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Running Mate

By Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi)

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December 25. Morning.  Last night I had a confusing dream.  I was standing under the big Kachere tree behind the chief’s compound at the village centre.  The wind was making the tree leaves dance and whisper.  The whole village was quiet; everyone had gone to sleep.  I on the other hand, had my eyes fixated straight ahead of me. But Tamara did not materialise. After a while, I turned my fixation to the sky and started counting the stars.  I got tired of counting and looked straight ahead again. Still no sign of Tamara.  I started counting the stars all over again. 
 
Tamara was not coming. I was growing impatient.
 
I decided to walk toward her gowelo[1] at the end of the village.  There must be something wrong with Tamara, I thought to myself.  She had never been this late to any of our night meetings.  As I walked, I could feel the grains of sand caress my feet and that is when I saw Tamara running towards me.  And then, she went past me, towards the Kachere tree.
“Tamara!” I called.
She did not hear me.
“Tamara!”
She kept on running.
“Tamara!”
I ran behind her.
“Tamaraaaaaaa!”
Someone shook me violently.  And that is when I opened my eyes and found the captain standing right beside me this morning.
 
“Running mate, stop making noise eeh!  You are going to wake everybody up, ” he was saying. 
 
Some of the boys who were already awake were laughing. 
 
“What’s up with you and girls, running mate?  Why do you keep mentioning girls’ names in your dreams?  Today it’s Tamara, tomorrow its Malita, next week it’s someone else.  You! You are a womaniser!”
 
More laughter from the boys.
 
December 25. Evening. Today has been a meat day.  We have been eating roasted meat since we woke up.  It is one of those afternoons when you forget all your troubles and just enjoy the moment.  Did I write that it showered in the morning? Sometimes I like the pattering that the rain drops make when they fall on tree leaves and shrubs.  The sound lures me to sleep.
 
Yesterday, the 24th of December, we went to the border.  We entered the village and the captain told us to shoot in the air to scare the people. When the villagers heard the sound of the guns, they panicked.  Many started running away.  The boys ran after the women.  You know, good looking women. 
 
I remember during my first days, I did not want to rape a woman.  Each time my fellow soldiers were raping women, I would think of Tamara. What if it were Tamara they were raping? I would think.  I never took part in inflicting such pain on the women.  Then one day Alfonso came to me and said; “If you don’t rape, and if you don’t kill, then it will be you they will kill.  This is the law of the jungle.  Show them you are man enough and worthy of keeping.  This is about survival my boy.  You think we all like this?  Do you want to see what the other one saw?” The other one was shot by the captain because, as the captain said, he was a woman living among men. 
 
From that day onwards, I started participating in what the other soldiers were doing.  No exceptions.    But yesterday I did not want to rape anybody and I did not care what the others would say.  I don’t fear the captain now.  He is a good friend of mine.  He calls me running mate.  He says when the rebel leader takes over government, I will be his running mate.  I have always wanted to ask him, “How can you have a running mate when there is no election.”  But it’s of no use because the captain is a joker.

Before I drift off, let me finish talking about the raid at the border yesterday.  When we arrived, most men had fled from their homes, leaving behind women and children. As usual, women do not know how to run or where to run to.  I remember long ago, in one of the villages we had gone for a raid, a woman just stripped herself naked and pleaded with the soldiers to just rape her and leave her alone.  The captain just simply told her to start running away without her clothes on.  Nobody raped her and nobody chased after her. 

But yesterday the captain had advised us not ever to hurt anybody. Alfonso had asked;
 
“But can we deal with the women?”
 
“Of course!” the captain said while laughing. 
 
Sometimes the captain laughs like a hyena really.  He is so loud and careless.  Sometimes I picture him putting on decent clothes, like a jacket, a necktie, and nice shoes.  Haha!  He would look like a statue with his long beard.  He is a tall and tough guy by the way.  He likes to keep a long beard, just like the people of “The Church of Abraham” in my village.  Years of stepping on rocks with his bare feet, of eating jungle roots, of raping and spilling blood, have also made him into something only fit for the jungle.  Well! After the raping and the scaring of people away from the village yesterday, we went after the goats and the pigs.  We killed enough goats and two pigs. We took the animals to the camp and that’s what we have been roasting today.  It’s Christmas Day,!  Hallelujah! Christ is born, let’s celebrate!  Isn’t it strange that the captain knows about Christmas?
 
