By Mubanga Mulapa (Zambia)
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By Mubanga Mulapa
It is mid-afternoon, and the African sun is glowing fiercely in a pale, blue sky. I am standing under the shade of an elm, at a place where the gravel road ends and the forest begins. This point, perhaps, is where civilization as I know it ends, for beyond this place there is nothing but green forest; there is no rail or proper road, and from now on, the only means of transport is bicycle and ox-cart.
My name is Mulenga, which means painter or creator. It is a common name for both men and women in Zambia. Why my father gave me such a name I have never asked. Perhaps my parents wanted me to be an artist or an engineer, and if this is the case, then I have failed them, for am neither an artist nor an engineer. Instead, I am a primary school teacher who is on his way to taking up a teaching post in the countryside.
It is this morning I began the journey. First, a slow-moving diesel train had conveyed me from the capital city, Lusaka, to the town of Feira. In Feira, I had jumped onto a bus, which had ferried me through dusty country roads up to the rural town of Samba, some 300 miles away. I had boarded a lorry in Samba, and the vehicle had transported me deep into the country, where I am now, at the very edge of the world, or so it seems. I have yet to reach my destination, and the remaining distance, miles of forests and bush paths has to be covered by bicycle or ox-cart.
I survey the scene around me: the grass green as emerald, the robust trunks of the trees, and the flourishing shrubs, and from the corner of my eye I see two men approaching, pulling their bicycles along.
“Jango?” one of the men asks upon reaching me. He has thick eyebrows and dark quiet eyes, this man.
I nod my head in assent.
“How much is a bicycle ride to Jango?” I ask.
The man looks baffled to hear me speak. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but no words come out of his mouth. I am doubtless that he does not understand English. We stare at each other in silence, and I wonder what the next action should be. Then I fish out a five thousand kwacha bill from my pocket and flash it in the man’s face, for that was the amount I had been told was charged to transport one from the road to the village.
The man nods and smiles, showing teeth stained brown with tobacco. I only have one bag, which the cyclist secures on the handlebars of the bicycle. I sit on the carrier, behind the cyclist, and the bicycle rolls forward as the man begins to peddle.
The cyclist is probably no younger than I am. He is smaller than I am, but we could be the same age, as far as I can deduce. Most likely, being a rural man, life had been harsher to him than it had been to me. But what is a mystery to me is where the man is getting the energy from to cycle this far, for we seem to be riding on forever. I am only sitting on the carrier, but I feel as weary as a farm labourer at dusk, while the cyclist shows no signs of exhaustion. There are many questions I would like to ask the cyclist, questions about the place he is taking me to, but no words pass between me and the man, for there is a barrier in language between us.
The forest paths we are traversing are narrow and covered with tufts of grass worn away by the feet of domestic animals and men, and by the wheels of bicycles and ox-carts. On both sides of the path are tall, evergreen trees which appear as though they had stood in their spot from the beginning of time, and the air is fresh, and filled with the cries of the cicadas and the singing of the birds.
As we ride along, the forest becomes less dense, and the land slopes down to a valley. More travelling brings us into open country. I feel as though I am being transported to another world, a world of hills and valleys, a world of fountains and meadows. We meet country folk carrying loads on their heads, and cyclists heading in the opposite direction, and riding like this, surrounded by lush green forests, and breathing fresh forest air, I think of the city I have left behind, and its polluted motorways clogged with cars, and its crowded streets, and its shop corridors full of vendors and street kids, and I feel a kind of peace in my soul, and for the first time since I began the journey, I feel I have done the right thing to accept a teaching post in a rural area.
Travelling along the path, I think of the time three years ago when I had obtained a teaching diploma, a piece of paper I had thought would guarantee me a job and financial security. I had been drawn to the teaching profession because of the seeming freedom the vocation offered, and because of the lax entry requirements, and because teaching was one of several courses whose tuition I could afford. But what I did not know was that after graduation, I would wander the streets of the city for two years without a job, as the Zambian government, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, decided to freeze the recruitment of civil servants to cut down on expenditure. It did not matter that new teachers were needed all over the country; it did not matter that illiteracy, which was so widespread already, was slowly gaining the upper hand. Graduates with teaching diplomas simply vegetated at home, that is, those who had homes to go to.
After two years, the country had qualified to join the club of highly indebted poor countries, and congratulatory speeches were made by members of the diplomatic corps, and by politicians, and bottles of champagne were popped in celebration, as if it were a good thing to be called poor and highly indebted. But of course, the reason for the celebrations was that highly indebted poor countries were relieved of most of their debts. And so it came to pass that Zambia was relieved of its debts, and the government, at this time, saw it fit to resume employing civil servants, who included primary and high school teachers alike. But by then, the number of unemployed teachers in the country had become as numerous as the number of holes in a fishing net, and the government could not employ all of them at the same time.
I had applied for deployment, and the ministry of education had seen it appropriate to post me to
a school deep in the rural area, which offer I declined. I spent the next one year trying to get a post in an urban area, and the ministry, on its part, spent one year denying me such a chance.
