Man and Hoe – Hixey Chamgwera

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Seconds ticked. The military officer’s wife stood quietly still, her easy eyes ogling KK like an amused cat. Then she shot out,

“Yes, it’s him: the man that tried to steal our car!”

The officer knowingly smiled. “My wife, no. He didn’t come here for mischief. He’s not of the thieving calibre!”

“But you just look at his hair and beard: typical of a mad thief!”

“No, my wife. You must have been intimidated by his beloved beard and harmless mop of untidy hair! Come and greet him.” As she did as bade, the military officer turned to KK and said: “Now you see, KK. You need a good shave.”

It’s been two days past and my wife has ceased telling me more about KK. Of course, and I nearly forgot to tell you this, KK no longer lives in our area. Mwiba, the gardener, spreads that KK has been seen in and around WaMutharika Village, loafing. But when he recognises a Mwian face, he instantly disappears from the scene! Apparently, he thinks every Mwian is out to get him. He is obvioulsy a fugitive now, running from arrest the way the mellow moon runs from the suffocating sun.

Assault. Bodily harm with an intention to injure. Assault with a deadly weapon with an intention to cause serious bodily harm. Pick whichever you like: I am not good at these charge sheets.

My wife tells me she has never seen a man so tall. She fears his looks for KK rarely smiles. When he walks, his legs just fulfill their job without the slightest hassle or zest. It seems there is no need to hurry. He will get there after all. No need to worry. Walking that way, arms rigid by the side like the wings of a baby bird and eyes leveling the distance ahead like a soldier on the slow march, KK almost always gets there. He reaches his destination still.

My wife’s fright is full indeed but she is quick to say it can’t surpass that of her good friend Nabanda, the military officer’s wife at Mwia. And she recounts the evidence with the zeal of a child who, caught with sugar grains to her lips, nevertheless flies into a stubborn defence of her innocence.

KK, so she says, had gone to the officer’s home to see him. Piecework, that’s all he was looking for. He knew the officer and the officer knew him too so KK had approached the officer’s home without the usual trepidation of a stranger. He appeared behind the family car parked outside the flowered flat. He didn’t get to the door of the monstrous mansion however, choosing instead to knock verbally.

“Odi? Odi?” his voice rang out, quite small for a big bearded man.

As he did so, his head bobbed from side to side like a giant gecko gearing itself for its next step. The large reddish-brown unblinking eyes stared statically. He cut the figure of a person attempting to rise to full stretch in order to gaze into the distance and yet he was sufficiently tall already!

Having stretched his neck for some time without reward, he let his trunk fall low behind the packed vehicle, readying himself for the next round of neck stretching. Just then, the officer’s wife appeared from her house, looking to check out the knocker with the small voice. She had to take long in coming out. Her husband, always the soldier he was, had advised her never to rush out of the house for every knocker that comes.

“The times are tricky nowadays, my wife.”

But when her soft eyes, quietly smooth like the beachside pebbles of Lake Malawi, covered him, my wife says, she let out a spontaneous squeal, loud and long. Turning frantically, she disappeared back into the safety of her house at the speed of a hounded rabbit. It looked as if she was afraid of a fast-approaching whirlwind.

“Thief! Help! Thief! Help!” she cried out. Even into the cellphone’s mouthpiece, she cried out. Her husband, the military officer, did what all heroic husbands do under such alarming circumstances: jet to the scene like an ambulance called to a bus crash.

KK too did what all poor souls cornered by the misfortune of a mistaken identity do: pull out quickly from the scene before bloodthirsty fingers of cannibalistic hands could prey on him. At Mwia TC, it’s not a big deal, torching a suspect. A gallon of petrol. A car tyre of any type. Both eagerly donated—even when the Kwacha has plummeted in value and everyone is out for themselves and their stomachs, those two never miss on these occasions! Mwians hate unfinished work so, like police dogs at the airport, they sniff around the corners of Mwia to finish jobs which police officers have left half-done. And a lot of times the police let jobs hang in suspense.

Late that afternoon, at the Trading Centre, they meet—the military man and KK. After his wife’s report, the military officer has been looking for him there. All manner of people make their way to the Centre almost always. Most afternoons are congested. The evenings are hectic. And KK was more likely to be found at the TC. Playing bawo. Watching videos. Or just loitering.

“Mwia’s just a finger-tip place. It’s like buckling a belt round your waist. By the time it reaches the other end you’ve also covered every Mwia TC corner,” he mused.

He finds him at Bakili Bicycle Repair soon after KK had won a game of bawo and everyone was congratulating him. Surprised to see the officer after the early morning escapade, KK almost falls on to his knees in trying to explain himself and apologize for the unfortunate incident. But with too many eyes watching, the officer pulls him from the place. He takes a walk with him along the bituminous Bingu Road.

