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Agatha Zaza


Mwila Agatha Zaza

Zaza lives and works in Zambia. as a mainstreaming specialist. She has published a collection of short stories entitled “Loving Africa”, her stories have appeared in magazines in Ireland and she participated in the British Council’s “Crossing Borders” project.


 A Saturday Afternoon on a Tree-Lined Street

Litiya found her mother taking a walk along a tree-lined street, wearing a stretch velour tracksuit. How did she find her mother, accompanied by a girl who must have been her daughter, on this day that could have been any other?
Litiya was in grade five and they had started learning about millions. Though she was a good student, Litiya did not know what the number “one million” actually meant. She had seen it on a page, practiced adding and subtracting it. She knew it had six zeroes but she could not visualise a million of anything. A million blades of grass, a million grains of maize... Litiya decided it would be a good idea to count to one million – to see the number. She didn’t share this idea with her classmates as they ended their lessons on Friday afternoon and hundreds of girls in blue smocks and boys in blue shorts spilled onto the street as usual. Cars slowed down, some hooted as the children blocked the roads walking in home in groups of two, five even ten.
Litiya walked alone.
“One day someone will kidnap you” Auntie Nali joked as she found her niece walking home that day. Litiya did not reply, but smiled up at her. Auntie Nali was one of her extended family that shared an unfinished two-bedroom house. They walked the final fifteen minutes together weaving beside the road on a rutted mud shoulder, past the rickety stalls of second hand clothes, past the carpenters’ garish overstuffed couches, hopping across a small garbage filled ditch and squelching through the mud to their home.
Litiya wasn’t the kind of child who needed company. The teacher told them during their lesson on millions that there were at least two million people in Lusaka – the teacher wanted to put the number in perspective. She told them to imagine the busiest place they had ever been in and still they would not have seen one million people. Litiya did not find this advice helpful. The busiest place Litiya had ever been to was Soweto market in town. Particularly on a Saturday morning an endless stream of people walked, pushed and dropped things. They called out across corridors, grabbed people’s hands and shook them enthusiastically and sometimes kissing their cheek in the excitement of unexpectedly meeting a loved one.  Still that was not a million people.
That Saturday Litiya decided her mission for the day was to see a million people. She wasn’t excited or passionate about the number, it wasn’t an obsession - she simply had nothing else to do or to think about. Her family were all engaged in their Saturday activities, all involving other people. Unless her grandmother, Kuku, took Litiya with her to visit a friend or if her Aunt Frida needed her to take care of Harry, the youngest in their household, Litiya spent her weekends alone; flipping through old newspapers, watching people through a gap in the fence or most often sitting on the veranda of the unfinished house, staring into space, letting time pass.
She stared into space so often that it worried her family. But over the years they came to accept what they could not change. Shouting, telling her off, or trying to engage her in a conversation, simply delayed her trance-like state. When every activity was exhausted, Litiya would find a quiet corner and stare time away.
The plates were washed, the floors swept and she knew she had hours before dinner. It had rained the night before, but the mud did not deter her. With a piece of paper and a blue pen scarred by teeth marks she set off on her expedition alone.
She began by retracing the way she had walked with her aunt. The main road going past their house yielded five hundred people on foot and in cars. The further she walked and the more she counted, the more she noted what people were doing; people at bus stops, drunk outside taverns during the day, boys playing football with a ball made of an intricate mass of condoms. Buses – a full minibus held twenty one, trucks, big buses… she had to count fast as they moved.  
She came to her school, though it was Saturday the gates were unlocked and fifteen students loitered outside in uniform, two more were just inside, sitting too close discretely holding hands. Litiya continued along the main road past the school, keeping clear of the shallow ditch that ran alongside the road. There were no crowds here, but groups of teens in fours and fives headed for the shops and takeaways and Litiya made way each time using those seconds to examine them. Litiya almost never came in this direction, she had a vague idea of where the road led, into wealthier neighbourhoods, with high walls and security company logos emblazoned on their gates. She’d once passed through in a taxi with her Aunt on their way to a kitchen party in a less ostentatious locality.  
She was on four thousand and thirty when she turned onto a quiet tree-lined road. She’d marked every hundred on the piece of paper to make sure she didn’t lose count. She still wasn’t that far from home. She had been walking at a leisurely pace for forty minutes. She was only now beginning to sweat. Litiya considered turning back when she saw how few people were on the street – it would be wasted time. As she contemplated this option her mother walked past, strolling casually across the road from her.
How did Litiya know that this woman, who had nothing unique about her, was her mother?
Six years is nothing when you miss someone.
For the first few years after their separation Litiya had spent much of her waking life wondering where her mother was and what she was doing.
“Where is mummy?” She’d asked herself countless time. “When is she coming back?” After a while she found it is easiest to conclude that her mother was dead because it hurt much less than to imagine that she could be strolling down the street in expensive clothes with a girl who looked as if she were her daughter chatting loudly by her side.
