By Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi)
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One evening, Namawoda came running to her home. Her son was sitting on the Khonde of their two roomed hut, however, Namawoda did not see him. She bumped into the reed door and pushed it open. The door broke from the wooden hooks and fell inside. Her son, Chotseni, followed her into the hut. He found her leaning against the pole that held the grass-thatched roof of their small hut. She was panting and sweating profusely.
Chotseni looked at his mother and did not say a word. What is wrong with her? He wondered. He had to wait until the mother could catch her breath.
Namawoda’s breath was now coming back to normal. She untied her wrapper and wiped the sweat off her round shaped face. She walked to the other end of the room, close to the fire place. She sat down on the wooden chair, the only chair in the house, and placed her back against the mud wall. The fire flickered and Chotseni could see that his mother was still not her normal self.
“ What is it Ma!” Chotseni called.
Namawoda did not answer. She was still trying to catch her breath.
“Ma, what’s wrong?”
Namawoda raised her arm and pointed outside. Chotseni turned and looked outside into the dark. There was nothing he could see outside. It was dark. There was no moon and no stars.
“The Baobab,” the mother said.
Chotseni listened. What about the Baobab?
“Someone was calling my name at the Baobab.”
What’s wrong with someone calling her name? Chotseni thought.
“My hair stood on the edge. I think the witches have started gathering at the Baobab. The voice sounded like your late father’s, it was ghostly. It was coming from the tree.”
Chotseni quickly walked to the doorway, picked up the reed door and put it back in its place. With a rope that held the reed door between the doorposts.
That whole week, everybody talked about the strange happenings at the Baobab.
Kamoto, a friend of Chotseni, was walking home the following night. He was coming from the chief’s house to deliver a letter from the trading center. It was not that dark, for the moon was up in the sky. He could hear the girls singing at the other end of the village; close to the place where pastor Jeremiah had built his Charismatic Pentecostal Revival Church. As he passed by the big Baobab tree he heard whispers. His hair stood on its edge. His whole body trembled. He wanted to run but he could not. His legs were held firmly to the ground by some invisible force. He knew the place was possessed. Then he saw sparks of fire coming from the ancient Baobab tree. The sparks were directed at his head. Just when the sparks were about to fall on his head, his feet were freed and he ran for his dear life. The sparks of fire did not fall onto his head.
The whole village agreed that the Baobab had become a playground for the witches, but why? Why had the witches chosen the Baobab? What was wrong with them gathering at the Msekesa tree that stood at the village entrance? For years they had gathered at the Msekesa tree. Everybody knew that the entrance to the village was impassable when night fell. But why choose the Baobab? The ancient tree was a representation of the village. It represented ancient wisdom and the unity of the village. The Baobab belonged to the Masina’s. But now, the tree did not just belong to the Masina’s; it belonged to the whole village. At night, when the full moon was high up in the sky, the girls from all the huts of Katonda would gather under the Baobab to sing songs and dance in celebration of the moon. The girls would make a circle and dance their Chitelele dance round the circle. Boys would be standing aside, watching the girls wiggle their waists and throw up and down their behinds. They would burn with desire and passion as the girls bodies trembled in rhythm to the songs. The girls would twist their waists and make their small breasts dance seductively. Most of the times the songs that the girls sang were provocative and made the boys long for the girls;
We said you should tell us
Where you eat from
Where do you eat from?
Who do you open your legs for?
Then Jane would get into the center of the circle and answer her friends;
I said the place where I eat from
Is not far from here
I eat from John
The tall one
That’s the one I open my legs for.
The boys would then pat John at the back or push him around as they laughed. It was just a dance and mere songs. Every boy would wait for the time when some girl would mention his name. Then the boys would giggle in happiness whenever a name was mentioned.
At the end of the dances, the boys and the girls, in pairs mostly, would disappear to some place behind the huts and the bushes. Such was the joy of the boys and the girls under the Baobab. But the Baobab was not just a place for girls. All the village meetings took place under the gigantic shade that was provided by the mighty Baobab tree of Katonda village. There was an open field of red earth in front of the Baobab. The field was punctuated by scattered grass and a few shrubs. This is where people would eagerly wait to listen to the big man of the village. With the Baobab behind him, the chief had an inexplicable authority over the people.
Each and every wedding that took place in the village was held right under the big tree.
The women would cook their nsima at the hut of the bride and bridegroom’s parent’s and then they would bring the plates to the Baobab where the people would sit to eat. Then there would be different dancing groups performing at the field. The highlight of the moment would be the time of gifts. The couple would sit on chairs and would have a large basket in front of them; the villagers would then make a circle around the couple, sing and dance and throw money into the basket.
