As kids, my sister Sisanda and I spent our time in the garden. It was south of our homestead, a kilometre or so away. In addition to maize, my parents grew tomatoes, onions, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, chomollier, cabbage and other leafy vegetables from time to time. The total garden area was about a kilometre long and half a kilometre wide. There was a well at the extreme end for watering the plants during the dry season. We loved to play with tadpoles during the rainy season whenever there was no adult in sight. My mother forbade us from going near the well.
“You will slip in and drown,” she would say.
What she did not know was that we had slipped into that deep well and, on one occasion, I almost drowned. But no one ever got to know that. I made sure my sister kept her mouth shut about it, or else…
“Do you promise to keep your mouth shut?” I asked her. I was holding both her hands tight and looking at her, straight in the eye.
“Yes, I will,” she said.
“If you ever open that little mouth of yours about this incident, I swear I will get you out of bed in the middle of the night and lock you out… and the monsters will eat you alive. Do you understand?”
She just nodded her head in agreement. She was terrified of monsters.
Sometimes we could be lucky to see the big frogs when they got out to enjoy the sun. We would chase them, hoping to catch one and put it in our little buckets that we used to water the vegetables. We rarely succeeded, they were faster, and if we managed to catch one, too slippery to hold. Their song was also an attraction. The tune was not good, but the noise was a lot of fun to us.
It was our duty after school to go to the garden to guard against monkeys that always came to steal the maize and tomatoes. We sat on a hill at the extreme end of the garden to enable us to have a better view of the area. When monkeys came, we would beat the drum to make a noise and they would run away, but they became more clever. Once they noticed that the noise was coming from children, they bared their teeth at us and we ran away to hide. They could then have their meal in peace! My father decided that the dogs were a better match for them. The dogs would be on a leash. Once the monkeys showed up, we would release the dogs to drive them away. The dogs charged at them, and for a long time they stayed away, but they would be back. It was like that during the crop season, when the maize was ripe.
The garden also had guava trees. The monkeys sneaked in for those. Sometimes they came in groups. The first group would go for the maize and attract the dogs’ attention. While the dogs were busy with that group, the second group went to the guavas, confusing the dogs who ran in different directions. At one time, our parents thought to put two scarecrows at strategic places in the garden. This worked for a while. The monkeys wised up and one day the monkey sat on the scarecrow while chewing away at a cob of maize, not scared at all. Those animals were more intelligent than we gave them credit for. I suppose they figured out that no living person would just stand in one spot that long, wearing the same clothes. I am sure they moved closer and discovered that there was no life in ‘that person’. I think the act of sitting on it was to show us that our plan was not clever.
The other unwelcome visitors to our garden were animals from our neighbours: goats, donkeys and cattle. The garden was fenced, but sometimes they tried to get in by going around the fence until they came across a weakness. They were also very calculating. They approached the weak spot at such speed so that by the time we got off the hill to chase them, they had a few mouthfuls of the crop. We were also equally calculating and sometimes met them when they were still a few metres from the fence. Our dogs assisted us in driving them away too.
Our cattle never gave us any trouble. It was as if they knew that they had to leave the place alone, but not other people’s gardens. We were told that they behaved the same way; they just devoured any green crop in sight. My brother, Al, was responsible for herding the cattle and ensuring that they did not stray. My brother preferred to play with his friends and sometimes the cows would stray into other people’s fields. He would have to drive them quickly out with his friends before the owners discovered what was happening; so he got away with it.
My father’s nephew, Mr. Tshibani, lived about 2 kilometres from our homestead. He had a grinding mill. People from surrounding areas could bring their maize for grinding into mealie meal, for a price. One Saturday afternoon, we were helping my mother to prepare the evening meal when we heard a commotion outside; it was the sound of a male voice. My Dad had gone to town on business and it was too early for him to be back. It could be some visitors. My mother stopped what she was doing and walked towards the door to meet the visitors.
“I cannot take this nonsense anymore. Either my uncle goes to the grave and I go to jail or vice versa,” he said.
“Who is that?” my mother asked.
I ran out past her to find out. It was Mr Tshibani. He was walking towards the house so fast, throwing his hands in the air. I had to get out of the way or he would have walked over me. He did not even give the customary greeting, “Ekuhle” (‘I come in peace, I bear good tidings’), which is expected of grown-ups, a form of respect when you enter someone’s homestead. He was carrying an axe in his right hand, a rod and a knobkerrie in his left hand. His eyes were red, like he had been drinking. I noticed that our herd of cattle was already in the kraal. My brother was nowhere to be seen. This was unusual; the animals only came home after 5pm. It was half past 2. I immediately smelt trouble. Could Mr Tshibani have brought the cattle home, I wondered? He walked straight towards the kitchen and stood at the door. I moved out of the way.
“Greetings,” said my mother, as she pointed to the chair inside for him to seat. He did not move.
“Where is your son?” he asked, still standing at the door and ignoring the chair she was gesturing him to sit on.
“Where is he woman? Today I will kill him. I worked so hard on those crops and your animals have ruined me. Are you deaf? I will repeat the question: Where is your son? Answer me!”
He gave her no chance to answer. Now he was asking her where my father was. I did not know which question he wanted her to answer first. Besides, I could not understand why it was now my father’s fault that the cattle had strayed.
“He is away in town,” she answered. That answer infuriated him.
“Do you think I am playing? Today there will be death in this house,” he said, as he shook his axe violently.
