Botoro had been the centre of attention after reporting his visit to meet an official at the Department of Services and speak his mind. Now slumped precariously under the msasa tree; he was stone-cold to the touch. No one had noticed when his soul departed.
Life at the old people’s home had its routines. After completing the daily duty roster, the residents would sit in the shade day in and day out, Botoro among them. Despite the persistent warnings from the Superintendent on the hazards of smoking untreated tobacco, the smokers continued to enjoy their homemade rolled cigarettes, with guiltless self-indulgence.
Botoro was not unique in having lost touch with his family. In his case, he had no one to blame but himself, after deserting them when he left in search of casual work. He never returned to his village in Malawi, after migrating. Initially, he had joined a group of gold panners in Zimbabwe as they swarmed like locusts and invaded an area covering fifty kilometres. The wily old chief who owned the land soon decided to chase away interlopers like Botoro; to keep to himself, what had become a lucrative venture. From then on, Botoro spent years drifting from one job to another and enjoying a single, unencumbered life.
Now 78 years, he had spent three years at the home and become institutionalised. He had neither the energy nor wherewithal to care for himself. Botoro also had no income to speak of and relied on donations from well-wishers; a faded shirt here, a second-hand trouser, there. He was one of three men who had been brought there, after being accused of vagrancy by local police. The motley group were now fair-weather friends. Two of them had been lucky to get one-roomed accommodation in the complex whilst Botoro was forced to share the men’s dormitory with total strangers.
That particular Friday, Botoro made himself presentable so that he could visit the government authorities and state his desire to reunite with his family, after so many years. Even his friends were tired of the endless stories of how the Superintendent had put into motion, plans to locate Botoro’s family, with no luck. The Superintendent had finally succumbed to Botoro’s persistent request to be escorted to the offices and present his case in person. Botoro didn't want to become one of those people who spent their remaining days in unfamiliar surroundings. He was grateful to have a roof over his head, but even he could tell that the old people’s home was struggling to provide a decent quality of life.
The Department of Services Office was some way from the home, and the trip took longer than expected because the home’s truck decided that day to develop an oil leak. So the decision was made to use public transport. Botoro escorted by the Superintendent, entered the government office where a young officer greeted them. The officer looked green behind the ears and did not instil confidence. But there was no option. From experience, Botoro knew these low-level paper-pushers had a propensity for demanding rather than earning respect.
Botoro introduced himself, while the officer fumbled through a heap of dusty papers on his desk, looking for his case notes. The officer had learned to feign interest in anticipation of a long narrative. However, something made Botoro stand out. The official while pensive, stopped fidgeting with his cell phone and looked at the senile man dressed in an old fashioned suit and tie which had seen better days. From then on, the official became engrossed in Botoro’s account.
‘Mr Botoro, speak slowly, and clearly. You say that you submitted reports before, asking for help to find your family. I can’t find your file with these supposed numerous letters you purport to have sent to this department.’
Bororo glanced at the Superintendent who confirmed that the letters had been delivered by hand post, date stamped on receipt and signed for.
‘I am sorry we will have to start the process again. Your file is not here. You say you have lost touch with your family and want us to find them. How does one lose a family? You are an African. We have relatives everywhere, people of your totem or members of your clan.’
Botoro began to feel dejected. This was not a good start,
‘Please listen to an old man. My name is Emmanuel Botoro, I came to this country as a migrant. I was born near Blantyre in Malawi. My parents were poor peasant farmers, so I never attended school because they couldn’t afford the fees and wanted me to work on our family plot. As the firstborn among three boys and one girl, we survived by selling seasonal produce at the local market. My father died when I was 15 years. From then on, my mother couldn’t maintain our household on her own. Other villagers were leaving for paid work across the border. I followed them into Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. I soon got a casual job on a farm, herding cattle. I then discovered a distant uncle who worked there as a foreman. When he relocated, I went with him. We worked on various farms until I got married traditionally after numerous short term relationships with local women. I left my last employment after my wife had a son. With no steady income, we started experiencing marital problems. My wife then left abruptly for her rural home with my son.’
‘So you know where she is?’
