One would have thought that after two years, I would get used to the daunting, piercing stares of the grotesque and dilapidated, towering walls fast approaching me. I felt the bitter taste of my ambivalence towards those walls and the person inside them well up in my mouth. I spat on the ground, then, with my foot, covered the spittle with loose soil and stared back at the hideous walls for a moment. I glared at them, those walls that muffled voices within. Those walls that blinded visions, shackled ambitions and shattered dreams once dreamt by many a people within and without. Those hideous walls that protected the vulnerable and symbolized a sense of justice for those outside that had lost their dreams and hopes, those that had lost a part of their selves. Heaving with uncertainty of whether to proceed or turn back to where I had come from, I continued to stare and question the legitimacy of my ambivalence towards the walls…those walls that built new people, new ambitions, new dreams inside, at the same time as they destroyed them. The deafening patter of my still racing heart urged me at that moment to start walking again. I marched even faster this time to meet the walls and the steel metal bars that accompanied their doors.
The guard, who would allow us entry to the section that would be my final destination, did not even smile. I watched as he searched the contents of the plastic basket that the woman, middle-aged and anxious like me, had carried. I watched the woman obediently taste the food she had brought. Inwardly, I wondered who she had come to see. I wondered if she, like me, was questioning why she was here, in this god-forsaken place. I wondered if she, just like me, sometimes wondered whether the person she was visiting was indeed guilty as the system had condemned. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Those words would haunt me till the day I die and I would never understand why it had to be someone I loved who would wear those words like a cloak. Fastening my chitenje, I gave a deep sigh and greeted the guard in front of me.
I barely recognized the bony, ashy, aged body behind the counter bars in front of me, the bars which shut him out from the rest of world, the bars which set forth the parameters for one’s freedom and marked the difference between those of us who could control our time and our movements and those whose time and movement was controlled by others. He had lost so much weight since the last time I saw him four months ago. His head, closely shaven and scaly, had a freshly healed scar very close to his ear lobe and my heart shrank in pain at his appearance. The once youthful eyes no longer had the glow that they once held. In its place was a cold hard stare which sent a cold shiver down my spine. I attempted a smile to hide my fear which was coupled with the usual sadness and discomfort whenever I was in his presence ever since his incarceration. What had happened to the boy who was once the apple of my eye? The fruit of my womb, my proof to the world that my husband was a man and I a woman! What had changed this once happy, intelligent, kind and loving, quiet boy into the cold eyes staring back at me? I pulled out a stool and sat down. I felt tears well up in my eyes when I saw him brutally scratch the nearly dried, pus infested sores on his arms. When I saw his face twist in pain and pleasure at the same time, my heart ached to reach out to him just as I always did when he was a little boy.
“You shouldn’t scratch them so hard Pempho! You will hurt yourself.” I began. He looked at me with those empty eyes, as if to ask “what do you know?”
“Mama, what are you doing here? I thought I told you not to come anymore? Why are you wasting the little money that you have to come and visit me here?” The voice that came from his bony frame was hoarse and harsh.
“You know I can’t do that. I won’t stop visiting you just because you want me to. I brought you rice and chicken, your favourite meal.” I told him hoping it would bring a smile to his face. I took out the plastic container and placed it in front of him.
“You shouldn’t have bothered! Why can’t you just be like Baba? Two years I have been here and he has never set foot in here, not even once. I guess he doesn’t want his new family to be associated with a mkaidi, prisoner. He lives closer to me than you and he doesn’t visit so why are you bothering to come all the way? Are you going to be coming here till the day I die?” He stared menacingly at me, taunting me, until I looked away, wondering what I had done wrong to God to deserve this pain. He scratched his arm again then reached for the food container. I watched him silently as he gulped the food down. Lord what did I ever do to you, I thought as my mind slowly drifted back in time.
Pretending to be fast asleep, I pulled up the blanket to my head when I heard his footsteps at our bedroom door. When he hesitated for a few minutes then dropped the keys to the floor, I knew he was drunk. He had probably drunk up his entire primary school teacher’s salary since he had gotten paid that morning. Back to square one, I thought. I made a mental calculation of how much my small profit from selling malambe juice would buy us until his next salary. The putrid smell of cheap spirits coupled with sweat, urine and feces filtered through the room as he stumbled towards the bed. I clutched the blanket tightly hoping that for once he would just proceed to sleep and not cause any commotion. The previous week, our next door neighbour had come to complain about the mid-night breaking of glass, the banging of doors and the barking voices and I had politely nodded in understanding that our houses were too close to each other and therefore as neighbours we had to respect each other’s space and needs. I had also promised to talk to my husband about keeping his voice low.
