It was now mid-morning and slowly but steadily the sun had started to burn. Mbambaila felt a tingle in her armpits and lifted her arms to cool them. She moved a few feet into the shade of the mlambe tree that sheltered the other travellers. A young girl offered her a seat on the wooden bench and Mbambaila gratefully accepted it.
She took out an old mpango, hair cover and started to fan herself. She felt several droplets of sweat run down the furrow of her spine, soaking her.
The bus was late. She was sure she had been waiting for over three hours now. What could have happened? It was usual for it to be an hour or so late but more than three hours? A bit unusual. What could have happened? Had there been an accident?
For the past six months there had been road works on the main road. Tractors and mixers mixing black sticky tar worked day and night repairing the many potholes. In some sections the whole road had to be redone as all the tar from before had been eaten off. The jagged edges were razor sharp.
Accidents were common these days especially since the road had been repaired. Most of the drivers drove too fast now. The cyclists who regularly used the road, often lost balance and ended up with deep cuts from the jagged edges of the tarmac.
Mbambaila carefully undid the chitenje cloth and hitched her sleeping baby a little higher on her back. Although she was sweating she dared not remove the baby in case the bus came. She also did not want to wake him up. It would not do. There wasn’t enough milk in her breasts now. He had suckled it all up just before he went to sleep and she hadn’t had anything to eat nor drink to replenish the milk. Her stomach rumbled, again.
The heat was so overpowering she felt drained. Her eyes started to water from the sun’s relentless brightness and the mirage on the tarmac played tricks with her vision. She felt her head pound. She decided to close her eyes in order to rest them.
She must have dozed off because the next thing she knew she was being shaken by the young girl who had given her a seat. “Wake up…wake up Aunty. The bus is coming now.”
Everyone had stood up and was gathering their luggage. Mbambaila hitched her baby higher, then picked her small bundle as the bus noisily pulled to a stop. But the noise had woken up her baby. He looked round, confusedly blinking his eyes at his surroundings. Mbambaila started to rock him, up and down, up and down as she edged closer to the front of the confused queue. People were shoving and pushing.
Someone was shouting. It was the conductor. Like the driver he had removed his shirt. The small tufts of tightly curled hair on his brown chest resembled big black flies on a piece of scorched rotting flesh.
“Careful please akuluakulu, gentlemen. Let the women with children board first. Do we understand each other? Eeeeeh aimwene, brother? Didn’t you hear me? I said let the women with children get in first,” the conductor pushed aside a young man who was determinedly squeezing his way into the bus.
A few people in front of Mbambaila eventually made room and soon she was in the bus.
She quickly found a seat in the middle of the bus. The man next to her looked in his late thirties or early forties. He wore a clean white shirt, light khaki trousers and Jesus’ sandals. His head was clean shaven and glistened in the heat. He was sitting on the window-side of the three-people seat.
Mbambaila undid the chitenje that secured her baby at her back and transferring him onto her lap, soon settled herself on the tattered red vinyl seat, carefully avoiding an exposed metal spring at the back of the seat. The visible innards of the seat resembled unwashed cow tripe. Dust, sweat and maybe even children’s urine had probably soaked hundreds of microscopic pieces of multicolour threads from the numerous tattered shorts, trousers, dresses, skirts or even zitenjes that had occupied this particular seat, resulting in the curious coloring of the seat foam. Did the bus owners not make enough money to replace the covers? Maybe they too had problems that were a priority; issues which hindered action. “I, especially I, should know,” thought Mbambaila painfully.
Although the bus was not too full, the rising heat had penetrated the inside. It was hot and humid. The open windows did not help at all. Maybe when the bus started to move, air would blow in and cool it a bit. Mbamba was hopeful.
The fascination of unfamiliar surroundings that had kept her baby preoccupied soon after he woke up continued to work its magic. He looked round and round at the people in the bus, his big brown eyes clearly inquisitive. He stood on his mother’s lap and examined the people on the back seat and those on the side row. Then he stared at the man sitting next to his mother, at those passing in the aisle, and at his mother as if making a comparison. Or was it for confirmation? Mbamba was not sure but was grateful for the distraction.
Soon everyone at the stop had boarded and the bus was on its way, the engine coughing and spitting a trail of thick black smoke.
For a while the baby’s fascination with his surroundings held. He continued to explore the world around him with his eyes and hands. His small hand tore several pieces of the dust-and-muck-browned foam from the backrest of their seat and offered them to his mother before she finally stopped it with a one fingered tap on the wrist of the offending hand accompanied by a pretend stern look in the eye. A pout which threatened to develop into a full blown scream was soon quenched by his mother’s unexpected tickle on his tummy. He gurgled with laughter.