‘No. I know where she was born. I didn’t try and follow her, a question of pride. I was too ashamed to meet my in-laws after neglecting them. It was such a long time ago, and you know us migrants are a transient people. Anyway, my small savings soon ran out, and I started sleeping rough. I was picked up by the police who accused me of vagrancy. That is how I ended up in the old people's home. I lost contact with my uncle, my wife and son. My remaining wish is to meet up with my family and not die in Zimbabwe, but back in my homeland, in Malawi. I last went there nearly 50 years ago. But I am sure I would still be welcomed by my clan, so I can die among my people. That is my story.’
Botoro, weary after his lengthy narrative, sat in the prevailing silence as the officer completed his notes in longhand. The young man realised that this could be the story of his father, his relative.
‘I have written your story in full, and this time we will not lose your notes. Give us time to connect with our counterparts in the District Offices near the village where your wife’s family comes from. If we can’t find them, then we can talk about repatriation to your homeland. Although I would be surprised if anyone you know is still alive. Anyway, leave the matter with me. Give me a few weeks.’
Botoro and the Superintendent returned to the home, exhausted yet feeling a sense of accomplishment. Botoro relished the attention in the dormitory as everyone gathered round to hear the embellished report of his outing. Some muttered in low voices, about raising false hopes. After all Government offices have a tendency of losing paperwork. If they have done it once, why not again?
The interest in Boroto’s story soon waned, as new tales surfaced about a woman resident who had joined the institution. Some said her story was even more pathetic than most if one believed the grapevine. She had been brought to the home by her daughter; something unheard of and against the cultural norms. Was it not the duty of children to look after their parents? Other residents felt they should not gloat over people’s misfortunes. At least the woman knew her family and family quarrels could be resolved.
Botoro continued life despite ongoing niggling concerns. Was the young officer at the Department of Services actually doing anything about his case? Had his new file been lost yet again? Had the young man been transferred and replaced by someone with no idea about time being of the essence? Occasionally, when Botoro enquired about progress, the answer was always negative.
After three weeks of waiting, one morning, the Superintendent approached Botoro in the vegetable garden. The news was mixed. Initially, Botoro was overcome with grief and deeply held self-anger, after hearing that his estranged wife had passed away. His son, however, hadn’t known his father was still alive and wanted to meet with Botoro. At least to get to know each other. The talk about going home to Malawi, where his son had never been, could come later.
On the night before the son’s visit, Botoro was his usual self; speculating among his friends about the reunion. Would it be appropriate during the first visit to talk about forgiveness? His son now had a family. How would the son feel about a long lost father? These fears continued to gnaw at Botoro. Had he left all this reconciliation too late? What if he was asked why he never went to look for his family? Did he have an excuse, or had he become so unconcerned about family during his philandering? His conscience continued eating away at him like undergrowth being scorched in a bushfire.
‘Are you ready for your visitor? It’s today that your son is visiting, isn’t it?’ The Superintendent sounded both happy and intrigued by Botoro’s case.
In the dormitory an unidentified voice said,
‘We didn’t sleep a wink! Botoro was so restless, talking in his sleep as he tossed and turned.’
They all chuckled at Botoro’s expense as he hid his embarrassment behind a search for a decent shirt to wear.
‘Yes, it’s today, and I am very nervous. I have a son I haven’t met since he was a toddler. What if I don’t recognise him?’’
One of the roommates replied solemnly, ‘You worry too much. It will be alright. Remember the saying, blood is thicker than water. You should be proud that he is making an effort. Some of us will never get the chance for such reunions!’’
The rest of the morning routine was a haze as Botoro waited in anticipation, especially since no specific time of arrival had been mentioned. The sun soared across the sky; was blistering by mid-day and waned as the day drew to a close. Dusk approached, and still, Botoro waited, stubbornly refusing food and drink.
Weakened by hunger and thirst, he became surly, and friends hesitated to ask whether he had heard any news. He seemed immune to the mosquitoes swarming around him as the sun set. The evening lights in the complex came on one by one, till the Superintendent decided to approach Botoro and end the vigil in the falling evening temperature. However, Botoro had already passed away while waiting for a son who never came.