Resilience of the Burchell’s

As Ntatemogolo finished his sentence, he looked down to see that the herd had reached the edge of the dried Lake Makgadikgadi. With his hoof he scratched the sandy river bed and felt pride well up in his heart. It was always amazing to him that even with very little and with even less water, the herd had come as far as it had. It was not as if there were millions and millions of Zebra and on the grand scheme of things, they did not possess that much wealth. But somehow regardless of obstacles, the herd had put the good of the tribe above personal, selfish gain and worked toward uplifting the herd.

Zebra

“Ntatemogolo wait for me.” Boipuso, the youngest of the Burchell’s Zebra, says running after his grandfather. The Chief is leading the herd toward the Makgadikgadi Pans for their annual migration. It is early morning and the sky is majestic. The older Zebra looks back fondly at his only grandchild and pauses briefly, waiting for him to catch up. The foal runs excitedly towards Ntatemogolo and without waiting to catch his breath said, “Finish the story Ntatemogolo, please… please! “ The sun rose with purpose, beating down on the cracked barren land.  The herd walks on, facing the gruelling journey to the pans. The brilliant rays bake the horizon and coax the desert out of the earth. The heat has always been a hellish one. The rains promising fertility were meant to come soon but this expectation creates angst amongst the herd. Peace reigns among them majority of the time but of late there are a lot more dissenting views. As the Chief, Ntatemogolo is never threatened by this, he knows letting everyone express their views often strengthens the herd and allows him to lead with their approval. It is habitual for Ntatemogolo to allow all to be heard before ruling on any one issue. Ntatemogolo does not lead by himself; he consults extensively with the clan leaders in the herd who also consult even more extensively with their respective clans within the herd. He recalls what the young one was speaking of; the curious calf had begun asking questions about the herd and why things were a certain way and he had begun explaining to Boipuso the history of the herd. Ntatemogolo searches his mind trying to recall where he had left off but could not quite recall.

“Tell me Boipuso, where did I leave the story child of my child?” Ntatemogolo asked him. 

“Oh Ntatemogolo! Don’t you remember? The herd had just gotten away from the control of the Mighty Lions and was enjoying their freedom and independence. You said for the first time the herd was being led by one of its own.”

Ntatemogolo smiled inwardly remembering the times the herd had insisted on ruling themselves. There had been a pride of Lions that they had sought protection from because they were at risk of being attacked by vicious neighbouring predators in the South Lands. A lot of the older Zebra were against ceding their power and control over the herd to the Lions but eventually they saw it was the only to protect them. In time the herd had become stable enough to rule over themselves and they overcame a lot of strife to convince the Mighty Lions that they could stand on their own without fear of other predators. When the herd had gotten its independence, it had never felt so good to be a Zebra. Their stripes were those of freedom and the herd was invigorated by the prospect of building themselves into a herd known for peace and prosperity. Ntatemogolo had gotten lost in his thoughts and Boipuso looked up at him, impatiently waiting for his story to resume.

“We thought we were ready for our freedom and every member of the herd had craved it but without the MightyLions a lot of things happened. We had no way of educating our foals of the way of life because we had not yet established schools of our own. The area in which we had settled was dry and semi-arid with very little drinking water. Our herd, at that time, did not partake in the politics of the animal kingdom and so we were as low as we could possibly go.” Ntatemogolo lamented.

Boipuso’s eyes were wide open with shock as he said, “So what did you do, were you the chief yet?”

“No my child, I was much too young to be chief, but not too young to see what needed to be done. We needed resources to trade with other herds and get the things we needed to stand on our own. Amongst the animal kingdom we were rated one of the poorest herds in the world. It was a bad time but we were still reeling off of the high of self-governance. A lot of other herds had suffered a great deal to get their freedom from the predators that protected them so we remained grateful that we transitioned without bloodshed…”

As Ntatemogolo finished his sentence, he looked down to see that the herd had reached the edge of the dried Lake Makgadikgadi. With his hoof he scratched the sandy river bed and felt pride well up in his heart. It was always amazing to him that even with very little and with even less water, the herd had come as far as it had. It was not as if there were millions and millions of Zebra and on the grand scheme of things, they did not possess that much wealth. But somehow regardless of obstacles, the herd had put the good of the tribe above personal, selfish gain and worked toward uplifting the herd. With Boipuso walking steadily beside him, Ntatemogolo looked for a place where they would settle for the long, cold desert night. In the arduous sun, they had walked all day and the time for rest had come. Boipuso was frolicking around his mother a little too excitedly for a foal that was meant to be getting ready for bed.

