Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Isabella Matebo met Lucas Dwanje at a luncheon hosted by her father at their family home in Kirinyu in Central Province, 112km from Lavangwa. Kirinyu bordered Nyago to the west.
Her family was extremely wealthy. Her grandmother on her father’s side was the daughter of a senior chief. Her uncle was the chief secretary, a position which gave him an oversight role over all cabinet ministers in Keye Mokeba’s government. He reported directly to the president.
Two of her step brothers were members of parliament and another uncle was Bancushi’s envoy to Canada. This particular function was in honour of the minister for finance who had graced a successful fundraiser for the local church earlier in the day. Isabella and several young women served the VIPs inside the house.
Other guests who had attended the harambee and villagers who had turned out in large numbers sat outside and were served food by members of the Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) who had arrived at the homestead at 3am to cook for the guests. The minister had come with a large entourage which included Dwanje, the assistant minister for health and housing.
Despite his relatively junior position, Dwanje was already showing signs of his leadership potential. He sat on the minister’s left with her father on his right, although there were more senior government officials in the room.
And he didn’t look out of place either, surveying his surroundings with keen intelligent eyes that followed her as she poured soft drinks for the guests and later carried a silver tray piled high with roast meat, moving from one man to the other as each helped himself to the choice cuts.
Two days later a small package arrived via messenger at her desk at Prudential Bank in Riverton where she’d started out as a teller before being promoted to Section Head with an oversight role over the other tellers.
Isabella signed for the package and opened it to find a square velvet case and inside a set of earrings and a necklace with a blue gemstone centre surrounded by 12 diamonds of varying sizes. She would later discover that the deep blue stone was Tanzanite, a gemstone only found in neighbouring Tanzania, mounted on 14k white gold.
The gift had no accompanying card to indicate who had sent it. She pondered over it as she tried on the necklace and earrings and admired her reflection in the bathroom mirror in her 2-bedroom flat on Aerodrome Road off Sobi Road.
“Did you like the gift I sent?” The call came on Wednesday, fifteen minutes before closing time. The low pitched voice with a sandpapery quality to it sounded familiar and she racked her brain trying to place it.
“That depends on who I’m talking to,” Isabella replied.
He chuckled. “My name is Lucas Dwanje. A beautiful girl like you deserves something special for being such a good hostess.”
The memory slammed into her brain. Tall, well built, confident but not brash like so many of the politicians she had encountered at their home. An intent gaze and a voice that had the ability to immediately quiet a room when he started speaking. “Mr Dwanje…”
“Call me Lucas,” he cut in, a flirtatious note creeping into his smooth voice.
“…I don’t know what to say,” she continued, a small flutter of nerves in her stomach. “I can’t accept it. It’s too extravagant.”
“Nonsense. It will give me great pleasure if you did and if you let me take you to dinner tomorrow.”
“What?” squeaked Isabella, caught by surprise at the invitation.
“How about the Lavangwa Club at 6.30?”
“Lucas,” he insisted in a firm tone.
“Is Friday good for you or do you prefer the weekend?” he countered smoothly.
“It’s not the day. I just can’t meet you,” she explained.
“I like you. Have dinner with me.”
“Thanks for the necklace. I have to go, there’s a customer waiting.” She hung up.
She arrived at work the following day to find a large basket of flowers on her desk. The next day he sent a fruit basket, the day after that Belgian chocolates. The gifts arrived every day like clockwork.
A voucher for a full body massage at Lavangwa Club spa, Diorella perfume by Christian Dior, 25-piece dinner set, a brown coat made of the finest Italian leather, Gucci bag with matching wallet, 18k gold watch, a diamond bracelet. Isabella finally called him in a bid to stop the deluge.
“Please stop sending me gifts,” she said, the moment he answered.
“I will on one condition,” he replied, with a deep chuckle.
“One date. Dinner or a drink, take your pick. At a place of your choice.” She hesitated and bit her lip in indecision. “It’s just an hour Bella. If after that you never want to see me again, I’ll respect your wishes.”
“Ok. Lavangwa Club 6.30 tomorrow.”
“Should I pick you up at the office or at home?”
“No need, I’ll meet you there.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow.” She hung up wondering whether she was doing the right thing. But it was just an hour out of her life. Then he would be out of her hair. Isabella disliked politicians. Most were brash and had a highly inflated opinion of themselves. Lucas wasn’t a loud mouth but she doubted she would like him any more than she had other politicians.
She was spoilt, a fact that she was very aware of. Her father had three wives. She was the lastborn and only daughter of his third wife. Her father had always doted on her and growing up she easily twisted him around her little finger, which infuriated her brothers who suffered like all his wives and other children under his heavy hand. He was a strict disciplinarian and often whipped his children into line and sometimes their mothers as well.
Except Isabella. Many of the girls in her village never went to school and those who did were educated until Form 4 and then married off. Educating a girl was generally considered a waste of money. Their value was usually pegged on how much dowry they could fetch from potential suitors.
Isabella not only completed her A levels, her father sent her to the US to get a college degree, much to the consternation of his peers who felt that she would be too old to attract a good man when she returned.
Her father encouraged her to find a job after she graduated, set her up in an apartment in the city and bought her a car, a little red Mazda which her peers really envied. She was now 28 years old and in no apparent hurry to settle down.
Even her mother who had cheered when her father insisted she go to school, had stopped hinting about marriage and now every time her daughter visited, she made a dramatic show of looking behind her, then loudly wondered why she had come alone.
Her father always defended her, saying Isabella didn’t need to get married. She would care for him in his old age. On her home visits, he took her everywhere with him and as a result she had become exposed to the world of politics, interacting with many of the political and business leaders in the community.
After attending harambees, barazas and other meetings to discuss development and political issues, they chatted long into the night as she picked his brain on events happening in Bancushi.
