He wasn’t anything special. He wasn’t particularly intelligent or athletic. In fact, the neighbours often heard his mother’s raspy shouts, as she predicted, in the manner of African parents, that he would never amount to anything. Nobody knew then that the last time Mee Feni said it would be the last time she told him anything.
Mee Feni had the face of someone who would have been prettier if she had faced less hardship. Years of scowling had set her face into an embittered mask that belied the comeliness. True, many people in Providence, or Videns, as it became known, worked night shifts to provide for a family they did not want. Most did so without complaint. Not Mee Feni. She was determined to blame everyone for the misfortunes that befell her when she learned that marriage was not the prize for dropping out of school to run off with her boyfriend. According to her, all uuthondoro got her was a baby she hated and a smoking habit, mementos of her time spent gallivanting with a man that went on to marry someone else. However, as caustic as she was, not even she deserved to have fate belatedly heed her darkest desire: I wish you were never born.
But what does one say to a woman who is mourning?
What does one say when what one really wants to say is, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Swallow the words and mumble a variation of, “Hekelekwa ku Kalunga,” or “Mutu Muhona ma vatere,” then keep moving so there is no pause in the line of mourners. Surely, if enough people said it, Mee Feni would believe that God would help and comfort her. God would help her through this. Surely.
Ngutjiua moved to the end of the line and resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the elders. It was only midday, yet she had already earned their disapproval by arriving at the funeral in trousers. She could still feel their eyes on her as they sat, huddled together on a blanket next to Mee Feni as they whispered to each other out of the side of their mouths and pointed at her with their lips. Never mind that said funeral was being held at Mee Feni’s home.
Well, really, six people’s homes – since the shacks were packed so closely together, concessions from the neighbours had to be made. It was cheaper than requesting the use of a church. Sure, the Municipality was saddened by the accident that took Thomas’s life and the riot that left their CEO injured. But this sadness only extended towards paying for a coffin and a burial site for Thomas; the marketing clean-up didn’t call for a more expensive gesture than that. The funeral was arranged by Ngutjiua’s grandmother, with some contributions from Mee Feni’s distant family, her colleagues, and neighbours.
A cheap alternative was cremation but “Iinima hasho hayi ningwa!” Meekulu had said, brooking no room for argument because if she said things were not done that way, it would not happen.
Ngutjiua was not sure if her grandmother meant the Aawambo way or the Christian way. Meekulu often conflated the two. Despite never having met her father, Ngutjiua had his name and, in the eyes of Meekulu, his heritage. Ergo, she was to be educated in the “way of doing things”. Meekulu had taken to this duty with gusto ever since an infant Ngutjiua was left in her care with nothing but the clothes on her back, a birth certificate, and assurances that her father was from Opuwo, close to Okakarara. Ngutjiua would later conclude that unless the woman who birthed her was on a road trip with a truck driver, her errant mother was likely referring to a pair of shebeens, since the two towns were five hours apart.
A throat clearing brought Ngutjiua out of her musings. Meekulu looked pointedly at the basket on the chair they were about to pass. Right.
Tuck the banknote into your fist, drop it into the offering basket, ensure nobody can see what you threw in…and tifula!
Ngutjiua curtsied, prepared to view the body.
Whilst Ngutjiua had seen plenty of dead people from her nursing practicals at Katutura Hospital, she had never attended their funerals. There was a heaviness she had not anticipated that came with being reunited with the body she had last seen when its spirit was leaving.
Ngutjiua looked at Thomas’s body and felt the moisture leave her mouth. He looked smaller than the last time she saw him, face thinner, skin paler. She wondered how they managed to fix up the skin on his forehead, which had last looked like someone took a cheese grater to it. The best she could have done at the time was put a clean tissue on it and hope it didn’t scar. But that was before his body began to shake even under the cardigan she had placed over him.
Where is Mee Feni with that blanket? she had thought when she noticed that the crowd gathered around Thomas had dwindled as, one by one, they became more interested in forming a human blockade around the Benz that had attempted to flee the scene shortly after running him over.
“Did you hear me?” She figured that was what he was saying; by this time, there were so many sounds competing for her attention, the only thing she could hear was blood rushing in her ears.
