When Chilungamo Kadzanja awoke that morning he had nothing, he knew nothing. He was the happiest man on earth. He had no wife, no child, no conscience, and no self consciousness. Chilungamo had no problems, no solutions, no standards, no needs and nothing to achieve and absolutely no time.
His state of oblivion was broken by the routine cough from his wife. She was breathing life into the reluctant flames that were indignant that they must awaken before the sun. As self consciousness returned to him, so did the questions. The foolish questions that drove him to anger towards his parents and the pressures of society. Questions about his birth and his life. A life that he was now living in Chikanda, the place where all things ended up. Trash, cheap beer, vomit, vintage prostitutes, ‘n’ hand cars and pocket change.
Who gave anyone the go-ahead to have children? Who asked anyone to make him the evidence of their fertility? Now they were dead and gone, and he had remained, living in a mud brick house with two rooms. One as the bedroom and the other served as a living room by day and a bedroom by night for his only child, Chiyembekezo. He was the one stuck living in a community where the noises and gossip from your neighbors’ house was no secret. And his parents, all they did was raise him, discipline him, and hope that he wouldn’t embarrass them when there were visitors around.
Chilungamo looked forward to nothing. Even his supposed instinct for survival was not enough to rouse him from his three inch mattress. He had never heard of the poet that had said “but I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” If he had, the words would have thrown him into greater despair. He was admittedly poor, but even then had no dreams that they might at least have the honor of being tread, trampled upon. He had no hope for today, just the vain hope that he had been a child rushing to see the world before its time and not survived the entrance into it.
“Bambo a Chiyembekezo” called his wife from the doorway that had a flimsy curtain flowing down, “I’ve put your bath water…”
Chilungamo grunted once to assert that he had heard and twice more to thank and dismiss his squatting wife. When Vitumbiko left, he lay still, staring at the rusty iron sheets with threads of sunlight squeezing through from a number of places.
Chiyembekezo, his only son. What naïve demon had possessed him to name him that? That name taunted him now. Expectations, for what? That his son would break the cycle of poverty? If what he learned in primary school was true, then poor people had children so they could enjoy or bear the weight of poverty better. If there were more poor people, then they wouldn’t feel the cutting chains of poverty as much, would they? The more the merrier, he had been told.
Everything had come to nothing. It was better for him to crush his son’s varying dreams of becoming a doctor, a policeman, a pilot now while the dreams were tender. Reality was cruel, unforgiving and…yes, taunting. But as a father, he would cripple his dreams with compassion, a firm gentleness. The world would lure him with glittering things and difficult paths to make him suffer so that he would know he deserved good things; at the end of the road, there would be nothing, a rainbow on another hill until both rainbow and glitter disappear. By then, his strength would be gone. But then life is not satisfied so easily, your mind must also be taken away from you, and so it would take a nice long drag, like a cheap woman pulling on a cigarette. It would leave Chiyembekezo at the mercy of his wife, and his in-laws.
No, Chilungamo, thought, he would kill his son’s dreams himself; it was the kindest gift a father could give to his son. It was one of love and affection.
He would know that education was no key to a bright future. Maybe it was one of the keys, he wouldn’t know. But the government certainly was a key. The government and all its bodies were there to act as a legit means to hand out money to people without them having worked and being called corrupt. It guaranteed votes in future elections. If Chiyembekezo wanted a good life, if there was any, a place with free money, he must join the government.
“A bambo” Vitumbiko hesitatingly called, “your waters getting cold.”
Breathing out heavily, Chilungamo got out of bed.
He went to the latrine that he built himself, only to be delayed from relieving himself by his chatty neighbor. He soon realized that it was because the neighbor’s child was in the latrine. His mother was trying to create a diversion so the child could sneak out and not suffer his wrath that was growing daily. He was annoyed that suddenly, his toilet was the communal toilet as it seemed none of the other men had the time or energy to build one for their own families. The women that had so far attempted to take upon the task themselves built shallow toilets that were soon filled by some fancy neighbors who used disposable diapers they could ill afford.
Soon enough, Chilungamo was on his way to the District Assembly to collect permission papers to build on a patch of land his brother had bought within the Chikanda Township. He arrived by seven thirty.
The offices were, as expected, not opened until eight. However, he did find some people waiting outside as well for the various reasons he couldn’t bring himself to care about or develop a curiosity for. By eight, only the cleaners had arrived.
He waited as the crowd grew larger. Just before ten, all the offices had opened. The officers in charge were loitering about exchanging stories about their yesterday and following up on other people’s private business. In each office, there was only one temperamental person waiting to serve. Whenever the officer at the desk felt any one of the citizens was rude or was asking too many questions by behaving like he knew more about the job than he, the employee, he would close his window and walk out, leaving the queue at a loss as to what to do.
He would, at someone’s convenience, be replaced by another slow moving, uncaring officer who made you long for the person who just left. By ten thirty, the offices were partially deserted for a tea break. At eleven thirty, Chilungamo was finally at the front of the line. He placed the papers on the desk and greeted the man behind it.
“So, what do you want?” the man asked without looking at the papers.
“I’ve come to collect my permit for building on a piece of land-”
“Go to the accounts.”
“I already did and they said-”
“Give me the receipt.”
Chilungamo passed the appropriate piece of paper in front of the man and waited for him to respond.
“This is the land receipt; you need to pay for the building permit.”
“Yes, the other paper attached to it is the other receipt.”
“Ey…you, just do what I’m telling you and come back next week for the final steps.”
