Nothing serious, says the doctor. The inner skin of the mouth, where the injuries are, is soft and thin. A slight scratch, blood oozes out. The shallow wounds should be dry in a few days’ time and by the end of the coming week, healed completely. All she must do is wipe them with a clean damp cloth and apply the special cream, he says, handing the prescription over to her. Meanwhile, he says, the boy should, during the course of the medication, avoid spicy and peppery food. Otherwise there is no cause for alarm. But before they go home can he, the doctor, have a word with her?
Sure, she says.
Holding the door by its knob, he pushes it open, steps aside to let her in first and then he follows, shuts the door, invites her to sit down, takes out his coat, hangs it on the wall nail, sits and rests his hands on the desk. Records, he says, show that it is the third time the boy has been treated for injuries by scissors in the mouth–can she explain the pattern?
She is equally baffled, she says. The first time she was caught unawares; same with the second. But this time around Vusa, the boy, had asked her for the scissors, claiming his teacher ordered him to bring a pair to school, but she didn’t know why.
‘Then it must be a psychological issue pointing to a fundamental problem. It is unheard of for a youngster or anyone else to shove a pair of scissors into his mouth. It would be easy to explain if he was using them for criminal purposes,’ says the doctor. This type of object mouthing, he adds, is the first of its kind as far as he is concerned.
Anyway, could she keep any scissors in the house hidden away from the boy? Again, if she could ensure that she is always on the lookout for any suspicious developments no matter how insignificant, lest she be charged with child neglect which is punishable under the country’s laws. In England where he comes from, the doctor says, child neglect and child abuse are serious crimes; the consequences are always severe. But in this case, he says, she may lose custody of the child to the department of social welfare who may refer the boy to an appointed children’s home. As a respectable woman in the area, she must be vigilant to avert such embarrassment. Otherwise, that’s all he wanted to say and she is free to go.
With a remorseful voice, she thanks the doctor as they both rise to their feet. He takes his coat off the wall nail, puts it on. Then he speaks again: ‘By the way I understand, from the records, the boy’s parents are dead, how…..’
‘Yes, they are,’ she cuts in, ‘The mother died at birth; the father, my son, was killed–or let me say he disappeared from his workplace during the land reform.’
‘What were the circumstances?’
‘It was at the Gethsemane Citrus Gardens, just behind the hospital there,’ she says pointing in the direction of the farm. ‘They came for him at night, broke into his house and kidnapped him and we have never heard from him since. It has been six years now.’
‘When you say they came for him, whom are you referring to?’
Downcast, she shrugs her shoulders, says, ‘Nobody knows; many worse incidents occurred here.’
‘Sorry to hear, we will leave it at that; let’s just hope all goes well for the boy,’ he says, pulling the door open to let her exit. Reaching for the boy with one hand and clutching the prescription in the other, she bids the doctor goodbye. He watches them as they walk silently across the veranda to the bicycle.
After ensuring the boy is secured in his seat, she hands him her handbag, places both hands on the handlebars of the bicycle and pushes off. It is not an easy task; Vusa, who is now 12, is heavy for her. The doctor still watches as she pedals away and they disappear behind the Seringa and Eucalyptus trees on the other end of the yard.
Dr. Charles Chapman is from Bishop’s Stortford in England. As he is retired from professional practice, he is here as a volunteer under the auspices of the Physicians for Common Humanity, an organization that has responded to a health crisis spurred on by the situation in the country. There has been a mass exodus of the professional community; and service delivery has virtually collapsed across the board with the rural hospitals being the hardest hit. Although he has been here for only a few months, Dr. Chapman’s connection with Africa dates back to the 1960s when he was patron of the Winds of Change Society which facilitated the development of the African elite in preparation for self-rule. Sadly, as he sees it, he has had to return to address the excesses and failures of the same elite he developed and promoted. Since his return, he has identified evidence of decline and traces of policy failure which have had ripple effects, visiting moral degradation upon the nation. This sad trend will be the theme of his book. The book, to be published at the end of his mandate, is to be titled Chimurenga or Chernobyl: Anatomy of the African Condition.
During his two-year stint he must also identify abuses and shortages; and raise alarm, taking care not to raise the state’s ire. Authorities are sensitive to any form of criticism and they operate on an eye-for-two basis. Many expatriates and foreign journalists have been expelled.
