‘Dinner Time’

Aunt MaMoyo is dishing up, and we’re standing before her: me, Musa, Given and Grandmother NaJeremiah. We’ve hardly eaten anything in the past few days, and we’re starving hungry.

Bongani Sibanda
Bongani Sibanda

When she finishes, she quietly pushes two bowls towards our feet, and then puts a few more on a wooden tray and exits with Grandmother NaJeremiah following behind her. She’s carrying food to the elderly people in the front hut.

Given hastily picks up the bowl of sadza. Musa picks up the okra. We squat near the door and start eating.

A little while later, aunt MaMoyo hurries in mumbling as usual. She sits down on her hide rug near the window and begins eating, telling us while she chews that she emptied the pot of sadza, so there won’t be any left-overs. We ignore her and concentrate on the food, noisily munching and swallowing.

A constrained cough at the door disrupts our concentration. Our eyes dart towards the noise, and we see Grandmother NaJeremiah at the entrance, her brown basket slung over her right shoulder like a handbag. We don’t know why she’s come, but whatever the reason we’re certain it doesn’t bode well. She looks us over like one of the Sabbath prophets. Then she takes two paces towards the hearth.

‘My white hen laid an egg this afternoon.’ She coughs and adjuststhe white scarf on her head. ‘I’ve just checked the nest and the egg’s missing.’

To her it’s a question, but to us it’s just a statement. The schwam schwam and ngwim ngwim noise produced by our munching teeth and swallowing gullets continues undisturbed as we lower our hands into the bowls, raise them to our mouths and lower them again. Predictably this stretches Grandmother NaJeremiah’s nerves.

‘I’m talking to you children! Can’t you hear me? MaMoyo!’ she bellows.

Aunt MaMoyo is always calm. She chews a mouthful of sadza, swallows, and without even looking up from her bowl replies that she saw no egg.

Grandmother NaJeremiah then turns her wrinkled eyes on me, Musa and Given. Our mouths are too full to speak, but we cannot slow down, so we look up at her, shaking our heads while praying that she does not press us for answers, since it’s considered bad manners to answer an older person with a shake of the head.

Grandmother NaJeremiah takes two paces towards the hearth, calming herself down as she does so.

‘Whoever took my egg and placed it somewhere safe is innocent. But if you refuse to tell me where it is, or give it back, well, Baba won’t like that at all. You have okra for relish but you know your grandfather does not eat okra. And,’ she speaks very slowly, ‘he can not eat sadza without relish… so … whoever took my egg, I want it back. Now!’

With that, she turns and shuffles out. Her exit multiplies our devouring speed. We re-fill mouths, re-load hands and never let-up, like we’re rushing somewhere. Then we hear NaJeremiah’s squeaky voice shouting Musa’s name from the front hut. Musa can’t answer because her mouth is full. Only after Grandmother NaJeremiah has shouted her name several times does Musa respond. Grandmother NaJeremiah orders her to bring Grandfather SaEfi clean water in a jug.

Musa hastily lowers her thin hand into what little remains of the big bowl of sadza, grabs a morsel, dips it into the bowl of okra and drops it into her wide open mouth.

‘Don’t eat while I’m gone,’ she dares us angrily. Then, signaling aunt MaMoyo to watch us in her absence, she goes to fetch the water.

Seconds turn to minutes and the minutes feel like hours as we gaze at the small portion of sadza left in the bowl. By the time Musa returns we’re nearly screaming with impatience, but we say nothing and the schwam schwam, ngwim ngwim noise resumes, blending with the veee veee whistle of our fingers scraping the bottom of the bowl. We begin eyeing one another with talking eyes as we reach this unavoidable moment in our everyday lives. Today it’s my turn to ask for ingoroyi. Musa and Given are already staring at me as if I needed a reminder.

I look towards aunt MaMoyo with a silent prayer because sometimes she scrapes ingoroyi for herself.

‘We’re not full,’ I say. She remains silent, forcing me to repeat myself.

‘I told you I emptied the pot.’

‘We want ingoroyi,’ I say, my manners forgotten.

‘The ngoroyi is mine. I cooked for you.’

My eyes turn to Musa and Given. We’re looking at one another, thinking, we want ingoroyi more than anything, even more than being loved and considered good children. My stomach still feels empty, like I haven’t eaten anything for days; the desire to have something to fill it feels like an obligation, a kind of credit that I owe myself, a need that is ‘as essential as oxygen in human life’, to quote Ncube, my teacher.

I look at Given, my younger brother, squatting before me, licking his lips and audibly swallowing saliva. I look at his dusty head, the blotches on his face, his stomach that’s bigger than everyone else’s at school, his dirty khaki shorts with a small tear in the front through which peeps a small thing like caterpillar, and my heart sinks. Given is the only person I care about in the world, he’s the only one I feel for when Grandfather SaTimoty is whipping us because the goats have broken into the maize field and plundered the crops while we were eating. I would even leave him my sadza if he asked, but he doesn’t know that, so he doesn’t ask.

Musa is my cousin and I don’t care much for her.

