It was the first time that he had come out of his village, a few kilometres away from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. His father was working in the state agriculture farm as a driver. They were seven members in the family, his parents and five of the children. He was the eldest. His name was Fred, Fred Kambalame.
Fred’s father, Dominique Kambalame was often away on temporary duty with his boss. That gave him extra money. But Dominique never even gave his full salary to his wife. He liked to booze with his friends and he loved the company of women, the barmaids in particular after he had half a dozen of Carlsberg beer. Dominique would hardly spend his weekends with his family unless he was out of pocket. Fred had the responsibility of feeding his siblings. He would go to the forest in search of mushrooms or dig fields for cassava during the season. Helping his mother during rainy season for sowing maize and beans was another of his duties. All these responsibilities when he was only fourteen.
Fred often saw his father beat his mother. Mostly it was for two reasons; either he wanted money or when she refused to let him ride her. Dominique used to be violent on these occasions and he would hit Christie with his fists or a stick if he located one. The neighbouring men would come and watch and the women would howl but no one entered the fray. Traditionally, a man had the right to satiate his urge at any hour of the day. Christie at times recoiled and hit Dominique, to utter dismay and disgust of the men folk.
“She is too finicky, I would not have tolerated her even for a day,” this was Stephen, Dominique’s first cousin who always cherished to sleep with Christie. In fact, Christie had acknowledged his advances but she wanted him to bring her a pheasant or a rabbit.
“Christie! That is too much for a mother of five children,” Stephen would plead. But the fact was that Christie was only thirty-one, she was shapely, beautiful and desirable.
Fred knew that his mother at times entertained men to feed the family. Dominique knew it as well and this infuriated him particularly when Christie refused to sleep with him.
“I know you bitch. You want to sleep with young studs. You bloody slut…you think I can not satisfy you… come… come…try…you bloody whore….” Dominique would make such outbursts and walk away from the village.
Fred wished if only there could be peace in the family. He loved his mother but he liked his father as well. After all he was the bread earner and he always brought gifts for them on Christmas and on their birthdays.
“Drinking or going to other women is not a serious matter. Who is not doing it?” Fred would try to convince his mother.
“If only I could get a job. It is poverty that brings so many miseries,” he often thought.
One evening after a serious altercation between his parents, which left a deep cut on the face of his mother, Fred made up his mind to leave. In the wee hours of the following day, he left his village and walked until he reached the road to Blantyre. He knew that sometimes one could get a lift from the trucks going with tobacco load to South Africa.
“Look boy! You make me happy and I make you happy, take you to Jo’burg, right?” The robust man in charge of the truck told Fred who didn’t understand the purport of the words. He nodded his assent and slid himself under the tarpaulin.
The truck rolled on until it crossed the Mozambique border. It was dark and they halted outside a small motel and ordered for food and liquor. Fred was overwhelmed to see the variety and the quantity of food. The table was overflowing; there wasn’t enough place to keep the food. There was roasted beef, chicken and fish and there was bread and butter and salad. The boss offered him whiskey, Fred opted for beer. He had seen his father drinking beer; he wanted to be like him. Fred enjoyed the food and the beer though he remembered his brothers, sisters and his mother and felt sorry for them.
“What luck? And this is only the first day.” He thanked God and continued with the food and the beer.
Soon after meals he was called to the room of the boss.
“Son, you happy, enjoyed your food?”
“Yes sir, really very happy; so much of nice food and can of beer. It was simply great,” he said enthusiastically.
“Good son, now it is my turn,” the burly man caught hold of him and the other two pulled his trousers down.
The night was an ordeal for the young Fred. He cried with pain and bled as the three men unleashed their sperms in turn. All of them were ecstatic about their exploits.
“Go and sleep and no tricks,” one of them shouted with wolfish grin. Fred could not stand on his legs. Like a rabbit surrounded by canny wild foxes, he was scared even to roll his eyeballs. He put his hands on the ground for support and picked up his trousers. As he walked out with bowed knees, he heard the joyous cheers of his captors.
Fred did not remember anything after that. He had fainted and when he woke up, he found himself under the tarpaulin and that the truck was moving with a fast speed. Fred was in a state of stupor the next whole day. He had high fever and he remembered one of them had forced a bitter pill down his throat.
The truck finally reached its destination. “You will stay here. We have left food for you. If you move out, the police will catch you and put you behind the bars. We will return in a day or two,” the boss said as they left to join their families leaving Fred in a large cargo godown.
Fred was still suffering from pain. He had not eaten the whole day now and he felt hungry. He took out some bread, a few chicken pieces and a coke from the packet left for him. Once again he remembered his family.
“They would have envied him with so much of good food,” he thought as he took a bite.
He slept thereafter. When he woke up he felt better. It was mid day and he feared some one of his tormentors might come. He moved around the godown and noticed a spiral iron staircase at one end. He climbed to the top and saw a small window at the end of it. Fred opened its doors and found him self about sixty feet above the ground. He suddenly remembered that the trucks had ropes tied around the tarpaulin.
“I have to take a chance and get away from these bastards,” he decided and waited until night. He opened the rope from the truck that had brought him from Malawi. He doubled it and put knots at regular intervals to help him climb down. At the dead of the night, he collected the food bag and went down the rope to his freedom.
Fred moved around the black areas trying to locate some Malawian and seek his help; scared all the time, fearing arrest. It was his third evening in the alien land and he had nothing to eat. It was raining heavily. Fred was standing outside a shop. A little later he noticed a car coming from the opposite direction. Its engine was giving irregular sound and it stopped a few metres away from him.