The air blowing through the open window held his attention for a while too. He would close his eyes and move his head towards the direction of the blowing air and smile, his small hands playfully clawing at his face.
But play was no substitute for food. Well into the journey, the baby put his hand inside Mbambaila’s blouse. Searching, feeling. Mbambaila distracted him with more play. She half threw him in the air, and, though frightened at first, he soon lost his fright and was soon gurgling. For several minutes the loud chuckles reverberated to the back of the now cruising bus.
The trick only worked for a while however. The baby’s hunger was more insistent. Soon he started to fret again. When his mother stood him on her lap for a few minutes, he suddenly sat down on her lap and, once again, put his little hand into his mother’s blouse and started to tug at her shriveled breast. When Mbambaila tried to remove the hand, the baby started to kick and cry loudly. Mbambaila knew that if she did not attend to the cry, people in the bus would get annoyed. It was not uncommon for someone, anyone, to tell a mother to feed a crying baby and Mbambaila did not want unnecessary attention in the bus. Slowly she undid the little white buttons of her navy blue polyester blouse with one hand while she rocked the baby with the other. The baby’s eyes were wide with anticipation.
The baby’s mouth latched onto her nipple and started to pull. He pulled for several minutes but it was soon obvious to him that the breast had no milk. Mbambaila felt a deep burning sensation as the baby continued to draw from the empty breast. Soon the baby started to cry again. Mbambaila moved him onto her left breast. For several minutes he suckled but soon that quickly dried up as well. The child continued to hungrily pull at the nipple, groaning with frustration as he did so. The left breast started
to burn with empty heat as well. The baby screamed angrily. Mbambaila offered him the only alternative she had, a bottle of water. But the child would not drink. He screamed with frustrated hunger. She then placed him on her shoulder to soothe him but the child continued to kick and toss in frustrated anger, demanding to be fed. His crying brought tears to Mbamba’s eyes. What could she offer him? She only had the unwelcome bottle of water with her.
There had been nothing to take at all as she left her dead husband’s village for the last time. None of her husband’s relatives had offered her anything. Not even the women. They had all been keen to see the back of her now her husband was dead. They had told her that now that the reason for her staying in their village was no longer there, they didn’t see why she should linger.
Nkundi, her late husband’s eldest brother and patriarch of the village, had convened and chaired the nsudzulo, release meeting. With the whole family watching, he had demanded that everything from her house be brought out and divided including the kitchen things. They had started by dividing and sharing out the bigger pieces; bed, chairs, table and the cassette radio. The cassette radio had been Jomo’s treasure. Mbamba remembered how he took it everywhere, to the fields, to graze the goats and even when he went drinking, it went with him. Everywhere. On Sundays when he sat relaxing under the mango tree outside their small house on the compound, it would be placed on a tiny wooden stool he had specially made for it. When he went to bed, it was next to his ear, always covered in the yellow and green crochet doily Mbamba had made for it. Nkundi claimed the radio for himself.
Then they had shared the two hoes and axe. Finally they had divided and shared all her dead husband’s clothes. Then they had pounced on her clothes. As she silently watched, the eldest sister claimed her best and newest chirundu while the younger one was given the blue and white patterned cotton dress and black sandals she reserved for church. All they had allowed her to take were three old dresses, two zitenjes, her plastic Sophia shoes and the baby clothes. Not that she had had much anyway. Life. Life had an uncanny way of being merciless, Mbambaila thought. Who would have thought she would come to this? They had loved each other, her and Jomo.
They had been inseparable since they met three years ago and this had angered his people. They had wanted him to marry his cousin but he had refused telling them he was not interested. They had pressed him several times but he continued to refuse.
He could not forget the trainee nurse that had taken care of him when he had suddenly been taken very ill while training as an apprentice carpenter at the mission carpentry shop. Eventually he had brought Mbamba and announced to his people that she was his wife.
Theirs was love at first sight. Although she eventually became aware that his chances of survival were very minimal, Mbambaila wanted to spend all her time with him. She quit her training and went to live with him in a small rented room at the mission.
For a while he continued with his training but the strain of physical work was taking its toll. He was always behind schedule and took a lot of time off. In addition, someone reported him to the church elders of the mission and although they were sympathetic, cohabiting was sinful and was not condoned in any Christian setting let alone on their mission. And so they expelled him from their training program.