Over the space and time, the Baobab had become a playing ground for men. In the afternoon, especially during the month of October, the men of Katonda would gather under the Baobab and play Bawo. The women in the homes would cook their food and send it to the men playing the Bawo under the Baobab. Each man would take the food brought from his home and cooked by his wife, and bring it together with the other plates from the other homes. Together, the men would eat the food while laughing and mocking each other.
The tree was many things to many people. To some, it was a compass, for it would be spotted from a far away distance. One would never lose his bearing to Katonda village for the Baobab would direct their path.
Today, the Baobab had been cursed, the villagers said. It had become a den of witches.
“What should we do?” the villagers asked.
There were whispers in the village. “What should we do?”
When the chief called the whole village to meet under the Baobab, two weeks after Namawoda’s encounter, the people were not puzzled. They knew exactly why the chief was calling them to such an extraordinary meeting.
“We should cut the Baobab!” their voice was echoed at the meeting.
“Will that solve the problem?” the chief asked.
“Of course it will,” explained one of the big boys in the village. “The Baobab is now scaring villagers. Nobody wants to pass by it during the night. How can the people live with such fear? The Baobab is at the center of the village. No person can walk from one end of Katonda to the other without passing by the Baobab tree. The girls have stopped their dances at the tree, the weddings will never take place at the Baobab, and it is no longer a place of joy, why should we still keep this evil tree in the village? The witches have to be punished. The only way of punishing them is by cutting the Baobab. That is his opinion.” He spoke and sat down.
“No, the Baobab is not supposed to be cut,” an elder was saying while rising to his feet. He was an old fellow and lived by himself. His wife had died years ago and all his children, all of whom were girls, had since married to men who lived many villages away. He managed his home by himself.
“The tree is not supposed to be cut,” he continued. “The tree is the life of the village. A lot of good things have happened under that tree. Witches, what are witches? Witches are people like us. People get tired, so the witches will get tired and will abandon the Baobab. Cutting the Baobab is like cutting the soul of Katonda. No! The people have to leave the Baobab. It is the umbilical code of the village,” he pleaded.
“He too is a wizard!” somebody shouted on top of his voice.
Namawoda stood. “The tree has to be cut,” She said. She was always smiling when talking. “What the old man is saying will never happen. For how long did the witches gather at the village entrance, for centuries? Now they have decided to come right in the village, they are not going to leave the Baobab. They have come to stay and to terrorize the village. If the witches are listening to me,” she said. “Let them know that they are stupid,” she concluded. As she sat down, people clapped hands for her and the men smiled.
When everyone had spoken, the chief told the people that tree would be cut, after consulting Thawani Masina, the Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister. The tree stood in front of his father’s house and it was planted by his great, great grandfather. Thawani had said that so many times on the radio that he had studied under the Baobab tree of Katonda. When he was growing and was schooling at Katonda Primary School, he would take his books in the afternoon, after school, and study under the mighty Baobab tree. He sat under its great shade and enjoyed the breeze as he studied his notes. The tree meant a lot to him, he had said that so many times on the radio as a way of encouraging youths to love school.
Yes, the tree would be cut, but they had to send someone to speak with Masina about the Baobab. They would not cut it without his consent. What would the villagers do if Masina came back after the tree was cut and told them to put it back? What if he decided to arrest the one who cut it? He had the power to do so. He was deputy minister of defense and a man of power.
Another man raised his arm and spoke. It was true that Masina was a man of power in the government and that his consent had to be sought, but as far as the village was concerned, Masina was a child of the village. He was a big man in government but not the village. He had to listen to the wishes of the people from his home. After all, who put him in that place of power? Was it not the people? Who voted for him? Was it not people from his home? What if they did not vote? If the people had agreed to cut the tree, he had to do the wishes of the people, not his wishes. When he was doing his campaign, he promised that he would do what the people want. He was a servant, and not a boss, he kept saying at all his meetings four years ago. He was not a man the village should fear, he was a comrade, a child from the village and one who was under the authority of the chief. Anyway, for formality’s sake, he was indeed supposed to be consulted. But whatever the case would be, the Baobab had to be cut.
The meeting was dismissed. All the villagers went to their homes. The sky turned dark and the whole village wore the darkness. Nobody wanted to pass by the old Baobab anymore.
Two days later, the chief heard from Tsokwe, the person he had sent to town to meet Masina, returned stating that Masina was not in the country. He had gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo for a conference. He would be coming in a week’s time. It would take another week to send him back to town for nobody in the village had enough money to lend the chief so that Tsokwe would go again to town soon.
The same day that Tsokwe came back from town the chief and many others in the village heard on radio that Masina would be coming to conduct a rally at the end of the month.
Aah! The people thought they did not have to worry about sending someone to town anymore; Masina would be coming to conduct a rally in their area. After the rally, the chief pulled the Member of Parliament aside and told him the problem of the Baobab tree. It was good that Masina was coming. This would be his first rally and of course his first appearance in three years since the voting had taken place, for soon after Masina was voted into that powerful office he had moved to town and had never came again to stay with the people. He would come once in a while but would never spend more than three hours in the village.