Given coughs as if he were clearing his throat. Musa rises and then quickly sits down again, why, I don’t know. Aunt MaMoyo glances at us, unsmiling. She then lifts the pot of sadza closer to her, wrenches off the lid, and shoves her veiny hand inside. It emerges with some rich brown scrapings which she piles into her bowl. Without a word or glance, she pushes the empty pot towards us. We quickly begin to do what we’re

very good at – scraping, munching and swallowing. And in just a little while we’re done.

Given rises and bolts out. Musa and I follow. We’re heading to the front hut where we find the grandmothers still eating.

Musa squeezes herself beside Grandmother NaJeremiah, Given beside Grandmother NaTimoty. Myself, I sit opposite, on one side of the hearth, and in this position I can see the grandmothers’ bowl of sadza is still full. They eat so slowly that it’s as if they don’t want the food; like it wouldn’t matter if I seized their bowl and ran away.

Thoughts of how small our share of sadza alway is and how unfair this is, invade my mind. This happens every day when I see the grandmothers’ sadza. Aunt MaMoyo cannot rob them because she knows they’ll complain. One day, I remember, there was very little mealie-meal and aunt MaMoyo dished out a smaller than usual share for Grandfather SaTimoty, and she was summoned and warned. It was Grandmother NaJeremiah who spoke. She told her that Grandfather SaTimoty works so hard that if the sadza is not enough, it is better for us children to get little.

I’m still engrossed in these thoughts when I see Grandmother NaTimoty handing Given a piece of sadza. She didn’t even dip it in the okra. Given, who’s sometimes greedier than all of us, instantly swallows it, his eyes traversing the distance between Grandmother NaTimoty’s hand and her mouth, expecting more. Musa expects grandmother NaJeremiah to make a similar gesture and stares at her with beady eyes.

But Grandmother NaJeremiah disappoints her. She just rolls a piece of sadza slowly in her hand, dips it in the relish, bites it and chews. And then she looks around, up, and sideways, her small eyes fleeting past me before settling on the glowing fire.

‘We’ve heard many stories about mischievous daughters-in-law,’ she says. ‘But this … it’s unspeakable! Totally unheard of!’

My heart thumps. I’m in love with gossip, elderly people’s gossip.

It’s the only entertainment I can get. It frees me of sad memories, fills me with energy, and makes me forget about all the bad things elderly people do to us. But something holds me back, stops me from indulging fully in this episode. It’s the bilious look I see on Grandmother NaTimoty’s face.

What’s with her, I wonder, as she leers at Grandmother NaJeremiah, her eyelashes fluttering as if they would fly off her face.

‘Last year a two kg packet of potatoes disappeared from my house,’ Grandmother NaJeremiah continues, unperturbed. ‘And the Christmas groceries our children bring in December are reported finished within two weeks. I don’t even want to mention the mystery of the watermelons.

The empty shells we found buried in the sand …’

She breaks off, her face a picture of concentrated anger. My heart leaps. I feel like pawing the white out of the moon. I dash out for more firewood so the hut is better lit; I can hear the gossip better in the bright firelight. The hut starts to shine when I have added some logs. And I begin to see Grandfather SaTimoty, who has only been a shadow until now. He’s not eating, slouched in his folding chair, his white head bent over his thin arms, which are crossed on his bony lap.

Beside his lidded bowl on his food table is uncle Enoch’s small radio, which is played every day at eight o’clock for Spot FM news.

‘A leopard never loses its spots,’ Grandmother NaJeremiah continues.

‘That’s for sure. And understand that I’m not saying this to spite a child because she’s married to a son who is not mine, while all my sons are not married, as someone cynical might say. All I want is that we look into the matter and make a right decision. That’s all. And to make a point clear, I’m not recommending any action against her. It’s up to you. She’s your son’s wife, NaTimoty.’

Grandfather SaTimothy raises his white head, then lowers it again. Grandfather SaEfi finishes eating, rinses his hands, puts down the dish of water, and then hauls back his three-legged stool to sit near the door. He turns his old face up and runs the fingers of his left hand through his bushy beard. ‘Thank you, Dubes,’ he says.

‘Are you really thanking us for this day-to-day okra, babomncane?’

‘It’s better than eating nothing, NaJeremiah. Since the weldi division has been delayed by three weeks now at Bango, if they don’t come within a week, I don’t think many people will make it.’

Grandmother NaJeremiah swallows and smiles, revealing her white teeth. In the orange firelight, I notice, her white scarf looks cream, her black face brown, her white hair, peeking underneath the scarf, looks sandy, and her small eyes are sleepy.

Given, Musa and I are now staring at the yellow piece of sadza in Grandfather SaEfi’s bowl. We’re praying that Grandmother NaJeremiah doesn’t take it as usual and declare it hers, that someone descend from heaven and command that it be given to us, we poor grandchildren of this homestead, we who work so hard planting and harvesting and watching crows while elderly people shirk.

‘We live in hard times, babomncane.’ Grandmother NaTimoty utters her first words. She leans back, and balances her left hand on the floor.

Post published in: Arts

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