Kwata Chamba (Hold Your Heart)
A story from Zambia
The news spread like a bushfire, crackling through the village, gathering sparks as it leapt from hut to hut. Already a crowd had gathered outside the main gate of the compound and the women were peering through the fence to catch a glimpse of my sentencing; they had smelled blood... I looked at the crowd and wondered, Which one of you has done this to me?
Holding my baby in my arms, I stood before what had once been my home compound but now was an outdoor court. My accuser—my husband, The Trader—towered over me at his great height and in his authority.
I had been accused of having an affair, and thus I was banished and ordered to return to my own people, to my father’s village of Buswaka, three miles away.
How was it possible? I was only eighteen years old, a bride for less than two years, and a mother for only seven months. How could my husband, who seems so strong and kind, and who desired me so much, turn so cruel? How does a man exile his wife and the mother of his child? How can he send me walking alone, my breasts swollen and already aching? How can he enforce the tribal law that our child will now become his sole property?
Only a year and a half ago, The Trader had wanted me so much that he had paid my father the highest bride-price ever known—twelve fine cattle. He had seemed to fall in love with me; he’d held me every night. He had watched me nurse our baby while he sipped his fine whiskey and smiled.
All had been well, until this day I was called before him and, on the basis of gossip—oh, how some of the older women in the village hated me! They despised me for my youth and status as the bride of the most prosperous and powerful man in Mwila. The whispers had snaked, poisonous, around me, and then reached my husband, The Trader. I could guess that the pernicious gossips of the village had resented me as the young, pretty wife of The Trader and mother of his child. Their jealous rumors of some “lover” had seeped like toxins into The Trader’s mind. He was so many decades older than me; perhaps this made him susceptible. He was handsome, this brown-haired giant of a man, but old enough to be my grandfather. Perhaps he believed I wanted a young lover? But I had truly loved him. He was warmer to me than my own father, and I had found peace, resting against him in the night. I had listened to his great heartbeat, felt his large, gentle hand playing with my hair.
I was accused, found guilty, and sentenced.
“You have to leave and go back to your people, Mukale, but you will leave the child with me.”
I denied my guilt. My mouth dried out and my stomach cramped. Eventually I found a word, one single word. “Why?” I could not speak the rest of my thoughts—why do you believe the vicious gossips and not me?
There was a pounding in my ears that thrummed louder than the ritual drum call of Shimunenga. Fear ran cold and hot, gushing high in my blood. Fear is physical—my blood raced and my heart hammered.
I knew my husband’s sentence was irrevocable; no one crossed him. After all, The Trader, Banyama, was almost as powerful as the Chief.
“You dare to bring your customs to my home?” my husband said—it was not a question, but an accusation… “Kubeta Lubambo may be something familiar to your people, but it is not my way and I will not stand for it.”
Kubeta Lubambo. For centuries my people, the Ba Ila, had practiced a form of polyamory known as “Kubeta Lubambo,” the official custom by which a married woman was allowed by society to take a lover, who was announced through a public ceremony. Although the practice Kubeta Lubambo still existed, it was less recognized in modern times and was falling out of favor with my generation. I had not asked to take a lover—I had not done so. I had no other lover. I did not want one. There was no need. My husband had pleased me, satisfied me in every way a man could please his bride.
“I…” I began to defend myself. I wanted to say that this was not true…
“Quiet, I won’t have it.” My husband turned his face away from me.
The Trader would hear no reasons or denials. I waited a few minutes and then rose from my crouched position on the floor. I knew there would be no redeeming words that I could offer to explain myself; the gavel had been thrown and arrangements for me were already ordered—to return to my father’s compound, to his village. Three miles away, three miles too far from the man I still loved, from my new home and village. Would he really invoke the tribal law and take my baby away from me? Could he have become so cold, to keep my little baby as his property?
It did not matter that I was innocent. I turned and stared back at my husband. His face was gray as granite, his lips pursed white; his humiliation had blinded him. Even under the hot sun, I felt cold and began to shiver.
I held onto my little daughter, my sweet baby Jinni, pale-brown-skinned, so much lighter than I was (at least there was no doubt for The Trader that he was her father). What would become of my baby now? The Trader, not so long ago my loving husband, spoke the words—my baby daughter must stay behind. She belonged to him, not to me. I would have no right to her from this day forth…
Trying not to surrender to my dizziness, I again knelt to the earth and let my baby slide from my arms onto the dirt. I memorized this moment, for I knew it was most likely my last chance to hold my daughter. How soft her baby skin was, how sweetly she looked up at me with her shining eyes. Her small lips curved—her pretty smile. She could not comprehend…yet. I inhaled her scent for the last time, breathed in her infant fragrance, that perfume of her new skin and my milk, her silky bit of hair.
How I wanted to pick her up, hold her close. I knew that I could not. I couldn’t trust myself to kiss my baby daughter goodbye; it had to be this way.
The infant carried my blood in equal amount to the blood of her father; the two bloods flowed in separate streams like oil and water, swirling within my little baby’s body and never mixing, an incompatible condition which would remain and define Jinni as long as she lived. As if understanding her fate, my little Jinni began to cry out—long, plaintive wails unlike a usual baby cry. Jinni had seldom cried; she was a happy baby—until now.