“KK, haven’t I warned you not to play dodolido with officers and anything to do with them? Haven’t I?” he asks sternly, his grip on KK’s right hand stiff to the bone.

KK nods severally, like a gecko, saying with a pained, frantic expression: “Sir Officer, you have. You said: ‘Never play with men of the gun, not even with their wives. They may do so with your family but you don’t follow suit or else you’ll be forced to bathe in the mud like a catfish. To teach you manners.’ You see, I remember it all very well, Sir Officer!”

“Good, then why did you frighten my wife so? You could have killed her with fear!” His hold tightens further as he says so.

“I don’t know, Sir Officer! I don’t know!”

The officer relaxes his hold. Even his expression straightens. He laughs, saying: “Oh, now I see. It’s your bushy beard and that unkempt hair. Man, you do remind me of a guerrilla fighter of old. Yes, Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, UNITA leader! Ever heard of him?”

KK shakes his head slowly, pitifully. Savimbi? As a child growing up in Kamuzu Banda Township, KK had dropped out of school just when it began to excite his dozy brain. Of all names, the student community seemed to agree on ‘Savimbi’ for him! And always he felt the biting coldness of its mockery. Still, he had to speak. The officer had asked him a question. He struggled to keep cool while pondering the military man’s words. With all his heavy load of short-circuit temper forced down into the small suitcase of his equanimity, KK mumbles:

“That name! He must have been teased with that name!”

Minutes never elapse when the officer says: “KK, you should shave. Follow me, now!”

KK desires to protest. With good reason, too. He grew up admiring a biblical hero, Samson. His feats astounded him to the core. He might not have the same powers, but he could not fail to grow a beard and keep a mop of hair however kinky it all might look. The idea of an instant shave takes him by surprise. He makes to protest, begins to speak and then ends up stuttering.

The military man then takes KK to Joyce B’s Barbershop, a place beloved across the military establishment, and requests a military-style cut for KK. Afterwards, he takes the fine-tuned KK to his flowered flat. To meet his wife. Hitherto, their friendship had remained unknown to her. A passing acquaintance, really.

She had seen them arrive. By then, she had been tending to her new flowers, fragrant red roses. With the help of Mwiba, her meticulous gardener, she had made a new bed for them in the manner she saw once on a visit to Botswana. She had attended a military wives conference to cement relations between the two defence forces. She had made to welcome them. But her mind nose-dived on seeing the gangly bald head towering behind her husband. In a later explanation to him, she admitted that the man had reminded her of the eerie sight of a buoyant bulldog without the gag to its mouth. Instantly, she had turned to flee into the safety of her house when her husband checked her, saying,

“Come on now, my wife, we must greet our visitors! Come, meet my friend KK. I think you have seen him before?”

Seconds ticked. The wife stood quietly still, her easy eyes ogling KK. Then she cried out, “Yes, he must be the one. The man that had tried to steal our car!”

The officer knowingly intervened. “My wife, no. He didn’t come here for mischief. He’s not of the thieving calibre! You must have been intimidated by his beloved beard and harmless mop of unkempt hair! Come and greet him.”

Nabanda duly comes closer and touches him. Calmly, KK greets her and apologises for causing her early morning woes. Having won the madam over, KK also easily finds some needed piecework. He is to bring his hoe and join the other gardener in making the roses and other flowers live longer, happier and healthier.

It’s been two days past and my wife has ceased telling me more about KK. Of course, and I nearly forgot to tell you this, KK no longer lives in our area. Mwiba, the gardener, spreads that KK has been seen in and around WaMutharika Village, loafing. But when he recognises a Mwian face, he instantly disappears from the scene! Apparently, he thinks every Mwian is out to get him. He is obvioulsy a fugitive now, running from arrest the way the mellow moon runs from the suffocating sun.

Assault. Bodily harm with an intention to injure. Assault with a deadly weapon with an intention to cause serious bodily harm. Pick whichever you like: I am not good at these charge sheets. But I can tell a goat from a pig. So I’ll leave you to be the judge.

*

A fortnight before his early morning lightning escape into self-imposed exile, KK had been done with the gardening piecework at the military man’s abode and with the nearby APM paprika farm closed down he saw no other job offer immediately forthcoming. In its heydays, the vast Farm had promised salvation and heralded hope among the Mwians. With so much bustling energy, how would he live the good man’s life? A poor site sprang to his mind’s eye.

