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 she may or may not occasionally disappear into the wind. One thing is for sure: you’ll have a story to tell when you run into Gogo Maweni.
Chiyembekezo was frustrated.
He paced thoughtfully – occasionally stopping to pick up stones from the dirt which he aimlessly threw into the banana grove in front of him, all the while his mind tried to work out the situation in which he now found himself.
“You have really done it.” He said to himself, watching as one of the stones he had aimed whizzed through the air to land harmlessly on a banana bunch. What had he been thinking? Nothing, evidently. It was pride that had gotten in the way. Remembering the look on Mayeso’s face was enough to get his blood hot all over again. What he would give to wipe that silly grin off his face. Another stone he threw ricocheted off a boulder and disappeared into the underbrush, sending a lizard that had been hiding there skittering.
It had all started innocently enough. Chiye had taken his little sister Thoko to watch some of the boys play football in the village’s school yard. Gogo Mbirizaeni did not like Thoko being idle for too long because she had the tendency to run off by herself and get into some mischief, so it was his responsibility to look after her when she wasn’t out playing with her friends. The boys were preparing for an upcoming match against the neighboring village and when Chiye arrived with Thoko perched on his shoulders, it was only to find them arguing amongst themselves. It did not take long to figure out what the problem was. Khumbo had come down with chicken pox and could no longer play. With only a week left to the match, the team urgently needed a striker and were trying to find alternatives.
“What about that cousin of yours, Andrew, can’t he play?”
“He went back to town last week”
“Yankho, your uncle?”
“You know he’s too much of a drunk.”
“Bamusi, your little brother? He doesn’t even have to be good.”
“He has asthma, Maye, he can’t do it.”
Then someone, Chiye could not remember who, had looked in his direction for a second and muttered something under his breath. The rest of the team turned to look at him and Chiye snapped to attention, suddenly apprehensive.
“He can play. I’ve seen him.” Thoko volunteered from her position on his shoulders. Chiye pinched her calf muscle and was shaking his head when Mayeso came forward, a mocking smile already playing on his face.
“Is that right?”
Chiye stood rooted on the spot, not knowing what else to do.
Mayeso knew he could play. They had chased balls of plastic around together all the time when they were younger, before everything between them had changed.
“Tell him, Chiye. You can play.” Thoko urged. Before Chiye could get a word out and deny it, Mayeso laughed.
“Nonsense. How can he play with one foot?”
Some of the boys laughed at this remark before they could stop themselves, and that was when Chiye’s blood started boiling. Mayeso could play the bigshot all he wanted and refuse to associate with him, but he drew the line at being mocked.
“I’ll play.” He had heard himself say before he could think it through.
A look of surprise crossed Mayeso’s face for a split second before the grin was back.
“Look, Chiye, you don’t have to try and prove anything to –”
“I’ll play.” He had declared again and that was final.
Then it had started to rain and the other boys grumbled about not wanting to practice in the rain but they had to find someone soon, so Mayeso conceded.
“Alright, you want to play? Fine. Be here for the match next week and we’ll see.” It had been both a dare and a threat. Chiye didn’t have time to respond before everyone dispersed and he ran home with Thoko.
Now the rain had stopped and Gogo Mbirizaeni had sent him to collect vegetables for dinner from the garden on the other side of their hut and he had found himself regretting the encounter. What had he been thinking? For all the mocking, Mayeso had been right. He couldn’t play with one foot. Well, to be exact – he couldn’t play with only one good one. Chiye had been eleven when he had knocked over his grandmother’s Singer sewing machine, a part of which somehow managed to impale his left foot. He had recovered from the injury but some of the ligaments in his ankle were damaged so that he now walked with a pronounced limp. That was when the trouble with Mayeso had started. It had apparently proven too much to bear to be associated with a cripple.
Now that he had had the time to think about the upcoming match, he didn’t understand what had come over him. He could not play in front of all those people. And for such an important game? He would surely make a fool out of himself.
“Are you here to damage my crops?”
