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Call it Fate

By  Stanley Onjezani Kenani


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Author Biography


To be, or not to be: that is the question. – William Shakespeare in Hamlet

Two huge mounds of red earth. They stand out like arrows stabbing my heart. For there is a lot of pain in my heart. A block of grief is choking my throat.

I am crying. No tears, no voice, but I am crying. My heart is crying. I have been crying for a very long time. I have not slept. I have not eaten. I have not taken a bath. I am crying.

It has started raining. Huge powerful drops fall on the red mounds. They bathe the wreaths. They wash down the huge mounds. Everybody scampers away for shelter back home. In the middle of the rain, nobody remembers the boy whose parents have just been buried. They rush for their cars. Some run on foot. Others open their umbrellas and leave in haste. The downpour is too heavy.

I refuse to leave. I stand by my parents in solidarity. I will not leave them alone. I will not surrender them to the care of these nkhadze trees. I will be with them, here, in this bush.

Mother, won’t you tell me the final folklore? Won’t you repeat that story about a little girl, Kamdothi, made of clay, who went to the playground to play and melted away in the rain? Won’t you? Father, won’t you sing for me for the last time? Won’t you sing that vimbuza song that evokes memories of your childhood? The one about a man telling his wife that she would sleep alone that night because he had found another woman? Won’t you? Won’t you drive me back to the Kamuzu Academy? Back to Mr Blackwood’s boring classes? Back to efforts of building the future? Won’t you?

A tap on the shoulder. A chill runs down my spine. I turn. The reality is back. The rain is over. Somebody has remembered to take stock of the people and has discovered a shortage.

“Let’s go, Chuma,” says Umodzi, my father’s brother.

I do not want to leave.

He grabs me by the right hand and starts walking away.

Darkness is falling.

I think I must follow him.

* * *
We leave house number 10/222 the following day.
I sadly say bye to the house I have been in since I was born. I say farewell to Area 10. I shall miss our neighbours: the British High Commissioner to the left, the Minister of Finance to the right, and Rafiq, the man across the street. Especially Rafiq. He has always been friendly to my friends and me. He has always bought us ice cream and chocolate. He has always let us into his house to play exciting video games. I shall definitely miss him.

The huge lorry crawls past the gate, enters Tsoka Road and turns to the right. It makes another turn, and another. Slowly the house of my childhood disappears. The vehicle goes past Capital Hill, Capital Hotel and enters the City Centre. It winds past Kang’ombe Building, the Reserve Bank and Kamuzu Central Hospital. Then we are in Old Town, past the mass of humanity that throngs the roads.

The vehicle turns to the right. I know this area. It is called the Falls Estate. We leave a tarmac road and enter into a bumpy, dusty one. The vehicle negotiates numerous sharp bends. Soon we are past the Falls Estate. I am now in unfamiliar territory. A strong stench greets my nostrils. All the houses are small and grass-thatched. They are dotted all over.

The lorry stops outside a small, dilapidated house built in the manner of the rest. “Welcome to Phwetekere,” Uncle Umodzi speaks. “This is my house.”

My heart sinks.

“Uncle, why have we left Area 10?” I ask him.

“We have to put up that house for rent,” he says. “We need money. You know I don’t work. The kanyenya, the fried pieces of meat I sell is not a business vibrant enough to cater for both of us. This is why we have to live here.”

“But, Uncle, surely Dad must have left some money in the bank, no?” I ask.

“Probably,” he answers, “but, even if he did, it is not an easy process for us to have access to the money. The formalities may take months, even years. No, the bank is not something we can count on now.”

We start off-loading. The fridge and the cooker obviously do not have a place in this house: there is no electricity. Neither has the huge sound system nor the TV. My parents’ bed alone covers half the space of the house. The rest of the beds, therefore, may not enter.

“We will be using one bed,” Uncle Umodzi assures.

“How shall we be using the fridge, the cooker and . . . ?” I begin to ask for curiosity’s sake.

“We’ll sell them of course,” he cuts me off. “We need money. With it, you will go back to the Kamuzu Academy. With it, I shall find a better house, although smaller than the one at Area 10. We need money, Chuma. The Kamuzu Academy is a very expensive institution. ‘The Eton of Africa’, isn’t that what they call it? It is my wish that you stay there, but we must look for money first. A lot of it.”

Life, here, will be a nightmare.

* * *

Eyes closed. I want to sleep. I turn in my bed. I pull the blanket over my head. I bend my legs.

No sleep.

I make my eyes remain shut. I yawn and straighten my legs. Still no sleep.