“Mdaferanji my wife, wake up! I want to give you a baby,” he said in a slurred voice. I mumbled some nothings as if I was asleep, hoping he would leave me alone. My body froze when he joined me in the blankets and I nearly choked from the stench emitting from his body and clothes. He shook me vigorously until I had no choice but to wake up.
“Mdafe, I am going to…… I am going to give you a b-baby today. I am t-tired of being… teased by my friends that my wife is b-barren. Three years with…no b-baby! N-No!” The odour released from his mouth stung but his words stung even more. Why was the blame of having no children being put on me? And to make it even worse, why was it being discussed in public during a drinking spree? Hadn’t I tried everything in order to give my husband a child? I knew women in the neighbourhood talked about my inability to conceive behind my back and I had learnt to ignore them. But to know that men were also discussing me as if they were sure I was the one at fault hurt me. But why was I surprised that Pitala’s friends were accusing me of being barren when Pitala himself had flung those accusations in my face countless times?
“If you d-don’t give me a b-baby this time I am l-leaving you for a real w-woman.” He slurred as he fumbled through my chitenje.
“I am tired Pitala. Please, not now!” I pushed his hand away. He gripped my shoulders tightly, his nails digging through my skin until I winced in pain.
“Slut, why are you t-tired? Huh, why are you tired? Who have you been s-sleeping with to make you tired?” He flung some obscenities in my face, devaluing me with his words and I cringed even more. “You useless, good for nothing whore! Who have you been sleeping with?”
“Nobody Pitala! You are the only one! Please let me go!” I whispered helplessly. His acrimonious breath blew into my face as he settled on top of me and thrust himself into me. As he savagely rocked himself back and forth like a disturbed child, I felt nothing, only a salty taste of tears as they formed a stream down my cheeks.
Presently, I smiled sadly at the spitting image of Pitala as he wiped the greasy smear from his mouth with a towel I had brought. It didn’t seem as if twenty-five years had passed since the day the nurse had put him in my arms. He who had taken away my shame and brought me my worth as a woman. He who had brought so much joy and pride in my heart until that fateful phone call two years ago. He who had been my pillar of strength and my reason for living and leaving when thirteen years of Pitala’s fists and philandering became enough. Him whom I would have died to protect and yet couldn’t protect others from. He who would always be my biggest achievement and my biggest failure.
Moving back to the village with a teenage son to fend for was the most difficult decision I ever had to make. But when I looked at the poverty, misery and pain around me and my son, I decided that poverty with my people in the village was much more attractive than living with a violent, promiscuous alcoholic who provided nothing except the shelter that belonged to the school. When I woke up with a torn eyelid and a bruised lip for the umpteenth time that month and my young son looked at me with those knowing sad eyes which were wise beyond their years, I knew that I had finally reached the end of my journey with Pitala, my first love and the only man I would probably ever love. With a tail between my legs, I gave in to the little voice inside me which for years had told me to quit and I gave up on a sixteen year old investment of blood, sweat and tears which for fifteen of those years had not given me anything in return. We left him that morning when he was fast asleep and never returned. He too never came for us. In the first few weeks I worried about Pempho adapting to life without his father in his life but I later realized that he was thriving without his father who had constantly taunted him about being quiet and reserved, for not being “man” enough. In response to those taunts, Pempho had tried to draw closer to his father, a man who had never learnt how to love anybody except himself, but he had constantly hit a wall. His father was never at home and the rare times that he was, he would reek of alcohol and with blood shot eyes, reign terror over the household with his uncontrollable outbursts. Out of fear for his father, he shrank more and more into himself, his eyes lifeless, shutting out the rest of the world. But at the village, in the midst of my brothers and their children, he opened up again, life and peace returning to his eyes again and I knew that leaving his father was the best gift I would ever give him.