Rarely intimidated, even in the presence of senior political and government leaders, Isabella’s confidence and poise had many men gravitating towards her. Single men her age often shied away from making any advances however, apprehensive about the reaction from her prominent family.
As she parked her car outside the Lavangwa Club, she was struck by the irony that just a few years ago, this building was out of bounds for Africans, unless they were cooks, waiters and gardeners, in which case they used the back service entrance and strove at all times to be seen and not heard.
Membership of the club had since been opened up to Asians and Africans but it was strictly controlled, by invitation only, and restricted to wealthy businessmen, top ranking civil servants and members of the political class like Lucas. Women were not welcome except as guests of the male members.
She walked into the cool reception area with its dark brown panelled walls and maroon carpet. She mentioned Lucas’s name to the employee behind the counter dressed in a crisp white shirt, green waistcoat and black bowtie to match his trousers which had a sharp crease down the centre of each pant leg. Lucas had already signed her in. The receptionist directed her to the main restaurant.
Isabella walked into the members lounge with comfortable brown leather seats and dark brown mahogany coffee tables then onto the restaurant on the right where Lucas sat at a table for four in the centre of the room. The buffet table took up one wall and tall wide windows another.
Lucas wore a charcoal grey suit, white shirt and a tie with black and gold zigzag pattern. He stood up as she approached and gave her a swift once over before meeting her gaze and stretching out his hand for a handshake.
Isabella knew that swift appraisal had missed nothing from her afro adorned with a butterfly clip above her left ear, green dress of mid-thigh length, cream double breasted coat and sheer grey stockings to ward off the cold. Black slingbacks with a pointy toe and kitten heels completed the outfit.
Minis were currently in fashion and Isabella loved to wear them knowing they showed off her shapely legs, unlike the matchsticks sported by many Buyu women. She’d inherited her legs from her great grandmother on her mother’s side, who was from the Maa, a community of warriors who lived on meat, milk and blood. The Maa intermarried a lot with the Buyu as they traversed the vast landscape in search of pasture for their animals.
The small gap between her two front teeth was another trait from her great grandmother. Isabella thought with amusement how her college mates in the US considered it a flaw and often referred her to dentists to correct it. In Africa however, that gap was gold. A sign of beauty that enhanced a woman’s value a hundredfold.
Isabella remembered vividly a relative she’d not seen since she was a toddler exclaiming, “This one, we shall sell for a lot of money! In my days only a chief would have afforded you my dear.”
She took off her coat, slung it across the back of a chair next to his, placed her black purse on the seat and sat opposite him. Lucas resumed his seat. “How are you?”
“I’m fine thanks. How about you?” A waiter handed her a menu. She perused through it for a few minutes then chose the grilled fish and chips with steamed vegetables.
“Would you like to order a drink?”
“Do you serve wine by the glass?”
“Yes ma’am,” the waiter responded with a small bow.
“I’ll have a glass of the red, house wine.”
“Very good ma’am. Anything for you sir?” he asked Lucas.
“No drink, just plain water. Beef stew, ugali and sukuma wiki. Do you have kachumbari?” he asked, handing over his menu.
“I’ll have that on the side.”
“Very well sir. Excuse me.” The waiter went to place their order with the chef.
“Where were we?” Lucas asked.
“I’d just asked how you were.”
“I’m doing great. You look beautiful by the way.”
He leisurely surveyed her from the top of her head, down to her face where his gaze lingered on her bright red lipstick and on to her cleavage adorned with a black chunky wire crochet necklace comprising black acrylic beads in a mix of sizes and shapes strung together with gold plated artistic wire and finished with a gold plated chain and a gold tone clasp.
She wore a matching bracelet and earrings. His eyes travelled back up to meet her gaze. Isabella felt a wave of heat come over her face at the intent look on his face, eyes smouldering with what could only be described as lust. She was used to men staring at her but most tried to be unobtrusive.
He smiled and looked out the window then turned back to her. “Do you like the beach?”
“I’m taking a trip to Meribo this weekend for a harambee. Would you like to come?”
Isabella blinked in amazement. “We’ve not even had dinner and already you want me to go with you for a weekend getaway?” He nodded. “I haven’t even decided if I like you.”
“You will.” A smile curved the corners of his lips, his voice cocky.
Great. Another smug, conceited politician. Why am I surprised? She decided to change the subject. “How did you get into politics?”
Politicians loved to talk about themselves. Isabella reckoned that would keep him busy for the next hour as she pretended to listen politely, nodding every so often and injecting an “ah” or “really?” into the conversation. Then she could escape. It had worked successfully in the past when she was forced to entertain obnoxious politicians without bruising their fragile egos.
Lucas surprised her though. Instead of launching into the monologue she expected, he told her about a clash six months before between President Keye Mokeba and the Commissioner of Lands.
“This old man who was a Tiki had been allocated 200 acres in Westbrook which as you know is very prime land,” he began. Westbrook was an affluent suburb 20kms north west of Lavangwa. Before Bancushi gained independence, the area was exclusively for whites.
“A group of Buyu businessmen wanted the property and they recruited the Commissioner of Lands to help them revoke the allocation. The official story was the government was taking over the land for its own use. But their goal was to buy it and subdivide it among themselves. This poor Tiki had no friends in high places and he knew he didn’t have time to take the case to court. By the time it concluded, he’d have lost the land.”
“What did he do?”
“A neighbour, also a Buyu, heard what was going on and offered to help the old man. He suggested they get together with other neighbours and collect money which they would take to the Commissioner of Lands to persuade him to leave the land alone. He wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. He feared that if the group succeeded in taking the old man’s land, their parcels would be next. They planned to outbid the Buyu businessmen and began collecting donations.”
He leaned forward, elbows on the table and clasped his hands under his chin.
