The sound of a pounding mortar breaks a rather dull morning, hauling you back to the reality of your present milieu. The unpainted walls, the darkened grass thatching, and the reed doors, just unpack the horrors of real poverty before you, dumping it on your conscience like a sewage pile. But somehow, you remember why you came here; to say bye to your parents, because in three days, you are off to college. Your mood somehow picks up; the squalor, no matter how repulsive, cannot square with that.

“This diva is off to college. Isn’t that something great?” you smash a fist into your palm, for some kind of self-assurance. You would have done more but….

“Chalita!” some anxious voice suddenly bursts upon you, cutting into your hypnotic hallucinations. It is your Ma calling. She is the one pounding something in the mortar. Outside in the cold, barefooted and feet horribly torn up by terrible cracks, like a dry river bed, she cracks a sharp voice that pounds your mood worse than the groundnuts in her mortar.

“What is it now, ma?”You click a tongue in disgust, why should she disturb your darling moments devoted to texting friends. Or day-dreaming. You love her greatly, but the grinding poverty has dug a gulf between your two worlds. One trapped in the survival struggles of the Stone Age, the other floating on the affluence of the internet generation. You hardly know her anymore. She doesn’t know you either. But she thinks she does.

 “Go and check your brother, Paulo…,” she flips an old scarf to wipe off sweat from her face. The trembling lips make her look like someone with epilepsy. Worse, her blouse has lost a couple of buttons exposing some grey skin dangling on her chest like a pair of empty sacks. You suckled from those empty sacks. Worst, the same number of front teeth is missing and the sagging upper lip is fouling up pronunciations.

“What is the problem with Paul, ma?” You cut her quickly.

“If you have ears, you must have heard him crying in his room,” She says, “go there, and don’t waste time asking useless questions.”

 “Ma, if you have eyes, you can see that I am busy packing clothes,” you try to dump her by way of an excuse, but roughly. Damn right, the brute needs help. He is crying because his bed is now cold, soaked with his urine, or worse...

“I won’t let you answer me like that,” She whines, pouting like some Victorian mother. “Stand up now and go! You have become such a silly girl, ha!”

You are not busy at all, just unwilling to obey a woman, who seems not to understand what it means to be a college girl. Or that you are now nineteen years old, not a toddler she bullied about way back then. You decide to put her in her place, away from a red carpet, where she is parading herself for some post-dated glory.

“Find a maid,” you answer, “I think that is what Paul needs…”

“Chalita, how can you say a thing like that to me?” she clicks her tongue in great shame, pokes elbows from arms at akimbo, and then shakes her head woefully. But it is clear that her anger has surprisingly started giving way to resignation.

“But how am I expected to study and babysit at the same time?”You howl in mock anger. “I am a college girl now; doesn’t that mean something to you, ha?”

“Oh! Now, because you are a college girl, you can ignore your own brother crying, right?”Her tone implies that she has already lost the battle to tame you. Relief swamps on you like air escaping from a bursting balloon when you see her stagger like a one-legged cow to the crying baby. It is hers after all, not yours.


The evening appeared relaxed and friendly, even the sky is tending towards a humid and cloudless dome. A large number of youths are giggling excitedly around a huge bonfire, in your yard. Their shadows cast grotesque figures on the unplastered wall behind. They are celebrating your qualification for college. You are the first in the whole village. None had ever gone beyond grade seven. The huge attendance seems to verify that. Or the composition.

However, as minutes swallow seconds, and hours gulp minutes, the mood suddenly tumbles into a heartbreaking turmoil. Are all these people mad? You didn’t know even uncivilized hordes could give a college girl such a heart condition, the worst in your life.

The celebrations are just gaining momentum, probably reaching a climax. You emerge from your house clad in a mini skirt which covers only the essential parts, leaving out everything else at the mercy of the beholder.

You ignore the wide eyes glaring at you in surprise; they make you feel on top of things. Even an explosion of “Maweee! Maweee! You people! This is now Sodom and Gomorrah,” fails to warn you of the worse rebellion it was the harbinger of.

Emboldened by a glass of champagne, you stepped out of the doorway and howled gaily; “guys lets drink to my success, and yours too.” Then you poured a whole gulp of the mood- changing concoctions into your yawning mouth.

Most of the burning liquid is still in your mouth, just about to start clearing the throat, when Jonathan Nzumbi remarks rather inconveniently, no stupidly; “see our host; naked and drinking like a bream.”

“This is a temptation to break the commandments of God,” Robert Mwaala said with a face contorted into a mask of disapproval. “What a taboo?”

“Right, this is not only a taboo,” Jonathan Nzumbi comes back, eyes dilated like a sacred owl addressing a parliament, “but also a sacrilege, a terrible sin. I am off, away from this awful horror.”