Granny and her boy out of sight, Dr. Chapman steps inside his office and sits down. He thinks: the trouble with this part of the world is the powerful state which is forever inclined towards instilling fear and obfuscating issues. That boy is a victim of some abuse which feeds from the policies of an abusive and ubiquitous state. Unfortunately the grandmother, who is evidently smart enough to be able to appreciate a myriad of issues, finds herself incapable of comprehending this very particular one. Clearly it cannot be her problem; it all boils down to the state which rolls out policies not to serve the citizenry but to confuse, control and dominate people. Look, she even calls the destruction of commercial agriculture ‘land reform’ despite the fact that she is a victim of its methods and outcomes. If one is unable to define their circumstances they can’t possibly comprehend anything that arises from therein. This is where I come in; I must discover the root cause of that boy’s problem and I am sure it is linked to the abusive state. But how do I unearth this problem without putting this poor woman into trouble? If I report to social services she will almost certainly lose custody of the child to the same abusive state with neither capacity nor will to provide for the vulnerable. That would leave the fundamental problem unsolved. He vows: ‘I must and will get to the bottom of this.’
He stands, steps outside, lights a cigarette, takes a long, slow, deep pull. In the distance, well outside the hospital perimeter fence, the herd boys are driving cattle home. Their horns graphically etched against the rays of the setting sun, the cattle raise a dense cloud of dust as they drift towards the surrounding village. Calves gambol and bellow in joy; their mothers reply and the herd boys complete the village sunset song with their whistling and cracking bullwhips.
Granny and Vusa are home at nightfall for their village is a bit far from the hospital. A boy from next door delivers a message sent from the city; it says: Uncle Hosea arrives tomorrow by bus together with his wife Masiziba and their three months old baby. Their house was destroyed two days ago during the Operation Clean Up exercise and they are now sleeping in the open. So, will a donkey cart collect them from the local business center? The messenger leaves. By coincidence, Grandpa, who works in the nearby town, also arrives tomorrow. As he was meant to perform umcabo on the new born baby, this development, sad as it is, has come in handy, Granny thinks.
All the same, she finds the message confusing; all along she has thought that the clean-up exercise was a noble cause aimed at sprucing up the image of the cities and towns around the country. Radio Kutama says so, daily.
But for Vusa, the news of Uncle Hosea and family’s coming is thrilling. The reason for their coming doesn’t have to matter. He loves Uncle Hosea and his wife. His secret: he loves the wife more. A dimpled, radiant, high-hipped and buxom woman, she always brings along nice clothes, lotion and she bathes him every day. Granny knows and loves him, but Masiziba knows how to make him happier.
On the morrow, the cart sets off to the business center. It is the herd boy and Vusa and they park under a tree behind the main store and wait. One, two, three buses arrive and proceed; still no sign of Uncle Hosea. Finally from the fourth bus he emerges, after him his wife, carrying the baby wrapped in pink and white. Uncle Hosea paves the way for his wife right up to the cart. And then one by one, the conductor, helped by the herd boy, drops the luggage. Standing on the flanks of the bus, Uncle Hosea indicates which one is his bag and which one is not. Coming down are large boxes, a wardrobe, kitchen cabinet and other things. The cart being small, they negotiate to leave some of the items at the local cobbler’s storeroom to be collected soon. At last, they all jump in and set off to the village where they find Grandpa having just arrived.
Later in the evening, salutations, supper and other related chores long past, they sit in the hut under the glow of a paraffin lantern. Uncle Hosea is narrating how the government troops destroyed their house under the full glare of the TV cameras. He tells of sorrowful spectacles with some widows fainting on seeing their properties destroyed. They all listen attentively, but grandpa–his head shaking–whistles through his teeth and curses. The system, he says, is irredeemably evil.
