This story won the Malawi Writers Union/First Merchant Bank Short Story Award
for its tackling of the Child Labour issue which has become quite rampant in
Malawian estates. (Revised 12/17/2012)
We Got sold
It was still very early in the morning, and light rain made dawn look darker than usual. My muscles rippled at the cold. I rose to my feet and let out a low guttural roar of tiredness, hunger and anger. I felt great pain all over my body, especially my chest. Pain that had emanated from my nightlong direct contact with the reed-made mat I had slept on.
I slept on a mat back home; the same kind of mat that was here. But this one did not accord me the comfort I had when back home. Back home, I had nice dreams when lying on my mat. It was not the case here. I had actually dreamt nothing. Totally nothing.
Even the floor; it was so dusty as early as it was. Mother could not leave the floor like this for a long time. She sprinkled water on the floor every time we went to sleep, and every time we woke up. From the way this place looked like, one could easily conclude that there were no mothers here. No mothers.
Where was I? I finally asked my blank mind, and expectedly, got no answer. A shiver zipped up my spine, and I felt a hollow, aching sensation in the centre of my chest. I felt like vomiting. But there was nothing I could have vomited. My stomach was very, very empty. It even produced strange noises.
Across the room, I caught sight of three familiar bodies, September, Can and Chimwemwe. With my half-opened eyes, I saw their chests rising and falling with rapid, choppy breaths. I felt like shouting, but then a voice from within instructed me not to. I was just hopeless. I was just helpless. I was weak. Yes, that’s it. I could not do anything.
What was happening? Just yesterday I had been home, with my poor mother, laughing and arguing and sniffing and sighing and shaking my head in disgust. Just yesterday I had been playing on the banks of the river that snaked through our village, moulding people, cows and cars with September, Can and Chimwemwe. It was just yesterday.
My heart raced. Could it be that mother really offered me to the man she had said wanted me to work on his farm? It was just yesterday that mother had broken the news about one estate owner who wanted children to work on his farm. Mother had said the man was nice, that the man was rich, and that the man would wipe out all our poverty if I went with him. Mother had spoken highly of the man, saying the man was God-sent.
I had sniffed, sighed and shaken my head in disgust. What about school? What about my ambition of becoming the editor of The Nation newspaper? I had asked my mother: What about her, wouldn’t she miss me? You see, I wanted to move out of my poor village at my earliest opportunity. I wanted to be like Uncle Blantyre. He owned a good car. Mother once told me he had a big house in the City of Blantyre, the largest city in our country. September and Can said Uncle Blantyre had a beautiful wife too. I wanted all that. And I couldn’t get all that by working on somebody’s farm. Uncle Blantyre did not work on somebody’s farm. He had worked hard in school.
Shoving my hands into my shorts pockets, I had walked out. I was bitter with mother for wanting to sell me off. I had ran down to the river where September, Can, Chimwemwe and I had agreed to meet.
They were not there. I waited and waited. And when they came, they all wore sombre faces. They wore worried looks. They were upset as I was, or even worse than I was.
“Why do our parents want to sell us off?” asked Chimwemwe, tears rolling down her chubby cheeks.
“Perhaps it’s because of our poverty.” I answered. “May be they want to raise money for our school.”
“Have they told you too?”
I nodded. There was a moment of silence. We talked no more. We all walked to the anthill just a few yards from the river, collected some clay, soaked it in water, and then started moulding.
“When the man comes, I’ll run away.” Chimwemwe who was the youngest amongst the four of us spoke after the long silence. “Or I will hide under my bed.”
“What if there’s a snake under your bed?” September asked her.
“And you think they’ll not hear you?”
“I’ll pray to God that they don’t hear me.”
“What if God does not hear you?”
Chimwemwe stopped her moulding and then, as if filled with some divine inspiration shot back.
“God hears our prayers all the time, that’s what the Sunday school teacher said.”
Another graveyard silence followed. When our moulding got less exciting, we dispersed to our homes. But with a resolution that we would all refuse if our parents asked us again to go and work on the rich man’s farm. All of us, it seemed, hungered for education which our teachers told us was the only key to success.
Chimwemwe was in Standard Four, September and Can were in Standard Five, and I was in Standard Six.
When mother asked me to go and work on the rich man’s farm once again that evening, I refused. She became bitter with. I could read the bitterness in her eyes. But then, strangely, she had told me to forget about all that. Mother had given me food, rice with chicken, which I had eaten hungrily. That was a meal that came once a year and thrice in three years, only on Christmas….
Then I don’t know what happened next.
But all that happened yesterday. Today, this morning, I could not just understand my predicament.
I was about to amble out of the room when I heard heavy deadly footsteps approaching. I ran back to the mat, closed my eyes, and pretended to be dead asleep.
“Attention!” a heavily built old man forced the door open.
