originally titled ‘Mwanamke na Blanketi Bluu’ –
– Woman with Blue Blanket
Resignation – that’s her expression; maybe some anger or bitterness, as she’s every cause to be so.
Walk to the aid camp, Siti. Take your family away from this dreadful place. Soldiers raiding at night. Thieves who break in to steal anything you own that they can sell. Paying for water – with what I ask? You don’t want to sell your body for a ration of grain, like some other women do, do you? And your children are getting more sickly every day. This is a dirty place.
The aid camp will be clean. The water is clean. You will be able to rest at nights, instead of, like me, sitting awake with an old chair leg to hit anyone who breaks in. Oh, I know you do – I can see through the cracks in the walls between our houses. You have a hoe as well. Me, I’ve got my dead husband’s shovel, hidden under my mattress on the floor. You should put that hoe where no-one can see it, or they’ll come after that as well.
But tonight, you take your children and you start walking. Follow the stars of the Jackal. Hide during day-time. Climb over the hills of the Dead Forest and you’ll see the aid camp from the crest of the mountain ridge. Take some water with you, and these – these flat-cakes I’ve made for you all. No, I can’t come with you – my foot is too swollen to walk. Besides, there is only me. You have two beautiful children who need to get away from here. Go tonight. I’ll bring you a spare blanket to tie things into. I’ll come after the sun goes down. Until then, goodbye, my sister.
So, Siti walked; she slipped out of the battered and burned out village, heading away from the soldiers who camped or squatted in houses at the edge of town. This detour meant she had to circle wide around the village to be heading in the right direction. There was no moon, but the starlit sky readily showed her the guiding stars. Her boy of ten years walked beside her, carrying the baby sister in a sling across his back, and a bag of small things important to little boys in one hand. His Mama had at first scolded him for wanting toys, but he had insisted there were no toys, only “helpful things, Mama”. So she did not ask Issa again.
On her back was the bulk of the blanket slung over her shoulder. In it was a water skin, a small bag of strips of dried goat meat, a crinkled and bent tea tin, inside which were a dozen flat-cakes. There was a spare blanket – blue, and small, for the children to share. Siti had found some soft wire – she would use it to tie the corners of blankets to the skeleton of a tree to make shade for the day. How glad Siti was that her good friend had given her a blanket the colour of the desert – it would help them in hiding if soldiers on patrol drove past on the roadway. Though she stayed an hour’s walk from the road, it also headed in the direction she wanted – no, needed to travel.
After three days, her son was becoming weary. His eyes were beginning to lose their sparkle of mischief and good health. He began having to put baby sister down and rush off to pass a motion and bury it – and in a hurry too. He had what the white nurse had called ‘diarrhea’, and she knew as yet, there was nothing to be done. Issa was ashamed to talk to his Mama about what his body was doing to him.
By the ninth day, although she had been rationing the water carefully, Siti realised she would have to do without more than one small drink a day. The flat-cakes and goat meat were still in good supply, so careful had she been to make sure Issa had a fair share but no more. But she became worried when she found green and black marks on the flat-cakes one day. After eating one each, and baby vomiting it a few hours later, Siti knew they would have to be discarded. She buried them, and they moved on after bundling their meagre belongings into the blanket slings. She did not see Issa dig up the flat-cakes and hide them in his bag.
Travelling at night, and resting by day, Siti often fell to sleep in the heat and fatigue. One day she woke to find Issa was missing. She gazed towards the roadway. In the distance, a convoy of green army trucks was kicking up a storm of dust as they roared away from the hills, back towards her village. She lay back against the trunk of their sheltering tree, and wondered if it would be wise to go search for her Issa. Then he was beside her, coming from a side direction. His face was beaming with delight.
“Look, Mama, I have bought us some more water!” and he showed her a shiny narrow oblong tin, with a screw-cap on the top corner. He unscrewed the cap, and poured a cupful into the half-gourd cup she carried. “The soldiers on the road. They are not bad men like in the village. They are white men, from another country. I sold them something for the water.”
“And what did you have to sell, my young Issa?”
“The silver frame of Grandfather’s photograph. The picture of him in the army. The white soldier liked it, and said it would pay for a can of water. Did I do right, Mama?”
“Yes, Issa. That frame would have bought ten cans of water, but right now we did only need one. You did well Mr Ten Years,” and Siti smiled at him.
That night they resumed their march. They reached the foot of the Dead Forest hills by sunrise. Siti decided to climb her way up the hills, to shelter from view in the gullies and clefts of the ridge. This meant they could stay nearer the road, which at the top of the ridge crossed into a country where the bad men from her village would not be allowed to cross. Then she could go to the aid camp.
They ate goat meat strips – supply of which was greatly reduced. They were down to only two a day each. But they had water. Issa still had flat-cakes. Surreptitiously he ate one and another, so he could refuse one strip of dried meat and not be hungry.
Siti used small boulders to anchor corners of the blanket on the gully sides, and they settled for the day’s rest. Issa’s stomach grumbled and growled.
“See, Issa, you should have had another strip of goat. You are hungry now!”
“No, Mama, I am alright. Thank you.”
As Siti and baby dozed, he felt stomach pangs of pain, so hurtful they made him draw his knees up to his chest to try to make some comfort. Suddenly he knew he had to get away from their little shelter, as his bowels were churning like aunty’s old cake mixer. He ran up the gully’s side, away from the family, away from the road they were walking parallel to. He quickly found a scoop-shaped piece old tree branch, and started to make a hollow. He squatted, and relieved himself – although his stomach still shot pains through him. He stayed crouching for a long while, as the black mess kept coming. Eventually it stopped. He was able to reach some dry grasses to clean himself. Then he covered over his signs, and threw away the scoop he’d used. He weakly walked further from the place, wanting to gather handfuls of dusty sand to rub over his hands to clean them more.
