Slowly, the sun hauled its hot mass across the sky, its light heavy with temperature but devoid of all cheer. At its zenith it signalled to the remaining souls within the valley they had managed to survive another half-day. Those left alive looked up to the heavens and offered prayers of thanks for their ongoing existence. A few people, disappointed not to be relieved of their earthly tenures by a wayward bullet or a divine hand, added their tired sighs to the temporary silence which engulfed the village on the valley’s floor.
Each sunrise, once bright and beautiful, threw warm rays upon the lush valley, bringing one season of green and plenty after the other in an endless cycle of reaping and sowing which the villagers, subsistent on the land, and loyal practitioners of their forefathers’ agricultural traditions, considered to be both their birthrights and the natural order of things. Each morning the villagers roused themselves from slumber and began their industrious but content days working their fields, turning the soil, and pulling nourishment from it.
The village, small but prosperous, suckled on the fertile lands like an infant at a mother’s fat bosom. The rains were regular, the soil was rich, and the sun, praised like a minor deity, was often the subject of idle chatter and the recipient of constant gratitude. In recent days, though, it rose to its high pulpit in the sky to preach its sunny gospel, and, disappointed to find its faithful flocks dispersed, it shone on empty fields. It looked down at the village where its faithful congregation used to hold feasts and finding no one to compliment it on its splendour grew angry and malevolent, bringing a fierce, strength-sapping heat to the valley.
In Dieudonne’s compound, the recipient of the sun’s beneficence in days gone by, it found its worst reception. Margareta cursed the heat as a rivulet of sweat snaked its way down her armpit and onto the straw mat on which she lay. An old hunting rifle next to her made a cold but necessary bed-mate given the present circumstances.
War, Margareta thought, was a strange matchmaker.
Here she lay next to a rifle despite her loathing of weapons and conflict. If her university professors could see her now they would probably shake their heads at the strange irony of their best student, the writer of such impassioned critiques against war, being in the centre of the biggest ethnic, political, and economic conflict the world had seen.
Peeking at the radiant tormentor filtering through the thin thatch above the hut in which she lay, sweating, she waited for the sound which would bring a brief but welcome hiatus to her anxiety: the carefully staggered knocking on the compound’s gate, letting her, the sole occupant of the once mighty compound, know the knockers had returned safely to join her in their collective and unifying terror.
The light filtered through the thatch, small slivers of light in which dust motes cavorted provided poor but distracting entertainment. She watched one speck catch the light and twirl a couple of times in the air before becoming invisible once more. Margareta lifted her right hand to shield her from the earnest sunbeams and closed her eyes. Unbidden, her great English brain, once the scholarly pride of the village, and the subject of unmarried controversy, burst into composition.
Masculinity is a cult of death. The transition from boyhood to manhood is defined by a constant preoccupation with names and legacies. Fathers worry about how they will be remembered and sons are concerned with whether they will die in song-worthy ways. Men, it seems, live for that moment of death, that threshold they will cross and live on eternally in the minds and hearts of those they live behind.
Thus, men are wont to dwell in the houses of tomorrow and in the far-off futures, eyes cast towards their memories, disconnected from the present. They seek all manner of ways to leave traces of themselves behind, first, attempting immortality through their children, and, when disappointed in the results of their genetic alchemy, second, throwing all efforts into their names and deeds, seeking, in finality, a resting place on a plinth, a plaque on a street, something which says “Here, I lived; here, I did, and died.” They will compose poems for eternal lovers; they will paint pictures; they will build empires. But always with their eyes to the future, always trying to build history.
When poetry, art, music, wit, and comfortable coexistence with other men fail to deliver immortality they take the shortcut: war.
The trumpets sound, banners are raised, sides are chosen, and history calls. And men answer. They march, willingly, ready to be remembered, desperate to die and live on. But women, who specialise in creating life curse history for they know that war turns boys into men, and men into gods, but always, and without failure or pause, into ghosts. Those who return are husked, evacuated of all being, broken. Those who do not are cried over.
A sigh wormed its way out of her, adding her sense of defeat to what she imagined to be the greater sense of quiet resignation that defined the female sex when the politics of manhood were playing themselves out on national and international stages.
It seems men have to lose something in order to be welcomed by their contemporaries as men. Foreskins, their virginity, and then their lives, thought Margareta. The trick, she mused, lay in observing the lies of passage in the correct order.
Margareta revised her thought again, trying to figure out how to make it more poetic. It could, after all, be her last meaningful contribution to humanity and when she penned it down later that night in her notebook she wanted it to amaze and arrest the eye. She continued to edit her compositions in her head, moving commas around for effect, adjusting the metre, trying to keep her brain from processing the absence of the knocking. She compiled a list of other losses men particularly gloat over—teeth in testosterone-fuelled fracas; tired, fattened, and replaceable lovers; sobriety and levelheadedness when amongst their friends—and sat up quickly when she heard the sound.
She strained her hears again.
Tock, tock, tock.
Three slow beats, followed by three quick raps—the code. She stood up, picked up the gun, and made her way towards the compound’s gate. When she arrived she rapped on the door softly.
Tock, tock, tock.
The reverse challenge.
“Who is it?” she asked in a hissed whisper to the knocking on the other side of the wooden gate. She waited for an answer.
In days past the gate to Dieudonne’s compound would have been left open. Friends from the village and guests from afar would saunter up to the long house to greet and treat with the wealthy banana farmer and wine brewer. On Saturdays, the front of Dieudonne’s compound would be awash with familiar and strange faces, all come to try his wine and ask for favours.
Favours and banana wine. Dieudonne’s compound was always full of favours and banana wine. There would be laughter and loud conversation. Quarrels would begin and then drown in the intoxicating banana wine as men found friendship at the bottom of their glasses.
