Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Isabella locked her files in the cabinet and left the office, glad the day was finally over.
Her early morning call to Victoria Furnitures Limited had confirmed that the store had sent her furniture to the SOS Children’s Village in Borabu, a large middleclass residential area in the Eastlands part of Lavangwa. The manager had asked excitedly what she thought of her new stuff.
She didn’t have the heart to disappoint him, so she pretended to be thrilled about the makeover. She had tried to reach Lucas but he was tied up in meetings all day. He needed to understand that their relationship was over. Now that conversation would have to wait until tomorrow.
The only bright spot in her day had been the mid-morning phone call from Bola wishing her a happy birthday. He had just arrived in the city and asked if he could take her out for dinner to celebrate. The thought cheered her up considerably. Her doorbell rang at 7pm. She ushered him in still dressed in her robe, fresh from the shower.
He kissed her on the cheek. “Hi, how was your day?”
“Ok. Come in. Have a seat while I get dressed.” He preceded her into the living room. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Bola stood in the middle of the living room, surprised at the transformation. Isabella walked further into the room and stood next to him, arms crossed over her chest. “What do you think?”
“It’s nice.” He sat on the L-shaped sofa and pressed his hands to the cushions, testing the firmness, then he leaned back. “Very nice. When did you get it?” The doorbell rang before she could respond.
She frowned, wondering who it could be. Perhaps her neighbour downstairs wanted to borrow her electric hand mixer again. Not that Isabella minded. She never baked. The mixer had been a housewarming gift from an aunt and stayed mostly unused in a drawer. Plus, her neighbour always brought a generous slice of whatever she’d baked when she returned the mixer.
The smile on her face died when she opened the door to find Lucas on her doorstep. “What…are you doing here?” she stammered in surprise. He greeted her with a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Happy birthday! Did you like the surprise?” He entered the living room and stopped abruptly when he saw Bola seated on the sofa. Isabella slowly closed the door and turned to face them. She stared at first one, then the other, speechless.
“Hi, I’m Lucas Dwanje, how are you?” Lucas broke the silence, extending his hand to shake Bola’s.
He looked sharp in his blue designer suit, crisp white shirt, grey tie with blue and white stripes, grey pocket square and brown handmade Italian lace-up shoes. Bola was casually dressed in brown corduroys, cream polo neck and black loafers.
Bola stood up and shook the proffered hand. “Bola Karenga. Pleased to meet you.”
“Did you like the furniture?” Lucas spread his arms in a gesture encompassing the whole room before turning to face her. Bola, who had resumed his seat frowned and stared at her with a puzzled expression. Isabella winced and closed her eyes in distress. Damn Lucas and his big mouth.
“It was a present for her birthday,” he told Bola, a wide smile curving his lips. Bola continued to stare at her, a silent question in his eyes.
“I had no idea he was going to do this. I came home yesterday to find all my furniture gone and all this stuff here,” she finally said walking to the sofa. She sat beside him and stared pleadingly into his eyes willing him to believe her. “I didn’t ask for it.”
“Bella?” Lucas’s smile faded, replaced by a frown. “You liked the surprise right?”
She turned to him, eyes blazing in fury. “I’ve been trying to reach you all day. Where have you been?”
“I was at the office. The minister called a department meeting and we were…”
“How could you do this?” she interrupted fiercely, waving her hands in agitation.
“I thought you’d be pleased.”
“I’m not. And why on earth did you tell the store to donate my stuff? You had no right.”
She stood up and faced him arms akimbo, seething with wrath, intending to face him down. The effect was lost however, due to her short stature. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. She tilted her head to stare at him, eyes flashing daggers.
“Bella please don’t be angry. I just wanted to do something nice for your birthday.”
“We broke up. I’m seeing someone else. I thought I made that clear?”
He glanced at Bola over her shoulder. “Can we talk in private?” He jerked his head towards the front door.
“I have nothing more to say to you.”
“Bella come downstairs with me. There’s something I want to show you.”
“What?” She stared at him in suspicion.
He took her arm and pulled her towards the front door. “Just come with me, please.”
He dragged her down the stairs as she protested the entire time, pulling at the fingers clutching her arm so tightly it hurt, in a vain attempt to break his hold. Once outside the apartment block, he pulled her towards a brand new Mercedes Benz parked close to the entrance, decorated with a bright red ribbon tied into a bow at the top.
“What is this?” she asked as he released her arm.
“It’s for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key which he held out to her.
“You bought me a car?” she whispered in disbelief, numb with shock.
Isabella covered her face with her hands and closed her eyes. She shook her head and prayed that this was just a bad dream. She opened her eyes. Nope. The car was still there, a shiny silver machine with Lucas standing next to it, love shining in his eyes, an expression that made her sick inside.
She sighed and took a step towards him. “You shouldn’t have done this. It’s over between us. Surely you realise that? I can’t accept it,” she said gently.
“I love you Bella.” His voice was rough with emotion.
“Please Lucas, don’t do this to me,” Isabella pleaded.
“Is that him…the man you’re dating?” He glanced up at her apartment building.
“Is it because he’s Buyu and I’m Benji? Is that why you don’t want me?”
“No.” Her voice was sharp. “Tribe has nothing to do with it. I already told you why I can’t be with you.” Her voice had resumed its mellow soothing tone.