As he walked, rubbing clean his hands, his head spinning with illness, he did not see where his feet were taking him. He screamed in fright as he dropped over the edge of a split in the ground, deep into a cleft. His neck snapped as he bounced against the sides. Issa died before he hit the bottom of the shaft.
Siti awoke with a start, unsure of what had woken her. There was baby, curled up against her, sucking on a corner of the blanket. Her Issa was … not around. She stood, and called his name. Her voice echoed through the gully. She saw footsteps imprinted in the sand and dirt, so she followed them. She came to the place at which he’d relieved himself. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of sickness he’d not been able to completely cover. Siti used her hands to throw more dirt over his place.
Now his trail led her further on. She could see where he’d scooped up handfuls of dust. She could see his footsteps … and the edge of a small chasm–where they stopped. With her heart pounding inside, Siti called his name softly as she carefully approached the edge, Peering down, she saw him – and knew he was dead.
She could not stay to give Issa a proper mourning. Siti said her prayer to the gods as she lugged dead branches and dropped them to cover his body. They would perhaps hamper any jackal or hyena trying to tear his body into mouthfuls. She dragged small bushes out of the ground, and threw them down as well. These she hoped would stop bad soldiers from seeing his body, and going to it to check his pockets and strip his clothes. She picked up a few sticks, and swept away as many signs of her work as she could. The ground looked rough, but breezes would soften it. She swept away their footprints as she returned to the baby.
Exhausted as Siti was after such dreadful work in such dreadful heat, she took two cups of water, knowing her Issa would expect them to now drink his share. She poured a third cup for baby. As she screwed back the cap, she felt the can was much lighter than it should be. She shook it. It sloshed more than usual. Siti unscrewed the lid again, and adjusting the angle to let in sunlight and still allow herself to see. She found the can was now only a third full. How?
A glance at the place where the can had been sitting told her. The can’s seal at the bottom had been leaking for who knew how long. The ground on which it had been sitting was soaked by its constant dribble. At this point, Siti became as close to weeping as ever she had. But Siti was resolute. Having begun the trek to find aid, she would not insult her Issa by giving up.
She looked through his little bag. There were the paper wrapped flat-cakes! Aowe! He had been eating the dirty food to let the good food last! Now the tears came, sliding down her cheeks, as she gasped for breath, trying to smother her sounds to avoid upsetting the baby girl.
Looking again into the bag she found he had prepared well to help her. Three small value coins – not worth a lot, but they would buy something. Her enamel brooch. Ordinarily Siti would be angry to discover he had taken it. But when the bad soldiers had come to their poor house and ransacked it for furniture and anything of value, Issa must have snatched out the brooch before they could find it and take her small yawa wood box.
Now paper, folded and creased together. The edges had become roughened a little, bouncing around in the bag. Siti unfolded them. Issa, so young, so sensible for his years. He had found their official papers, and had been carrying her marriage registration with her birth-date on it, his own birth registration, his baby sister’s; the papers that showed Siti owned their house with no debt. And ,so useful right at this moment, she found a half packet of “chew gum” he had been thrown by one of the bad men in the village.
Siti knew she could use it. After chewing it until it was sticky and pliable, she stuck it onto the end of a small stick, propped the water can so the leaky spot was not in the water but above it and waited a while as the drops ran from the hole. She used the stick to push the gum into the can and cover the leak. She was not sure whether the water would lift the gum, but she had to try. So she would not pull away the carefully placed gum when she pulled away the stick, she reached in with her finger tips and snapped the stick off, just as far below the lid as she could. With the lid screwed back on, she propped it up on a branch over head, and watched it for a while – long enough to see she had successfully mended it.
Siti packed up their shelter, and began climbing the mountains, letting herself head closer to the roadway – which would lead her to the border. Now having to carry baby as well as their bundle of belongings, Siti found it hard going. But, for her Issa’s spirit, she did not give up. She was determined to be at the border by sunrise.
At the aid camp, baby was put into a hospital tent, on a liquid drip feed. She, Mama, was examined and declared healthy enough to be allowed to stay at her baby’s side. The aid camp brought around two meals every day. In the morning, a porridge, with added fruits Siti did not know, but they tasted good. As the dusk gathered, the second meal – a bowl of vegetable and grain stew, with fresh flat-bread.
And all through the day, anyone could go to the tent where the aid workers distributed drinks. Water – never rationed. Milk for children – Issa would have enjoyed that. Hot tea, with lemon, sugar or milk – whichever one wished for. She would carry her tea back to baby’s tent, and quietly sit outside it with her children’s blue blanket as a shawl, gazing back at the Dead Forest ranges. Siti would think of her Issa, and how close he had come to this place of safety, how much he had done without her knowing.
Siti would let herself feel angry, how her home nation had let down its people so badly.
Although the original title is Swahili, this story was in no way written to reflect badly on any particular African nation or its problems. Refugee awareness was of the time — if not of the action.
The photograph credits will be attributed as soon as I recover the data. At the moment, I believe it was captured by a National Geographic artist/reporter
This post was created from a story written in 2011, as the ‘B’ exercise in my self-set blogging challenge – ABC for 2018. Comments, RePosts, PingBacks to your own ‘B’ post are all welcome. Thank you
© Lynne R McAnulty-Street, Rotorua NZ, 2011