That was before the war, before the marauding gangs of loosely armed boys and men terrorised the valley. Nowadays gates were closed, opened only when the most desperate need pushed people out of their houses. When families ran out of water or food their gates would open early in the morning and silent figures would make a run for the village well, or head into their abandoned fields to forage for beans, yams, potatoes, and cassava. They worked quickly, loading their buckets and basins with as much food as they could find, and fill jerry cans or wooden gourds with water before fleeing back to their homes, locking and bolting their gates again.
There was no music, there was no dancing. Weddings, births, harvest and market days, once the loudest days of the weeks and months, fell off calendars. In their place came quiet, fearful days which passed into silent, tense nights. Occasionally, sometimes in the distance, sometimes nearby, gunfire would be heard. Every so often a boom would sound as a mortar fell. On nights when the valley echoed with explosions Margareta would lie awake in the long house, balled in fear, waiting for one of the shells to fall through the corrugated iron roof.
But the explosion she expected to be a week, a day, or an hour away did not arrive. And morning would come around again and the cycle of living while the world around her slowly died repeated itself. Margareta’s grip tightened on the gun as she waited for an answer.
“C’est moi, Bruce Lee.”
Margareta released the air in her lungs when she heard Pacifique’s voice. Despite the rhythmic tattoos which had been correctly observed it was imperative for Bruce Lee to be doing the knocking.
The Way Of The Dragon had made its way to the valley on a video cassette which was played almost every Friday night at the village’s only pub which served as the cinema too. On a big, black Sony television which seemed to be a voluminous piece of technological wizardry to the villagers—and the obvious accompaniment to the other most recent technological advancement to visit the village, electricity—Bruce Lee would ward off attacks from Italian mafia lackeys with a flurry of nunchakus and engage in a deadly duel with Chuck Norris. The film’s dialogue was in badly dubbed French but that mattered little to the villagers; Bruce Lee’s martial artistry needed no translation. They would cheer and laugh whenever he punched or kicked someone, and in the final fight sequence it was abundantly clear to the villagers that no man with a haircut as atrocious as Norris’s could be permitted to defeat the mighty Bruce Lee.
For weeks after the video’s screening a sugar cane farmer would smile with understanding humour whenever he came across a stalk trimmed into smaller cutlets for makeshift nunchakus; sisters smiled if a boy came home with a bump or a bruise—someone had to be Chuck Norris; and plump wives would often walk in on skinny husbands flexing in front of small mirrors attempting, with dismal and comic effect, to make pectoral and shoulder muscles bulge.
On pathways leading to the village grown men encountering each other coming from opposite directions would pause a few metres ahead of each other and then, with practiced seriousness, point at their chests with their thumbs and utter the most popular French words to ever come into valley, more popular even, than the prayers brought by the Belgian missionaries:
“C’est moi, Bruce Lee.”
As far as codes went, Bruce Lee was as safe and unbreakable as any Enigma printout. It had been Pacifique’s idea. Margareta had entertained him without argument.
Margareta put down the gun, leaning it against the wall and scurried to stand in front of the gate. She braced the weight of the wooden plank spanning its length, grunting with the effort as she lifted it clear of its berths and dropped it on the ground. It landed with a dull thud on the loamy earth. She fished a key from a fold in the blue and green kitenge wrapped around her waist. She slipped it into the padlock attached to the rusted chain wrapped around the gate’s handles. Margareta gave the key a rough twist. When the padlock clicked she unwound the old chain and opened the gate just wide enough for two figures to slip inside.
Eugenia walked in first, lugging a battered and scratched orange jerry can. She dragged it into the compound and hoisted it over the plank lying on the ground. Once inside she sat on the can and caught her breath. Hobbling after her, Pacifique followed, his brown sandals slapping his heels with each step. He held another rifle, old, the twin to Margareta’s. They had been his father’s prized rifles, heirlooms passed down to him and his elder brother, Dieudonne, when the old farmer had passed away.
“You took longer than usual,” Margareta said by way of greeting. She watched Pacifique clumsily shuffle through the narrow opening of the gate. Margareta took the rifle from him so he could walk more comfortably. Bruce Lee nodded his tired thanks.
“Because the line was longer than usual,” Pacifique replied. “It seems as though everyone wanted water today.”
Pacifique and Eugenia had snuck out of the compound to the well a few minutes after sunrise. A now well-established routine of Eugenia carrying the empty jerry can and Pacifique shambling behind her with his rifle to guard her was carried out every couple of days when water ran out.
Whenever the water ran low Margareta and Pacifique would engage in hissed debates about how replenish the supply. Pacifique, she pointed out, did not possess the strength to carry the water and the protection rifle at the same time with his crooked frame—it would take too long for him to go to the village well and lug a jerry can of water back up to the compound. He, in turn, would not entertain the idea of her going to fetch water alone or with Eugenia. The consequences of a woman and a young girl being found by armed men needed no elucidation.
The only comprise, then, lay in Eugenia carrying and filling the jerry can while Pacifique attempted to provide some kind of male menace to any dangers they might encounter on the road. Margareta had to stay behind and guard the compound while they went to fetch the water. Left alone she would become unnerved by the emptiness which crowded the once boisterous compound. Pacifique had shown her how to use the gun and she had fired it in practice, once, missing the empty Fanta bottle he had set as a target for her ten metres away.
One shot, one miss. Pacifique announced her training was over. They had to conserve limited ammunition. On top of fearing falling mortar shells she quaked at the thought of ever having to point her rifle at another person and pressing the trigger with fatal effect.
“Any soldiers?” Margareta asked.
“Not today,” Pacifique replied. “They are fighting somewhere else, dying somewhere else too. Thankfully.”
Margereta did not respond to him. Instead she passed his rifle to Eugenia who stood up and took it in her thin but tough arms.
“Take this to the long house. I will carry the water,” she said. Margareta moved to the jerry can and lifted it with her left hand, leaning its weight against her hip. She tottered to the cooking hut with her right hand outstretched for balance. “Bring the other gun when you’ve closed the gate.”
