“Life as a labourer is hard, but when Ombima, commits what he considers a “necessary” crime and watches the events that unfold, things change. He tries to cover up his deeds, which come to involve the entire village, bringing into focus human nature, relationships, love and breaking lives and vows. In this novel, Stanley Gazemba regales us with fresh insight, showing how much mastery and restraint he can exercise on narrative.”
IN the air over the village that particular evening was a feeling of pregnant tense. A thick dark cloud loomed heavy above the grey-coloured thatch huts that spangled the steep green hillsides in kindred patches, threatening to cry rain any moment. As thunder boomed in the distant ridges hemming in the village to the west, the villagers became frantic. Young men and boys lost their patience with the stock, trying to herd them out of the rain, while the women hurried down to the river with pots and metal pails on their heads for water to prepare the evening meal, hoping the rain wouldn’t catch them on the way back. The air was wet and charged, the orange-streaked evening sky occasionally rent by a bolt of lightning that lit up the chaos beneath in bright white light for a brief electrifying moment. Night was fast approaching.
Ombima was scared. Not of the approaching storm, no. But of what he was about to do. He was hurrying along a winding path that was covered in fine red dust, and which wound its way through the homesteads downhill into the valley with plenty of trees which stood between their village and the next, Kigama. Above this gently snaking valley, in the midst of which a stream of icy crystalline water swiftly sped over rocks and other impediments, now hung a long thin wisp of mist the colour of smoke from well-dried wood. It was getting thicker and denser so in the next moment it would be virtually impossible to see across to Kigama. Then, when the storm struck, it would descend upon the country and shroud it in a thick blanket of fog and driving hail, the strong winds ripping limbs out of the tall eucalyptus trees like avenging demons.
But it was not this that Ombima was afraid of. Neither was he scared of being caught out there in the deluge, where he might be impaled by a bolt of lightning into a ‘dry meatless statue’ like his grandmother had often warned him as a child. No, he was not scared of all these imaginary fears. He was scared of what he was about to do.
All his life into grey-side burned middle age, Ombima had never really stolen from anyone. He had always worked for the things that he got, and worked tirelessly hard at that. Of course there were those petty offences like pilfering fruit from a neighbour’s tree and things like that that everyone does as a boy. But really just stealing to satisfy a burning need, he had never done. He had always gone out of his way to keep the cloak of honesty draped on his shoulders, even in his rapidly advancing age and pressed down with the countless problems that afflicted his household.
But now he was going to steal. Not money, or a piece of silver of great worth, but food. Plain life-sustaining food that was, at that particular moment, of more worth to him than all the gold and silver in the world. And it weighed him down with such shame he could hardly keep his head straight.
He left the path as it started to creep into the thorny bushes and made his way across the open field to his left. The field was covered in a thick carpet of coarse tough grass and shrub that the cattle turned to only during the dry season. As he went across the open field, he was careful not to step on thorns since he was barefoot. The thong of his akala sandals that he always wore around the village evenings and to Mbale on market days had come off, and there was no money to pay for its repair at the local shoemaker’s. He still hadn’t washed from the day’s labour at the rich man, Andimi’s. Grains of red earth still clung to the thin hairs on his muscled legs, which protruded out of the folded ends of his patched trousers. His skin was clammy with the sweat of the fields. Perhaps he wouldn’t even manage a bath that evening for the storm and the fast approaching dark. If he wasn’t caught out on his mission, that is.
There was a fence of barbed wire at the far end of the open field that marked the beginning of Andimi’s kitchen garden---a ‘kitchen garden’ indeed! It was, in the true sense of the word, really a farm because if one tried to estimate the acreage, then it actually worked out double the piece of land owned by Ombima and his family. And all that just for a ‘patch’ of kitchen vegetables and bananas! In fact it was said the open field covered with burr that Ombima was then crossing belonged to the man, only that he hadn’t developed it yet. And so, in the meantime, the villagers took advantage and grazed their cattle on it as it were community land.