I think the captain is getting to liking me a lot nowadays.  He even allowed me to listen to the radio.  But he said,
“Do not tune in to the radio station of your country.”
 I said, “But captain I don’t understand Portuguese.”
He said; “So?”
“I need to tune in to a radio station that I can understand.” I told
him.  He gave me the radio and gave me the liberty to listen the way I wanted. He is in one of his good moods today.
 
“I see the gun is getting into your blood now.  You are becoming a man.” He told me.
 
December 27. Yesterday I did not have time to write or listen to the radio. The captain was always by my side the whole day, telling me stories of how he got into the war, of how the rebel leader, Drakamah, trusted him and gave him his own team to manage the border and the surrounding parts. 
 
“You are turning into a good boy,” he told me.

I wonder if he would say the same thing if he knew that for the past couple of days I have really been thinking of home.  My country is peace loving.  It has never been at war with any other.  We do not know what civil war is. We got our independence in 1964, and have been at peace ever since.  Deep down inside me, I am troubled by a desire to go home; a desire to find out what happened to Tamara on that fateful day. Maybe I might even find Tamara at home. 
 
Yesterday when the captain said, “We will move into the interior now,” I was so saddened.  This would mean no chance for me of going home. 
 
Sometimes I think that this will last only for a short while.  I don’t enjoy the guns, the boots, the camouflage uniforms and the land mines we keep planting.  This is not life at all. 
 
But I really wonder, “Will I ever find a chance of going home?”
 
Maybe when the war is over they will let me go back to my country. Maybe they will not.  And maybe, my government will drag them to court for taking one of their citizens without the consent of his government. Or maybe, I will die in this wilderness before these rebels take over government.  I know nothing about taking over government.  See, I have never seen the rebel leader himself, but the captain assures me he is such a good man. The captain speaks with the rebel leader on the wireless machine he carries around wherever he goes.  They speak in Portuguese.
 
December 27, afternoon. Since afternoon, I have been thinking of our exams.  The exams we wrote before the captain snatched me away from my country. We wrote the exams several months ago.  I was so nervous before we started the exams.  You know the invigilator kept coming close to my desk.  Maybe she thought I would cheat.  But Tamara and I had promised each other never to cheat during the exams.  We had a lot of confidence for we had studied very hard.  You know how the teachers approved of our relationship eh?  Tamara was always number two in our class.  She always came behind me.  And then, we started getting this close and eventually fell in love.  The teachers encouraged us.  They said we would make a lovely couple if we married, only we had to get married after school for we both had a big potential to excel through secondary school and go to college.  Our parents too, did not get bothered with the two of us going out together.  It was a privilege for Tamara and I to be left alone like that.  My friends could not even be allowed to have girlfriends in standard eight.  Their parents, as well as the teachers, disapproved of them having girlfriends.  They talked of Aids, they talked of how  relationships with girls would destroy their future, and how the Bible did not allow casual sex.  But for Tamara and I, we were allowed to do anything just on the basis that we were intelligent in class and that we had proved, beyond doubt, that nothing would destroy our school life.

I think our exams went on very well.  Most of my friends complained though.  Tamara and I did not complain at all. The results of the exams are supposed to be out this month. The question I keep asking myself is: What if I am selected to go to secondary school? 
 
The captain is calling me. 
 
December 28, evening. Tamara is beautiful.  She has an egg shaped face with a sharp pointed chin.  Her eyes are as bright as the Milky Way and of good size, not as small as mine.  Her eyes are lazy, like they are full of sleep all the time.  But that makes them look sexy.  That’s what boys in my class used to say.  When she looks at you, you feel like smiling at her and you feel like you should extend your hand for a handshake.  She also has a well built figure and breasts that jut out of her chest like ripe mangoes.  Her breasts are so soft when you feel them in your hands.  When she smiles, dimples form on her chicks. She has thick lips that curl each time she smiles.  She speaks slowly and when she speaks, her voice gets into your bones and weakens you. She is beautiful, like one of those pictures you would see in a magazine.  I have never slept with Tamara.  Not even once.  I regret that.  If I asked her to sleep with me, she would not resist.  Today I am really thinking of her and asking myself, why did I not sleep with her?  Why did I not squeeze her plump bottom?  Why did I not squeeze myself between her well built thighs?  I am wondering where she could be by now. 

The day they captured us, I was going to ask Tamara to sleep with me and she was going to say “Yes.”  I could see in her eyes that she too desired that I be inside her.  On that day she felt good when I touched her and that encouraged me to play with her breasts and she did not resist.  It was dark but the moon was up in the sky.  We sat under the big kacheretree at the end of the village, close to the tarmac road. 
 