As Margareta and Eugenia walked away Pacifique leaned back outside the gate and looked down the narrow path winding its way towards the village. He cast his eyes into the banana trees on either side of the path and scanned for any movement. Satisfied they were not followed he shuffled back inside the compound and closed the gate, coiling the chain around the gate’s handles and locking the padlock. Pacifique lifted the plank with some effort and placed it back across the gate.
While removing a stray splinter from his palm he thought about the line at the well. Soon, he realised, the well would be dry. Too many families were using it since the river which ran next to the village only carried mud, blood, and the bloated bodies of the dead. The rains which showered the valley with metronomic regularity had ceased—clean water, such a blasé feature of life, was now a daily concern for everyone in the valley.
Pacifique picked up the gun leaning against the wall before he made his way to the long house. His left leg stepped forward confidently while his right leg trailed behind, distracted, speeding to catch his body’s momentum at the very last second. In his characteristic awkward shuffle he made his way to the house he shared with Margareta and Eugenia, carrying his father’s old rifle.
His father had styled himself a hunter even though he never shot a single animal in his life. A banana farmer in a long line of banana farmers he, like each successive paterfamilias of the compound, tried to reinvent himself in some way and further detach himself from whatever embarrassing antiquity he perceived to be endemic in the man who came before him: Pacifique’s grandfather brought the family to church and eternal salvation to distance himself from the damned souls of his forebears; Pacifique’s father sought to bring sophistication to the farm. He did so by purchasing the two hunting rifles, starch-collared shirts, high, brown boots, and some old English books about Greek mythology and hunting at great cost by travelling outside the valley, returning with attire and airs hitherto unseen in the village. In his heart he was a hunter like the gentlemen he saw in some of the faded books standing over buffalo and lion carcasses. With his rudimentary English and broken French he insisted on calling every man “sah” and every woman, regardless of marital status, “madamuwaselle.”
Pacifique’s father had fitted on his boots after proudly displaying them to his family and workers. Finding them to be several sizes too small he banished them to a corner of the long house, walking everywhere barefoot and proud. If anyone thought he struck a comical picture with his stiff shirts, smart trousers, and bare feet they never said anything. Perhaps they kept silent out of respect for the old man, perhaps out of affection. Pacifique’s father had been loved in the village because of his generosity and his humour; he was permitted to entertain his eccentricities. When he died the compound, the banana plantation, and the twin rifles that had never been shot found their way to his two sons.
Arriving at the long house, Pacifique walked through the front door, closed it behind him, and went down the corridor to his room. He placed the gun by the door and went to lie on his bed. The springs underneath the hard mattress squealed as he lay down. He looked up at the rafters in the ceiling, straight through to the metal roof above and dreamt himself away from the house, away from the compound and the valley. For a few minutes his mind drifted through peaceful dreams before distant gunfire brought him back to the room and his worries. He looked around the brown walls of his room, at the chipping plaster, and, not for the last time, thought about leaving the compound.
Even now, with his father dead and his brother gone, the long house was an uncomfortable place for him to be. It reminded him too much of his father who brought comic trappings of class to the compound, and his brother who, determined to further differentiate himself from the preceding banana farmers, brought enviable prosperity to the farm.
Pacifique often lay awake at night with his mind churning execrations about the shortcomings of times of his life. If only, he thought, he had been born in a time of intellectuals. Were he the older brother he could have brought the family to a new and rewarding religion: education. Even if he were not the elder he would have appreciated it if the subtleties of his mind were considered and the frailties of his body overlooked. He, too, could have become a master of the compound, another lord of the long house.
But in an empire of bananas the worst thing to be selling is the fruit of knowledge, he thought.
Pacifique was ignored, Dieudonne was praised. And when their father died the large compound passed in greater share, by virtue of precedence in birth, to the elder brother.
The long house divided the circular compound into two. The front was clear and empty, only filled with stools and benches when his father or his brother had friends or visitors over. The back of the compound had the cooking hut; the store where the farm’s tools, grain, vegetables, and large urns of banana wine were kept; two outhouses; and, five two-roomed houses. Prior to moving into the long house Pacifique had occupied one of the houses, the farm’s workers occupied the others. His had been slightly larger than the rest. After the militia’s men had come and taken Dieudonne he was forced to move into the long house with Margareta and Eugenia after the compound started emptying.
We should have left with the workers, he thought.
He would often rebuke himself for not taking Margareta and Eugenia after the gunfire and explosions had descended from the mountains. They should have left with the rest of the neighbouring families, abandoned their homes, fields, and roots, and taken flight. He remembered telling Margareta and Eugenia the fighting would not last long. That it would end soon. The conflict, he reasoned confidently, would not last more than a season at worst.
They were safer here in the compound, he told his charges, behind the high walls of the compound. Deep down, though, in a place where his logic and persuasive reasoning lost their nerve, he feared that Dieudonne would return to the compound and be disappointed or angry to find the family compound deserted.
So they had stayed. The fighting had not abated.
Now, in the seventh month since the war had started, the valley was besieged by terror. The fighting was too intense for the three of them to risk their lives on the open roads. Even the woods behind the plantation, filled with numerous pathways which could provide an escape route for those who could navigate them, meant death. The nameless camouflage-clad wraiths who hid in them transformed them into a place of horrors. Men and boys who were caught and refused to serve the various warring factions lost arms, legs, and heads. Women and girls lost their innocence and then, if they were lucky, their lives.
Pacifique remembered a time when the woods would be lit by the small lights of thousands of fireflies, flitting through the dark. Now, with the insects hibernating, the dense flora concealed new species of fauna, hidden, terrible. Fear and death.
Every morning the sun would shine on the valley and shed its light on the freshly dead, the hungry, and the half-lives trapped in the endless killing. Pacifique looked at the gun leaning near the door, he exhaled a bitter sigh. Two guns, a cripple, a girl, and a feminist, he thought.
“The last tenants of Dieudonne’s once great and merry compound,” he said under his breath.
