First prize winner: Makewana

 short story competition (2019)  

                                       

Michael felt uneasy that afternoon. He felt tired and in a hurry all at once. He was sitting on the floor of his empty guest room holding the faded chitenje of his late mother. Today, he had found the energy to enter this room and sort out all the life she had left behind. Most of it had been easy to pack away but the faded torn edges of this 1 metre long piece of material had given him pause.

He tested the feel of the cloth between his fingers, unsure of what exactly he expected it to feel like. This material had hung around his mother’s waist for decades, in all that time it should have absorbed some life, some of her essence. It should have had her scent embedded in its fibres, it should have her laugh fighting to break out of its threads. She had worn it for so long, all Michael wanted now was for it to wear some of her.

He folded the chitenje meticulously, rose from his spot on the floor and decided to put the packing on hold for the time being. He walked aimlessly to his car, placed his mother’s chitenje on the passenger seat and drove.

~       ~~

As Michael was contemplating the life behind the material, on the other side of town an 11 year old girl was embracing the life under the material as she played in the mud with her friend. Tamanda disregarded the clothes her mother had dressed her in that morning and flung mud at Dumisani. She knew her mother would be mad at the mess she was making, she knew she was not supposed to play too much with boys, she knew it was getting late and she should get home but she also knew that Dumi had called her a goat and flung mud at her first, so that needed to be resolved first and foremost.

~~~

Michael had been driving around without a particular destination in mind for about an hour. His mother’s chitenje in the passenger seat was adding a certain thickness to the atmosphere in the car. He knew he was being ridiculous, he knew his mother was not suddenly going to manifest in the seat next to his just because he had put her chitenje there. He knew he could not will her back into existence, he knew he had waited too long to want her presence and now he was putting too much pressure on a flimsy piece of yellow patterned floral cloth.

~~~

Once she felt that Dumisani had learnt his lesson Tamanda bid him goodbye and started on her way home. The sun was on the brink of setting and Lilongwe was set ablaze by the burnt orange colour of dusk. The nimble body of 11 year old Tamanda danced through the streets admiring her favourite time of day, a time before she had to return to being someone’s older sister, she could walk through these streets and just be. She didn’t have any pressure.

~~~

Michael parked his car in town, put his mother’s chitenje in his book bag and went for a walk, the tension in the car had gotten too thick to bear. It was the middle of February and the clouds were encroaching on the city. He held his bag close to him as though it were fragile, as though something would break if he dropped it. He was feeling fragile himself, memories of his mother wearing this chitenje had flooded his mind ever since he found it this morning. She had insisted on wearing the same one, even after he had bought new pieces of material for her. She reserved all the new zitenje for special occasions but returned to her veteran cloth for daily chores and errands, it was like it gave her comfort, like it carried some special sentiment that Michael never got the chance to ask about. Why hadn’t he asked her? Why hadn’t he asked her more about her life? She had lived an entire human life-time, she had formed memories, friendships and relationships that he would never know about. She had overcome milestones, given up on dreams, developed bad and good habits, endured hardships and celebrated victories. Where did all that life go now? Michael felt the thickness developing in his chest now, spreading quicker than it had in the car and as though the city mimicked his emotions, the clouds thickened and it began to rain..

