IT WAS MPOFU BANGING AT THE DOOR, and it was 3.00 a.m. on a wet windy night in December.
‘What’s wrong,’ I shouted from behind the solid wood, burglar-proof door, for this was Zimbabwe at the start of the twenty-first century.
‘They’ve taken the rabbits.’
I unbolted and unlocked the door and looked out through the bars. Mpofu stood there under the security lights, looking even worse than usual. There was blood and dirt on the side of his face, and on his bare feet.
‘There were three of them. I ran after them and grabbed one, but I tripped and fell and they got away. I cut my feet.’
Mpofu was in his late forties, but looked twenty years older – he was simply known as Madala by everyone in the neighbourhood. He must have been quite a big, solid man when he was younger, but the wear and tear of life, plus the virus, had taken their toll. He had been sleeping in a hut by the animal pens when we arrived on the plot in Warrington some three years ago and we didn’t have the heart to kick him out. His job was ‘to guard the animals at night’. This involved sleeping in his hut, as always, but with the door open, so that if anything happened – a snake, a genet, a wild pig or a human visiting the chickens, the rabbits or the vegetables – his wife, MaDube, would rouse him so that he could make lots of noise and frighten the visitors away, or so we hoped. I never imagined that he would go so far as to
tackle any of the local poachers.
Mpofu had been born in Sankonjana, close to the Botswana border, a hot dry area some four hours drive through the dust. Like all the males in the area, he had left to try and make his fortune elsewhere, initially as a ‘garden boy’ in Bulawayo. But he hadmoved on every few years to various other jobs – in factories and homes in Harare, Masvingo, Mutare, South Africa and Botswana. His education at the local Salvation Army Church school had been very short. He never learnt to read, though he often enjoyed demonstrating to me that he could get by in at least ten languages – Ndebele, Shona, Sotho, Kalanga, Tswana, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Tonga and English – not that I understood more than one myself. He’d also never got anywhere near to making his fortune, partly because he’d never listened to his teachers and had drunk much of his earnings. Lately, he had found God and had given up the demon drink for tea, but that didn’t stop his serial bigamy, not that he formally married any of his wives, even in the traditional sense. His ex-‘wives’, including his second wife, MaNcube, who lived locally, often tried to get him to support their children, but he denied that any of them were his, except for his twenty-five year old son Biggie. He had recently started to become restless again – three years in one place was too long for him – and he talked frequently of going to Egoli. ‘Biggie could get me work’. He refused to acknowledge his rapidly deteriorating health: it was just ‘the dust’ or ‘no meat’ which caused his coughing and his diarrhoea.
He shuffled as he walked along with a bent back, the result of his misfortune in wandering across the unmarked Botswana border in early 1986, on his way home to Sankonjana. The Fifth Brigade happened to be in the area at the time and had taken him to Bhalagwe camp for ‘questioning’. Mpofu had no real interest in politics, but he spent the next eleven months being beaten each day, listening to the cries and screams of others. He still bore the marks, physical and mental, of that experience. Mpofu and I had become close over the few years I had known him.We’d spent many hours drinking our tea together, warming ourselves in the early morning sunshine. He’d tried to teach me a different useful phrase in one of his languages each day – he seemed particularly concerned that I, a white person in Southern Africa, could not speak any Afrikaans – but I’d forget them before the next morning. I tried to teach him a few phrases from my limited knowledge of French; he, of course, picked the phrases up immediately. He becamekeen for me to bring a French speaker to Warrington so that he could ask the time of day, or for directions to the nearest croissant shop.
As the rabbit robbers had just made their getaway, it seemed a good idea to have the police look around those of the neighbours we suspected of acquiring items that did not belong to them. The telephone was working, a fairly rare event in 2007.
‘Good morning, is that Kenton police?’
‘Is that Kenton police?’
‘Yes sir. How are you this morning?’
‘I’m fine, how are you?’
‘I’m fine also.’
‘I’ve just had animals stolen. Could you come and help me look for the thieves?’
‘How many cattle were taken?’
‘It was four rabbits.’
‘Rabbits. Four of them.’
‘Oh. You’d better come in and file a report after eight.’
‘But I think I know who took them. Perhaps we could save them.’
‘We’ve got no transport.’
‘But I could fetch you.’
After a long delay, the policeman reluctantly agreed that I could pick him up, provided I took him back later. So I left Mpofu to tidy himself up and clean his wounds and drove the ten kilometres to pick up Detective Dube, who was dressed smartly in civilian clothes, but clutched a pistol in his right hand. I noticed a youth of fourteen or so in the police hut, handcuffed by both hands to the legs of the desk – what heinous crime had he committed? Another two men were at the desk with Dube’s colleague, writing out an application for a postmortem, by candlelight as ZESA had failed again.
We returned home to find Mpofu standing at the scene of the crime, looking just a little better.
‘Is this the thief?’ cried Dube, with a menacing look. Perhaps Mpofu had that affect on those in authority.
After a fruitless inspection around the pens for footprints, and fruitful negotiations as to the sale of a few chickens at a ‘good’ price to Dube, we, Dube, Mpofu and I, set off in the car to visit the Nyoni brothers, who lived in a crumbling three-roomed house on the next plot. Everyone in the neighbourhood suspected the Nyoni brothers of every theft that had ever taken place, though they’d only ever been arrested for fighting late on Saturday nights at the nearby Collin’s Cocktail Bar. We’d visited their house two days before with our other neighbour, Ngwenya, in a fruitless search for his missing garden hose.
There was a light on inside the Nyoni house. We parked the car, and Dube drew his gun.
‘Wait here,’ he said, ‘there’s something going on.’
He slid out of the passenger door, gun at the ready, and disappeared into the bush. I waited, nervously; Mpofu had dozed off in the back seat.
Five minutes later Dube was back, breathless. ‘He ran into the house, come with me!’
More nervously still, I followed, somewhat unwilling to be involved in a gun battle, even if it would savemy four rabbits fromcertain death. Mpofu, sensibly, remained asleep.
Bursting through the front door, withme well behind, Dube shouted,
‘Police. Stay where you are!’
Themba Nyoni stood just inside the front door, fully dressed, his rasta hair perhaps a little dishevelled. His brother, Gift, with a shaven head, hovered by the door to his room, further back. Dube shouted at them in Ndebele, far too fast for me to understand, and the two brothers continued to stand stock-still, looking themselves rather nervous. ‘We’ll search this room first,’ Dube said to me, leading myself and Themba into the first bedroom. Amazingly, two men, seemingly sleeping, lay in two beds in the room. The third ruffled bed was apparently Themba’s. There was no evidence of rabbit. As we left the room, Dube yelled, ‘After him!’ and rushed after Gift who was disappearing fast through the back door. I decided to stay where I was, hopefully a bit safer away from Dube and his gun, though conversation with Themba was a bit stilted. Dube returned after a few minutes, limping a little. ‘The skellum got away, let’s search his room.’
About the Author
Brian Jones moved from the United Kingdom in 1994 on a three-year contract as Professor of Applied Mathematics at the National University of Science and Technology, and stayed. Brian has had many articles published in academic journals of mathematics, astronomy and physics, but ‘Mpofu’s Sleep’ in Laughing Now (2007) is his first published short story. He is a director of ’amaBooks Publishers in Bulawayo and is a grower of organic lettuce.Post published in: Arts