The strange dance of the calabash

The Strange Dance of the Calabash from A Memory This Size and Other Stories was written by Wazha Lopang of Botswana and published for the Caine Prize by New Internationalist in the UK, and Kwani? in Kenya. We are delighted to reprint the story here for msafiri readers to enjoy

kalabashThe slap caught me just below the ear and sent me sprawling backwards into the kraal. Thankfully, I landed on the calf I had ridiculed moments earlier. There was a snort from my assailant as he leaned over the fence and took a second massive swipe at me. He missed and I was able to scramble up and lift my soggy skirt from the ground and examine the hem for damage. We were expecting important guests and the skirt was my attempt at appearing respectable.

I was cursing myself, not for the state of the skirt but because Papa’s blow had caught me unawares. This monster of a man was so deceptive you would think he spent hours cooped up in his room practising his backhanded slaps against the walls. The calf I had dared to offend in Papa’s presence looked at me with large uncomprehending eyes and went to suckle from its frail mother, who had moved under the mopane tree.

‘Repeat what you said,’ he demanded. His voice did not quite match his bulk and, if you did not know any better, you would think somebody was hiding behind him playing him like a giant puppet. The sleeves of his khaki shirt were rolled up to the elbows. The forearms seemed larger than usual that morning.

‘Repeat it!’

My ear was still ringing and so I did not immediately giggle at that voice of his. Instead I rubbed my ear and muttered, ‘I don’t remember.’

He spat to one side and thundered, ‘That’s because you are stupid!’ Encouraged by the fence between us, I replied, ‘No. I forgot because you hit me so hard it came out my other ear.’

Papa looked at me with his head cocked to the side as if I were some familiar yet obviously poisonous fruit dangling from a bush where one of his cows might pass. He spat again. If he continued doing that, he just might save the pastures from the crippling drought that was now into its third year. I didn’t say this aloud and bit my tongue just in time, causing a tear to roll down a grubby cheek.

Papa shook his head at me, his nose flaring the way our donkey does when it sees the water barrels being loaded onto the cart. ‘Why can’t you be as sensible as Thabo – or your sister at least? I have no idea why anybody would want to marry you but when your in-laws arrive you had better be on your best behaviour, Pebanyana.’ He trudged back up to the house in his thick boots. I knew the drought weighed on him heavily. It was crushing the seeds of joy that had once flourished in his heart. What grew there now was hurt and resentment.

I was the last-born of three children. My name was not Pebanyana. I don’t think I resembled a small mouse in any way. I had pointed this out to Papa the first time he had mentioned that name and had got a bruised buttock for my troubles. My name was Tshepo and I was 13 years old.

Our farm was deep in the countryside. The nearest village, Thamaga, was an hour’s travel west along a gruelling road dotted with potholes that snaked its way across parched acacia woodland before running parallel to a mountain renowned for its peculiar rock formations. It was Papa, the seven cows, and I. Just us and the drought. Neo, my sister, had recently been married to a man she had grown to tolerate. They lived in Thamaga and she visited whenever she could.

Thabo was the eldest, the favourite child and future heir to the two-room house, the cows and the drought. We hardly saw the city boy yet I lived in the shadow of his praises. Papa spoke fondly of him in rare unguarded moments of happiness. You could actually see the mamba eyes dilate when he spoke of him. Papa had a nickname for him too – Tau. I don’t think Thabo resembled a lion (though he did have the appetite to match) but Papa did not value my opinions, not that I lost any sleep over this. However, it was difficult to decide whom Papa loved more: the Lion or the cows. I remember when the Lion pinched my ear after I had asked him when he would settle down and start a family. Papa had emitted a sound that resembled a laugh and said, ‘I see myself in you, Tau.’

His blood coursed in Tau’s city-boy veins and yet Papa was a farmer to the roots of his soul. Neo said when my mother died Papa had actually cried, though it was unclear if he was crying for his wife or for the loss of a cow slaughtered in her honour. In those days he had close to a hundred cattle. ‘Cattle are more important than women,’ he often said with a slight tremor in his voice. ‘Cattle are life. If you have no cattle you are not alive. You are simply moving in a grave with a mouth full of soil.’

People often remarked that I resembled my mother, which was obviously a lie because Papa was always smacking me about. I had never seen him lay an angry hand on the Lion. Whenever they reunited after a long absence, they exchanged playful swipes across the shoulders, and each time a paw connected with flesh the sound was like an elephant breaking off a branch. On his rare visits Tau spent hours on the sofa or, if it was not too warm, he would be on the porch soaking up the sun as I scampered from here to there on endless errands.