“Boipuso,” Ntatemogolo called, “let your poor mother be. Come and rest beside me. I thought you would want to hear the rest of the story before you go to bed.”

Boipuso wasted no time coming to cuddle close to his grandfather. Behind him other foals settled down, eager to hear the story of their history too. The closeness of their body heat chased away the harsh chill of the desert night. This was the way of the herd, histories, customs, and traditions were passed down time and time again from the old to the young, experience opening the eyes of the ignorant. After they had all settled down, Ntatemogolo began again.

“Does anyone know what Lesedi La Rona is?”

“It’s the biggest shiny stone found where our herd lives.” One of the foals at the back answered.

Ntatemogolo smiled, “Yes, you are right young one. The shiny stones are very important to the herd, do you know why? When things got bad after getting our independence from the Mighty Lions, many members of the herd wondered how we were going to turn it all around. It was almost like a gift from the ancestors when the shiny stones were first found. After their discovery, the herd finally had something other animals had always desired. The herd took a wise approach to how they would trade the shiny stones and in the end it made us a more stable community. The shiny stones helped us find better places to graze and we were able to build our own schools to teach our young. We went from being the poorest herds to one of the fastest growing ones in trade. You’re too young to understand it completely but the shiny stones helped a great deal.”

Some of the foals had fallen asleep but Boipuso and a few others remained wide awake and eager to hear the rest of the story.

One of the foals made a sincere request, “Tell us what happened next.”

“The herd was truly thriving; we had finally found the one thing that would set us apart from the other herds. Then all of a sudden, animals started dying. First it was the eccentric ones then the males, then everyone. Death spread faster than a raging wild fire. There was a breakout of the worst case of foot and mouth disease. It came like a thief in the night, stealing lives of the innocent, young and old. Sometimes a mother did not know she had the disease and she would pass it onto her foal and they would both die. A lot of people died.” Ntatemogolo paused because it had been a testing time and reliving it in memory seemed to still haunt him. What he did not tell the foals was that it was worse than what he was making it. That strain of foot and mouth had put the herd at a standstill. Foals were either infected or left orphaned and too many lives were lost. No one had the remedies needed to stop the massacre of the pandemic and for a long time the tears of the herd were red with the blood of the dead.

“How did they get better Ntatemogolo?” Boipuso asked, pulling Ntatemogolo from his reverie.

“Well, eventually, somewhere far away, they found some roots and leaves to make it better. Any animal who had it did not suffer as much and the new remedy allowed them to live longer. The herd put all their heads together to try to find ways of avoiding catching the new strain of the foot and mouth disease. We still struggle with it today but we have come a long way.”

Ntatemogolo paused and then realised he had been speaking to himself. The foals lay fast asleep at his feet. They slept soundly without a care in the world. That was what Ntatemogolo loved the most about the times they were living in now. Although the herd still needed vast improvement, Ntatemogolo took solace in the fact that even with all the mistakes he may have made as Chief, he had, even in the smallest way, improved the lives of those who would come after him. It was not a sole effort either; it was because of all the clan leaders who had assisted him. Ntatemogolo slept peacefully that night in the comfort of his accomplishments as the chief of the Burchell’s Zebra.

When the sun rose the next day the herd resumed their trek across the Makgadikgadi and as he always did, Boipuso galloped through the herd until he was trotting alongside his grandfather. They travelled in silence for a while, each one enjoying the unspoken bond they shared. Eventually Boipuso’s curiosity got the better of him and the questions poured forth.

“So… why do we keep migrating? And why do we all go?” Boipuso asked with a hint of whining.

Ntatemogolo chuckled and said, “Well young one, we go seeking fertility in the lands. We go seeking prosperity. We cannot go having left one Zebra behind for that is not the way of the herd. The reason why we do anything is for the prosperity of the future of the herd. There are some elders that may eat more grass than they should but the herd usually has its own way of dealing with them. 

Boipuso thought about what Ntatemogolo had just said and asked “Will we ever stop migrating? Like if we got to the perfect place?” 