Pempho became the driving force for all my endeavours, the reason why I woke up every morning with a positive attitude to life. The day I left my husband, I promised myself I would do everything in my power to give my son everything he needed. I broke my back growing and selling tobacco to send Pempho to secondary school and when he failed to get six credits to get to university, he decided not to write the exams again and instead look for work in the city. He told me he found work as an office clerk in the city and every time he came to visit, he would shower me with gifts. He built me a two bedroomed house with iron sheets and I never thought to question where he got the money when he bought himself a car. I was just a happy mother proud of her son as he ferried my sister and I across the village for a test drive in his new Toyota Alex. As we passed by the women I usually went with to the market, I waved frantically at them so that they could see me, Mai a Pempho, enjoying the fruits of my labour. I imagined them snickering at the dust left by my son’s car and admiring the ferocity of the engine. I could see my son quietly smiling from the corner of my eye as the car sped through the bumpy road. I never thought to make the connection until that fateful Friday morning when I got the call from the police.
“Is it true Pempho?” I had asked him then when I went to see him whilst on remand. He had looked tired but his eyes held no emotions.
“They found me with the private parts didn’t they?” He had said to me casually as if we were talking about finding sweets in his bag instead of fresh human private parts hidden in his car boot which the police discovered after receiving an anonymous tip off.
“Yes, they did but maybe it was a mistake. Maybe you didn’t do it. Maybe the bag was not yours. Maybe somebody wants to frame you for it. Maybe you didn’t kill the people that they are accusing you of killing.” I was a mother desperately grasping at straws hoping that maybe he would tell me it was a mistake or that I would realize that it was all just a nightmare. They said he was part of a syndicate of people who were killing people in the townships, removing their private parts and selling them for millions of Kwachas to rich businessmen. They said a week ago he had assaulted a sixty-year old guard, removed his private parts and left him for dead but as luck would have it, the guard survived and following the tip off, he was able to identify his attacker. They said my son was a cold blooded killer. But I knew they were lying. Not my son! Not my quiet, humble boy, the boy that I single-handedly raised! But instead of confirming his innocence, my precious son looked at me hard before saying, “It’s over Mama.”
“Why did you do it Pempho? How could you kill a human being and as if that’s not bad enough you cut them into pieces?” I found myself asking him again today. He looked at me as if I had grown a second head. There was silence before us as I anticipated his answer. Perhaps today I would finally know what drove my son to perform those heinous acts. The reply that came from the gaunt figure in front of me was as hard as the facial features of the speaker.
“Isn’t that question a bit old now? Two years later, you are still asking me why I killed those people? If that’s what you came here for then you better leave.”
“Where did I go wrong with you? Tell me my son. Where did I go wrong? Didn’t I give you enough love? Didn’t I teach you to love other people as you love yourself? Why Pempho? Why? How and when did you become so ruthless?” I pushed on, gesturing my distress with my hands. My voice was on the brink of a scream and I blinked away hot tears as one rebellious tear dropped down to the calluses on the palm of my hand. I dried the tears and rested my hands on the counter, waiting for his response. The sly smile that he gave me chilled me to the bone. The look in his eyes full of hatred gave me a shudder and I decided then that I would rather not hear his answer even though I had been pushing for it all this time. I started to leave so that I could not hear his reply but his chilling voice stopped me.
“The first people, I killed because I had to get the things I wanted. The others, I killed because I could.” In disbelief, I stared at him, evil glowing in his eyes. I wondered if I was indeed the one who had given birth to him. With a sigh of regret of all that had befallen me and my son, I strode off, shutting out his taunting laughter which accompanied me out of the dull gray room.
Pempho’s laughter and chilling words still haunted me as I sat on the bus home, full of questions, reflecting on the day’s events. How does a kindhearted, quiet boy turn into a killer? For the umpteenth time I searched my mind for a time when Pempho exhibited signs of violence but I found none. I wondered whether it was because I was in denial or whether the signs just weren’t there for me to see. I am sure that even though I never saw them, he must have had the signs somehow because one just doesn’t become a coldblooded killer. Or does he? I don’t know what was worse for a woman like me: knowing that your son killed people because he wanted to get wealthy or that he had so much hatred in his life that he had no regard for human life? Or knowing that if he was given a chance to live his life all over again, you are sure he would do it again because he showed no remorse of ever doing it the first time? I watched the scenery slide past me and I made a mental note to bring him roasted chicken next time I visited.