“I already came last week and they told me that all I needed was a stamp from this office.”
The man behind the desk looked up at Chilungamo in an extremely annoyed manner. He looked at the papers before him and realized that for the first time that day, he could not dismiss the man, he had to work. Chilungamo’s paperwork was in order. The man behind the desk was fat, and would do anything to stay seated.
“Ok, come back after lunch.”
“Ah, but boss, can’t you just help me out?”
“Did you not hear what I said? This is lunch time; I have other things to do. Come back after lunch. If you don’t want to come back then, leave your papers here and collect them later. They’ll be ready.”
Everyone knew better than to leave their papers at a government office. This man may not even be there at lunch, let alone tomorrow. He could be transferred or fired or have the paperwork go missing.
“Boss, you are a busy man. I don’t want to bother you and I’m sure you don’t want to keep seeing my face in this place. Just help me out Sah. Please Sah.”
The man assessed Chilungamo’s worn shirt and discolored trousers. He knew he wasn’t going to get any money from this man no matter how long he delayed him.
Chilungamo held on to his expression of relief, waiting for the stamped and signed paper to be in his hands before he could relax.
When the final signature was on the document, a process that took less than three minutes, Chilungamo followed the water melon of a man around. He expressed his unending gratitude and blessed his children up to the fourth generation. He completed his performance by escorting him to the car holding the door open for him and waving the man in a bowed position while grinning his thanksgiving as the man drove off.
As soon as he disappeared, Chilungamo straightened up and stopped smiling. Some people were grumbling, speculating that he probably knew the man personally and how unfair it was that he should have to be so humble over services that he deserved anyway. The offices were closed for lunch. Chilungamo began the trek home. No matter what anyone would say, he had his papers.
He saw trouble before he arrived home. People were running towards the direction where his house was located. He could only tell the direction but not the house itself. There was smoke rising.
He rushed towards home, following first the last few people running towards the same direction as he. Then he followed the screams, cries and instructions of people giving ideas on what to do. His neighbors’ grass thatched house was on fire.
Chilungamo watched as people tried to carry out the few belongings that his neighbor owned. The bags of maize were coming out of the house a man at a time until ten bags were piled one on the other in two piles. Furniture was thrown out, chairs, buckets and pots. Some women were drawing water, trying to extinguish the fire. This was either due to neighborly concern or more importantly because the houses in the community were just a hand span away from each other and the area could soon completely be on fire.
“Someone called the fire engine; they said they were on their way” Chilungamo heard one person reply to his question of “who started the fire?”
The fire was eventually put out with communal effort. The house was now a blackened melting, steaming structure. The people sat down to take stock of what had been lost and what survived.
Chilungamo was one of the first people to realize that the man of the house was injured and putting together some transport, he and a few other people rushed him to the hospital.
They arrived at the General Hospital as fast as the push and jump in car would allow. Getting there, they were told that they were in need of a police report. They argued, threatened and pleaded to the robotic nurse who would not stop stating her memorized lines.
“Please follow protocol. You have to go to the police station and get a statement or come with an officer. Only then will we give you medical help.”
“But he could lose a limb or die. Why can’t you treat him while we get the police? Why do we need the police anyway?” argued Chilungamo.
“Because he could have been doing something illegal or broke the law. Whatever the case, he must report to the police.”
“Hey, I have a shift to run, if you don’t like what I’ve said, take it up with the matron.”
Chilungamo and the rest left in a bewildered state to go to the police station. Arriving there, they explained their plight and asked for assistance. The policeman they met was quiet, listening, writing down a few notes and nodding.
“Thank you for being patient enough to follow protocol” he said slowly “we need more people like you in the country. Some people think that the police are useless and can be walked over. But this is not the case, have I not listened to you?”
“Yes, yes you have, but could you please help us with a statement?”
“Yes, a statement. Well, as you know, this is a government office and this is a Friday. If you had come before midday, I would have been able to help you. But as of now, there is nothing I can do. We have all knocked off.”
“What? But you are here. Can’t you help?”
“I am here, but my job is to protect this police station. If I leave, who will do my job and anyway, I am knocking off. I’m going home to Kalimbuka.”
The policeman prepared to leave.
“Wait, wait sah. We are going to the general hospital. Can’t we give you a lift home? And you can simply do us a favor and meet the nurse.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll come with you, but I don’t want to be delayed and you have to drop me at my doorstep.”
Chilungamo did not go with the rest of the group to the hospital. He dropped off in town and walked home to give an update as to the condition of his neighbor.
Just as he arrived, dawn’s fierce twin was taking over the night and the first stars appeared. The people who were waiting for him had barely noticed his arrival when there was the sound of a fire engine.
The engine stopped as close to the burned house as it could. With a lot of ceremony, noise and pomp, the firemen jumped out of the fire truck, pulled their hose and without warning, began to water down the house. As two of them handled the hose, the others were screaming to the people, shoving them back, telling them to stand aside. In zeal, they also began to spray the furniture that had been saved.
At this, the community members began to yell and throw what they could. This forced the firemen to shut the hose and exclaim as they left, “Were we just supposed to return with the water when we had already arrived?”
After a while, the crowd dispersed and the calm of the night called all to bed. Chilungamo listened through the walls to his neighbor’s preparations to sleep between four walls and beneath a sparsely starry night.
Life was an uphill climb on a mountain with no top. As he drifted to nothing, Chilungamo returned to the best time of his day, when he became nobody, with nothing, not even himself.