17: Mushalas Daughter
As Precious walked from the squat box like staff rooms, along the narrow path which led to the gap in the fence leading to the kitchen, there was nothing but the soft crunch of her footsteps to dent the silence.
The half-moon was at its zenith with its light etching the shapes of the tall trees and low bushes in starkness on an ambient canvas of silver luminescence.
She loved this time when the night held its breath prior to the birth of a new day. Its pregnant heaviness imbued a special creativity in her imagination. The evening shadows were like pencil sketches stacked against the walls of her mind, waiting to be painted with the colors she would soon pick from a palette filled with the light of the new born day.
As she walked she did not feel the twinge of anxiety that was present when there was no moonlight. At such times her progress along the path had to be found by feeling the grass at its verges brushing against her shins. She knew that like a big cat the unknown always prowled the bush most actively when it was cloaked in complete darkness.
She could wait for Charity or Nora to rouse, to have their company on this short walk, but Precious was aware of her own aloofness when it came to her relations with the other girls at the Lodge.
She was glad that the woman were never first to rise. That was Gilbert’s domain. He would don his clothes a full hour before dawn to head over to the pizza oven outside the kitchen. There he would blow on last night’s fire and pick up its embers. With another bucket of kindling, he would methodically move down the line of chalets, lighting a fire at the base of each of their wood-fired boilers, ensuring there would be hot water for morning showers.
In the bright predawn moonlight, Precious didn’t need Gilbert’s reassuring scouting to allay any anxiousness about the unknown, because everything was bathed in monochrome clarity.
She took the kidney shaped shadow of a monkey bread tree’s pod, and replicated it in spooned repetitiveness down her mind’s eye, alternating them in reds and bright oranges on the ruffled silver of the grass below the tree itself.
After which she stripped away the ruffled shine, replacing it with a weave of the long shoots of the elephant grass plucked virtually from the patch she was passing.
With the big gaudy pods of color on the fabric it would have to be that of a summer style printed on light linen. And for the winter she would take away the monkey bread, maybe leave the tight straw patent to augment the warmth of the weave of a heavy corduroy.
The creativity of her imagination seldom stood idle. She was born to create beautiful patterns. They simply flooded into the shadows behind the veil of her eyes.
A flicker of anxiousness brushed aside the bright pods hanging in her mind, whispering a warning. She stopped, standing still.
There was a rustle in the grass ahead. Hesitating, she held her breath. Her body was tensely ready, its primeval instincts tightened to the verge of flight.
Everything was still.
A flicker of movement drew the scan of her eyes.
Straining to see, the silhouette of a Warthog moved out of the grass into the path.
A piglet followed.
Precious felt her relief ease into a weakness in her legs as her muscles relaxed their tightness, and the adrenaline faded.
She moved again, with one gentle step in front of the other.
Gidi said that the area around the Lodge held the highest concentration of warthogs in the national Park.
He couldn’t give any reason for this, but in many ways, he said, it was a blessing to the Lodge, because even though the Warthog itself could hardly be picked for the centerfold in the lodge’s brochures, their abundance attracted some unique predators.
‘We are not the only ones who like bacon.’ He joked.
Seeing the Warthog and her piglets brought a shiver up her spine.
A week ago as Precious walked between the chalets, a Martial Eagle flashed out of nowhere as a hog and her piglets nibbled the buffalo grass lawn.
She had stood motionless looking at the unfolding drama, only meters away, with the little pig squealing its agony as the eagle mantled over its victim with spread wings, footing and crushing its talons into the little hogs body. How after subduing its struggles the huge bird looked up. Noticing her in its fright it abandoned the piglet, to fly up into a nearby tree.
She had backed away slowly leaving the little piglet squealing pathetically with its body punctured. With a crippled front leg, it wasn’t able to follow its mother and sibling as they bolted.
From the inside of a chalet where she was not noticed, she watched the eagle returned to carry the helpless little creature, still squeaking pitifully for its mother, up to a bare branch. Up there, the majestic bird, holding the piglet in its talons, tore off chunks of flesh, until the piglets squeals of misery subsided into silence.
