A creative nonfiction tale about growing up.
an there be anything grander when one is five and a half than to have a proper swing in the yard and to live where eternal summer reigns? The object of my pleasure was a sturdy steel structure, eight-foot-tall (although, at that time it seemed thrice as high), nestling in the shade of a Mopani tree, to the side of the house.
Getting a swing started is art when one is little. Mother was reluctant to let me swing outside on my own — not with us living in the African bush on the edge of town; with three younger offspring, one, a sweet little baby on the hip, it left her with little free time to galivant outside with me, least of all, push me to my heart’s content. Older brother thought to swing was silly, and Father was always away preaching and teaching.
Barely tall enough to hold onto the swing chains, I’d walk backward with the wooden swing-seat slowly crawling up the small of my back till it nicked the tips of my shoulder blades. Taking a deep breath, I’d dash forward, all the while holding on for dear life, heave with my arms and jump on the seat, lean back as far as possible and kick out with both feet. Once “in the air,” gaining height and maintaining momentum became easier.
“Not too high, Darling!” was Mother’s customary damper of my enthusiasm.
“I won’t, Mommy!” was my insincere reply.
As soon as Mother got distracted by the three younger ones running and crawling in all directions, I’d attempt to touch the butterfly-shaped leaves with my toes with each up-swing, delighted by the breeze and the mottled specs of sun and shade on my limbs, flying as if a trapeze-artist in the Boswell Wilkie Circus! The sturdy branches spread far and wide, as wide as the skies it seemed, giving safe haven within its reach. Soon enough, I’d be flying away, floating on the clouds, its white patches visible through windows in the verdant canopy.
We lived in Ndola, a town in Zambia, six miles from the Congo border. By the end of 1963, the tension between the British Crown and the Federation of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (Malawi) was at a boiling point; in Zambia, the people protested and insisted on governing themselves, longing to be freed from paternalistic colonial rule. About those political matters, we understood little as children, other than single incidents we’d witness.
It often fell to me to push my baby brother in his pram after a feed, until he fell asleep, to give Mother a short reprieve in the late afternoon. The two sisters were not even two and three, and older brother, apparently, had homework to do.
From an older sibling’s perspective there is nothing lovelier than an infant, freshly changed, milk-drunk, smelling of baby powder and making gurgle sounds.
I loved the task and was often overheard singing to the little guy, coaxing him to sleep with my endearing chant, all the while pushing him up and down:
“Slaap soete baba, slaap stoute baba . . .”
Sleep, sweet little one, sleep naughty one . . .
The spacious spare bedroom at the front of the house lent itself well to this purpose — the late-afternoon sun had by then lost its sting and merely bathed the room in warm and pleasant colors.
What could be grander than to push a wee three-month-old in a spring-loaded stroller (Mother insisted on calling it a pram), the entire device clad in quarry-grey vinyl with dinner-plate sized white rubber wheels, while humming, “Sleep, sweet little one . . .”
At dinner time Father and Mother would discuss with hushed voices the latest in the rising tension and unease in the country. It seemed they were not too worried, not since Ndola was “tucked away in a corner,” far from the hubbub of the capital — things were peaceful and tranquil.
Until it wasn’t.
Father was away on one of his numerous mission trips, and I shadowed Mother early one evening as she walked through the house and drew the curtains. Little brother was soundly asleep in the main bedroom, while older brother kept an eye on the two sisters in a playroom at the back of the house.
Mother had done all the rooms when we came to the last one, the spare bedroom where Baby was usually pushed in his stroller until he fell asleep. It was dark out, and Mother had plucked the curtains closed, only to gasp, not letting go of the drapes in her hands. Her face drained of color, her knuckles white, she poked her head a second time through a gap at the top of the drapes. Standing beside her, partially hidden in the folds of her dress, I followed her example, poking my head through an even tinier gap, clasping the drapes in my smaller fists.
Mother muttered in her mother’s tongue. Perhaps she was praying.
The yard was wire-fenced with a gate, and a gravel driveway ran to the main road, a hundred yards away.
Transfixed, Mother and my eyes were nailed to the bonfire in the middle of the paved main road — at the upturned burning vehicle.
It was impossible to tear our eyes away from the spectacle. Golden tongues licked into the indigo skies, silhouetting several dancing figures.
The once quiet night carried the angry male voices toward the house — where, on the road, the chanting, and dancing, and yelling continued, growing wilder by the minute.
‘Come, let’s phone the police.” Mother yanked the curtains closed and with my little hand in hers raced through the house to ascertain that baby and the other children were safe. Mother must have forgotten that she still had my hand in hers as she made for the telephone, stumbling over her words as she requested help.
Minutes later, patrol cars showed up to restore law and order and put out the fire. Older brother’s head now peeped out between Mom’s and mine, ogling the unfolding events from behind the apparent safety of the partially drawn bedroom curtains. That night, a patrol car with two officers was stationed just outside our front gate.
If my memory doesn’t fail me, Mother made everyone sleep in the main bedroom — older brother’s protests in spite.
A shift had taken place. ‘Sleep, sweet little one,’ now belonged to the past, to history — nothing could ever be the same again.