The barbed wire was rusty and closely stranded, overgrown with grasses and creepers. By now it was favourably dark, but still Ombima was wary. Someone could still be lurking about in the garden even at this hour, and so he had to be watchful. Out here in the open field it was easy should anyone come along, the most ready explanation being he was looking for his stray calf. But inside the fenced-off garden…well…
He scanned the shadows in the trees as carefully as he could for any movement. A chill in the raging wind made him clasp himself, and for some reason other than the impending theft, his teeth chattered. He decided that no one in their right senses could still be about at that hour.
Madam Tabitha was feeling rather wound up for such a lovely day as it had been. There were things on her mind. Indeed there had been since the noontime break at school. She had had a disagreement with the headmaster concerning a small levy he proposed to charge on the parents for some chickens one of the teachers had suggested they rear in the little yard behind the staff kitchen. This was purportedly to help improve the diet at lunch times, where occasionally they were to slaughter one of the birds in the place of the usual sukuma-wiki and ugali or maize and beans, washed down with tea.
It was a fine idea to keep the birds and it would certainly do to boost the morale of the staff. But then the question was, should the parents finance it?
Madam Tabitha had been of the idea that since it was the teachers who would eat the chickens; they should dip into their pockets to pay for the ten pullets that were proposed, and not the parents. But of course not everyone had agreed with her. Someone had even been heard to mumble something to the effect that some people could afford to put up an argument for the parents because they knew they were sitting pretty back home- a statement that hadn’t quite escaped her ear.
Kanzika, the games master, had been on her side though, arguing that it was really overburdening on the parents. He had gone even further and brought up the matter of pupils being sent on errands other than schoolwork. It was clear he was pointing at a recent incident where the entire Class Six had been sent out to ferry some bricks from the valley in Kegoye, all the way to Kiritu where the headmaster was constructing some rental houses. That incident had drawn the wrath of one of the parents who had chanced to be passing that way, and who had spotted his son on the work gang.
Clearly Madam Tabitha had stirred a can of worms, and as the argument progressed, it easily degenerated into a heated exchange. It wasn’t to be a very pleasant lunch break- and the entire afternoon for that matter.
By the time she got home that evening Madam Tabitha was dying for her evening cup of tea and some peace of mind. She changed into an easy gown and sat on the back verandah enjoying the brew of Midecha, her househelp, as she ruminated over the events of the day. But then it was only for a while. Soon one of the workers came up to report some happening in the homestead while she had been away, on top of requesting for a ‘small’ loan to pay the AI man for servicing his new grade heifer. Madam Tabitha knew that she should sneak off into the garden if she hoped for a little moment of peace and solitude.
She went inside for her woolen shawl and, passing round the poultry hut, disappeared into the cool breeziness of the swaying banana trees.
Ombima stood by the overgrown fence for a while, listening. And then, in a swift noiseless movement, he flopped down on his belly and crawled like a lizard beneath the lowest strand of the rusty barbed wire, flattening his thin form as close to the ground as possible so his nylon shirt wouldn’t get caught on the sharp barbs. He crouched close to the fence, watching the long shadows in the swaying trees. There was an open stretch running along the fence, a path really, along which Andimi strolled when he wanted to inspect what work the labourers had done for the day, a routine the old shrewd-eyed fellow stuck unfailingly to however busy he had been, before paying them their daily pittance. No one came shambling round the bend from the direction of the house. Ombima sprinted across and was swallowed in the concealing cover of the darkening banana plantation.
Growing in the garden were all sorts of foodstuffs a hungry man could think of; lots and lots of them. Of course Ombima had often came here to work, in a group. Then, perhaps because of being with the others, the wealth of the garden wasn’t as awesome. But now, all alone in the sprawling garden, it hit him with an impact. Everywhere he looked he saw thriving produce: slender banana trees bent over with fruit that was so heavy it was breaking their backs; pawpaw trees with their pumpkin-sized fruit, shiny and engorged, so ripe the birds just couldn’t make up their minds which was the choicest. He saw cabbages that would make a man break out in a sweat if he were given the punishment of carrying one on his head to Chavakali market. He also saw pumpkins, big and round, sitting squattly in their lush green bedding like monarchs of the storybook splendour. Even in the dim light of the dying day, Ombima could visualize the richness of colour in the skin of every fruit he saw. And the wonders just opened up, spreading far and wide as if all these couldn’t be owned by one person. It felt like the visionary garden of Eden, and he Adam, sole lord over it all dropped in from the sky. A whole new world.