After those first few years, she replaced those hours of wonder with hours of emptiness, she perfected the ability to think of nothing at all and took to staring into the horizon with her mind completely blank. Her extended family mistook these periods for loneliness or introspection but it was actually the absence of both.
The velour tracksuit was blue. Its velvety hues rippled in the afternoon sun, the velour clung the woman’s hips, her stomach and thighs accentuating their size. Her size was that of wealthy women. True, women in Litiya’s life grew fat too. But not like this. Her mother’s size exuded affluence; daily doses of red meat, chocolate on demand, and parties steeped in  imported beer and red wine, a lifestyle that Litiya could only imagine.
Her mother hadn’t been as fat when Litiya last saw her, talking to Kuku and Auntie Frida on the veranda. The two were nodding to her mother’s proposal. Litiya sat with her cousin, a boy she had never met before on a brown sofa, both watching curiously, trying to hear as much of the conversation as they could. She had no warning that this would happen, just a “come on, we are going to see your auntie.”
Her mother had not been as fair-skinned before. Litiya shared her mother’s natural complexion - a “brown” tone that already attracted attention from the boys in her neighbourhood. But Litiya was sure her mother’s colour had been enhanced either by skin lighteners, or perhaps by the good life, a life out of the sun, in which destinations were reached by car and where other people were employed to tend the garden. Kuku often reminded Litiya to stay out of the sun, her skin colour, her grandmother insisted, was a passport to marrying a wealthy man.
“Yes” Kuku had agreed enthusiastically “times are hard. But see how well your sister is doing” she swept her hand through the air pointing out Auntie Frida’s part-finished house, the same house that was yet to be finished, even today
“You can stay here with us” suggested Auntie Frida “then you will not have to pay rent and it will be cheaper for you”
“No, no, no” Litya’s mother had declined. Litiya, looking back at the evening, recalled her mother’s refusal as too enthusiastic.
Had she already known that she would never come back for her daughter? Had her mother planned to leave her own child and never come back? Did her new family know that Litiya existed?
The little girl walking beside her mother was also overweight. She was much darker than Litiya, perhaps her father was dark, and probably fat too. The girl was talking incessantly at her mother. She spoke in English, quickly and with confidence. She also wore a velour track suit in radiant pink with “High School Musical 3” emblazoned across the back. The girl looked about six. Litiya could not imagine her being any younger. Obviously her mother was expecting a new child when she dumped Litiya at her sister Frida’s door.
Litiya stopped in the shade of a tree where she could observe them walking hand in hand, smiling and talking. Their fat wobbled in unison. They were clean and everything about them was new. Litiya didn’t need to look down to see the mud on her own shoes.
Litiya looked up at the clouds gathering. The two hadn’t noticed her at all. She was certain that if her mother had looked at her, she would have recognised her.
But why would she? She had probably glanced over and seen a girl in cheap Chinese clothes and dismissed her instantly, thinking she was in this street to clean houses. Her mother and half sister looked as if they belonged in this street with its mowed lawns and security guards. If she waited long enough, would Litiya see which of these mansions was theirs? If she waited long enough would they emerge in a RAV 4 with the windows rolled up and the air-conditioning on?
Should she go up to them and say hello, listen to them speak? Would her mother’s still speak their language or would she pretend to have forgotten – which, Auntie Nali said, was what happened when people forgot themselves.
Litiya had stopped counting.
Her mother and half sister had been numbers 4034 and 4035. Litiya hadn’t counted the few people that had passed in the meantime. Going back home meant the count was over, she wouldn’t know if she counted the same people twice. She chose to go home. There was nothing to be gained from waiting.
Her grandmother was making dinner when Litiya got home. The radio was playing and as usual it could be heard in every room of the house and reverberated in the yard as well. Dinner was nshima and beans. The nshima was bubbling ready to be stirred and moulded and the beans had been boiling for hours. The usual smell of dinner had settled on the household. Though familiar, the smell was sickening today. Litiya looked at the food being served and felt poor.
Her grandmother spooned the food onto the enamel plates, her face impassive, unsmiling. Litiya considered telling Kuku what she had seen today. Kuku hadn’t seen her daughter for as long as Litiya hadn’t seen her mother. Whose mourning was greater?
Auntie Frida came in, her youngest son in tow, the older boy was already on the veranda where they ate all their meals, swinging his legs off the edge, waiting to be served. Auntie Frida said she’d rather die than lose her children – was that true? Had she ever had the chance to be rich? Did she ever have to decide between her children and her future? Did she know that her sister was a few streets away wearing expensive clothes? That she had exchanged her child for money. But Litiya was sure that Auntie Frida had also believed that her sister was dead. Like Litiya, Frida probably also imagined a burial without a service, without flowers or mourners, buried in a pauper’s grave paid for by the city council.
How many people lived in her mother’s house? Did they sit at a dinner table and eat with knives and forks? No matter how hard she tried, images of her mother kept returning. Her grandmother looked at her with a questioning eye.
Feeling the need to scream and cry, Litiya decided that nothing would be gained by telling them about her walk. She picked up her enamel plate and ate, unable to shake the feeling of being poor.

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