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African Writing Archives


Christopher Mlalazi


Christopher Mlalazi

Mlalazi is a Zimbabwean writer who has been published in 11 short story antholgies, including the 2006 Caine Prize Anthology (Obituary Tango), the 2006 Edinburgh Review, and the 2007 PEN SOUTH Africa anthology. He was on the HSBC PEN international short story shortlist as well as the 2004 Sable Lit/Arvon short story competition.


 Dearest Sender of the Bulldozers

They are walking past. Some glance at me in disgust, some in apprehension. I know they can never understand how an old woman and an infant can live on a street pavement. Yes how come? And who can blame them too? Of course the memory of my husband stands over us, protecting us both from their stares and the brutal elements.

Dearest comrade, I got this paper and pen from the Chief of the dump outside the city, close to the cave where my husband fell ill.

The first day we stumbled on that cave, let me tell you as you dream of your foreign investments, it was a clear morning, the sun shining so brightly, as though for us, and the birds singing sweetly in the trees. My husband and I stood at its mouth, him thanking his ancestral spirits, and I the almighty, for being so generous to us. Finished with the praise of our divine benefactors, we had stood for a while in front of the cave mouth, just looking at it, relishing the moment, because, finally, we had found a home. Actually, it was my husband who discovered the cave mouth - he had stopped to relieve himself at the side of the mountain, then he had broken a branch off a bush to use it on himself, and behind the bush was the open door of our new home!

As we had stood watching the cave mouth, an furry animal had shot out of it towards us - I had screamed, and it had darted between our legs and disappeared into the forest. My husband, he was strong then, had said to me after we had regained our composure – these are his exact words – ‘If an animal can find sanctuary in there, so can we,’ and, brave man, he had disappeared into it. I had stood waiting for him outside, terrified to follow him in - what if there were more wild animals inside there? I waited and waited, but he did not come out. Finally, scared of the open, I had followed him in, my baby strapped to my back.

It was semi dark inside, and the smell of animal dung, and something rotting, filled the interior. A body lay in the middle of the cave. In shock, I had discovered that it was my husband! My heart in my mouth, I had rushed to him, and he was gripping his right toe, his face twisted in pain, his mouth pursed. In panic, I had asked him what it was, and he had pointed at a scorpion that lay beside him, its body crushed. Dear God - it had bitten him, and he had stamped it to death with his bare foot. We both walked barefoot, we had thrown our shoes way, or what remained of them, when we could no longer tie them around our feet with wet bark during our weeks of flight.

Ever since that scorpion bite, he became ill. First, it was the toe. It swelled and swelled, and at night he would sweat buckets of water whilst raving incomprehensible things, cursing at the world, at life, and you also. Then, when the swelling got better, he had developed a running stomach. When the stomach got better, then it was general body weakness. The Chief sometimes came to visit, bringing herbs, but I think his interest lay more not on my husband’s health, but on my body, and what he would do with it once my husband was no longer there.

I was telling you the cave was nice comrade. Oh yes it was! You should have come to see the bats that hung on the low roof at night, often shitting down on us, and woe on you if you slept with your mouth open! You should have seen the beautiful rough stone walls with their water streaks that sometimes assumed the shape of Bushmen paintings straight off the school history text book! The floor was also bare rock, but I had carpeted it with dry grass, making sitting or sleeping on it much more comfortable. In the middle of the cave I had made a stone hearth, but a fire was only lit there whenever the Chief visited with his matches, otherwise we had to do with the cold hearth all the time, and the damp darkness.

As you sip your coffee, or are you sitting cross legged with some visiting dignitary - Thabo perhaps - my heart is bursting with laughter. What if I mentally wish it, and that tea burns your tongue and you scream – just as we screamed when the bulldozers that you sent that day flattened our houses, destroying all our possessions that we couldn’t remove from them in time.

We escaped from that open truck ferrying us to the transit camp when its engine stalled and the driver and the guards asked everybody aboard to disembark so that it could be pushed. It was at night, a very cold night, and we were in a game reserve. Maybe that was what gave our escort confidence, that we would stay put, but, warn them, never trust human nature as long as life is at stake, just as your position is now because of this opposition party that has emerged from the tears of the masses that has panicked you so much.

We fled into the dark forest. We ran – O God we ran… terror in our hearts, for there had been rumours in the truck that maybe …maybe… you had no need for us, for, after all, the history text books talk about Hitler and those wagonloads headed for Auschwitz – don’t see me dirty like this, sleeping in the open and think me uneducated.