“I can make you happy Bella. You’re my queen. I’ll cherish you until the day I die. Marry me, please.”
Those last words were spoken into her hair as he closed the few inches separating them and embraced her. Isabella let him hold her close for a few seconds, knowing how much her refusal to marry him had hurt him. Then she stepped back, still in the circle of his arms and stared up at him with resolve in her eyes and in her voice when she spoke.
“Please Lucas, it’s not going to work. You have to let me go.” He stared down at her for a long moment then pulled her close to him once more, lowered his head and kissed her.
Isabella broke the kiss and pushed against him until he released her. “Stop that. I told you it’s over between us. Now please go and take this car with you. I don’t want it.”
It’s as if he didn’t hear her. He was looking behind her, a small smile playing on his lips. Isabella turned and froze when she saw Bola standing at the entrance to the apartment block. She gasped in dismay when she saw his face, lips pulled tightly across his mouth, the two creases on either side of his cheeks deeper than usual; his body tense with fury.
Isabella ran to him. “Bola, this isn’t what you think…”
He brushed past her and walked swiftly to his car. She was forced to run to keep up with his long strides. She caught up with him just before he opened the driver’s door of a battered white Datsun pickup that had clearly seen better days, a sharp contrast to Lucas’s Land cruiser and the Mercedes Benz which gleamed under the bright security lights of her apartment building, fresh from the showroom with not a single speck of dust on her angular clean lines.
“Bola please don’t go.” She pushed his hand away from the door handle and inserted herself between him and the car. “Let me explain.”
“No need. It was pretty clear from where I was standing.” His voice was calm but she saw the way he threw a furious glance at Lucas who leaned nonchalantly against the Mercedes, arms crossed over his chest watching them.
“No it isn’t. You have to let me explain.” Bola put his hands on her waist and lifted her away from the car. He opened the door, entered the car and slammed the door shut.
“Bola please don’t go,” she screamed, banging her hands against the closed window. He started the engine and put the car in gear then drove off, tyres squealing.
He left Isabella doubled over in pain, tears streaming down her cheeks, still begging him not to leave. Lucas put his arm around her shoulders. She jerked out of his hold. “Get away from me.”
“Bella please, I…”
“Don’t talk to me, I hate you.” She turned and ran into the building. Once upstairs, she locked the door, threw herself on the sofa and wept brokenly. A few minutes later she heard a knock on her front door. She rushed to the door praying that Bola had come back but Lucas’s voice stopped her in the act of opening it.
“Bella, please open the door.” His voice sounded muffled through the thick wood.
She sank to the floor and cried for Bola, the pain a raw gaping wound in her heart. Lucas knocked on her door for a long time but Isabella didn’t hear him, lost in her own private hell at the thought that she might never see Bola again, never hear the booming laugh which shook his belly, or his voice teasing her as laughter crinkled the corners of his eyes and exposed his deep dimples.
She might never get to kiss that sensual mouth again or enjoy the sensation of his moustache tickling the tip of her nose. She recalled the many evenings they’d spent in her living room dancing to his favourite records.
Bola loved music and had an extensive collection of LP records which he’d brought to her apartment so they could enjoy them together. He would leaf through the stack of albums on the shelf, select one and slide the shiny, round black vinyl record with a brightly coloured label in the centre out of its sleeve.
Holding it carefully by the edges, he’d blow on it to remove imaginary specks of dust – Bola kept his records in immaculate condition – and carefully slip it into place on the turntable. The disc would begin to spin, an arm would drop to the outer edge of the disc, its sharp needle would make contact and rich melodious sounds would fill the room, with occasional crackling sounds due to static.
Bola would spin her slowly around the room to the sounds of Isaya Mwinamo’s Julieta uko wapi, Daudi Kabaka’s Pole Musa, Don Williams You’re My Best Friend, then speed up the rhythm with Daudi Kabaka’s African Bush Baby Twist as she laughed at his bumbling attempts to twist all the way down to the floor, something she accomplished with ease.
Filled with melancholy, she got up and went to the stack of records. She selected Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight and put it on the record player. The tender ballad filled the room, the King’s powerful voice sounding restrained on this tune, almost a whispered falsetto, giving the song an aching sincerity, an indefinable quality of yearning, which fitted her mood perfectly.
She played the song over and over, desperately waiting for Bola’s knock at her door. Much later she fell asleep on the couch, the only sound the scratching of the LP record player needle on the disc once it reached the end.
She called him every day but Bola never answered the phone. Was he still in the city? She had assumed that he’d gone back to Baret.
She didn’t have the telephone number for his home in Lavangwa. Bola had always been the one who called her while in the city. The days dragged by slowly. She reported to work every morning, worked like a robot and at the end of the day called Bola who never answered.
She cried herself to sleep every night. Lillian, who hadn’t been home that evening, asked her numerous times what was wrong but Isabella refused to discuss it. Lucas called a few times but she hung up every time she heard his voice. Thank goodness he hadn’t come back to the apartment.
One Saturday afternoon three weeks after her birthday, a knock sounded on her door. Isabella opened it to find Bola on the threshold. Lines of worry marked his features, his red eyes had bags under them, the eyes of a man who hadn’t been sleeping very well. That made two of them.