For a while he couldn’t make up his mind just what it was he wanted among all that was spread at his feet. He wanted to pick the biggest cabbage in the patch, and at the same time he wanted to uproot some cassava, because he thought it would be more filling. He wanted to pluck the fattest of the pumpkins and at the same time he wanted to take off his shirt and spread it on the ground so he could pile on it juicy red tomatoes like children do when they go to gather tsimbulumbutu berries in the bush. He wanted to take a little bit of everything.
Eventually it was the sudden falling of a pawpaw fruit shaken out of the tree by the wind that decided him. The huge ripe fruit came hurtling out of the tree like a bomb and struck the ground just short of where he was, quite startling him. He froze still, ears cocked, certain that someone had heard the noise. He was poised to bolt out of there like an arrow the instant the shadows shifted to reveal a presence.
But the wind was whipping the banana trees so noisily no one could possibly have heard. His heart hammered in his chest like a drum. He dashed forth and grabbed the precious fruit off the ground, inspecting it as if it belonged to him. It was slightly squashed…Doesn’t matter, a pawpaw is still a pawpaw…All the same the incident electrified him into urgency and he started dashing from plant to plant, hurriedly robbing them of their fruit. It suddenly felt so thrilling to steal someone’s fruit. In a short while he had such a huge pile on the ground there was no way he could carry it all.
An idea came to him and he took off his shirt and spread it on the ground, quickly heaping on as much as he could. He tied up the tails and sleeves into a thick knot so it formed into a little bundle that he could easily hoist over his shoulder. Then just as he prepared to take up his load and leave, he remembered bananas. He hadn’t taken any. And yet they were his favourite. How so thoughtless one can get some times!
He dropped the bundle on the ground and ran up to a tree he selected at random and hopped onto the fat stem, propelling his lean weight up the tree more like a monkey. As he wrenched the bunch out, the trunk of the tree suddenly snapped and the next minute he was sitting on his stinging bottom on the hard ground, the crown of the tree together with the bunch all over on his shoulders. It had happened so suddenly.
He wrestled his way out of the entanglement and grabbed at what fruit he could, eyes darting wildly left and right, certain that the next minute he would be caught. He clutched what he could to his bony chest and grabbed for the tied bundle on the ground. He then dived into the darkening shadows and ran back the way he had come, bare heels tapping the soft loam soil like drumsticks on an old skin.
He was in such haste to get out of the garden, convinced now that someone drawn by the noise of the crashing banana tree could be coming to see what it was. He reached the fence and, throwing himself flat on his bare belly, crawled underneath the lowest strand like some reptile, hardly letting go of his loot. His skin caught on a sharp barb just when he was squirming through and it tore through his flesh.
He cut across the empty field like a ghost, clutching the foodstuffs close to himself, the whites of his bare soles flashing in the light of the lightning that suddenly rent the sky. In that brief moment that his fleeing form was illuminated, his shoulders were hunched and his torso curved in flight, heels slapping against the backs of his thighs.
What he didn’t know, even as he fled, was that all this time someone had been observing him.
As the first heavy clods of rain struck the thirsty earth, the shadows in the banana grove down the path just yards from where Ombima had sneaked through the fence shifted and a figure disentangled itself onto the leaf-strewn path. Madam Tabitha stood wrapping her soft woolen shawl closer to herself, shivering a bit with cold. She stood for a while staring after the fleeing figure, occasionally immortalized by flashes of lightning as it tore across the open field. Then she turned and hurried up the path towards the house, drawing the shawl close around her shoulders just as the rain started a musical staccato up in the swaying banana leaves.