“Meanwhile, this old mzee had a problem with his back and he went to Mokeba National Hospital for treatment. He was referred to a talented physiotherapist who treated him over several sessions. In the process, he told the doctor about his land problem. He was just looking to vent and didn’t think anything would come of it. Unknown to him, daktari knew one of Keye Mokeba’s bodyguards, a man I know well who later told me the story. The bodyguard and doctor were born in the same village and had remained good friends.”
The waiter arrived with their food interrupting Lucas’s tale. He placed a plate in front of each of them and silently withdrew. Lucas, who preferred to eat his ugali the traditional way – with his hands – walked to a sink hidden in a nook at one corner of the large room, washed his hands and came back to the table.
Isabella took her fork and knife and cut a piece of the grilled fish. It had been cooked to perfection. The chips were thick cut and fried to a golden crisp on the outside, hot and fluffy within. Lucas took a few bites of his food before continuing the story.
“Daktari told his friend what the Buyu businessmen were doing to the old man and asked if he could tell his boss to intervene. The bodyguard agreed. The doctor didn’t tell his patient what he was doing. He didn’t want to raise the old man’s hopes in case the plan didn’t work.” Lucas paused to take a few more bites. “A month went by with no word from the bodyguard, then one day his friend showed up at the hospital. ‘Tell the mzee not to worry. The problem has been taken care of’ he told daktari who wanted the details, so he offered to take his friend for a nyama choma lunch.”
They walked to the back gate of the hospital, crossed the road and five minutes later arrived at the open air Mokeba market. Young men were busy washing cars outside the market which sold everything from grains, vegetables, fabrics, and even had stalls where women plaited cornrows or braided hair, working in teams of three or four which ensured that a client’s braids however tiny were completed in two or three hours unlike the six to eight hours it took a person doing the job alone.
The two friends turned left at the entrance which had a long line of butcheries with meat hanging from hooks mounted on wooden beams supporting the iron sheet roofs. Outside each butchery, patrons sat cheek by jowl on wooden benches with bare wooden tables in the middle stained from years of grease. The laughter and camaraderie sounded like a thousand bees in flight punctuated by shouts as customers called for their orders.
The arrival of the waiter, carrying a basin with a bar of soap at the bottom in one hand and a jug of water in the other, was the signal that the meat was ready. The customers washed their hands, rinsed them in the warm water and shook them dry.
The roast meat arrived on a large wooden tray with a small bowl of kachumbari which the waiter set aside and proceeded to cut the meat into bite sized pieces as hungry customers dug in, not waiting for him to finish. They dabbed juicy chunks on the salt poured at each corner of the board so that people on both sides of the table could reach it easily.
The doctor took his friend to his favourite stall and shouted a greeting to the owner. “Nusu na ugali mbili,” he ordered as he sat on the bench, other patrons moving to make room for them after giving a friendly wave. The bodyguard sat opposite and updated him as they ate.
Mokeba had summoned the Commissioner of Lands to his farm in Enasi located 50km from the capital city. He retired to his rural home every day after putting in a full day’s work at State House and never spent the night at his official residence.
He was known to conduct government business from Enasi which often hosted delegations from all over the country comprising of people who wanted to petition him to solve their problems. Troupes of traditional dancers also entertained him regularly at the farm.
The Commissioner of Lands wasn’t alarmed at the summons as he’d been to the farm on official business many times before. The housekeeper ushered him through the sprawling one storey house to the back porch where the president sat on a comfortable brown leather armchair, looking out over his manicured garden, his trademark flywhisk on a stool beside him.
The president didn’t invite him to sit so he remained standing. Mokeba started by asking, “Sipele, has the country run out of free land that the government can use?”
“No your Excellency,” the dark, short, round faced man with thick lips, a goatee and receding hairline replied promptly.
“Are you sure?”
“If we needed land to put up a factory, or government offices, where would you find it?”
“Lots of places your excellency. On the east side of the airport there are thousands of acres lying idle that we can use.”
Mokeba nodded thoughtfully and didn’t speak for some time, fixing his intense gaze on the Commissioner who shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable under the scrutiny. Mokeba’s piercing eyes with their thick shaggy eyebrows often reduced grown men to shaking, stuttering wrecks, unable to piece together a coherent sentence.
“If we have all this land, why is the government taking an old man’s shamba?”
“Mzee I assure you, no such thing has happened,” Sipele countered with an earnest expression.
Another silence ensued as Mokeba stared him down. He waved a hand and a messenger scurried from inside the house, placed a file on it and left just as quickly. Mokeba handed the file to Sipele without speaking.
The latter opened it and perused the papers inside. He looked up two minutes later, visibly trembling, panic written all over his features.
“Mzee, this is not what it looks like.” His voice had lost its confident edge and now sounded scratched and strained.
“Explain it to me then.” An edge of steel had crept into the president’s voice.
“This was just a misunderstanding,” Sipele’s voice was so low it was almost a whisper.
“Is that not your signature at the bottom?” The president’s expression hardened, his eyes flashing fire.
“Yes. But I did not have all the facts,” Sipele pleaded.
“Was the old man unable to pay for the shamba?”
“Speak up!” Sipele flinched at the command in the booming voice.
“He has fully paid for the land sir,” he replied loudly, eyes downcast.
Mokeba stared at his junior for so long that he looked like he had turned to stone. Finally he held up two thick fingers. “You have two hours. Put that shamba back in the old man’s name and have the documents on my desk.”
“Yes sir, your Excellency sir.” Sipele stood ramrod straight and saluted the president. Twice.
“You should have seen the speed at which he left the verandah. He was practically running down the corridor. I thought for a moment he would wet his pants,” the bodyguard finished narrating the story as the doctor laughed uproariously.
