by Mazuba Mwiinga
It happened so fast and unrealistic. But who was she to refuse what lay before her, even if she had to. It was such an absurd moment to think of that kind of a thing. It was death, and there was nothing she could do about it. Whether it was planned or was by happenstance, the whole thing was way above her head.
The whole family tree; at least the immediate and closer ones came to her husband, Muzumbwe’s funeral gathering at their home in Choma. His brother Harry, the eldest in a family of five, arrived immediately he received a call from the Correctional Services Commissioner in Lusaka. It was a show of respect and high care on the part of the Commission, for its head to be the one sending a message of condolences. Harry was so humbled by the gesture. He immediately left Lusaka and drove to Choma to wait for the body to be delivered by the State. Masowe was now a widow; and how so sad it was, that beautiful and young as she was, with just a small child in an eight year marriage could be so unceremoniously rendered a widow. She was broken. And according to tradition, Harry was a likely choice to take over where his young brother Muzumbwe left; taking Masowe and her daughter as his wife and child in his nuclear family. And that thought, battered Masowe’s mind to shreds of deadly sorrow. She could not imagine opening her nakedness, to a man who a few days ago, was more of her father than brother-in-law. All that time prior to her husband’s passing on, Harry provided for her and their daughter; emotionally and materially; and now chances that he would be her husband were never less. It devoured her soul alive.
One by one; some in twos and threes, people continued pouring in at Muzumbwe’s home to offer commiserations and support to the family members. Harry sat on a camp chair under a tree shade outside the house. Beside him were empty sofa seats ready to be occupied by mourners. The sitting room was almost fully covered by sad-faced women, their cheeks brimming with dripping tears. Everyone concentrated their energies on Muzumbwe’s mother Annette, who lay on a sack mat, her head on her friend’s lap. At first Annette would raise her head to look at every visitor who arrived to offer sympathies. But then she got exhausted. All she could do later was to answer from the pillow of her friend’s lap where she rested her head on.
“How could it end up like this?” Belinda, Annette’s half-sister asked, as she squat before her, blowing her running nose using her chitenge wrapper.
“They killed my son Belinda. Harry called his father this morning; the next thing we are told is that the body is on its way”, amid sobs, Annette explained.
“Just like that..? Wasn’t it a week ago when Harry’s father went to see him?”
“It was a day before yesterday. Harry’s father just came back last night. He left him well and in high spirit”. Belinda started weeping, and what was an exchange of commiserations with her sister, eventually became contagious. The once murmur-filled room resulted in echoes of sobs and wailings that caught Harry’s attention outside. He too started bleating with pangs of sorrow. Losing a brother in that manner was such a dreadful experience to undergo. He wondered why death was so mean that it could not give him a chance to say good-byes; how gracious would that have been! But alas, it was all like pouring water on the duck’s back.
Hanswell, the township chairperson arrived too. He held his arms wide hurrying towards Harry, as Harry stood up to meet him, and they knotted in a miserable embrace. For a few seconds, they both felt each other’s heart beats as their tears silently ran down their cheeks. When they let go of each other, Hanswell took a seat next to Harry’s seat and exchanged greetings.
“What happened, Harry?”
“I have no answer to that Chairman. I just got a call from the Correctional Services Commissioner this morning saying he passed on in the night”
“Did he tell you the mortuary he was in?” Hanswell asked.
“He said the state will do everything, all I had to do was to come here and see to it that everything is in order”.
“Is that what happens? That no family member is allowed to be at the funeral parlour?”
“I was too shocked to ask Chairman”
“I guess I am not just being paranoid. It doesn’t sound normal. I have been around for a while Harry”.
The turnout of the mourners was overwhelming. It was so clear that the township dwellers had gotten wind of the passing on of one of theirs. The men and young adults filled all the seats outside where Harry and Hanswell sat. Some had to find comfort on logs and stones. They were all silent, and only whispered if one had to share something to someone sitting next to them. Ironically, inside the house, it was all noisy and chattering as the women wailed and conversed in high-pitched tense tones. That’s how the two genders differently expressed solemnity.
