Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Carol’s home turned out to be a delight, a restful haven that restored Sophie’s equilibrium and soothed away the worries and painful doubts of the last few days. Carol’s family lived on a three-acre farm in Kembo, a small agricultural community 20km northwest of Lavangwa.
The town was a major transit point for the Bancushi-Uganda railway line, hosted the satellite campus for the University of Bancushi’s Faculty of Education and was also home to the famed PCEA Kembo Hospital run by Christian missionaries which treated patients with eye problems from all over the East African region.
Her mother, a talkative, short plump woman with kind eyes and easy laughter welcomed them warmly into the spacious kitchen where the smell of mandazi filled the air. She ushered Sophie to the rustic kitchen table in the middle of the room and within minutes, Sophie had a hot cup of tea at her elbow and was digging into a plate of hot mandazi, listening to the easy banter between mother and daughter as Carol donned an apron, took a glass and started cutting the rolled out dough into pieces which her mother dipped into the hot oil on the cooker. Sophie instantly felt at home.
Carol’s father came into the kitchen from the shamba an hour later, wiped his gumboots on the rug at the door and entered the kitchen. His daughter shrieked in delight and greeted him with a bear hug.
“This is a nice surprise,” he said, eyes twinkling as she released him. Carol introduced her friend. “Good to meet you Sophie. Karibu.” He greeted her with a firm handshake and walked into the living room. Carol followed him chattering non-stop. She had clearly taken after her father in physical appearance.
Tall, lean and slightly balding, he was a man of few words. In that aspect she’d taken after her mother. Sophie spent an enjoyable evening chatting with the family over dinner – a delicious meal of chicken stew, rice and cabbage – then played Scrabble at the kitchen table with Carol’s two younger brothers who were both in primary school as Carol’s mother fussed around the kitchen, packing eggs for delivery to clients the next day.
Other than growing maize, beans and potatoes, Carol’s parents kept cows for milk and thousands of layers, supplying milk and eggs to retail outlets and hotels in the neighbourhood and as far as Lavangwa.
Carol’s room had twin beds and the girls chatted for several hours before Sophie finally fell asleep well after midnight. She woke up to a bright and sunny day, not a single cloud in sight. Carol and her brothers had already left for school and the house was quiet. After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, baked beans, toast and tea, Sophie stepped outside to tour the farm.
She found Carol’s father at the chicken coop for the week old chicks, filling the troughs with water. She watched as he critically inspected the feet of the layer chicks then checked the thermometer before stepping out into the bright sunlight.
“If it’s too hot they stay in corners away from the light. If it’s too cold they huddle together in a ball under the light,” he told her, as he closed the hatch.
“How long have you been raising chicken?” Sophie asked.
“Many years. I lost count.” He smiled and they walked in step as he headed to the cowshed. Sophie watched as he ordered his workers to chop down three banana plants then supervised as they cut the stems into small chunks, which he directed them to put into the feeding troughs.
“Do they feed on that every day?” she asked.
“Oh no, just once in a while. They contain salt which is good for the cows,” he explained. The farm practised zero grazing and had a large portion planted with Napier grass for the roughly 20 cows. There was so much to see and do at the farm that she completely lost track of time.
After a late lunch, she sat on the wide veranda leading into the living room, shelling peas with Carol’s mother, who kept up a steady stream of chatter, regaling her with stories about her three children until Sophie’s ribs ached with laughter. At 6pm, Carol’s father came and announced that the milking was about to start.
Sophie got up eagerly and followed him to the cowshed. Carol’s mother entered the kitchen to start cooking dinner. Sophie watched him and the other workers milk the cows, hands moving with swift practised movements as the white liquid rapidly filled up their buckets with a layer of foam at the top. They made it look so easy.
“Can I try?” she finally plucked up the courage to ask after watching for some time.
“Sure. Let me finish this one. You can milk the next one,” he replied. She walked to the corner and washed her hands at the rough cemented sink basin as she’d seen the workers do then walked back to where he stood, pouring feed into the cow’s trough. As the cow munched eagerly, he walked to its backside and tied its hind legs to the pole ringing the cowshed. “Ok, she’s all yours.” He placed a stool under the cow’s belly within easy reach of her teats.
Sophie took a deep breath and sat on the stool, wiped the cow’s teats with a washcloth dipped in warm water, then picked up the container of milking jelly. She smeared a generous amount on her fingers and coated the teats evenly then began to move her fingers up and down the teats, squeezing as she’d seen him do. The milk came out in a small stream, much to Sophie’s excitement.
“Don’t be afraid to squeeze harder. You won’t hurt her,” he said. She did as he instructed and a strong jet came out of the teats. Encouraged, Sophie moved her hands faster. All too soon however, her fingers began to ache.