“May I come in?” She nodded silently and stood aside to let him enter. She closed the door and turned to face him. He had stopped just inside the doorway as if unsure of his welcome.
“Please sit.” She entered the kitchen and poured a glass of his favourite mango juice then joined him in the living room. They sat on opposite ends of the L-shaped leather sofa.
“How are you?” Bola asked, after taking a sip of the juice.
“I’m fine. You?”
“How is work?”
“Busy, the usual. And you?”
“Same old. How are the kids?”
An awkward silence filled the room. The strange and stilted conversation was a sharp contrast to the way they had easily chatted in the past. He cleared his throat and took another sip of juice. “You said you wanted to explain.” She winced and nodded, remembering again how he’d driven off in anger. “Now is your chance.”
Isabella leaned forward, eyes wide in surprise. “You mean it?” Bola nodded. She didn’t speak at first, taking time to sort through her feelings, working out the best way to phrase her words. In the end she decided to tell him everything. She didn’t want any secrets between them.
“I met Lucas last year at a function at my father’s house,” she began. She told him the whole story, ending with how he’d bought furniture for her birthday. “I had no idea he was going to do it. I’d already broken up with him. I told him I was seeing someone else. You have to believe me Bola. It’s over between us.”
“You kissed him outside when he gave you the Mercedes.”
She rose swiftly, crossed over and sat next to him then looked earnestly into his eyes. “He grabbed me and kissed me. I didn’t ask for it. I pushed him away and refused to accept the car. That’s what I tried to explain when you took off.”
She searched his eyes desperately for a sign that he understood. “Bola please I love you. I have from the first time we met.” He raised his left hand and cupped her cheek, stroking the soft skin gently with his thumb. Then he stood up. “Bola please don’t go.”
Her eyes were swimming with tears. There were times when she couldn’t read him, couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. He’d make a fortune if he ever took up gambling. He had the perfect poker face.
He stretched out his hand. “I want to take you somewhere. But don’t ask any questions until we get there. Can you do that?” She nodded, put her hand in his and stood up.
“I’ll get my handbag.” He walked to the front door where she joined him a few minutes later. “Are sandals ok?” He nodded.
She wore an above the knee sleeveless sundress with a floral pattern and had slung a jacket over her shoulder, not sure what time she’d be back. He wore his trademark brown corduroy pants, black shirt and loafers. She locked the front door and they walked downstairs to where he’d parked his car. He opened the passenger door for her and then went round and got into the driver’s seat.
“Are we going far?”
“No questions remember?” A faint smile tugged at his lips.
“Sorry. I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”
He took the Lavangwa-Meribo highway heading to the Keye Mokeba International Airport. He turned left after a few kilometres into the road leading to the Lavangwa South Estate. He took another left two minutes later and drove into Kapi Road with red roofed bungalows on either side separated by Kay apple hedges.
Each house had a small but neatly kept patch of grass in front and some had trees as well. Bola parked outside a black gate on the right where the cul-de-sac ended. Intrigued, Isabella got out of the car and followed him into the compound.
He unlocked the dark brown heavy wooden door and preceded her into a spacious living room cum dining with cream coloured walls, white soft board ceiling and parquet floor. One wall of the dining room had a serving hatch through which she glimpsed the kitchen with bright cheery yellow walls and white tiles around the sink area.
“Have a look around,” Bola urged, with a wave of his hand.
She went into the kitchen which had a terrazzo floor and light brown wooden cabinets topped by white Formica counters. Next she went into the corridor with three bedrooms and a bathroom branching off it. The bathroom had the same white tile and terrazzo flooring as the kitchen.
Two of the bedrooms had spacious 2-door wardrobes with shoe racks. The third was tiny, with barely enough room to fit a child’s bed. All the bedrooms had the same parquet floor as the living room.
“Ok, I have to ask, what are we doing here?” Isabella finally said, curiosity getting the better of her.
“Do you like it?” Bola stood in the middle of the largest bedroom watching her keenly as she shut the wardrobe after testing out the drawers.
She stared at him in suspicion. “Is that a trick question?”
Bola laughed, sparking a smile in response from Isabella who had still been tense up until then. “No. I really want to know what you think of it.”
She walked from the room, back down the corridor to the back door. He selected a key from the bunch he held and opened it. She stepped out into a tiny porch which overlooked a well-kept patch of grass with flower beds on the borders.
“What’s that?” She pointed to a small building on the right wedged into a corner of the small garden.
“The servants’ quarter.”
Bola walked down the paved path, unlocked the steel door of the building and ushered her into a small, self-contained room with a tiny bathroom with the shower practically on top of the toilet. Unlike the one in the main house, this bathroom wasn’t tiled. The bedroom had a cement floor painted a dark shade of red. They went back out into the small garden.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Bola said.
Isabella led the way back to the main house and into the living room. She stood in the middle of the room surveying the space again. Bright afternoon sunlight streamed in through the large windows giving the room a spacious airy feel.
“I like it. It’s roomy, has lots of light and I really like the garden. Are you planning to move here?” Bola lived in a 3-bedroom bungalow in Woodley, off Goti Road, a leafy estate surrounded by plenty of open grass fields. The estate named after a British aristocrat was built in colonial times.
“Then why are we here?”
“I bought it for you.”