The rally did not take place and Masina did not come. The Baobab was still standing at the center of the village. It still scared people at night. There were new stories now;
Mdaphachako, the girl from the other end of the village, who lived with both her parents, was cleaning a safuliya to use for cooking one evening. The sun had gone down behind the Mchinji hills and darkness had crept in the village. The place where Mdaphachako was kneeling was not far from her father’s hut. At a distance, close to the goat’s kraal, she could see the faded figures of her father and mother around the fire place. The flames of fire were lazily flickering, revealing the two figures. She had knelt and had the sufuliya pot in front of her. She had finished the cleaning and was rising up to go in the house and put water in the cooking utensil. She saw a girl standing in front of her. She could not make her face. The girl started walking away and Mdaphachako followed her. Her mind was blank and she did not think about what was happening. The girl in front of Mdaphachako kept on walking and Mdaphachako continued to follow behind her. The girl started running and Mdaphachako ran after her. Suddenly, the girl disappeared, and Mdaphachako stood still, not knowing what to do. She looked around; she was standing right under the Baobab. Where am I? She asked herself. Her whole body was gripped by fear and she started running home. When she got home and was asked by her parents about where she had gone, she failed to answer.
“Where did you go Mdapha?” her mother kept on asking.
She just knelt humbly before them and tried to open her mouth, but the words did not come out.
“Mdapha, what do I say about walking at night?” her father asked.
Mdaphachako had once been caught making love to a boy right inside Jeremiah’s church. Boys envied her plump behinds and praised her light complexion.
“You are still playing with boys’ eeh? Mdapha? One day when we are dead, you shall remember us,” her father concluded.
For a week that followed, Mdaphachako did not speak. Words could not come out of her mouth. The day she spoke, she told people, starting with her father, about the incident at the Baobab.
We really have to cut the Baobab.”
A delegation of elders was sent to the chief to inquire about the matter of the Baobab and the chief told them, they were still waiting for Masina to tell them his opinion.
“But when are we going to meet Masina? When are we going to hear his opinion?”
“But you know, we cannot cut the Baobab without his consent. He had announced on the radio that he would be conducting a rally here?”
“But chief, since the time we voted for him, he has never come back to us, he has never slept in this village again, he does not come.”
“But this tree belongs to his family and you know he is a cabinet minister.”
“But chief, will he come?”
“This is his village he will come; he is supposed to listen to the concern of his people; the people who voted for him, his brothers and sisters.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Maybe send Tsokwe to go to town again and tell him about the problem of the Baobab tree. But we need to find money so that we can send this boy to town.
How much is it now to go to town?”
“I do not know, the last time Tsokwe went to town he used five hundred kwacha.”
A week later, Tsokwe was sent to town to meet Thawani Masina, Member of Parliament, deputy minister of defense in the government of Malawi, a son of Katonda village, a grand child of the Masina, member of the ruling party.
Tsokwe returned with sad news. He did not find Masina because he had moved to another area that Tsokwe did not know about.
“But why did you not enquire about the area where he has gone to?”
“They said it’s far”
“So you could not walk to that place?”
“How could I? People in town travel, on tarmac roads, how could I walk barefoot on such roads going to a place I did not know? Did you give me enough money? Did you give me enough money chief? Next time send someone else, they should experience how difficult town life is. I stayed for hours without food. I slept at the bus stage. How could I trace Masina?”
Time flew. Six months had passed and the Baobab was still standing magnificent at the center of the village. It had grown new branches and new leaves now. It was still that mighty tree in the village. Its roots were still getting deeper and deeper inside the soil. Birds were still putting their nests in the tree and the tree did not show any signs of bad health.
The boys of the village were angry. Why should they wait for Masina when they knew very well that he would not come? Did he ever care about his village after the elections? Did he ever even at once, speak on behalf of his village in parliament? He had bigger issues to sort out, not the Baobab. He had disputes to settle; disputes between his first wife and the wife he had married soon after the elections. He had places to go; places outside the country, not his village. He had important people to talk to; the president of the country and fellow MPs and cabinet ministers. He had matters to attend to; matters of national security. No, he would not come to settle the issue of the Baobab.
The boys agreed. They had to cut the Baobab without anybody’s consent. What would Masina do?
They gathered their courage and their weapons and headed toward the Baobab. But the tree was such a big one. It would take more than eighteen people, holding their stretched hands together, to go round its trunk. How long would it take for them to cut it? Well, it did not matter. As long as they cut it, and nobody was supposed to tell them what to do. They were defying all authority on the matter.
