Jakobe stood in the middle of his corn field and looked in the distance where the big yellow sun was slowly rising. Between his fingers, he held tassels of a maize crop that had all the signs of sunburn. As he absent-mindedly toyed with the yellow ears of the corn plant, he felt the cold of morning dew against him. The dampness moved up to his eyes. Jakobe realised he was crying. The rains had began with so much promise. The villagers had watched the water rise in late November and December to destroy ramshackle bridges, take cattle, goats, drown chickens, schoolchildren and the old man who lived alone not far from Jakobe’s homestead. But two months later, when villagers would have held gatherings to assist each family with harvesting the bountiful crop, the heavens suddenly stopped weeping.
They stared empty silos in the face. The hungry eyes of children stared into the faces of their mothers. There was already talk of being fed by strangers in giant vehicles, and village elders complained about the humiliation of grown men failing to feed their own families.
The village – in fact, the whole country – had gone dry, the wells filled up with sand, the rivers turned into deserts while livestock and humans drank from small water holes.
But Jakobe counted his blessings. At 31 years, he was a single man. The closest he had ever been to marriage was only a few weeks ago. His live-in girlfriend, having seen the hunger from the distance, left without saying goodbye.
“Good riddance,” Jakobe cursed, rationalizing in his mind that he was never going to be able feed another mouth.
Jakobe had inherited the land from his now deceased parents. The rest of his seven siblings, not planning to pursue a wretched life in the cruel and unforgiving hard red earth of Matebeleland, had decided to head to the once-upon-a-time place of Gold, Johannesburg. Jakobe had remained to take charge of the land of his forefathers, his dark furrowed brow and calloused hands telling the story of a life lived hard under the unforgiving sun. But tilling the land gave him his only sense of worth; he enjoyed the solitude and the occasional female companionship. A neighbour had asked him frequently, and annoyingly, so:
“When are you going to take a wife to help you look after the land of your forefathers?”
“I will marry when you start minding your own business,” he wanted to say, but kept this to himself.
Instead he responded: “Ah, old man. Marriage is so old fashioned. There are so many village girls I cannot decide which one to have.”
“Son, you will die without a child. Is that what you want? Look at your father, how many brothers do you have by the way?”
Jakobe would go into depression for days thinking about his siblings, where they were, what they were doing, if they still walked the earth. The youngest of the family, 26-year-old Jeki had left the previous year, but only because he was fleeing from a pregnancy he was denying. As Jakobe walked along the maize field, he accepted the futility of a continued life in these rolling rocky plains where the thorny trees and the occasional giant baobab painted the rural canvass.
“How on earth can people live without water?” Jakobe cursed, deliberately stepping on the failed crop. He shook his head in resignation as he headed back to his homestead.
As he walked along the small footpath between maize fields, he could see a group of women digging for water along what was once the river. In the past, during this time of the year, grown maize would camouflage a grown man. This year, Jakobe was in plain sight.
“Well, at least we can spot a maize thief from afar,” he mused, knowing that there was nothing to steal. He watched the women from a distance, catching snippets of their frustrated chatter. The search for the water gourd was everywhere.
He knew he had to get rid of the few chickens, four goats and three emaciated cows, if he was to abandon the sparse homestead. He needed the money to get him to the city. Crafty city traders were buying cattle from starving villagers for a song, and barter trade had returned with unheralded cruelty where a 2kg packet of sugar bought a goat and a 50kg of mealie meal purchased a whole cow.
“It’s better than watching these beasts die of hunger and thirst,” the village headman explained to other villagers, convincing them to sell their livestock. The vultures from the big city swooped on Jakobe’s worldly possessions in no time, and he soon found himself on his way to Bulawayo, leaving his inherited homestead to waste away and be plundered by passers-by.
“Ah, mzukulu, good to see you. It’s been a while,” greeted Uncle Bhobho. It sure had been a while. Jakobe had never made a habit of visiting the city, choosing the serenity and clear air of the hills as his lifelong companion. He had arrived here unannounced. But knowing that Uncle Bhobho was divorced and stayed alone, Jakobe calculated that moving in was not going to be an inconvenience to the 65-year-old veteran of the 1970s independence bush war.
