Tea Set

It’s a wonder how colonial rule survived so long in Africa—with the fight and strength of her people, it’s a wonder it started in the first place. I guess, it fell, in Zambia, right at the time God had allowed for it to happen. She comes out of the house, and when he looks at her, it’s clear she’s just woken up; bleary eyed, with a white trail, lining her cheek, from her midnight drool, she sits next to him in the doorway.

Mwauka tyani?’ he says with a smile, but no response comes from the blank face, and a chuckle escapes his lips. He doesn’t mind that she can’t speak his—and her father’s—language, Nsenga. He greets her in Bemba, her mother’s language, before continuing his shave. Nyakawe sits quietly for a while, but he can feel her eyes fixed on him.

Shikulu?’ she calls quietly.

He turns at the familiar address, still in awe of the fact that he was an askulu, a shikulu, a grandfather. True to form, a question followed her address.

‘Why do you do that?’ she was looking at him, inquisitively, cheek resting on the pedestal that was her hand.

“Do what?”

‘That …’ she pointed at his ice cream covered face, and smiled shyly when laughter erupted around them. She watched as his slender fingers, with neatly cut nails moved the blade, in strokes, removing the shaving cream. There was something amusing about it, and she longed to try it.

Askulu remembered a time 30 years ago when the face of Zambia was so different. Tears flooded his eyes as he watched his other grandchildren playing in the dust. They were free, in a land their own. That had seemed an impossible dream 30 years ago.

Nyakawe got up and ran to join the others and he found himself making his way out of shaft 5 of the Nkana Copper mines again. The sun was drooping behind the trees in the distance, his back hurt from the long day of shifting rock, underground, for meagre pay. He longed to feel the warmth of the water, his alluring Ainala, always had waiting when he got home. Ainala; graceful and kind, she made life bearable, added joy to the hard life created by an unjust system.

Howard walked out of the mine with the other men, laughter and conversation filling the air around him, making the route home seem shorter. He was almost home when he saw little Jack, waiting by the fence, as he did every evening and in no time, the little boy was running towards his father. True to form, Howard picked the little man up and span him around.

‘How are you, my son?’ he asked, teeth showing as he broke out in fluent Nsenga, asking his son about his day. Ainala stood at the small gate as her boys came home. Jack transferred hands as his mother greeted her husband, her eyes speaking softly what her mouth didn’t say. Mining was hard, and men died trying to provide for their families. She thanked God he was home and smiled, ‘There’s water waiting.’ She said, adjusting the four year old on her hip. A thought crossed Howard’s mind, but he thought it wishful thinking and walked into the small yard. He stopped for a second look and was met by a blank look from Ainala. Shaking his head, he went in for his shower.

Food was waiting when he emerged from the house dressed in old bronze dress pants and an old stripped t-shirt that had a few holes, probably made by the crickets that sang at night. Jack was soon sitting on his father’s lap, sharing in the meal of Nsima with fresh pumpkin leaves; his mother on the reed mat close to his father’s stool. Conversation between husband and wife came easy; Ainala reciting the happenings of the day to her husband, who mainly listened, occasionally asking questions. He watched when she pushed herself up to help him wash his hands before clearing the plates. He smiled, to himself before getting up, ‘I need to go and check up on a Banda.’ he said referring to a friend of his who had recently fallen ill.

‘You can take Amake Banda the bag next to the mat,’ Ainala said, without missing a beat as she washed dishes.

‘I won’t be long.’

She nodded and Howard was off, Jack in tow.

They followed the dirt road that ran outside their house and turned onto a back road, making their way onto the street that was at the back of theirs. Taking a left, they followed the road for another ten minutes before turning onto Mr Banda’s street. The sun had gone down by now but he could still see where he was going. Almost from nowhere, headlights came on from behind, and a car sped towards them. Howard grabbed his son, pinning him between himself and the wire fence that was too close to the road, and left little room for anyone to walk on the side of the road. He felt metal graze his backside as the car went past. Laughter reverberated from the car as one of the passengers shouted, ‘kaffir!’

Letting go of the fence, Howard checked, Jack over, making sure he was okay. The boy looked shaken, but had no broken skin. Putting Jack down, Howard held his waist and sighed before erupting in laughter. He laughed at the food, that Ainala had packed for Amake Banda, now discarded on the ground. Jack watched him, not quite sure what was happening, but the fear he had felt a minute ago slowly receded.

Then his father kicked the dust in a fit of anger and the uneasy feeling started in his stomach again. What did Kaffir mean? His father picked him up and walked back the way they had come. Ainala had made a fire for them to sit around when they arrived. Depositing Jack in his mother’s lap, Howard walked back out, with only a promise to be back soon, leaving the child wondering if he had done something wrong. Anger flooded Howard’s veins, with an intensity he hadn’t felt before. There was injustice, gross injustice, but he had always assumed he could protect his family from the evils of colonial rule. But tonight, his inadequacy was clear.

He made his way to the clearing at the end of the road, where you could see the city of Kitwe; lights glistened where the white man declared his land. But this was Africa, his Africa, his home. Surely Jehovah did not intend for man to live in near bondage like this. He could see the mines, where he toiled, so those over the threshold could live like kings! Whatever the white men, were, they were not protectors as they claimed. What did the African need protecting from, if not them? He saw his grandchildren in Jack; there was no hope for them unless he declared them, equals with the “protectors”.

