THE CHILDREN ARE GONE
This piece was the 3rd prize winner in the Creative Category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.
I knew her well. Her name was Busie – short for “Busisiwe”. She was the “B” in black, bananas, and baobab trees. Her face was solemn, tired: a face that had been tried upon, worn upon, frowned upon.
Every afternoon, before we reached the mountaintop, I pictured Busie sitting in the shade, fanning herself with a giant leaf – there she sat beneath exploding bougainvillea vines which protruded into the sweltering African sky. “Busie…here I am,” I’d cry, alarmed that she had not come straight to take my small hand, and walk me over the cobblestone trail, through the garden, and into our white house perched atop a mountain, right in the middle of Swaziland.
“Hurry, child…walk with me now…your parents are waiting…” She speaks in Siswati today, gently humming as we scamper home. I am trying to match her brisk stride. The thin band of market cloth creasing her forehead slowly grows damp. I notice it matches my uniform, and without another thought, I pluck a plump chameleon from a bush as though it were a berry.
Yes, I remember – I was picked up in my sleeping bag long before the African dawn had finished singing its call across the land and the hot sun had shriveled the banana leaves for the day, sending all the animals in Africa to the watering holes. We watched Africa for hours.
“Kids be quiet…shhhhhhhhhhh”
“We’ve seen enough, Daddy…Daddy no more elephants!”
“Darlings, you’ll remember this so well.”
“No we won’t!…can I have another rusk, Mummy?”
“He’s pulling my hair…Give me my book back, stupid!”
“Do you think that one is pregnant, Mummy? She’s fat!”
“Oh look you three – they’re having baths in the mud pools!”
“We saw this yesterday…I want to go home!”
“Will Busie read me my books?”
“I am sure she would love to!”
“Can we take her to Canada?”
“No, she has her own children here.”
“Can we bring them, too?”
I knew her well. Her name was Busie. She was the “U” in a boy called Ugambo –
the herd boy – who met her each day on her walk home, and in a folded linen cloth, she handed him the leftover crepes she made us on a Wednesday.
There were arms that picked me up on those early days in Africa. The same arms that nestled me in between two sleeping siblings, as we curled as three, bumping along
the roads of “nowhere particular” in Africa, they said – just somewhere – always somewhere. We were on a journey to see everything that was real. A constant reminder: “Not everyone lives like we do, darlings.”
We stop at a place called SOS – Save Our Souls – an orphanage at the bottom of the mountain. I sit rigidly in my school uniform, staring out into a sea of dark faces, hands reaching out to stroke the shiny metal bus, mouths wide open. I do not know if it is hunger or fear I see in their faces. Curiosity forces me to look further; uncertainty draws me back inside. I do not recognize them. They are playing; they are laughing. Swings rock back and forth, jump-ropes twirl, and the fabric of market-cloth dresses slice through the heavy air. Boys my age guide bike tires with two sticks, and push trucks and airplanes made of coke cans, the tires from cork. But they are not there any more – didn’t you hear? The swings don’t creak there any longer.
While my mother sang of Belfast girls with black velvet bands, and ships that sank off the Irish coast, the hyenas leaned in so closely that we could see them breathing on our tent walls: laughing, ever so coolly, at her gentle voice, seeping through the African darkness. The song found its way to the Silverbacks in Tanzania, and the orphans in Maputo; it stretched to Kigali, and the men sharpening their machetes stopped to hear her words. “In a neat little town they call Belfast, apprenticed to trade I was bound…”; up they drifted to Somalia and Ethiopia to visit the women with the long necks, rings on their fingers and bells on their toes – on went the voice – across the plains to Burundi and Nairobi, scattering to the South and to the North, softer, softer – to the men in Egypt who dusted the pyramids, and then to Rabat where they sold the softest leather; in Johannesburg it reached the signs that read “White’s Only Bench / Slegs Blanc”, and by the time the very last note of my mother’s song was swallowed by a croc in the Okavango, we were all asleep, and I was curled safely in the arms that held me, hugged me, whispering time and time again, “ – remember Africa, always. Always.”
I knew her well. Her name was Busie. She was the “S” in sunshine, Sahara, and sugar – pounds of sugar – sugar that was brown, sugar that was white, sugar that she carried for ten miles on her head.
