘It depends on what time. I have to clean the house a bit when I get home. I also would have to find a good lie about where l am going.’
‘You don’t have to lie but its up to you. I also have to bathe my brother and feed him but I should be done by 2:30. Will 3 o’clock do?’
‘I guess so.’ Did he just say he bathes and feeds his brother? I wonder to myself and hope my face does not convey the shock that has registered in my head.
‘Ok then. Can you meet me at the corner of my street and the cemetery by number 1 Pemba? I can tell you everything you want to know today and then you can tell me your stuff in the next two days we have left’.
‘I will be there.’
The bell rang and we walked back to class. This time, I walked alongside him with an empty lunchbox.
That afternoon I lied to my mom that we were going back to school for manual work. I walked out and started for Pemba street. When I got there, waited no more than 2 minutes before l saw him distantly walking out of his house and start running towards me. When he got to me, he had no shoes on and was wearing old khaki shorts with a noticeable patch at the back. I felt so overdressed in my patapatas and plain grey dress.
‘Are you ready?’
‘I am going to show you exactly what my father does.’ He turned and started for the cemetery while I froze in my tracks as if I was in a trance. A chilling vibration ran through my body and my hair flexed out the way a porcupine spreads out its quills.
‘You said you wanted to know what my father does, right?’ He asks when he sees how shocked I am. All the excitement had turned into horror and I failed to translate into words the vigorous objection I had already formed in my head.
‘Ok its fine. We won’t go, but its just a cemetery.’ I was scarred that he would be upset, but if he was, he did not show it. ‘You should know though. My father is a good man. When anyone around here looses a loved one, they need my father to help them identify where to rest their loved one and he is the one who makes sure that no one disturbs that rest.’ I still could not answer him for his words made me even more scared. Why would graves need protection and how does a person not go crazy surrounded by graves? I think he saw into my confusion and he continued to undress my knowledge of him and his family while also schooling my virgin morality.
‘Let us suppose that there are indeed some spirits that hover on the graves and let us suppose that my mother did wash him in muti, is that necessarily a bad thing to do for someone you love?’ He pauses, stares into the cemetery and lets out a tired sigh as he continues.
‘I used to be confused too. Until my father told me that there are those who are meant to do the jobs that no one else wants.’ We started walking up along Pemba street and as we were walking, three dogs came out of a yard and started running aimlessly in circles ahead of us. I thought of turning and running back to where I came from but he took my hand.
‘If you run they will chase and outrun you and I wont be able to stop them. Just stay close.’ I walked as closely as I could beside him. We passed the dogs and I relaxed, but I still held on to his hand in case the dogs decided to chase after us.
‘So I guess all I can tell you is that no matter how much you might distaste a certain job or look down on people who do it, someone still has to do it. My father does that kind of job. He promised me that if I go to rest before him, he would look after me every single day still. He does not need muti for that. But even if he did, I would not be ashamed of him. He is my hero for doing the job.’ For the umpteenth time, I didn’t know what to say. His words were too serious for someone his age.
‘I am scared to die.’ I spoke without even thinking. I do not even know why I said this. Confusion, I guess, brings out the goof in all of us.
‘You shouldn’t be. If you had a choice, what would you rather be: resting in the cemetery where no one laughs at you and speaks all sorts of things behind your back or alive? Alive, but not in control of what you do, where you go, what you wear or anything at all? When you are the laughing stock of even those who have no voice and the subject of conversation of those who cannot see? When you do not know that it is not a good thing to be 18 and still walk naked in front of your mother because you really do not know the difference between dressed and not dressed?’
I started crying but wiped the tears as quickly as they escaped my eyes. Again, I didn’t know what to say but I tried to imagine what it was like to be like his brother.
‘So you should not be afraid of resting.’ He continued. ‘There are people with worse conditions out there who would be better off resting. Besides, that is the only way you can get to see your ancestors.’
When he mentions ancestors I shudder a bit. I have always heard bad things from church about believing in ancestors. I once heard my aunt say of one of her friends who believed in ancestors that her ancestors must be lazy because of how they have led her to make bad decisions.
‘I was told that believing in ancestors is old tradition.’ I said hesitantly, as if the words would hurt my throat on their way out.
‘I was told that too. But my father says that we should always know where we come from.’ He looked into the sky, ‘Whether we see it or not, the sun rises and sets daily. It does not need our confirmation. My father says that’s how he knows the ancestors are there.’ He spoke, as if saying the words to the bright sun just as I was realizing how slow I was mentally. He knew so much and he had experienced too much.
‘What happened to Mupengo?’ I asked in a tiny voice.
