Whisperings of a Gmelina Tree

Life was going well in our family like any other poor household in our township, until one uninvited, cruel guest – death, visited and took away our only breadwinner: my father. He wrestled with death the monster – every day and on 101 occasions, boldly gripped it by the horns, shooing it away from our family. The monster did not go far but skulked behind our house and that fateful day pounced on our father – marking the beginning of our distressing and miserable life.

I grew up believing that my parents would live long to see me entering university, graduating, working, and would see me taking my first bold steps into marriage. However, after my father’s death hot on the heels of my final high school exams; my immediate wish was to disappear: to go as further away as possible from our shabby township and its abject poverty. I wanted at once to go somewhere; where I would be a total stranger and start life anew. Poverty and the death of a breadwinner in a family always portend an ominous future for the children. However, there’s sometimes profundity in the suffering.

Our township, Kawale is situated about 4 km from the city centre in Lilongwe. I call Lilongwe city, a Gmelina city owing to its popular trees of Gmelina that are like the Eiffel Tower to the city. Kawale is a densely populated slum in which a network of dusty streets intertwines each other. The houses are mostly mud bricked: few are painted but most are dilapidated with sagging roofs.

Our house is mud bricked. The roof carries small bags of sand strategically placed to ward off strong wind from blowing it off. In Kawale, most families are painted with one brush: poverty. And there are no major distinctive marks of appanage from one child to another in terms of the house one comes from. Most of our people are uneducated and very few are civil servants; the majority run small informal businesses. We live a hand-to-mouth type of life. Nonetheless, we are one mass of unfortunate people united in need which we bear gracefully.

****

It is 1996 and I have just dropped out of college after the tragic death of my father. My dreams shattered! I was reading A Level through the University of London, majoring in Mathematics, Accounting, and Economics.

I am first born in a family of five and my mother is now a widow without a family relation of note who could support her. I step up and slip my small feet into the big shoes of my father and shift all my family’s burden to my fragile shoulders. My movements are like that of a toddler in her mum’s shoes. And I am twenty years of age. Now I must abandon my natural road of life and quantum leap into adulthood.

For the past few weeks, I have been frequenting the Labour Office premises in Area 3 where the hapless youth and adults gather waiting for an opportunity for jobs that never come; their certificates and degrees rotting in the envelopes. And the new president has promised his people jobs and everyone a pair of shoes. And the people are anxiously waiting, washing their feet, and thinking that the president is sorting something out for them. My mother loves this president as much as her brother. I think maybe because they share the same ethnic tribe. I told her in 1928 in America, President Herbert Hoover during his campaign promised voters a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. I told her that no president in history has ever fulfilled his promises to the voters, but she could not listen to me. She is a die-hard supporter of the new president. She hates the former president and his party with passion. She says the former president did not develop her home district and subjected Malawians to the draconic rule of brutality, nepotism, and alienation of women that took over thirty bloody years. I remind her that there is another idiot of a president in West Africa who built a church to the tune of US dollars three hundred million, while his people were still traumatised by poverty. Years after his passing people wonder today if such an act bought him a ticket to heaven.

Languishing at home with nothing to do, I decide to pursue my writing seriously. I start to go to the library to read and draft short stories. Sometimes, I spend the entire day at home reading novels under our big Gmelina tree. One day I heard a voice in my head: every problem has a solution to it. When King Herod wanted to kill baby Jesus, Mary and her husband had to run to Egypt to spare baby Jesus’ life. I shook my head and put my life into perspective. What could be a solution to our family’s financial problems? And everyone is against my dream to consider writing as a career until I meet my old primary schoolmate, Auspicious Ndamuwa, who is working at Capital City Motel as a reservations clerk and has just published his short story – Betrayed by a Friend in the Weekly Chronicle newspaper. Auspicious has ignited my smouldering writing craves. He encourages me to submit my short story – Stone of Vengeance to the Weekly Chronicle.

One Monday morning, I wake up late at around eight; feeling still sleepy after a marathon of polishing and polishing my short story – Stone of Vengeance up to the early hours of the morning. I could hear my mother busy in the kitchen, fat cakes sizzling in the pot of hot oil. I hear her now asking my sister, Fatimah to check on me to find out if I am okay. My sister finds me engrossed in reading. The pangs of financial desperation are taking a strain on me, everything I try to touch turns out counterproductive. Nothing seems to work. The stabs last night had been so excruciating like the pain one feels when mistakenly the zip’s fly nips one’s phallus. I gather my sheaf of papers and shove them into the A4 manila envelope. I get up, yawn, and make up my bed quickly and zoom out. I am greeted by the succulent aroma of the fat cakes. I hurry to the kitchen. I tell my mother that I am going to Old Town to see Rob Jamieson at the Weekly Chronicle newspaper.