Chiye had just aimed another stone at the bananas when he heard the voice behind him. He turned to find Gogo Maweni glowering at him from where she was hunched over her black cane, polished to a magnificent shine. Chiye often forgot that part of the garden belonged to the old woman because he rarely ever saw her actually tend her vegetables – which grew fantastically nonetheless. She had bought the land when Gogo Mbirizaeni had needed the money and decided she could do without a part of the garden.
“Sorry, Gogo.” Chiye muttered, not wanting to offend.
“What’s the matter?” She probed, her sharp eyes turning concerned.
Chiye paused, wondering how to respond. He knew all the rumours that surrounded Gogo Maweni; that she could turn into the wind at will or send bolts of lightning to her enemies – like the time Ma’Sungeni had refused Gogo Maweni a discount and had been hit by lightning the very next day while harvesting her maize crops. He wasn’t sure how much to believe and how much to take with a grain of salt, but he avoided the old woman as best as he could.
Deciding there was no harm in sharing, he explained his predicament. He had to play in a football match against the neighboring village the following week and he did not know how to do it without making a complete fool out of himself. Gogo Maweni listened attentively and Chiye found it was a relief to share his frustrations with someone who was taking him seriously. Thoko had simply laughed at him and told him to stop whining and just show them what he could do.
“Do you not know how to play?”
Chiye thought about all the times he played with his makeshift football in the comfort of Gogo Mbirizaeni’s yard. “That’s not the problem.”
“Then what is it?”
He hesitated a moment before he cast his eyes down and answered truthfully. “I’m afraid people will laugh at me… because of my leg.” He looked at his left foot now, jutting out at a funny angle with a deep scar covering the top of his foot and part of the ankle. When he regarded Gogo Maweni again, she was deep in thought and not dismissive, as he had expected.
“So what you need is for them to take you seriously?”
“Hmm ok.” She lifted her cane and hit the ground once, hard. “I can help you with that.”
Chiye was startled. Help? How? Before he could ask the questions she continued.
“I will give you something, but you have to listen carefully.”
Chiye’s heart started racing with both fear and excitement.
“You can only use it once and then you have to return it to me. You can’t let anyone else see it or else it won’t work. Do you understand?”
Chiye, equally intrigued and confused, could do nothing but nod.
Gogo Maweni brought a hand to the wrapper draped around her and rummaged inside what appeared to be a hidden pocket. When she brought the hand out it was held tightly around something. She looked around on the ground and spotted a banana leaf. She hunched over and picked it up then quickly- too quickly for Chiye’s eyes- transferred what was in her hand to the banana leaf and wrapped it all the way around, making a tight knot with some loose strands of the leaf.
She approached Chiye cautiously, who stayed where he was.
“Keep this on you during the game and you will be fine. It’s very important that you do not open it until you return it. Remember what I have told you. No one can see, or you will deal with the consequences.”
She held the banana leaf bundle out to him and Chiye took it, heart hammering as the thrill of the encounter mixed with something else – hope.
With one last reminder to return it after the game, Gogo Maweni turned and quietly retreated to wherever she had come from. Chiye pocketed the banana leaf and finished picking the nkhwani leaves which he promptly took back to Gogo Mbirizaeni.
When the day of the match came, Chiye was ready. He had shaken off what remained of his anxiety and was confident in the outcome of the game – all thanks to the little banana leaf bundle that gave him renewed assurance. He tucked it carefully in the inner lining of his shorts and made sure it would not accidentally come loose – heeding Gogo Maweni’s words not to let anyone else see it.
By the time he got to the school ground, a crowd had already gathered. The Kongwe team had assembled on one goal post and the Mpanang’ombe team was on the other, discussing strategy.
“So you came.” Mayeso jeered and Chiye met his stare, refusing to back down.
“I came.” Was all he said before Yankho finally took over the conversation as team captain.
“Ok guys, so here is what we’re going to do…”
The acting referee called for the teams to get into position. Since they did not have uniforms, the Mpanang’ombe team decided to play shirtless while the Kongwe team kept their shirts on. As Chiye limped his way into position, he heard a high pitched laugh from the part of the crowd closest to him. He looked up to find two girls quickly looking away, trying to cover their mouths and stifle the laughter.
‘Let them laugh,’ he thought with quiet assurance. ‘I’ll show them.’