Just then, St. John catholic choir group found its way into the house, its members carrying music instruments of animal-skin drums and nsakalala. Shortly, a requiem song broke out in the house and the whole area felt like angels were about to descend down earth and pick the chosen ones. Everyone, still engrossed into the Children of Pope Paul’s songs, the SDA quartet choir also took space outside, sitting on the ground waiting for the catholic singers to finish. A moment later, an army of Salvationist with their saxophones, metal drums and flutes, swarmed forward too and took a squat on the veranda. Solemn songs took rounds from the three groups, instilling much emotional pain and wonder in those in attendance. Death was the centre of the moment.
From a distance, the sound of helicopter was heard. Harry stood up and gazed at the direction of the sound. Louder and louder it came. Mourners’ attention ran away from the choirs to the helicopter. Masowe’s tone was barely heard. She walked in between her friends who held her both hands to make sure she didn’t collapse. Her daughter Chabota, clutched her hands round the back of one volunteer. She seemed lost as to what was going on. Masowe on the other hand, had lost her voice. Her face was swollen; her eyes as dark-red as the centre of a hot flame. Annette was wailing on top of her voice, her fellow women chorusing in frenzied sobs as they all surged out of the house. Harry and Hanswell were already hurrying to the football pitch a kilometre away, the entire township jogging behind them, leaving the choirs behind.
“We have lost a buffalo”, one man told his friend as they rushed to the football pitch.
“He was a metal cracker. I won’t forget the day he told the President in public that he was a thief and a counterfeit”, the friend replied.
“Good men finish last indeed”.
Like a huge dragonfly, the Air Force helicopter ominously came down and touched the ground in a cloud of dust. The whole place was a mixture of sorrowful cries, dust and screams of scared children.
When the air settled, Harry and Hanswell walked over to a tall dark man in military attire.
“I am Harry, and this is Mr. Hanswell Mudenda chairperson for the township”
“I am the Correctional Services Commissioner. We spoke on the phone this morning. Where is your father?”
“He has never left his home since his arrival from Lusaka. He can’t handle it”, Harry explained. The three then walked away from the crowd and stood a few meters from the helicopter talking. From Harry and the Commissioner’s gestures there seemed to have been a heated conversation. When they came back to the helicopter, Harry looked so tired. Hanswell rather annoyed. To everyone’s surprise, the Commissioner called out to the mourners to give him their attention, and there was immediate silence. He was quick and to the point.
“Every death is regrettable. Whether caused by natural effects or not. This young man for the past few days was our responsibility and even in death he still is. To cut a long story short, there will be no body viewing”, and immediately there was an uproar of disagreement. But the commissioner was adamant. He authoritatively told the crowd what the law said, and what his job was. Who was there to challenge him whether or not the law he talked about indeed existed or not. They were a whole lot of them; so oblivious of the law, that talking about it was a sheer waste of their time and energy. All they wanted, was to see their man for the last time. But it was not going to happen.
“From here, we are straight going to the burial site. Thank you.” A deafening silence of un-satisfaction swept across the crowd. But who were they to stand the pressure of a team of armed forces that lined up behind the commissioner. It was like someone anticipated resistance from the dwellers; but what for.
The Correctional Facility wardens removed the casket from the helicopter and put it on a stretcher. A Funeral Parlour van that was driven all the way from Lusaka to Choma appeared and parked next to the helicopter. The wardens then carried the casket into the glass covered van and the van started moving slowly to the grave yard, the commissioner and his entourage of soldiers and wardens joined by Harry and Hanswell, closely walked next to the van trailed by a crowd of mixed-emotions township dwellers.
Two hours later, the remains of Muzumbwe were put to rest, in so short a period of time after its arrival, defeating the traditional protocol of life history of the deceased; expressions of sorrow from the family members; the treatment and condition he was in, while in the correctional facility and the commission’s regret for his passion on. Nothing of that sort happened. The mourners went back to Muzumbwe’s home to continue with their misery, and the Correctional team flew back to Lusaka; business was over.