Instead, I still remember sitting in class, Mr Blackwood looking sternly at me.

“I said what is a focal length, Chuma?”

I strained my memory.

“A focal length is the image . . .” I began to answer.

“A focal length cannot be an image, for God’s sake,” he cut me short. “Say after me. A focal length is the distance . . .”

“A focal length is the distance . . .”

“Between the lens . . .”

“Between the lens . . .”

“And the . . .”

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Our heads turned.

“Excuse me class,” said Mr Blackwood. He went to the door and opened it. A whisper. A nod. Gesticulations. Pointing fingers. He turned, looking at me. “Chuma!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Follow him, please.”

I turn in my bed. Sleep is not coming. Uncle Umodzi on the other end of the bed is in dreamland. The snoring speaks for itself. Memories continue to flow.

I followed the man from the Porter’s Desk. We went past the auditorium, a few other blocks and stopped outside the headmaster’s office.

“You have been called home over an urgent matter,” the headmaster told me. “You must leave now.”

Memories. Terrible memories about what awaited me at the end of the journey. My innocent parents on the one hand. A reckless truck driver on the other. A man rushing for nothing, crazily trying to overtake a long line of cars at a point where the line of vision is not clear. This one stupid blunder! This one terrible mistake! And then the end.

Unknown to me, I have started sobbing. I try to control myself but I can’t! My voice rises. I cry like a baby.

The man sleeping peacefully beside me wakes up. He does not like it. Nobody likes being disturbed in their sleep. He snarls at me. I become silent.

Let me try to sleep.

* * *

I stir. My eyes open a little. The day is broken. I blink, once, twice, a number of times. I yawn and stretch myself.

Uncle Umodzi is not on the bed. I sit up and look around. He is not in the room either. I lower my legs to the ground and stand up.

“Uncle Umodzi!” I call. “Uncle Umodzi!”


Then I see it: a neatly folded paper with my name on it. It lies on top of the suitcases on the right side of my bed. I open it. A twenty kwacha note falls to the ground. I have gone to town, reads the note, enclosed is something for your lunch. Will be back later. Bye. Just like that.

I get out of the house. I must go to the toilet. I look around. There it is: a ramshackle on its knees, ready to fall any time. Its roof is gaping. I come to it and push aside a torn sack that serves as a door.

A strong, bad smell hits my nostrils. Big green flies rush out of the mouth of the pit latrine. I think I will vomit. Something turns in my stomach. I hurry out of the filthy place.

But nature persistently reminds me that I need to relieve myself. I look around for an alternative place to do the deed. No success. My heart heavy, I drag myself back to the horrible place. I squat over the small hole as the green flies dance around me, humming a tune of delight for my reloading the place with fresh booty.

Back to the house. I contemplate going to the market to buy something for breakfast. But what? Twenty kwacha is not enough for anything. Maybe two or three bananas and little else. This means I must forego breakfast if I want to have lunch. Or vice versa. I settle on brunch, if three bananas can constitute a brunch.

I lie on my bed. I study the pattern of the grass that forms the roof, while at the same time trying to study the pattern of my fate.

Events are flying too fast: flying from bad to worse. Will I ever find myself back to the Kamuzu Academy? Shall I participate again in the pleasure of loathing Mr Blackwood’s classes? I think about my friends; right now, they are tossing sausages in their plates. Some are expressing their dislike of cornflakes. Others insist they will have tea without milk: they do not want to gain weight.

I guess I will need no prescription of such diet here.

Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.

Unaware of it, I drift into sleep.

* * *

Some powerful singing right in the doorway awakens me. I sit up. Uncle Umodzi staggers into the room. He is very drunk.

Another person appears behind him. A woman. Tall, fat, wearing a mini-skirt a size or two too small, her lips red like ripe tomato. Her blouse covers half of the area it is supposed to cover, leaving the navel on display to the world at large.

“Chuma!” he calls out so loudly that I am tempted to close my ears. “My nephew Chuma! How I love you! Meet your aunt, Zena.”

The woman stretches her hand. “How are you?” she greets me. Her voice is gruff, like she has been singing for some hours non-stop.

“A Miss Universe, wouldn’t you say Chuma?” Uncle Umodzi rumbles on. “The type of beauty one meets only in fiction . . . .”

Oh, my God! My God! My heart is beating fast. Only now have I noticed what Uncle Umodzi is wearing. God have mercy! Isn’t this my father’s suit? Yes, it is! Yes, it is! Oh, my God! He is wearing my father’s suit. The black one. His favourite. Complete with the white shirt and the black necktie. No! No!