We lost sight of the others in the bush - I remember my husband’s hand tightly on mine, heh… and my baby bucking on my back and crying as we ran. He is four years old, and he has been through so much suffering already that I wonder what kind of a man he is going to grow up into. And, ever since this all began, he has been so quiet- it must be these bad winds…

We left everything in that truck, the truck driver and the guards must have become very rich from all that lice and cockroaches that were part and parcel of our backyard lives.

When dawn came, we were still fleeing, but by this time, even if snails had been sent after us, they would have had an easy job catching us - we were so exhausted, so hungry, so thirsty, that we barely crawled along! We did not even know where we were, or where we were going, but just that sense that we were passing things assured us that we were still getting away from that truck that had forcibly taken us from the church where we found sanctuary from the demolitions.

Our hearts were bent on getting back to the city, for we had no other homes. My husband was born here in this city, his parents, both now deceased, originally came from neighbouring Malawi during the Federation. He was a full citizen of this country through registration. As for me, I was born in the city too, but at fifty-five years of age, I can not tell you where, because what I remember of my early life is growing up in an orphanage. I am the child of an orphanage, and at school-going age, that was where I always returned after lessons. But then, I got lucky when I was fifteen and I was adopted by my retiring orphanage matron. She died a few years later, after my marriage.

We walked for many days through the forest, and we were lucky that is was summer, and the rivers had a little water, and there were edible fruits around. Sometimes we saw wild animals from a distance, bucks, antelopes, giraffes - but, thank God, we did not meet lions or buffalos. Still, we spent nights perched like birds on the branches of tall trees, not daring to sleep lest we fell off. I remember how I envied the birds safe in their nests on those same trees, often wishing we were them, for all our troubles from our country’s political mess would be gone. In the mornings we would climb down from the trees and take turns sleeping in their shades, whilst the other kept watch. Then in the afternoon, having rested, we would start walking again.

That day when my husband was bitten by the scorpion, I fell into a deep terror. Straightaway he looked like a dying man. What was I to do? I did not know of any herbs that could assist him, and he kept asking for water that we did not have. Finally, towards sunset, I had left the cave. I had toiled up the mountain, and from its peak, discovered the rubbish dump. I had walked to it. There, I came upon people crawling all over the dump, picking what they could. They were a fierce looking lot, but I guess I also looked like them, having lived in the forest for so long too, and not knowing water or clean clothes on my body either.

I had asked a woman where I could get water, and she had shown me a man who lived in a car shell, whom she called the Chief. I was to register with him before I could get any assistance. The Chief had asked me where I came from, I had told him, and he had warmly welcomed me to the dump, saying that city people are all mad, and in the dump I would meet with true and sane friends. He had offered me a place near his car where he had said I could built a shack, but I had told him that we had found a cave on the other side of the mountain where my ill husband was waiting. We had gone back to the cave together, and I had shown him my sleeping husband. Then the Chief had gone back to the dump, and returned later carrying a coca cola bottle filled with a vile looking herbal concoction. He had forced some of it down my husband’s throat, then had taken his leave, promising to visit again.

The following morning the swelling on my husband’s toe had gone down, but he had developed these other diseases from which he ailed, until, weeks afterwards when he died. Before he died, I always got up early to go to the dumpsite to join the others in waiting for the refuse trucks to come with their loads from the city. If one was lucky, you could manage to pick up scraps of food from the refuse – who knows dear comrade, maybe some of that food was throw away from your table too.

The dumpsite people helped me bury my husband in a grave in the forest. Afterwards, the Chief had asked me to come and stay with him, but I had declined the offer, and asked for directions to the city. He had told me to follow the road that brought the lorries to the dumpsite - but only after telling me that I was a fool. Well, that was his opinion, but I did not see myself spending the rest of my life in his Chiefdom bearing him children.

I had walked back to the city following that road, my baby on my back, a bag on my head, and the spirit of my husband floating over us. When I got there, I had wandered around the streets first, until I came upon this pavement, with your house in full view in front of me – yes I know where you stay - where I am finishing this letter.

After finishing it, I am going to wait for a strong wind, and when it is blowing, I will throw the letter into it, and hope it will sail above the guards that guard your house and into its grounds, where, hopefully, you will pick it from those well-manicured lawns and read it, to see what you have done to a life, so that your conscience will work on you whenever you see a dirty woman carrying a baby on her back, picking food from the city’s refuse bins as your cavalcade speeds past.


A Victim

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