His older brother, Dieudonne, strong and uproarious, had picked up his father’s trade and continued growing bananas and making banana wine. He bought and traded sheep and goats too. Dieudonne wanted to be remembered like his father—polite, generous, a man of the community—but with more prestige. He harboured dreams of ascending out of the village and alighting in the capital city, a powerful man to be taken seriously by other powerful men. So he ensured there were regular feasts at his house; he entertained his loyal friends and jealous enemies in equal measure; whenever a communal necessity needed funding he would donate money or hire labour to see it done.
Unlike his father, though, Pacifique knew Dieudonne’s kindness did not come to him naturally. His brother had a charitable veneer and a cold, greedy core. He dispensed kindness in controlled dosages, never giving away anything unless it came back to him twofold. If he praised a friend, that friend ought to heap back the praise—preferably in a public place and within earshot of men with social and political capital; if he provided money to the school to buy books he ensured the students and teachers knew it was by his hand alone they were able to continue reading and writing.
Whenever Dieudonne threw a feast people said it was as if his father had never died. Dieudonne would be pleased. Pacifique would remain quiet and laugh inside at his brother’s successful duplicity. The wine would flow, someone would produce an old cassette and put in it the old silver Sanyo radio and the music would play, and anyone who wanted help with raising dowry or obtaining a loan to postpone a hungry creditor would find a willing ear in Dieudonne. He would acquiesce to almost every wish made to him while, in his head, he calculated ways to reclaim what he deemed an investment. In this way Dieudonne slowly grew his reputation and wealth. Dieudonne’s ability to cultivate favours ensured many of the villagers were indebted to him in some way.
Wine and favours, favours in wine.
Pacifique contrasted him in every respect. Born small, crippled, and weak he seemed destined to perpetually limp a few steps behind his brother in everything. It was often joked Pacifique’s light complexion was due to him living in his older brother’s shadow. They called him Inzowe, the fair-skinned one. Unable to take on hard labour on their father’s farm he threw his efforts into his schooling, attending the village’s small Roman Catholic seminary, reading English, French, and Latin, patiently waiting for God to call him.
Pacifique had made peace with his future: priesthood, books, a slow life.
But after a few years of preparing for what he perceived as the only respectable life he could lead in the valley Pacifique took leave of the seminary and trudged back to the family farm. He had diligently waited to be called to do his duty but no great voice had sounded in his head, no shimmering light had appeared before him to recruit him as a messenger. Disheartened, he saw the ascendancy he had prepared for himself flutter away and drop him yet again on the farm. He returned once more to reside in the lee of his brother’s success.
Though the two brothers owned the compound it was the elder who was recognised as its master. Dieudonne took over their father’s long house and handled all of the farm’s matters while Pacifique secluded himself with his books and writings. Pacifique was treated with respect by all of the farm workers since he, too, owned it. He, however, never disagreed with anyone when they referred to it as Dieudonne’s compound.
The compound and the farm continued through its cycles of planting, harvesting, and brewing. Dieudonne prospered and married. Pacifique’s quiet, fruitless life continued in silence on the banana farm.
The only instance in which Dieudonne did not flourish was in his quest to father sons. His plantation’s fertility was not echoed by his wife’s womb. Six times she fell pregnant and six times they lost the children, all boys. They would be still-born or not cling to life long enough. Eventually, after many years of trying and blaming his wife for her belly’s inability to provide him with a son, Eugenia, Dieudonne’s seventh attempt at progeny, was born.
Eugenia was pulled out of her mother’s womb and succeeded where her almost-brothers had failed: she came into the world crying, kicking to live, and took her place as her father’s disappointment. If Dieudonne was saddened by fathering his daughter he was truly disappointed when she also made him a widower. Eugenia’s mother, a small, quiet, and docile woman, lived long enough to hold her newborn daughter and see the dissatisfaction written on her husband’s face. Dieudonne named the tiny infant Eugenia as compensation for the Eugene he was not given.
Eugenia and the plantation grew, the farm and the banana wine receiving more attention from Dieudonne. He was, true to his nature, kind to her in public, whenever people were around. But as soon as his audience left he would be distracted by some other urgent matter on the farm and separate himself from his daughter.
Pacifique had watched the small child grow, her bright eyes always looking at her father, hungry for affection. Dieudonne let her starve. Whenever he had to speak to his growing daughter he would be formal and distant. Sometimes he would be surprised by her existence, looking at her and wondering from whence she had come.
Pacifique thought of Eugenia’s courageous smile whenever they had to make a run for water and questioned her paternity. It seemed impossible that the warm-hearted child who would willingly attend to chores around the compound and risk her life to fetch water in the village could be Dieudonne’s.
Pacifique, once again, thought of water. Of survival. Of ways to leave the valley where the only fireflies lighting up the woods were angry, red and yellow bullets flying from guns. Lulled into hot slumber by the afternoon heat he fell into uneasy dreams in which his father and Dieudonne took turns shaming him for adding nothing to their family dynasty.
“What is a scandal?” Eugenia asked. The question made Margareta laugh. Eugenia had been walking with Margareta to school in the village and she had, after a few minutes of silence and anxious glances at the taller woman walking with her, braved asking the question.
“A scandal,” Margareta began, “is a situation which annoys people who have absolutely nothing to do with the situation.”
“But why are they annoyed?” Eugenia asked. Her brow was creased with the effort of understanding the complexity of adult logic. Margareta smiled as she looked at the small girl.
“Because, Eugenia, a scandal allows people to be annoyed at someone other than themselves.”
The gist of Margareta’s meaning eluded Eugenia. However, something in what Margareta said seemed to be quite clear to her young mind: a scandal did not seem to be contagious.
“So it is not something you can catch at university?” Eugenia asked for confirmation.
“What? Where did you hear that?”
Eugenia had overheard Josephine talking with Elizabeth near the cooking hut the previous afternoon. After coming home from school and finishing her chores Eugenia had drifted around her father’s compound looking for amusement and wound up walking by the cooking hut.