For a minute, I thought he was going to harm her and stood behind her holding tightly to her dress. I wished my father could miraculously appear to save us from this man. My mother apologised for what had happened and said she would talk to her son about the situation.
“Situation! Situation! Is that what you call it now? I am financially ruined and you dare call it a s-i-t-u-a-t-i-o-n? So, you don’t believe me woman?” He was now pacing up and down, stomping his feet and shaking his head. He stopped, turned around and wagged his finger at my mother. He had now moved from the door enabling my mother to quickly slip past him with my sister and I clinging to her skirt. If she was afraid, she did not show it. I think this was a clever trick. It was unsafe to be inside the house with her children while an armed man stood at the door, once outside, my mother told him that while she understood and felt his pain about ruined crops, it was rude of him to be threatening to kill people over his loss. She said she would relay the message to my father when he came back from the city the following day. She made excuses for my brother, stating that he was probably still looking for the animals. She told him about the troublesome bull that my father wanted to sell because it was creating problems with the neighbours. Mr Tshibani was having none of it.
“If I had found either of them, you would be a widow now, and also with a dead son. He must come and see the damage done by his animals. He has to come. And he better be armed too.”
He then picked up his axe that he had placed against the wall and walked away. He disappeared, still talking to himself and threatening harm to my father and his son. Mother rushed to the kraal. She started to count the animals and was relieved to find that the bull was the only one missing. That is where her son was, looking for the bull, she concluded. She had a perfect idea why the flock was unattended and as a result, why he had strayed into Mr Tshibani’s fields. There was no harm done to the animals. She was thankful for that. In the distance she could still hear the man’s voice. Was he going to continue talking and cursing until he got to his home, she wondered? She prayed that her son didn’t run into him in that state. Those didn’t seem like empty threats he was making. She was thinking about this as she walked back to the house with her arms folded against her chest.
“What did you find?”, asked my grandmother. She had stayed in her room and heard everything. I was concerned for her. How must it feel for a grown man to come into your son’s house using threatening language and revealing that he would have killed your son and grandson because animals had destroyed his crop?
“All is well, mama,” my mother answered as she spread a mat to sit next to her. Mother turned around and gave Sisanda and me a look which meant we were not welcome in that conversation. It said, “Adults are talking, get out of here!” We retreated to our room. She seemed to have forgotten that we had witnessed everything. We moved very quickly; she did not believe in sparing the rod. When adults were talking, we had to give them privacy. We knew that there was punishment coming our way because we did not move away when Mr Tshibani approached the house. We just could not, we had not witnessed conversation like that before. Perhaps she would understand. She had to; we were convinced that she was not attacked because we were there. We started picturing the fight, with my brother fighting on my father’s side. We saw Tshibani cornered and beaten to a pulp but miraculously jumping up and begging for his weapons. We saw our father, now holding all of Tshibani’s weapons moving in slow motion towards him.
“You want another beating?” he asked. Tshibani getting up and dashing out towards the gate with our father in hot pursuit! To us, it was such a fascinating scene. That is why we were still standing there with all this drama playing like a movie in our little heads. I was directing the script:
Our mother was spoiling our fun. But it was no fun. This was a life or death situation. To a seven-year-old though, it was news to take to school the next day. There was no school though the next day, not your normal school. The next day was Sunday. Perhaps one could tell the story in Sunday school? Unlike the normal school where there was time to tell the teacher about what happened over the weekend, in Sunday school there was only memory verses, singing and Bible-based teaching. So, I had to wait until Monday. I knew I would tell the story to Mandisa first before I got to school. I couldn’t wait.
Al came back in the evening looking very tired after running after the bull which wanted to get into Mr Nyoni’s field. The following day, my father was back from town. My mother must have told him the story. He comforted my brother and thanked him for working that hard. He had bought him a Highlanders soccer team cap inscribed “Ongafuniyo Kayekele.” Al was excited. I knew that he would not share it with me. He was in our school soccer team and it was his dream to play for Highlanders one day.
We were up and early to go to church, mother and her two girls. When we came back, we couldn’t believe our eyes. My father and Mr Tshibani were sitting under a tree sharing a calabash of amahewu, the local brew. They were laughing and sharing stories of their trip to South Africa and how they escaped up a tree with the lion in hot pursuit.
“For a moment I thought you had a bad case of diarrhoea,” Mr Tshibani said. He was laughing so hard he had tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Oh, shut up, I was only passing…” my father stopped abruptly when he noticed my mother standing next to him with her eyes fixed on Mr Tshibani who was already on his feet with his hand extended to my mother.
“Malume, I didn’t see you,” he said, smiling cheek to cheek.
“We have sorted this out, man to man. I think you misunderstood Mr Tshibani,” said my father, winking at my mother in a dismissive way. Apparently, Mr Tshibani had told my father he had brought the cattle just to report what had happened and unfortunately, he found my father away.
Mother was upset, but I believe she decided to let it go. My father had been given sweet potatoes by Tshibani’s wife to give to my mother. The two men had then walked from Mr Tshibani’s homestead chatting away until they came to our house. Gone were the threats of killing one another while the other went to prison. My mother had exaggerated the whole thing, and it looked like my father chose to believe his nephew over his wife!
“So, what happens when adults tell lies?” Sisanda asked aloud.
“Shhhh,” I said, as I pulled her into our bedroom.
She was right to ask that question. We had been discussing that in the children’s Sunday school. It centred only on us. I believe she wanted my mother to answer that question. I on the other hand would have liked to hear Mr Tshibani’s response to that question.