“It’s harder than it looks,” she exclaimed as she slowed down her movements, her right hand beginning to go numb. She hadn’t even filled a quarter of the bucket. “Maybe you should take over.” She threw a doubtful glance over her shoulder.
He crouched beside her. “You’re doing fine,” he encouraged her. The cow moved her legs restlessly startling Sophie, who jerked back in alarm.
“Is she going to kick me?” She stared uneasily at the animal.
Carol’s father laughed. “No. She’s just finished her feed. I’ll add more. Keep going. You’re doing great.” He stood up and walked to the sack of feed in a corner of the shed, walked back and dumped another bucket of feed in the trough.
Sophie moved her fingers steadily as milk filled up the bucket. It had reached the halfway mark. Great. She bit her lower lip and focused on moving her fingers up and down those teats. Slow but steady. She was concentrating so hard that she didn’t notice the other farm workers gather around the cow to watch, having finished milking all the others. Finally, after several strokes with no more milk coming out of the teats, she looked up at Carol’s father with a puzzled expression.
“I think you’re done.” He smiled down at her.
Sophie looked down at the bucket then back at him. “But I’ve only managed to get three quarters. You filled up the bucket.”
“You were never going to fill up the bucket your first time.”
“I wasn’t?” She got up from the stool as he untied the cow’s legs.
“No. There’s a technique to milking. It takes lots of practice. You did well, better than Carol did her first time.”
Sophie smiled, ridiculously pleased at the compliment. “Thanks.” She flexed her fingers to relieve the ache. “What happens to the milk I left in the cow?” He took up her bucket and started walking to the entrance of the cowshed. She fell into step beside him.
He flung her a baffled look as he emptied the bucket into a large drum with the name of the farm painted on its sides in big letters. “The bit I didn’t manage to get out?” she clarified. “I read somewhere that milk left in a cow’s udder hurts it.”
He chuckled in amusement. “They only get uncomfortable if they’re not milked at all. We milk the cows every morning and evening so it will be fine.” Sophie smiled in relief. They left the workers to finish up the rest of the chores and walked back to the house. “How did you like your first day as a farmer?”
“It was wonderful, thank you. Carol is so lucky to have grown up on a farm.”
“Remember to tell her that.” He smiled as they entered the cheery kitchen where the aroma of roast beef filled the air. Carol was already there, helping her mother cook dinner.
“I milked a cow,” Sophie burst out excitedly, the moment she spotted her friend. “I used twice as much feed as your dad and only got three quarters of the amount but he says I did well. Better than your first time. Tell her.” She turned to him with a wide grin.
“Congrats,” Carol laughed and hugged her friend. “Sounds like you had a good day.”
“The best. I’ll tell you all about it after I take a shower.” She laughed and skipped out of the room, walking on air.
Sophie woke up bright and early the following morning after a good night’s sleep. After breakfast she helped Carol’s mother with her chores until lunchtime. She spent a quiet afternoon walking around the farm deep in thought. Sensing her need to be alone, Carol’s parents let her be and beyond giving her a cheerful wave whenever they spotted her, the farm workers also left her alone.
After two hours she came across a huge boulder at the foot of a large mango tree at one corner of the farm overlooking the valley below. The green foliage of maize, beans and potato plants in varying stages of bloom swayed in the breeze, covering the valley and the hill that rose above it like a lush green carpet. The air smelt clean and fresh, the sky a brilliant blue dotted with a few clouds. The strong breeze tempered what would otherwise have been a scorching sun. It was the perfect spot to ruminate.
Sophie sat down on the boulder, plucked a blade of grass and twisted it between her fingers and was soon lost in thought. Dusk had fallen by the time she finally got up and walked back to the farmhouse. She entered the kitchen to find Carol’s mother peeling potatoes for dinner.
“There you are. I was just about to send someone to get you,” she told her cheerfully, stirring the meat simmering in a pot on the cooker.
“What can I help with?” Sophie asked, taking an apron from the hook beside the door.
“I’m almost done. Just grate the carrots for the salad then we’ll be ready to serve.”
Sophie picked up a knife and started peeling the carrots in a bowl on the table. “Carol isn’t home yet?”
“She called a few minutes ago. She has a date with her boyfriend and so won’t be home till late,” her mother replied. After dinner, Sophie watched TV for a while with the family then excused herself early to go to bed. By the time Carol arrived home at 1am, she was sound asleep.
Sophie woke up at 8am and went into the kitchen expecting to find an empty room. She stopped in surprise on the threshold when she saw Carol seated at the table sipping a mug of tea. “Morning. Don’t you have classes today?” Sophie walked into the room, took a mug from a nearby shelf, poured tea from the flask, added sugar and stirred.