“That one? Reta, like our government, she is always surrounded by scandal.” Eugenia heard Josephine’s voice from inside the hut.
Elizabeth’s voice answered her, “Ever since she came back from university. I am telling you. Do you see how she plays with them?”
The conversation had changed topic immediately when the two women saw Eugenia approaching. Instead they joked and laughed and talked about that night’s supper.
“No, university is not where you catch scandals, Eugenia,” replied Margareta. “It is where you go to study with smart people from around the world. You can learn about famous scandals, but I don’t think you can catch one.”
“And why are you like the government? What is Reta? Who are you playing with?” Eugenia could not help but let a little jealousy sink into her last question. It seemed unfair to her that Margareta would be playing with other people and not invite her.
Margareta’s face was lost in thought for a moment. Then she brightened up. “C’est Française, non? L’etat, c’est moi.”
Eugenia looked at Margareta in confusion. “It means,” Margareta said slowly, “‘the state’ or ‘the government.’ L’etat, Reta. Margareta. It’s a joke, Eugenia. People think I am fat and useless like our government.”
“I think you are nice,” Eugenia said. “And pretty. Not useless. Josephine is fat.”
They giggled to themselves and carried on their way to the school in silence, with Margareta glad that Eugenia, bright as she was, did not notice one of her questions remained unanswered.
So, Margareta thought, I am still a topic of gossip. Amongst the many things which were recently making their way to the village—electricity, television, and Bruce Lee—the meaning of platonic relationships was not one of them. Margareta put Josephine’s remaining accusation out of her mind before being sucked into the rigours of the day at the school.
Four times a week, in the early morning, Eugenia and Margareta descended from Dieudonne’s compound and headed to the school where Margareta taught, and climbed back home together in the afternoon. Margareta was born in the valley, but she did not grow up there. She was raised in the capital city by one of her aunts who arrived one day after Margareta’s parents passed away when she was eight and took her away.
In the city, Margareta attended a school for girls. In high school she won a bursary and went abroad to study English and French. When she was awarded her university degree Margareta had decided to become a teacher in the small village she had left long ago.
Her professors, reluctant to see her brains and discourse depart, promised her a place in academia if she stayed; terra nullius in black studies, in subjects where intersectional identities were only emerging. There would be funding, there would be publication. There would definitely be a doctorate degree and plenty of debates with men who would probe her philosophical and political premises with their genial, spectacle-clad, and polite heads, hoping, if they acquitted themselves well, they would be permitted to engage her tall, curvaceous, dark-skinned frame in exertions of a non-academic nature. Instead she would, she thought, share her tales of traveling, of experiencing strange things like ice-cream for the first time, and snow, and concerts where hundreds and thousands of people danced and sang along to music with children from her village. And she would teach them to read, write, and, hopefully, nurture them to follow in her steps and see the outside world.
Her return to the village was celebrated. The school was in desperate need of a teacher. The last one had departed many months ago and no replacement had been found. The village councillor offered the teaching post to Margareta and she readily accepted. The issue of where she would stay, however, posed a problem. The old house on the school grounds where the previous teacher resided had burned down in an accidental fire. Its empty husk stood behind the long school building which housed the village’s small group of schooling children.
The ever generous, calculating, Dieudonne solved the problem by offering her to stay in the long house. Margareta had accepted. Her decision not only put a roof over her head but also provided daily exercise for tongues which had gotten slow and fat from sharing the same tired rumours. The thought of an unmarried woman living in the same house as a long-time widower made women suck their teeth whenever Margareta popped into conversation and men exchanged crude jokes about bananas on Dieudonne’s farm ripening until they burst.
If the villagers were outraged by the impropriety of the housing arrangement none said anything to Margareta and nobody dared to broach the subject with Dieudonne. When Dieudonne took her around the compound to introduce her to the rest of the workers everyone was polite and welcoming.
Dieudonne’s mind, while showing Margareta around the compound and the farm, dwelt on her tall figure, her narrow waist and round hips, her smooth skin, and her satisfactorily bouncy chest. In that bosom he saw sons suckling on their mother’s nipples. His mind tallied up the generosity of the accommodation he offered her, the wealth he possessed on the farm, his standing in the community, and considered himself a match for her. Dieudonne resolved to court her and eventually propose marriage.
As soon as she moved into the long house Dieudonne showered her with attention, ambushing her with sly compliments he thought she would appreciate, and, to the annoyance of the other workers in the compound, despite her continuous protests, forbade her from doing any work in the compound.
“You are educated, with degrees. You cannot do this kind of work,” he would say if he found her in the cooking hut peeling potatoes or sweeping the compound. Dieudonne would complain loudly about the laziness of his workers on such occasions and berate them for making someone of Margareta’s stature do such menial work. The workers would, in turn, hold grudges against Margareta for doing the chores and bringing Dieudonne’s wrath upon them. Eventually, the workers also refused Margareta’s help around the compound even though her offers were genuine.
It was strange to Dieudonne, then, that what he perceived as his generosity backfired. Alienated from everyone in the compound, and finding every opportunity to avoid his advances, Margareta found companionship in the last person Dieudonne expected: Pacifique.
If Margareta was not in the village teaching she would seek out Pacifique, who was often in his small house reading or writing. When she knocked on his door he would open it with a smile and then bring out two small stools from his lounge for them to sit on. The gesture was not wasted on Margareta; Pacifique did not want rumours or quarrels with anyone. He would sit and talk with her in public where everyone could see them.
The two would converse together for long hours at a time. Although his English and French were not as eloquent as hers he would readily engage in debates with her. If he became passionate about a certain point he was defending he would become animated, walking around in slow, shuffling circles trying to prove the merits of his argument while Margareta listened to him. Passers-by would stare at him in wonder for nobody had ever seen Pacifique so animated.
Margareta’s arrival on the farm may have made one brother lively, but it turned the other into a brooding, irritable, and jealous tempest that would break without warning. Dieudonne would watch them and seethe internally. Margareta had chosen his crippled brother instead of him. It was a choice that stung him bitterly.