Isabella had walked over to one of the windows to stare outside at the pretty flowers bordering the patch of grass at the front with a large jacaranda tree as the centrepiece. She turned slowly at his words.
“Say that again.” She searched his face in disbelief, sure she had misheard him.
“If you like it, it’s yours.”
“But…I…why?” she finally stammered, shock holding her rooted to the spot.
Her head was spinning. First Lucas, replacing all her furniture and buying her a car. Now Bola with a house. She needed to sit down. She opened the front door and sat on the porch steps. Bola joined her after a minute and sat next to her.
He half turned to face her and took both her hands in his. As he did so she noticed that her hands were trembling. Bola had always been a man of few words and now as he enveloped her small hands in the warmth of his much bigger ones, he seemed to be struggling to find his voice.
“I’m not good with all that romance stuff that you girls seem to like so much. I’m a simple guy. And I don’t always know how to show you how much I care about you. But I do. I love you Bella and this house is my gift to you. Will you take it?”
She looked away from his searching eyes, stared through the open door behind her at the polished parquet floor of the living room then turned back to him.
“Bola, I don’t know what to say. This is huge, you giving me a whole house. Are you sure about this?” She too was struggling to put her feelings into words.
He rubbed her hands between his. “Look, this is new territory for me. I’ve dated other women since my wife died but no one I wanted to get serious with. Then I met you.” He cupped her cheek, stroking the soft skin in little circles. “Just so we’re clear, I want you to be my wife.”
“Really?” She whispered, eyes shining with joy. “I wasn’t sure where this was heading. I hoped of course but…” A finger across her lips silenced her.
“I’m proposing marriage. We’ll have to wait a little while so that I can introduce you to the kids and they get to know you, but I’m not worried. They will love you as much as I do.”
Isabella’s eyes brimmed with tears at his words. “I can’t wait to meet them.” Her voice was soft with longing.
“In the meantime, I want you to have this house, to show you how serious I am about you. Will you accept it?” This time there was no hesitation. She threw herself into his arms.
“Yes Bola. I accept it. And I accept your proposal of marriage.” His arms were around her instantly and he kissed her deeply. Isabella clung to him, matching his passion, her body humming with arousal and need.
“I have one more surprise for you,” he whispered tenderly when they finally broke apart. “I’ll just lock up then we can go.” He stood up, pulling her with him.
A sudden thought struck Isabella and she grasped his arm just as he was about to go through the open door behind them. “Please tell me you don’t have a brand new car parked outside.” The question came out as a fearful whisper, apprehension obvious in the lines of tension that appeared around her lips, her brows knitted into a fierce frown.
Bola smoothed a hand over her forehead and smiled tenderly. “Bella darling, I would never buy you a car.”
“You wouldn’t?” Bafflement replaced the fear.
“I know how much you love your Mazda. It was a graduation gift from your father. You will drive that thing until it falls to pieces, then you will replace the engine just so you can keep it going for a few more years,” he explained with a gentle smile.
“Oh my God.” Isabella grasped her cheeks with both hands. “That’s exactly how I feel. But how did you know?” He covered her hands with his and kissed her briefly on the lips.
“You’re daddy’s girl, I know you.”
Isabella laughed. “I didn’t realise I was that transparent.”
“That’s how I knew that I still had a chance with you. On that day – your birthday, after I calmed down, I realised there was no need to fear losing you to Dwanje. He doesn’t know you as well as I do. If he did, he’d never have bought you that Mercedes.”
Isabella felt like her heart would burst. She threw herself into his embrace once more. Bola wrapped his strong arms around her, soothing her as sobs shook her petite frame.
“Shhh…it’s okay.” He crooned endearments in her ear, his arms tight around her.
She loved this man with a fierceness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her. She hadn’t realised how well Bola knew her until now. She felt understood and accepted, warts and all, a feeling that was indescribable.
Long minutes later when she finally calmed down, she pulled away slightly and looked into his eyes. “I love you so much.” He covered her mouth with his and kissed her until she trembled with need.
“We’d better go before I end up making love to you on the floor,” he laughed.
“Would that be such a bad thing?” she teased, nipping his lips.
“Don’t tempt me. I’m not as young as I used to be. My knees may not survive the experience.”
Isabella laughed. “We could always do it standing up,” she said suggestively, sliding her hands under his untucked shirt and running her fingers through his chest hair. He grasped her hands and held her away from him.
“Come on, let’s get some furniture for this house. I’m not taking you in a bed that another man has bought.” He entered the house with a quick, purposeful stride.
“Oh, is that where we’re going, to buy furniture?” Isabella followed him as he went to lock the back door.
“Yes. It was meant to be a surprise but you ruined it,” he teased as he locked the front door then put an arm around her waist as they walked to the gate. She stopped him just before he opened it. “What?”
She hesitated, then took his hand and led him back to the front door. She sat on the steps and pulled him down with her. His worried eyes scanned her face. Isabella wrung her hands not sure how to phrase what she had to say.
“You’re scaring me. What is it?”
“I have something to ask you, but I’m not sure how to say it.” Her soft voice held an undercurrent of tears.
He grasped both her hands in his. “Don’t be afraid. You can tell me anything.” His voice was gentle. She continued to stare at the floor between them. He put a finger under her chin and tilted her face, forcing her to look at him. “Bella?”