An elderly man came out of the car. It was raining heavily. He opened the bonnet and tried to find the fault. Apparently, he could not locate one and shouted something to the woman sitting in side the car. The couple conversed and then decided to walk the distance. But there was a problem. They had a suitcase, which apparently had something valuable and could not be left in the car and perhaps it was too heavy for the old man to carry it.
Fred had an intuition. He approached the couple and offered to carry the suitcase. The couple was hesitant. They looked around and waited for a few seconds. There being no option, they ultimately decided to engage Fred to carry the load. It was more than an hour’s walk that the couple stopped in front of a basement of a tall building.
Rain had still not stopped. The man took out a Ten Rand bill and handed it over to Fred who had no clue about the worth of the money. He looked blankly at them.
“Where do you live?” the old man asked him in African.
Fred understood the question. “No house,” he replied and then added, “I come from Malawi. No work, master, please …master.”
The man looked at his wife and asked Fred to wait outside. Fred waited anxiously and prayed. “God if only they keep me.”
The God perhaps listened to his prayers. The man came out and told him to follow them. There was no scale to measure Fred’s joy. He thanked God as they walked another kilometre to arrive at the house of the couple.
Qasim Bhai, the old man knew that Fred’s entry in the country was unlawful but he was a shrewd businessman. He knew such people always remained under leash, fearing the police and they worked hard and at less than half the wage.
“Don’t talk to any one outside or else someone will inform the police,” he had warned Fred. He gave Fred a pair of old clothes and a small room to live in.
Qasim Bhai owned a chemist’s shop in … Area of the town, which predominantly had Asian and black population. Fred noticed men and young boys coming to the shop, whispering a few words to Qasim Bhai, handing him the money and taking away tablets that Qasim Bhai would bring from basement of the shop. In other cases, Fred had learnt that Qasim Bhai would ask for doctor’s prescription and make memos for the clients.
Fred had been with Qasim Bhai now for five months. Qasim Bhai had developed enough faith in him and at times left the shop with Fred, who felt proud of it.
The place where Qasim Bhai had taken Fred on their first meeting was used as bulk store. Fred had accompanied Qasim Bhai to it several times to bring medicines to the shop. One day Qasim Bhai told Fred to go to a restaurant in downtown and collect a suitcase of medicines from its owner. “My friend has brought them from India. Take it straight to the stores and wait for me,” he said cautiously.
Fred collected the suitcase from the owner of the restaurant and hired a taxi to take it to the store. Fred remembered it was the same suitcase that he had lifted for Qasim Bhai on the first day he had met him.
Fred paid the taxi and as he was carrying the suitcase to the store, two policemen swooped on him and nabbed him by the collar.
“You bastard, smuggling drugs. We got you this time… you son of a bitch. You are going to have it,” one of the cops shouted giving a sharp punch at his face. Fred fell down with blood oozing out from his mouth.
“I don’t know anything about it. I am working for Qasim Bhai, the owner of Friends Medical Store in …market. Sir, believe me I don’t know anything. He told me to collect the suit case from Suleman Restaurant in the …street. My master said he will meet me here at this godown.”
“Shut up you bastard…bloody swine and listen,” one of the cops shouted shaking him violently by his collar.
“We won’t leave your master and that son of a bitch; you went to collect the drugs. And if you change your story, we am going to screw you hard. OK?”
Fred knew what that meant. It gave him a shiver down his spine. “Sir, I tell the truth…nothing else…mother truth…,” he cried.
The cop who took hold of the suitcase asked Fred to sit in his car sped towards Qasim Bhai’s medical store. Fred was wondering how the police came to know of it and he was shocked when he saw the shop closed.
“Smart bastards,” the cop muttered and he swore in the filthiest terms when his colleague told him over the radio that the owner of the restaurant was also missing.
“We will get them,” he said kicking Fred in anger and then he took him to the police station and threw him behind the bars.
Qasim Bhai and Suleiman Shah disowned everything before the magistrate. “It is a cooked up story by the police.” They pleaded and their lawyer slapped a charge of racial discrimination against the police.
The police couldn’t substantiate the case against Qasim Bhai and Suleiman Shah. The magistrate left them with a warning. Fred was jailed for one year and then deported to Malawi.
Malawi Police detained Fred for questioning until they took out nearly all his money and then kicked him out of the police lock up.
It was a dark cloudy night. He walked till his legs failed. He lay on a road culvert and didn’t know when sleep over took his fatigue. It was daybreak when he woke up and found himself in front of a supermarket. He remembered it for he had been to it with his father a couple of times. He counted the few Rands left in his pocket and after some time went to a money changer to exchange it. He returned to the supermarket and spent all the money in buying food for his family.
“You having a party,” the girl on the counter asked him enviously.
“Yes, sure,” he said briefly and took a bus for his village.
It was mid day when he reached his village. Fred was baffled that there was no one around. He sat down in front of his hut. As the village folks came to know of his return, they flocked to see him. Fred listened as his family’s story unfolded.
His parents had finally separated and his father had married another woman and was living in Blantyre. His mother along with his brothers and sisters had left the village and were working somewhere in Lilongwe.
Fred cried. It was the severest of all the pains he had suffered.
The sun had set and it was getting dark. Fred was hungry. He looked at the food packet he had purchased at Lilongwe and tears rolled down his cheeks.
“God! For only once, I wanted them to have a good meal at whatever price I had to pay for it,” he whispered looking at the sky and then threw the packet to the dogs who had gathered around, smelling the roasted beef, chicken, cookies and bread loafs.