Boipuso’s question mad e Ntatemogolo pause in thought. He had asked himself many times if the journey of the herd would ever end. It seemed to him that although they all sought to find a utopian ideal in their society, their journey would never end. And so they walked on, Ntatemogolo leading the herd and Boipuso trotting along beside him, each a representation of different times in their herd. They walked on, experience alongside future potential and together they knew they could get their herd anywhere they wanted it to go.

Darker Tones

Black and white African child

It was the beginning of the school year in Gaborone; the girls were finally in standard seven. Kenalemang and Sheila were excited because this was the last year of their primary schooling. They were in the same school after Kenalemang was transferred from her old school. Sheila was an average student but Kenalemang was exceptional. Her former teachers were confident that she was going to get straight A’s for her Primary School Leaving Examination. Kenalemang was thrilled to start at a new school where no one knew her parents had died and what they died of. Children were so cruel.

Mmamane Dimakatso had bought Kenalemang’s new school uniform but because of budgetary constraints, she had to choose between paying for Sheila to do her hair or buying Kenalemang new school shoes. Mmamane Dimakatso chose the former. Sheila was favoured because she was Mmamane Dimakatso’s only child and Kenalemang was her dead sister’s orphaned child. The girls’ first day of school went swimmingly for Sheila who was coming back to her old friends and familiar surroundings; Kenalemang’s day was a little less pleasant. As she walked into her new class, a lanky boy at the back of the class asked her what her shoes were saying. Kenalemang stood at the front of the class confused by the question. Her shoes had not made a sound. Kenalemang looked at him as a sly smile spread across his face.

“My shoes aren’t saying anything.” Kenalemang replied indignantly.

“My sister, are you sure?” The boy asked with a cunning smirk

Kenalemang nodded her head in the affirmative. She suddenly felt self conscious. Her shoes were not new but they were still as sturdy and stylish as the day they were bought.

“If you’re sure, walk out and walk back in.”

Kenalemang walked out and walked back into the classroom. A dozen pair of eyes watched.  As she walked in the second time, the class erupted in laughter.

“Her shoes are talking! Talking shoes on the first day!”

The glue that kept Kenalemang’s shoe and its sole together had worn out and every time she walked her the sole of her shoe would separate from the shoe itself. This imitated the mouth movements of a person talking. Kenalemang’s shoes were talking. The embarrassment sunk in as she walked to an empty desk and sat down whilst everyone in the class laughed. The whole day they laughed. Sheila laughed too. Children were so cruel.

Standard seven represented the culmination of your primary schooling. Sheila struggled, as did the rest of their class but Kenalemang never faltered. When Kenalemang aced her PSLE exams, all Mmamane Dimakatso said was that at least she was good for something. There was no reward, no present, no new clothes or a party or even a cake. Kenalemang didn’t mind. She had fast realised that she was not going to be celebrated living under Mmamane Dimakatso’s roof.

Every Motswana child struggles to sleep on the twenty fourth of December. Christmas eve means an array of different things for different families all over the world; in Botswana you were sure of three things: Christmas clothes, a seven colour plate and a lot of meat. Homemade ginger beer quenched the young and old helping to combat the sweltering heat. Kenalemang and Sheila had giggled undercovers all night; the two cousins talked excitedly about all the food they would eat, the games they would play with their other cousins and how they’d be trying to get at least P10 from Malome Shakes because he was the rich uncle and he liked to spoil all his nieces and nephews. Kenalemang had been living with Mmamane Dimakatso, her aunt, and her daughter Sheila, for about two years. It wasn’t the same as being at home but Kenalemang had no home anymore. Her mother had died first then a few months later, her father had passed away. Before death had stained her life, she was a carefree 11-year-old who loved Cartoon Network and the tomato flavoured Jiggies snacks. Now she carried the grief everywhere she went. A little sadness was perched on her shoulder, always nagging her, reminding her that she had no parents. Christmas used to be a magical time when Kenalemang had parents; her mother would bake and cook enough food for the village and the village would come. This would be the first Christmas without her mother to fuss over her and make her wear a pretty dress that would be dirty by days’ end. There were no expectations for this Christmas. It would be fun because they’d be going to celebrate at Nkuku’s but Kenalemang knew that the fuzzy feeling that came with Christmas would never ever come back. The morning came and Mmamane Dimakatso had laid out some clothes for the girls to wear. For Shiela, it was a beautiful chiffon dress as well as new pair of shoes. For Kenalemang it was Sheila’s old church dress, no shoes. Mmamane Dimakatso fussed over Shiela and made sure her daughter looked regal. Time was taken with Sheila’s hair; her caramel complexion glistened underneath all the Vaseline that was lathered on her skin. Kenalemang smoothed Vaseline on her own cocoa-toned skin; she pulled her hair into a bun on top of her head and put on Sheila’s old shoes. When they reached Nkuku’s house, the festivities were in full swing. Nkuku was at the back of the house and when her Sheila and Kenalemang saw her, they ran toward her, throwing themselves at their grandmother. The older woman was happy to see her grandchildren. She took each of them by the hand and lead them to her bedroom when she pulled two plastic bags full of goodies from beneath her bed. Toys, books and the second set of new clothes for Sheila for Christmas. Sheila beamed. Kenalemang was half naked as she thanked her grandmother. Maybe her Christmas may just be magical after all.