Isabella laughed until she cried when Lucas finished the tale, her food forgotten. She wiped the corner of her eyes with her white linen napkin and tried to compose herself. Really, who would have thought Lucas was such a good storyteller.
“What happened to the cash?” she finally asked between fits of mirth. Lucas raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “The money that the neighbours raised to give to the Commissioner?”
“As far as I know the neighbour who organised the fundraising kept it. Everyone was so relieved when the problem was solved that nobody remembered it. Or maybe they assumed it had been delivered and that’s why the reallocation was revoked. Who knows?” Lucas answered with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
A comfortable silence descended on the table as they resumed eating. Isabella put down her fork and knife a few minutes later and wiped her mouth with the napkin. A waiter hovering nearby promptly came over and took her plate and Lucas’s who had also finished eating. “More wine?” he asked pointing at her empty glass. She nodded. “Get her another.”
“More water for you sir?” asked the waiter.
“No. I’ll have coffee.”
“Milk, sugar?” Lucas nodded. The waiter inclined his head and left.
They continued chatting and Isabella lost track of time as Lucas regaled her with stories about the people and events he’d encountered in the political trenches. He had travelled widely and seemed to have an inexhaustible repertoire of stories.
He took a keen interest in her opinions and asked a lot of questions to gauge her take on the events happening in Bancushi. The 20-year age gap between them melted away as she relaxed in his company. He was a great conversationalist, by turns witty and sharply opinionated, with an ability to laugh at himself that she found endearing. He talked to her like a friend, without patronising her, unlike so many of the politicians she’d encountered.
They were the last diners to leave the club well after midnight. He escorted her to her little red Mazda. “Wait a few minutes. I’m parked on the other side. I’ll follow you home.”
“You don’t have to do that, I’ll be fine,” she protested getting into the driver’s seat and closing the door. She rolled down her window.
“I insist.” His tone was firm.
“Ok, thanks.” A pleased smile lit up his expression.
She reversed her car then waited, engine idling. A few minutes later a white Peugeot 504 pulled up alongside her and the driver’s window rolled down. He gestured with his hand for her to go ahead of him. She put the car in gear and drove to the gate.
There was little traffic at this time of night and they arrived at her house in five minutes. She parked in her allotted spot, switched off the engine and got out of the car. She walked to where he had parked. “Thanks for dinner and escorting me home. Goodnight.”
“So how about this weekend?” She had completely forgotten about his earlier invitation to accompany him to the coast. She hesitated, biting her lip. “Think about it ok?” She nodded. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Goodnight.”
She took a step back and watched as he drove off, then entered the apartment building mulling over his invitation. She’d had a great time. But did she really want to go on another date with him?
She entered her second floor flat, went straight to the bedroom and stripped off her clothes before getting into the shower. An hour later, as she got into bed, she was no nearer to making a decision. She decided to forget about it. Plenty of time to think it over in the next few days.
She turned down his invitation to go to Meribo but Lucas wasn’t easily discouraged. He kept at her and called every day until she agreed to go on another date with him.
They met for coffee on a weekday after work at a café across the road from her office building. She had such a good time that when he suggested they have dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, she agreed without hesitation. Once again, they were the last patrons to leave after midnight.
After that they met once a week for coffee, sometimes dinner and in the process she got to know him well. She never invited him upstairs to her flat; neither did she accept his frequent invitations for weekend getaways in exotic locations along Bancushi’s coast and game parks. Isabella was hesitant to take that step with him for some reason that she had yet to figure out.
If she thought her constant refusals would discourage him, she was wrong. He kept asking her out and every time he travelled out of the country, brought back a gift for her. She’d long ago given up asking him to stop buying her stuff and now just accepted them with a smile and warm thanks.
She met Bola in August, four months after the luncheon at her father’s home where she first met Lucas. The tall man with broad shoulders and a pleasant face looked weary and harassed as if weighed down by a million problems. His cheap brown suit was wrinkled as if he’d slept in it and his black leather shoes were scuffed and dusty. Despite this, he had a commanding presence.
His low voice didn’t seem to emanate from his throat but rumbled up from his belly, a gravelly, pleasant sound that brought to mind images of a lion that had been tamed but still walked like it owned the jungle, with a grace and power that was all the more compelling because he seemed totally oblivious to it.
She noticed the way her workmates followed him with their eyes, their expressions frankly curious, as he navigated the sea of desks to her corner cubicle.
She listened as he explained that a large sum he’d wired from his bank in Baret to his sister’s account two days before hadn’t arrived. When she asked about the account holder’s whereabouts, he explained that she was at the hospital with his sick daughter. Isabella finally found the bottleneck two hours later and had the cash credited to his sister’s account.
He didn’t say much as he waited, just sat with a worried, distracted look. Afterwards, he thanked her graciously and left, once again totally oblivious of the curious eyes that followed his progress across the room.
She ran into him three weeks later at the Lavangwa Hospital. He sat on a bench outside the children’s ward on the third floor which she had just left after visiting a colleague’s daughter who had been hospitalised the week before after breaking both legs in a road accident. Bola wore the same worried distracted look she’d seen before.
She watched as he got up and began to pace. She wanted to speak to him but hesitated, not wanting to intrude on his private grief. Something about the way he looked however, a vulnerability in his eyes and in his drooping shoulders, tugged at her heart. He looked so alone.
“Are you okay?” He stopped pacing and stared at her with a blank look. “We met a few weeks ago at the bank when you had a problem with a cash transfer?” A look of recognition crossed his face.
“I remember. How are you?” He extended his hand for a handshake.
“I’m fine thanks. You have someone in the hospital?”
A shadow crossed his face. “My daughter Makena. She’s in surgery. She fell in the bathroom and broke her leg.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Is it bad?” Her voice was soft with sympathy.
Bola nodded grimly. “She has OI so the risks of complications are higher.” When he saw her look of puzzlement he clarified, “Brittle bone disease.”