But now, Precious pushed aside the gory images, and watched as the mother hog and her piglet, with flagged tails, turned to trot away into the moon shadows.
She reach the kitchen. There was still enough charge in the solar batteries to power the lights and reveal the pots and pans stacked on the shelves, and the kettle on the stove, the heating of which would be her first task.
Her thoughts flowed through her hands down into her hold on the handle of the broom. She mindlessly brushed the few crumbs and dust left from the previous eve’s activity into a dust pan, as the hiss of the kettle changed its tone into the rattle of boiling water.
With Gidi away Precious wondered if he would be replaced by Moses, popping in to scrounge scraps of company and coffee.
Swathed in the dimness, and the sound of her broom and the kettle, Precious considered the mzungu man. How many lucky breaks had life given him? How many had he squandered to end up as a foot loose wanderer, not much different from the men in her village, stoically facing and accepting life and its capriciousness.
He was too old for her, or was he? She was by far the oldest of the female staff here. But whatever it was, she had never felt anyone to be more an ally than that man. There was a dependability about him. She sensed she could count on him to help get her to where she wanted to go.
Even though she supressed it, it was attractive, very attractive.
Precious had been at the periphery of the safari business for long enough to know that December is the start of the slow tourist season. It is when the usual clients are hunkered down in the cold darkness of their northern winter, with scant vacation time to travel to Africa.
Unlike the plethora of long, bright and mostly dry days of the northern summers, the Central African summer is aptly named the wet season. December is when this wetness begins in earnest. It is the rains of summer which produces the burst of vitality causing the long grasses and the leaves on the trees to fill the vegetative fabric of the bush like the unfurling of a low green fog, obscuring the animals from view.
Despite this being the case, it is not unusual for the Lodge to be filled with guests between Christmas and New Year, even though it is the rainy season, and the long dirt road between Mumbwa and the Lubungu pontoon is barely negotiable, even with a 4 x 4 vehicle. Neither the rain, nor the poor state of the road can keep the local wealthy away. They have the 4 x 4 vehicles, and they are the ones with the winches, ropes and expertise to extract themselves once they are stuck in the mud.
What was unusual was to have the whole lodge booked by a single client from mid-December to the end of the year, with an option for another week. It was also unusual to have it booked for so long by a Muslim who had little interest in taking time off to celebrate a Christian holiday. But then Africa is often full of the unusual, and Precious saw that it was the name of Muhammed Beyh which appeared on the booking sheet.
She knew of him. His reputation stretched as far west as Mumbwa, where the small Indian community dominated the town’s commerce below the tall spire of its Mosque. Maybe it was them who whispered the sketchiness of Mohammed’s reputation in the ears of the general community. Whatever the origin his reputation was even mentioned in her village. Or perhaps it stemmed from the way he had pushed his fingers into a few of the Mumbwa Muslim community’s pies. This was no mean feat, given the close knit nature of that community, knit so tight that the locals joked they were inbred.
Precious also knew of his reputation, like some of the other wealthy Muslims of this part of the world, of having a predilection for hunting. He had a controlling interest in some of the more productive hunting concessions across the country, particularly in the east. Rumor had it that his quota of trophy animals was higher than most. As a result certain politicians appeared better fed than usual, and their wives wore more extravagant jewelry.
On one occasion Precious over-heard a conversation between conservation minded locals to this effect. That when the whole country was closed to the hunting of big male lions, it was not always the case for some of Mohammed’s more prestigious customers. Whether this was fact, or a mix of jealousy induced conjecture, was uncertain.
However, she thought, had lucky breaks given Mohammed his wealth? Or was it hard work, or had he cheated, not followed the rules. Was it a combination of these?
Swathed in the darkness and the sound of her steps, she considered her unique aloneness.
Was being Mushala’s daughter a lucky break?
She knew the whispered stories of her father.
After his death, her mother’s fate hadn’t been much above that of a warthog, on its knees rooting in the mud, scrounging for scraps. Precious had seen this fate suffered by so many of her peers in the villages. ‘Hewers of wood and bearers of water’, fates virtually biblical in nuance. To which should be added bearers of babies.
