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 talk to spirits. One thing is for sure: you’ll have a story to tell when you run into Gogo Maweni.
She was seated on the veranda cracking open groundnuts and depositing them into a basin by her feet while her mother crushed the first batch into a powder. The routine action, accompanied by the regular heaving sounds her mother made while she repeatedly ran her pestle into the mortar, lulled Duwa into a distant, thoughtful mood. She tried to identify the emotions simmering just beneath the surface, but all that came out was another loud sigh.
“What is it?” her mother paused in her heaving to ask. Running a hand over her forehead because crushing groundnuts by hand in the heat was hot, heavy work. “What’s the matter with you?”
Duwa snapped back to attention, straightening to mutter a quiet “Nothing” and resumed her efforts faster in an attempt to look busy.
“Are you tired? Is that what it is?”
Duwa didn’t respond. There was no right answer.
“Here…” her mother was unfolding a corner of her wrapper which was tied in knots over itself. She peeled the layers back to reveal a carefully folded wad of money. “Since you’d rather be doing something else with your time. Go and buy the vegetables for tonight. From Ma’Kondwani not Ma’Francis.” Duwa got up to take the money from her mother and nearly flipped the basin over in her eagerness.
“Yes, Ma.” She responded, running out of the compound before her mother could change her mind.
She wouldn’t say it to her face but her mother was right. She would in fact rather be doing something else with her time. It was getting wearisome – stuck at home having to help her mother with one thing or another. When had this become her life? She thought it might be when Dalitso had moved to the city, to help a rich relative mind their child. Or perhaps after that, when Fatsani’s uncle had secured a place for her at a boarding school in another district. Somewhere between then and now, the routine had settled and nothing would disrupt it.
She pondered her plight as she crossed the village’s school grounds to get to the market, the classrooms deserted until the next term reopened the coming month. Now the only people around were a handful of boys on the field playing football – liberated by the notion of no longer having expectations to live up to until school reopened – and several villagers on their way to or from various responsibilities taking refuge under the trees that littered the yard. There was a mother with her two children, breastfeeding one as she tried to feed the other and herself some chiwaya that she had probably acquired from the market on her way from the nearby clinic. Ganizani, the village drunk, was peacefully taking a nap at the foot of one tree and on the other, a man fanned himself with his hat while he sat on a suitcase that appeared fit to burst.
She finally noticed Gogo Maweni, leaning against one of the trees as she watched the game of football on the other side of the field with rapt attention, cane in hand. Better to avoid going that way, she decided. Even though most of the whispers had subsided, there was still no telling what was what with the old woman. Some said Gogo Maweni always knew a woman in the village was pregnant even before doctors confirmed it. That she conversed with spirits and had cursed the carpenter after he insulted her– who had woken up one morning and suddenly could not walk.
Duwa was going around the football field in her bid to avoid Gogo Maweni when she spotted her: Chinsisi.
Chinsisi with her radiant brown skin and big brown eyes the colour of honey. Chinsisi with her teeth so white they glimmered and dimples where Chauta himself had deliberately placed his fingers to make the careful indentations . Chinsisi with her elegant arms and long legs. She always walked like she didn’t completely trust the ground to support her and watching, you almost believed she would be lifted up to the heavens at any second. Everyone adored her. And why wouldn’t they? She wasn’t just the most beautiful girl in the village, she was also the Chief’s daughter.
Duwa watched Chinsisi now, Mphatso and Tadala flanking her on either side, giggling from all the attention they received from the boys – and they really were a sight to behold in their bright, brand new wrappers. Looking like they bathed in honey water and smelled of cocoa butter – which they probably did. They were the Kongwe Girls.
Each month, when the moon was brightest and at the highest point in the night sky, the village gathered for a night of storytelling, song and dance. The three of them never failed to delight everyone with their choreographed dances – all swinging feet, rolling hips and wild hand movements – and the moniker had stuck. You couldn’t simply become a Kongwe Girl by being a girl from Kongwe. You had to have their brand of sophistication. Their glamour. And by the number of girls that were turned away in laughter when asked if they could dance with Chinsisi, it appeared no one else had proven themselves worthy of the title.
The bitterness that arose from deep inside her at this thought surprised Duwa. The envy was a living, breathing thing in the pit of her stomach. She stood still, watching even as they disappeared from view, shocked by the intensity of her own feelings. She hadn’t known it before – hadn’t even thought it – but she realised that deep down, like everyone else, she too wanted to be considered good enough. To be a part of something that dazzled and brought joy to the hearts of those who witnessed it.
All the way to the market, Duwa was so lost in thought that she forgot she wasn’t supposed to buy the vegetables from Ma’Francis. On the way back, she was still so lost in thought that she forgot to pay attention to where she was going. She was too busy picturing herself with Chinsisi, Mphatso and Tadala. Sending dust flying around them in the moonlight as they danced to the beat of drums that rang through the night. Oh, but wouldn’t it be wonderful?
“You! You there!”
Duwa snapped out of her thoughts only to realise that in her absentmindedness, she had wandered too close to where Gogo Maweni was still seated under the Chitimbe tree.