‘Has he offered you a job,’ asks my mother her face glowing, but when her eyes meet mine, her face loses its lustre.

‘Why you look sad then?’

‘I’m going there to submit my short story.’

‘What is it about?’

‘Don’t worry. I will read it to you when it is published in the paper.’

‘When are you leaving?’

‘Now.’

‘You must take a bath and drink your tea before you leave. I have made you two big fat cakes.’

‘I’ll just drink my tea. I don’t want to wash away my luck. I’ll bathe when I come back.’

At around 10 a.m. I leave the house browsing quickly through my handwritten short story – A Stone of Vengeance for the last time.

Forty-five minutes later, finds me ascending the steps of the Stansfield House where The Weekly Chronicle newspaper’s office is on the third floor. My shoes and the bottom part of my pair of trousers are plastered with red dust. I stop and fish out a hanky and quickly wipe off the dust. The receptionist, a young lady with a huge grin on her face shows me the way up the stairs. My heart is racing. I follow the receptionist’s instructions and, once sure of my destination, timidly knock on Jamieson’s door.

‘Come in,’ cries a husky voice from within. I twist the door handle slowly and slither in. I find Mr. Jamieson sitting at his large oak desk reading the Daily Times newspaper. He snaps shut the paper and looks at me. His grim, bearded face, his hair perfectly combed back pronouncing his sharp widow’s peak in the middle of his forehead makes me almost jump out of my skin. I feel that Mr. Jamieson will not ever spare a second to look at my handwritten short story I am about to give him.

‘Sit down, young man,’ he says, his face now breaking into a grin. I pull myself up and try to suppress my apprehension.

‘What can I do for you young man?’

‘I have a short story.’

‘How old are you?’

‘I’m twenty.’

‘Can you really write?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘When did you start writing it?’

‘I wrote it when I was still in high school.’

‘Is it well edited? We publish very well-written and edited stories. We receive dozens of short stories every day. Is your story good enough? Have you mastered the art of short story writing?’

‘I’m still learning Sir, but I feel the story is good. Have a look,’ I say, handing Mr. Jamieson an envelope.

‘It is handwritten, and we don’t take handwritten manuscripts.’

‘My handwriting is good. Please, Sir. I cannot afford a typist.’

‘Hmm…well I’m only taking it because you are very upbeat about it and young. I do not want to kill your dream; you could be our next Ben Okri,’ says Jamieson with a huge grin on his face.

‘Thank you very much, Sir.’

A month later, I am at City Centre National Library working on my second short story, Plight of a School-leaver. Next to me sits a man flipping through the Weekly Chronicle newspaper, my eyes follow every flip of the page until my eyes see my short story. The man now spreads out the page and starts to read the short story. I am so ecstatic. I cannot believe it; my passport-sized photo is placed under the title. I ask the man to give me the short story page when he has finished reading it. He flashes me an ugly smile enhanced with his yellowish teeth.

‘Don’t you know that in the libraries the newspapers are pinned?’

‘Okay, lend me the paper when you are done?’

He nods his head.

Alas! When the man has finished reading the paper, instead of handing it to me; he gets up and walks three tables away and gives it to his friend. The man takes the entire day reading the paper until we hear the clanking sound of shutting windows. I rush to the man to let me just flip through the paper. As I am about to sit down and browse through the paper, the librarian announces that the library will be closed in the next five minutes. I read quickly until I feel a hand on my shoulder.

‘Young man, we’re closing now,’ says the librarian.

I gather up my papers and shove them quickly into an envelope and stomp out of the library. Four kilometres of walking back home assail me. I soon join the concourse of people walking to Kawale, my heart swelling with excitement.

The next morning my mother gives me money to buy the paper. I hurry to town to buy the paper. I buy the paper from a vendor at Area 3 Post Office. After reading my short story, I hurry to The Weekly Chronicle office to get my payment for my short story. Luckily, I find Mr. Jamieson in his office. He gives me fifty kwacha and encourages me to keep on writing and reading voraciously. After seeing Mr. Jamieson, I stop at PTC (People’s Trading Centre) and buy groceries. At home, my mother is so amazed to see me coming with the groceries. I show her my short story in the paper. She is so excited, but she cannot read.

‘You know my son how I wish could read the story, but I cannot. My parents did not send us to school; they said the missionary schools were not better than madrassa, and that they would force us to eat pigs,’ she says tearfully.

‘It’s okay mum.’ 

