As I sat on the boulder, arms around my legs, I watched the sunset over the horizon, the entire sky brushed with mixtures of yellow, orange and red and the distant lone eagle circling above the river.I felt tears swelling up in my eyes. It had only been a month since my older sister Saru had been married off only one month ago but the time had passed slowly, and time spent had been woeful. It hadn’t been completely unexpected, since she turned 16 two years ago my mother literally spent every day saying 'any day now’ and when scolding Saru she’d say variations of ‘If you keep behaving like that you’ll never be married’. My father wasn't pressurising Saru married too early unlike the typical rural homestead father which allowed Saru and I to laugh off our mothers comments. Saru only had been allowed to continue with her marriage due to her own inability to wait. The parents of her long time crush Bongani were now looking for a wife for him and Saru was not going to allow it to be anyone else, apparently Bongani too didn’t want it to be anyone other than Saru either. Thus making us all comfortable with sending Saru away. The couple too ensured it would mean their happiness. However, I failed to anticipate the extent of my loneliness after she left. The girl’s hut could be renamed the hut of solitude as I now slept there alone. No one to kick in my sleep or pull the blanket away from me during the night nor anyone to listen to my incredibly imaginative dreams in the morning. I faced the annoyance of my 4 younger brothers alone but more devastating I faced the other half of the women's chores alone. Though my mother did the most difficult jobs, she was a natural busybody who enjoyed the satisfaction that came from a job well done where as I on the other hand felt like I belonged in an era where teenagers would be allowed to spend the day lazing away. Unfortunately those feelings could only remain as thoughts of comfort, when I walked with the other village girls to get water from the well which was a short 3 kilometers away. The trip was only made once a day at dawn as the water was strictly used for cooking. We were frequently reminded that it was far away to avoid contamination as well as children falling in so as not to get too compalinsome. Though I was familiar with all the girls I much preferred observing nature on the walk to and from the well. I entered my own world as I tried to estimate the age of Msasa and Mukamba trees and matched the song of the Chapungu with my own hymn along the dusty path. Needless to say I’d look up and the other girls were way ahead of me leaving me to run clumsily after them which not only would result in half my water spilling but a stern scolding from my mother when I’d return home. In the past on the trip to get water I’d look up and see Saru just a few steps ahead of me. Using my slow pace as an opportunity for her to rant about all the strange places she’d read about from Uncle’s books. Places where rain was soft and white and where buildings would reach the sky. Cherished moments I’d underappreciated. Piercing screams from my younger brother’s snapped me out of my intense daydream and I descended from the boulders.
“Uncle is coming from Salisbury!” I exclaimed.
“Yes” my mother confirmed for the fifth time.
“But only for a short time” my Father said, trying to act cool but failing to suppress his smile.
My Uncle only came home for December holidays and in a time of emergency thus seeing him in the middle of the year like this was a true treat. He worked for a very rich and kind White man in Salisbury. When he’d come home he brought all types of presents, books with all kinds of places and his specialty all sorts of weird stories. As I eagerly anticipated my Uncle's arrival time raced for the first time in weeks and before I knew it my brothers were calling me from my special spot on top the boulders to greet Uncle. As I bolted towards him he opened his arms for a big hug.
“Sandi aren't you 14 now? Aren't you a bit too old for big hugs?” he chuckled.
“Nope.” I responded shamelessly.
“ Well in that case I brought you something you can give big hugs to all the time” he said kindling my curiosity. With that he walked into the grain hut and came out with a furry creature.
“Shumba!” which means lion, my mother exclaimed.
“ No it’s a dog.” Uncle replied cracking up.
I intensely examined it from a safe distance and though it was true it had the main features of a dog it’s fur could only be compared to the mane of a lion not that of a dog. But then again I’d never seen such a beautiful dog. Seeing my suspicious expression Uncle explained.
“It’s called a Golden Retriever. It’s different from dogs here because it’s not a mixed breed and has always had an owner, my boss's daughter Catherine. She recently went to England for university and since there’s no one else to take care of it he said I could have it. Rather than stay in a flat in Harare with a lame guy like me I thought it could live free here with the awesome Sandi Mupunga.”
He continued talking about how it’s already trained and can just eat leftovers but I had already tuned out. I sat in front of the dog and began stroking its fur. I whispered, “So your best friend left you too huh?” He didn't reply, but his eyes seemed to understand the struggle, he understood me. “Thank you Uncle” I shouted suddenly.
“You're welcome Sandi you take good care of him” he said smiling
“ Oh no not another boy “ my Mother complained”
“ Don’t worry I’ll take care of this one” I reassured.
Uncle who’d only come by to drop off the dog left after 2 nights and during that time period the number of people who had exclaimed ‘Shumba’ after seeing the dog led me to naming him that. It was more comic than dangerous seeing lions had never been spotted in a 100 kilometre radius of this village but suddenly one had appeared and I had the audacity to stand by it. Though their overreaction upon seeing him led to him quickly accepting his new name which I appreciated.
Shumba changed my everyday, trivializing all my previous issues. Sleeping with me in my hut and at times he’d be in the mood for a good game of tug of war even though at night he’d snuggle beside me and I’d be warm anyway. He’d scratch the door at dawn so I’d be woken up by that sound instead of the sound of my mother banging pots though that one might’ve been more for him. My little brothers were scared of him as my mother constantly drilled them with the idea that he was a baby lion, successfully reducing opportunities to annoy by 70%. Most importantly he’d always accompany me. Even as I slowly admired nature to and from the well he too leisurely followed behind me. Being a companion and a protector. It was the first time in a long time I’d felt positive emotions and surprisingly enough it hadn't been brought forth by another human but a fuzzy friend. My secret place became our secret place as Shumba effortlessly climbed the boulders to reach the top. He too seemed to have an appreciation of nature as he stared out towards the never ending savanna landscape perhaps comparing it to the four walls and green grass of his previous home in Salisbury or perhaps thinking about the well being of Catherine. I believed Shumba was a deeper thinker than I’d ever known as his eyes often showed. I made sure to reassure him she was doing well as he’d often console me when I cried tears of missing Saru. With his presence he assured me in this life I’d never be alone. I’d always be a part of Shumba’s pride. I looked towards the horizon and stroked Shumba's fur.