I ran down the dunes in the great Namib desert, my mouth wide open, the words spilling out into the African haze, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh Aafffffrrrriiiiccccaaa”, but listening to Daddy: “Watch for scorpions…your toes are precious!” Springbok pranced across the parched, dry desert earth. My sister, with her chubby pink baby hands, smacked the earth, tracing lines, and delicately sifted red sand into a Coke bottle, over and over. My brother poked his converse sneakers with the thorn of a nearby acacia tree, and my mother smiled. She said it was our happiest life. She breathed deeply then; a breath that makes something a part of you forever.
Like coy little hippos, the three of us sun ourselves on rocks, before plunging into the waterfalls, our backs and ears barely emerging above the water. And then there they are – the children – scurrying to scoop up the crusts of our peanut butter sandwiches, tossed haphazardly into the bushes moments before. Stricken, we return hours later with a bushel of oranges and a bag of mealie; miles upon miles of driving had finally revealed a tiny market hut selling such delectable treats. With the night chill setting in, we placed the oranges throughout the bushes, up the banks, around exotic flower patches, and left winding trails of them through the cold, hard dirt – but the children were gone. We did not find them again that night.
There were vines coiling up the white washed walls, creeping into the shade of the open kitchen window. It would be Christmas in Africa soon, our third. The African sun had bleached our golden curls by then. We peeled off the school uniforms, took out our plaits, and with a quick shake of our heads, manes emerged. Busie runs around the yard, grabbing our tails and growling, trying to get us into a bath. “I catch you big lions, you not so scary…” Our girlish twittering mingles with her dry, husky voice and I think if we laugh loud enough the children in the SOS orphanage will join in our games.
When we are finally sitting in the bath, hair tied back, and decidedly tired of soap beards and bath beads, Busie begins to sing. She sings of Jabulani – happiness. “Happiness in Africa, happiness under the sun, happiness for the herd boys, happiness to everyone.”
Over and over, in both of our languages:
I knew her well. Her name was Busie. She was the “E” in the elephants we hid from in the campground in Chobe, and in “cursive”, as I sat perfectly poised, writing out phrases, over and over, and hearing “Dearest, your swimming lesson is at 12, horseback riding at 3.” She was the way the wind made a forlorn “eeeeeeeeeeeshhhhhhhhhh, eeeeeeeeeeeeccchhhh” down the Ezulwini Valley, when we had to leave Africa, and I heard the mountaintop cry.
These are my snapshots of a place, a land, and a lifetime. These are my images: a small stucco house; private school and red jumpers; chameleons on telephone wires; camouflage-green avocados; lion silhouettes on watering holes at dusk; rooibus tea sweetened with condensed milk; red and white checkered tablecloths in Manzini, soiled by mealy-meal and the remnants of dark Kenyan coffee; the smell of polish on wood carvings that lasted for years; the village Witchdoctor rolling wild antelope bones, meeting my inquisitive glare and grinning; overgrown gardens thick with vines, dew, and scraps of tattered clothing; white rabbits from Johannesburg; mango ice-cream from Pastel’s on a Sunday; the sandcastles of Durban; and the simple Canadian treats sent across the miles and received, finally, into my eager, clapping hands. Yet on top of all of these memories, lasting and unaltered, lies one picture. My Busisiwe.
She is there– always in every image – yet retreating repeatedly into the background: making lemonade barefoot in the kitchen, cackling over a western TV show, bouncing my baby sister on her hip while hanging laundry. Or the afternoons she sat beside me shucking corn on the front step and sang gospel tunes “nKosi Sikelei Africa” – God save Africa. She had 13 children, and one no-account husband. One by one they fell away from her, from Aids. But this I didn’t hear – this I saw. Then I would whisper her words “nKosi Sikelei Africa,” and we would wait for something miraculous to happen. But it never did.
Once upon a time I lived in this picture, too. It has become smaller, the colors are slowly dimming, the edges wearing, and I can no longer paint all the details. Sometimes I say the word Jabulani to myself, trying to fit it back in the fading context of Africa. I often think of the woman who taught me the word, sang me the word, twirled my hair and danced me the word. Busisiwe. But she’s gone now. And so are her children.