“How old is she?”
Isabella didn’t know what came over her then. ‘It just seemed like the right thing to do,’ she would later tell Salome, her best friend. All she knew was that this strong man who looked like he carried the weight of the entire world on his shoulders needed a friend and she didn’t see anyone at his side.
“I could use a cup of tea. Would you like one? You just look so worried, I thought some conversation might be good. You don’t know me or anything but I just want to help, if I can.” The words came out in a rush, jumbled up, as she worried about his reaction.
“I guess a cup of tea with my banker – or should I say, my sister’s banker wouldn’t hurt. There’s a cafeteria on the ground floor. Will that be fine?” She smiled and nodded.
“What is Baret like?” she asked, after the waiter brought their tea. She listened as he told her about his job as District Education Officer which he’d been doing for close to three years, occasionally taking a sip from his cup.
She asked him if he’d ever been to Uganda and when he nodded, pumped him for details about the country which she’d never visited. She was pleased to note that the lines of tension on his face had relaxed. Thirty minutes later Bola looked at his watch.
“The surgery must be over by now. Thanks for keeping me company.”
“You’re welcome. It was a pleasure seeing you again. I wish your daughter a quick recovery,” she said as they both stood up.
Before leaving the hospital, she passed through the hospital gift shop, purchased a get well card and a basket of flowers which she asked the florist to deliver to Makena’s hospital bed.
A month later, on a cold drizzly day in early October, she got a call from him. “How may I be of service?” she asked after they exchanged the usual pleasantries, sure he had called about official business. He coughed as if nervous and a long silence followed. “Is there a problem?” She prompted.
He cleared his throat before answering. “No. I was just wondering if you’d like to meet. I really enjoyed our conversation the last time and would like to see you again.”
“Are you in town?”
“Yes. Can I buy you lunch?”
“Sure. Where do we meet?”
“Actually, I’m downstairs in the banking hall, at the customer care desk. Why don’t you come down, then you can tell me your favourite restaurant.”
“Ok. Just give me a few minutes to sign some letters.”
She took him to Haandi, a popular restaurant that specialised in Northern Indian cuisine. They chatted animatedly over chicken curry and naan. Bola looked happier and much more relaxed in his tan Kaunda suit and brown leather shoes. She asked about his daughter’s recovery.
“She’s doing great, no complications, which is a relief.” After some gentle probing, Bola revealed why he had been so stressed out on his last visit to the capital.
Tony, his third born, had been suspended from the boarding school he attended as a Form 3 student after a fight with a fellow student. It was his second suspension from the school whose principal had stated in very clear terms that unless his son changed his behaviour and attitude, he wouldn’t be welcomed back at the institution.
Tony had a problem with authority and in recent months his bad behaviour had escalated – picking fights with other students, sneaking out of school to do God knows what at the nearby shopping centre, not completing his homework in time. Not surprisingly, his grades had plummeted. Bola had tried talking to him but nothing had changed. He was now at his wits end.
As if that wasn’t enough, Makena had slipped in the bathroom and fallen, sustaining a compound lower leg fracture that required surgery to clean the wound and stabilise the bones. The doctor had explained to him that open fractures like the one she’d sustained had a high risk of infection or complications and took longer to heal. Given her condition, those risks increased a hundredfold.
Makena was in Standard 7 and was preparing for the national Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exams in December. She was two years behind her age mates as a result of missing so much school due to her illness. He’d stayed up all night with her as she cried in pain, fretting about missing even more school.
He knew she had her heart set on joining St Anne’s which had a great arts programme but the entry criteria was really high and competition stiff. Makena really wanted to do well and worried that her grades wouldn’t measure up.
Working so far away from home wasn’t helping matters. When he was posted to Baret, he’d asked his youngest sister who was single if she would move in and take care of Makena and his youngest Grace, now 8 years old and in Standard 3.
She’d done a fantastic job, but Bola worried about his kids nevertheless. Losing Consolata had been really tough on them. James, his oldest had been just 11 years old at the time and Grace, a new born. He’d done his best but he often wondered if he should have remarried if only to give his children a mother.
“You did the best you could, that’s all anybody can do,” Isabella reassured him gently.
“I didn’t mean to dump all that on you. I wanted to take you for a nice lunch, not bore you with my problems,” Bola replied, looking contrite.
“I’m having a good time. And I’m glad you told me. I sensed you were having some kind of crisis but I didn’t want to ask. We hardly know each other.”
“You’re easy to talk to,” he told her with a warm smile that took her breath away. He really should smile more. It lit up his whole face and made him so much more approachable and attractive.
“Is Tony back at school?” She quickly steered the conversation back to his kids.
“Yes, but still misbehaving. Every time the phone rings, I worry that it’s his headmaster calling to inform me that he’s been expelled,” Bola said with a deep sigh.
“Could it be the school? Maybe he’s unhappy there?”
“I don’t know. When I try to talk to him he clams up, just says he’ll never repeat whatever got him suspended. Then a few weeks later, we’re back to square one. At first I thought it’s just teenage rebellion, but now…”
“There could be a deeper problem that he’s not comfortable discussing.”
“Why not just tell me?”
“Maybe he thinks he needs to be tough and just suck it up. His mother is dead. You work far away from home. His sister is often in hospital. Maybe he feels you have enough to deal with and doesn’t want to burden you with it.”
“So how do I get him to open up?”
She thought about it for several minutes as they both focussed on their food. “What does he do during the half term break?”
Bola shrugged. “He comes home, stays with my sister and the girls. I try to make a trip down from Baret to coincide with the break but it’s not always possible to get leave.”
“How about instead of him coming home, you ask him to travel to Baret and stay with you. Spend some real quality time, just the two of you. Maybe cross over to Uganda and see the sights. Don’t pressure him to talk. Just let him know you’re there for him, if he wants to share anything.”