I slowly crawled from under the fence. Damn. I could have moved faster than that. Often when he dropped his shoulder I would already be leaning back. However, this time his hands had been in his pockets jiggling some loose change and the sound of those coins had commanded my full attention when the blow came. Next time I would steal some two-inch nails that we kept in the tool shed for repairing the rickety kraal and conceal them in my headscarf and provoke him with something like, ‘How many cattle died today, Papa?’ or perhaps, ‘If it don’t rain tomorrow Papa, which cow are we gonna eat first?’ I bet when that paw felt the nails sinking in he would bellow like a bull being castrated.

I giggled and plopped onto the ground. This was foolish because my only decent skirt was getting really soiled. But the giggles would not stop and I was trying so hard to frown as I giggled so that my heart would see that I was having none of it. Pretty soon I was hysterical with laughter. The image of my father yelling in pain and blowing on his fingers rocked my body in spasms of delight. Perhaps his hand would swell, swell and swell and then go POP! I was getting back to my feet but a crazy image of my father as a yellow balloon floating into the blue sky filled my vision and I collapsed again in whoops of laughter.

My situation, however, was no laughing matter. My father was expecting some very important guests. I was being married off to a man that I did not know and had no intention of knowing. The visit was only to confirm and pay the bride price. The actual marriage was still five years away but in essence, once the deal was done, I would be ‘married’. Papa could have waited a couple of years before allowing for marriage negotiations but the drought had left him no choice. However, the fact that our guests were spoken highly of by the Lion dispelled any misgivings my father had. From the letters between Pa and our guests it was clear that the Lion knew a lot about them.

I had not met my suitor but in my mind he was a fat bullfrog with cold brown eyes. My mother and Neo were products of arranged marriages. Papa said tradition added salt to your bones. ‘Your destiny in life,’ he would say when I misbehaved, ‘is to prostrate yourself to your man. That is all. Always remember one thing: Every woman is beautiful until she speaks.’

In my father’s opinion the thought of a girl choosing her own husband was as rare as a man with no cattle. Negotiations were scheduled for this afternoon and I had resigned myself to my fate. However, I would not be changing my dress, my suitor would have to pay for the cow dung and dirt on me as well. I did not hate marriage. It was only that the thought of getting married to someone you could not fight back did not appeal to me.

Neo was married off in much the same way; the only difference was that she was 19 at the time. Her husband regularly beat her over trivial matters. One evening, though, she boiled some water on the primus stove and casually poured it on the bed. This was in full view of the undressing husband. ‘Why are you doing that?’ he had asked, surprised.

‘I’m just practising, my Lord. I want to see if I can empty the whole pot in one quick throw.’

The beatings had stopped. Now imagine me. How was I going to get a big pot of boiling water to the bed all by myself? Perhaps I would ask the bullfrog to assist. I could probably smile and show him the gap in my teeth… but would that gap be enough to get him to pour boiling water over himself? My laughter had dried up by now and all that was left to see was a dirty girl taking short nervous breaths.

How was I to get out of this situation? I had tried. Lord knew, I had run away three times already and each time Papa had caught me hiding in exactly the same place – the tree in the kraal. Those stupid cows kept staring up the tree despite my best efforts to shoo them off, especially the calf. This was the cause of my most recent slap. When I climbed down the tree I said, ‘The only reason you found me Papa, is because that calf is a Judas! In fact, it is a Cowdas!’

My thoughts were interrupted by a car entering our yard. They were here and my time was up. Simultaneously Papa kicked the kitchen door open and roared out my name.

I rubbed my throbbing arm as I sat on the floor by Papa’s feet. He had taken the trouble to put on his only blazer, a black, uncomfortable, woollen item that was two sizes too small and which had gone for quite some time without a wash. Every now and then he slyly scratched an arm as his skin reacted to the dirty fabric. There were no other relatives with us since this was just a preliminary talk. In subsequent meetings Uncle Morwesi would join Papa and I would be barred from proceedings. My sole purpose at this meeting was to smile for the guests when the time came for me to parade for them.

Across the room sat the two visitors on a low wooden stool that they had brought themselves. There was a grey sofa by the door under the light switch. Although it was as old as Papa’s anger, it was still functional. It stood there unused, looking forlorn, like a tethered goat on Christmas Day. Between us was a small handmade table on which was set a pitcher of water and a small bottle of juice concentrate. Beside this were a large glass and a chipped plate with exactly three ginger biscuits.