“The only vacancies we have are in the rural areas,” the officials at the ministry would tell me. “Are you willing to go and work in a rural area?”
“No,” I would reply.
Why! For the same reasons you would not want to go and work in a rural area yourself, I would respond in my heart. Why, because life in rural areas is more or less one of deprivation, one of suffering; because of the prevalence of mosquitoes and tsetse flies in the country; because of the stories of witchcraft I have heard; because I do not understand the dialects spoken in the countryside. I wanted to shout at the official that the government had to develop the rural areas before I could go and live in them, but I did not. What I did, instead, was retreat from the office and resign myself to my fate.
I have had no job for three years now, and poverty is the song I have sung, hunger is its chorus. But now hunger and destitution have forced me into submission, and I have accepted a teaching position in the countryside, at a school called Jango, in a village by the same name. I have told myself that I could always return to the city if I find life too harsh in the country.
It takes about two hours to reach Jango, which is as rural a place as could be. The village consists of hundreds of thatched huts on a land that stretches as far as the eye can see. The huts are made of brown mud, and are grouped into compounds, with each compound consisting of several huts enclosed within a hedge of bamboos or of wood. The villagers keep sheep, goats and pigs, and these wander in the grounds indiscriminately.
We come to the village market, which is spread out along the lane, and where the sellers, mostly women, are squatting in front of their wares of yellow ripened mangoes, pink sweet potatoes, and fresh green cassava leaves, as well as other fruits and vegetables stacked high on wooden stalls. The cyclist stops pedaling and alights from the bicycle, and so do I.
“Jango?” I ask, and the cyclist nods his head in response. I take my luggage and hand the cyclist a five thousand Kwacha bill.
“Where is the school?” I enquire.
Once again, the man looks confused to hear me speak a language he does not understand. But I have no choice but to speak in English, for I cannot speak Babi, the language spoken in this part of the country.
“Sukulu?” the cyclist doubtfully asks.
I interpret that as school, and I nod my head, and in reply, the man points in the direction where a number of structures are standing. The sun, a huge red ball of fire, is hanging low in the sky, and I hasten towards the school so as to catch the school officials in their offices. On my way I pass a number of children playing with pebbles in the grounds, their faces dirty with the brown soil of the land. I have seen a village in a rural area before, but only on the pages of a book. But now I am going to live within one. Indeed, this is the furthest I have travelled from the city. All my life had been spent connected to modern conveniences such as electricity, running water, phone and internet, which are only to be found in urban areas. But now I must do without these things. I have now even forgotten my email address.
A few minutes of walking brings me to my destination. The school is enclosed within a wire fence, and so far it is the only structure of concrete I have seen in this place. The windows of the classrooms are of glass, and there are tall palm trees in the school grounds. The school consists of four long structures and a number of small isolated blocks. The place is quiet, the pupils having gone home. I pass through the gate, and I see a sign that directs me to the administration block. Another sign guides to the schoolmaster’s office. I knock on the door, and a muffled voice of a man within the room says “Come in.” I turn the knob and push the door open, and I find myself in a small room furnished with a mahogany desk and chests of drawers. Behind the desk is sitting a chubby, partially bald man of about fifty. The man looks up from his desk, his reading glasses threatening to fall off his nose. He regards me with easy curiosity at first, which later turns to disdain, upon noticing my soiled appearance, for my hair and clothes are covered with dust, which itself is the result of travelling on dusty, country roads.
“Good evening sir,” I manage to speak before him.
“Good evening,” the man replies in a quiet voice. “What can I do for you?”
“My name is Mulenga,” I reply. “I have come to take up my post in your school.”
“Mr. Mulenga, welcome,” the man says, smiling. “Yes, we are aware of your coming. We received news of your coming here a week ago. You have done well, arriving whilst I am in the office. I was just about to leave. My name is Shume. I am the schoolmaster. How was your journey, Mr. Mulenga?”
I mumble something about how lovely but tiresome the journey was.
The man now looks at me with new eyes, having realized I am not just another person bursting into his office when he is about to knock off after a hard day’s work.
“You will need a place to sleep,” he says. “There is a hut reserved for you not too far away from here. I will call someone to take you there.”
Mr. Shume leaves the office and returns ten minutes later with a boy of about eleven.
“The boy will lead you to your hut, Mr. Mulenga,” the schoolmaster says. “Is this all your luggage?”
“School starts at 6:30.”
I walk out of the office, and shut the door behind me, and the boy, my guide, walks beside me. The villagers watch us as we walk down the lane. Obviously, everyone can tell that I am a stranger. On our way to my new home, we pass two houses that are different from the rest. These two structures are of concrete, and are large in size, and have glass windows and asbestos roofs. I suppose the houses belong to the schoolmaster and his deputy, or to the chief, or to some other important person in the village.
Ten minutes of walking brings me and the boy to my new home, to a hut, which is not at all different from the others in the village. The hut is made out of mud, is square in shape, and has a thatched roof. It also has an entrance which appears too small for a man of my stature. I will definitely have to stoop to pass through the door. The door itself is a simple structure of planks nailed together, and the door frames are pieces of wood. Slices of rubber nailed to the frame serve as hinges for the door. I remove the piece of wire binding the door, and I and the boy pass through the door and into the hut.