She runs her fingers on the short story as if fingering the words like braille. Then she asks me to sit down and read the short story and translate it for her into her vernacular Yao language.

****

I am under the Gmelina tree fixing a puncture of our family’s bicycle when my friend Robert swoops on me. We shake hands and I offer him a low stool to sit. I have taken off the black cloth wrapping around the frame of the bicycle which my father wrapped around to ward off scratches. The bicycle looks new.

‘Sell the bicycle,’ says my friend.

‘This is the only valuable item my father left for us. It has sentimental value.’

‘What does it do to you? Sell it and let us go to South Africa and disappear from this crappy locality!’

Silence ensued for a minute.

‘I got a buyer for you,’ says Robert.

‘I must tell my mother first.’

‘Bring it tomorrow to me then we can leave for South Africa. Lucky you got a cousin in Pretoria.’

‘Yeah.’

After a while, I take the bicycle inside, and Robert and I leave for his house. He has borrowed Only the Strong video cassette to watch at his brother, Wilson’s place.

****

A week later, after selling my late father’s bicycle, I leave for South Africa alone. Robert’s father hasn’t enough money for his son’s transport money. He has promised to finance Robert’s journey in the next coming three months. However, Robert is very furious.

I arrive at last at Bosman depot in Pretoria on a Saturday afternoon, 13 December 1996, just four days after President Nelson Mandela signed into law the Constitution of South Africa. Thanks to the woman with whom I sat next to on the bus, who paid for my taxi fare to Pretoria. My bus fare ended at the Beitbridge border post.

I am so transfixed to see beautiful people of all races dressed alike in expensive clothes and bubbling with an enviable life. No poor folk is seen among the concourses. I am so bewildered when I think of the time they give to their grooming; my overall impression is of people festooned with affluence.

It is so early into democracy and expectations are so high that the incumbent is heavily tasked to blot out the evils incurred from apartheid. The youth are drenched in the delirium of the new country – the mammoth opportunities previously denied now look attainable. However, the glum faces of elders who withstood the worst of the apartheid regime are bemused by the president’s servility. They believe inequality in a society always makes people hate each other and fight all the time. The president needs to narrow the widening gap of inequality for him to genuinely realise his dream of the Rainbow Nation, whose people should enjoy genuine equal opportunities. The president is not building a new South Africa; he is just renovating the same apartheid machinations. He needs to extirpate the old South Africa and build a new one based on its own ethos. He must elevate the lives of his ordinary people who are still trapped at the bottom rung of the economy. He should be actively involved in changing the lives of his people. Every citizen should be kept busy working, building the new South Africa. Decent quality education should be free for poor people.

At last, without any hassles, I arrive in Laudium where my cousin Yunus lives. The taxi driver drops me at house number 281 on Pendant Street. Laudium is an Indian suburb situated to the southwest of central Pretoria. Laudium was created by the Apartheid Government as part of their policy aimed at moving ethnic groups out of Marabastad and central Pretoria, which were zoned as ‘White Areas’ following the passage of the Group Areas Act in 1951.

The house is painted chocolate brown, and in front, there are three huge brown stones – a sort of Stonehenge that serves as front fence. I knock three times on the door. I could hear the television and the purring of a sewing machine inside.

‘Oh! Matt, welcome! Come inside!’ hollers my cousin.

I find him sitting at a Singer sewing machine, doing alterations to a pair of Levi jeans and beside him on the table is a small ten inch black and white TV. It is on and a soccer match is in progress. Yunus is wearing a printed viscose shirt and a baggy pair of jeans; his huge Afro hair combed back from the brow – pushback hairstyle. He gets up and hugs me. Behind him run two curtains from one wall to another cutting the room in half. I could see an unmade bed through the undrawn curtain. On the left wall there is a huge poster of Mamelodi Sundowns football team in their traditional colours of yellow and blue. Below the poster stands a high rectangular cutting table, with fashion catalogues littered all over it. I quickly recognise Chancy Gondwe in the team – a Malawian soccer star.

‘I think, before you eat you must take a shower. Come, follow me, and let me show you the bathroom.’

A week later, I get a job in Pretoria at a shop in Vermeulen Street that deals in fabrics, furniture, haberdashery, and electrical appliances. No single foreign national has lasted a week working at this shop. They overwork the foreigners and pay them a pittance. I have no choice but to grow an extra skin; I have rent money and food to contribute by end of the month. My family too needs money to survive. Locals loaf all day while I am on my feet, offloading washing machines from a truck and pack them in the warehouse. By end of the day, I am dog-tired and my head and whole-body aches. I take Grandpa every day, before and after work. Come month end, my name is not on the payroll. I am truly angry. I run to my boss’ office and demand my wages. He gives me a cold look and hands me hundred rand and promises to give me the balance –five hundred the next day.

