Mmei wanted to ask why they had to leave in the dead of the night. But he didn’t. He was old enough now to know that asking his mother such questions never yielded any answer. The old woman would just stare blankly and shake her head in undisguised contempt. More often she has spat in his direction, a gesture that hurt him badly. They walked in silence. He followed her closely for they were using a very narrow path hardly used. It must have been midnight, for Mmei had barely slept when she woke him up. They left quietly, avoiding to wake up the rest of the grand children who were in various stages of dreamland already. He had no idea where they were going until he noticed a small fire smoldering in the middle of nowhere. A close scrutiny showed a makeshift hut facing the direction from which the sun normally came. A giant cat looked in their direction but did not move. A frail dog limped away and never returned just as a distant crow of a cock was heard. Something was being burnt in the fire and the smell was suffocating. The old woman bent to almost a crawl to enter the makeshift hut and Mmei followed suit. They sat down still in dead silence. The smoke was all over the place and Mmei could not see clearly the man sitting on a goat skin mat. It was clear though that he was a colossus of a man and his bare stomach almost rested on his knees. The pressure on the young man has been immense from as early as he could remember. The old woman never hid from him the fact that she had very high hopes and expectations on him. Back then he found it hilarious, lately it was scary. Throughout his schooling he has without failure been sat down and reminded of this huge responsibility to make the family proud. He was in her mother’s eyes the one child that will disentangle the family from the octopus like grip of abject poverty. He remembered this all the time and it gave him sleepless nights. He had until now known his mother as a very spiritual person who believed in the might of prayer. They were made to pray so many times he had lost touch of what they didn’t have to pray for. Before and after meals they prayed. They prayed before they went to sleep and when they woke up. Now they were together in a foul smelling makeshift smoky hut sitting opposite a huge man whose tummy almost touched his knees in the dead of the night.
Exactly a day after his arrival from College where he had spent five years in boarding school, the old woman did not waste any time. She told him she was proud that he was the only one in the family who had gone beyond higher primary. With his father long gone to the mines and having stopped writing ages ago, he was now old enough to fend for his family. Although many teachers had spoken about his brilliant prospects at university life, he now knew it was never to be. He was also told in the same conversation that they had somewhere to go in the evening after which he was to depart the following day to look for a job. Not once was he asked what his thoughts were. His time had come and he had to step up the plate. As they walked back home, Mmei tried to remember the many instructions that were given by the one with the huge stomach. How was he going to find the soil at the point where roads cross in a city where it was rumoured the roads were tarred? Will he get the privacy to “talk” to the medicine before every job interview as directed. The one with the huge stomach had continued to remind him repeatedly as they left to please follow the instructions to the letter failing which the “muti” would not work. He had quietly endured the ritual much out of respect for his mother. He hated every minute of it and made no effort to hide it. He was made to breath into a foul smelling pouch that contained bones of various sizes. As if that was not enough, he was told to speak to the bones. He had to tell them exactly what he required of them. Mmei asked for a job that paid enough for him to buy himself a bicycle. Convinced that both the man with the huge tummy and his mother were not listening, he asked for a woman he could marry. For once he believed in the bones! At some point, the one with the hanging stomach had threatened to abort the ritual accusing Mmei of acting like the many boys from the city that frequently sought his help. He had boasted thrice already about very important people, especially politicians that visited him and paid handsomely for his services. There was, however, nothing about him, or his place that remotely suggested he ever got paid for anything before we came. Mmei s mother had left a few carefully wrapped notes on the goat skin mart and had shocked the one with the huge stomach when she concluded the ordeal with her trade mark prayer.
Mmei had not slept a wink the previous night. He had during the day ignored a huge sign that screamed ”No Vacancy” at the gate and defiantly told the young woman at the desk that he was looking for a job. It was during their fierce exchange of words that a neatly dressed man had emerged from his office, watched briefly before intervening. Now he was there fifteen minutes earlier like they were taught at career guidance lessons. He had enough time to visit the bathroom one more time before his turn. He looked at the huge mirror and smiled. His mother would have been proud. Suddenly he felt a burning urge to relief himself. Anxiety was getting the better of him. His hands were sweating profusely. He was about to bolt out of the bathroom when he remembered to wash his hands. He knew he had to shake hands firmly and wanted to do so with squeaky clean hands. The tap could not open. Mmei gave it one last twist and suddenly water came gushing out of the tap. Before he could move out of the way the water had reached him, soaking him wet from the waist down. He froze in shock. Lord not today! Not here he almost shouted. From the reception area he could hear the young lady calling his name. He had to get back, but not in his current state. He knelt down and attempted to pray. No words came out of mouth. Just as he was about to give up, a stranger walked in. Minutes later Mmei walked out of the bathroom. The jacket was two times his size, its color having faded to light grey from its original black fabric. He had buttoned it all the way to his knee completing a look that could shame a character from a Charlie Chaplin movie. The girl at the reception took one look at him and burst into laughter. He ignored her and knocked gently on the door. He answered their questions briefly and with brutal honesty. He devoured the biscuits that he was offered as he spoke. When they offered him tea, he declined. He never sat down and was pacing up and down like he did at the college debating contests. He told them about his dream to work hard, save money and go to university.
Exactly an hour later, he was shaking their hands firmly and preparing to leave. As he was about to open the door he remembered. His heart stopped. Memories of the one with the huge tummy came tumbling down. How could he? His mother will never forgive him for this. He banged the door and bolted out. He did not talk to the girl. He needed to get to the train station where he could lock himself in the waiting room toilets and cry. In the disaster that happened while at the bathroom, Mmei had completely forgotten to use the “muti”. He did not chew the bitter leaves which he was to spit out before entering the room, he did not smear the smelling greasy concoction on his forehead as directed. Most sadly, he had forgotten to tell the “muti” to go fetch him the job as he was specifically told to.Six weeks later, Mmei received the letter he had long waited for. He was to start work as court interpreter immediately. He never told his mother about the misfortune that befell him at the city. At the crack of dawn, the old woman woke him up. They walked in silence in the same narrow path hardly used. They found him by the fire as usual. She paid again, prayed, and they left, still in silence.