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Kongwe Village One: Thoko and the Mango Tree

Something is afoot in Kongwe village ever since Gogo Maweni moved into the hut at the foot of the mountain. No one knows exactly who she is or where she came from except that strange things have a way of happening around her and her dreams always spell trouble. One thing is for sure: you’ll have a story to tell when you run into Gogo Maweni.

Thoko was determined.

She sized the tree up and down yet again and convinced herself it was only as intimidating as she let herself believe it was, and she would not be fazed. There, at the highest point in the tree, just visible enough to anyone who paid attention, was the ripe mango surely to be the biggest, juiciest most delicious mango anyone in the village would have the fortune of ever tasting. And it would be hers.

She had tried everything at this point. The trunk was too tall and too thick for her small body to get a grip long enough to even make it halfway. The branches were too high and she only jumped as far as the wind could carry her, which wasn’t nearly enough. No stick she found was long enough to make it through the clump of leaves and all her swings so far had been unsuccessful. Though frustrated, Thoko would not give up. There was something about that mango. She knew it. She could feel it. Somewhere in her bones she knew she had to find a way to get that mango down.

She had even considered asking her brother Chiye for help. At his height, if she was perched on his shoulders, she could get just enough leverage to force the stick through the leaves and right in the trajectory of the precious mango. But she didn’t dare. Gogo Mbirizaeni had forbidden her to come this far out of the heart of the village and she couldn’t trust Chiye not to tell on her. The only chance she had was when she went to play with Mun’deranji since her mother would send the girls to fetch water from the stream before sundown every day. Thoko had wandered off on one such occasion and discovered the tree with the mango. It was the only mango in the tree and she didn’t think to question how or why, when it wasn’t mango season and wouldn’t be for a while.

Thoko had a different plan this time. She bent to carefully organise the pile of stones she had carried from the stream and picked one up. It was nice and smooth, with an assuring heaviness that rested comfortably in the palm of her hand before she gripped it tightly and took aim. She would stone the mango down.

“Child.” The single word came from behind her and Thoko was so startled she dropped the stone as she whipped around to face the intruder. Her eyes went wide and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly all the warnings her grandmother had given her about wandering too far from the village didn’t seem so silly.

Gogo Maweni was stooped against a black cane, regarding her with sharp eyes. Thoko meant to run but fear and curiosity kept her rooted to the spot. She had never come face to face with Gogo Maweni – only seeing her from afar, from behind her grandmother’s cloaks when they went to the village market and happened to find Gogo Maweni haggling over utaka or tomatoes — eyes following her everywhere she went, along with the whispers.

“Child.” Gogo Maweni addressed Thoko again, the lines of her face stretching an instant before settling back into their familiar grooves. “What do you think you’re doing?”

She thought of lying. But she couldn’t think of a lie quick enough. She looked at Gogo Maweni now, in the wrapper she wore tied over one shoulder, so old she couldn’t tell what colour it had originally been even though it was now a greyish brown. The village said many things about the old woman who had simply showed up one morning and set up camp in a hut at the foot of the mountain. They said sometimes birds followed her. They said she had no shadow. They said she had dreams about the famine that occurred the year Thoko was born and the fire that gutted the market a year later. No one had believed her then, but they had believed her when she told them about the drought, so the villagers had kept all the water they could in plastic drums and saw it through. Thoko looked at the ground, at Gogo Maweni’s shadow and decided, like the tree, the old woman was only as intimidating as she let herself believe she was.

“There’s a mango.” Thoko finally replied.
“A mango?”
“In the tree” Thoko turned for a second to point and Gogo Maweni looked up at the tree, her face lighting up when she finally spotted the mango.
“Ah, indeed.” She was smiling. And when she did, the lines in her face parted to reveal a face brighter than one would expect from someone her age. However old she was. She muttered something to herself while regarding the mango, the ravings of a mad woman, Thoko thought.
“What did you plan on doing?” she asked, to Thoko’s surprise. “You can’t get up. It’s too tall, too thick. The branches are too high. You can’t swing a stick through those leaves. And you surely can’t stone it down. You’d never get one that far.”
Even though she didn’t want to, Thoko believed her. Perhaps she had known all along. The stones wouldn’t have worked.
“So what is your plan now?” Gogo Maweni insisted.

Turning to stare at the tree, Thoko felt defeated. A lump formed in her throat but she told herself she wouldn’t cry in front of the strange old woman.

“Child.” In her daze, she hadn’t noticed Gogo Maweni angle closer to her until she felt the hand on her shoulder. She was too sad to be afraid now. All she wanted was her mango. “All hope isn’t lost. Sometimes the best thing to do when everything fails, is nothing.”
She really was talking to a mad woman, Thoko decided.

“Patience my dear. When you can’t get things to work, you must let them come on their own.” The hand on her shoulder fell away and she felt Gogo Maweni move away. It was getting late. The girls would be going back to the village and realise she was missing. She had to go. She regarded the mango one last time and felt her heart clench. She wouldn’t give up. She’d try again tomorrow. When she finally turned to leave she saw that Gogo Maweni was already a few steps ahead, heading in the opposite direction towards the mountain.

Thoko had started to run back to the stream when she heard a soft thud behind her, right by the tree. She looked back and stopped in her tracks, her heart ceasing along with her feet only to resume its quiet anthem in her chest, beating for all of Kongwe. It was her mango. Resting gently at the foot of the tree where it had landed after its fall and silent roll in the dirt.

When she shared the fruit with Mun’deranji and her sisters later, everyone agreed: it was surely the biggest, juiciest most delicious mango anyone in the village had ever tasted.

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