The following morning, I refuse to work until I get my wages. I sit down and loaf for the first time in the warehouse. Everyone is baffled. I crease my face with brewing anger. Nobody dares to speak to me. I am stone deaf to their sneering. At tea-break I descend to my boss’ office and order him to give me my money or face the wrath of my rages. He rushes out to the cashier and orders her to give me five hundred rand. He fires me on the spot.

****

It is now three months sitting at home without a job. I do casual jobs sometimes but mostly my days are spent at the library reading. I do not have an ID so I cannot borrow books. I must read the books at the library. Luckily, yesterday I saw an old man who works at the library throwing old books into the dust bin. I went to see, there were old books with musty smell, and others with eaten away edges without covers. When I dipped deep into the municipal bin, I fished out Vikram Seth’s novel, Suitable Boy. I could not believe it. The 1,349 pages novel took me a month to finish, saving me time to read at the library.

Yesterday, an Indian shopkeeper asked me to work for him at his shop in Brits. He complained that his boy, a Mozambican does not speak English. I put out a question to him: ‘Did our forefathers (slaves) speak English, Dutch, French or Arabic when they were taken to work in the plantations?’ He could not answer. I added: ‘Does one need English language to pick up a box or drive a wheelbarrow full of bricks?’ I declined his offer.

A week later, I get a job at Home Gigantic City in Pretoria, a shop that deals in fabrics and lights. I know it is related to the shop I worked previously. The wages are not good at all, and we work long hours. Time for business as shown on the door is from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The locals work from 8 to 6 and us, kwerekwere as we are derogatorily called must work extra four hours for no single dime – packing and waiting to offload contraband goods that come every night.

Today at lunch all foreigners met and had a meeting. We have agreed to strike and demand wage increase or else quit if our demands are not met. We are more than the locals in this shop. On the dot at 6 p.m., we assemble at the cutting tables. I confront the bosses in the office as spokesperson of the group belching out our grievances at them. Mahamood, one of the three bosses says he cannot increase our wages; he is doing us a favour, and we are undocumented immigrants. I spit into his face and walk out. No one follows me out as we agreed we would do. My friends blacklist me as the instigator to the management.

Again, I am stuck at home without work, and I have learnt that all Indians in Laudium have agreed not to offer me a job.

****

Today I lied to my cousin that I am going to read at the Flamingo Park. I pick up a volume of Lectures on Ethics by Immanuel Kant from the table and stuff it into my blazer’s pocket, a book I was given by Rabel Mahoro Semege, a DRC brother who had introduced me to practical philosophy in Malawi.

I walk fast, past the café, down the road. The park is quiet; only city council workers are busy picking up the refuse and cutting the grass. I walk through the park quickly to the other side, down the road into Flamingo Shopping Complex and continue walking down the road between the Post Office and Flamingo Supermarket, I pass through the Passage and turn right into the Turquoise Street and continue walking until I reach the traffic lights on the main road to Pretoria.

I find a group of people: young and old clustered together at the robots shabbily dressed in working overalls, others carrying levels, spades, and trowels in bags. There is a young man standing with a spade on his shoulder, it makes everyone nervous whenever he turns and moves with its sharp edges. Others have dirty faces from irregular washing and faces swollen from drinking cheap wine. They are casual workers waiting to be picked by motorists.

I stand at a safe distance away from them as they scowl at me. They know each other well. I peer suspiciously at them; there is no connection between us. There are shouts of laughter and clapping of hands repeatedly, and I could hear fragments of their conversations from the few Sesotho words I have picked up so far. Their conversations revolve around soccer, and they whine and debate over unavailability of jobs, foreign nationals taking their jobs and poor government service delivery.

‘The president is doing nothing for this country,’ says the man carrying the spade.

Few faces look at him disapprovingly.

‘He is too kind and soft. This country needs someone like Chris Hani or Chairman Mao to solve our black problems. That is why white people killed Hani. If Chris Hani were alive, we would not be standing here like lost souls in our own country,’ says a young man lighting up a joint.

There is no comment.

‘Foreigners are not taking our jobs. A foreigner will arrive today in this country, rent a shack, and open a barbershop or start a welding shop while we sit in a pub all day drinking. When he closes the shop by the end of business hours, we unashamedly come and rob him. Africans must unite and love one another! Jah Rastafari!’ cries a middle-aged man receiving a joint from a young man.

‘More fire!’ echoes the young man.

