Every night Mbuya would barricade herself behind a flimsy wooden door. Late one evening, she heard a commotion outside before a bottle flew into her front room, scattering shattered glass everywhere. Smashing on her stone floor, it exploded into a ball of flames. She screamed in flames leaping up to the ceiling and engulfing her cheap furniture. Clouds of smoke enveloped her. She choked and spluttered, quickly realising that fighting the fire was futile. Hastily gathering a few belongings, Mbuya dashed through the smouldering door.
Mbuya retreated behind a large boulder when she heard disparate voices in the thick darkness and began to wonder whether she would be safe outside. Lethal flames were cascading down from her thatched roof, and suddenly the roof beams collapsed. The jeering voices continued among the sparks and sounds of metal and pungent odour of plastic and burning wood drifting into the air. Mbuya concealed herself in the dense smoke, terrified that they would track her down and drag her into the roaring fire and burning building. Cowering in fright while feeling pain from blisters and unexplained grazing, she propped herself against the boulder and watched the excited crowd milling about her yard. All she could make out in the fogged-up air were the charred remains of her four-roomed house, soot-covered walls and smouldering grass thatch. Noone came to help put out the fire.
As the crowd thinned and the menacing voices disappeared into the night, their retreat kept echoing in Mbuya's head. Clutching her few belongings, she slowly crawled out, peering through the whirls of smoke and ashen embers glowing in the night. Mbuya stayed in the shadows, circling the house with silent tears trickling like rain on her breasts.
A woman's wailing voice cut through the gloom, "I can't believe such cruelty! I pray Mbuya managed to get out unscathed."
"Mbuya! Where is she? Mum, look at the remains of her house! Who would do this to her? She wouldn't harm anyone," said a younger voice in despair, gazing at the dying flames.
Recognising the voices, Mbuya came out, mourning quietly, clutching her arm. She ran into her daughter's embrace.
"Mbuya! Mbuya! Thank God, we thought you were dead! Are you hurt?" Her daughter Chenai examined her in floods of tears, accompanied by her son Danai.
"We are so sorry to have taken so long to come. We got your message and set off straight away," said Chenai. "My car had a puncture, and we had to change the tyre. Then daylight disappeared so quickly. I'm not a good night driver, and we took the wrong turn in the dark, just a few kilometres along your dust road. Someone has removed the old handmade road sign, which I usually use to get here. It was one disaster after another! We should never have accepted your insistence to be left to live alone."
Mbuya's burning eyes peered at her daughter while clutching her hand. Danai seeing his grandmother shivering with delayed shock and cold, wrapped her in his jacket and led her away from her burnt ruins into their car.
"There's nothing left for you here, Mbuya. You will have to come and stay with us," said Chenai, "We saw spiralling smoke and flames leaping in the night sky and just knew there was trouble somewhere. We didn't put two and two together till we met a crowd along your road, going in the opposite direction. We recognised some of your neighbours. They recognised my car, but no one greeted us or looked us in the eye, and now I know why. How could they do this to you after all you have done for this community?"
Danai was fuming when he came back from inspecting the burned property." There's nothing to salvage Mum, even though the fire is dying down. Let's just take Mbuya home. I hope we never have to revisit this God-forsaken place."
Mbuya sat huddled in the back seat as she bit her lip, trying to manage the pain from the bruising she had incurred while hiding. She turned to Chenai, "But we have to come back when things are quieter. I can't leave your father's grave unattended."
"Mbuya, that is the least of our worries. No one is coming back here. The graves will remain unkept, and there is nothing to retrieve from the shell of your homestead. Do you know how close you were to being burnt to death if you had not escaped your burning house? We're not in the town where the fire brigade would come and rescue you. You're on your own here." Chenai was shaking with rage as she escorted her mother to the car. "I should never have left you hereafter father died. Let's go home."
Mbuya looked wistfully at the ruins as Danai helped secure her seatbelt.
"I still don't know how we came to this," said Danai. "Why do they hate you so much?"
