Noma glued her eyes to the polished concrete floor, trying to shut out the interminable sound of hymn-singing. It had been hammering at her head for the past two days. Grass mats covered the edges of the room, but could not soften the hard floor she sat on.
Her feet touched those of her elderly aunt, even though she was leaning against the opposite wall of the small sitting room. Naka Thembi’s face was drawn and thin, a tooth was missing, her skin dry. How did she sit there hour after hour, never complaining, never contributing to the occasional stuttering conversation, just there. She was like a rock – maybe the rock of ages, which they were singing about.
Noma wished she could hide in that cleft rock. She did not want to have to face the reality of what was to come. How could this have happened to her, just when she thought she had escaped? She looked again around the room; her aunt was the oldest and her body the most eroded by life in the village: ploughing, carrying water, bearing and succoring children, and then grandchildren – all the fatherless babies that her daughters had deposited in her care.
Most of the women singing were much younger: neighbours and friends from the church, her cousins and in-laws who stayed in town. Tennis shoes had been left by the door, zambias covered their legs, but their T-shirts and blouses revealed their lost battles with poverty – so faded that the logos and slogans were barely legible. Ma Mpofu from across the road had sunken cheeks, which heralded the final stages of ‘that disease’.
Noma’s reverie jerked to a halt – funeral, yes, that was what she was supposed to be thinking about, not the poverty and illnesses of the neighbors. It was still not real. Her own mother – the broad back to which she had clung as a baby, the flexible neck that had balanced a thousand buckets of water – her whole body broken and her life extinguished by a reckless combi driver. She struggled to bring her mother back to life. She re-arranged the actors in the drama: her mother heard the combi coming and pushed the wheelbarrow out of the road; the combi driver slowed down and stopped just before it hit her: the vehicle just grazed her: her mother was in hospital with a broken leg.
The singing penetrated her thoughts, bringing her back to reality. She abandoned her fruitless attempts to reconstruct the scene of her mother’s death, and accepted the finality of what had happened.
Not that she had ever been a very good daughter to her hardworking mother. But then her mother had never been much of a mother either. Noma had sensed from a young age that her mother was somehow inadequate.
There were the meaningful looks exchanged between her aunt and uncle when they visited and found her mother not home, ‘Oh, I guess we should have stopped by MaDlodlo if we wanted to see her.’
Even after they moved home to their paternal grandfather’s village after their father died, she had continued to disappear regularly to nearby drinking places while Nokuthula, the eldest, cooked isisthwala and dished it with amasi for the younger children.
Noma had hated rural life, hated the interminable meals of amasi, hated the drudgery of fetching water, the stifling heat of summer, and the icy wind of winter. And especially hated the hopelessness of planting every year, only to have the rains fail. She was even happy when the borehole pump broke down, because the river was closer and she didn’t have to carry the buckets so far.
Besides, she liked the pungent taste of the river water better. But most of all she hated the way her aunts subtly ridiculed her mother. It confused her, because she also hated the way her mother left her to look after the boys.
Noma didn’t know when she had reached the decision to leave. She knew from the age of eleven when they went to stay at home that she had to find a way out of that miserable life; she felt claustrophobic and breathless when she thought of living out her life there.
At least the school offered a glimmer of hope. And in the end it became her passport to an urban life. The family was not so poor that they couldn’t sell the odd beast for school fees, and so it was that she was sent to stay with Aunt Mabel in Bulawayo where she completed her secondary education and eventually found herself at university.
She had escaped, and now she was about to be employed in a research lab, developing medicines. She would marry her doctor boyfriend and never have to think about rural poverty again.
While she was away, Noma had not communicated with her mother very much. She knew she was still struggling with the younger children, none of whom had done as well at school as she had. Thamsanqa, the oldest boy was already in South Africa, but she didn’t know what he was doing.
It was two years since she had visited her mother; what was the point – they had nothing to talk about. Yes, she knew when she started work she would send some groceries, perhaps even take her youngest sister and send her to school in town. But she hadn’t reached this point yet. Why did her mother have to leave her now, before she had a chance to expunge her lingering feelings of guilt for not paying her more attention? Was her grief at losing her mother really grief, or was it guilt for not playing the proper role of a daughter?
The singing suddenly stopped. A preacher from the neighbourhood was shouting about Adam and Eve, and then suddenly jumped to Job and his sufferings. And then everyone in the room was being threatened with the fires of damnation. Noma wasn’t sure what the point of it all was. Certainly it didn’t help her much in her confused state of mind. But thankfully it was soon over. Then her uncle was making the announcements about the funeral arrangements, and gradually people made their departures.
Somehow Noma made it through the next days. She felt confused; wasn’t sure who had come and who had not: she only listened with half an ear while arguments proceeded about the place of burial, speakers, flowers, and on and on. She accompanied her uncle and aunt to select a coffin – not the cheapest, which would seem disrespectful, but the next one on offer.
When the time came to view her mother’s body, she managed to steel herself, and looked without seeing, while her older sister collapsed sobbing into the arms of their aunt. Somehow she managed to freeze her emotions and go through the customary practices without even thinking. She was useless as a support to her siblings, from whom she had become distanced over the years away, and rejected any comforting shoulder from any one of her aunts.
However, she could not escape the journey home after the burial. Nokuthula had to return quickly to her small children in Gweru, leaving Noma as the eldest available child of her mother to see to the younger children and her mother’s house. With reluctance she accepted her aunt’s suggestion that she travel home two days after the funeral.
Noma had last seen her mother’s house in summer, when the fields were green, the cattle fat, and the river flowing. Now, the land was dry. No crop had been harvested that year, and the grain bin, which her mother had struggled to build with the boys, was empty.
The kitchen roof had holes and badly needed repair. A few chickens scratched below their laddered nesting spot. The youngest children had been taken to their grandmother’s home just a ten minutes’ walk away, leaving the homestead eerily silent when Noma arrived with her aunt.
The two-room brick house built several years earlier looked dilapidated but appeared much the same as the last time she had seen it. Noma put her hand hesitantly on the door latch and pushed. As if mourning her mother’s absence, the two small rooms were silent.
Noma’s eyes took in its meagre contents – a battered trunk in the corner, the bed neatly covered with a colourful blanket sent by her brother from South Africa, the jacket on a nail acting as a hook, an ancient sofa with crocheted covers.
Her knees melted and she collapsed onto the sofa. Her stomach turned. How had her mother survived this pitiful existence? Even the faded calendar on the wall mocked her with its cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.
She despised her mother for never taking the challenge of achieving something more; but the emotion soon evolved into anger, and finally pity. She seemed to have been denied the rich possibilities of human development. But why hadn’t she done something about it herself?
Noma felt her aunt’s hand on her shoulder. ‘There’s work here to be done, my child, no time for grieving now. Here, I’ll help you with the wardrobe.’ Noma noticed for the first time the photos on the dresser top. A small one of her father standing proudly with a baby in his arms; another of her sister’s two small daughters, grinning eagerly at an unknown photographer.
Next to the photos stood a jar containing some kernels of maize and a medley of different varieties of pumpkin seeds. A pencil and a candle shared the jar with the seeds. A crocheted doily almost covered a stain on the wooden surface.
Summoning what little strength she had, Noma pulled open the top drawer. It revealed not clothing but papers. She picked up a small blue exercise book labeled ‘Home-based care’. On the first page was written in the careful letters of a partly schooled adult:
Patience Ncube August 7 bed bound, sores, washed sores, gave water Mercy Tshabalala August 10 bed bound, gave water Patience Ncube August 15 bed bound, gave water Sipho Ncube August 15 T.B., gave medicinePost published in: Arts