“If you want me to be your wife, there’s something you should know.”
“I’ve told you about my family, how I grew up in a polygamous home.” He nodded. “If you take me as your wife, you need to know that I won’t accept a co-wife. I won’t share you with another woman.”
She tensed, took a deep breath and stared at the floor waiting for his reaction. Isabella was terrified her statement would make him walk away but she knew in her heart of hearts that polygamy wasn’t for her. She had refused Lucas because she didn’t want to become a second wife. She wouldn’t accept Bola marrying another woman after they wed. She had to make that clear to him, even if it meant losing him.
The silence stretched as anxiety churned her insides. It felt like someone had poured a drum of acid down her throat, which was now burning a hole in her stomach. She finally looked up, unable to bear the suspense. To her surprise, he was smiling.
She frowned. “You still want to marry me, knowing that?”
Relief flooded her body and tears threatened to overwhelm her once more. “Bola I…I…” words failed her.
He pulled her into his arms and held her as she tried to get her emotions under control. They stayed that way for several minutes, not speaking as he rubbed his large palms up and down her back in a soothing circular motion.
“I’m sorry Bola, I’m a mess,” she finally spoke, her voice muffled against his shirt. He held her away from him and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“Don’t ever apologise for telling me how you feel, alright?” She nodded, wrapping her arms around his waist as he held her close once more.
“Thank you for the house. It’s beautiful.” He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose.
“You’re welcome.” He stood up and reached out to take her hand, assisting her to her feet. They walked to the gate, arms around each other’s waists. Isabella felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
She turned to look at the bungalow once more before getting into the car. She was seeing it with new eyes, the eyes of an owner. Her body tingled in excitement as she mentally toured the rooms again, furnishing them in her head. A thought struck her as Bola turned on the ignition. She grasped his hand halting his attempt to put the car in gear.
“Wait. We need to measure the floor for the carpets.”
“It’s already done. Someone from a carpet shop on Bishan Street came and took the measurements. They’re just waiting on you to select the swatches you want.”
“Great. Where are we buying the furniture?” she asked, as he reversed the car.
“Woodcharm,” he replied, referring to a shop on the edge of the central business district that handcrafted solid wood furniture, both European classic designs and original pieces that merged global design with a unique Bancushian look and feel.
She nodded in approval and settled back in her seat to enjoy the short drive to the store, her mind brimming with ideas about colours, fabrics and textures for the various items of furniture and furnishings she would need.
A month later Isabella picked up the phone to find her mother at the other end of the line, words tumbling over each other in barely suppressed excitement.
“Mother slow down, I can barely understand what you’re saying. What are you congratulating me for again?” she asked in amusement.
“Your fiancé was here yesterday. He came to ask your father for your hand in marriage,” her mother replied. “I can’t tell you how happy and relieved I am. I thought you’d never settle down.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Isabella’s dry voice laced with a hint of sarcasm didn’t faze her mother in the least.
“He is a wonderful man and will make such a good husband for you. You’ll never lack for anything.”
“I’m glad you like him. I’m a little surprised that he came so soon. I expected him to give me a head’s up before talking to father,” she remarked thoughtfully. “How did father react?”
“You know your father – he rarely shows his true feelings. I think he was happy about the news although a little surprised that you’re marrying a politician. Come to think of it so am I.”
A shiver of dread went down Isabella’s spine at her mother’s statement. “He’s a civil servant,” she corrected her.
“Technically that’s true being an assistant minister and all. But Dwanje is a politician through and through,” her mother countered.
Isabella suddenly felt faint. She quickly sat down on a dark brown deep button ottoman next to the telephone stand, her back against the cool wall of the dining room of her new house and stared around her dazed.
She had chosen neutral colours for this room. A Victorian chaise longue with a solid mahogany frame upholstered in light brown silk had pride of place in the centre of the living room. Throw cushions in a lively striped velvet added a touch of colour. It was flanked on both sides by cream fabric wing chairs.
All three chairs had elegantly curved arms and legs and the most delicate, intricately carved motifs that must surely have taken ages to get right. The dark brown coffee table with a glass top and intricate carving on the sides complemented the beige homespun Moroccan trellis pattern rug.
Bold, wavy lines extended back and forth across the rug, creating an ordered diamond geometric motif. The trellis design was slightly raised against the backdrop, giving the rug a soft and textured feel. On one wall of the dining room next to the solid oak square four-seater dining table, stood a chest with custom-made brass fittings from India.
Pencil pleat lined curtains made using the finest polyester material, with a textured bobble finish and a thermal coated acrylic backing to reduce light and increase warmth, completed the elegant décor of the room.
“Are you still there?” Her mother’s sharp voice brought her mind back to the conversation.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“I asked if you had set a date for the wedding. I need to know how much time I have to plan for the visits from Dwanje’s people.”
Each word felt like a physical blow. “Mother listen to me carefully.” Isabella took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. “I am not marrying Lucas.”
“What do you mean? He just asked for your hand.”
“I broke up with him months ago. I’m engaged to someone else.”
“Are you trying to be funny Isabella?”
Her voice was a stern warning that made Isabella feel like a recalcitrant child even across the hundreds of kilometres separating them. She could imagine the look on her mother’s face – the one that made her feel like she was ten again after being caught stealing roast sweet potatoes from the dish set aside for visitors.