Bola stared at her thoughtfully. “That might just work. How did you get to be so insightful about kids?”
“I grew up in a polygamous home with lots of brothers and sisters. I was a brat and acted up to get attention. I’m not saying Tony is spoilt like I was but I do think his unruly behaviour is a cry for help. Focus on him exclusively for a few days and he’ll probably tell you what’s wrong.”
“Spoilt brat huh?” he grinned at her.
“Don’t go there,” Isabella waved a warning finger. “It’s in the past. Let’s keep it there.”
He laughed. “You’re the one who brought it up.”
“To make a point. Now that I’ve made it, let’s talk about something else.”
“Aw come on, I want to know about your childhood.”
“I like you. You’re the most fascinating woman I’ve ever met. And so beautiful.” His eyes twinkled with merriment and his lips curved into a smile. Bola looking vulnerable was one thing, but Bola flirting and teasing was irresistible. Boy, she was really in trouble here. “Tell me what it’s like growing up as a spoilt brat.”
Isabella gazed at him ruefully then started talking. Much later she glanced at her watch, surprised to realise it was almost 3pm.
“Oh no. I have to get back before I’m fired.” Bola signalled the waiter for the bill.
“Just tell your boss you had a business lunch with a customer.”
“Technically, you’re not our customer. Your sister is.”
“A loophole that is easily remedied. I’ll walk you back to the office and open an account right now.” Isabella laughed and slapped him playfully on the shoulder. “I’m serious. I intend to take you for many more lunches. We may need that cover story one of these days.”
“I’ll be fine. I was just kidding about getting fired.”
“Sure?” She nodded. “When can I see you again?” He extracted some notes from his wallet for the bill, tucked them into the leather bill holder and handed it to the waiter.
“How long are you in town?”
“A week. I’ll be in a workshop during the day, but we can meet in the evenings. How about dinner tomorrow night?”
“Ok. 7.30pm here?” she suggested. “If you liked the food that is,” she hastily amended.
“See you tomorrow,” she said as they parted ways on the street.
They met for dinner thrice during his week-long stay in the capital city. After he went back to Baret, they spoke for an hour every night on the phone.
He came to Lavangwa twice a month for weekend visits and they spent every available minute together when he wasn’t with his children. Bola didn’t shower her with gifts or suggest outings in exotic locations like Lucas.
Their dates were simple – a picnic in the public park near her house, a stroll around the animal orphanage at Lavangwa National Park, the occasional movie at Bancushi Cinema. They spoke often about his children and before long, Isabella felt like she knew and loved them, even though she hadn’t met them.
It turned out that she had been right about Tony. He was miserable in his school which put a lot of pressure on students to excel, forcing them to study day and night with very few breaks for other activities like sports. Tony had confided that he hated boarding school and would prefer to attend a day school so he could see his sisters every day and help take care of Makena when she got injured.
Bola knew that Tony and Makena shared a special bond but he was surprised at how deep it ran. When he told Isabella about his conversation with his son, she suggested a transfer to St Mathew’s, a private boys’ day school in Lavangwa owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Lavangwa which offered both the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and the British curriculum.
They visited the school one morning in November and toured the facilities. Bola was impressed and particularly liked the extracurricular activities offered to students including sports, clubs, music and drama. He immediately sought admission for his son. Not wanting to waste any time, he picked up his son from school the same week and brought him to St Mathew’s for a day so that he could take the entrance examination.
A few days later the school informed him that Tony had passed and could start in January, the start of the academic year. With just a year to the national CSE examination, Bola really hoped that his son would settle well into the new school and that his performance would improve now that he’d got his wish to be close to his sister.
Makena had sat for her CPE examinations a few weeks before and she was positive she would get good results. Not that it mattered. Acting on Isabella’s advice, Bola approached the principal of St Anne’s and asked for admission for his daughter based on samples of her paintings and her mock exam results in which she’d scored a B+ average.
Bola explained his daughter’s condition and the principal was so impressed by her resilience and courage as well as her talent that she admitted Makena on the spot. She cried with happiness when Bola told her the good news. He’d already purchased the school uniform.
Makena put it on every day and admired her reflection in the mirror in her bedroom, giddy with excitement. She couldn’t wait to report to the exclusive girls’ day school for her first term as a secondary school student.
As Isabella’s friendship with Bola flourished, her relationship with Lucas cooled. She had turned down his invitations for coffee and dinner over the past few weeks hoping he would get the message that she was not interested in having an affair with him, but Lucas was nothing if not persistent. He seemed to have taken her constant refusals as a challenge.
She arrived home one evening after work to find him waiting for her at the parking lot, leaning nonchalantly against a brand new, black Toyota Land cruiser. “You’ve been avoiding me,” he said, straightening up and leaning in to kiss her.
She stiffened and his lips barely connected with the soft flesh of her cheek before she pulled away. A frown knit his brows at her reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Her smile was tight. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to take you for dinner at the club.”
Isabella took a deep breath. “Lucas, I like you. You’ve become a good friend. But I can’t date you anymore.”
He scanned her features keenly as if trying to get inside her head and decipher some deep secret code buried there. “We won’t call it a date. Dinner with a friend?” he finally said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why? Are you seeing someone else?” His voice was sharp, his body tense.
She bit her lip weighing how best to answer the question. While she hoped that her friendship with Bola would develop into something deeper and long term, he wasn’t the reason she was breaking it off with Lucas. There had always been a barrier between them, a yawning gap that she’d been unable to bridge and for months she’d wondered about it.
She’d finally figured it out. She didn’t want to be a second wife, which is all that Lucas could offer her. Knowing him however, that might not be enough of a deterrent. Perhaps admitting she was dating someone else would do the trick.