“You! Come. Come.” Her voice was both a shout and a whisper, the tone undeniably commanding so that even though Duwa was suddenly apprehensive, she could do nothing but obey.
She kneeled in front of the old woman, hugging the plastic bag with the vegetables close to her.
“Where are you going?” Gogo Maweni looked closely at her to ask, as if it was of the utmost importance.
“Home, to bring these vegetables to my mother.”
“Aha.” She nodded, the folds of her neck stretching along with her head movements. She reached for something close to where she was seated and brought up a plastic cup. “I need water.” She held it out to her expectantly. Duwa stared blankly at her for a moment.
“Please. I need some water for my parched throat.” The hand Gogo Maweni brought up to her neck in demonstration was laden with all manner of rings and beaded bracelets that went up to her elbow.
Not knowing what else she could do, Duwa took the cup and stood. She made for the tap in the middle of the school yard but was stopped in her tracks by Gogo Maweni calling out to her.
“It has to be fresh from the stream, for my old bones.”
Duwa could not believe it. Did she really expect her to fetch water all the way from the stream and bring it back to her here?
“Go now, before the sun sets.”
She thought about giving the cup back and apologising because she was in a hurry, but suddenly remembered the carpenter who now had to crawl on his forearms.
“Yes, Gogo.” she muttered reluctantly and scurried away.
For most of the journey, Duwa couldn’t decide how she felt about her task but quickly figured out there was nothing she could do about it now that she was already on the way and whether she was glad to do it or not was neither here nor there. So she might as well get it over and done with as quickly as she could. To pass the time painlessly, she sang.
Duwa forgot everything when she sang: her frustrations at home, the Kongwe Girls and even strange old women. It all disappeared and the only thing that was real was her voice.
When Duwa sang, it felt like she had grown wings and was soaring above everything. She was filled with something unnamed, moving through her with an intensity that delighted as much as it frightened her. It embarrassed her – the emotion that overcame her each time – so she never let anyone see her do it.
Finally at the stream, she set the vegetables down and took her time rinsing the cup – enjoying the melody of her favourite childhood folk song as it rose out of her almost unbidden – before filling the cup as her song came to an end.
Someone started clapping wildly behind her.
Duwa held a hand to her heart to keep it from jumping out of her chest and turned around to find a girl standing a few feet away from her, still clapping as she openly stared at Duwa in awe. Her skin was as white as the moon, the hair growing out of her head like a soft crown of cotton which she held together with a colourful piece of chitenje. Her eyebrows and the eyelashes that fanned her wide eyes were the same cotton white and her mouth – still hanging open – a rosebud pink. Duwa had never seen her in the village before.
“You sing like an angel.” She finally spoke, still regarding Duwa in awe, who finally remembered to be embarrassed. “I’ve never heard such a beautiful voice.”
Duwa bent to pick up the vegetables, muttering her thanks.
“Please don’t go. I won’t be long! I could use some company on the way back.” She hurried to bring the bucket she had set down closer to the stream and began to fill it with the aid of a basin. “My name is Maya. I live just over the hill.”
Duwa realised Maya had already decided for her whether or not she was waiting.
“I’m Duwa. I live in the village.”
“You should sing.” She stated. “At the gathering, when the full moon comes. You should sing.”
Duwa tilted her head to the side in question, marvelling at the way Maya spoke as if whatever came out of her mouth was the end of the conversation and that was that.
“You should sing.” she said again to Duwa’s annoyance. What made her think she could tell a stranger what to do with her own voice?
“I can’t.” she finally said in reply.
“I just heard you. You can!”
“No, I mean…” Duwa sighed. “not in front of everyone.”
Maya stopped to look at her. The intensity of her stare magnified by the translucent lashes. “We’re not given talents to carry them around in secret. A voice like that is meant to be heard.” Duwa felt the statement hit its mark and she stood there feeling chastised, but Maya smiled and lowered back down to continue filling the bucket. “Just think, you will steal the show!”
Duwa immediately dismissed this, thinking about Chinsisi and her colourful dances. Then it was as if the clouds had parted to reveal the sun as the thought occurred to her: this could be it. This could be the key. If Chinsisi saw her sing and was impressed, she might finally see her as worthy. She might be given a chance to become one of the Kongwe Girls. Duwa tried not to get carried away with this new line of thought but her heart was beating in anticipation and she was filled with reckless hope.
“Do you really think I could do it?” she asked, tentatively.
“You will.” Maya answered, like it was the most natural thing in the world. And it was decided. “I can make you something to wear. You will have to look as beautiful as you sing.”
“Something like what?” Duwa could hardly believe she was actually agreeing to this but she let herself get swept away in the current.
“It will come to me. That’s my talent.” Maya stood, done with filling up the bucket, and Duwa noticed the beads on her arms, tied together with the same chitenje material she wore in her hair. She realised, with a jolt of surprise, these were the same type of beads she had seen Gogo Maweni wearing up to her elbow. Before she could ask, Maya continued talking – “I’m going to be a big designer in the city one day.”
