| Innisfree Poetry
| Enskyment Journal
Scams | Stars & Squadrons |
Call it Fate
By Stanley Onjezani Kenani
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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
“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
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.
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!”
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
* * *
“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
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
“The Academy now donates two million kwacha to help the Orphanage.” (Hand
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
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
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.