“Mother I’m not joking. I am getting married to Bola Karenga. Not Lucas.”
“Why haven’t you ever mentioned this other man?”
“I hadn’t mentioned Lucas either,” Isabella countered.
Her mother was silent for so long that Isabella thought she’d hung up. “I don’t understand this,” she finally said. “Why would Dwanje come here if you two are no longer together?” Isabella chewed her lip wondering how to explain the situation to her mother.
“Lucas proposed to me after I told him I was seeing someone else. But he’s refused to accept my decision. Please tell father to ignore the visit.”
Her mother clicked her tongue. “It’s not that simple Isabella.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dwanje’s visit set in motion a process that is not that easy to undo. In the eyes of tradition, he’s your suitor.”
“Are you saying that I have no choice but to marry him? That’s ridiculous. Surely I have a say in the matter?” Isabella asked, horrified by her mother’s words.
Her mother sighed. “We can’t do this on the phone. You need to come home as soon as possible and talk to your father before Dwanje brings his people to negotiate dowry.” They spoke for a few more minutes and agreed that Isabella would go home over the weekend.
She hung up on the verge of tears. Lucas was like a bad rash that she couldn’t shake off no matter how hard she tried. Whatever had possessed him to go to her parents’ home purporting to be her fiancé? Was he insane?
She thought back to their last conversation, a few days after she’d moved into her new house. She had called to tell him to collect the furniture he’d bought for her which she’d left at the apartment. She could tell from his hard breathing over the line just how infuriated he was by her statement.
He demanded to know where she had moved to but she declined to tell him then hung up the phone. Never in a million years would she have imagined that he’d go this far. Why was he so hell bent on complicating her life?
In despair she called Bola and explained the situation. “What should I do?”
“Go home. Tell your parents what has been going on,” he advised.
Isabella hesitated, biting her lip in indecision. “We hadn’t yet discussed the next step,” she began, then took a deep breath and took the plunge. “But given the situation, should we go together so that I introduce you as my fiancé?”
She could almost see his mind working as she waited for his answer. Bola never made snap decisions.
“The timing wouldn’t be right,” he finally said. “Your parents have just found out about one man wanting to marry you. Bringing me so soon into the picture before the issue with Dwanje is resolved could be counterproductive. You can tell them that you’ll be bringing me home soon. But first make it clear that you and Dwanje are history.”
“Ok,” Isabella agreed.
“I’ll be in Lavangwa early next week. We can discuss our next step then.”
“Thanks Bola. I feel better now that I’ve talked to you,” she replied, feeling calmer.
“Don’t worry darling. I know the traditions and there’s no way you’re tied to Dwanje on the basis of one visit. I think what your mother meant was your father having accepted to consider Dwanje as a potential suitor needs a graceful way out in order to accept someone else without any of the parties losing face,” Bola explained.
“That makes sense.” They said goodbye a few minutes later.
Things moved swiftly after that. She went home that weekend, had a long heart to heart chat with her father on Saturday morning and told him the whole story.
He told her not to worry and asked her to bring Bola to meet him the following weekend. They didn’t discuss the matter again and spent the rest of the weekend attending various events as was their custom whenever she visited.
She telephoned Bola the minute she got home and updated him. He agreed to accompany her to her parents’ home as suggested by her father. The intervening week was nerve wracking for Isabella. She barely slept and had trouble concentrating while at work, filled with jitters about her father’s reaction to Bola. She so desperately wanted him to approve of her fiancé.
Her mother had hinted that she was foolish to turn down a rich, ambitious, well connected man like Lucas, who was clearly going places, in favour of a lowly civil servant. But Isabella knew that the only person whose opinion truly counted was her father. She didn’t want to marry Bola without his blessing.
The appointed day finally arrived. Bola picked her up from home at 8am in the morning. He had donned a tan Kaunda suit for the occasion. Isabella wore an African print maxi dress with brown platform shoes. A butterfly clip made of the same material as her dress adorned her afro. She had accessorised the outfit with multi coloured bracelets with beads of varying sizes and a matching chunky necklace.
Bola’s two closest friends, Mathew Gaku and Andrew Makanti would be accompanying them to Kirinyu. They had agreed to meet at the wholesale shop that Gaku had opened several months before in Bezo, 40km from Lavangwa, after leaving the civil service where he’d worked for many years.
Under Gaku’s supervision, workers began loading Makanti’s mint green Nissan Sunny and Bola’s Datsun pick-up with gifts for Isabella’s family. Several bales of maize and wheat flour, tins of cooking fat, a sack of rice, sugar, tea leaves, salt, crates of beer and sodas, a dozen loaves of bread, two cartons of biscuits for the children and two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label – a special present for her father, in addition to two goats in the back of Bola’s pick up.
Isabella wasn’t surprised on their arrival to find her father’s compound teeming with relatives. After remaining single for so many years, many of her extended family members had given up on her getting married. Now she had two potential suitors. The news spread like wildfire.
There were many willing hands to unload the goodies they had brought. These were quickly transferred to her mother’s house nearest to the gate of the large compound which had several stone houses with iron sheet roofs each surrounded by a short green fence. Other homesteads in her village sported a single stone house, at most two, the rest being mud houses with grass thatch or iron sheet roofs.