At last, an empty lorry pulls up. We scamper over to get onto the lorry; there is pushing and shoving as we fight our way onto the lorry base. As I am about to jump in, one leg firmly planted on the tyre, another leg hanging and my hands gripping the edges of the lorry; another guy pushes me, I lose grip and hit the ground injuring my leg. I struggle to get up. I crawl quickly to safety as more people keep on falling from the moving lorry.

At last, I get up, dust myself off; still feeling a throbbing pain on the leg. I limp off home.

****

I am lying on my bed reading Big Money by PG Wodehouse. I hear my cousin Yunus in heated conversation with someone, but the voice is so familiar to me. ‘Robert!’ I jump off the bed and race out to the sewing room. I run into Robert’s open arms, and we shake hands. Robert is looking snazzy in his Mike Tyson haircut, a well pressed white shirt, black twill trousers and a highly polished black pair of shoes. He sits down on a swivel chair, swivelling around as he talks.

‘When did you leave Malawi?’ I ask.

‘I left Malawi three months ago after you had left.’

‘Where were you then all this time?’

‘I was in Mpumalanga. You know Mrs. Banda, our tenant, her husband works in Joburg, so I phoned him, and he took me to Secunda where he is staying now,’ says Robert.

‘Come to my room.’

‘Matt,’ says Robert, ‘you remember in Malawi our dream was to live and work in Cape Town and not Pretoria?’

‘Do you think we can still pursue that dream?’

‘Why not?’

‘We know no one there.’

‘That’s not a problem.’

‘I would get more information about Cape Town from my friend Hakim.’

‘He knows Cape Town?’

‘He has been there before.’

****

I am in Cape Town now; my friend Robert came here first a month ago. He paved a way for me. He struggled to find a place to stay, until he tried his luck at Grassy Park Mosque. The Bilal of the mosque was a fellow Malawian, though at first, he was not happy with Robert; but had no choice, but to take the homeless Robert and hide him in his quarters. The big sheikh at the mosque did not want people to sleep at the mosque.

Two days later, Robert got a job at a fruit and veggie shop in Lansdowne and a shack to rent in Hanover Park.

After two months of roaming around looking for work, I get a job at Silencer Express in Lansdowne as an assistant to exhaust fitters. The company is booming, and they are opening another exhaust fitment centre in Athlone. From next week I will be working and staying at the premises.

****

It is Monday morning, the sky is cloudless, the wind gentle and the sun is bright with a balmy warmth. I am standing at the traffic lights at the corner of Kromboom and Belgravia Road near Athlone Technical College with a bunch of pamphlets in my hands. The issuing of pamphlets to motorists is a very tedious job. I have met with rude motorists, who had received the pamphlets and after scowling at them, threw them back at me; others just rolled up their windows in annoyance.

I exchange suspicious glances with a driver of a white Mitsubishi L300 van. The driver is waiting for the traffic light to change. The driver and his colleague are pointing fingers at me. I take a quick look at the minibus’s registration number and the attire the duo is wearing. Suddenly, at the change of the traffic light, the minibus makes a swift turn and stops violently by; the two guys jump out and grab me by the hand, and the pamphlets flutter away like feathers from a trapped bird.

The two Home Affairs officers’ eyes flash with hatred, which is plainly written on their faces as derived from training and not from their hearts. They are exercising their duty to hunt down immigrants like game and heartlessly send them back to their broken homes. Just like what apartheid did to the privileged white children – it programmed them to abhor and dissociate from Black people, and this seeped into their blood and sins of their fathers are still tattooed on their hearts though are willing and trying to efface them.

 ‘Show us your papers?’ they say.

‘What papers?’

‘Where do you come from?’ asks the driver.

‘I am an African.’

 ‘So!’ cries the driver.

‘I am standing on my ancestral land, and you got no right to arrest me for standing on my ancestral land.’

They handcuff me and violently shove me into the minibus. When I look through the window, I see lots of people, who have now converged on the scene, my pamphlets scattered all over the road like feathers of a just killed chicken.

‘You foreigners are a threat to our country’s progress, peace, and stability. And you are taking our brothers and sisters’ jobs,’ says the officer.

‘Who is a foreigner?’

‘You are a foreigner.’

‘I am not. And you! Why do you give land to people who do not look like you, eat and even behave like you; who are still oppressing you, and you crucify your fellow brother, who looks just like you and eat your leftovers?’

‘Shuddup!’ cries the driver.

The End.

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Nixon Mateulah was born in Lilongwe in Malawi and moved to South Africa in 1996. Running Home is a fictional memoir based on his experiences when arriving from Malawi in South Africa during the early years of the South African democracy. He has published a number of short stories and poems in various online and print publications.

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