Turning, trying not to weep in public, I walked back to the rear of the compound to my assigned cottage, which I had seldom used during my short marriage, as my husband had preferred me to share his bed in the big house. The long shadows of dusk loomed ominously and accompanied me like animate beings. I did not look back, but felt hundreds of pairs of eyes on my back and heard whispered voices that would echo within me for all my life… I knew this was farewell to my daughter, to my husband, to the village where I had known my brief married happiness.
I was sentenced to leave by first light. My life as I had known it was over. Had I known what awaited me in the wild land, I would have been even more frightened. Perhaps my heart, beating hard in the cage of my ribs, would have stopped.
The sun glared off a few zinc rooftops, and smoke wafted from the cooking fires. As I approached the village, I could see Buswaka was already a hive of activity. I could make out my father’s large thatched-roofed compound; I could even inhale the distant cooking scents. The thatching gleamed under the sun; women could be seen moving about, carrying pots.
I reached the kitchen hut where the women were preparing morning tea for my father. With a sigh, I set down my heavy bundle. The women of Buswaka had already heard the news—gossip in the village traveled almost as fast as real time, even if it was carried word-by-word on the wind, from woman to woman. I was greeted by my brother’s wife, Puma, my favorite sister-in-law of my brother’s four wives.
After an hour of waiting in the sun, I was summoned to see my father, Muswaili, in his hut. I bent to avoid the lower eaves as I entered. In a way, having been banished, it felt comforting to come home, to breathe familiar smells, to see my own parents, who surely would believe me and not the accusations.
My mother could not actually see me—she is beautiful and not so old, but blind. She had been blind almost as long as I had known her. She was blinded when I was age twelve, before my puberty. Now that I was mother to Jinni, I thought, How sad, not to see your baby grow up. My mother had loved me well.
She knew I had entered the hut and cried out my name in a soft voice of welcome. I looked at her—her sightless eyes were open and colored violet-blue, filmed by cataracts. She reached out for me to come to her, and I did. Since early girlhood, upon greeting me, my mother had always touched my breasts, to determine how much I had grown—now she squeezed so hard, a bit of milk dripped from me. Her own breasts hung emptied, like leather sacks, lying flat down her chest.
“You are a mutumbu; you have a baby,” she said. Her smile shone—despite the fact that her upper front teeth were missing, knocked out, as was the cosmetic custom in her youth. She began to laugh in happiness. I loved my mother, the joy she took in her life. How I wished I could present Jinni to her.
My father was very unlike my mother, and I noted he had been silent since I entered his hut. Now, he motioned me to sit on the floor before him. He was tall and thin, and his voice rasped, like smoke in the hut. He had four wives and twelve children. My mother was his first wife and had the most status; I had fetched the unheard-of bride-price of twelve cattle, which was also a source of pride—or it was…
I sat on the floor and we exchanged greetings; my father asked all the usual questions—how I had slept and how I had been eating. After the requisite polite period of pleasantries, I requested to return here, to my father’s home, in light of my departure from my married home. “Please,” I said. “I have nowhere to go.”
There was a long pause. I assumed the answer would be a “welcome home.”
As the silence continued, my stomach clenched. Then I heard my stomach actually growl, as if to fill the emptiness.
The longer the silence lasted, the louder my stomach sounded. I remembered every indifferent moment he had shown my mother; how little he had helped her in her blindness, how my sister Katiki was the one to assist with our mother’s eating and walking. I pictured Katiki guiding her, lifting the wooden spoon of porridge to her mouth. My father could easily have helped my mother, but chose not to… Now, I thought of my father drinking, how some nights he stank of liquor.
His voice sounded raspier than ever as he said, “That’s not possible, Mukale. You have been a married woman now for more than a year; while you were married, you refused to help us financially. You no longer belong in my house. I cannot shelter or support you.”
A paralysis assailed me. I could not speak or move as my father told me I was exiled, even here—I must go to a hut at the outskirts of the family compound, in the wild land. That was all my father would provide for me. My tongue went numb; there were no words. I could not and would not question it; I knew that in our Ila culture, once one was given such a declaration, it would be called rude to question. That had been the law that governed my husband’s home, and now there were rules that dictated what happened in my father’s home. The new life sentence bore down on me. I was banished, in exile, and almost homeless. I must find the strength to begin some sort of new life.
* * *
I fought back tears and was reminded of a woman, Kalindowalo, the village freak who lived in a small lean-to on the outskirts of the village. By all accounts, Kalindowalo had a mental illness that was not understood in the village and had been branded as a witch, an outcast. As children, the village girls and boys would throw stones at her and Kalindowalo would chase them; the children, driven with fear at the prospect of being caught, their hearts beating a wild tattoo, would run their fastest to get away. I had always been intrigued by Kalindowalo and wondered why she was in her predicament, but this brief curiosity would always give way to some other pressing distraction. Yet, even as a child, something held me back when the others threw stones. Now I felt sorry for this tortured soul, and for the first time had compassionate thoughts about her; I was now in the same disfavor as Kalindowalo and I had to survive…
Walking out of my father’s darkened hut into the sunlight’s glare, I realized how alone I was. My own father would not shelter me.
