I still remember what he smelt like the first day I met him. Freshly-tilled soil, with a slight hint of goat. That smell was fascinating to me, a child from the suburbs who only came to the village once or twice a year.
He was crouched under a tall blue gum tree, a few meters away from where my grandfather sat with my parents. All by himself. He seemed nervous as I walked up to him.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Thoko. What’s yours?”
He had one of those funny names too. “Chigomezgo,” he told me.
“What language is that? Tumbuka?”
He said nothing. Only nodded.
“Thoko!” I turned around, startled. My grandfather was calling, still seated in his favorite reed chair. “Come here and bring that boy with you!”
“This is the one I was talking about,” my grandfather began, pointing at Chigomezgo, who now knelt in front of him. “He is quite an intelligent boy. His command of English is better than everyone else in this village. Except me, of course.” The old man smiled and took a swig of sweet beer from a half-full calabash.
Father took a long, hard look at Chigomezgo, his eyes unblinking. The boy did not stare back, his eyes fixed on the ground. “So, what do you want me to do? If it is paying for his education, I have no problems with that,” father finally spoke.
“I was actually hoping for more than that. The boy goes to school but I do not think he will continue to do so for much longer. His father died when Chigo was only two, while his mother is a drunk who expects her son to fend for himself. He has no one to look after him. Just look at him.”
Once again, my father’s gaze shifted to Chigomezgo. He was wearing what had once been a white shirt but was now a dirt-stained brown. His black pair of shorts were stained with mud, and it looked like they had been a pair of trousers in another lifetime but had now been hacked off at the knees. Father was so focused on Chigomezgo that he did not hear grandfather speak.
“I’m sorry, father, what did you say?”
“I said I want him to go and live with you in the city. He can get a better education there and you can look after him. Besides, Thoko will like having another child around.”
I hated it when grandfather spoke that way, referring to me as a child. Granted, I was only ten, but I still resented it.
Father looked thoughtful for a minute. “Well, if he really is as brilliant as you say he is, then I have no problem. We have plenty of room.”
It was at that point that my mother decided to interrupt. “Excuse me, darling, but shouldn’t we discuss this first?”
Grandfather threw up his hands in exasperation. “What is there to discuss? It is simple enough. Or don’t you want to do it? Your husband has just said there is no problem.”
Mother did not say another word, but there was a look of disdain on her face. I was not sure if that look was directed at grandfather or Chigomezgo.
“There is no problem, father, as I have already said,” father spoke again, avoiding mother’s face. “As long as he does some chores around the house and is disciplined, we will all get along just fine.” And with that, it was decided that Chigomezgo was going to live with us.
It was not easy for Chigo at first. He had trouble getting used to his new surroundings. It seemed like everything was new to him, at home and at school. Mother did not help matters, either. She watched Chigo like a hawk, expecting him to mess up. But Chigo was quiet, borderline shy. He hardly spoke, even when I tried to engage him in prolonged conversations. He did his chores, studied hard and never broke a single rule. It still was not good enough for mother.
Father, on the other hand, was all praises for the boy he had rescued from the village. He paid a deaf ear to all the negative things mother had to say about Chigo.
“He is nothing but trouble,” I once overheard her say to him. “You do not really know his family background, do you? What if he practices witchcraft? What if he uses our heads as footballs while we sleep at night? Did you even think about that before agreeing with your precious father to bring that rapscallion into our home?”
“Enough, woman! I will not have you talk ill of the boy without any proof. He has been nothing but obedient since he came here. In no way has he shown to be the delinquent you make him out to be. If you have nothing nice to say, then shut your mouth.”
I did not wait to hear more. I hated it when my parents argued. But, above all, I was ashamed. Ten years old and I was ashamed of my own mother. I was so deep in thought that I nearly bundled over Chigo, who was sitting by the kitchen doorway. Apparently, he too had been eavesdropping.
“Don’t worry, she did not mean it,” I consoled him, trying to hide my skepticism.
“It’s alright, I know your mother hates me,” he managed to speak out. “But to accuse me of witchcraft? That’s wrong.” He was looking up at me and I could see the sadness in his eyes. He looked genuinely hurt and vulnerable, like the twelve-year-old child that he really was. I sat down next to him.
“She will change her mind about you, eventually. Even if she does hate you, she cannot do so forever. Besides, my father and I don’t hate you. She cannot do anything as long as both of us are around.” I only realized later on that not only was I trying to convince Chigomezgo but I was also trying to convince myself.
Chigo looked at my face searchingly for a moment, and then smiled. It was the first time I had ever seen him do so. And from that day, he and I became friends. Chigo seemed happier after that. He merrily went about doing his chores and studied even harder. This, ironically, only made my mother dislike him even more. But Chigo did not seem to mind her attitude that much anymore. He had my father and I behind him. We studied together. I even introduced him to a few children his age around the neighborhood. He was ecstatic.
“You should not be spending a lot of time with that boy,” mother said to me one day when Chigo was not around. “He is not your brother. You are not related.” I only frowned and shook my head.
She soon got her wish, though. After the results of our Primary School Leaving Examinations came out, Chigo and I were selected to different secondary schools. Mother was overjoyed. Not only was she rid of Chigo, who was going to boarding school, but she was also assured that he and I would not spend time together anymore. Needless to say, he and I were not so thrilled.
We only saw each other a handful of times during the four years of secondary school. He would come to our house sometimes after the end of term, spend a day or two then go to the village. Sometimes he did not even show up at all, going straight to the village from school. Not that mother minded. Although we went to the village often, Chigo and I only met once there and that had not been a pleasant encounter. Chigo’s mother had shown up at my grandfather’s doorstep, accusing him and my father of kidnapping her son. She was not happy that he kept leaving her alone to go to school.
Grandfather died in the year that Chigo and I made it to college. A few days after we were selected, to be exact. They say he died a happy man, with Chigo by his side. And, as it would turn out, my late grandfather was not the only one who was happy.
After grandfather’s death, mother’s influence on father grew. She convinced my father to stop helping Chigo, since he was now in college on government sponsorship. This, surprisingly, was met with little resistance. Father caved even without trying to get further details.
“Your mother really hates me, doesn’t she?”
“No. mother does not hate anyone. She is just a little misguided. And maybe too protective of her family.”
Chigo and I were sitting on a wooden bench facing our two-story college library. It was only our second semester as students but already things were tough for Chigo. Being on government sponsorship was not enough. One still needed money.
I looked at Chigo’s gloomy face. “I will talk to my parents again. I am sure father will come around. Even if he does not, then I will help you. We can share my pocket money.”
Chigo’s face changed, reminding me of a stray kitten that had just been given a bowl of milk. “You are a good person, Thoko. I am lucky to have you as a friend.”
We got through college that way. We would split my pocket money in half and help each other in our studies. Four years later, fresh out of college, each of us with an Economics degree, Chigo and I got jobs. Everyone was proud, even mother, although she did not openly show her warmth towards Chigo. But it did not matter. Chigo and I were best friends now. Ours was a bond that could not be broken. Or, at least, that is what I thought.
I hardly talk to Chigo now. We are no longer close. I know he drinks a lot, a thing he never used to do. I have also heard about his different women. It seems all he does these days is drink, work and womanize.
I just wish he would talk to me. I long for the days when we would sit down and have a proper conversation. Now all he says are a few words, a few grunts and then he is gone. He doesn’t even say hello to our two children.
This is not the Chigomezgo I knew. This is not the man I married. I want my husband back.