The hut is partitioned into two rooms. Two small holes, square in shape, serve as windows in each of the rooms. The entire floor is of brown mud.
The hut smells of a mixture of damp earth and smoke from a kerosene lamp. The hut is empty, save for a square mat made out of soft reeds, which is spread in the centre of each one of the rooms.
I tell the boy he could leave, but the boy does not understand English, and he continues to stand where he is, unable to decipher what it is I am saying. I am forced to gesture to the boy with my hands to tell him that he could go home, and the boy finally understands what it is I am trying to say, and he takes his leave. As the boy walks away, a new worry assails me. How will I communicate with the people when I do not know their language? Zambia has 73 languages and dialects, impossible for any one person to learn. Is it really necessary for a country of 13 million people to have such a large number of languages? How on earth did we become so divided as a people, to an extent that we began to speak 73 languages and dialects?
The officials at the ministry of education had not asked me if I spoke the language used in this part of the country, and I, even I, had not been bothered by my inability to speak the local language, for I had thought that I will not interact much with the locals. But my fear that I will fail to communicate with the locals is eclipsed by the need at hand, the requirement to transform my humble hut into a home. It is getting dark, and I light two candles, one for each of the rooms. The evening is full of nocturnal sounds, some of which I recognize as the chirping of the crickets, the croaking of the frogs, and the humming of the night birds.
I may be in a rural area, but still, I feel that my hosts have done a poor job as far as my welfare is concerned. This is what had kept me from accepting a post in the rural area, the fear of living in pitiable surroundings such as these. Is this where a school teacher is supposed to live, in a little mud hut that has neither a lock nor a bed? I had hoped that life in Jango would be different, that it would be better than in the other rural areas I have heard about. But I can see with my own eyes that life here is no different from the other rural areas in the country. But perhaps it is too early to judge, I tell myself. Perhaps I would be taken to a better house when morning comes. But for now, I must make do with what I have. With these thoughts in mind, I spread the bed sheets on the reed mat to make a bed, and in the company of mosquitoes and crickets, I sleep throughout the night and wake up with the sun the following morning.
It is my first morning in Jango. Today my two years in college would be put to the test. But first, I have to wash and dress up before I report for work. Having no washing basin of my own, I borrow this from my neighbour, a fellow teacher at the school. My new friend also offers to lend me a tablet of soap, but I decline.
“It is alright,” I tell him. “I have that.”
There is no running water in the village, and the toilet is a pit dug in the ground. Next to the latrine is the bathroom, constructed out of tree trunks, plastics and sacks. Water is obtained from the wells scattered throughout the village. Already, I have learned how to draw water from a well.
As I make my way to the school, the sun is glowing in a cloudless, blue sky. I think to myself that there is, in this whole place, a kind of beauty, serene, untainted. I meet a group of women with children on their backs and buckets of farm produce on their heads. The women are laughing and talking amongst themselves, and it seems to me that despite their hard lives, the people here are happy; why their permanent smiles and grins if this were not the case? But could a person from the city, a person like me, get used to this place? The village is very far behind in time. There are no shopping malls here, no supermarkets; there is no post office or Internet cafe. There are no clubs, theatres and dance halls. I have been told by my neighbour that there are people in Jango who have never been to the city, who have never seen a plane or a car. There is no newspaper, no television, no radio. There is no mobile phone network too, and to catch even the faintest of signals, one has to stand on top of an anthill. But even if a week signal is obtained, how would one charge their mobile phone without electricity? Little development has overtaken the village, and it might as well be eighteenth century in Jango.
As I reach the school, I see hordes of pupils, boys and girls, with books in their hands, going to their respective classrooms. I walk to the schoolmaster’s office and knock on the door. I hear Mr. Shume tell me to come in, and I push open the door and enter the office. We exchange greetings, me and Mr. Shume. Then the schoolmaster surrenders me to Mr. Chaga, who, he tells me, is the deputy schoolmaster. Mr. Chaga himself is a man in his forties with a thick moustache and small keen eyes. He takes me around the school and introduces me to the other teachers. I am allocated a table in an office shared by two other teachers. Finally, we return to Mr. Chaga’s office, where the deputy schoolmaster presents me with the curriculum, textbooks, a box of chalk, and an eraser.
“You will teach grade 3A,” the deputy schoolmaster says. “The pupils are in block 2. If you have any questions, Mr. Mulenga, do not hesitate to come and see me.”
That, I know, is a sign of my dismissal. I have many questions to ask the deputy schoolmaster, questions about my welfare in this wretched place, questions about my settling allowance, questions about my this and that, but I just leave quietly and close the door behind me.
I find my class at the far end of the block. I swing open the door of the classroom and find myself in front of about thirty children, ranging in age between eight and twelve. A hush falls on the class as the children become aware of my presence. Those who were chattering stop talking, and those who were horse-playing return to their seats. For a brief moment, we stare at each other, me and the pupils. The children do not stand up to greet me like I had seen pupils do in other schools, and I am at a loss how to begin, realizing that even the gesture of standing up to greet me has not been performed.