~~~

The sudden pouring of the rain caught Tamanda off guard. Undeterred by the change in weather, she hurried towards a nearby bus stop for shelter. Surprises only ever added to the pep in her step, and only time would tell whether this flexibility was a by-product of her youth or a natural trait of her character. She found an older man standing under the shelter. Tamanda couldn’t quite place his age, she never could tell how old adults were, they just looked old to her. This man looked old and sad though.

~~~

Blessings was standing at a bus stop in town, not waiting for a bus but certainly waiting for something. Standing here had become a routine for her, but today she wasn’t alone. She had found a young girl standing to the right of the shelter and a middle-aged man standing to the left. She now stood in the middle and wondered how the picture of the three of them standing under this rackety shelter looked to onlookers.

The man to her right had a stoic yet pensive look about him. He was clutching a book bag and with his eyes trained steadily ahead she knew he was focused not on an object but on a thought, perhaps a memory. His entire stature was heavy and rooted to the spot, the opposite of the girl to her left. This girl was life personified. She seemed unable to stand still. Like a feather in the middle of a windy day, she was light on her feet. She was smiling absently at the rain falling around them, enjoying the weather and enjoying the day.

Blessings focused her attention on the roads, people and cars alike were swarming the streets of Lilongwe trying to beat rush hour. Blessings and her fellow watchers stood across from some stalls selling tourist merchandise; the focus of the stalls seemed to be the display of zitenje hanging from racks. With the rain coming down as hard as it was, Blessings expected them to have closed down their stalls and taken down the merchandise, but this was far from the case. She watched as a woman eyed the colourful print of the cloth. There were deep reds, intense yellows and bright greens all hanging from racks, and you could tell she was entranced. Blessings had heard the vendors tell a thousand different far-fetched stories in order to sell anything, and whether they were true or not often didn’t matter as long as it worked. Today was different though, this woman told her own story, she sold the material to herself. She muttered to herself about how the light shining through the material perfectly mimicked the African sunset, and how the rain deepened the colour of the material, she asked to no-one in particular how it was that something that should have destroyed the material made it more beautiful. She mentioned how perhaps it spoke to the human condition, how often what’s meant to dampen us and our spirits, works to uplift us.

Blessing smiled as she listened to the woman speak. She had never heard someone romanticise chitenje so much before. I guess when you’re trying hard to identify with a culture you really begin to notice the smallest things. When Blessings looked at chitenje she would think of her mother, her grandmother, her aunts. All the women in her life who she had seen rock the chitenje in all its forms. She had seen it wrapped around her mother’s waist dusted with charcoal as she crouched over a fire on a day just like this one. She had seen it tailored into a dress and flaunted on the dance floor at weddings. She had seen it sit atop her grandmother’s head at funerals, where covering up was the most respectful way to say goodbye. She could remember the first time she tried to wear one and how she couldn’t figure out how to stop it from falling off. Learning how to keep one on was almost a rite of passage. So as beautiful as it was in the rain and in the light, she thought it so much more beautiful that she could look at the cloth in all its beauty and think of all the women in her life in all their beauty.

Blessings heard a humorless scoff come from one of her fellow watchers, he had been listening to the woman’s analysis of the zitenje as well.

“I saw my mother wear the same type of chitenje year after year until it was faded and tattered hanging off her frail hips in her old age. I wish I could liken that to a sunset.” He stared straight ahead as he said it and Blessings wasn’t sure if he was speaking to her or merely thinking out loud. She couldn’t quite place the emotion behind the man’s words, was he merely reminiscing or was he bitter? She regarded his profile for a moment and tried to summon the correct response but before she could find the right words the man had opened his book bag, pulled out an old chitenje and handed it to her.

“This is too heavy for me to keep anymore.”

Blessings examined the stranger’s face and tried to understand exactly what he was saying. She took the chitenje off his hands and swore she could feel the weight of it come off of him. He stood up straight, looked into her eyes for the first time and shared a short yet personal moment with her. He was speaking with his eyes words he had probably failed to verbalise to himself: words of letting go, not of defeat, but of acceptance. The moment lasted only a second and then he turned and joined the swarm of people in the rain rushing home.

~~~

Tamanda looked down at her dress as if for the first time and realized just how dirty it was, the golden hour of dusk was quickly passing and Tamanda was quickly morphing back into the girl she is supposed to be when she is home, a responsible role model and a dutiful daughter.

“Looks like you made quite a mess there.” Tamanda heard from the woman standing next to her. She nodded, she tried to avoid eye contact with the woman, she may have just been a child but her mother had given her enough sense to know not to entertain strangers.

“Here, this should help.” The woman crouched down to Tamanda’s level and wrapped the chitenje Tamanda had seen the man give her around her waist before she could really protest. The woman made sure the cloth was fastened tightly and stood back up. “That hides some of the dirt.”

“Thank you,” Tamanda said before she stepped into the street, deciding it was better to brave the rain than the wrath of her mother if she got home too late. When she got far enough away she unwrapped the chitenje from her waist and used it to shield herself from the rain.

~~~

 

Blessings looked back at the stall selling the zitenje, she wondered if she should stand there a   while longer and ponder how a cloth could simultaneously make people inquisitive, nostalgic, sad and safe. With her mind branching off in different directions she decided she had found what she was waiting for today and stepped out into the rain, she would find another spot tomorrow.

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