At their home all the buildings were built of stone except the granary which had walls of timber. Her father’s house sat right in the middle, an imposing three bedroom bungalow with a red cement floor. A smaller round shaped building stood a little behind and to the left of it – a special room where her father entertained his peers, which was out of bounds to the women and children in the compound.
Isabella’s mother greeted them warmly and ushered them into her husband’s house where they found him seated on a red velvet sofa with his older brother at his side. Other relatives sat on wooden chairs brought in from the various houses in the compound. If the trio were nervous about meeting the chief secretary, it didn’t show.
Handshakes were exchanged then Bola and Isabella sat side by side on the two seater, while Gaku and Makanti took the remaining two arm chairs. Isabella did the introductions then served Bola and his friends with sodas before resuming her seat. She remained in the sitting room for a few minutes sharing pleasantries about their trip from the city before leaving the men to go check on the food.
“Is there anything I can help with?” she asked, entering her mother’s kitchen where several women were busy cooking.
“We’re almost done,” said one, a chubby motherly aunt on her mother’s side who embraced her warmly then kissed her on both cheeks. The women chatted excitedly as they worked, shooing her away each time she tried to do something.
Isabella sat on a stool in the middle of the room, accepted the soda she’d left in her father’s house which a child had been instructed to fetch and sipped slowly, catching up with village news, a smile on her face.
The delicious aroma of roast meat wafted into the kitchen from a small clearing a few metres away where her father’s younger brother supervised the roasting of the goat which had been slaughtered for the occasion.
The business that had brought them home would wait until after lunch had been served. Platters piled high with beef, chicken, rice, vegetables, chapati and mukimo were ferried into her father’s sitting room filling every corner of the simple wooden coffee table.
Two hours later, Bola and his friends begged off when asked if they wanted a third helping of the delicious food. Her father stood up and invited his guests to join him and his brother in the small hut.
Isabella waited in her mother’s house anxiously as the men talked. She had barely touched her food, too nervous to eat. Now she sat nursing a mug of fermented millet porridge which her mother had thrust into her hands a few minutes before, tapping her foot impatiently.
An hour later, her father sent word that roast meat and the whisky which Bola had brought be taken to the hut where the men sat cloistered. A nephew quickly fetched a tray with five glasses and went to the hut followed by his brothers who each carried a bottle of the expensive brew.
Her father’s younger brother carried a tray piled high with juicy goat ribs. They left the hut as soon as they dropped off the food and whisky. Isabella had no way of knowing what the men were talking about. Peals of laughter occasionally emanated from the room. She took that as a good sign.
When the men finally emerged, she searched their faces anxiously for tell-tale signs to indicate how the discussion had gone. She wasn’t given much time to dwell on it as her father led his guests to the back of the compound into the boma where he kept his cows. Her father loved to show off his prized animals.
By the time the men returned it was almost dusk. Isabella’s mother offered them tea but they declined saying it was time to head back into the city. “Mother, they’ve been drinking all afternoon. Whisky and tea don’t go together,” Isabella reproached her with a laugh.
Her mother pinched her arm for her impudence and she yelped in pain. She rubbed her arm and watched as her mother issued rapid instructions to the young men standing around. Two of them ran into the granary and fetched pangas then disappeared into the shamba behind the homestead.
The small boys started chasing the chickens running free in the compound. It took several minutes, amid shrieks of laughter as the boys made a grab for the wily birds which escaped their nimble fingers. Soon however, three birds were captured. Their legs were tied together and they were put in the boot of Makanti’s car.
Young men emerged from the granary carrying bags filled with sweet potatoes, arrow roots, maize and potatoes. The two who’d gone to the shamba came back bearing bunches of green bananas on their shoulders.
“Which items should we put in each car?” her mother asked.
“Just pack them in whichever car. We’ll sort out who gets what when we get to Bezo,” Isabella replied.
They said their goodbyes once everything was loaded and drove off, waving. Laughing children ran alongside the cars for a few hundred metres before they stopped, waving enthusiastically with both hands until the cars disappeared in a cloud of red dust.
“So how did it go?” Isabella could barely contain her impatience.
“Everything is fine.”
“Meaning?” she prodded.
“It’s all set. You and I will get married.”
Isabella threw up her hands in frustration. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“There’s nothing more to tell.”
“You and my father were holed up in his hut for hours. Come on, what did you discuss?”
Bola laughed as he changed gears. “That’s men’s talk, I won’t bore you with it.”
“Please bore me,” she insisted. Bola glanced at her, lips curving into the teasing smile she knew so well. Sometimes he really loved to torment her. She knew she wouldn’t get anything more out of him. “Did you at least set a date for the next visit?” she asked in resignation after a few minutes of silence.
Bola nodded. “End of next month.” She sat back relieved. Everything would be alright.
The inevitable explosion came one warm Saturday evening at Gustos, a popular nyama choma joint, ten minutes from the city centre on the main highway to Rukuna. Gustos was a simple stone building with a rusty roof.
It had started out as a butchery in the 1960s before the owner expanded it to a pub and restaurant. Other than roast meat, Gustos was famous for its African cuisine. It attracted the middle class and upper crust of society in equal measure and on any given night, a long line of vehicles would line up along the busy highway ranging from Toyota and Nissan saloon cars to Range rovers, Land cruisers, Mercedes Benzes and BMWs.