“I didn’t come here to see this,” Robert Mwaala nods his head in agreement. He hauls his dark coat over his shoulder and starts going home.

These were the only denunciations, but their departure precipitates a general exodus. In no time all the party-goers are gone, leaving you alone. Only a glass of champagne still sparkles in the flames of a bonfire, maybe even your tears as well.

“Why would these Neanderthals reject a drink, as sacred as champagne?”You grumble ruefully. “Isn’t this the universal mood-sweetener, a sweet course for all celebrations?”

But like melting ice, the party disintegrates, the barefoot and rag-attired scarecrows exit, shaking their heads mournfully like diarrhea infected parrots. They are appalled by your not-so-inchoate disingenuity.

“These savages,” you cry in anger like a goat watching a jackal munching its kid, even the champagne now starts tasting like ash. Unconsciously you smash the glass in the fire with a rebellious complaint; “don’t they know that this diva is off to college, ha?”


The next day you went to see your former teacher at school. That was some diva parading undulating curves reminding one of Naomi Campbell raising whistles and ululations on the Hall of Fame. A pool of Brazilian hair covers her face like feathers of a peacock. Her make-up polluted lips would pronounce words like someone with a Bostonian upbringing, even though she has never stepped anywhere further than the furthest tip of her curved nose. Pronouncing water as wara, in a deep drawling accent of a VOA newsreader, she would even give it the facial expression as well.

“Hi, Stembile!” she greets you with a beaming smile like headlamps. Her white teeth blind with their reflection of light, while the lacquered fingernails pull at your heart with cords of desperate envy.

“Hello madam!” you answer, and go on to imitate her bounce step as well as the expansive gestures of her beautiful, unforgettable hands.

“Congrats!” she pouts almost suddenly. “I am told you are off to college, right?”

“Yes madam, thanks,” you answer, trying to use her clip cut way of talking.

“So, what are you gonna study at college?” she is pretending and you know that, but life shouldn’t stay the same, after all, everyone has a plastic coating somewhere.

“I wanna study journalism,” you follow her slang. It is fake, but who wants to wow like Zinjaninthropus when everyone else is rolling in the Pan Americana beat?”

“Isn’t journalism a damned long stretch, believe it hauls seven years, right?” she widens her eyes in mock disbelief, “won’t you be a grandma by the time you graduate?”

“No, it is a wee bit, only four years,” you try to correct her. You imitate some actors in Telemundo.

“And jobs,” she persists, “or you wanna keep yourself a degree as tissue into eternity. Damned, like them, accountants?”

It is her mockery that gals you immensely. Why should she laugh at your choice of career, just like that?

“But there are thousands of jobs for people with a degree in journalism,” you swing arms out a bit more enthusiastically, but forgot the clip cut way of saying words.

“Just advising,” she drops eyelids like someone with secret information, “see you around, then.”

“But madam,” you call after her. You came to ask for a few items and now she wants to dump you on the sidewalk like a used condom.

“I am quite busy,” she refuses to stop. “I reckon that is clear to everyone, you included.”

Later on,you are told she was dying of jealous, seeing you going for training as a journalist. She dreaded the prospects of seeing you on TV or reading about you in the papers. It was a passionate dread, a result of a failed ambition on her part.


The next morning, the prevailing winds had dropped and the spring sun was illuminating the young Milombe leaves lovingly, like a caring mother. It would have been an enjoyable day if only someone hadn’t forgotten to wash the pile of clothes. It was still blocking your doorway at fifteen hours. You are a college girl and wasn’t it obvious that folks had a bounden duty to honor you by doing simple tasks without being reminded? You circle the pile to come to stand on the other side, arms akimbo. Your face is creased in lines of despair, no disgust.

“Oh, my daughter! Oh, my daughter!” a voice erupts behind you. It is an aged squeal, but some familiar kinks tag at your memory chip.

You turn round. No, you whirl round like a skidding car and come face to face with an apparition. Shag haired, red-eyed, and open-mouthed is a man whose facial features were of bliss to him but to you total revulsion. The eyes have white flakes at the sides and the hands trying to hold you are dried snakes with eagle's talons. Your immediate reaction of fright quickly hardens into disgust. The vampire is calling someone his daughter, and from the direction of his eyes, that someone may as well be you. What sacrilege?

“What?” you blurt out, angrily. Every atom of your being shudders with angry pleas.

“Hello Stembile,” he greets you enthusiastically like a blind person who couldn’t see the gulf between you two. His voice has changed since ten years ago when you last came home. You can’t tell why his teeth are yellow; whether it is sickness or lack of brushing. And when he talks, saliva threads streak down the mouth like spider webs at the entrance to a cave. Disgusted, you howl to the wind in anger.