“Kamoto, do you think we are going to marry each other?” She asked.
“Why?” I asked.
“Sometimes I think this is only for a short while.”  She said.
“Why?” I asked.
“One day we will go to secondary school.  Maybe, the secondary school where I will go will be different from where you will go.  Maybe, you will see some girl who is more beautiful than me and you will fall in love with her.  I will not be there to watch what you are doing isn’t it?  Maybe you will go to college and I will not. Maybe this will not last.”
“Tamara, do you love me?”  I asked her. 
“Yes, you know I do.” She answered me. 
“That’s what is important.  Our love will keep us going.  Love endures all things.”  I told her.  I knew I had spoken like a mature person at that time.  I could feel it in my heart that what I had just said was very wise and I smiled inside me for saying that.
“Come close Tamara.”
She came close and I made her head rest on my lap. I felt warm in my pants.  I played with her hair and she made herself comfortable.
“What do you think of the vows we made to each other, that we wait until we get married?” I asked her.
“I don’t know Kamoto,” she answered.
 
Silence.
 
My hand was getting busier now.  I, for the first time, touched her breasts and they were so tender.  Tamara did not speak.  She lay so quiet on my lap.  My hand went further and further until I touched her womanhood; her Congo Kingdom.
 
I will finish later about that day I separated with Tamara. 

Someone is crying at the camp and I need to go and check what is happening. 
     
December 29. Alfonso is dead.  Do you remember I told you about Alfonso? The boy who showed me the way of the jungle?  He is dead! Killed by a land mine he planted. He died yesterday evening.  Remember I told you about someone crying yesterday?  It was Alfonso.  Those were his dying cries.
 
The day they captured me - cursed be that day! -  they wrapped my face with a piece of some stinking cloth.  They had whisked Tamara away from me and in the distance I heard Tamara cry, calling my name.  It happened too fast.  I tried to take off the blindfold for my hands were not tied yet.  But somebody kicked my legs and I fell down with a thud.
 
“Kamoto!” Tamara cried out.
 
I cried out her name too.  We were far from the village and it was dark. Nobody could hear us. Then there was silence.  I did not hear Tamara scream again. I trembled.  What had happened to Tamara for her not to cry again?  Somebody told me in some broken Chichewa, “Mukaliransomwenetim’phani.”“If you scream again, we will kill you.” I believed him.  Some hands grabbed my right arm and started dragging me forward, slowly at the beginning and then forcefully.  I heard feet shuffling as we ran towards I don’t know where.  Then we stopped.  The hands that grabbed me lifted me up and threw me in some car.  The engine roared into life.  I heard giggles in the vehicle.  I was trembling, shaking violently.  I did not know what to think.  I knew these were soldiers from the neighboring country.  Almost everyone in my country knew there was some war going on in the neighboring country.  We had lots of refugees in my district that ran away from this war ravaged nation.
 
After driving for ages, they took off my blindfold.  The vehicle in which I was riding was full of boys my age.  They looked at me as if waiting to hear what I would say.  They had guns in their hands and were putting on military clothes.  I shivered with fear.  I did not think of Tamara at that time.  I thought about myself.  Where were these people taking me to? 
 
I am telling you all this because of the death of Alfonso.  When we arrived at the camp, Alfonso was the first person to speak to me.  As I was getting off the vehicle, Alfonso held my hand and whispered in my ears, “It will be alright soldier boy.  Do not be afraid, it will be alright.” Alfonso was very short; shorter than everybody around.  But he had a good heart.  I am not saying this because he is dead but because it is true. If it were not for Alfonso, I would have been shot by the captain long time ago.  But he kept on advising me; “This is the way we hold the gun; this gun is called AK 47; this is a hand grenade; this is how you plant the land mines,” he would advise.  Alfonso told me stories about women and how to make love to them.  The truth is, before I came here, I had never tasted a woman.  But Alfonso told me all about it; what to do and how.  He told me to try it the next time we went for a raid. 
 
We buried Alfonso this morning along the riverbanks.  Nobody cried aloud but I saw some people shed tears.  We will be moving east now, the captain says.  He too loved Alfonso.  He was the only person he trusted with the planting of the land mines.  I will miss Alfonso really. May his soul rest in peace. Amen!
 