Sometimes, after supper, he would leave the long house and walk out to the back of the compound and see the two of them sitting outside Pacifique’s house, kept company by the light of a small paraffin lamp. They would talk and laugh late into the night.
As Margareta and Pacifique’s friendship grew, Dieudonne’s surly moods became more extreme. They would explode over the farm’s workers unexpectedly. Harsh rebukes about unsalted rice and poorly prepared porridge were commonplace. Everyone, in his eyes, was lazy, and everyone, in his head, was joking about Margareta choosing Pacifique over him.
Dieudonne might have done better to put his mind to other matters. Like the rumours of farmers on the outskirts of the valley being attacked. He might have noted the thinning attendance to his parties and asked where his once-powerful and banana wine-loving friends and acquaintances had disappeared to. But his mind was focused on Margareta and what he perceived as losing to his younger brother. When the valley’s fortunes slowly changed he remained oblivious.
Soon after the war had broken out in the capital small militias with causes as hazy as the morning mist which sometimes cloaked the valley started going from farm to farm harassing villagers for food, money, and support. As one of the richest men in the valley Dieudonne and his wealth were not ignored. The militias would send envoys to his compound to ask for goats or sheep to feed their men. They would ask for some banana wine, for grain, or for money. Dieudonne was asked to champion their cause. Dieudonne would sit with them in the front of his compound and have some banana wine brought to them and the group would laugh and share jokes like old friends.
But Dieudonne would remain firm on the matter of supporting the militias. He was a farmer, he said, not a politician; their causes and quarrels were their own. He wanted no part in it. Three times the militias’ men came around and three times Dieudonne received them politely and sent them on their way empty-handed.
He would be happy after they left and then walk around the compound letting Margareta, Pacifique, and his workers know he had rebuffed the militia men again. He embellished his refusals and portrayed himself as their protector. Unbeknownst to Dieudonne was that his time in the sun was coming to an end. The winds of war were valley-bound. And where they blow all men of power, great and small, are blown from their nests.
The night the militia’s men came to the compound Dieudonne was still ignoring the fear that seeped into the valley. He had his eyes on the next harvest, the next party, and, in his heart, he was waiting for a successful opportunity to woo Margareta. He was convinced he would discover some way to win her over.
The men knocked on the wooden gate after it had been closed for the night, causing enough noise to bring everyone in the compound to the gate to see what the commotion was about.
“Dieudonne! Open up! Open!” The hammering was punctuated with calls for the compound owner to open the gate.
“Open up! Where is Dieudonne? Open up!”
Margareta, Pacifique, Eugenia, and the workers had stood and watched as Dieudonne, his supper unceremoniously interrupted, walked out of the long house and to the gate to meet with the men.
When the gate was opened Margareta saw about twenty men dressed in faded military fatigues waiting outside. With them were five other banana farmers she had seen in the village on market days. Dieudonne greeted the militia’s leader and the other farmers. Words were exchanged between the group out of earshot before Dieudonne nodded and strode back to the waiting group inside the compound confidently.
“They are convening an emergency meeting about defending the area,” he said. “The councillor has also been invited. I was asked to sit in and give advice where I can.”
The safety of the compound, the farm, and the valley was at risk from the intense fighting in the mountains he told the compound dwellers. The captain, a man Dieudonne had once hosted at one of his many feasts, was concerned for the valley’s wellbeing and was calling important men in the vicinity to hold an impromptu defence council. Dieudonne proudly stated how well he knew the militia’s captain. He was a distant friend who had visited the compound on one or two occasions.
“He is a man,” he said with a smug smile, “who has sipped my banana wine and, therefore, a man who owes me a favour.”
Dieudonne walked to the long house, changed into more formal attire, walked out of his compound, and went to the village with the men. As the evening passed into night, he did not return to the compound.
The next day the men had come back to the compound early in the morning, knocking on the wooden gate noisily. Pacifique, the hastily appointed master of the compound, limped to the gate to open it and was greeted by the muzzle of a rifle. He was pushed backward by a bull of a soldier who easily brushed the crooked man aside distractedly like an annoying gnat. As Pacifique scrambled to get back to his feet the militia’s captain strode into the yard. He looked at Pacifique or, rather, turned his head like a satellite dish to where Pacifique stood, when he heard a small voice asking what the problem was and where Dieudonne was and when he would return. Uninterested in the transmitter of the questions he ignored him and turned his attention to the rest of the compound where, once more, Margareta, Eugenia, and the workers had assembled.
“So, this is how it is,” he began imperiously, “Dieudonne has been arrested.” A shocked silence followed this announcement.
“He and some of the other farmers are in confinement,” the captain continued. “No harm shall come to them, you have my word. But as of now we are the new protectors of the valley. We are confiscating Dieudonne’s sheep, goats, granary, and banana wine store for our troops. This will be recorded as a donation to the military effort and shall be repaid once this conflict is over. Please do not interfere with the men while they lead away the animals.”
“And where is Dieudonne being kept?” a voice asked.
The captain’s head swivelled once more to the place from whence the sound came. The voice was not timid, but strong and sure. It had the manner of one accustomed to asking questions and receiving answers. It was a voice which reached back through the years, further back before his captaincy, to a time when he had attended the village school, struggling to understand the importance and logic of the alphabet. A voice which not only nurtured childish curiosity but also shamed a little boy who failed to do his homework. His eyes came to rest on Margareta.
His eyebrows high-jumped over his forehead and into his hairline. My god, he thought, the rumours were right. Dieudonne has done well. First the farm, then the wine, and now this woman.
He looked at her attentively, his eyes lingering on the millimetres of exposed cleavage which escaped the colourful kitenge wrapped around her. To his disappointment the texture of the cloth was of a good quality which meant he could not make out her figure underneath the fabric even with the light as bright as it was. Nonetheless his mind drew outlines and shaded in shadows.