She had already told him that he was going to be alright, that the ambulance was on its way. What was one more lie?
“Yes, Thomas,” she shouted over the noise. “That’s the ambulance arriving now. Just keep holding on neh.”
Pity the only role the ambulance could play was transporting Thomas’s body to the state mortuary.
Ngutjiua, the granddaughter of a devout Christian, found herself wondering if humans made up the concept of a returning Jesus to distract themselves from their own uselessness to each other.
She could not help Thomas, and the ambulance … the ambulance she saw in the distance would not.
Mutu Muhona mavatere. God was his last hope.
Ngutjiua considered herself a fighter. Although Meekulu would describe her as hardegat, extremely insolent, nobody in Videns would ever accuse her of being a delicate flower. Which is why the tears threatening to betray her reputation added insult to injury. Her hand paused a hairsbreadth from the viewing glass as she blinked away the tears. She wondered idly where they found the wood to make a coffin that small.
Meekulu tried to steer her towards the area set up for cooking. She understood how difficult it would be for Ngutjiua to see the body of the boy she had grown up watching over for the last time. Despite not caring much for his mother, Ngutjiua had taken to Thomas and watched over him on the nights when Mee Feni had to work the night shift and the days when she was asleep. Ngutjiua had even assigned Thomas his own plate and spoon for when they shared meals. And on the nights when Ngutjiua arrived home from her nursing practicals without Thomas, she would be sent back to retrieve him from whichever corner of the township he was making mischief with his friends.
“Hey Sister. Where is your handbag?” Mee Feni would playfully ask her, cigarette dangling from her lips, as if she was referring to someone else’s child and not her own.
If she wasn’t sure it would earn her the beating of a lifetime, Ngutjiua would have been inclined to remind Mee Feni that parenting involves at least pretending that one knows the whereabouts of their own child. But Ngutjiua was no fool. Such questions were usually handled with a shrug and a finger pointed to the main road, a safe choice since they lived on the last row of shacks; the only thing behind them was the dumpsite, and even Thomas knew better than to play in that area.
Mee Feni would respond with, “Well, if you see that stupid son of mine playing with those Kwankalas, tell him if he is not home before dark, he might as well sleep there.”
“Eewa Mee Feni,” Ngutjiua would acquiesce, knowing full well she would do no such thing.
“Sister, Sister. We didn’t get any food!”
Ngutjiua considered ignoring the voice behind her as she continued scooping soup into a styrofoam bowl. She handed it over to the girl on her left. This was the third time she had heard a child claim that they had not been fed. This was despite the telltale sheen of vetkoek oil around her mouth.
It was unfortunate that, although they might be sorry for Mee Feni’s loss, a funeral was an opportunity to get all three meals in a day, especially for the children who had already begun to collect as many of the fist-sized cakes they were meant to eat with the soup. This is why, even in the townships, large cooking posts appeared at funerals as if conjured by magic to ensure that there would be enough soup and vetkoeks to keep the most gluttonous of mourners fed. However, there had to be an order to things.
Sit through the proceedings, put the money in the offering basket, and wait to be served by a young girl balancing a tray full of packaged soup and vetkoeks. One did not simply approach the cooks and servers and request food; iinima hasho hayi ningwa.
Ngutjiua sighed. Unfortunately, one did not lose their temper when it happened either.
“Just go sit next to the elders. You can be served with them,” she replied instead.
Sensing that she was not going to receive an extra helping, the little girl nodded and walked towards the makeshift choir in the direction opposite where she had been pointed.
“It’s one of the kids,” her companion whispered.
Gossip was another staple at a funeral. Helped to pass the time. Ngutjiua gestured for the girl to explain.
“They were mos throwing stones at the Benz,” the girl continued, emboldened by her audience. “Those Kwankalas are always throwing stones at the cars on the truck road. I heard the driver chased them. And then purukutu! Suddenly, poor Thomas was bumped. Gone like that.”
“I heard,” the girl charged with placing the vetkoeks in the soup bowl interjected, “the driver was making an illegal u-turn, and the kids didn’t see the car.”
“I heard … ”
Ngutjiua sighed and tried to drown out their voices. They could ask the driver once he came out of his “critical condition” in Lady Pohamba Private Hospital.