The determined look on her face told Duwa she was stating something already true to her which was merely waiting for a chance to come true.
Something about that look finally gave her the courage to fully commit to this idea she had been given.
“Okay.” She said, uncertainly at first then with more assurance. “Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll sing.”
Maya beamed, her face coming to life like the sun itself, and they left the stream, agreeing to meet the next day so that Duwa could practice her song.
When Duwa brought the water for Gogo Maweni, she was too excited about her new plans to mind the journey and was at least reassured that she would keep the function of her legs because Gogo Maweni was pleased. She was finally released to deliver the overdue vegetables to her mother.
Duwa met all her chores with renewed vigour. She would get everything she needed to do out of the way on time so that she could meet Maya at the stream and there, she sang. Maya would be perched on a rock, working a needle through yards of cloth for Duwa’s gown and swaying in time with the melody. She convinced Duwa hers was the kind of voice that needed no remedy and instilled in her the confidence she needed to hold her head high and let the full range of her emotions out. Maya was moved to tears each time.
So when the full moon came, Duwa was ready. She was nervous, but not the kind of nervous that filled her with dread. The kind of nervous that filled her with excitement and an eagerness to begin so that she was restless all day until Maya finally appeared with her gown.
The sun had set and you could taste the excitement in the air as the villagers made their way to the heart of the village. The drums were already echoing through the night and the scent of banana cakes, meatballs, samosas, milk scones and fried cassava wafted in all directions – it was a night of celebration.
Her mother would not let her leave until she had prepared supper and cleared the kitchen, so the two girls worked together to finish then bathed quickly to get rid of the smell of smoke that had clung to them. They dressed – Duwa unable to stop marvelling at the beauty of the gown – until finally, they left in giggles, hand in hand as they ran towards the sound of the drums.
The villagers were standing in a large, loose circle to let the others join in – Ganizani already drunk and leaning against his neighbouring friend for support – and within the circle were the drummers. Six tireless men who had discarded their shirts so that they could swing their arms with wild abandon and bang on the drums held steadily between their knees, picking up the rhythm of any song or dance that was chosen as easily as if they had been born doing it. Just outside the circle, people sold their wares, moving around with the baskets of various food that filled the night air with a medley of intoxicating aromas – among them was Ma’Francis with her famous donuts and Duwa made a mental note not to go anywhere near them to make up for the vegetables.
Since they were late and had missed the storytelling, they found a troupe of village men in khaki uniforms in the centre of the circle – the lead bearing a whistle which he blew on in tune to the beat of the drums as they moved in the entrancing, jerky movements of the Beni dance. Soon afterwards came the women with wrappers tied over their buttocks, singing and ululating before breaking into fluid waist movements that left the crowd cheering. Then the village children’s choir, lively and cheerful as they sang their Sunday school songs for the gathering. This was followed by a short break when the drummers paused to drink the refreshments one of the women had brought for them. Two boys came into the circle with footballs to cover the lull, trying to see who could keep bouncing one off their feet the longest before it fell to the ground.
As the crowd cheered the winner and the drummers got back into position for the next performance, Maya turned to Duwa and held her tightly by the hand. “It’s time.”
Fear swelled in her an instant before she beat it down and nodded. Before she could stop herself, she was walking into the circle and taking position in front of the drummers. Duwa felt all the attention on her and could suddenly see herself through their eyes. Hair held back in two big plaits over a face that shone in the moon, and her gown – a yellow robe that flowed from one shoulder before spilling out into a beautiful pattern of fiery flowers that filled the length of it, gripping her chest and loosening until it fell gently at her feet. The sight of her was stunning.
Then she opened her mouth and spilled out her emotions. A hush came over the circle and even the drums faltered as her voice lifted, out from her chest and into the night. It lifted, over the horizon and into the sky. Lifted, until Duwa was sure she could be heard on the moon itself.
The drummers picked up the melody and soon they were in harmony. The villagers too, finally recovering themselves, started clapping along to the drums and singing in answer to the parts of the familiar folk song that needed response but leaving the heart of the song for Duwa alone. It became more than a song, but a chant and even beyond that, a prayer. Until Duwa was lifting her hands and swaying in the moonlight, taken over by the divine spirit that had come to life within her. As the song drew to an end, more voices joined in so that she was no longer the only one singing and soon it was taken right up again from the beginning. The entire circle singing and clapping and swaying in the moonlight. The circle grew smaller as more and more people joined her in the centre and soon, surely enough, no one wanted to be left out.
Maya was suddenly in front of her – a beaming point of light in the sea of singing brown faces. Duwa laughed as she took her hand, unable to believe that she had inspired such a reaction.
She was filled with wonder and a stunning realisation. What she had thought would be the key to proving her worth had turned out to be all she needed to see that she didn’t have to. There in the moonlight, she saw it as plainly as if it was the light of day: there was nothing that Chinsisi or the Kongwe Girls could give her that she did not already possess.
And it had only taken a strange old woman and an unexpected friend for her to discover it.