“Hope you’re hungry. I made pancakes.” Carol uncovered a dish and pushed it across the table. She got up, took a jar of honey from a cupboard and brought it to the table.
“Thanks.” Sophie put a pancake on a side plate, spread it with honey, rolled it up and took a bite. “How come you’re not in college?”
Carol shrugged, took a sip and nursed the mug in both hands. “I wanted us to spend some time together before you leave tomorrow.”
“Tony came to the hostel yesterday looking for you,” Carol said after a few minutes of companionable silence. Sophie almost choked on her tea. She put down the mug and continued eating. “Don’t you want to know what he said?” Carol finally asked, after she failed to respond.
Carol sighed and a frown creased her brow. “He wants to see you.”
“To make sure you’re all right.”
“Didn’t you tell him I’m fine?” She shot a quick glance at her friend.
“Yes. But he still wants to see you.”
“I can’t Carol.”
“I’m on your side, you know that. And I hate Tony’s guts for what he did to you, but…”
“But what?” Sophie’s voice was sharp as she finally looked up and stared at her best friend across the width of the kitchen table.
“I’m only thinking about the babies and what life will be like for you and them. Is there no way to work things out with Tony for the twins’ sake? Make sure they’re catered for financially?” Her voice was soft, persuasive.
“The only discussion Tony will want to have is why I didn’t get the abortion as agreed. You only just got involved in this, so you don’t know how bad it’s been Carol. We’ve been fighting for weeks. He won’t consider any other option. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
Sophie’s voice was low, betraying none of her inner turmoil, but nothing could mask the flash of pain that entered her eyes before she quickly looked out of the window, where one of the workers whistled a cheerful tune as he walked by. She turned and faced her friend squarely, her chin set in determination. “Let’s just stick to the plan ok?” Carol sighed in defeat and nodded.
They spent a quiet day together. Carol borrowed her father’s pick-up in the afternoon and they drove to Bancushi Cinema to watch a movie. They came back to the farm and had dinner with the family, then went to Carol’s room and chatted long into the night before finally falling asleep at 3am.
Carol’s mother had to knock on the door several times to wake them up the next morning at 9am. Sophie’s bus was leaving at 10am. Carol’s mother drove them to the city centre after a quick shower and breakfast.
Carol hugged her friend tightly. “Have a safe trip. Call me when you get there.”
Her mother thrust a lunchbox containing chicken sandwiches and a bottle of freshly squeezed mango juice into her hands. “If you need anything, please call.”
Sophie embraced the older woman, her eyes tearing in gratitude at the kindness she had showered on a complete stranger. “Thank you for letting me stay at your home.”
“You’re welcome anytime.” Sophie got into the bus and waved frantically as it pulled away from the curb, then faced forward, tears rolling freely down her cheeks as the bus picked up speed.
She was now well and truly alone. Leaving behind everything that was familiar and everyone she loved. Sophie closed her eyes and wept.
Carol turned out to be right. Sophie’s family closed ranks around her once they got over the shock at the news of her pregnancy. Luke and her mother travelled to her aunt’s house in Luzi, a town on Luzi Bay at the mouth of Ganze River, 120km northeast of Meribo where she had sought refuge.
Sophie burst into tears the minute her mother appeared. “Why didn’t you come to me? I’m your mother.” Her voice was disapproving though her eyes shone with love and compassion for her second born child. She embraced her tightly and it was several minutes before Sophie could compose a coherent sentence.
“I’m sorry mum. I was so ashamed. I’ve let you and Luke down.”
“Shh… stop that. It was unexpected yes. But we will deal with it, just like we’ve dealt with all the other problems we’ve faced in the past,” her mother tried to soothe her.
“I thought you’d disown me,” Sophie sobbed.
“Don’t be silly,” her brother interjected roughly before her mother could reply. “Why would we do that?”
“I’ve brought shame to the family.”
“You know Sophie, I haven’t beaten you since you were a little girl. But if you don’t stop speaking like that about the daughter I raised, I will whip you.” Her mother’s tone, fiercely protective and the smile accompanying it, sent Sophie into a fresh bout of tears.
It was too much. Like heaping coals on a fire. She had expected recriminations, not the love and support shining in their eyes. Her mother sighed and turned to her oldest child. “Talk to her and calm her down while I chat with your aunt.”
The close resemblance between mother and son was easy to see when they were together. Both light skinned, average height, Luke stocky whereas his mother was lean, a wisp of a woman, hardened from years of doing manual work daily.
She wore her trademark bright coloured floral headscarf and a long printed dress of mid-calf length, with black rubber shoes, a sharp contrast to her fashionable sister, two years younger than her 42 years who rocked a white linen pantsuit with brown beaded sandals and a weave with soft curls falling to her shoulders.
