Ethel Maqeda is a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MA Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including, Palm-Sized Press, Volume 3, ‘The Selkie, The Same Havoc, and Boiler House, Wretched Strangers. Her collection of short stories Mushrooms for my Mother and Other Stories made the 2020 S1 Leeds Literary Contest longlist. Ethel has worked in an FE college since 2007 and writes in her spare time.
I’m sitting on the ground, under the big msasa tree on the edge of our rapoko field. A cool savannah breeze blows, gently swaying the rapoko. Two tins that I should be banging together to frighten away birds and baboons lie forgotten, a few metres away. Something has been troubling me – is Malaika a real angel? I mean like the ones in the pictures in the book James gave me when he first came to Ruya? I like to look at the pictures and imagine I can fly. I imagine I can fly over the village, way across the mountains and past the next village and the next, past all the villages until there are no more villages. I fly over rivers, plains, mountains and oceans. Girls aren’t allowed to venture too far away from the village, but I want to know what lies beyond.
Maybe Malaika looks like the angels in My Little Book of Bible Stories but with skin the colour of boiled groundnuts and hair like thick black cotton wool. If she is the colour of boiled groundnuts, which I think she is, then maybe there is another book, a different book. I’m going to ask James to give me that one instead.
Malaika na kupenda Malaika
Ni n’ngue ku owa mami we
The words keep floating in my head, persistent, like an angry bee. I shift, trying to find a more comfortable position in the dust.
I first heard the song on the radio that James brings on his monthly visits. James is the preacher and teacher who is shared by the different hamlets dotted along the shores of Shoshe River. He comes out from the city on a bicycle and stays for a week every month and also brings medicines for malaria and other illnesses. We are sometimes allowed to listen to the radio in the school hut. By ‘we’ I mean all the children who are too young to work in the fields. I sit in the hut with the others after we have done our writing and chorus reading and listen. Sometimes it’s a radio lesson. The person in the radio talks about different things like how The Magdalena cruises the Amazon and asks questions about armadillos and jaguars. We all shout the answers together, and the person says, ‘well done children’. Other times, we just listen to music. We like the music better.
The first time I heard the song, I was sure it was a sad song about somebody dying. There is such a softness and beauty to the sound that I can imagine the person singing with tears streaming down their cheeks. James says that it’s a South African woman called Miriam Makeba. He tells us that he knows a language called Swahili and that malaika means angel in that language. “Malaika is a love song”, he says. I ask him if they speak Swahili in South Africa, but he says that I ask too many questions.
I have tried asking my mother, but she answers in her usual manner. She says all this daydreaming and asking stupid questions won’t protect the rapoko from the quelea or the maize from the baboons. Mother has a way of answering my questions so that I am left more baffled than before I asked. This morning I asked her again, “Mother, do angels get married and have angel children?” her eyes darken to the colour of the night. She takes a deep breath and shouts at me about baboons and the rapoko. I don’t move so she shoves two small tins into my hands. I just stand there waiting. She places both hands on her head and starts rocking backwards and forth, all the time shaking her head so violently I think her doek is going to come undone and expose the tangled grey mat that is her hair. Or her wrapper might come undone and expose the hole-riddled slip she sometimes has on underneath. Worse still, if she’s her underskirt and laid it out to dry on the shrub behind the kitchen, she could expose her big black thighs. Then the ancestors would be angry because the ancestors don’t like to see people’s nakedness, especially women’s nakedness.
“We will eat scabs, scabs off sores I tell you,” she moans and starts to beat her breasts as she paces the whole length of our yard groaning like a wounded buffalo. I’m just beginning to imagine how I might approach specific neighbours to ask for permission to harvest scabs when Mother raises her voice.
“Asking stupid questions! That’s all she does all day!”
“She is only a child, Mai Rati,” one of our neighbours says in a soft, soothing voice.
MaMoyo, whose homestead is furthest from ours always comes out of her kitchen first, as she is the oldest amongst the women and I think the others wait to see what she will do. She doesn’t do anything differently, so when she emerges, the other women troop out of their huts like ants and swarm around mother, murmuring some calming words. They right the doek and tie the wrapper more securely around her waist and lead her away.
I’m given a stern ‘final’ warning, and the neighbours nod their heads in agreement and mumble commiserations to Mother. Mother allows herself to be persuaded to sit down on a reed mat under the mango tree in the yard.
“She is always daydreaming and talking such talk as will send me to an early grave. She will be my undoing, you mark my words”, she says in a voice that indicates that this particular crisis is over.
I’m still bewildered, so I just stand there staring. One of the women shoos me away, reminding me I’m on my final warning.