When going to work with the flowers, he had been passing through the key Umodzi Road that joined Chapuwala, Chitseko, Chipangula, Njombwa, Nkhandwe, Kachala and Zozo villages to the only Trading Centre and seen a group of Mwians there in the rain, working like a bewitched man to return the useful road to its former worth. Be it market days, eye or tooth days (when the specialist doctors would arrive from the municipality to attend to eyesight and bad teeth issues) or to just have a bit of leisure—most villagers were well-served at Mwia Trading Centre. To get here, they used this earth road. No other.

But then the road needed repairing. Gullies had formed rendering sections of the route impassable and, where it could still be used, dangerous. Bicycles ferrying patients to the clinic hit potholes and sometimes threw both rider and passenger off their seats into the erosion-formed deep ditches. Cheke Basi, the Mwia ward councillor, saw the plight of the masses and promptly responded.

With government money, a cash—for—work project took off, well-supervised by the councillor’s first-born daughter, Titani. The people did their best scooping up soil from the edges of the road onto the middle and levelling the surface. How smooth! Wheelbarrows and human heads carried sacks loaded with gravel from distant places. But with no machine to press the surface hard, even a slight drizzle would have made the road rude to commuters yet again.

The rain when it came was not of the level of a slight shower at all. It rained with arrears suddenly suffocating the whole Mwia. In the downpour, the new road surface sailed with the run-off like paper huts in a wicked bushfire. A week on, he noticed that the Mwians had lost heart and stopped working (of course, carting home the pay!). Indeed, even KK agreed, it felt worthless to repair an earth road while run-off happily carried the new top soil away like the ever-changing of goalposts while a match was on.

He decided to put his energies to good use.

*

And that’s when KK appeared on the scene. Armed with a handy hoe, KK that day braved the riotous rains and made for the abandoned road site ostensibly to finish off work that others had left half-done.

‘Those are not true Mwians! Mwians work until it’s done,’ KK muttered to himself upon arrival at the road site. Yes, the gangly man and his magical hoe had arrived! ‘Let the angry rain calm down a little and then see!’

Like a highwayman on a dark corner waiting for the quarry, Man and Hoe hid inside a ramshackle roadside shelter. They waited for the rain to subside. Man and Hoe used the time to weigh the options. They surveyed the terrain and made decisions, binding decisions. They made promises to follow those decisions through to the end.

This road needs a wide gutter. Hoe and man set to work out a new deep drain on the most vulnerable side of the road. The rain went for break. Quickly, up went the hoe in his long hands and then, wham! It sank into the wet ground. Scoop, quickly he did spewing the heavy load onto the road. Again and again he toiled.

For a press, he encouraged the people to walk on while he worked. Then the man felt hungry and he said to himself, “I shall starve to death unless I do something.”

In the afternoon, on the back of hearty congratulations from impressed passers-by, man and hoe visit the ward councillor’s home.

“I wish you came and saw the work of my hands,” he smiles encouragingly to the ward councillor.

The ward councillor shakes his head strongly. “Your work? You’re compromising government work. You must stop this joke!”

At that, man and hoe decide to try a different trick. This is not cash—for—work. It’s just—work! So a trick man and hoe found. Place a plate on the side of the road. Passers-by willingly throw in coins like the sacrifices of the suffering before a presiding Priest.

This time, no more hunger. Only work, work and more work! The people applaud. Village chiefs even make journeys to Mwia just to sample the man’s work.

“Beautiful!”

“It’s now even much better than what we did last time.”

“How can one man do the work that felled a whole village?”

“Here, have this money for your lunch.”

And man and hoe kept up the vibe with more clinical work on other impassable stretches on the road. In the downpour, some parts had flooded and therefore threatened to secede from the main road. But man and hoe came on them in no time, caressed them with zeal and quickly won back their hearts. The road became one single united stretch.

As usual, man and hoe broke out from their comfort zones at day break when signs of rain appeared to wane. They took up positions on the frontline that was their work station. Soon the crooked ground was suffering from the corrective measures being meted out by man and hoe.

Other early risers took their time before taking to the road heading for their different work places. Among these was the ward councillor himself. On seeing him approach, man and hoe halted their progress. They paid homage to the worthy official in their midst and prepared to take him on a tour reminiscent of the crop inspection tours of Kamuzu Banda, much reviled by agents of change later in Mwia.

“I’ve heard you’re doing a great job. But my word still stands. Stop it or face the law,” the councillor broke out without ceremony. Man and hoe just watched, bemused. “What’s that plate for? I see. So the stories I hear are true. This daylight robbery must stop forthwith. Government does not encourage theft. And here you are, forcing people to pay for using a public road. That’s stealing. Stop or I’ll set the dogs on you.”

Warned yet again. And the people still come up the road to or from Mwia Trading Centre. They say:

“Oh, how beautiful!”