And while they were at it, they could ask the driver why he, the esteemed CEO of the Municipality who had decried the dangers on the backroads of the townships, was driving on said backroads, against the traffic, in his government car. He had as much business in Videns as Thomas would have had in Lady Pohamba Private Hospital, where the lobby resembled a hotel, had the ambulance arrived on time anyway.
Ngutjiua adjusted her shitengi around her waist and fanned herself with her hand. Just as the dry windy winter ended, the heat, mosquitoes, and flies began with no intermission. She had only been sitting outside with the other girls for a few minutes as they served the mourners, but she could already feel the sweat dripping down her back.
“‘Sablief Sister man, don’t be like that man.”
Ngutjiua adjusted her weight on the small stool as she turned to look for the source of the begging in butchered Afrikaans. She almost wished she continued feigning deafness when she realised it was only Makafa stumbling his way to them in what looked like his funeral suit and carrying a mayonnaise jar of half-drunk tombo. Where he managed to find homebrew on a Sunday was a mystery only overshadowed by the holey pair of slacks, marginally cleaner than his usual wardrobe, that he wore.
“Sablief Sister,” he said when he made eye contact with his target. “How come you are not giving us food?”
Why are you speaking like the pastor? she wanted to say but thought better of verbally pointing out that Makafa had no business mocking the pastor’s Zimbabwean accent in polite company. For one, someone arriving drunk and with their choice of drink to a funeral is not a strong endorsement of their respect for polite company, and second, despite having never been seen sober, Makafa had a very sure aim with a stone.
“Wag net,” she responded instead, as if placating one of the opportunistic children. “We are coming. Just wait.”
She turned back to the task at hand and motioned to the rest of the girls, who were momentarily stunned that Makafa was capable of having a civilised conversation, to get on with it.
Not one to be ignored, Makafa responded with an emphatic, “Ai voetsek man! You think you walk on ice cream as if you don’t bathe in a mbaali soos almal.”
Ngutjiua silently laughed and considered how fast she would have to run to escape the consequences of pointing out that, large basin or not, Makafa did not bathe like everyone else.
She snapped her finger at the girl on the left who watched Makafa with the fascinated horror with which one watches a shack fire. They were too young to know him better, but for all his faults, even Makafa knew better than to upstage Mee Feni as the centre of attention during her own son’s funeral.
Ngutjiua briefly considered informing her neighbour that it was none of her concern where she was going but decided against it. Mee Feni had a deadlier aim with a stone than Makafa and did not require much of an excuse to fight anyone, especially a week after burying her son.
Ngutjiua leisurely locked her door and answered with a simple, “I am going to school, Mee Feni.”
“Is your Professor on the road?” Mee Feni asked and snickered as if she was privy to a secret Ngutjiua didn’t know. “I saw him with that other yellow-bone girl. Passop, my dear, these men always have someone in the queue to replace you. Be careful.” Mee Feni could never keep a secret.
How long is a person allowed to be unbearable before they have to stop using their bereavement as an excuse?
“Did you want to send me, Mee Feni?”
Mee Feni rolled her eyes at the diplomatic reply and reached into her bra for some money. “Bring me a gwaai and a half bread when you come back from your school.”
Ngutjiua nodded, accepting the money. The tone of derision Mee Feni used grated on her nerves, but she was relieved the woman didn’t require anything that would make her late to meet the black Mercedes standing idle on the tarred road leading out of Videns. At least it was only bread and cigarettes that she needed today. She shook her head, hoping to clear it of the fog that clung to her like a bad smell. While she could get away with being distracted, a failure to hear a “Passop!” from a cyclist or someone in the midst of tossing unknown liquids from a basin guaranteed an injury or scrubs decorated in effluent during her walk.
The Professor was called so not due to any kind of academic accolades. If one had to describe him plainly, he was a businessman with all the right connections. However, as someone who opened a successful private college for nursing, The National Institute of Health, he required an appropriate moniker; businessmen didn’t run private colleges, professors did.
Ngutjiua greeted him with a smile as she entered the car, taking care not to disrupt his ritual of listening to the news whenever he picked her up. He winked at her in acknowledgement as he started the car and began their journey to the campus.