I clearly remember the day he first put it on. I was in form one then.

“Hello!” I spoke into the phone.

“Hello!” my mother responded.

“Mum, I want to remind you about tomorrow.”

“What about tomorrow, dear?”

“The parent-teacher meeting.”

“Sorry, dear. I totally forgot about it. Now that you have reminded me, let me see what I can do.”

“Does that mean you may not come?”

“Well, I will be busy . . . .”

“No, mum! You can’t do that to me no matter how busy. . . .”

“Wait, wait! I haven’t finished yet. Your father will be coming instead.”

“Is Dad back from Switzerland?”

“Yes, he is. He came back yesterday.”

And he came indeed, resplendent in the black suit, the only parent that came in time. I won some praise from the teachers. Even from Mr Blackwood.

It was this suit he put on. I can see him now. The picture is vividly playing in my mind. He is shaking hands with the headmaster, smiling from ear to ear.

“Why are you crying, Chuma?” Uncle Umodzi asks angrily. “Can’t you behave like a grown up for once?”

Apparently, tears have started rolling down my cheeks. For I can see him! I can see my father! He is smiling, smiling, smiling.

I lie on the bed once more. I continue wandering in a sea of thoughts.

Supper time is here, my ‘aunt’ announces. We eat, all of us from one plate. The dish is dry utaka fish with a lot of garlic. I have always hated garlic in my life. In this environment, however, I guess I have no choice.

We immediately retire to bed. I take my end of the bed, and Uncle Umodzi with his lady takes the other end. They are the loudest couple I have ever met. They chatter and banter endlessly. The lady recalls a number of fights she has had in Lilongwe’s night clubs, and how she won all of them. My uncle recalls various episodes from his long life in prison. My brain becomes tired of listening to this cheap talk. I start drifting into sleep.

I wake up. The bed is shaking. Apparently my bed mates have entered into another activity other than talking. My mind gets troubled. How can my uncle . . . ?

At fifteen, I know about these things.

* * *

“When am I going back to the Kamuzu Academy?” I ask Uncle Umodzi.

“The moment I find somebody to take the house at Area 10, you will be on your way to school,” he says.

Meanwhile, the cooker has disappeared. The day it did, I did not see Uncle Umodzi for three days. When he turned up, he was a dishevelled apparition in a state of partial insensibility. He kept swaying from side to side, like a piece of cloth in the wind.

A week passes. And another. And another.

“When shall I go back to the KA?” I ask again. I am getting impatient. Too much time has already passed, and my friends are racing towards the middle of various syllabi.

“As soon as I find a tenant for the house,” he says. This time, there is a tone to his reply, but I cannot place it. It is either anger or frustration or both.

Then the refrigerator goes missing, and so does Uncle Umodzi. He reappears, four days later, with another ‘aunt’ for yet another session of bed-squeaking.

“Uncle Umodzi . . . ?”

“No tenant has been found yet!” he snarls.

The following morning, I decide to take a walk. I walk past Phwetekere, past the Falls Estate into town. I get swallowed up in the crowd of Malangalanga Road. With my father, we used to hoot our way into this sea of humanity in the comfy of our Merc. Now I must step aside for the man carrying a huge load on his head, shouting “Odi! Odi! Odi!” – Give way!

I walk on, past Shoprite, past the Reserve Bank into the City Centre. After Area 11, I branch off into Tsoka Road.

Fond memories well up in me. I look at the high fences of Area 10, fences that exclude humanity from humanity. The plaque on this one reads: “We Are Protected by the Elite Team Security.” Another one announces: “Beware of Dogs.” Security guards in green uniform and shiny boots stand gallantly outside the gates. I pass by. No smile at all. Perhaps they are trained not to smile.

It has started raining. I quicken my pace. I rush towards house No. 10/222. I must find shelter from the rain.

I almost go past it, without recognising it. For displayed prominently on the entrance of the gate is a huge sign, showing a leopard standing on two legs on one side and a lion in the same position on the other. They appear to hold something in between them, a shield like the one sports teams fight for back at the Academy. Beneath the picture are the words: Unity and Freedom.

“What business do you have with the Ambassador?”

I look up, startled. A man in camouflage uniform, gun in hand, asks me.

“The Ambassador?” I ask. “Which Ambassador?”

“Or you are looking for work, perhaps?” he continues, ignoring my question.

“No, sir. Not work,” I answer.

“Trespassing, then, aren’t you?” he goes on. “And we arrest people for trespassing.”

My legs have started trembling. Something turns in my stomach.