But the day they arranged to start cutting the tree, the radio announced that Masina would be conducting a big rally in the village; a rally bigger than the one he had conducted a few moths ago, the radio said.
The boys decided to wait until that time when Masina would come to the village for the rally.
The day for the rally came and went and Masina did not come to conduct his political rally. The villagers of Katonda wondered and discussed in small groups;
“Why does Masina not want to come to the village? What does he do in town? Didn’t we vote for him so that he should help us? So that he could listen to our problems? So that he could be our ears, our hands, our mouth and our head? Look at his father’s house! It is dilapidated. Look at that shack eeh! Look! Will he ever come to free us on the issue of the Baobab? We can’t cut it; no we cannot without his consent. Does he think we will vote for him again with what he is doing to us?”
Months turned into one full year and Masina did not come.
It was time for the general elections. People had to, once again, elect their president and their members of parliament. It was time for political campaigns. Former members of parliament as well as aspiring candidates had to do all they could, to convince the masses that they were the right people to be voted into power.
“I will speak on your behalf in parliament; I will make sure there is no such a thing as hunger in this area. I will do what you want me to do for you. I will bring development to this area, I say vote for me. I say do not lose your vote, I say I am your son, I stay here and will never move to town when you vote for me.”
There were many promises that were offered at that time of campaign.
It was at a time such as this that Masina finally came to Katonda village. Nobody heard about his rally on radio but the day he came, a government car, with loud speakers drove into the villages and announced that Masina was conducting a rally under the Baobab of Katonda and that everybody had to come. He had come with bags of maize and fertilizer and good promises for the people.
“Today, at one o’clock, in Katonda village, Masina, our own child, our parliamentarian would like to talk to us. Come! Come! Come one, come all!” the loud speakers on the government Land Rover announced.
There was big crowd gathered in front of the Baobab. Almost everyone from the village of Katonda, including the chief and all his elders were present at the meeting.
Masina was seated on a big chair in front of the people. He was a tall man with broad shoulders. He had a beard like that of a he-goat. He was light in complexion, much lighter now than he was a few years ago. He was dashing in a black suit and was always smiling to the crowd. Sitting next to him was his wives and sitting close to his wife were the two government bodyguards he used to travel with.
“Today we will hear the verdict about the Baobab.” The villagers whispered to each other.
When Masina stood to talk to the expectant crowd, he promised the people he would once again represent them in parliament and make sure that all the mistakes that were done in the past were corrected. He would bring development to the area, real development; roads, bridges, free fertilizer and many more things. To prove his words, he said, he had brought bags of maize which he was going to distribute after the rally. He loved the people of Katonda; he loved them so much and wanted to do good things for them. The people of the area of Dambe had to be proud of him for he was the only person in the whole district of Mchinji who had been given a ministerial position. Was that not good? Was that not good for the area? He was in the government and close to the president of the country.
“My brothers and sisters; do not miss your chance. This is your last chance to develop this area, vote wisely, vote for me as your member of parliament,” he concluded.
He did not talk of the Baobab. He was not aware of the issues of the Baobab.
After the meeting, the chief walked over to him.
“Aaah chief!” he smiled at the chief.
“How was the rally?” Masina asked.
“The rally was good sir. But the Baobab?” the chief said.
“Yes the Baobab. You know this Baobab reminds me so many things. Do you remember that it was under this Baobab where I first conducted my rally? Do you remember it was under this same Baobab, in that year, when you said, yes; I think you can lead us for you are the only person who is educated in this area?”
“Yes but…” the chief was saying.
Masina’s mobile phone rang.
“Excuse me,” he told the chief and walked away from the chief to answer the call. When he came back he had forgotten the conversation he had with the chief. He walked to his car. But the chief saw him and followed.
“Oh chief,” he said when the chief had caught up with him at the car. His wives were already in the car and one bodyguard was holding the door for him to enter.
“Yes chief,” he said as he dipped his hand into his pocket and took out some bank notes. He gave the money to the chief. The chief smiled as he received the money. He had never touched such an amount of money for years.
“Wishing you a good journey sir; we will vote for you, me and the whole village.”
But the people did not vote for Masina. How would they vote for him when he did not talk about the Baobab? He was sent to France by the president to work as an ambassador for the country. He is still in France and people are still waiting for his consent to cut the Baobab.
At night, the tree has its own power, its own life. Sometimes it glows; sometimes there is loud singing at the Baobab. People fear to pass by it when darkness has fallen. In the afternoon people look at the Baobab as if it has ears and eyes and legs and hands. They walk past in speed.
Over the years the Baobab has grown larger with new branches. Leaves have come and gone on the Baobab. Birds still put their nests in the Baobab. But there are no more dances under the tree, no more meetings under the mighty tree, no more joy, nothing. Nobody wants to meet with anybody under the Baobab of Katonda village.