I was the first to open my eyes, and the first to see him. He wore his grey hair in a briskly crew cut. Clenched in his hands was a deadly machete, pointed at no one of us in particular.
“Attention!” September, Can and Chimwemwe jumped up. The looks on our faces were all weird. They were looks of shock. Looks of apprehension.
“Welcome to Lundazi and to this lovely tobacco estate,” the old man forced a smile which, still more, could not make him look any saintly. “You’ll all address me as Commander!”
“I want to see my mother! I want to go home!” Chimwemwe cried.
But the Commander, it seemed, was not the soft and sentimental type. He gave Chimwemwe a stern look, did the same to me, and then to everyone in the room. He had no heart at all.
My heart began to pace rapidly. Yes, this was it. Our parents had sold us off.
“You’re not here to cry, you small rat!” the Commander bellowed at Chimwemwe. “You’ve come here to work on this tobacco estate. I’ve paid your mothers huge chunks of money to let me have you, ok?”
It was a question directed at no one in particular, and one that needed not to be answered. The Commander then walked to the door, called out a funny name, and then a moment later a skinny young boy joined us in the room. He looked twelve or thirteen years.
“This is Jackie Chan,” The Commander said while patting the skinny young boy on the back. And the Commander went ahead. “He’s the Second-in-Command here and his orders must be obeyed without question!”
“Liar,” Can said sarcastically. “Jackie Chan is only found in movies.”
“You call the Commander a liar?” Jackie Chan snarled. He gave Can two successive slaps. Can cried disturbingly.
“Listen, we’re not here to play jokes. Should anyone try to do something fishy I’ll not hesitate but blow his or her brains out!” warned Jackie Chan, his eyes looking like those of a poisonous snake.
At his command, we walked out of the room after him. Jackie Chan was such an unusual character. The small boy did not have his shirt on as chilly as it was.
It was still relatively dark, and the morning birds were still tweeting and twittering. We walked till we reached what looked like a tobacco barn. At first, I thought we were going to have breakfast. But when I saw children of my age with plates full of fertilizer, my dream got raped.
I had not eaten for two days now, and the idea of spending another day without food really suffocated me. With the little experience I had so far, of staying with these people, it was suicidal to ask them any stupid question. Asking for food, I must confess, sounded like one of such stupid questions one would ask them.
We walked closer and closer to the shed. When the children saw us, they stopped what they were doing and started talking in low tones. They were no doubt gossiping. They looked quite young, younger than our own Chimwemwe. Yet their faces seemed to have outgrown their ages; they looked like grannies facially and children physically. They wore worn out dresses, shorts and shirts. While the condition of the girls seemed much better, as their clothes only managed to flatten their tender breasts; the situation was sad for the boys like us. Their shorts were badly torn, such that they laid bare their dirty buttocks for all of us to see.
In two to three months, I told myself, I would surely become like these boys.
“Listen everybody,” the Commander called for order, whilst Jackie Chan watched. “I’m glad to announce that we’ve been joined by new members. They’re from Kaporo, and I’m sure you’ll get to know them better as you get along.”
The Commander then turned to us. “These are your new mothers, friends, fathers, and relatives.”
As Jackie Chan and the Commander left, we joined our weary friends.
We later learnt from them that they had been on their way from school when they had met the Commander who had given them some sweets. The next time they had opened their eyes, they said, they were on this tobacco estate. They said they missed home too, and that they wanted to see their parents. They also told us that they had been on the tobacco estate for six months.
The Commander, so we were told, was a merciless man. I shuddered when our friends told us that he had impregnated one of their friends who had died because she was too young to deliver a child. We were told that the Commander had a stony heart, a wicked sexual appetite, and to sum it all, a devil's incarnate. We agreed.
“We heard a cry in there,” the boy who introduced himself as Misfortune faced me. “Was anything the matter?”
“He slapped our friend.”
“He does the same to us, sorry my friend.” Misfortune told Can.
“Is there no police around here?”
“Police?” he looked stunned, as if he had never heard of police before.
And then he told us more. There was no police around because Lundazi was very far from the district headquarters at Mzimba.
We talked and talked and talked, as we applied fertilizer. Chimwemwe was tired, so too was September and Can. It was a back-breaking job, one that even adults desisted back home.
From what Misfortune told us, escaping from this place was out of question. Even if one managed to leave the boundaries of the estate, he or she would not go further than that. Lundazi was heavily forested. Lions, tigers, elephants and many such killer animals roamed all over the place, ready to bring to death any escapee. According to Misfortune, the best was to accept our predicament.
“I’ll pray to God that my father comes back to rescue us.” Chimwemwe spoke out with the confidence of black ants.
“Where’s your father?”
“In South Africa,” Chimwemwe responded with a grin. “Mother said that he works in the gold mines.”
There was a moment of silence.
“And you, Mwayi,” Misfortune turned to me. “Where’s your father?”
“He’s dead. He died before I was born.”
