By Sharon Tshipa
Clean shaven, woundless, all body parts intact. He sat upright on the time worn Victorian sofa. Uncle Madi had just arrived from war. His son, two daughters and I besieged him.
We begged him to regale us with anecdotes of war. When he eventually did, it was like a mental exercise. In my mind’s eye I saw myself running as fast as my military legs could carry me. Jumping over dead tree trunks, running through abandoned maize fields, across charred remains of a small village, dodging bullets, and shouting at my best friend, “Keep up Masocha.”
And then we were running through the tallest grass I had ever seen, grenades raining from heaven. The angry buzz of the camouflaged helicopter puffed out tear gas. All of a sudden the earth seemed to be on fire. ‘Akere’ they say, where there is smoke there is fire. And then I was ducking and ducking. I barely breathed, savouring every last drop of clean oxygen. Then they were so close, just a few meters above sea level. Their helicopter, like a hungry eagle hunting down its prey, cast mean strong shadows on the ground. Its whirring blades encouraged a mixture of dead grass, dried leaves and dust to rise, blinding us. A pathetic attempt to save myself from impending doom, I hugged the closest tree trunk so tight I was inanimate. It worked, because the rebels did not see me. When the helicopter vanished into the smoke-filled skies I bolted off, screaming, “Masocha, let’s go,” but he just lay there, flat on the ground, not moving. Hurriedly, I checked his pulse. Then we ran. No, I ran while he lay lifeless in my hands. “Don’t die on me,” I murmured time and again. Dirt wafted off us as we ran. Evidently the tripping and the meandering wasn’t enough, for Masocha’s head and face retained enough dust to evoke images of ghosts. Though his mouth was slightly open, his eyes were tightly shut as if refusing to witness the cruelty of life as designed by man. The smoke was behind us now. The noise was also falling behind. In front of us were six other soldiers running but slowing down. In front of them was a river. It was a bitter-sweet moment. Bitter because other solders had fallen during the escape following a surprise attack at our camp, only eight from the twenty had lived.
Uncle Madi relived his first war experience playfully though. As if the encounter that had fuelled my imagination was ordinary. As if what had left me invigorated, holding my breath, and second-guessing the ending was not based on his true life story. Rather than traumatise me, his account had made me feel like I was watching one of those exaggerated Kung Fu movies. But now, at the climax of the story, he fell silent. We witnessed an unmistakable sadness envelop his face. I was certain something terrible had happened at the river. Maybe Masocha had died. Maybe some solders decided to rid themselves of the sticky sweat from the run but then got eaten by crocodiles. I cringed at the thought.
“Please continue, Uncle Madi,” I begged. The suspense was killing us.
He sighed and sank back on the couch. We watched him unblinkingly. We moved in, forming an even tighter siege around him. His son on the couch to his right, his eldest daughter on the couch to his left, the other daughter and I sat at his feet on the floor. Then his lips started moving. They posted me back to the war zone. We swam across the river. As soon as we reached the riverbank bullets came catapulting towards us.
“Turn back!” someone screamed, but he was a little too late because one or two bodies turned while the heads were hacked off their necks. When I couldn’t swim faster than I already was, I tried running. It was difficult. The rebels had counted on it. I swam on nonetheless, egging others on as I did. When a bullet whistled past my neck I quickly turned only to witness two more lives end.
“Submerge yourselves all the way to the bottom of the river,” I instructed. Masocha was the first one to react. I followed him down there. As soon as we hit the floor, I grabbed him and pointed to the right. Swimming to that direction saved our lives, away from the muddied, bloodied, bullets and body littered waters.
Uncle Madi sat upright again on the sofa, recalling me to the present but immediately sent me back.
Seeking to drown our sorrows, Masocha and I walked straight into the first shabeen we found in some strange village. We downed countless king-sized enamel cups of traditional booze and took orders from bladders which wanted to be emptied often. No amount of illicit alcohol content could halt or even slightly pause the footage playing in my head. Accepting defeat, I dipped my hand in some familiar space in my backpack to retrieve a pistol. I wanted to shoot the images out of my head. I didn’t mind ending my miserable life while at it.
“But instead of a gun, guess what I fished out,” he asked? But we were too distraught to guess by now. The reality of the story had sunk.
He embraced us all. “A sealed plastic bag containing letters from you guys. With hugs and kisses drawn on them, and words like, “We miss you, P.S I love you Uncle Madi.” He smiled at me. “Daddy I passed,” he smiled at his son then at his eldest daughter before eyeing the young. “We are praying for you and Masocha. Your letters reminded me why I first joined the military. I was a poor widowed young man who wanted to give his children a chance at a better life. I read them every day for weeks after that, they breathed life back into me.”
Sharon Tshipa is part of the Writivism 2014 festivities. Here is her profile.