She shifted her leg just out of his reach under the pretext of looking for her phone. There was only so much room for movement given the size of her thighs, but she had yet to control the instinct to recoil from him. Even after three years of riding shotgun in the professor’s car. In the beginning, it seemed like a good deal; a free ride to and from Videns, a few meals, books, a “scholarship”, and before she knew it, the kindness of the man attempting to squeeze her leg had become a noose around her neck.
“In the news at three, more staff from the Namibia Qualifications Authority have been arrested in connection with—”
She jumped at the suddenness with which the Professor changed the radio station. Her leg was completely forgotten as he surfed through the stations as if searching for one free from the news.
“A new development of the NQA bribery scandal implicates—”
“More on the NQA scandal—”
The car almost swerved into the wrong lane as the Professor turned the dial.
It wasn’t unusual for the Professor to skim through radio stations if there was a topic he was keen to avoid listening to. News implicating a public official for bribery or corruption was usually skipped over in favour of news further away from home.
“The NQA has confirmed that the National Institute of Health could have their accreditation revoked, leaving hundreds of graduates stranded.”
Wait a minute.
Ngutjiua sat up straighter and looked at the Professor. It wouldn’t do to ask him to go back to the radio station now. Not when she wasn’t sure how he would respond. She made a note to check her class WhatsApp group as soon as the Professor topped up her airtime.
The burden of having become dependent on the Professor for her education and most luxuries felt like elastic around her head as it became apparent, to at least four radio stations, that the last few years of studying, and pretending that sitting in the Professor’s car was exclusively about him mentoring her, would be for nothing. Fokol!
Ngutjiua clenched and unclenched her hands, wondering where the bubbles in the air were coming from. Objectively she knew they weren’t actually bubbles, just as she knew there was nothing stuck in her throat. Just as she knew the fog that blanketed Videns last week was dust created by the crowd that had grown steadily more aggressive in their standoff with the police.
It was so thick she had to squint to see clearly. The crowd had grown in size and ferocity in what seemed like a split second. It had started as a simple human roadblock to prevent the driver of the Benz from fleeing the scene of a crime while they waited for the police and ambulance to arrive. When it became apparent that such reinforcements might not be forthcoming, the crowd decided to become them. Granted, their intention in demanding the man come out of the Benz was not to obtain any kind of statement from him.
There were perhaps 60 or 70 men and women in blue with what looked like guns in their hands. It could have been batons, but her survival instinct would not allow Ngutjiua to imagine that the police were capable of exercising mercy in a place like this; the power was too seductive.
“Yes, Thomas,” she replied, wincing at the sight of Makafa stumbling after having taken a particularly hard hit from an unimpressed officer, his mayonnaise jar a casualty of the interaction.
I wasn’t a snake. But Thomas, in his delirium, could be forgiven for not knowing the difference.
Mee Feni had yet to return with a blanket, but Thomas had stopped trembling. Ngutjiua watched as the crowd seemed to grow silent as they pondered the best strategy to get the driver out of the car. One which wouldn’t trigger an immediate violent response from the police before it succeeded.
On the other side of the assembled crowd, two figures approached. One zig-zagged through the people with no apparent destination. The other meandered, with deliberate slowness, towards the crowd. Dragging behind him like a lizard’s tail, sliding along the rocks and shards of broken glass, was a katana.
The three things happened at once: a pop before the first figure tossed what looked like an activated flare under the Benz, Thomas took his last breath, and the figure, which was Mee Feni, as if realising her son was gone, released a wail akin to a wounded animal’s, and which would haunt Ngutjiua for days to follow.
As Ngutjiua ran her fingers over Thomas’s eyelids to close them, she saw the second figure approach the Benz, katana in hand. In the pause before the fracas ensued, the sound that Thomas had mistaken for a snake reverberated. The sound was more of a screech than a hiss really – a hundred nails on a metal chalkboard, designed to jar the listener, a proper announcement that the driver was about to be dealt with.
Katherine-Tulonga Amakali is a Namibian writer. She is an attorney by profession and writes both fiction and non-fiction. Neither has been published yet.