by WONGANI MWASINGA
Third prize-winning short story, 2020 Makewana’s Daughters Competition
The first time I was called ugly for being dark skinned was in 1985. I was only sixteen years old at the time and repeating Form 2 for the second time. I was living with my step mother and her two children in a small village called ‘Tsongo’ which means ‘strength’. During that time, Father was away in Zimbabwe. He told me he would be working in the copper mines when he bid me farewell on that June-July morning and promised that he would be back after two years so that I wouldn’t miss him too much. But two years had passed without any sign of him coming back. Some people in the village spread rumors that he was dead after the copper mines collapsed and he couldn’t find his way out.
Mother believed the rumors but I didn’t and since we did not get along, I did not tell her that dad and I had been writing letters to each other months after he left. It would always take approximately two months to receive a reply from him. Since letters were the only means of communication I was patient as a lamb as I waited for his reply. In all of his letters, he would encourage me to work hard and never forgot to mention how he believed in me despite the fact that I was not doing very well in school. He only asked me to promise him that I would not get married without his approval just because most of my mates were getting pregnant and then they were married off. He would sometimes ask me how mother was treating me and in return I would always tell him the truth.
Months after writing my JCE exams, I thought it was wise to look for a job at one of the white people’s estate that father had recommended. I went knocking from door to door, looking for a job.
“What do you want knocking on my door at this hour?”. The woman who had opened the door yelled at me. I had been knocking on her door for more than ten minutes. Her tone and attitude made me think that she heard me knocking but she just didn’t want to open the door. Still I proceeded to tell her much I admired the estate and I seeking for a job. She was beautiful and had blue eyes that looked almost like the ocean. Or maybe she was beautiful because it was my first time being so close to a white person
“Get out of my property, you ugly dark thing,” she said while pulling the door ready to slam it in my face.
Her two daughters laughed in unison as they watched the whole scene like they were watching one of the movies that Mr. Mbidzi would play in the school’s playground every Saturday night.
“Look at my children”. She said as she pointed at her children and my eyes intentionally followed her finger. “My light skinned children, that is what we call beauty, not this dark skin that makes the devil jealous.
I immediately left the premises for home and all I could think about was writing a letter to Father to explain about how mean the white lady had been. The steps I took on my way back home were big enough to make the distance shorter than it normally was. I went straight behind the house after I had grabbed my papers and a pen from my room and I sat under the old baobab tree that Father had planted years before I was even born.
I began to write as my throat burnt from the tears I was trying so hard to not let out.
“If I was light skinned I would pretend that I am the Malawian version of Celine Dion and sing along with you some of her songs that you like.” I paused in between writing the letter just to think before writing.
“If I was light skinned I would not even think of applying ambishubaba like the way mother did just to match with the white ladies……maybe if I was light skinned I wouldn’t be among the people suffering from racism”. It took me about an hour to finally complete writing the letter. I sent it the next day and hoped to get a reply soon.
Exactly two months passed before I received a reply from father. With excitement I waited for night time to read the letter in my blanket using a lamp just to avoid mother from asking where the letter was coming from.
“I am sorry you are not light skinned like Celine Dion, instead God made you into the greatest version of Maya Angelou.”.My heart smiled as I remembered how I admired Maya Angelou as a woman in poetry.
I then remembered how father always pushed me to pursue writing to be more like Maya Angelou in future. “If you were light skinned you would have been called Catherine and I think Wongani suites you for it shows how thankful I am to God for blessing me,”. he added and my smile immediately massaged my heart.
“If you were light skinned you would have never known how precious it is to carry the crown of a black goddess. So carry and embrace that crown with all your strength for not even ambishubaba will take away the fierce black heart placed inside you.” As I read through I could picture Father talking. “Shine your way through life and remember that the only time you know you are something worth it, is when someone tries so hard to prove that you are not.”
The letter ended with him telling me that he would be back in a month as he had acquired enough money to finally come back home. Immediately after reading Father’s letter, I took a note-book and started writing poetry.
I waited for Father’s return as I counted down the days. I was excited that after four years I would finally be able to talk to him in person. On a Saturday night of the month of his expected return, there was a knock at the door. Mother opened it. I eavesdropped, hoping that Father had returned. Instead, it was Mr Chunda who was Father’s close friend from the neighbouring village. They had left together for Zimbabwe four years earlier. Mother offered him food but he refused it and went straight to the point.
“Clement was one of the workers that passed away in the copper mine after it collapsed.” His words caused mother to start crying.
“That is not true, I have been writing letters to father ever since he left!” I yelled.
He looked at me sadly while Mother glared at me. Mr Chunda explained how he was the one who had been writing the letters after Father’s death.
“When your father died, it took long for me to reply to your letters because I did not want to inform you of the news through a letter”. I could not understand why the whites would not send his body for proper burial until I learnt from Mr chunda that the whites only cared about having blacks work for them but they did not care for them as employees. I chose to pursue writing and mourn Father’s death through the poems that I wrote.