‘My father named him Edmore after his grandfather.’ His words pierced my soul and beat on my heart relentlessly-the way drums are so helplessly beat throughout the night at funerals. I had only known him as Mupengo because that’s what everyone, even grown ups, called him.
‘Father told me he developed a condition whilst in primary school. No one in the neighborhood knew it really because it was suppressed by his constant medication and mother’s help. His condition got worse when….’ His words trailed of as halfway into the street a group of kids from the neighborhood saw him holding my hand and they broke in song.
‘Mukadzi nemurume….June yakapera’ We all knew the song and what it meant. Husbands and wives would be jeered for holding hands when it’s not in winter because the society we lived in was so conservative and shunned any public show of affection. Even holding hands. I tried to remember who taught me the song but then realized that I just grew up knowing it, from mixing with other kids. I got scared and I quickly yanked my hand out of his and for the first time since we started off along the street, he looked at me. But with a surprised, or was it betrayed eye? I turned and ran 45 houses down Pemba street without even turning back to look at him.
It is 6 pm and the night has set in. I am in anguish because of how I parted with him. What if I could apologise today? I got up from bed and grabbed one of my homework books and walked into the kitchen.
‘Mom, I need to go and give Sekai her homework book.’ I said nervously. She did not even look at the book or me but told me tersely that Sekai’s home is no more than 10 minutes away so I should be back before supper. I dashed out into the vibrant township night made bright by the magnificent tower lights. This being my first night out to Pemba street, I wondered why, of all streets in the location, Pemba street did not have tower lights? As I walked to his house which was at the far end of the 75 houses on the street, I tried hard not to look to the cemetery because they say even the trees in there seem to be alive at night. I was not going to be the first to confirm that so I walked as closely as I could to the fences of the houses opposite the cemetery. It was on reaching his home that I realized I did not know how to get to him. I also knew I didn’t have time to wait for long. I walked past the house then started pacing back and forth three houses after and before his house, hoping that he might be sent out to do something. I remembered what Mrs. Moyo and many grown-ups had said to me, that if you really need something, you have to honestly pray about it. I prayed. I asked God to make the mother send him out to buy something at the tuck-shop, or to collect a broom outside, or anything at all that would just make him come out.
For 5 long minutes, God did not answer me. I was confused as to why. Why, because I was assured that prayers are always answered when you need them, especially when you are desperate. Maybe it was another one of the many grown up lies. My tears started flowing as I walked back home in the middle of the street. I forgot about all the scary stories I had heard about the cemetery. Surely the scary things are never in the cemeteries, but under the cover of the roofs of homes. My sympathy towards him confused me. They couldn’t be because I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for some of the meatless bodies of mothers and children in distant places shown on TV. But I only felt sorry or cried for these people when I saw them. I never thought of them after school as I have in the last days. Argg. I cried more because thinking about him always brought confusion and I hated it because I did not know what to do about it.
My confusion followed me to bed that night. I lay awake on my bed crying for him. I wanted him to know how sorry I was for running away when the other kids laughed and sang ‘Mukadzi nemurume’. I couldn’t wait for break time tomorrow. I had to tell him early so that in case he is upset, he wouldn’t refuse to share my food. I decided to write him a little note in the middle of one of my new and unwritten exercise book, everything written in the middle of a book is hidden or important!
I deliberately left out his and my name so that if Mrs. Moyo, or any of our classmates sees it I will not get into trouble. Slowly, I closed the book and put it carefully in my satchel. I then went back to bed and tried to sleep. When morning finally came, something strange was happening to me. My body was different. I felt like my inside was fighting to come outside as I could feel spasms that started from my shoulders down to my tummy. Maybe it was because I was both excited and anxious. The more I went about my everyday routine, the worse it became. I took the book out of my satchel so that when I got to class I could simply put it on top of his desk as if to drop off a book I had borrowed, without having to stop by the desk.
As I walked to school, I hugged the book, fearing that it might just slip out of my hands. The 800 meter walk from home to school that day was probably the longest I have walked that distance, but I pulled my legs, one after the other until I reached the school gates, late-for the first time in almost 7 years of schooling. On reaching the block I saw from the windows that the class was in an excitable commotion and everyone was not where they normally sit. It was like the break time bell had just rang. When I got into the class I was informed that the class had been canceled. The teachers had gone to pay their condolences at number 69 Pemba Street where there had been a fire the previous night. Edmore had felt cold and decided to make a fire inside the house whilst everyone else was asleep. The fire burned down the house and no one had survived.
My mind froze, my eyes blacked out and I floated upside down into the emptiness of somewhere I didn’t know.
Image: Keoni Cabral via Flickr (partially modified)