One of the visitors was indeed a bullfrog of sorts. He was quite hairy – you could, with a bit of patience and two matchsticks, braid tiny cornrows on his forearms. His companion was slightly taller, with a pointy forehead that was sweating profusely. Every few minutes he rummaged in his coat pocket and brought out a damp blue-and-white handkerchief to dab liberally across his brow. They wore ill-fitting suits probably purchased off the hanger from Hami’s General Merchandise, owned by a surly Pakistani in Thamaga. I was happy I had not changed my skirt. We continued staring at each other for a while and I amused myself by counting how many times Papa scratched at his arms and neck. Occasionally the sponge would lean over to the bullfrog to whisper something as oily drops of perspiration marked a trail between them. I wasn’t looking forward to cleaning that up.

Finally, after what Papa felt to be a reasonable interlude, he cleared his throat and lifted his upper lip briefly before dropping it again. ‘Gentlemen from Gaborone, good afternoon. I have been looking forward to this day. Our elders were wise when they said a home without a woman is like a kraal without cattle.’ The sponge went for his handkerchief. Papa continued, ‘We meet for the first time face to face and I hope that our negotiations will go smoothly. With regard to the bride price I am confident that, though money is always a difficult hurdle to overcome, eventually we will reach an agreement.’ He spread his arms before him. ‘All we need today is a bit of patience with one another. As the proverb goes, a cow does not void all its dung at one go.’

Our guests nodded politely while Papa took a moment to scratch his neck. He sounded calm but I knew he had one mind on the borehole, calculating how he would spend the dowry. The local Agricultural Officer had told him just last week that if his cattle did not get a regular supply of good water they would not make it through this summer. In his reflections Papa had come to the conclusion that a bride price of 12 cattle would suffice to drill and equip the borehole. This was the figure that he wanted from our two visitors.

‘Mr Kgwebo,’ the bullfrog croaked. ‘Thank you for the warm greeting. Already the feeling of being a stranger has disappeared. However, it seems there has been a slight misunderstanding all along that was never corrected in the letters we wrote to you. The groom’s family didn’t actually brief us well until yesterday when we were already committed to coming here and so…’

His voice trailed off and the sponge squeezed out an opinion. ‘You see, sir… er… our groom did not tell us this before but he has a… condition… you and I may find strange.’

A part of me wanted to raise my arm and ask a question but I decided to see which direction this conversation was headed. The bullfrog stuck out an arm and threw a ginger biscuit in his mouth and sucked on it. Papa was sitting ramrod straight, hands on his knees. His fingers were twitching like the whiskers of a nervous mouse. The moment I saw that, one word sprang into my head. Pebanyana! I muffled a giggle but I could not help my shoulders from shaking with laughter. Papa gnashed his teeth for a long second and slowly returned his attention to the two men, who had confused looks on their faces. With a strained expression, Papa removed his jacket and placed it on the sofa so carefully one would think he was nursing a cow with a fever. I believe he was just using the opportunity to think about what he had just heard because, when he started talking, his voice grew steadily with each question he asked.

‘What are you talking about? Condition? You have no right to make demands to me in my own house. The strength of the crocodile is in the river. You have no right at all!’

Outside, the thirsty cows were getting restless and I could hear the bell on Matladi rattle in a way that suggested she was trying the wooden gate of the kraal with her horn. The bullfrog traced an extremely pink tongue across his wide lips. He swallowed. I had never in all my young life seen an Adam’s apple move so slowly. It was like an ambitious mole burrowing through thick terrain before deciding to turn back and head for the surface.

The sponge spoke up. ‘Again you misunderstand. These youth of today, Mr Kgwebo, they have… different tastes.’ The bullfrog zapped up another biscuit. I was now eyeing the door, calculating how many steps it would take for my father to block it before I could escape. The words of the sponge were not comforting.

‘Young man, speak up! What is the point of your visit?’ His hands were still on his knees but I refused to look at his fingers. ‘Is it that grown men like you are ignorant of the procedure in such matters?’ He clucked softly, the way he often did when the lead cow pulled up abruptly in the field, causing the plough to lurch out of the furrow. ‘Let me remind you, as the saying goes, nobody is born wise. What you do is that you identify yourselves and say, “We have come to ask for a calabash of water”. I then ask if you can describe the calabash you seek, which is when you identify that girl over there and give me her full names. That is the custom.’

The bullfrog croaked into life again and, as he spoke, little crumbs peppered the air. ‘Mr Kgwebo, the custom is well known to us. We have not been sent here to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. I know this is what you had assumed all along and we apologise for misleading you. Our groom intends to marry another of your children.’