It slipped. Kenalemang doesn’t know how but the glass slipped from her wet fingers and crashed into the floor, shattering dramatically. Kenalemang paused; she held her breathe hoping Mmamane Dimakatso didn’t hear the glass breaking. Then from the other room Kenalemang heard,

“Thuba hela! Break everything! You want to leave me without any nice glasses akere? It’s not enough that I took you in when your parents died. This is how you thank me? By breaking everything? I should have known by your dark skin that Satan sent you…”

Kenalemang quickly knelt down to pick up the pieces of broken glass. Mmamane Dimakatso’s sililoquy went on in the other room. Unprompted, Mmamane Dimakatso went onto describe the curse that fell upon darker skinned people, how they never get anything right. Kenalemang drowned her out with thoughts of what her mother used to sing as she bathed her. The words echoed loud in her mind and hardened her resolve.

How wonderful that I have seen, the dark skin of a queen. How wonderful that I have seen, the dark skin of a queen.

Over and over the words drummed around in her mind. Kenalemang held onto the words but she clenched her jaw in frustration. A piece of glass cut into the webbing between her index and her thumb. Kenalemang swept the the broken pieces of glass out of the kitchen door and resumed her daily chores of washing dishes. Sheila and Mmamane Dimakatso sat watching Generations on SABC 1. Kenalemang watched them through the crack of kitchen door.

“… her mother wasn’t even dark! My sister? My sister was as light as me and you Sheila but it was the sins of that one’s father that made her dark. An omen I tell you…”

Mmamane Dimakatso went on and on about how dark skin was cursed and how fortunate they were to be lighter. Sheila smiled contentedly knowing she was free from the dark skin curse. Kenalemang finished in the kitchen, said goodnight and went straight to bed. She lay face down in her bed, pushing her mouth into the mattress to muffle her pained wailing.

Sheila walked into their shared bedroom. Kenalemang had switched off the lights; Sheila switched them on again and sat on her bed. Kenalemang turned to face Sheila.

“Please turn off the lights, I am trying to sleep.” Kenalemang asked.

“Yeah yeah, ema pele. I’m looking for my shoes.” Sheila stated.

Kenalemang rolled her eyes at Sheila’s selfishness. She could look for her shoes in the morning. It was not a pressing matter. Sheila had walked into the house with her school shoes on so they were in their bedroom somewhere.

“Ao Sheila don’t be like that. I need to sleep; I’ll help you look tomorrow.” Kenalemang pleaded.

“You can help me look now.” Sheila suggested and knelt down and looked under Kenalemang’s bed.

Kenalemang rarely ever got angry. But after everything her aunt her said to her, she was livid. She hopped out of bed and switched the lights off. Sheila stood in the middle of the room with her mouth agape.

“Mxm! Mama is right. Dark skinned people do a have a curse. They’re stupid. You’re stupid Kenalemang!” Sheila whispered furiously.

Kenalemang cried silently. She would not let Sheila know that her words had hurt. Kenalemang had thought that Sheila would be on her side because they were best friends but Sheila had said that Mmamane Dimakatso was right about what she had said about her. This pained Kenalemang greatly. Her only ally was now an enemy. Kenalemang felt very alone but exhaustion rescued her from her despair and she drifted off into the oblivion of sleep.