January 14. It has taken days since the last time I updated you my friend. The other day the captain would have discovered you.  He asked me, “What is it that you keep writing soldier boy?”  I told him I write poems.  He did not even bother to read.  He told me he used to like poems at school.  “Only your poems were in Portuguese isn’t it?” I asked in order to distract his attention from you my friend.  He then received a call on his wireless machine and left me in the tent.  He never returned.
 
I have good news for you today.  Yesterday I listened on the radio about our examinations.  The captain gave me the radio three days ago and he has not taken it back yet.  I do not know how to tell you but I will just be straight forward.  I have passed the examinations and Tamara too.  Guess what? Tamara and I have been selected to go to the same secondary school.  I jumped when I heard my name being mentioned on the radio and the boys asked me,
“What is it soldier boy?”
“Nothing.” I answered.
“How can you jump at nothing?  Is it about your woman back home?  Forget about her.”

Now I am confused.  But to be frank, I am really thinking of running away from this camp.  I have been selected to go to secondary school. That is a big future for me.  If I go to secondary and get the MSCE certificate like Moses in our village, I can become a teacher like him. I just want you to know that I am planning hard on running away.  I do not know how this will be done, but I want to go home and go to school. 
 
March 3. Today is the third of March. It is a very significant day in our country.  It is a martyr’s day. The highlight of the day is John Chilembwe, that pastor who fought with the evil colonialists and pioneered the freedom fighting spirit. Some time back, when I was in standard 5, I asked my teacher why African history is full of whites. He said African history is full of whites because they are the ones who wrote our histories.  It is a shame isn’t it? But it is about my own freedom that I want to tell you my friend; my freedom from hell. My escape from the fangs of evil. 
 
The day on which we were supposed to pack our things and move to the east had come.  January 18, that was the day.

At around four o’clock in the evening the captain had announced to us to start packing our things into the Jeeps.  We were indeed going into the interior.  I trembled with fear inside of me and I thought about my life a lot.  If I went with them into the interior, there was no hope of coming back; there was no hope of ever going to the secondary school which they had selected me to go to.  I tried to think fast until my head ached.  The captain told me to help him pack his things.  We had many things at the camp.  It usually took us about three hours to pack all the things into the Jeeps.  When I finished helping the captain I said to him, “Let me go and pack my things, Captain.”  The sun had sunk behind the hills. It was dark and there was no moon at all.  We had to use the torches for light.  A plan started to cook in my mind.  I switched off my torch and started to walk to the river, towards the side that had no Landmines.
 
“Running mate?” the captain was calling me.
I did not answer.
“Running mate!” the captain called again.  I knew if I did not answer him at this point, he would notice that I was missing.  I had gone a considerable distance towards the river by now.  The captain called for
the third time.  I switched on my torch and started heading back.  I was going to explain to the captain that I thought I had left my shoes on the rocks and that I wanted to collect them. There was a big rock on this side on which we used to recline. Someone touched my hand and told me to switch off the torch.
“This is our only chance to run away from this soldier boy.” I recognized the voice.  It was Fernandos.  We always called him Black Mamba
“Black Mamba what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Sssh!” He put a finger on my mouth to shut me up.  He held my hand and started dragging me towards the river.  We did not see our way properly for it was really dark.  We stepped on stones and thorns.  Our faces were slapped by tree branches and leaves.  We walked on, making sure we were not out of the safe zone.  The river was at a considerable distance but we were fast approaching.  I prayed in my heart that we should not stray to the other side for we had planted some land mines on that side and we would not see the marks because of the darkness. 

We got to the river.

“Running Mate?  Fernandos?”  The captain’s voice echoed in the jungle. He was following us.  He was not alone.  We heard several voices.  They knew we had run away.  Without thinking, Fernandos and I were running towards the river.  The river banks were full of reeds and shrubs. Those reeds and shrubs were a home for crocodiles.  We could not hide in the reeds.  We both knew that.  There were days when we could come here in the afternoon just to watch the crocodiles.  The crocodiles would come out of the reeds and would lazily stretch their bodies in the sun on the banks.
 