“Sorry, sir,” I find myself saying. “Sorry, sir.” I utter a string of sorry sirs as if I am reciting the prayer of Hail Mary. I walk away. Away from my parents’ house. Away from memories of my childhood. Away into the rain.

A big black Mercedes Benz speeds on the road. Its wheel dips into the pothole and splashes a jet of muddy water at me. By this time, the rain is turning into a storm. I cannot continue to walk.

I recognize the structure to my left. It is Rafiq’s house. I bang at the gate. When I get no response, I open and enter. I run to the verandah and knock at the door.

A wait. Click! The door opens. It is Rafiq. He looks at me from head to toe.

“Chuma!” he exclaims. “You are awfully wet! Please, come in.”

At least, Rafiq is his old self.

I feel guilty to be let onto the carpet in these dripping clothes. “But the carpet?”

“Don’t worry. Just follow me.” He assures.

I follow him past an expensive lounge suite, the corridor, into a vast bedroom. The bed is so huge, covered with affluent duvets.

“You must be cold. I will make you some tea. Meanwhile, take off your clothes, lie on my bed and cover yourself with the duvets and blankets, lest you catch pneumonia.” He goes out.

I am dazzled. I never knew Rafiq’s kindness could stretch this far. If all men were like Rafiq in the world, the earth would be a paradise. But, alas, there must be some like Uncle Umodzi to play the villain. One of our teachers at the KA once said: “What makes the world an interesting place to live in is the combined presence of the good and the bad. You can only appreciate the good if you have experienced the bad.”

“Here you are,” says Rafiq, giving me a steaming cup of milky tea.

After the drink, I fall asleep.

I don’t know what length of time has passed, but, eventually, I wake up.

The weight on my back! What is this? Somebody is on top of me inside the blankets! I try to shake my body to throw the person off. Wasted effort. “Who are you?” I shout. “What are you doing?” I struggle, but powerful hands pin my arms down.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s me.” It is Rafiq. Rafiq, naked on top of me!

I shout. He covers my mouth. He frees one hand to adjust his position. I seize the opportunity. I gather all my strength to struggle. As he struggles to pin my hands, I roll over a bit, starting to face upwards at an awkward angle.

The struggle intensifies. I begin kicking about, biting, and throwing my arms all over. We roll over a couple of times in mortal combat. By some stroke of luck, he doubles over in agony. I extricate myself from him and bolt for the door. I run past the living room, out of the house, out of the fence. I run on and on…..

Till my lungs feel like bursting. I must rest. Oh, God! I am naked! Already curious glances are being thrown towards my direction as people pass by. “Look at that mad boy!” somebody shouts. I dive into the bush and hide.

After sunset, I trace my way home, always diving into the shadows when faced by glaring headlights of a passing car. It takes me hours to reach home.

I open the door and enter. What a disgusting site! Uncle Umodzi has vomited all over the bed. It appears he has rolled over the stinking stuff a number of times. He keeps belching loudly.

“Uncle Umodzi!” I shout in annoyance.

“Been out for a bo . . . (belch) bottle or two, eh?” he says. “I was not aware . . . (another belch) was not aware that (hic!) you drink. Tomorrow . . . (vomits) night we’ll paint the town red, you and me.”

I roll the bedding to his side of the bed and try to sleep next to the stench. Exhausted as I am, I quickly pass out.

When I wake up in the morning, Uncle Umodzi is just about to leave. “Uncle, when am I going to the Kamuzu Academy?”

“The house has not yet been . . . .”

I will never go back to the Academy. Painful, but that is the grim and sober truth.

* * *
“Njala bwana,” I implore, both hands outstretched in anticipation as I kneel down. “I haven’t eaten for five days. Please help me.”

The man slams the door shut and starts the engine.

“Pleeease!” I repeat.

The car starts to move backwards slowly.


“Go to hell!” he spits. “Look at you, aren’t you ashamed that you are not in class at this early hour of the morning? Instead, you’re making begging your lifelong career, trying to become Malawi’s professional beggar. Get lost!”

I do not know what to do, what to say. Should I start delving into the details of my plight? That my father owned a better car than his? That I was born and grew up in a low-density suburb of Area 10? All that to convince this stranger to assist me with a little money for food? Let him go. Even beggars have their pride. Let him go. There are other more understanding people in the world.

If Uncle Umodzi had not performed one of his disappearing acts, this time for almost two weeks, I would not have been standing here in this street. If he had left me money to last me the period of his absence, I would not have taken to the street. But he did not. The little money he left me ran out before the end of the first week. What choice do I have?