“…Unfortunately we’re going to have to downsize. This affects your entire department. We’re going to have to let you go…”

Mmamane Dimakatso read the letter for the third time and sat down at her desk. The stress came like a freight train and knocked the wind from her lungs. Her breathing became labored. The air seemed thinner. Mmamane Dimakatso sat down in her office chair and took a couple of deep breaths. She held the letter in front of her eyes but the letters swam about the page. Quickly she reached for a coke in the bar fridge next to her desk and drank it. The lightheadedness subsided but the shock from the letter did not. Mmamane Dimakatso was in her late fifties. Finding a job now would be close to impossible. The last qualification she had acquired was a certificate for basic accounting but she had no formal schooling, she had no degree. Mmamane Dimakatso’s husband had left years ago and all she had was herself and her girls. When her sister died she had left nothing behind and Mmamane Dimakatso was left with the burden of taking on Kenalemang’s care without any financial assistance from anyone. Working at Botswana Housing Corporation had supported her and her daughter for the last eight years.

“Please find the time to visit the Human Resources department so as to discuss your exit package and pension pay out arrangements.”

Sheila and Kenalemang were only eleven years old. Mmamane Dimakatso still had five more years of schooling to put them through before she could take a step back and hope that the government of Botswana awarded them the scholarship money for tertiary education. It was a dark day and Mmamane Dimakatso didn’t know what she was going to do. She had a mortgage and no other skills or sources of income. Yet, things would get darker still.

            Kenalemang opened the fridge once again. The contents had not magically changed. There was half an onion and some tomato paste. There was nothing else. In the pantry there was only maize meal and a can of baked beans. Kenalemang was the resident cook, Sheila only helped her when she was in a good mood. Today, Sheila was enthralled in an episode of The Queen and had no time to worry about what was to be eaten. Kenalemang chopped the onion and fried it then added the baked beans and tomato paste to make gravy. Then she made paletŝhe with the maize meal and waited for her aunt to get home. When Mmamane Dimakatso walked in, she didn’t even eat. The girls looked at one another in confusion. Kenalemang dished for herself and Sheila and cleaned up after they were finished. Mmamane Dimakatso never emerged from her room again that evening.

Mmamane Dimakatso got the news of Nkuku’s stroke by telephone from the hospital. Nkuku had been cleaning the yard when she collapsed. Neighbors had rushed her to Princess Marina Referral Hospital. It was only there that they had called Mmamane Dimakatso. She had left the girls watching TV to rush to her mother’s bedside. Kenalemang’s mother had passed away just over a year ago and Mmamane Dimakatso was not ready to face death again; her sister’s death had thrust a lot of responsibility upon her and Nkuku’s death was sure to do the same. After transferring Nkuku to Gaborone Private Hospital, she sat the girls down to explain what had happened. It was a minor stroke and the doctor’s expected Nkuku to make a full recovery. Kenalemang took it the hardest. She cried when she saw her grandmother in the hospital for the first time. Mmamane Dimakatso had put her mother on her medical aid but now she struggled to make the payments. There was no money and the hospital had charged an extra twelve thousand for Nkuku’s stay there. The older woman told her daughter to take her back to Princess Marina where her care would be cheaper. Mmamane Dimakatso was drowning in debt in order to make ends meet but she also wanted to afford her mother the best care possible. And so she paid, heavily. Kenalemang could not sleep. She thought that if she did, she would wake up to the news of her grandmother’s passing. Death affects you like that. When your mother and father die within a short period of time, you end up thinking everyone you love is going to follow the same fate. Nkuku was discharged after two weeks and went to live with her daughter and two nieces.

Kenalemang’s chores stayed the same. Clean the house, cook the meals and wash the laundry. Nkuku noticed that Sheila wasn’t expected to do anything.

“Ngwanake why are you spoiling Sheila? She should help Kenalemang with the housework.” Nkuku commented to Mmamane Dimakatso one evening.

“Oh Mama don’t worry, she does. You just haven’t noticed.” Mmamane Dimakatso lied.