Then time for the baby’s initiation comes. Grandpa carries the little one in his arms and disappears into his room, closes the door. In no time, the baby is heard wailing helplessly. Umcabo, as the process is called, involves the slashing of incisions on either the chest or shoulder of the baby with a razor. The executioner then administers some powdery traditional medicine and as he does so he recites the clan’s totems. The ritual, it is believed, confirms the baby as an authentic member of the clan and the medicine protects him from any form of evil that may come their way. The ritual is performed in almost all households and each clan has its own secret medicine known only to the elders. Everybody at home has gone through Grandpa’s blood curdling performance. Even though they may not remember the day of their treatment and the pain that came with it, evidence scars their chests and shoulders. The ritual over, Grandpa hands the baby back to the mother who is unfazed by the cries. Nobody talks; only the mother is heard comforting the little one. The ear-tearing wails go on until the baby falls asleep.
Nobody sleeps here without a prayer; they go through the family tradition. First they sing; and Granny leads. There is nobody like Jesus, the author of love and guarantor of life–none whatsoever, so goes the song. As they sing Grandpa’s Adam’s apple rolls, his gullet dances, his grey goatee juts forward. Clearly he is engrossed; he believes and is certain that the Son of Man is watching over them and it won’t be long before he returns to rescue the saints from the evil-filled Earth.
Then they pray. Grandpa makes direct emotional pleas to God. May He protect them and ward off misfortunes; cast out demons of violence that have seized the nation. Finally, if God the Almighty could protect both Grandpa and his son Hosea as they return to their workplaces tomorrow. And may Hosea find new accommodations fast and easily. And may Vusa’s wounds heal.
Past midday on the morrow; the home is dead quiet. Granny is alone feeding chickens and watering her flowers. Both Grandpa and Hosea are long gone back to work. Masiziba and Vusa have gone to the fields to harvest melons and pumpkins, Masiziba’s favorite food. Basket balanced on Masiziba’s head, a baby strapped on her back, Vusa bathed and clean, carrying extra towels and nappies, the two waved Granny good bye and walked out. As they did, Granny thought to herself: Masiziba is a blessed daughter-in-law, showing so much love to an orphan in whose veins runs not even an iota of her blood. May God bless her more.
Suddenly worry seizes her mind and shock invades her whole body. She has remembered something: not only is Vusa not here but she is also not in control of the scissors borrowed by Masiziba this morning to cut the box-sealing tape. Maybe there is no need to worry; it could just be a coincidence, she comforts herself. With Masiziba around, the boy cannot be preoccupied with a pair of scissors; he loves his aunt and must surely be too happy to think of anything else in her presence.
Satisfied that all should be well with Vusa where ever he is, Granny sits under a mango tree, spreads her legs on the ground, twirls the long sisal string on her big toe while holding the other end with her hand, and places the incomplete mat on her lap to weave away. She throws the sisal string around the straws as they flap up and down and sideways interchangeably in mesmerizing pattern. In her mind’s eye she can see Vusa playing with the baby, the newly initiated member of the clan, under the shed while Masiziba is harvesting. It won’t be long before they are back, she tells herself as she continues weaving.
Before she knows it, the heat has subsided; the sun is approaching the horizon. And yet Masiziba and Vusa are not back. Questions race through her mind: what could have happened? Could they have met with danger? May it not be so! Remembering that she also forgot to ask them to bring mealies, she puts on her head gear, locks the doors and the gate before setting off to the field.
In no time she is there. The gate is unlocked; they are still inside. Parting the grass and tall crops, she walks towards the shed, a grass thatched improvisation situated at the other end of the field. She must be careful not to step on snakes; they like hiding under the short crops and grass on a hot evening like this. She looks up.
Masiziba is naked, lying flat on her back on a towel spread on the ground; her legs high up like a Eucalyptus tree. She is in the grip of pleasure. Vusa’s little head is buried between her plump thighs. She is panting, sweating; commanding and directing him. By her side lies the pair of scissors and her trimmed pubic hair. The setting sun shines on their glistening bodies; the air is still; birds coo and chirp from the surrounding trees. The baby, oblivious to what is happening, lies alone on another towel.
Dumbstruck, Granny stands like a statue, silent, agape. Her mouth goes dry; her tongue won’t move. Overcome by shame and shock, she flees. Her footsteps distract them. Masiziba reacts first, pushing Vusa aside. She sees Granny disappearing into the foliage. Panting, they stare at each other in embarrassment. Masiziba leaps to her feet, puts on her pants. Vusa remains seated on the ground plucking the seeds of grass in shame and shock. He remembers events at the hospital. Pestered by the doctor during examination, he flatly denied being involved in an improper relationship with an adult. Patting him on the back, Masiziba breaks the silence of shame: ‘Dress up and let us go; don’t panic.’