Back at the funeral house, a fat virgin cow was brought for slaughter. The mourners needed to quieten their rumbling tummies, and Harry had suggested one of Muzumbwe’s thousands of animals at his farm a few kilometres away, to be brought for slaughter. And the men sent to select one, didn’t mind which animal to pick, all what mattered was to have an animal around to provide meat for food to the many mourners who gathered at Muzumbwe’s home. Six half-drums that served as cooking pots were already on fire, puffing out steam as water boiled inside. Minutes later, chunks of improperly cut meat were distributed among the six pots and with red blood still dripping from them, middle aged women who carried the dishes containing the meat, poured the meat in the boiling water. The preparations for the evening meal were on course. And very few would miss such opportunities of a free dinner that came without any invitation. A bon-fire was lit at the corner of the yard and a group of men and young adults sat round it conversing stories of the day. Women walked to and from running various errands towards making sure supper was ready in time. A combined choir of Catholics, SDA and Salvation Army churches stood next to the entrance that led in the house busy singing.
Then Hanzuki, Harry and late Muzumbwe’s father arrived at the funeral house. He walked to the men’s bon-fire and immediately Hanswell stood up, and let him take his seat, as he told the young man who sat next to him to surrender his stool to him.
“How are you getting on my friend?” Hanswell asked as soon as Hanzuki settled, looking so lost and disturbed.
“I am doing fine chairman. I am doing fine”, Hanzuki replied.
“Harry which animal did you pick?” Hanzuki asked without looking at Harry who sat next to him.
“I don’t know. I sent Jaisi and Derrick and to bring one”.
“So they just picked?”
“I would have done the same Dad. I don’t know any of Muzumbwe’s animals which would have to be used for such an occasion”. Then there was silence among them, only for other men around who bleated with occasional lighter jokes that got cracked once in a while.
“Masowe has to be clean”, Hanzuki remarked. And both Harry and Hanswell looked at him with weird eyes.
“Isn’t it too early?” Hanswell asked in a low tone.
“We need to get over this thing chairman and get on with our lives. We can’t wait for another week” Hanzuki replied, his chin supported by a palm of his right hand, gazing in the dark clear sky painted by sparkling bright stars. Harry was fearfully silent. What he was expecting was about to happen. He just didn’t know things were happening so fast. He loved his wife of fifteen years, and sexually cleansing his late your brother’s wife was going to be a serious betrayal of marriage vows of fidelity he had solemnly committed himself to. But he would as well not let down his young brother he so much loved, by refusing to set his bereaved wife free.
“When is it going to happen?” Hanswell asked.
“First thing in the morning. So we need to meet at 4. Can you make it chairman?” Hanzuki said, and stood up to leave. “I need to inform Annette about it”.
“Yes my friend. I will be there”. And Hanzuki walked away.
The news reached Masowe from Annette. What she feared for was eventually going to happen. She could not understand why things were running so fast for her. She had absolutely no time to think; for as events unfolded, new bombshells continued ambushing her life.
That night, the night was longer than she anticipated for. She tossed and turned on the reed mat she slept on in her isolated bedroom as per custom. She remembered the day; three months ago when the police visited their home in the middle of the night and took him away. As was his nature, he had resisted. Had it not been the gun butt that hit his head, taking him down by the back of his head, he would not have gone with them. Unconsciously, he was dragged to the green land cruiser that stood outside their house, dumped inside, and the van had sped off in the night. She had rushed to the township chairman wailing for help, but there was little Hanswell could have done that night apart from giving her and her daughter protective shelter for a night.