“Good morning class,” I say, and smile a little.
I wait for a response, but there is none. The children regard me quietly with their dark, shiny eyes. They are indifferent to my greeting. I clear my throat and repeat my greeting, but once again there is no response.
“My name is Mulenga,” I tell the class. “I am your new teacher.”
But there is no reaction from the children.
“Tell me your names,” I say, “starting from here.” I point at a thin boy with a tired look on his face. But the boy says nothing and continues to stare at me with the same dreamlike expression in his eyes.
“You do not know your name?” I ask.
There is no answer.
“Who can tell me their name?”
I am certain of it, that the children do not understand English, and it seems to me as though there will be no end to the number of obstacles I am going to encounter in this place. How in the name of life are we going to communicate, me and these children? Within my heart, I curse the government official who had posted me to this wretched place without informing me that I needed to speak the local language. I take a book from one of the pupils to see how far the class had gone with the former teacher, but there is little to guide me in the book. I tell the children that I will be their teacher henceforth; I talk to them simply to pass time. From the expressions on the faces of the children, I know that I might as well be talking to a collection of dummies. Not understanding what I am saying, the children quickly lose the little interest they had shown at first, and some of them go back to staring through the windows. I sigh with relief as the ringing of a bell announces the start of mid-morning break.
I mention the matter to Mr. Hamani, one of the teachers in the school, who bluntly confirms my suspicion that the children do not understand a word of English.
“I faced the same challenge when I first came to Jango,” the thirty-something-year-old man tells me. “But now I speak their language. You simply have no choice but to learn Babi. But don’t think that learning Babi will make it any easier for you to teach these children. Most of these children are not interested in learning and only come to school to pass time. School is perceived to be of little value by the majority of people in Jango; it is regarded as something one goes through as a child, and for the most part a waste of time. The only reason your class is full now is that it is not the farming season. When the rainy season comes, most of the pupils will skip school to accompany their parents in the fields. Work in the fields, it seems, takes precedence over school.”
So, I have to learn Babi, the language the children speak. Only then will I be able to enter the children’s heads, reach their hearts, and pass on the knowledge they so much need. But already I feel so discouraged, and I begin to question myself whether it is necessary for the children to learn the things I am supposed to teach them. So cut off from the rest of the world, so immersed in their bush way of life, what use is Pythagoras’ Theorem going to be to them? How would it help them, learning by heart the poems of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Wordsworth? What use would it be to them to know when the French revolution took place? Perhaps the children had better be left to themselves; perhaps they had better be left to live their quiet, rural lives, and to believe in their culture, and those things that give meaning to their lives. If they must be taught anything, it must be the history of their tribe, and how they got where they are, and how they are to survive and live at peace with nature like their ancestors had done for thousands of years.
On my way home, after work, I pass through the market to buy food supplies, charcoal, a brazier, and a washing basin. I cannot find maize flour, which I am used to. I can only see cassava and millet flour, and it is these I buy, and fish and vegetables. A few metres away from the market are a few shops, and here I exchange my Kwacha for cooking utensils, cooking oil, and small items like salt, tea leaves, and sugar. As I trudge home laden with my wares, I cannot help but ask what was happening in Jango when the rest of the world was moving ahead. What was happening here when everywhere people were constructing roads and railway lines, building hospitals and shopping malls, putting up telephone masts and satellite dishes, laying sanitation pipes and electricity grids? Even town politics had penetrated the forests of Jango but little. It matters little here who reclined in the presidential palace in the capital, or who drank tea in parliament, or what new laws were enacted, for in Jango, people follow their own laws, which are passed and enforced by the chief.
We cannot go on like this. Either I learn the language the children speak, or the children learn my language, whichever will be faster. Presently, I am a stranger to the children; I can see it in their eyes. I have also begun to feel that Mr. Hamani, my colleague, was right when he said that it is not only the barrier in language which is preventing me from getting to these children. It seems to me as though the children find school boring beyond any mentioning of it. To teach these children perhaps will require more than a tongue of their own.
There are only four other teachers in the school, and all are discouraged beyond any mentioning of it, and all, it seems to me, are waiting to escape from Jango at the slightest chance. As a result of the small number of teachers, even the schoolmaster and his deputy are forced to teach at times. The school receives new teachers every year, but none of them want to live in a thatched hut, or drink water out of a well, or lead a life devoid of modern conveniences, and they leave sooner or later.
As for me, I am facing a new crisis. Nearly all the money I came with from the city is finished, and if I do not acquire some cash somehow, there is no telling what I will eat. There is no word from the schoolmaster, either on my settling allowance, or even to enquire how I have settled in my new job. What is a mystery to me is how the officials at the ministry of education expect me to begin a new life in the country on nothing. I know my humility and silence are killing me. Perhaps I should pluck up courage and ask the schoolmaster when my allowance would be ready, I say to myself, and this is what I do. I walk to the schoolmaster’s office and find Mr. Shume looking over some documents at his desk.