That night a land rover pulls up in the middle of the compound; out comes Granny, after her Dr. Chapman, after him two cops. One of the officers off loads Granny’s bike from the back of the van. Then they all proceed to the main house where another officer knocks at the door to Uncle Hosea’s bedroom. Out comes Masiziba. He is constable Zulu and has come to arrest her, he says. The crime: child abuse and rape.
She does not resist; instead she asks: ‘What about the baby?’ ‘Bring the baby along; ensure that you bring warm clothes for him,’ says the officer. She dashes back. From inside comes only the sound of her packing. Outside the moon pours down and silence reigns; only the cricket song, the cooing owls and the dog choir can be heard from a distance. Fireflies flash here and there as they crisscross the night air.
After what appears to be an eternity, an officer asks: ‘Where is Vusa?’
‘He must be in there,’ replies Granny, her arms folded across her chest.
At last the light goes off, Masiziba emerges, a baby on her back; behind her follows Vusa, rubbing his sleepy eyes. The officer assists her into the van; his colleague carries the boy, the doctor jumps in and then the two cops follow, one after the other. Granny, commands one of the officers, must report at the police station tomorrow morning at 11. Then they drive away.
Masiziba knows it is over for her. In fact as soon as she and Vusa returned to find Granny away and when she took too long to return home Masiziba knew this was coming.
Of all the boys she has had flings with, Vusa is her favorite conquest. He is her product, her discovery. He is obedient; he delivers as ordered, warm and deep. He uses both his secret length and tongue skill-fully, covering almost every corner of her secret depths. All these months she has been longing for him; her body thirsting after his.
His dark complexion and large lips remind her of Black Lion, the commander in chief of the Malagwe death camp where she worked as a sex slave during the Kukula genocide at the age of 13. As she was the most attractive of all the girls, Black Lion was her main man. She would un-strap his belt, pull down his trousers, then hold his long, angry, jutting rod. Her tongue, lips–her entire mouth would wrestle with it until it wept thick, white tears and fell down soft and cold.
Today, like the last time, Vusa did not disappoint. When he finished trimming her private hair he kissed and licked the scissors; it was clear he had not forgotten the instruction to do so each time he thought of her during her absence. Under the full glare of the moon, the van roars on, forward through the farming area. The driver must take care because, following the farm invasions in the area, perimeter fences have been destroyed and stray beasts roam, crossing the road at undesignated spots.
The vehicle is a motion of silence and conflicting emotions, a contest of tears. As Masiziba tries to beat back tears of self-reproach, Dr. Chapman battles to contain tears of joy. She has hit a snag, he a jackpot; he can only hope this tragic breakthrough leads to more revelations, helps him save more children. He always feared something of this nature was happening and that it was widespread.
Vusa is confused, lost. He has never been in the same vehicle with a cop. He wishes he was dead.
What a betrayal to Hosea this will turn out to be! Masiziba thinks. It was under a moonlit night that she had revealed her sad past to him. She and Hosea were lying on their backs in bed, the moon pouring in through the window, when she had started weeping. A shocked Hosea had asked what was wrong. In between sobs, she told her story. Let bygones be bygones, Hosea had said, after all his biblical namesake, a true prophet, married a prostitute named Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. And if a man of God settled for a prostitute, who was he to shun a victim of rape? His own Aunt, Ruth, had been one of the first sex slaves at the Malagwe camp and was amongst those who were killed when young and cuter ones were brought in. Pregnant with Black Lion’s child Ruth was, one morning together with others, told to bend over naked in the open square. Black Lion ordered one of the guards to finish them off. The guard shoved the barrel of his machine gun into each of the women’s private parts and pumped live ammunition into their bodies. One after the other they had tumbled to the ground. This somewhat mutual fate has been the shadow of their union, protecting their marriage against the social gales, but now it appears she has stirred a hurricane which is sure to sweep the bond away.
Back home in her blankets, Granny, a descendant of the early converts of the London Missionary Society, remains awake, digesting the day’s events. Only now is she able to summon the courage to express her disgust:
‘Puh!’ she spits into the empty darkness.