A week later the local Police Chief told her that he was detained in Lusaka Central Police charged with a matter of national security. And she realised what that meant; he was not going to get a bail. She had cried out in her heart with pain, wondering how a man, who could barely kill a house fly with his bare hands, be a danger to the nation that he so passionately loved and worked for. His court case was so swift. She only attended one appearance, and the second time she was told would be his next appearance in court, her arrival in Lusaka was shocking to her bare bone. She was told that he was sentenced to seven years in imprison with hard labour a day before. Her friend had to help her up after she had lost strength at the revelation. Then she had to come back home to wait for the next course of action from her in-laws. For two months she never had a chance to visit him at the prison; only greetings through her brother-in-law Harry, who came handy in looking after her and her daughter. And now, she was going to get cleansed by the man she placed in high repute. Sleep seemed to have taken a long walk away from home. She was perspiring with confusion.
The hour of 4 a.m came without knocking. Hanzuki, Hanswell, Annette, Muunga and Jolezya, Masowe’s parents sat in the sitting room at Hanzuki’s house on the far end of the township. The morning was so quiet. The world was still deadly asleep.
“Isn’t Harry supposed to be here?” Hanswell asked.
“We all know why we are here”, Hanzuki began talking, ignoring Hanswell’s question.
“Sure we do Hanzuki. How do we proceed? It will be sunrise soon” Muunga remarked. Hanzuki cleared his throat. Looked at each one of them and clenched his hands into fists.
“I have a son” he spoke as he sized the stare from others.
“We know that my friend. Did you tell Harry to be here too?” Hanswell asked.
“No I didn’t. I have another son. I asked him to come, and he agreed”
“What? Are you telling me that you have another son outside our marriage?” Annette asked, her face painted with fury.
“This is not the time…”
“Yes it is the time. You better explain to me properly…”
“He is right. This is not the time Annette”, Hanswell cut in.
“But he better explain everything about him. There is no way a son can just appear from the sky at a time like this. Is he Jesus!’ Annette scalded. The atmosphere was getting tenser.
“Hanzuki what’s going on?” Muunga asked in a sombre, but disappointed tone.
“I can’t allow Harry to perform the ritual. He has been a guardian to Masowe all this while. The relationship that has grown up between the two has been that of trusted friends”, Hanzuki explained. Annette looked at him with an expressionless face. Hanzuki sounded convincing.
“And who is this son of yours? From which mother? How old is he?” Annette asked.
“Almost the same age as Muzumbwe. He has been staying in Kitwe all these years. He is single and the right person for this”
“I knew it. I just didn’t have the proof that your Kitwe cattle trading business was just a lie!”
“Can’t that wait please? People will be up soon”, Jolezya, Masowe’s mother said, prompting Annette to castigate her that she expected her support being a woman.
“I do empathise with you mother of Harry; but we need to get on with this issue or we will fail in our duty as parents to this couple”
“What is his name?” Annette came in.
“He carries the same surname Annette, for God’s sake!!” Hanzuki reprimanded.
“Where is he Hanzuki, we are running out of time?” Hanswell asked impatiently. Hanzuki stood up and walked to the other side of the house to come back with a young tall man following him behind. He wore blue faded jeans, a long sleeved checked shirt, reading glasses and a pair brown suede shoes. He had black afro hair and a developing moustache. Hanzuki offered him a seat that isolated him from the others, facing them.
“Well, if you don’t look properly, you would surely jump up in freight thinking you have seen a ghost. He has a thing for the late. He is indeed your son my friend” Hanswell commented.
“Yes. It’s only that he has too much hair and the moustache plus those glasses. You remove them, and you have the late back to life”, Muunga added.
“Do we have time for this?” Jolezya with a tired impatient face, asked. Hanzuki told Jeremiah to get back to his room as he waited for Masowe to arrive.
The second morning cock crow cried out. Masowe thought she was dreaming. There was a tap on the door of her bedroom at the funeral house. She turned to take a better position on the reed mat. The house was so quiet, only for a few snores that came from the next room. Then the door made a slight squeaking sound, and she sprang up. Still familiarising herself with the dark room, she saw a silhouetted image walking towards her. The thought of her husband’s ghost coming for her immediately penetrated her mind. So was that how it was going to be? Getting mad in the early hours of the morning? Where were the people who were supposed to cleanse her of her husband’s ghost? The door closed behind the advancing image. Behind it, another one was following. She started shivering. Her arm pits were getting wet. Just as she was about to scream, she heard a voice whispering her name.