Luke got up and took his sister’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk.” She led him into the compound where a dozen tourists browsed the stalls attached to each dwelling, haggling over the prices of curios, beads, African masks, kitenge fabric, kikoys and batik artwork.
The village next door to Kivulini Hotel had been designed such that the wooden shops formed a circle with each attached to a two or three-room tiny house where the owner lived. She led him down the road for several hundred metres then diverted to a footpath leading down to the beach. They walked slowly in silence breathing in the cool, salty air.
There were few people on the beach this early in the morning. The ocean was serene with nary a wave to disturb the stillness. Coming here always reminded her of Tony. The first time she’d seen the ocean was by his side. She’d always associate it with him.
As if sensing the direction her thoughts had taken Luke asked, “So who’s the father?” Sophie didn’t answer for several minutes, focusing her attention on the delicious feel of sand between her toes.
She carried her sandals in her right hand and they swung gently to and fro. The breeze blew her floral sundress around her knees as she changed direction slightly and waded into the cool water. “His name is Tony. He works at the hotel. Actually, his father owns it,” she finally answered Luke’s question.
A sharp intake of breath greeted her response. “Bola Karenga’s son?” Sophie nodded. “How did he react when you told him?”
“He insisted I get an abortion.” A shaft of pain seared her insides at the memory.
“Maybe I can talk to him, get him to do the right thing by you?” said Luke.
Sophie stopped walking and turned to him in alarm. “You can’t do that. You can’t even tell him where I am.” Her voice sounded shrill.
“He’ll force me to do it. Please Luke, keep Tony out of this,” she appealed to him. She repeated the same words to her mother thirty minutes later as they sat in her aunt’s living room. Sophie was adamant that Tony should not be told her whereabouts. A long argument ensued. Her mother and Luke argued that he should help support the babies financially but Sophie rejected the idea.
“You don’t know him like I do. He doesn’t want us. And I’m not going to beg a man to take care of me. I can take care of myself.” In the end she won. Her family agreed to keep her secret. She would stay with her aunt until the babies were born, then they would decide what to do.
Sophie knew her brother and mother felt she was just being emotional and would reconsider her stance with time, but she wouldn’t. As far as she was concerned, Tony no longer existed. Her priority now was her children.
Her days soon settled into a predictable pattern. She woke up early, cooked breakfast and cleaned the house. Her aunt had lost her husband in a road accident the year before and she’d moved to Luzi to start afresh. The couple had two sons; one in boarding school upcountry, the other worked at the Port of Meribo as a loader.
Her aunt sold curios at her stall while Sophie hawked tie and dye fabrics among tourists and office workers in Luzi. Her aunt spent a week training her on how to dye the fabrics. Thereafter Sophie spent her mornings dyeing fabrics and in the afternoons she walked the streets of Luzi looking for customers.
It was hard work and she often came home empty handed but her aunt urged her not to give up. After two months, she was doing better. She met a student at Luzi Polytechnic who bought fabric from her and later introduced her to her friends. Slowly by slowly, Sophie built up a client base. To supplement her income, she started selling mitumba to the students. It had actually come about by accident.
One day while hawking her tie and dye fabrics, a student complimented her on her outfit and asked where she’d got it. Sophie had always had a good eye and could look at a heap of second hand clothes and pick out unique items. She realised she could put this skill to good use. The bulk of mitumba sold in Bancushi came through the port of Meribo.
Sophie travelled there and spent a week getting the lay of the land and identifying the biggest clothes dealers. She finally found one who took her to his warehouse. Most traders sold the clothes in bales for onward transportation to Lavangwa and other towns. Sophie spent two days in the huge warehouse sorting through the clothes, picked the ones she wanted and transported them to Luzi.
Within two weeks she’d sold all her stock. Two months into it, she realised she was making more money from the mitumba than the tie and dye fabrics, so she decided to focus on selling mitumba. Her aunt had told her she didn’t need to contribute to the household expenses and encouraged her to save as much as she could for the arrival of her babies.
Sophie usually ended her busy workdays at the beach, where she walked for an hour before going home to cook dinner. On the days when she was tired out from walking all day she just sat and watched the waves, waving cheerfully to people strolling by.
Her gaze would linger longest on couples laughing and teasing each other, splashing in the shallow waves, filled with nostalgia at the reminder of what she’d briefly had and lost. She loved the ocean but now it conjured up bittersweet memories of her affair with Tony. Much as she tried, she couldn’t forget him, especially here, so similar to the beach where they’d spent so many happy hours together.
Still, she loved these quiet moments of reflection when she could enjoy the salty breeze and recharge after an exhausting day. The ocean was her favourite place in the world and given a choice, she would live out her life here.