“I was wondering, sir, when my settling allowance would be ready,” I manage to say.
The schoolmaster seems taken aback. However, it is only but for a moment.
“The allowance?” he asks. “But of course. Why not? All new teachers are given a settling allowance. But we have received no information about your allowance, Mr. Mulenga. We sent papers to the ministry days back, and I am positive that by the end of this week, you will have your money. We will not hesitate to let you know, Mr. Mulenga, once your money comes in.”
At this answer, I retreat from the room and walk to the staffroom, where I find two other teachers in conversation.
“Two weeks so far,” Mr. Chibu, one of the teachers, addresses me. “You are proving to be strong, Mr. Mulenga.”
The other teacher laughs.
“Well, I am coping,” I reply. “Surely, if you yourself have managed to survive in Jango, why shouldn’t I?”
“That remains to be seen, Mr. Mulenga. Even so, congratulations for having put up with so many trials in this place. Believe me, I have lived here long, and I have seen teachers come to Jango, and I have seen them leave Jango faster than they came.”
“I intend to stay, if you must know.”
“Your face does not reflect your words.”
“Is my face supposed to reflect anything?”
“There is a game we play, Mr. Mulenga, counting the number of days or weeks a new teacher stays in Jango before they decide they have had enough of the place. The teacher who would have won the prize stayed for just thirty days. He was simply waiting for his salary and, having obtained it, packed his bags and said he was going to collect some property he had left in the city. But of course, he never came back.”
“I intend to do the same, if you must know,” I tell Mr. Chibu. “Only I will not say I will come back. At least now you know where I stand.”
Both the teachers laugh.
“At least now you have spoken the truth,” Mr. Chibu says.
I end up by borrowing a hundred thousand kwacha from Mr. Chibu, who tells me that he is the only bank in Jango, and that the rates he charges are so low everyone in Jango would afford his loans.
I am occupied with learning the language, but I also find time to take an occasional walk through the village in the late afternoon, when the sun has lost most of its power. I also try to talk with my neighbours in my limited Babi. People in Jango appear to live for work. They are ever working, either in their fields, or building or repairing their huts, or fishing in the lakes and rivers, or working on their granaries. The only pastime I see the villagers engage in is a game called “nsolo,” which men and women play with pebbles placed into small holes dug in the ground, that and the drinking of liquor at the taverns, which are hastily arranged shelters where everyone is free to go and sell homemade beer. Once a year, there is a huge ceremony to celebrate the end of the harvest. Animals are slaughtered for the feasts, and large quantities of beer brewed, and for once it is not a sin to get dead drunk. The village rings with merriment, and the celebrations last for several days.
Slowly, I have begun to understand a little of the language spoken here. I have taken it upon myself to learn Babi in the shortest possible time, and I feel that in a way, I am making progress. I use several methods in learning the language. Sometimes I go to the market, where traders, mostly women, call out to me to come and buy their wares. I hold the money in my hands, ready to buy, but I only want the sellers to talk to me, to encourage me to buy, to praise their ware so that I am enticed to buy. Through this method I have managed to increase my vocabulary of Babi. At times I go to the tavern, where the villagers drink a homemade brew called ‘seven days.’ My strategy here is to eavesdrop on the conversations at hand, and with my limited vocabulary, I try to figure out what it is the people are saying. Sometimes it is just from the children I learn, and of course from the other teachers in the school. I no longer speak to the children entirely in English, but try as much as possible to sneak in some words of Babi now and again. I have seen a change in the children too, in that they seem more receptive to my teaching than before. One of the children, a girl by the name of Siluta makes a strong impression upon me. She is the first of my pupils to show signs of progress in reading and grammar. I learn later that she is an orphan, and that she is being kept by her aunt in the village. It is this that encourages me to go on, the realisation that the children can indeed learn what I am trying to teach them.
I spend a lot of time thinking how I may help my pupils. In the storeroom, I unearth several wall charts nobody has used for years. The charts are colourful and display a variety of scenes and landscapes. Some portray pictures of lands far away, such as Greenland, Egypt and China. Some charts depict men and women working at various jobs, none of which are practiced in Jango. I explain to the children that the world is more than their eyes can see in the village and forests of Jango, that there are places in the world where people live differently, and that with the help of education, one can become anything they aspire to be in life. I make it known to the children that there are myriad careers one could take up in life other than fishing, farming or hunting. I urge the children to work hard at school, explaining that education is the key that unlocks the door to a better life.
I have progressed in my work, as I said, but my financial problems remain. There has been no news of my allowance, either from the ministry or the schoolmaster. What is a mystery to me is how the officials at the ministry of education expect me to survive on nothing for so long. I find myself thinking that if my situation does not change, I will have no choice but to do what other teachers before me had done, that is, escape back to the city. My hopes that I will be transferred to another hut have died, and I have since told myself that I will simply have to get used to my present dwelling place. The school master, his deputy, and the chief are the only ones who live in normal houses here. Their houses are made of concrete, have several rooms, and have glass windows and asbestos roofs. But the rest of us have to be content with our roach-infested shacks. In these surroundings, I think to myself, it is easy to see why teachers sent to Jango do not stay, and why, in the very true sense of the words, change and development have shunned Jango.