“It’s now far much better than yesterday.”

“How can a whole well-paid community fail to do this when one man can do it all alone? Unpaid?”

“He must be Chilembwe reincarnated!”

“Here, my child, have this freshly-cooked dowe for your breakfast.”

“Are you married yet? I think you can quite easily take another wife.”

And man and hoe go to work. Only work, work and more work is all there is. Without work, man and hoe will be stranded! But it happens soon enough. The road is completely repaired.

“You must be ten men in one, my child. Talk to me if you ever need an acre for dowe,” one chief, quite impressed, remarks as he savours the fine work on the road.

Night comes. KK is back in his abode. No work. No work? Yes, no work. The road is completed! Well, let’s go and celebrate. He locks his shelter and heads for Papi-papi, the most vocal pub at Mwia Trading Centre.

‘Celebrations now, come on,’ plays and patrons take to the dance floor. Very unusual for foreign music seldom wins the hearts of Mwians. They dance to any song when knee deep into the beer barrel.

“Here’s the man. KK!”

“A cold one for him!”

“Heaven sent you here, my man!”

“I’ll not dance with anyone else but you, KK!”

Free beer speeds to his table. Token of appreciation, of course. Several embraces make his frame work harder still. Signs of gratitude, indeed. Loud-mouthed congratulations punch at his ears. Messages of goodwill, in all honesty. Declarations of support from ready hearts tickle his ego. Beginnings of a ride of joy with welcome company really.

That last one. That lady. She extricates herself from the tight grip of her dance partner. Both partners are shorter and of same level. But KK offers a change. Celebrate. Time to celebrate. Work is over. No more work. ‘Celebrations now, come on’ plays on towards fade.

KK calls the DJ, “Encore!”

He sweeps the shorter lady partner into his arms. They swirl like the whirlwind, then throw each other off before halting the fall by catching the other falling body by the fingertips. KK finds freedom. And a new freshness. The world around them stops to watch.

“So he can dance too?”

“And with a lady at that!”

“Never thought he could do it this well!”

“He’s so blessed! Strong and skilled.”

Ears do hear. And listen. Sometimes. But always they do. To accolades. To tongues that tickle. KK loves the sound of the applause as the song faints. KK is caught in mid-step. The crowd murmurs. But one man leaps to the counter.

“Savimbi!” he calls drunkenly, the tease undisguised. “Your name’s Savimbi, man!”

KK’s pupils dilate. His mouth twists. His fists clench. Like a gecko, his head bobs up and down. What does he see? Well, the shorter dance partner. Yes, the abandoned dance partner. How on earth does he know Savimbi? Is he from Chilinde too? He must stop the nonsense. He shouts hoarsely,

“Nobody calls me that anymore, you goat!”

So speaking, he leaps to the counter too. But now with a punch well-aimed. The target falls to the dance floor head first his head having connected worse off with the blow. He clambers to his feet and snatches an empty beer bottle whose bottom he smashes, leaving sharp jagged edges like the yawning mouth of a crazed crocodile. As he attempts to run it into KK’s stomach, hands from the security men restrain him, disarming him. They pull the man out of the pub and send him on his way with a blessing of three or four slaps to the face.

Saved. Served? KK leaves the pub for his shelter. As he leaves, the admirers buy him one or two beers. “For the road,” they say, whistling and cheering. He leaves a grateful man.

Strength. There is power in strength. There is advantage in strength. Free drinks. Free friends. Free living. He walks on, staggering.

“Savimbi,” a drunken voice quietly calls by the wayside like a frog sings soon after a day-long downpour. “You’re already dead, Savimbi! You’re a dead man, you hear?”

KK turns sharply and looks about. His ears, long like those of a dog, twitch with intent. The ditch! He quickly checks there. It’s a shallow one, he finds. Might even need the work of his hands. The short male dance-partner writhes there.

He approaches the man. The man attempts to rise to his feet but falls back in. As he crashes to the ground, KK raises one newly-emptied bottle of beer. As he targets the head, he recalls the way he repaired the road. Man and hoe. Up, up, up went the hoe in his long hands and then, wham! It sank into the wet ground.

“That’s for calling me Savimbi!”

The same night, KK packed his articles and no one saw him leave. The next morning, Mwia woke up to the news of the death of the short male dance-partner and the disappearance of KK. But I’ve told my wife that good things don’t last. The bad will always return. She says that she sees KK in her dreams. And I wish it all was a mere dream too!

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Author: Hixey Chamgwera

A graduate of English Literature, Chancellor College, UNIMA. Currently a teacher at Ngala CDSS, Dowa. From Ntcheu District.