I daren’t start imagining what the punishment might be this time, so I pick the two tins up and head for the fields.
A few months back, when I had used up all my warnings, I got such a thrashing from father that mother and all the neighbours came to beg him to stop.
“You will kill her,” they pleaded. I think they feared he would whip me to his own death. He was panting, with sweat cascading down his face, causing him to blink rapidly, but he kept bringing his arm back and letting it crash down with such rhythmic force I thought I was going to die. He only stopped when someone wrestled the whip from him.
I had been herding our cattle, in the pasture next to some maize fields. I had left the cattle grazing and gone to the edge of a pond. I wanted to see if I could catch the tadpoles changing into frogs. The cattle had broken the fence dividing the pasture from the maize fields and destroyed MaGumbo’s maize crop.
After the thrashing, Father had made me dig a small hole with my fingers and spit in it. This was a promise that I would not neglect my duties again and let things happen that impoverish our family more than we already are.
I can see that the shadow of the tree is shorter. My feet are already entirely in the sun. I stretch out my legs and lie down, facing the sky. I could walk around the field once and check for baboons, but the base of the msasa makes a comfortable headrest, and the soft patch of ground around is cool and welcoming. Maybe I should just ask someone else, ask them about angels and baby angels. I will not ask Tisa, though. Tisa is my sister. She is much older than I am. I will not ask her anything again. Not after what happened the last time I asked. That last time I just asked:
“Have any boys been doing things to me?”
“Why?” her large brown eyes glinted.
"James says he can tell that I have been letting boys touch my breasts."
Apart from teaching, running a clinic and conducting the Holy Communion, he also checks that we have not been committing sin while he has been gone. That is why I ask Tisa. If we commit sin with boys, we won’t go to heaven then might never become angels.
“Do you think they have been doing it while I sleep because if they do when I’m awake, I’ll kick their shins?”
I tell her how James can tell by squeezing my breasts until they hurt and tasting them with his mouth. “Stocktaking” he calls it.
“He can also taste it in my mouth,” I explain.
“If no one else will do it then I swear on my grandmother’s grave I will do it myself," she says. “I will cut his thing off and throw it into the fire," then she stormed off looking like she was going to do it right then.
That scared me. I will not ask Tisa anything again. When Mother learns of this, she doesn’t shout or get hysterical. She calls me to our sleeping hut and sits me down. I feel grown-up. That’s what adults do when they want to talk about something serious or when something terrible has happened. They sit down. I cross my arms across my chest and try to stop trembling. I prefer the shouting and the fainting, but Mother just fixes her gaze on me and doesn’t admonish me. I hug myself tighter.
“I want you to listen, and listen well," the catch in her voice contradicts the sternness of what she says and the accompanying wagging finger. “Take everything I tell you to heart.” She looks like Tisa does sometimes when she is washing herself in the river after she’s been helping James to make everything tidy in the school hut. I watch her when she doesn’t know I’m watching and she looks like she is crying, but there are no tears in her eyes.
“I am listening, amai,” I mumble.
“A grave is never to be dug before one is dead,” she says.
“I hear you, amai.” I’m confused. I don’t know anything about digging graves. It’s the men’s job to dig graves when someone dies. I don’t understand why she is telling me about digging graves.
Although James makes my breasts hurt, I wouldn’t want my sister to cut him up. She would definitely not go to heaven then. Besides, James is a good preacher. Church would be boring without him. I like the stories he tells us. He reads them from the big book. He says God speaks to him and tells him what to tell us. He is always telling us, girls, the story about the ten virgins with the oil lamps. I wish God would speak to me too and tell me good stories to tell people. Then he would also answer my questions because God knows everything.
I look at the sky. The shadow of the msasa tree is long again; dark clouds are gathering fast. A butterfly flutters past. It is black with a chain of little yellow spots on the edges of the wings. I can imagine God working away at a table, making all the little beads to decorate this butterfly. I wonder if the butterfly will go to heaven. I close my eyes again thinking about how I will take My Book of Bible Stories back to James and ask him for a different one.
I can hear a baboon growling, and I can also hear Mother.
“Scabs, scabs I tell you.”
Something soft is caressing my face and touching my lips. Not rough like when James tastes my mouth for evidence of sin but soft like an ant is making its way across my lips. I raise my fingers to my face. It’s wet. It’s raining softly: fine drops that shimmer like a heat haze. Gentle steam rises from the dust. I don’t move. I think I see an angel walking towards me. A clap of thunder causes the ground to vibrate. I have to get home. I stand up and beat the dust off my skirt. I’ve not scared off any baboons or quelea. I don’t know if any came and I still don’t know, do angels get married?