The Crooked Cat Christmas festivities ends today!
Here is a little tale to illustrate the cycle of life in Africa – that continent of survivors. I’m off to Kenya later this month, to hibernate, soak up the atmosphere, and research for my next book.
A scraggly line moves through the scorching dust and hungry faces peer from scruffy clothes; feeble fingers clutch at empty gourds and eyes flash out in guarded expectation. Beneath the branches of a shading neem a trestle rests, and on its scrubbed surface stands a cauldron. Behind the bubbling pot a pretty lady laughs, red hair dancing in the sun.
To each in turn she doles a dripping spoon of nourishment, then with compassion gestures to a pile of bread.
Children hover round the table, gulping down the soup with burning swallows, tearing at the bread with frantic fingers, then turn to wander off.
John nears a circle of mud huts; a chicken, scurfy, cocky, squawks at him; he scratches at the dust, picks up a pebble and waits – for what?
That night on crumpled sacking he hears as chunks of meat crunch loudly through the dark and hearty bursts of drunken laughter fill the room. But he must wait in hunger for a while; he’s had his plate of charity today.
He goes to Mission School. His shredded clothes are washed and patched.
At home his mother toils in angry squalor, her only son is lazing at the school. She snatches him away and sends him to the bwana. John’s back grows stiff from gardening, his fingers crack, his spirits fall.
He meets a lovely girl and scrapes the bride-price, but rain pours through his roof.
‘Two years I’ve toiled for you, Bwana – please help me now?’
The Rev. Brown reclines in sumptuous comfort over tea and cakes beside the fire; consults his wife. They spare three hundred shillings.
John marvels at the money in his hand and thanks the bwana in deep gratitude. A house of stone is in his dreams. He hires a builder and watches walls begin to rise.
The work stops; more payment is required. John tosses in the night.
The Reverend is hot with anger and surprise.
‘This house will last forever,’ John pleads. ‘My wife and child are cold and wet; the money’s gone. We’re in your hands, good Bwana, please?’
The clergyman ponders.
‘I gave money in good faith,’ he tells his wife. ‘If I’d given John the materials for his hut…’
‘He’d still have asked for more,’ she says.
‘What shall we do – let his house remain an empty shell? Leave his family in squalor and poverty?’
She shakes her head. ‘We can’t betray his trust.’
John’s house is built. Promoted to the kitchen he accepts gifts of old clothes for his children. Two more are born, and yet another. It is an awkward birth and Bwana calls a doctor.
John takes home-grown eggs and chickens to the Memsahib, who gracefully accepts, although she needs them not.
His brother comes to visit, wanting help; his mother stays, his wife invites her sister with a baby. The bwana gives him land to plant some maize and beans.
The years go past and Rev Brown retires.
The new incumbent has no need for John, who drags his wife and children to the bus stop with blankets, beds and chairs. From a hovel in the slums he looks for work, in vain. His children starve, their clothes are tattered. They line the street with empty gourds and wait, while healthy memsahibs smile behind the counter, feeding hungry mouths with thankful nourishment.