It was  quiet now, except for croaking of frogs, the shrilling of crickets, and the hissing of the wind.
“I think they are closing in on us,” Fernandos said, his voice obviously full of fear.  A couple of meters away, someone switched on his torch for they had switched them off so that we do not notice how close
they were.
“They are here.  Here captain,” somebody shouted.
Fernandos pulled my hand and we headed towards the river bank. I did not ask Fernandos any question and my mind was not thinking well. Quietly, we entered the river, avoiding splashing the water. We lay quiet in the reeds.  The water was cold but it was not the water that I worried about, it was the crocodiles. No one from the camp, not even the captain would ever come this close to the river.  I wanted to say something to Fernandos but he put his finger on my lips and held my hand firmly. I began to think that at that point, we had gone beyond forgiveness.  If we surrendered ourselves to the captain, he would shoot us anyway.  We were as good as dead.  I felt something move in the waters.  I begun to move away but Fernandos pulled me and whispered in my ears, “Don’t.”  My body grew numb.  That was obviously a crocodile moving towards us.  It was approaching.  My body felt like it had a million needles stuck in it.  I wanted to scream for help.  I lost all hope of coming out of the river alive.  It was a tree-trunk, I realized as it passed by.  I gave out a sigh of relief. The soldiers had not left yet, we knew.  If they had, we would have heard the sound of the vehicles.  We knew the soldiers were standing somewhere waiting for us to come out of hiding.  The reeds rubbed our faces and it felt painful. We stayed in the river for a long time and amazingly, no crocodiles came.
“I think they are gone,” I whispered in Fernandos ears.
“We would have heard them if they left,” Fernandos told me.  We heard some gunshots; not far away.  Then there were lots of gunshots directed towards the river, but not in our direction.  We lowered our bodies into the river leaving only our heads above.  The soldiers kept on firing.
 “Do you know how to swim?” Fernandos asked me.
“Fernandos?”  I said.
“We are already dead anyway.”  He pulled my hand and we began to swim towards the other end of the river. 

Did you know that at night the waters become bitterly cold?  The waters were biting at our bodies like ants and we grew completely stiff.  But there was nothing that could stop Fernandos and I now.  If we went to the opposite side, we would still die anyway with the gunshots.  We were swimming like people who knew they would die if they did not cross the river.  By the time we reached the other end of the river we were breathing like pregnant pigs. We lay on our backs on the river banks for some time before we  remembered about the crocodiles and moved away.

Dawn was approaching.  We began to walk forward, not knowing where we were and where we were going.  There were trees everywhere.  It was a dense forest.  We began to run hand in hand.  We spotted the rays of the sun in front of us; in the spaces between the trees.  We walked on until we were out of the forest.  The sun had risen.  You would not look at us twice.  We were covered in mud and sand and were stinking like shit. There was no house close by.  It was just an area full of grass everywhere.  We walked on and on and on until the sun went past our heads.  Somewhere we found what seemed like a dam.  We got in and washed our clothes and bodies.  We still had our camouflage uniforms.  I had a black t-shirt inside and a pair of shorts beneath the military pants.
“We need to throw away the uniforms,” Fernandos told me after we had cleaned ourselves.
“Why did you do it?”  I asked Fernandos.  I had always thought that he was one of the soldier boys who enjoyed being a soldier.  He always talked of guns and bombs and war movies he had watched in Maputo. Fernandos was taller than me.  He was muscular as well.  His face was tough.  He was darker as well. 
“Nobody likes to be there my friend.  Nobody,” he said. 
 
We put on our wet clothes and started off, heading forward.  We still did not know where we were going.  I started wondering in my heart if we were not going in circles.  “Can you hear that?” Fernandos stopped me in my tracks. 
“Hear what?” I asked him.
We had stopped, both of us, to listen carefully to what Fernandos had heard.  It sounded like women giggling ahead of us. Without knowing, we were both tip-toeing in the direction of the noise.  We suddenly
came out of the grass and found ourselves in a big dusty road and we found a lot of people walking freely in the dusty road.  When we asked one woman who was walking in the road, she said, going backwards on the road would lead to Thete, while going forward would lead to the border. I asked how long it would take to get to the border; she said at least a day and a half.  Fernandos asked how long it would take to reach Thete, she said about a day and a half as well.  I knew I had to part ways with Fernandos for I did not think he would want to go to my country. 
“I guess we will part ways here.” I said.
“Why?  I am going with you.  If I stay behind they will find me and kill me.  This country is no longer free my friend.”
We started off.  I did not believe it when we got to the border and crossed over.  I did not believe it when I got back to my village. 

I do not believe anything I am hearing and seeing now.
 
Fernandos is in the refugees’ camp a few kilometers away from here.  He has met some of his relations and friends there, but his parents are dead, he was told.
 
Tamara is pregnant. 
♦ 
 

[1]A girls hut.


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