My allowance has delayed beyond any mentioning of it. Flesh and blood cannot endure it. Once again, I find myself thinking that it would be better to abandon my job and go back to the city, instead of continuing to suffer this hunger, this anxiety, this humiliation. I simply should accept that I have failed to live in Jango, not due to my own weakness, but the weakness of the people entrusted to run education in the country, the weakness of the ministry and its officials. Perhaps I must do what other teachers before me had done. A number of teachers, I have been told, simply forsook their positions and disappeared. Nobody knew where they went, or what became of them. But there were others who were smarter. These did not simply abandon their jobs, but pretended to suffer from this and that. They had forged medical certificates to support their claims; they had letters of recommendations from people in lofty places, which urged the ministry and the school to urgently transfer them to urban areas where they would be within reach of medical facilities for their conditions. I can do the same, though I do not know as yet which illness I must pretend to suffer from. I must not continue to languish in this wretched place where nobody seems to care what happens to me, whether I die of hunger, or from lack of medical attention in the event I became sick. The nearest clinic is a hundred miles away, and I do not know what become of people who fall ill suddenly and require urgent medical attention.
But if I am to leave now, I realize, I would not even be able to pay for the bicycle ride to the
village seventy miles away. Besides, I owe Mr. Chibu a sum of money, and I am not a man who would leave without settling his debts. I simply have to postpone my trip to the city to another time.
Indeed, it is the children who have fed me. Without them, there is no telling what I could have eaten. The children, out of kindness, and perhaps out of knowing what was happening to me, had been bringing me this and that to eat. They are a kindly lot, these children, just like their parents. One of the children, my pupil, had brought me some bush meat, and another had given me a huge watermelon, both of which took me days to consume. My neighbours too have helped me with their gifts of sweet potatoes, groundnuts, and millet flour. Giving and helping one another seems to be a way of life for these people, unlike the folk back in the city. But one cannot live forever on the kindness of children and neighbours.
Suddenly, I cannot stand the situation I am in anymore, and I march to the schoolmaster’s office and burst into his room. After the customary greetings, I enquire about my allowance. The schoolmaster is at pains to explain that I need to be patient, since he too knows that I have been patient for a long time.
“We have received no news of you allowance, so far,” he says. “Normally, a messenger from the ministry delivers the money, or a document to say the money is ready at the bank. I really do not know why it should take so long. I sympathise with you, Mr. Mulenga. But believe me, we will not delay in making it known to you that your allowance is ready when the money comes.”
“But what am I to eat, between now and the time I am to get my allowance?” I ask.
The schoolmaster scratches the bald patch of his head.
“The school can lend you a little money, Mr. Mulenga, say a hundred and fifty thousand Kwacha. Will you be willing to borrow?”
“I have no choice.”
The schoolmaster rises from his desk and walks to a concealed safe in the corner of the room. He opens the safe and selects three fifty thousand Kwacha bills, which he hands over to me. I take the cash, and for the moment, my fears that I would starve are allayed. But I realize that the money will not last long, and sooner or later, I must come back to the schoolmaster for more.
I have an urge to write a letter to my kinsmen, to tell them how I have settled down in my new place. I write about how beautiful, and quiet, and close to nature the place is, but mention nothing about my hardships, knowing the news would only distress my kinsmen, who had encouraged me so much to take up this position in the rural area. I give the letters to the school messenger, who will deliver them to the city, together with the rest of the letters and correspondence from the school.
The staple food in Jango is a thick porridge made out of millet or cassava flour, which is eaten
with fish, meat, or vegetables. The porridge feels rubbery in your mouth, and your stomach feels full the whole day. I wasn’t used to it at first, but now am accustomed to it. My breakfast, when I do have any, consists of sweet potatoes or boiled cassava and a cup of tea. Lunch finds me at school, and for lunch, I have to settle for roasted cassava and groundnuts, which snacks are sold just outside the school by the womenfolk.
I have adopted two children in the village, a boy by the name of Meki, and Siluta, the orphan girl. By adoption, I mean that I have taken it upon myself to teach these two children in my spare time, to mould them into good pupils. Meki is the boy who had guided me to my hut the evening I came to Jango. The boy is about ten years old and lives with his parents. They are willing to learn, these children, and have, in fact, made good progress. Indeed, they would have made more advancement in their learning had their parents and guardians not kept them working in the vegetable fields some of the time. I have taught the children how to greet in English, and how to ask for directions, and how to read certain words. Many a time we sit together, the three of us, with pen and book in hands, and we go through the picture book, with the children repeating after me the names of the objects in the book. I have also taught the children how to add, subtract and multiply. I nearly weep with joy when the children do exactly what I ask them to do. It is the boy, Meki, who has shown me around the village; he has even taken me to places I did not know existed, places beyond the village. It is him I ask where to find this and that. Though he is but a boy, he is schooled in the ways of the village. He can work in the fields, set traps in the forests, fish in the streams, mend fishing nets, and hunt in the forest.
