Let words rain and reign

WHISPERS IN THE TREE: A SIMPLE STORY OF THE THANGATA SYSTEM BY Tikondwe Susan Chimkowola


Makewana's Daughters

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whispers in tea trees

I stand by the road passing by the mystical mwala wa mthunzi. The wonderful green carpet of tea trees blends in nicely with the blue canopy of the sky, the green landscape and the tiny huts popping out the green trees looking like tiny pimples. You cannot help but notice the domineering presence of Mount Mulanje in the background, seeming like a sleeping giant watching over the landscape that surrounds its foot. It’s the tea plucking season, and the green carpet is bursting with lovely songs from the tea pluckers. Although this picture very perfect, the tea trees seem to whisper to one another about the times when there was a dark shroud covering the blue sky, the wind was cold and harsh, when the sun only shone on the white man’s face and the black man’s face was battered with nothing but rain. They whisper to each other about the valley of bones that lie underneath them, the blood that watered their stems though they never changed their colours and remained green. I was very young by then, about three or four years old but everything that happened those days is still fresh in my mind like it happened yesterday.

It all started with the Hut Tax. We were required to pay tax on our huts, the huts that we had built on the very same soil our fore fathers had built on, the land that we all thought belonged to the people, a clan, a family and not an individual. Because most people were not employed by then, money was very hard to find, we were used to the free water our rivers provided, the free soil we used to build our huts and the free food from our farms and forests. Many had protested in the first instance but since the white man had the gun, he had the power. Since most of the men were not in their homes during the day, the police task force would conduct their searches and raids at night. It was a time when people did not quite fear the white man as they feared their comrades, the same men you would play Bawo with during the day would be the same men, in their masters’ uniform, raiding your house and arresting you that very night. The village soon turned into a female camp, it was either the men had fled their households, or arrested, or dead or they would hide in holes near the dambo at night.

My father didn’t want to flee from us, like our neighbour had done. The neighbour’s children were all skin and bone and his children were dying one by one. Instead my father left the house every evening, he would have his supper early, wear his huge coat, the one he had always referred to when he would brag about the time he rescued a white man from a hole while working in the copper belts of Northern Rhodesia. The white man had given him the coat as a token of appreciation, for displaying such admirable valour. Where he went to no-one knew, my mother simply said that he found a job as a watchman in the nearby tea estate. So whenever the tax collector came to our house and ask for my father we would say he had gone to work and that the hut licence was with him.

One day, my father did not return home early in the morning like he always did and immediately my instinct told me something was wrong. Mother was panicking, asking Ma Joshua if her husband had come home that morning, Ma Joshua also said that her husband and son had not come home. My mother together with Ma Joshua walked out of our compound without a word but everyone could tell the distress on their faces. What had happened to Father? To get rid of the bad thoughts I and my sister started making our dolls while our oldest siblings were memorising bible verses for their entrance interviews at the local mission school.

A few moments after we saw a few white men together with the police pass by. Who was in trouble now? Since nobody wanted to hear stories from a second party, we all followed the group to see everything first hand. We followed them all the way down to the dambo where the police had surrounded a group of men, they were shouting at the men in a language we all came to assume was the white man’s language, English. The white men were having a conversation of their own too. As I looked closely I saw Father sitting by the far end of the group, with what seemed to be tears running down his cheeks, but, in Africa men don’t cry and if you see tears in a man’s eyes in Africa he is not crying he just has something in his eye. So I told myself that Father just had something in his eye and everything would be alright. Near the group of men was a huge hole, and my thoughts started drifting from one extreme end to another. Were they going to shoot them and bury them in the hole? Or were they going to bury them alive? I pieced the story together when I heard two women talking. That is when I realised that some men from the village, including my father had dug a hole at the dambo where they would jump in camouflage it with reeds and grass and spend their nights there to run away from the police. It was humiliating to know that my father was amongst them, these men had been emasculated and my father had definitely lost his respect.

The white men ordered all the men to be rounded up. And I did not see my father for another two seasons.

It was heavily raining that afternoon, we were in the house eating pumpkins, when the door of the hut flung open, a dark hairy figure emerged in the door way dripping wet. I was too scared neither to move nor to even blink, my little sister clutched my skirt and I could tell she was shivering; mother looked bewildered as the mtsuko fell from her hands. We were calmed, when we recognized that it was Father. He went into their room and we didn’t see him again till supper time. He refused to share his experiences with us; all he told us was that he had spent some time in jail and some time working in the estates as part of punishment. He told us that he had managed to pay our hut tax for that month, but we would have to find a way to pay for the following months, then he stayed silent again. For the following days my dad spent most of his time staying silent and wallowing in his thoughts. He would not talk to anyone apart from greetings or when he wanted you to get something for him. It was as if the time he had spent away from us had broken him and changed him into a whole different person. He would eat and grab his mat and sleep under the guava trees and say a word to no-one.