“Yes.” A sharp intake of breath greeted her answer.
“Who is he?”
“No one you know.”
“What can he give you that I can’t?”
“I don’t need expensive gifts and holidays to exotic places. I’m happy just being with him,” she replied.
He stepped closer and grasped her upper arms. “I can make you happy.” Isabella stared up at him and sighed. Lucas searched her features, an earnest expression in his eyes. “Just tell me what you need. Whatever you want. I’ll give it to you.”
Isabella bit her lip and decided that honesty might be the best policy after all. “I don’t want to be a second wife.”
The fingers grasping her arms tightened. “You wouldn’t just be a second wife, you’ll be my queen. I’m going to be president one day Bella. You can stand by my side and be the first lady of Bancushi.”
Isabella believed him. Lucas had made no secret of his political ambitions. He had shared his dreams freely in the months she’d known him, talking for hours about his vision for the country. She knew he was smart enough and determined enough to make it happen.
He cupped her face in both hands, lowered his face to hers and pressed a gentle kiss on her lips. He raised his head and stared deeply into her eyes. “Hannah is a good woman and she’s a wonderful mother to my children.”
Isabella stiffened at the words and tried to move away. Lucas’s hands tightened on her face and he moved closer until there was barely an inch separating their bodies.
“But she has no interest in politics. I can talk to you about all aspects of my work. I like to hear your ideas about the things going on in the country and what the government is doing. When I’m with you I feel so alive, in a way that I haven’t with any other woman, even my wife. When I travel I think of you and I look forward to coming home so that I can see you. I love you Bella. Marry me. Think of the good life we will have when I am president. We’ll travel all over the world, meet other presidents and their first ladies and stay in the finest hotels. You’ll be treated like a queen my Bella.”
Her eyes opened wide in astonishment. Had he just proposed to her? She stared at him momentarily lost for words. “Did you just…?” Her voice was a faint whisper.
“Ask you to marry me?” he finished for her. He smiled, bent his head and kissed her deeply. He lifted his head and searched her eyes waiting for an answer. The silence lasted so long that he finally bent his head again and touched her forehead with his.
“Please say yes my Bella.” A whisper of need throbbed in the sandpapery voice, sending a pang of guilt straight to her gut.
“I can’t.” His whole body stiffened at the agonised whisper that she finally forced out of her throat. “I’m so sorry Lucas, but I can’t marry you.”
With those words she twisted out of his embrace and before he could react, turned and ran into her apartment building, praying he didn’t follow her. She took the stairs two at a time and once at her door, reached inside her handbag with shaky fingers and withdrew her keys while glancing over her shoulder.
She thrust the key into the lock, turned it, opened the door, then hastily closed and locked it. She pressed her forehead to the warm, smooth wood, tears dripping down her cheeks. She stood there for a long time thinking about his words. She had known Lucas’s feelings for her were getting serious but she hadn’t imagined he would propose this soon. In hindsight, she should have known.
Men like Lucas could have any girl they wanted. He wouldn’t waste time lavishing gifts on a woman unless he was serious about her. Guilt settled like a heavy stone in the pit of her stomach. She should have broken it off with him weeks ago when doubts about him first crept into her consciousness. She knew she’d hurt him with her refusal.
No matter how luxurious a life he gave her, even the idea of being first lady with all the trappings of power that came with the position couldn’t erase her dread at the thought of being a second wife. She knew first-hand what it was like to grow up in a polygamous home.
She’d watched her mother being treated shabbily by her co-wives even though in public they pretended to accept her. She’d lived through petty jealousies blown out of proportion resulting in fights where the children got dragged in, egged on by their mothers to hate on their siblings simply because they were born of a different mother.
She suspected that was the reason her father ruled his home with such a heavy hand. It was the only way he could keep peace among his three wives and numerous children. If he’d shown weakness, his whole life would have been one crisis after another as his family squabbled among themselves.
It was the reason she acted like such a spoilt brat growing up. It helped to secure her father’s protection from bullying by her siblings, most of them much older and bigger. Isabella had sworn never to live like that or expose her children to the life of a polygamous family.
Lucas was charismatic and powerful. If she married him she would be the envy of her peers. But Bola needed her in a way that Lucas probably never would. He was strong, kind, a wonderful father. The combination of strength with just a hint of the vulnerability that she glimpsed every now and then appealed to her. She felt so safe when she was with him.
Lucas was also strong, but he had a calculating, cold side to him that worried her. Isabella suspected that part of Lucas’s attraction to her was because of her powerful family. Marrying her would forge a useful partnership with a political family that could prove beneficial in his quest to climb the party ladder and position himself as Mokeba’s successor.
But even if she was wrong about his motives for wanting to marry her, the fact that she would be a second wife was enough reason to put her off.
Two weeks later, after a weekend visit to her parents’ home, Isabella opened the door to her flat and stood in surprise on the threshold, sure she’d walked into the wrong house.
She took a step back to check the number on the brass plate beside the door and confirmed that indeed this was her apartment. Where was her furniture? The beige three seater sofa set with a brown embroidered throw over the back was gone. In its place sat a cream coloured leather L-shaped sofa with two leather wing chairs in the same colour.
The black hardwood coffee table had disappeared. In its place stood a shiny chrome and glass square table which matched the wall unit along one wall with a brand new 26 inch television set and video player proudly displayed. Thick, luxurious wall to wall red carpet had replaced the brown patterned rug that once covered the floor. What the hell was going on?
Her cousin rushed in from the guest bedroom. “Surprise!”
“What happened to my furniture?” Isabella asked in a daze.
“Do you like it?”
Isabella surveyed the room critically. “It’s certainly different.”
“Is that yes or no?”
“Lillian, where did my furniture go?”