Now that I have lived among the people of Jango, I have found that they are not as backward as I had thought. They may have no electricity, Internet, or mobile phones, but I have come to realise that they have what matters most in life, namely food, clothing and shelter. Their simple lives, centred on the basic necessities of life, may look arduous to a stranger like me, but they certainly lead a less stressful life than their counterparts in the city. Their working hard on the land, and in contact with nature, and their eating natural food untainted with chemicals makes them live long, healthy lives. I have seen so many old people here, people who have lived to a full ripe age.
I can communicate fairly well now with my pupils; I speak to the children in Babi as much as possible, and most of my pupils are able to follow my lessons in class. Somehow, I have managed to re-awaken interest in learning in the children. But today, I do not teach at all, but travel to Samba, a town hundreds of miles away. Yesterday, when I was mulling over my many challenges in this place, I was summoned by Mr. Shume.
“Your salary and allowance are ready,” the schoolmaster said. “You have to go and collect the cheques from the Ministry of Education in Samba. You have to cash the cheques in the same town.”
My trip to Samba takes half the day. I collect the cheques and cash them at the bank. A teacher’s
salary had never seemed this little before, and after adding up what had gone to pay for transport, and knowing I had a mountain of debts to settle, which would leave me with even less cash, I am nearly overcome with disappointment. The salary I had been told I would get had appeared ample on paper, but now that it is in my hands, I consider it to be almost a joke. Is this the money I had toiled for for one month? This is surely a salary meant to consign one to everlasting poverty. This is surely no living wage. Perhaps what I need to do is change my career, I tell myself, start all over again, and later join a profession that would not require me to work in the lowly paid civil service. After all, I am only twenty-six years old. I turn matters over and eventually conclude that I do not want to return to Jango at all. I think of running away from my career as a teacher, and from everything Jango stands for.
But then I think of my pupils, and the bond that has developed between us. I see in my mind’s eye the children’s glowing faces full of eagerness for the lesson I am delivering in class. Their minds are like sponges, these children, soaking up every ounce of knowledge I make available to them. What would happen to these children, and to the progress they have made in their learning were I to leave? They would have no one to guide them, and the little advancement they have made will likely be lost. I realise that abandoning my job in Jango would hurt the children most. I come to a selfless conclusion, that my work in Jango is not yet over, in any case not this month, or the next, or even the month after that. I decide to stay in Jango, at least until the children can read and write, in their language as well as in English. I know now that I accepted to go and live Another Life in Jango for the sake of these children, and to leave now, when my pupils have just begun to advance in their learning would be akin to betrayal. Two things therefore compel me to change my mind: my love for the children, and my desire to build on the little learning they have had. Thus I change my mind, and I make the return journey to Jango.
Every evening I prepare my lessons by candlelight, with the sound of night creatures around me. At times I find myself thinking that perhaps it is possible to get used to living in Jango if one did not put one’s welfare ahead of all things. I can see that little by little, my mission here is being accomplished. The children are progressing day by day, and we understand each other fairly well. Most of the children can read and write. In six months time, the children should be able to read and write not only their language, but English too, the official language of the country. I know now that the delight I have derived from knowing I have altered the lives of the children for the better is more than I could have obtained from receiving a salary ten times more, and living in the comfort of the city. I have since come to learn that life can be lived with dignity even when one has little. I have come to know that one finds profound joy when one makes a positive difference in the life of others. I have come to recognize that one cannot live for oneself all the time. I have come to realize that benevolence and self sacrifice are the hallmarks of a life well spent.
Days come and go, and the moon waxes and wanes. My pupils have progressed beyond what I had even imagined. Even the slow ones in learning can now read and write. What joy is mine to hear them read and see them write! I know all my pupils by name now. In all, there are twelve girls and fifteen boys in my class.
One day, I am in class teaching when I become conscious that I have not seen Siluta for days. I try to find out from the class if they know where she might be.
“Does anyone know where Siluta is?” I ask.
But nobody answers, which only means that nobody knows where she is.
The following day I ask the same question. But this time, there is an answer.
“She is getting married,” one of the pupils answers.
“Getting married!” I exclaim. Surely not a girl of thirteen, not my favourite pupil. What good would my teaching do if my pupils are going to be married at the age of thirteen? I ask myself. What will it take for parents in Jango to understand the value of education? Why, Siluta is but a child, and if it is true that she is being given into marriage, then, whilst still a child herself, she will start bearing children, and looking after them. She will have to work hard in the fields to support her husband, and perform myriads of other tasks that go with the title of wife. All this will be too much responsibility for anyone of her years. It must be a lie, I tell myself. It certainly cannot be the truth. But on my way home, after work, I confirm the story that my pupil is being given into marriage. I see Siluta in the company of about ten elderly women, who are the marriage counsellors. Siluta is dressed in a big, colourful wrapper which fails to hide her young age. Her eyes are quiet; and she can be anything but happy. One of the women is beating a drum, and the others are singing. The women walk slowly in procession through the village.