Bola had taken Isabella there once and she hated it. The meat was great, the best she’d ever tasted, but she couldn’t warm up to the drab interior. Patrons sat on simple wooden benches on a cement floor at tables worn from frequent use. The toilets were not clean. But men loved the place, probably because they could pee standing up, so washroom cleanliness was not at the top of their list of reasons for choosing a pub.
Gustos was a favourite hangout for Bola and his two buddies, Gaku and Makanti whenever he was in Lavangwa. Although a teetotaller, Dwanje spent a lot of his free time in bars, throwing rounds of drinks for political allies, business leaders and friends as he worked his way up the party ladder.
On this particular evening he’d arrived at the pub to find Bola and his friends already there drinking. He passed by the table where the trio sat without acknowledging them in any way. Shortly after midnight, Bola and his buddies stood up to leave. Dwanje followed them to the parking lot.
“Bella is mine. Leave her alone.” He stood a few feet from Bola who had just unlocked his car door. Bola turned and looked at the other man then shook his head.
“This obsession you have with Bella, you’re like a damn dog with a bone.”
Dwanje’s fists clenched at the subtle insult. “You want to compare me to an animal, fine. This is my territory and you’re peeing all over it.”
“Bella isn’t a possession. She’s a person with feelings, quite capable of making her own decisions. She picked me. Let it go.”
“You bastard. We were doing fine until you interfered.” Dwanje’s voice had gone several octaves higher.
“That’s not the way she tells it. She didn’t want you. It had nothing to do with me,” Bola countered in a calm voice, refusing to react to the slur.
“She was going to marry me…”
“You had months to seal the deal. Months, before I was in the picture, and you didn’t. Don’t blame me for your failure.”
“I’ll ask you one last time. Stay away from Bella.” Dwanje spoke through gritted teeth.
“And if I don’t?” There was a wealth of arrogance in Bola’s voice.
“I’ll make you regret the day you met her,” Dwanje swore in a grating voice, brimming with fury.
Bola stared at the other man a long time, not saying anything, a little smile playing along his lips. The air was charged with tension as each man stared the other down. Makanti and Gaku stood a little to the side, alert and poised to step in to help their friend should the need arise.
“Even if I step aside, she’ll never marry you,” he finally said dismissively.
“Oh yeah, why?” Dwanje should have known better. Known that the other man was taunting him but still, he rose to the bait.
“I can give her something you can’t.”
“All of me. In case you haven’t noticed, Bella is used to being pampered and spoiled. Playing second fiddle to another woman for your affections was never going to appeal to her. Why settle for scraps when you can have the juiciest ribs?” Bola turned to open his car door.
He never saw the blow coming. In seconds, he was on the ground, nursing a bruised jaw. He looked up in disbelief then launched himself at the other man. He landed a punch straight in Dwanje’s left eye before the other man socked him squarely in the ribs. Grunts of pain as fists connected with soft tissue was the only sound as both men gave as good as they got.
Two security guards finally ran up and after a minute or two succeeded in separating them. They restrained Dwanje as he lunged at Bola whose friends stood on either side of him looking on with bemusement.
Bola’s shirt was torn and his lower lip was bleeding. Dwanje eye was beginning to swell. He would have a nice shiner come morning. The security guards started dragging Dwanje back into the pub.
“You’re going to pay for this Bola,” he shouted. “I don’t care how long it takes. I will bury you. You will regret the day you decided to mess with me.”
With those words he shrugged off the hands restraining him, tucked his shirt tails back into his waistband, straightened the collar and walked into the pub with all the dignity he could muster.
“You okay?” Gaku asked his friend.
“I’ll live,” Bola grunted, rubbing his jaw which was still smarting from Dwanje’s blow. He didn’t want to tell Isabella about the fight, knowing how much she hated violence, but there was no way to hide his swollen face and split lip the next day.
She stared at him in disbelief when she opened the door. “What happened?” He mumbled that he’d been in a fight. She probed until he was forced to admit the fight was with Dwanje. “Why would you get into a fist fight with him?” she asked in annoyance.
“He threw the first punch. I was just defending myself.”
“You could have walked away. Been the better person. You’re not in high school anymore, you’re both grown men.”
“Sometimes a man has to fight for something. You’re a woman. You’ll never get it.”
Isabella’s lips tightened in anger and she walked off in a huff. She sulked the entire day and barely spoke to him despite his best efforts to thaw her with his best jokes and sweet endearments.
His daughter finally provided a reprieve. His sister called at 4pm with the news that Makena had got into an accident while at a birthday party. Bola rushed to the hospital accompanied by Isabella who had all but adopted Makena from the first moment she saw her.
The 15-year-old had transfixed her with big eyes that looked like they’d seen more than their fair share of pain and sadness. Looking into them was like plunging into a deep dark well of emotion, layers and layers of it with no end in sight no matter how deep one went.
Isabella had immediately wanted to take Makena into her arms and bring a smile into those beautiful and once innocent eyes that were now shadowed by pain. She felt as if she was looking into the eyes of an old soul, someone who’d lived a hundred years, not a girl in her teens.