When Howard came home, he felt like a fool for having left without a word of explanation to Ainala. Shifting sheepishly from one foot to the other, he wondered how he would explain what had happened. Shame filled him, he knew Ainala would never see failure in him, and yet doubt lingered.

‘Are you sleeping outside tonight?’ her voice startled him and he walked towards her

‘Nothing good comes from dark treaders,’ he replied sheepishly

‘I’m glad you know it,’ he could hear the smile in her voice, and watched as the silhouetted figure got up and lifted her stool, ‘coming in?’

Howard followed his wife into their small, candle lit, one-bedroomed house. Jack slept on the living room floor, looking like nothing had happened— tranquil. Ainala watched as her husband watched him.

‘You left the candle on?’ he asked

‘I was only out a few minutes before you came.’

‘Fires have been started in less time.’

Ainala didn’t respond for a minute, crooking her head, ‘with a lot less, no doubt,’ she said taking his hand and leading him to the next room.

Lying next to his wife, Howard put an arm around her,

‘Will you tell me what you are thinking?’ she asked placing a hand over his.

‘They almost killed our son today,’ the words came out slow and without emotion, then he sighed, and she was sure he shuddered. Turning to face him, Ainala stroked his cheek.

‘I couldn’t protect him, Anyina Jack.’

‘But you did, and he’s fine.’ Ainala held his face between her palms, ‘You are a good father, A tata … a good husband!’ she spoke in his native Nsenga, her voice soothing.

He pulled her against himself as the tears he had refused to cry flowed. ‘I was scared I would lose him.’

‘But you didn’t …’ she stroked his back, waited a while and added, ‘and our numbers will be increased soon.’

‘I thought so.’ his voice smiled at her, there was no hiding the joy he felt. And in that moment, he thanked Jehovah, promising to do whatever he was called upon to do, to ensure his grandchildren would never face the injustice they experienced.

The following day—Sunday—meant the family got dressed and went to the kingdom hall. Their meeting was done by 11:40 and Howard saw this as an opportunity to go into town with his wife. They didn’t do it often, but today would be one of those days when they did a bit of shopping. Taking a bus into town, they made their way to a general dealer store.

‘Is there anything you like?’ he asked turning to Ainala

She looked around and smiled, ‘Those shoes would look nice on Jack,’ she said, biting her bottom lip, wondering if they could afford it. She knew how Howard wished he could give them more than he was currently. If only he knew just how much he had given her. Howard proceeded to ask for a price and was visibly relieved when it fit his price range.

‘Is there anything YOU like, Ainala?’ he asked again, turning to his wife again. He hadn’t gotten her anything, except necessities, in a long while; longer than he could remember and he hoped she would jump at the rare occasion. She had brought him great joy; the wife of his youth, he longed for no other. His heart sank when after a quick look around, she shook her head, ‘I don’t see anything …’

‘You haven’t really looked.’

‘There’s nothing I really like.’ She smiled,

‘Okay then,’ they headed towards the door, and then he saw it on her face! She had seen it, near the door—a tea set; white with little pink flowers and a gold ream at the top. There was a price on it and it he could afford it!

‘Could I please have that?’ he asked the shop keeper

‘Unfortunately, that one is not for sale.’ Mr Smith said with a coy smile.

‘But it has a price.’ Howard understood—there was an unofficial colour bar. Some shops only sold things to white people, but this store, allowed “his kind” to shop in them, while still reserving some things for white folk only.

‘It’s in the reserved section.’ Mr Smith stated, ‘I can sell you something similar.’

Anger came hot and fast; his heart trembled, and he felt like he was losing control. ‘I want that one, nothing else.’

‘I’m sorry …’

‘I’m not leaving without that tea set.’ He looked the man in the eyes, his voice controlled.

Ainala touched his hand in an attempt to dissuade him but he raised his hand for her to stop, his gaze fixed on the man. ‘I will not leave.’

Mr Smith motioned to one man and Howard was sure he would get beaten up, but he held the shopkeeper’s gaze.

‘K10,’ Mr Smith said.

‘Huh?’ Howard looked at him as if he had gone mad. He hadn’t actually expected the man to back down.

‘Not enough money?’

‘No, it’s not that.’ Howard handed him the money and watched as the tall black man handed his wife a box. Saying ‘thank you!’ he smiled and walked out of the store after his wife.

‘You could have gotten yourself killed.’ She said worriedly

‘Mr Smith is a reasonable man,’ Howard said thoughtfully, ‘I was in no danger.’

‘He is a white man.’

‘Not all of them are bad.’

‘Please don’t put yourself in danger like that.’

He didn’t answer her; couldn’t make a promise he couldn’t keep. All the same, he had just challenged the colour bar that officially didn’t exist. He had shown, in that small act, that he was equal to those who had set themselves as rulers over them.

Askulu,’ it was little Howard, his grandson, ‘tell us a story?’

Old Howard smiled, feeling a sense of pride at the fact that they had achieved independence. It saddened him that Kaunda’s dictatorship had replaced it, but maybe there was hope for their country in the hearts on these; his grandchildren. They asked for a story, so a story, he told them.

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