“Are you here Masowe?” she didn’t know what to say. Was it a human being or some ghost?
“Masowe, it is me, Harry’s mother. I can’t find the switch” Then the light went on, Jolezya had found the switch. Masowe burst into tears. Fear had gripped her entire body. They explained to her how the whole process would go, that she had limited options when it came to whether she wanted the man to marry her or not, for the decision depended entirely on the man. If he decided to spend the whole night with her, then he was leading her to the altar. But one thing, she did not mention was who that man was.
They arrived back at Hanzuki’s home, Masowe covered in a wrapper from head to toe, walking in the middle, as Annette led them into the house. No one was speaking. Annette briefly looked around where the three men sat, and continued to walking to Jeremiah’s room without saying a thing. When they came to the door, they let Masowe knock. Seconds later, the door opened and dragging her feet, Masowe entered closing the door behind her.
Merry songs from the women were at the centre of the bright morning that filtered in the room in which Jeremiah and Masowe spent the night. At first she thought it was a radio playing while she slept, but as her mind became more conscious of the environment, she awoke to the bright room. The sun was already up the horizon. Her heart thumped so hard against her chest. She looked behind her, and remembered the previous night’s encounter, when she saw Jeremiah still sleeping. A slight embarrassment snaked up her nap. How could she sleep so comfortably and deeply in the same bad with a stranger without feeling any eerie echo and when she was supposed to have been mourning for her husband? Then the lessons her mother and Harry’s mother gave her prior to coming to that house rushed through her memory. She peered again at the man beside her. It wasn’t Harry. She felt as if her neck would crack and drop the head to the floor.
Quietly, she slipped out of bed and gathered her clothes hand on the chair, readying herself to dress up. Then Jeremiah turned to her side. Their eyes met. Masowe dropped down her clothes. Her fingers couldn’t hold them. She was weak and scared.
“Who are you?” she asked, her eyes teary.
“Why do you ask?”
“Why do I ask? Are you crazy? I spent the whole night with you and why do I ask who you are? Don’t you know what all this means?”
“I am Jeremiah”
“Mr. Hanzuki only has…had two children”
“I know….listen” Masowe was speechless. She stared at Jeremiah like someone who had seen a ghost in him.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” he asked.
“That scar on your chest” Jeremiah looked at it, and then at Masowe. He dropped his eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked again, and Jeremiah, went touched his head and removed the afro natural hair wig he had worn. Then pulled out the fake moustache from his mouth. Masowe covered her mouth with shock as tears dripped down her cheeks uncontrollably.
“Why….why did you do this to us…? What’s going on? What’s all this?” Jeremiah requested Masowe to sit on the bed, but she refused, demanding for answers.
“Two days ago I was picked by three Correctional officers from prison in the middle of the night, saying someone wanted to see me. They drove me from Kabwe to Lusaka in a private car. And when we arrived in Lusaka, the person who wanted to see me was in-fact the judge who sentenced me”, Jeremiah narrated.
“She didn’t want to waste any time because what she was doing was illegal, but that she had to do it. She told me that all the charges that were brought against me were fake, and that someone hacked into her computer and changed her ‘not guilt’ judgement that was in my favour”
“So you had to die…?”
“Yes…that was the only way justice could be served; that’s what she told me”
“All this? The helicopter, the casket, the funeral….”
“It had to be real…”
“Jesus…! And your father knew?”
“That’s why he couldn’t come to the funeral house. It had to be real. And it is real. Muzumbwe is dead. I am Jeremiah. New identity”
“Till death…?” she said, a tweak of a suppressed joyful smile appearing at the corner of her lips.
“Yes…till death could be the only way to bring justice to my life”