My knees are wobbly. My stomach feels as if its contents have been pulled out. I walk because I must find food. I force myself on like Carl Brashear in a movie I watched sometime back only that he did it for honour but I am doing it for survival.

I walk past Pizza Kings. My father had the habit of bringing me to this place every Saturday whenever I was on holiday. Here, we were always received with warmth and recognition. Waiters swarmed around us and attended expediently to our every need. Of course, at the end of it, there lay the generosity of my father: a handsome tip.

Today, I stand outside the selfsame restaurant. I have the hope that the waiters will recognise me instantly. I am sure they will understand.

“What can I do for you?” a tall waiter confronts me.

“Food,” I tell him. “I need food.”

He looks at me from head to toe. “The food here is very expensive,” he says at length. “The cheapest pizza costs one thousand kwacha before taxes.” He flashes a laminated menu before me.

“Please, sir,” I continue, “I don’t have any money, but I am desperately hungry. I don’t want to die.”

He points at something. My eyes follow his finger. Opempha pano saloledwa mwalamulo, announces a sign. Beggars are not allowed by order. The message is clear. But I decide to stand my ground.

“Please, sir” I say.

“Security!” he calls. A man answers from within the restaurant. Two security men in blue and white uniform materialise at once. “Same old urchin problem,” the waiter says. A ferocious growl immediately behind the guards tells me they are not alone. A huge dog is accompanying them.

I turn to leave at once. Now I understand why in the heart of a big city, one can be as far away from help as in the heart of the Sahara desert.

A woman walks out of Nando’s. She propels something into the dustbin. I rush towards the place. I dip my hand into the bin and fish it out. It is the remainder of a chicken piece. My teeth go to work right away. After a minute or so, my hand goes onto another voyage of discovery. I find two more pieces, almost identical to the first. I work on these ones to perfection.

Life is a walking shadow: I agree. Life is a tale told by an idiot. I agree too. It signifies nothing. Shakespeare was right. Here now I am, a little Nebuchadnezzar drastically sent away from comfort to patronise dustbins.

Hours have passed. I have been all over: Old Town, City Centre, Seven-Eleven. I now have greater knowledge, perhaps more than some Lilongwe City Council personnel, about where specifically each dustbin is located.

Let me go back home. The sun is about to set.

Now, what is this? Something turns in my stomach, accompanied by terrible pain. The pain is so unbearable that I sit down. I can feel a strong, irresistible urge to empty the bowels. I try to control myself. To my dismay, I have lost control over my sphincters. A stream of liquid starts dripping out into my trousers. The pain is increasing at an alarming rate.

I lower myself into the roadside ditch and lie down.

* * *

“Today, we are gathered here to welcome our well-wishers from the Kamuzu Academy who have come to help our Orphanage. In front of you is Mr Blackwood. Mr Blackwood is the Head of Science at the Academy. Besides, Mr Blackwood is the Chaplain of the Academy and also Chairman of the Welfare Committee. I now ask Mr Blackwood to address us.” The short, fat woman sits down.

Where am I? How have I come here?

“….. appreciate the good work done by Lusungu Orphanage. Your special effort of pulling poor, homeless souls from the gutters in the street is highly commendable. This is the co-existence God wanted mankind . . .” Mr Blackwood rumbles on. He talks about God, mercy, kindness, love, philanthropy and all that is theoretical. Or ecclesiastical.

My memory is running away from me. Or, maybe, I am running away from it. Either I slept, or I passed out, I am not sure. Perhaps, that was when they brought me here.

“The Academy now donates two million kwacha to help the Orphanage.” (Hand clapping).

After the talking, the smiling and the picture-taking, Mr Blackwood turns to the woman. “I think I know one child in the group,” he says in a lower tone. “Do you permit adoption?”

My heart starts racing. Is he referring to me? Has he recognized me? Please, God, have mercy! Let it be me.

“Of course we can release any child, provided you follow the adoption procedure with the government,” says the woman. “Which one is the child?”

Please, God! Our Father, who art in heaven . . . I begin to pray.

“It is . . .” His finger rises. Hallowed be thy name. . . It points. It points towards my direction. Is it me? Is it me? Thy kingdom come . . . “that girl over there.”

I breathe in deeply. I suspend my prayer indefinitely. Perhaps there is no God. Maybe God is an illusion the destitute turn to for comfort.

The woman calls the girl sitting next to me. She walks towards Mr Blackwood. She is a very beautiful girl in her early teens. Any contact with soap and water would make her a sparkling queen.

And Mr Blackwood is single. He lives alone in his huge house.

The three of them go into an office.

I lower my head and cry.


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