“So what brings you to the city young blood,” Uncle Bhobho said as he settled on a sofa in the living room.
Jakobe sat opposite him and made himself comfortable.
“I thought I should visit after such a long time. You know you are my only family now,” the rural boy said as he took in the ambience.
“Yes, yes, family should stick together. But who is watching the homestead?”
“I asked some neighbours to occasionally cast their eyes on my doorstep. They are good people.”
“Ah, you see now. That’s why those brothers of yours should be there looking after their father’s cattle.”
The old man didn’t know Jakobe had sold his family heirloom.
“How are the rains over there? Are you getting plenty harvest?” he enquired.
“Ah the land is dry. There is nothing but hunger and starvation. All the crop failed and people are living off wild fruits. We last saw rains last year.”
“Ahhh mfana, you don’t say! Another drought? What a crying shame. Our ancestors are refusing with the water. Something is wrong with this land. Even here, there are water shortages. We can go for days without water.”
It hit Jakobe like a jab to the solar plexus. He was in the city to enjoy abundant water and all the finer things in life, this was the last thing he had expected.
“But you have dams here so where does all the water go?” Jakobe quizzed.
“Good question. I worked for the city council for 41 years but I still don’t understand why we always have shortages. Sometimes they don’t have chemicals to clean the water, sometimes they say the water gets lost because of leaking pipes. No one really knows.”
They sat and chatted into the night, cursing the heat and swatting mosquitoes, until Uncle Bhobho finally said:
“Perhaps you need to freshen up before you retire for bed. There is no water in the taps, but I have stocked enough for the two or three days when we won’t have water.”
“Thank you uncle. I will make sure not to waste.”
“If you are to sit on the toilet, please use the water you have left in the dish after bathing to flush. Every drop counts.”
He retired to bed having shown Jakobe the spare bedroom in the small four-roomed house.
Jakobe was quickly completed his ablutions, replaying the rapid herd boy cowboy-like river baths here in the city. “I could get used to this,” he mused as he lay still in a comfortable little bed. But he was soon questioning how long he was going to stay; how long his uncle would have him. He realised his decision to come to the city hadn’t been well planned. Jakobe had not told Uncle Bhobho why he was in the city. How ridiculous would he have sounded admitting that he was fleeing from a drought in his rural home. He wasn’t looking for a job in Bulawayo, and his rural pride warned him that he wasn’t about to live off the back of his pensioned uncle. Something had to give. He certainly wasn’t going to wait for more rains to revisit the hostile land he had left behind before he returned. He hardly slept that night.
As dawn broke, the sun’s rays pouring through translucent curtains, he heard his uncle go about checking the huge drums that contained water to last him a whole month.
“Morning, uncle. You want me to help go get water?” he offered, remembering that Uncle Bhobho had said whole families queued for water at the council boreholes where fistfights broke out as angry city residents fought their own water wars.
“Ah, no need for that, we have enough here,” Uncle Bhobho responded as he made way for Jakobe to get in the combined bathroom and toilet.
“OK thanks. I know how living alone saves on a lot of things,” Jakobe said, meaning every word.
“My boy, you shall have a wife and family one day and you will realise how much you missed out.”
They both laughed.
Jakobe closed the bathroom door behind him and checked for water in the drum from which he had siphoned water the previous night. Though he was certain he had left the drum almost half-full, the same drum was now filled to the brim.
“That man must have the strength of an ox,” he thought, marveling at his uncle’s industry considering his age. He concluded that Uncle Bhobho must have woken up early in the morning, before the cock crowed, and headed to the local borehole. “I’ll make sure to go with him tomorrow morning,” the visitor decided.
He emerged from the bathroom to find Uncle Bhobho had already prepared some porridge with peanut butter for him.
“Eat up, then we can go and get some vegetables at the market in the city centre. When were you last at the city centre?” the old man asked.
“I don’t even remember. Must have been when father was working here.”
“A long time indeed. I miss him terribly,” Uncle Bhobho said, half to himself.