One day, the police came by our house and asked us to pack our things. We got into a car that dropped us at a tea estate. There were a lot of families there too and no-one knew why we had been taken there. A white man with a huge moustache stood next to a black police officer and whispered into the policeman’s ear. Then the policeman told us that we were the families that failed to pay their hut tax therefore it was either we work for the estate in exchange for free accommodation without hut tax or we go back to our villages and await trial. Choosing the former was almost inevitable and all the families opted to stay. We were given a hut to stay in as well as new clothes and blankets since it was colder that side. We thought the heavens had indeed answered our prayers for a better life. But do not judge a crossing until you have reached the other side of the river.

One the estate, it was waking up before the second cock crows whether you are dead or whether you are alive. Since we were young we usually stayed home, cleaning, washing, playing with clay and sometimes cooking. The rations we got from the estate weren’t enough for all of us so we would often sleep on empty stomachs. Sometimes Mother would go back to the village to collect Ufa from Agogo, so that we could prepare some nsima or porridge to supplement our rations. But how can nsima with no relish but salt be appetising? We weren’t allowed to keep any chickens or goats because they felt that the animals would do some damage to the crops. So we lived like that. When we got older we started helping out on the farm, just some simple tasks and we would be paid in kind, some old clothes or beddings were their usual method of paying us. But as time passed, food was becoming a major problem and the family back in the village said it was tired of “ …growing food for people, that brought nothing to them apart from tattered pieces of clothes.” Indeed we could not eat clothes, so Mother and the six of us left the state for the village, so we could grow our food. The arrangement was alright in the beginning, but it hurt to think of father doing all that work for our sake but that was the life those days, families would be torn apart and there was nothing we could do about it.

A few seasons passed and we got devastating news, not only are the tea trees a marvellous carpet covering the landscape, between their trees lie venomous snakes, and since there were no such things as rubber boots or shoes for the African man working in the fields, my father was bitten by a snake and his leg was swollen that he couldn’t do any of the work. Since there was no anti-venom those days, traditional concoctions were the only solution. But each snake had its own concoction and it had to be administered very early and in this case we didn’t know what snake it was or what concoction to give him, so we took whatever was available and rushed to the estates. But it was too late, his leg was severely swollen that he could only wear a loin cloth, he was grounded in his hut because he couldn’t move. That is when I knew that that was the beginning of the end and chances of him surviving were like looking for a needle in the tea trees. So from that time we took his place and work on the farms, my young sister and I helped Mother stitch the sacks they put in the harvested tea leaves, my brothers worked on the fields. My oldest sisters had married some men who also worked on the estates, continuing our cycle of problems and poverty.

Behind the evergreen tea lay a wasteland. The children were either malnourished or dead because of the shortage in food, no-one had the time to go back home and grow their own food and yet there we were busy, making food and money for others, and sadly this other was not the black man. A few Sundays after our arrival my younger sister took ill and it was evident that it was due to the lack of food. She looked very frail, her stomach was protruding, though she was the youngest she looked old and wrinkly and it was as if her skin was simply covering her bones, so she stayed home with my father and his rotting leg. A few Sundays after, we were working in the field when a heavy feeling clung on my heart and I did not feel at ease. Unexplainably I found myself striding to our hut, it was that feeling you get when you know something is wrong, terribly wrong. But you are trying to hold back tears because a part of you is telling you that all may not be lost yet. And when you reach your destination you shiver at the fact that you have to open the door and find out what is behind it and when you do, you wish you never did. My younger sister seemed to be fast asleep on her mat, the porridge I left her was untouched, she had covered her blanket over her head, so I moved on to the room where my parents slept, and from the motionless body I saw, I knew my father had passed on. I went back to where my sister was and her body was also lifeless and I screamed. My mother and my brothers came to the hut with a group of other workers, they told us not to attract any attention and we should keep quiet so the master wouldn’t know. So we wept in silence and during the night we buried both of them at the edge of the estate. Because the master wasn’t supposed to know we had to act like nothing was wrong. We had to carry our misery inside and not show it, that was when I believed that it is true that one may walk and seem alive when they are long dead in the inside. We had become hollow in the inside and simply lived by the routines that were set for us, when we went home it was nothing but silence; everyone would go to sleep and wait for what the next day would bring. I missed those days back in our village, when we would dance in the moonlight, listen to Agogo‘s tales by the fire, the laughter and the contentment. But the world was a different place now, where pain replaced the laughter and anxiety replaced the contentment. We all waited in silence for the day we were going to die and find peace.

A few seasons later we heard of an uprising, the black man was finally fighting for his land and his pride. They wanted members and my two brothers happily complied to join them. They would go to secret meetings during the night. Until one day in the year we came to know as 1915, my brothers vanished and though the two of them had left, only one had returned. My oldest brother had been shot during the unsuccessful uprising. While my mother and I spent the night mourning, my brother went outside and hung himself on a mango tree; we found his body in hanging there in the morning. We took his body and buried him next to my father and my sister. After his burial, my mother packed our things and we left, looking for a new place for a new beginning “…the land had drunk too much of our blood” she said and we never turned back. I don’t know where my sisters are and it has been a year since the death of my mother. As I sit on this rock looking at the tea trees, they seem to whisper to me, asking me if those plucking those tea leaves are actually free or any different from us. The terms just change, from Thangata to being a “tenant”.

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