Her tall gangly cousin giggled like a schoolgirl. She had a warm bubbly personality that made her easy to get along with. “Your boyfriend took it. Said he wanted to surprise you for your birthday. Surprise!”
“Yeah, he came on Friday with a bunch of guys from Victoria Furnitures. They took measurements of the floor and windows, asked me what your favourite colours were and then left. They came back on Saturday afternoon to fit the carpet, then replaced all the furniture. They brought the curtains yesterday.”
Isabella had been so intent on the furniture she hadn’t even noticed the windows. The light brown curtains were gone and plush, satin gold drapes hung in their place with gold and dark brown tiebacks attached to elaborately curved metal brackets on the wall with a gold paint finish.
“Come see your bedroom, it’s to die for.” Her cousin grasped her hand and pulled her in the direction of the master bedroom.
Her simple white bed had been replaced with an oak queen size bed with high headboard and matching bedside tables on which table lamps stood with the same gold finish as the curtain holders and cream shades. Here too, lush red wall to wall carpet had replaced the rug next to her bed.
“They changed my room too. They had a brochure with pictures of all their furniture. They told me to go through it and pick whatever I wanted.” Isabella followed her silently to the second bedroom and stood in the doorway staring at the medium sized bed with pink headboard that her cousin had chosen.
“Who selected the furniture for the living room and my room? You?” she finally asked.
“Oh no.” Her cousin shook her head laughing. “Your boyfriend did. He said he knew exactly what you’d like, just needed to confirm the colours you preferred.”
“This boyfriend of mine, did he give you a name?” The dry note in her voice wiped the giddy smile off her cousin’s face, replacing it with a worried frown.
“Lucas Dwanje.” Isabella’s shoulders slumped at the mention of the name. “Don’t you like the furniture?” The question was wary, as Lillian searched her cousin’s face in confusion.
The other woman had moved in three weeks before after returning from the US where she obtained a degree in Sociology. Isabella had offered to house her until she found a job and saved up enough money to get her own place. Now she cursed her generosity. “He said you’d be pleased.”
Isabella left the room and walked into the kitchen. “Well at least this room looks familiar,” she said with relief turning to her cousin who had followed and now stood silently in the doorway looking stricken.
“He said you’d be happy,” she repeated as Isabella brushed past her on the way to the living room.
“All this stuff has to go back. I assume they took my old furniture?” Lillian nodded. “Do you know where?” The other woman shook her head.
“He said you’d be over the moon when you saw the transformation.”
“Stop saying that,” Isabella finally snapped, turning on her cousin with a ferocious glare. “I liked my house just the way it was. And just so you know, he isn’t my boyfriend.”
“Oh my God. He’s not?”
“No.” Her cousin sat down heavily on the new sofa and stared at her in disbelief.
“But he knew so much about you. And our family.” The poor girl looked really confused and seemed on the verge of tears.
“We were dating, but I broke up with him,” Isabella clarified gently.
She sat down in one of the leather armchairs and surveyed the room critically again. It felt surreal, like she was sitting in the showroom at Victoria Furnitures, a store she’d often passed when walking the streets of the central business district. Seeing it all here in her house felt really strange. She knew for a fact the furniture had cost a fortune. The store was really high end. Lucas had clearly spared no expense but why? What was he up to?
She’d figure it out later. Right now she needed to get her old furniture back. “You said they came with a brochure? Where is it?”
Lillian stood up without a word and went into her bedroom. She returned holding a brightly coloured glossy pamphlet which she handed to her cousin, then resumed her seat on the L-shaped sofa. Isabella turned it over to the back page which had the shop’s address. She got up and went to the telephone in the corner. “What are you doing?”
“Calling the store to come and take back this stuff and return my furniture.”
“It’s after six. They’re probably closed.”
Isabella listened as the phone rang endlessly on the other side. No answer. “I’ll call them tomorrow.” Her cousin cleared her throat and nibbled on her lower lip, a sure sign that she was nervous. “What?”
“I heard Dwanje tell them to donate your stuff.”
Her cousin began to wring her hands in dismay at Isabella’s sharp response. “A children’s home, I think…I’m not sure.”
Isabella glared at her for long moments feeling helpless. She couldn’t very well go and take back her furniture from destitute children now could she? “Why didn’t you call me at my mum’s house? I could have stopped this,” she finally snapped in irritation.
“He said he wanted it to be a surprise for…”
“My birthday. You already said that,” she finished for her. “I’m going to take a shower.” She marched out of the room, fuming.
“What would you like for dinner?” her cousin called after her.
“I’ve lost my appetite.” She entered her room and slammed the door. She stayed there the rest of the evening, only emerging briefly at 10pm to make a sandwich, which she ate in her room. The appetising smell of frying pancakes woke her up the next morning.
“I’m really sorry.” Lillian removed her apron after putting the last of the pancakes into a dish and replacing the cover.
“It’s ok. I don’t really blame you. I was just mad and you happened to be the only person around, so I took it out on you,” Isabella replied, giving her a hug.
“You really hate the new furniture?” Lillian asked as they took their pancakes and tea into the living room. They sat on the L-shaped sofa. Isabella surveyed the room once more.
“I love the furniture. It’s exactly what I would have chosen.” Her voice was wistful.
“Then what’s the problem?” Lillian asked softly, looking confused.
Isabella sighed and turned to face her cousin. “I didn’t want any more of his gifts.”
Lillian’s eyes widened as comprehension dawned. “You’re in love with someone else.” Her cousin nodded. “And this complicates things,” she continued, reading Isabella’s mind.
“I’m really sorry. I should have called you before accepting it.” Her cousin’s low distressed tone and crestfallen expression touched Isabella.
She reached out and clasped her cousin’s hands in hers. “Don’t worry. I’ll find a way out of this.” They finished their breakfast in silence. Isabella left for work twenty minutes later.