Where could one find a husband who limited his aspirations to one or two children? How often had she seen her peers, even the most ambitious, have their aspirations smothered under their maternal obligations to care for a child, and another, and another, until their dreams were lost in the cries of children, the chopping of wood, and splash of water from the communal pump.
In the villages the age of consent was largely biological, not statutory. ‘She has grass, we play ball’ was the adage.
And most girls had enough grass by the age of thirteen for the game of life to begin.
Was she wrong to resist the pressure to be some man’s possession? To be purchased, to be bred like a cow. Her final resistance was yet to come, when Eddie came to claim the bride he had paid for.
There was a certain perfidy in her actions. But what other way was there. Being betrothed to Eddie, with his connections to the chief, had opened the door to a job at the lodge, her first step away from the village.
She knew that she was special, it was reflected in her aloofness. For her not all of the social laws applied. Not that she had chosen it to be so.
She realized from the stories, and that her obstinacy came from her father, as did her acute sense of injustice, perceived or real. She had inherited his focus and determination to resist wrongs, so far as it affected her.
Precious got her logic from her mother.
If he had been able to reason, her father would not have died with a bullet through his eye and another in his chest. His body wouldn’t have been displayed for all, to show that his power and magic was over. He would have understood the futility of his cause.
But, was it over or not? After all it was the legacy of his lingering spells in the minds of the people which was both a blessing and a curse.
It rendered both Precious and her mother relatively ‘untouchable’. People were wary of messing with Mushala’s women. Nobody knew what spirit lurked in their shadows. What kind of ether had he become? Would his ghost haunt those who messed with his kindred?
No man was bold enough to take Mushala’s widow to wed. And an unsupported woman in the village without a man to provide the framework of structure and support, leads an austere life.
However, an unwelcome nuance was that sometimes these ‘limbo’ women found themselves selected if tradition must be fulfilled. Mushala’s spirit could hardly object if one of his women were chosen to be at the center of a ritual, even if unwillingly picked.
Was that why after all the times her mother balked at fate it had finally proved too much? Why she had allowed herself to be swept along as it wrested her daughter from her protective embrace.
Precious wondered, if she had screamed, or wailed out loud, would her cries have been as futile as those of an abandoned piglet? Instead she had screamed silently on the final eve of the annual ‘Juba JaNsomo’ festival when the grass had started growing on the field of her life. Despite her terror, seeping through the trancing she had been subjected to, , how was it that she had been uncannily afforded the break that changed it all. Was her father’s spirit still with her, listening to her wails of misery?
Luck may come in strange forms, even as a Seventh Day Adventist. Thie honored festival guest incurred a severe fine, for showing disrespect. His religious morality balked when presented with Precious as a virgin consort for the eve. A special gift, courtesy of the festival.
And by the next year, she was no longer pristine enough to be a gift, maybe condemned to a life hewing its wood, bearing its water and babies.
Instead, the guest gave the precious child a magazine, to placate her nervousness before sending her back to her mother. It was a magazine left laying on a coffee table in the guest’s home in the far off city by his wife. He had picked it up to read a political article, whose catchy phrase, in small print on the cover caught his interest.
But it was not the catchy phrase which captured the young girl’s attention, it was the sumptuously dressed woman who dominated its cover. The Vogue magazine was filled with a plethora of color and clothing, brimming with fashion and style. It over-flowed with ideas so radically different from those of the bush, of the huts of the village, of the tin cans of water to be carried, dirt floors to be swept with a grass brush, and corn to be crushed and cooked into porridge.
Instead the images blew a glow onto the embers of her ambition. It kindled a desire to paint colors and flickering patterns, taken from her village and the bush, until they spread across the equator to color the fashion of the world.
Now fate had again laid another step of the pathway away from her past, even if it was in the unexpected form of a tall slender broad shouldered mzungu man. He did not realize it yet, but she would not give up like her mother, she would use him to embellish her chances.
In distancing herself from the life of her village and what it meant, she would guide Gidi’s forlorn steps, use this handsome man to achieve her dreams… and maybe his, by mingling their dreams for a while.