“Where is Dieudonne?” she asked.
The captain pulled his eyes away from where he assumed a small belly button would be and coughed before answering. “He is being held at our camp. We cannot, of course, tell you where our camp is for safety reasons. But I assure you he is safe.”
“And how can we make sure of this?” Again, the tone expected an answer.
“Err…you have my word,” he said again in a manner which he hoped closed the matter. The captain was finding it hard to focus on her face when he spoke to Margareta and distracted himself by looking around the massive compound, the high walls, the long house behind the huddled populace. His men were marching to the back of the compound and already he could hear bleating as animals were being brought around to the front half of the enclosure.
“You are taking all of the animals? And what are we supposed to eat?” Margareta asked.
“We shall leave some grain and some banana wine. But the animals we will take,” the captain said. He noted a distinct note of pity in his voice and corrected his pitch. “All of this will be repaid, of course.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” a small voice said to his left, “when can we expect this repayment? And how will you pay us back if you do not tally the animals?”
The captain looked at Pacifique again. Dieudonne, despite his arrogance, was quite an impressive man. His brother, thought the captain, was quite a disappointment. The man barely stood up straight, his voice was soft, and he looked as though he lived in perpetual fear of some kind of condemnation, earthly and otherwise. Pacifique, in some ways, reminded him of himself. Younger brothers, the captain knew, are instruments upon which older brothers sharpen themselves, he himself having been the fifth and youngest of five sons, and the runt until a benevolent store of hormones had manifested themselves and shot him up to tower over his brothers and most men.
“Then let us count all of them and when this is over we shall have an account, okay?” the captain said.
“And when will it be over?” Pacifique asked.
The captain looked into the distance, at the temporal clock of warfare in which campaigns lasted anywhere between thirty seconds and thirty years and settled on a time which best encompassed the uncertainties of power brokering in the capital city, the meandering possibility of international intervention, and longstanding tribal gripes.
“Soon,” he said.
He stalked off to stand near the gate, casting occasional glances at Margareta and the young girl she held by the hand. If anyone here possesses common sense they will leave this valley though, he thought.
Margareta, Eugenia, Pacifique, and the workers clustered together, and watched the men carry big sacks of grain and some urns full of banana wine out of the granary. The livestock bleated in protest as their knew owners beat and kicked them away from the farm. When the last man had exited the compound the captain walked towards the compound dwellers. He came to a halt before Pacifique.
“Thirty goats, forty sheep, fifty bags of beans and maize, and twenty urns of banana wine. We have the same count?” he asked.
“Yes,” Pacifique replied. His voice was barely audible.
“And Dieudonne.” The captain looked past Pacifique at Margareta again. “You also have to return him,” she said.
Their eyes met and he tried to hold her gaze but found it difficult. The woman, he remembered was educated abroad, she spoke to men as equals. “Yes, and Dieudonne,” the captain said after a while.
With nothing more to say he walked out of the compound and hurried to join is men.
Over the next week, Dieudonne’s compound quietened and emptied as, one by one, the workers took their leave from Pacifique, gathered their scant belongings, and fled. For the first time since Dieudonne’s and Pacifique’s forefathers had been on the farm there was no banana wine being brewed.
Now the compound had a new master, one who was not concerned with banana wine. Pacifique only cared about food, water, and protecting the farm’s trapped occupants: Margareta and Eugenia.
After leaving the hunting rifle leaning against the doorway of the long house Eugenia went to feed the chickens they kept at the back of the cooking hut. She watched them peck at the falling seeds. They had not laid eggs that morning meaning supper would be thin. Probably half-boiled potatoes and string beans again. With water running low they did not have the luxury of cooking or boiling vegetables all the way through. Their meals were bland affairs.
Hungrily, she thought of the days when almost every meal was accompanied by some meat. That was when her father had been around. The farm had been full of people.
There was Elias who looked after the sheep and goats and Josephine and Elizabeth, the two women who did the compound’s cooking. They were always gossiping amongst themselves in loud voices. The cooking hut was the place everyone in the compound heard about who in the village was getting married, which jilted lover had moved away from the valley in search of better prospects, and which families were quarrelling about stolen animals or grazing land.
The cooking hut was a few yards from the long house. Every morning, Josephine and Elizabeth would wake up early and cook for everyone else in the compound.
Thibault and Pele, Josephine and Elizabeth husbands were usually the first to rise, often before the sun. The two men maintained the farm’s fences, built drinking troughs for the animals, and repaired anything that was broken. They left the compound early in the morning and returned in the cool evening. Together, Thibault and Pele had built the high wall which surrounded her father’s compound. Eugenia liked Thibault and Pele. Often, they would call her Little Princess and mock-bow to her whenever she passed by.
After Thibault and Pele ate a quick breakfast of maize porridge and drank black, unsweetened tea they would pack their tools, water, some boiled sweetcorn, bread, or hardboiled eggs and walk to whatever side of the farm needed their attention that day.
Constance, a quiet, elderly woman who did the cleaning would be the next person to walk to the cooking hut to eat as the sun’s first rays lit up the sky. She would be followed by Mary, her daughter. Josephine and Elizabeth would converse with Mary in low voices while Constance ate in silence. Even though it had been three years since Constance’s husband had passed away she was still mourning him. She would eat her breakfast, thank Elizabeth and Josephine, and then prepare to do the day’s cleaning. Mary would follow her soon after.
Mary was a few years older than Eugenia. When Mary had been younger she had been Eugenia’s playmate. But as Eugenia grew older and their class differences became more apparent to each of them Mary had been the first to pull away and break their friendship. Eugenia would see Mary and Constance sweeping the compound together, or taking clothes to the river in big, red plastic basins they carried on their heads.
As the cock crowed, Gahigi, the wizened old man who lorded over the rest of the workers would slowly make his way from his house to the cooking hut. The two women greeted him politely and gave him his porridge, swimming in creamy milk to keep it soft. Gahigi had served for many years with her grandfather. And after her father and uncle had inherited the farm he stayed on to help manage the plantation.