“Hey! Don’t they sell toothpaste here anymore?”

“What is toothpaste for, my daughter?” he asks with eyes glittering with boundless joy. You give him immense pride, and that makes him fail to notice your insults or the harsh rejection.

But suddenly, a cool voice miraculously sobers you up. He is indeed your dad. Only that the wrath of time has mauled him into a wreck. He works on the nearby farms as a cheap laborer, earning nothing, worse than peanuts.

Though vomit is blocking your throat, you feign some joy at seeing him.

“Oh, daddy! It is really you?”You can hardly manage a sentence. But then, a brain wave strikes you, why not divert attention to something else, the clothes?

You had turned to face the pile of clothes and didn’t realize the old hag was now dancing behind you, frolicking about like a kangaroo walking on hot coals of fire.

“Da, I need someone to wash my clothes,” you throw arms about in mock despair. This touches a raw nerve and immediately he stops dancing and throws glazed eyes about. Almost instantly, he spots what he was searching for, and in one peal shouts a trail of commands.

“Nzala, wash your sister’s clothes, now!”He tosses out commands like a General.

“Ha! Baushi Paulo, why should a boy wash a girl’s clothes?” Your ma complains, looking at your dad with horror.

“Bana Paulo eecheeee! You are indeed old fashioned. These are days of gender equality,” he speaks seriously like Saddam Hussein giving instructions to invade Kuwait.

“Great!”You clap excitedly; your red nailed fingers glitter so much that everyone stops whatever they are doing, just to stare in awe. Suddenly all mouths are etching huge Os on wooden cliffs.

When that is settled, he runs into the house but emerges almost immediately. His right hand is carrying a small goatskin. It is a purse.

“What is that da?” someone asks.

He refuses to answer but hurriedly opens it, takes out some money, and says; “here is some money for you, my daughter.”

"What is that money for dad?"

“Pay the school fees, my daughter,’ he says with a lot of pride, “and don’t forget I will cross the Zambezi river, if necessary, to supply all your whims, needs, everything. Just name it.”

Your heart bubbles greatly like boiling water. You rush into your bedroom, walking like someone very busy. But there is nothing to be busy about; you just wish to have some distance to curtain off this apparition. Get him far away and tear his figure from your mind by texting a flurry of messages to your friends.


Inside your hut, you check the money from dad. Horror mauls you like a lion devouring a small lamb. The pile amounts to only a hundred kwacha, the college fees are ten thousand kwacha. Bursary would be ideal, only that the bursary boys need thousands in kickbacks for them to include your name. This is the life in our Zambia, live it, or drop dead.

At first, you are disgusted, “how can he give me a hundred kwacha, when the least I need is ten thousand?” Then you remember the person to be mad about, his wretched condition would make everything about him disagreeable. Except maybe his smile.

It was a genuine smile, borne out of a genuine desire to provide for the family. Probably that was the only money in the house, the only defense against starvation. This is the man’s last-ditch effort warding off the disaster of hunger. But now, he has given it out, taking his family out of a safe trench, into the open plain to face a fusillade of bullets, just to make it possible for you to go to college. This thought grinds your mood, killing you worse than a sword would have done.

“I have a Smartphone, which costs five thousand,” you start calculating, “why should  I grab a hundred from a man whose whole life is just a race against his stomach. I deprive an honest man whose only mistake was to be born without chances and now fights to feed his family on what can be collected in the garbage.”

His figure torments you greatly, there and then, you decide to abort college and instead do something about the grinding poverty. This catastrophe is not a newspaper story written for sensational, but a living video playing in deadly earnest right in front of you.

"I will sell the Smartphone to start a small business,” you start making plans.

You just have to help them somehow, your heart cries internally. And tearfully you draft a short business plan, as they taught you at school. This, you outline to your family over a plate of ‘sholo’ and Nshima.

“But I want you to be a minister,” dad protests, his lips trembling in despair and his eyes show real pain. What breaks your heart most is the way he waggles his eyes and pans the lips. He is like a baby playing at the seashore with a small spoon with which he hopes to empty the ocean into a small hole. He is not able to see the gap between the miserable hundred kwacha note and the whooping ten thousand kwacha. The only thing vivid in his mind is a daughter who will become a minister, driving posh vehicles.


August 06, 2020 19:44

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Gopika Ashokan
04:33 Aug 07, 2020

This is so tragically beautiful. The themes of poverty, generation gap and insecurity is shown in such a subtle way yet it leaves a poignant impact on the readers. Thanks for writing this!


18:11 Aug 07, 2020

thanks a lot


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