"Is it hate or envy or greed? Read the papers, Danai. These days there are many stories of violence against older adults. I didn't want to alarm you," said Chenai. "Such incidents have been happening for some time in remote parts of the country, and we never thought this madness would come to our home area. They are calling it witch hunts in the newspapers. I am not even sure whether giving it such a sensational headline is helping anyone, except to sell papers."
"Witch hunts? But Mbuya is not a witch. She is just a frail old woman who lives in a village by herself. This is my grandmother we're talking about!" Mbuya kept quiet and continued staring out into the darkness.
Chenai glanced back at her mother as she focused on driving at a steady pace, conscious of the animals crossing in the night and the glaring headlights once they joined the motorway.
"Unfortunately, there are some who still believe in witches. I had heard rumours sometime back that an older woman was burnt in her hut not far from here, and the charred remains were left unattended for days. We later heard the crime was initially unreported because her neighbours were the perpetrators. Something about a land dispute. What was even worse was that the investigations resulted in the arrest of the woman's son. He was part of the mob, claiming that he was entitled to inherit the land from his father as the son, not his mother."
"In this day and age?"
"Danai, I'm telling you what I have read and heard. The situation is getting worse; there's even a World Day against Witch Hunts in August. Underneath all these stories of witches is related to ageism and people finding excuses to take away other people's property."
Mbuya, who had begun to recover, joined in, in a low voice, "The son couldn't wait to inherit the property. The husband had already died, and the woman your mum refers to was my friend who lost her life. Of course, the son didn't do it on his own; it's mob violence. It starts with rumours circulating about misfortunes. The old and defenceless like myself get blamed for all sorts of things; illnesses in the village, crop failure, someone dying because of a lightning strike. You name it; the older women become the scapegoats! Then people start looking for signs of what they imagine witches do or look like. Some of us walk around in the night or talk in our sleep. We may be ill or become forgetful and suffer from dementia. Other people misinterpret our leathery, hagged appearance and red eyes from spending too much time on open fires. All these become signs of sorcery, and it's the women who suffer most just because we are old. Danai, don't get stubborn and old like me, "said Mbuya.
"Mbuya, you can't stop the ageing process," said Danai laughing.
"No, seriously, my child. Your mother started a long time ago, trying to persuade me to move and come and live in town. But I couldn't think of another life away from where I have lived all my life. Although life got harder after your grandfather died, I could still manage, and you used to come more often to stay for the weekend and sort out all my problems. You don't know how proud I am of you. But I didn't realise that not everyone was happy for me, and as I deteriorated in health, I found I had to ask for more and more favours, especially with repairs and maintenance. I don't have much, but some neighbours started scrutinising my lifestyle, my land and the few livestock your grandfather left me. When there is poverty around you, people look at other people's belongings with eyes like saucers. Remember also that there was no longer a strong individual about the homestead. That's how I became a sitting duck."
"But Grandma, why didn't you tell us?"
"I didn't realise that envy is so poisonous and that I was in danger. I also had my pride and independence. Now, look at what I have left, the few clothes on my back and a plastic bag full of old photos and papers which I managed to escape with. Many of my memories, together with my house, have gone up in smoke. Apart from you and your mother, I have lost everything."
"Mama, we should report to the police. It's so unfair!"
"My child, I wish life was that straightforward. How many times do we read about vigilante justice? If the legal system doesn't look out for the weak and vulnerable, then things fall apart."
Mbuya said, "My friend's son was kept in custody after her death, together with his accomplices and then released with a custodial sentence. He probably bribed someone. What sort of justice is that? He got away with murder."
Despondent, Chenai said, "I would not be surprised if the same vigilantes are not among the upstanding citizens in our communities and hide behind their supposed respectability. I'm sorry we took so long to come and take you away from such people. It, unfortunately, will take a long time to educate our people and make life safe for widows like you. The only good coming out of this tragedy is you are now coming to live with us."