Staggering, I walked to the boundary of my father’s property, deep in the wild land. In the distance, I could see the decaying reeds and slanted walls of what had once been a small hut. The years of alternating seasons—drenching rains followed by scorching sun—had taken their toll.
My first night on the hard earth floor, I tossed and turned; I was numb, I thought of my little baby daughter left behind and wondered if she had been bathed and fed today. At last, in the predawn dark, I drew my knees to my chest to warm myself and fell into a deep sleep. In my dream, my baby lay next to me and nursed; I felt the draw on my breast and the corresponding pull deep within me. When I woke, I was alone, my chest soaked in milk.
I did not have a mattress and had been trying to sleep on the hard, earthen floor of my new home.
I looked up to the roof of my shelter and saw why the night had been so cold—the thatching of the roof was splintered and separated, in desperate need of repair. I could see the hut had not been re-thatched in several years, and thatching should be done prior to each rainy season. How many years had this roof been open to the sky? As if on cue, the rain began—lightly at first. A trickle…puddles started to appear around me. I vowed to tackle this as soon I could…
When the new day began, I would have to plan for my survival. I braced myself for what I would have to do.
I huddled in a ball on the floor of my new home, afraid to move lest I let in the cold drafts that would penetrate my small cocoon. Outside, the rain pelted down, relentless in the fury of being held back through the hot October. Now, in November, Luwanda began, the time when each year, the Kafue Flats flooded with rainwater.
Suddenly, a sound cut through the falling rain—there was movement just outside the hut—difficult to identify through the sound of the downpour. What could it be? I heard something rubbing against the outside of my hut; I felt the pressure as the weight of some animal shifted the walls… He was trying to break into the hut.
Kwata Chamba, I said to myself. Hold your heart. I placed my hand on my chest to steady the hammering of my heart. My heartbeat pounded loud in my ears and drowned out all other sound. For the first time since I left the homestead of the Trader, I was truly afraid. I was terrified—not only of the animal outside that was threatening to break through the makeshift door, but of the gravity of my aloneness.
The sound outside was symbolic of my state; having always lived in community, a family compound, where solitude, but also loneliness, were unknown—this feeling of exile was as menacing as the threat of the wild animal outside. Or maybe they were the same? I had been discarded, thrown to the predators—an unwanted, useless thing.
Grunt. Grunt. The animal’s grunts jolted me back to reality. First I sensed, rather than seeing, the dull, yellowish eyes staring through the crack above my makeshift door. Then, in the narrow opening, I saw—glistening fangs bared in a snarl. I couldn’t make out what animal it was—lion? Wild boar? Hyena? It didn’t matter—it was feral, dangerous. Its senses had already alerted this predator that I was alone and helpless. Prey. How quickly he could kill me with those teeth. One bite to the neck, then he could shake me, and I would fall limp, dead. Then he could devour me.
As I stared back at the fiery glare through the dark, the shiver overcame me, and I began to tremble. Physical fear.
“Shoo, shoo.” I made feeble attempt to frighten him, this creature—as we glared at one another through the narrow open space, that piece of rusted metal that so far prevented his entry. Would he push his way in, pounce, and attack? Devour me on my first night alone here?
My voice, shaking: “Go away. Shoo,” only seemed to embolden the creature to scratch and push harder against the door. Minutes passed—I heard his panting, just inches away…my captor, my killer? As he could smell me, I smelled him. The scent of old blood, rotten. I felt him, his body heat—fever-hot.
Then I remembered the piece of dried meat in my bag. I could use it to distract the animal, and perhaps it would leave me alone.
With my eyes held fast on his glowing yellow-red stare, I crept toward my bag, retrieved the dried meat, and threw it over the gap in the door—I used all my strength to hurl it as far as possible.
It worked. The animal, which I now sensed was a hyena—those close-set eyes—ugly, not like the beautiful but dangerous eyes of a lion, pounced on the meat, ate it. I heard it tear at the flesh, growling in its voracious appetite… Then, too soon—seconds? It had eaten all the meat and rebounded to my door. He wanted more. My mistake. His appetite was not sated, but whetted…
We stared at one another in silence. I smelled him closer now—that decay of other blood meals on his teeth. I picked up the stink of his fetid fur. I had no more meat; I had nothing to offer, no peace offering. The rain began to pound harder. The water poured, rather than trickled, into my hut. Outside, it was a deluge.
I didn’t know how long the hyena and I stared at each other through the early morning light.
Perhaps the hyena had been inhabiting this hut for some time and wondered who had given me permission to use it now? Eventually the rain paused, and my new visitor gave a final growl, deep in his throat.
The metal door resettled in place—he had stopped pressing against it. I could envision the hyena in the darkness, as he loped away.
Then, silvered by the rain, the first shaft of light appeared through the largest hole in the roof. I sat under its thin beam and drew myself closed, my face to my knees, now shaking from relief, and began to feel the warmth of the weak sun.
The night had ended, and my new life had begun.