Misfortune paused awhile, and shot me a pitiful gaze. “My father is dead too.”
Then we felt like members of the same family. Almost everybody's father had once been to the gold mines in South Africa. My father had died there, so too Misfortune's father. Chimwemwe, September, Can and the rest of the children we had found fathers were also in South Africa working in the gold mines.
We were, it seemed, children who were growing up with no idea of what fatherly love felt like. Children who each time went to play with peers who had their fathers around were mocked fatherless. We had all been raised by our mothers who many a time failed to get the best for us; mothers who did not really love us, and ended in selling us off.
“Do you have any idea how much the Commander gives our mothers?” I asked Misfortune.
“I don’t know,” Misfortune shot me another pitiful gaze, cleared his throat and shook his head. We kept on working. It got unusually hot. My back was aching like hell, so too was my head. I was about to sit down when I caught sight of Jackie Chan approaching us, his machete in hands.
“Listen everyone!” he shouted. “You’ll break for lunch now, and resume work immediately afterwards. I give you thirty minutes.”
When Jackie Chan was gone, Misfortune whispered into my ears, ‘We come from the same village.”
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
Misfortune nodded, putting down the plate with fertilizer.
“He’s changed badly,” he said. “He was a good boy but then the Commander taught him to smoke Chamba. He no longer regards us as friends.”
Chimwemwe, Can and September, and two other boys we had found with Misfortune, were already seated beside the plates piled on top of each other.
“Is there a toilet around here?” I asked Misfortune.
He shot me a surprised look, as if he had never been asked the question all his life.
“We do it in that river.” He said, pointing at a river that could be heard flowing just at the edge of the estate.
“You do it in the river?” Misfortune shook his head, sat down, and washed his hands.
“But we’ll not wait for you.” He said matter-of-factly.
I rushed to the river, did what was supposed to be done in a toilet and frantically walked back to the tobacco barn. We ate our meal in silence, Mgaiwa paired with undercooked beans.
“I want drinking water, where’s the borehole?” Chimwemwe asked Misfortune.
“We drink from that river.” Misfortune pointed at the same river he had told us was a toilet.
But Chimwemwe, it seemed, was too thirsty. She was already gone to quench her thirst.
That night we did not sleep. Chimwemwe was convulsing and seething in pain, complaining of abdominal pains. I knew what it was. I was in Standard Six. I shouldered Chimwemwe, paused for an incoherent prayer and walked towards the door.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Misfortune asked me, utterly perplexed.
“I’m taking her to the hospital.” I shot back, Misfortune did not object. In no time I was gone.
I managed to sneak out unnoticed, crossed the river at the edge of the tobacco estate and headed southwards. I could hear lions roaring but I still walked on. Chimwemwe’s groans infused immeasurable willpower in me.
After hours and hours of walking, I heard a cough. I hid. Then I saw a man pushing a bicycle overloaded with bags of charcoal.
I wanted to tell the man that what he was doing was bad for the world. That it was contributing to Global Warming. I wanted to tell him never to fell trees carelessly again but I could not. I was afraid of him but more importantly, I needed his help.
His bicycle looked worse than the one my father owned before he had died. The bicycle my ruthless uncle had grabbed from my mother and I soon after my father had been buried. I remember we owned a YI FNG radio, a few mug cups and a large piece of land. My father’s brother had grabbed these treasures we had from us, leaving us helpless.
“Excuse me, Pa,” I heard myself saying. “Does this path lead to town?”
The man gave me a surprised look. “It does, but you can only get there tomorrow evening.”
I was terrified. The Commander and Jackie Chan would start tracking me; probably they were already even doing it now.
“Are you from the tobacco estate?” The man asked. I nodded.
“You know it?” I asked him. “Then why don’t you report the tobacco estate owner to the police for ill-treating us?”
“I would have loved to my son.”
“And what stops you?”
“Because the owner of that estate is our Member of Parliament.”
“We’ve tried to report him to the police several times,” the man said sadly. “But each time we’ve done so police officers have told us there’s nothing they can do.”
“I don’t know,” sighed the man. “But we all now know that our MP bribes the police and all concerned parties not to pursue his case farther.”
There was graveyard silence.
“By the way,” the man spoke again. “What’s the problem with your sister?”
“Oh,” I sighed, weighed down by distress. “I think it’s Cholera.”
The old man stopped his bicycle, offloaded his bags of charcoal, and then said to me. “Let’s put her on the bicycle.”
I sighed with relief, and joy. I hurriedly put Chimwemwe on the bicycle but then, as I set her free, the young girl sprawled to the ground.
“Chimwemwe! Chimwemwe!” I called and shook her body vigorously but it was stiff and cold.
“She’s dead,” the man said with finality, grief-stricken too.
Just then, I heard heavy footsteps approach us, the same deadly heavy footsteps I had heard earlier that morning. I did not know whether to shout or cry or ran away.