With nowhere to live, he took her to his village. The reception there was icy cold. No one wanted her. They accused her of bewitching Jomo. She was eating him alive. Why had he lost so much weight? Eh? Why? The sisters accused her of turning him against his people, against all of them. Why did he not listen to his elder brothers anymore? Why did he want to spend all his time with her?
Life had been difficult from the beginning. But she had trusted him. She had trusted him when he said they would come round and accept her eventually. Only they had not. He had died before they came round.
To get way from the strain, Jomo started to drink. Whenever he had some money, he would go to the local beer house. When he didn’t have enough money to go to the beer-house, he would hunt for local brew from the surrounding villages which he would get on credit. His diabetes got worse.
One day, not long after his son was born, he decided enough was enough. He needed to take his wife away from his village. The animosity was affecting Mbamba especially now that they had a small baby. He decided that he would go to town and look for a job. Two days later, early in the morning he bid Mbamba farewell saying, he would be back as soon as he could and went to catch a minibus into town.
He didn’t return. With everyone in the bus, he died in an accident. The family accused her of his sudden death claiming she was a witch.
Soon after the funeral they told her to leave their village and take her child with her because who knows…? He might be just like her, a wizard who would eat all of them.
The memory brought a hot sensation to Mbamba’s eyes. She silently continued to soothe and rock her baby on her shoulder.
After a while the baby’s sobs, which now sounded like clusters of multiple hiccups, slowly grew further and further apart and soon the baby closed his eyes in a fitful sleep. Mbamba settled the baby onto her lap and lightly covered his lower body with her chitenje. The man next to her sighed deeply before taking out his Bible from a small folio case which he held on his lap. He then started to read from the book of St. John’s.
The Bible was clearly well used judging from its dog-eared appearance. The flimsy edges of the pages were curled in all directions and had lost their gold edging a long time ago. Several sections, Mbamba noticed, were also underlined with red ink. As he read, the man used his forefinger as a pointer for where he was reading. After a few minutes the man started to silently speak to himself. What could he be doing? Surely not praying? With his eyes open? Quickly, Mbamba realized that he was meditating
and she was glad her baby was now asleep. The crying would probably have disturbed him.
Suddenly, Mbamba heard rustling. She blinked a few times but quickly realized that she must have nodded off.
The man was bending over a huge plastic bag which he had placed on the bus floor between his legs. He rummaged for a few more seconds before bringing out a bottle of diluted Sobo orange crush. He shook it a few times before taking a couple of long sips. He then closed the bottle and bent over the bag and started to rummage again.
This time he brought out a half packet of Marie tea biscuits and quietly ate several.
Carefully twisting it closed, he placed the biscuit pack back in the bag before reopening the bottle of orange crush. He took a mouthful but immediately started to cough. He spattered the yellow drink all over the front of his white cotton shirt, the back of the seat in front and on the bus window next to his seat. Using the back of his hand to wipe his mouth, he quietly muttered “sorry” to no one in particular. Mbambaila stole a sideways glance at him and faintly smiled.
Soon Mbamba dozed off again.
She woke up when the baby stirred a while later. Very carefully, she changed his position so that his head was now lying on her left arm, and gently rocked him back to sleep. Then fixing her gaze on the front windshield, she vacantly watched the road as the landscape rolled by.
A while later, she told the conductor that her stop was next and silently thanked God that she did not have far to walk. Her home was only a stone’s throw away from the main road. As the bus coughed and sputtered to a halt, she gathered her little bundle and disembarked.
Then she saw Amama, her aging mother hurrying towards her, arms stretched out to receive her grandchild. Silent tears streaming down her face, she led Mbamba onto the mat under the shade of the mango tree she had been sitting on in front of the house, the house Mbamba had grown up in.
The green leaves in the orange trees behind the house were turning ashy and curling up now, announcing the end of the season. But there were still a few yellow oranges high up on the top branches. On the mat near where Amama had been sitting was a small basket with a few of the oranges. Amama sat down and pulled the basket nearer.
She cut a couple in half and squeezed their juice into a small battered aluminum jug Mbamba remembered very well. She offered it to the baby, who drank hungrily.
After he finished the drink, Amama got up, and quietly announced that something came for Mbambaila a while ago. She hitched the baby onto her hip and went into the house.
She came out several minutes later with a letter in a khaki envelop and gave it to Mbambaila. It was from the nursing school at the mission asking if Mbambaila was interested to go and write the final second year examinations and re-do her practicals.
Only it was several months old.
But Mbamba would contact them to see.