The following day, I decide to speak to the schoolmaster, and at mid-morning break, I walk to the schoolmaster’s office, where I raise the issue with Mr. Shume.
“One of my pupils, a girl of thirteen, is being given into marriage,” I tell the schoolmaster. “She is one of my most promising pupils. She is too young to be married. Can’t something be done to stop the marriage? Can we try to persuade her guardian not to marry her off? Can we try to bring her back to school?”
But the schoolmaster shakes his head.
“You do not understand this place, Mr. Mulenga. We can do nothing of the sort. The culture here is that people own their children, and can do whatever they want with them. Elsewhere, it will be a crime of course, but this is a different place, a different world. No, we will not interfere in the matter; nobody can. You will just have to consider your pupil as lost. You simply have to come to terms with that.”
I shed tears of compassion for little Siluta, an orphan given into marriage at the tender age of thirteen. I try to imagine what she could have achieved in life had she been given a chance to finish her education. Perhaps she would have become a teacher like me, perhaps a nurse in some hospital or clinic, or perhaps she would have become something even higher. I shudder with dismay when I think of the many tasks that lie before her as a wife and a mother. My heart bleeds when I think of the many times we had sat down together, she and I, reading aloud, and writing and solving sums, so that in the end she might have a better life. What great heights would she have reached had she been born in a different society?
With time, I come to learn that half of the girls will drop out of school to go and get married before they reach the seventh grade. I hear with my own ears parents saying that letting their daughters go to school is a complete waste of time. School, they contend, will only make their daughters lazy, as the girls will only read books and do no work at home. I come to learn that men and women alike believe that a man will only pay bride price for a girl who is strong enough to carry loads of cassava on her head, one who can till the land, fetch water from a well, and raise children. No man will want to marry a girl, they think, who will spend her time reading books.
It is the rainy season. The trees have put forth new leaves, and the grass has sprouted lush and green on the surface of the earth, and the flowers everywhere are in bloom. This is one of the busiest times of the year in Jango, for it is now the people have to till the land and plant their fields. As my colleague had said, I never have a full class these days. Sometimes only a handful of pupils show up in class. The other pupils, I know, are busy working in the fields. It interferes with my teaching, the pupil’s staying away from school. At times I have no choice but to repeat a lesson I had given in the past, when many of the pupils were absent. Mr. Hamani, who teaches a higher class, says that some of his pupils have no choice but to abandon school and go and work in the fields, for they have wives and children to look after.
“In this place, a fifteen year old boy can marry and raise children,” he says.
But most likely it’s simply a matter of time before change comes to Jango, before parents realise that their children are not tools to be used in tilling and planting the fields; before parents accept that their sons and daughters need an education to cope with many of modern life’s challenges. It will take some time, but in all likelihood, years from now, a railway line, or a tarmac road, will pass through what is now Jango, and schools, hospitals and enterprises will come to be established in the area, and with all this will come a change in the way of life of the inhabitants of Jango. The seeds of development are now being sown, for all development begins with an education. As for me, my hardships here, I feel, have been compensated for by the satisfaction of seeing my pupils advance in their learning. Being literate and well-versed, the children will not lag behind in the world but may be anything they aspired to be in life. Perhaps years from now, among them will spring another Nelson Mandela, another Kenneth Kaunda, and another Wole Soyinka.
“Victory is mine,” I tell Mr. Chibu in the presence of other teachers in the staffroom. “I have stayed here longer than all the other teachers who have come and gone.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Chibu says, smiling. “Never for one moment did I think you will last for a month. But how wrong I was! Victory is definitely yours.”
After work I walk to the village market, where I ask for a carpenter, explaining to a group of traders that I needed to buy a bed. I am introduced to a man who takes me to his shop, and I can see that the carpenter only has the basest of tools, and with these tools he builds stools, tables, chairs and beds. My humble hut requires all these fine products, but at the moment I am only interested in a bed, and I select a single bed that would be able to pass through the narrow door of my hut. The mattress I acquire from a shop at the market. These two pieces of merchandise cost my pockets dearly, nearly finishing all the money I had. Funny, that money has managed to penetrate the forest and the hills, and cross the valleys and the streams, and arrive in Jango, and be something desirable in the eyes of every man. But I no longer worry about money, for there are some things I do not buy anymore. I no longer buy vegetables, tomatoes and onions. Instead I grow these myself, I, who never before had held a hoe in his hands. When I started, it was just for fun, but I have become self-sufficient now as far as these produce are concerned. My garden, which I tend mostly on weekends, is just behind my hut.
I have reached my place of abode, and I am in the confines of my hut. Evening has come to Jango, and I have to bar the door against the mice and the mosquitoes. I take one last look outside, and I behold the crescent moon beaming in a star-spangled sky. For some reason I do not know, the nocturnal sounds are not part of the show tonight. Instead, there is a deep silence in the air, the kind that emanates from some far-seated peace and profound contentment; the kind of silence that follows after a terrible storm, when rages no more the tempest, when the forces of nature are in harmony.