The older woman had no energy to press further on the matter. Food was scarce. Things were tough for a while. Mmamane Dimakatso couldn’t afford to have her mother stay with them but she was insistent, at least until Nkuku got better. Kenalemang enjoyed every moment of Nkuku’s stay; they stood side by side in the kitchen, cooking the day’s meals as Mmamane Dimakatso and Sheila watched soapies. Nkuku would take the time to soothe Kenalemang’s ache for her parents by telling her stories of her mother when she was younger. Nkuku brought the memory of Kenalemang’s mother back so vividly. The kitchen became Kenalemang’s favorite room; she could make a delicious meal out of the bare necessities. One day Mmamane Dimakatso took Nkuku to Julia Molefe clinic for a doctor’s appointment. The clinic usually took hours to attend to patients, they were severely understaffed. Kenalemang and Sheila played outside in the dusty yard, barefoot. They climbed trees and built mud houses. The girls forgot their chores and threw themselves into unencumbered fun.  It was only at three that Kenalemang started to cook. Abandoning her cousin, Kenalemang began her daily chores by boiling water for the rice. After putting the rice on the stove, Kenalemang took a quick bath. The heat of the stove had been too high and the stench of burning rice meandered throughout the house. The smell met Mmamane Dimakatso at the door and she became enraged.

“Kenalemang! Come here right now!”

Kenalemang heard her aunt screaming her name. She rushed to the living room still in ignorance of her misdeed.

“Kenalemang, go and fetch a stick right now! I’m going to teach you a lesson about wasting food.”

The young girl scurried away to break of a small branch from the hedge that was intertwined with the fence. This was a ritual countless Batswana children knew: going to forage for the stick that was going to mete out your punishment. The bush smelt fresh and painful as she let it dance between her fingers; she picked a medium sized branch.

“I-I’m sorry Mmamane. I-I wanted to bath b-because we were playing outside…” Kenalemang stuttered trying to save herself. Sheila watched it all unfold but couldn’t save her cousin. Nkuku stood back, allowing her daughter’s anger toward Kenalemang to fester.

“Heela ngwanyana o montsho! Don’t waste my time, bring that stick here let me show you how I feel when you waste food.” Mmamane Dimakatso shrieked.

Mmamane Dimakatso grabbed the stick from Kenalemang’s small hands and brought it against her fragile frame. Mmamane Dimakatso’s hand would raise up as far up in the air as she could then it would descend in the direction of Kenalemang’s body. Kenalemang felt the whipping from every angle; she yelped and screamed, bolting about the house. Mmamane Dimakatso was quick and agile, she blocked the young girl at every turn. The stick licked Dimakatso’s skin across her back as she tried to escape outside. Her foot caught on the carpet and she fell forward hitting the corner of the coffee table as she went down. Kenalemang lost consciousness and everything faded to black. Mmamane Dimakatso held the stick in the air, unsure of it’s fate as its’ target lay still on the ground; she lowered her hand slowly. Nkuku came closer to see if Kenalemang was alright. Turning her over slowly, Nkuku cradled Kenalemang in her arms. Three pairs of eyes saw the slow and steady ooze of blood from a gash in Kenalemang’s forehead. She bled. The blood stained Nkuku’s clothes and the carpet. The smell of burning rice went unnoticed. No one had switched the stove off. The sight of blood and the smell of burnt rice played on the senses of those who came to help. Disaster enveloped the and constricted their sense of safety. The rice was burnt and in a way, so was Kenalemang.

Kenalemang came to slowly. First one eye opened then the other. Her body felt stiff so she tried to stretch, a mistake she quickly regretted. Her skin was on fire, the beaten skin screaming at the movement of the muscle beneath it. Moving her head had awoken a demon of a headache that was steadily dragging her to hell. Wincing and whimpering she got out bed and walked slowly to the toilet. When she walked back into the room, Nkuku was walking in. When Kenalemang saw her, her eyes watered.

“Nkuku what happened?” Kenalemang asked

Nkuku sat down and said, “Ngwanake, your aunt was not treating you well. I’m sorry I didn’t see it. I wish you would have told me.”

“I don’t remember how I got here Nkuku.”

The older woman recounted what had happened. Kenalemang held her forehead and felt her bandaged head. That’s why everything hurt. That’s why her heart hurt. Nkuku sat and explained that Kenalemang would no longer have to live with Mmamane Dimakatso. Elation vibrated through Kenalemang’s being and for the first time in a long time, she was happy.