He was staring fixedly at the vinyl floor. The sponge had dived into his pocket again. My father and I exchanged looks. I showed him my hands and raised three fingers in front of me and mouthed off each one silently: ‘Tshepo, Neo, Thabo.’ I did it in reverse just so that he got the picture: ‘Thabo, Neo, Tshepo.’ My father was still looking at me but deep in thought. I unfolded my fourth finger at him and said, ‘Papa, do you have another child that you have neglected to tell us about?’

The bullfrog had the look of a man caught doing something inappropriate behind a church. Nonetheless, he ploughed on, eager to get the weight off his chest. The sponge had almost disappeared into his suit. ‘Please believe me when I say that bringing this news has been an agonising experience for me – for all of us in fact. But in life one has to adapt to the challenges placed before one. The chameleon changes colour to match the earth and not the other way round. Our groom wants to let it be known that he is willing to pay 26 head of cattle to you but only if he receives your blessing for the marriage.’ I whistled softly but, because my mouth had gone dry, what came out instead was a sharp gust of air. Papa’s mouth dropped open almost to his navel. He blinked quickly and turned his head and looked out the window for a minute in the direction of the kraal, although he couldn’t see it from where he sat. A very important question was still without an answer although I was not sure if I was ready for it.

‘Who is being married? The girl is right here.’ My father pointed a twitching finger at me and I closed my eyes and again raised three fingers. ‘Papa, there is no fourth child.’

The sponge emerged like a tortoise that has waited as long as it dared in the open field and has decided to head for cover before the hawk’s shadow swoops again. He spoke up with an air of resignation. ‘An elephant carries his tusks no matter how heavy. Mr Kgwebo, the groom wants to marry your son. The two of them are lovers.’

The room became tense the way it sometimes gets just before an African thunderstorm. I was looking at the bullfrog. He was looking at Papa, who was looking at the sponge retreating into his suit. Thabo was still smiling on the wall. At that moment Matladi bellowed and, like a rabid dog that has chewed through its leash, Papa leapt from his chair and went for the bullfrog.

With a shriek that would have been comical in a different setting, the bullfrog positioned the sponge in front of him. As Papa grabbed him by the lapel of his suit, I was disappointed the material didn’t tear right off. In the ensuing scuffle, the sponge tried to get Papa’s attention by flailing his arms about and yelling, ‘Mr Kgwebo, we are still here for the calabash of water! Please let’s work something out.’

‘The calabash you seek has no water you can use!’ Papa thundered. The glass wobbled on the table but surprisingly it did not topple over. The men fell against the wall and dislodged the picture from the nail where 
it hung.

The Lion crashed to the ground and the fight went out of my father.

Suddenly he seemed very tired, like a stubborn old man who realises one morning that he can no longer ignore the walking stick by his bed. ‘Get out,’ he said softly. ‘Leave us. The words you bring are more than a man can stomach.’

The men shuffled out the door and bade dejected farewells, ‘Go siame, go siame.’

I picked up the picture and shook out the pieces of glass still lodged in the frame. I mounted it back on the wall and turned towards my father. There was a deep sadness in his eyes, a sadness that it seemed not even the bleating of a new-born calf could shake. ‘What are we to do now, Tshepo? What shall become of us?’

I reached out and held his hand.

Six weeks passed and the cows were doing reasonably well. Papa had bought some hay and medicine for them and I must say there was a lively mood about the place – everything seemed fresh and alive. The borehole was up and running and there was enough water to sell to the neighbouring farmers who were no doubt inquisitive as to where the money had come from but had the good manners to keep their thoughts to themselves.

The important thing was that Papa’s heart now had a song in it and occasionally, when he whistled an old folk tune about a hunter that had saved his tribe from hunger, I found myself thinking of my mother. He had accepted the bride price of 26 cattle after much soul searching. We never discussed the ‘union’. It was as if my father had closed that door shut with his massive arms and nothing would open it. I was trying, but it would take time.

Despite Papa’s wishes, Neo did go to the city to visit Tau and I was still eagerly awaiting news from her. What I wanted more than anything was for Tau to pay us a visit. It would happen some day and I guess my father knew it too. The thought of Papa and the Lion together after such a turbulent time would be a great occasion for me. I would put on my new skirt for that one! However, there was a more immediate concern for me. I was in the tree looking at the fat calf gazing intently at me. Papa was on his way to knock some sense into me. I had innocently remarked if he had ever seen a male lion without a mane and if this would explain why Thabo was what he was.

The kitchen door slammed open and I heard the heavy footsteps crunch towards me. I hissed at the calf with a twinkle in my eye. ‘You Cowdas’