Gahigi’s leathery hands and spindly arms had lost the strength of their youth but his eyes remained dark and quick, never missing anything. When he inspected the compound and plantation with her father he noted cracks in her father’s long house that had to be repaired and fences which needed fixing. Her father respected Gahigi. He was known as best banana wine brewer in the valley.
Gahigi knew which semi-ripe bananas to use, and how long to let the bananas ferment under the steaming mounds they maintained behind the compound when a fresh harvest of bananas had come in. Gahigi could make spicy and sweet banana wine that made her father’s visitors sing and dance late into the night. It was often said that if her father brought his banana wine to weddings the newlyweds felt doubly blessed.
Gahigi would sit outside the cooking hut eating his porridge and look at the brightening sky. When the cock crowed again he would give his bowl to the the two women and thank them. Then he would stretch his bony figure and also walk in the direction of the day’s first duty.
Eugenia was scared of Gahigi, though. He rarely spoke to her, seeing her and ignoring her. He was strict and short with his words. But when he had some banana wine in him he would become friendly and tell stories. Once, Eugenia had even seen him dance.
With the sky blueing as the sun rose the last three members of the farm would wake up. Eugenia, her father, and her uncle, Pacifique. Josephine would arrange a bowl of porridge, softened with milk, mandazi with ground sugar sprinkled on them, sweet, black tea and take it to the long house for her and her father. Elizabeth would take a similar tray to her uncle.
Her father would eat his breakfast in the long house’s sitting room or on the back steps of the house overlooking the back of the compound depending on his mood. Eugenia would join him when she was younger. As she grew older and noted her father’s continuing distance she started eating her breakfast alone, often outside the cooking hut with Elizabeth after she had served her uncle his.
Then there was Pacifique, her uncle. He never mixed with anyone else on the farm, even when there was freshly brewed banana wine. The men would sit and talk and share stories while the women cooked and prepared food. Her father would join the men, talking the loudest, laughing the hardest, drinking the most. Her uncle would sit on a chair outside his small house and read, eating the food Josephine or Constance would bring to him by himself. He rarely spoke, remaining quiet when he was around other people unless he was asked something directly.
Margareta’s arrival had changed that, though. Eugenia had never seen her uncle so lively before. He was like the other children in the school after Margareta had started teaching; everyone wanted to participate, everyone wanted to impress her. She never beat the children when they made mistakes, even when they were unruly. Eugenia guessed her uncle was just happy to have a friend.
They all lived on the farm, the men, the women, and Eugenia. Only Elias, the shepherd, did not live on the farm. He lived on their neighbour’s farm where he tended a larger flock of sheep and goats. Her father’s farm had not yet grown large enough to warrant a permanent shepherd yet so Elias walked over every day to look after her father’s small but growing flock.
Eugenia stayed with her father in the long house. It was divided into three bedrooms, and a big sitting-room. She had her own room, her father had one, and, later, Margareta also had her own. She had loved being the youngest person on the farm. Her chores were not hard, only imposed upon her to keep her busy. When she skipped them nobody scolded her.
But now she had duties she could not ignore. She had to feed the chickens, fetch water with her uncle when it was required, and help Margareta cook in the evenings. Eugenia’s transition from princess to pauper had been sudden and unexpected. Her father’s disappearance had ushered in a mass exodus from the farm. Thibault , Pele, and their wives were the first ones to leave. Then Constance and Mary. Elias never showed up to the farm again after he heard that Dieudonne had been taken by the militia’s men. The last to leave had been Gahigi.
He had reluctantly packed his clothes and some tools in a sack and walked to her uncle’s house. He knocked and waited for Pacifique. When her uncle opened the door he saw them talk and clasp hands. Gahigi had turned to walk away from the house and out of the compound when he caught sight of her.
He had walked to her and stood in front of her. Silently, he offered his hand to her and shook her small hand. Eugenia looked up at Gahigi and he gave her a small, sad smile before walking out of the only home he had known before Dieudonne and Pacifique were born.
Eugenia had watched him go with a small, inexplicable sadness. With Gahigi leaving she felt as though her father was finally gone.
Eugenia tossed the chickens a last handful of grain and walked around the cooking house to the long house where she now lived with Margareta and her uncle. She passed the empty houses where her father’s workers had stayed and longed for the noise and the friendly faces.
More than anything else she longed for the days in summer and spring when, after a long week, all the workers would sit around an evening meal near the cooking hut, sharing stories around a fire. Josephine and Elizabeth would cook a good meal. Roasted maize, a spicy bean and kale soup, with chunks of lamb, and ugali. Gahigi would go into the store and draw some banana wine from a deep urn and pour for everyone. Even Eugenia would get a small cup.
They would all eat together and, after supper, share stories and jokes.
Thibault and Pele told the most entertaining stories. They animated their voices for effect and jumped up and down when they had to imitate an animal. The characters in their stories would often come to a calamitous but hilarious end that made everyone laugh. Eugenia would sit, enraptured by their stories about sly hares and quick-witted foxes.
Even Gahigi would tell a story sometimes. As he told his stories his voice would lose its usual hard edge and become melodious, rising and falling as he spoke. His tales always had sombre endings. The adults would nod at their conclusion while she tried to figure out the message hidden in the anticlimactic ending.
The storytelling and conversion would carry on late into the night. As the fire died down into its red embers the compound would be illuminated by the light of the twinkling stars above, splashed across the sky in hundreds and thousands. In the spring and summer, the stars would be joined by the buzzing fireflies hovering around the compound and the plantation, their small lights swarming and floating in the air. She remembered how she had run around, trapping them and then letting them go.
Eugenia looked at the empty houses and the ghostly yard. The fireflies had done the smart thing and tunnelled in the bark of trees or burrowed underneath the ground as the world got darker.
Perhaps that is what they should have done as well, she thought.