Shortly they were squeezing themselves into Uncle Bhobho’s old Zephyr Zodiac sedan and headed to the market. As the old man drove, Jakobe said:
“Wake me up tomorrow so I can help you fetch water from the borehole.”
“Ah, young man. Don’t worry about that. I, we, will be fine,” the uncle chuckled. “You are my guest. You do not have to do any work, you are not here forever are you,” he chuckled again.
“I am surprised you still have the strength to fill up the drum. I used some water last night and it was full again this morning.”
Uncle Bhobho was silent, as if contemplating how best to respond.
“It’s fine, it’s fine, as long as we have enough water it’s fine.”
Jakobe thought he detected some hostility in the old bespectacled man’s voice but let it ride. Along the potholed streets, women and children could be seen balancing buckets of water on their heads. To the rural visitor, it looked like people were either coming or going from water points scattered across the township.
“Believe it or not son, some of these people get their water from neighbouring townships where they have relatives and friends who don’t mind huge water bills,” Uncle Bhobho explained.
“It’s a tough life I see. And I thought rural villagers were having a tough time with water,” Jakobe offered.
They passed huge trucks travelling with huge bowsers.
“Water is big business in the city,” Uncle Bhobho said, having caught Jakobe craning his neck to look at the truck that had just passed them. “This is insane,” Jakobe thought. “Perhaps I am better off back home. At least no one sells water over there.”
As he went to sleep later that night, he wondered why water had suddenly become the focus of not only his life, but of everyone else’s. In the past, his grandfather would take him to the nearby bush, cut a Y-shaped stick from any tree and show him how to look for groundwater. The old man never failed. He wondered if the old folks had died with their knowledge of nature’s mysteries. Uncle Bhobho’s words echoed when he explained why the heavens had shut their eyes:
“You think the gods are happy with all this nonsense of people gathering under trees anywhere they choose and calling it a church? Look, my boy, how many girls did you see in town going almost naked? Do you think that is the kind of morality that pleases the heavens? These people are chasing the rains.”
Uncle Bhobho was so sure of the cause of the long dry seasons that Jakobe was almost persuaded to believe him. Instead, he remembered that his grandfather’s favourite pastime was telling stories that always included: “during my time there was free sex and plenty pregnancies out of wedlock.” During his grandfather’s time, the rains were still plentiful.
As he stared in the dark, he heard noises in the bathroom where his uncle kept the water reservoirs. He listened closely and heard the swooshing of water being decanted into the drums. Yet, as he listened even closer, he was sure he could hear his uncle snore loudly in the next room. Jakobe rose silently from the bed and espied the crescent gleaming far away in the dark firmament. He tiptoed to the kitchen and, with the stealth of the many predators he had watched in the rugged mountains of his rural home, he slowly unlatched the kitchen door. He rubbed his eyes. His vision was hazy but he was sure he could see the silhouette of a grown man. On further rubbing his eyes, he noticed the man’s protruding forehead, then peering even more, he could see the man was wearing a heavy woolen jacket. Still, on further inspection, now sure that this wasn’t his uncle, he noticed this was no woolen jacket: he was watching a baboon do his uncle errands! “Your uncle is a baboon” no longer seemed a juvenile riverside taunt.
But before he could muster the shock, the baboon, by some super extrasensory perception, knew he was being watched and swung.
Uncle Bhobho was awoken by the commotion but knew that whoever had interrupted the water errand would not live to tell the tale. Baboons used as familiar spirits had a guaranteed fatal blow, with the reason being simple: no one was supposed to live to tell the tale. The old man flicked the switch knowing the baboon would have vanished.
He froze as he saw his nephew sprawled lifeless on the kitchen floor.
Marko Phiri (@phirimarko) is a Zimbabwean writer and journalist. His short fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in the Kalahari Review. His work has also appeared in the Weaver Press (Zimbabwe) anthology, Writing Lives. His e-novel “Fool’s gold” was published in 2015 by Bahati Books, London. His interests extend to film where he has written short film scripts and is currently researching a documentary about Gule Wamkulu in one of many mines in Zimbabwe where Malawian immigrants settled during the Rhodesia Federation.
Related country: Zimbabwe