The game soon kicked off and Chiye did not have any more time to think. He focused all his attention on the ball and waited for a chance to make his move. When the chance finally came, he had been waiting a long time. His teammates simply refused to pass him the ball even when he was open and he spent most of the first half of the match waiting in vain or hopelessly trying to get the ball from the other team with no luck. Mpanang’ombe had just scored their first goal and the Kongwe boys were redoubling their efforts to secure the ball when, by pure chance, while Andrew was attempting to pass the ball to Bamusi, Chiye intercepted it. It took everyone a while to notice the ball had missed its mark and Chiye, getting over the initial surprise of finally having the ball to himself, rose up to the occasion. He flew right past the other teams defenders and headed straight for the goal. They were caught by surprise when they saw him limping forward and Chiye easily weaved through them because they did not expect him to be as fast as he was. He feigned a left here and feigned a right there, expertly moving the ball from one foot to the next as easily as when he was just by himself in his grandmother’s yard. When he was finally in sight of the goalpost, he hesitated a split second before bringing his lame foot hard against the ball and sending it flying. The goal keeper miscalculated the shot and lunged to the left, allowing the ball to land in the dead center of the net.
The crowd cheered so loudly that Chiye was confused for a second, until it hit him. He had just scored their first goal. His team mates rushed to him and gave him excited pats on the shoulder as if they weren’t the same ones who had hardly taken notice of him before. All of that changed after that first goal.
He was finally a part of the team. Even the Mpanang’ombe team took notice and started to guard him more closely but Chiye managed to weave his way in and out, getting more and more passes aimed his way.
The chanting started after his third goal of the day.
Someone in the crowd shouted “Sharpshooter! Sharpshooter!” and a friend soon joined in. Then they were three, five, ten… until the rest of the crowd had picked it up and were chanting in unison
“He’s a sharpshooter! He’ll score from anywhere!”
Chiye took it all in, unable to keep the smile off his face. He was in his element and there was no stopping him.
By the time the whistle signaling the end of the match sounded, Chiye had scored five of their seven goals while Mpanang’ombe got away with four. His team mates lifted him up on their shoulders while they repeated the newly earned title. “Sharpshooter! Sharpshooter!” and even Mayeso could not disguise his begrudging respect. They said it was the best footwork they had witnessed in a match since the football village legend Kondwani Kamlomo had left to join the national team. Everyone would be talking about it for months.
It was only when he got back home and some of the excitement of the day had finally waned that he remembered the banana leaf bundle secured in the lining of his shorts. He fished it out and noting that the sun was slowly setting, took off for the patch of land on the other side of their hut.
He found Gogo Maweni waiting, bent over the vegetables she never tended as she threw a few leaves of bonongwe into a waiting basket.
“How did it go?” she asked without preamble.
“Very well. Thank you, Gogo.”
She lifted herself onto her cane and regarded Chiye.
“What are you thanking me for?”
“For this.” He lifted the small bundle. “It worked. I’ve come to return it.”
Gogo Maweni bent to retrieve the basket. “Open it.”
Chiye was apprehensive. Now that the match was over, he was not sure he wanted to face whatever was wrapped in the banana leaf.
“Go on. Open it.” Gogo Maweni said again and Chiye finally did as instructed.
He carefully undid the tied ends until the leaf came loose and slowly begun to unravel. His imagination was running amok with the possibilities of what kind of charm he would find – a gemstone… the head of a rat… or maybe a human ear…? – when the leaf finally unfurled and he found himself looking at an empty spot where he expected the charm to be. Chiye panicked.
“I swear I didn’t open it… no one saw… I swear–” he was halfway through his apologetic grovelling when he heard Gogo Maweni laugh loudly. He looked up to find her setting the basket on her head.
“Silly child. I know.”
Chiye was confused until the twinkle in her eye finally brought the realization crashing down on him.
“You mean… you didn’t… but…” he was certain he had been carrying a charm around all along.
“No, I did not give you anything.” She started to walk away.
“But how?” Chiye was astounded.
Gogo Maweni stopped. “You simply needed something else to believe in, because you did not yet believe in yourself.” She told him over her shoulder before continuing on her way. Leaving Chiye the Sharpshooter holding onto nothing but a drying banana leaf.