Mwalimu treaded the village paths with an air of elegance and style, head held high as one and all kow-towed to him. Such was the respect accorded a teacher in ages past. His beautiful wife gave birth to a son; his son. This was a source of immense joy to the renowned teacher. The boy was the strength of his manhood and proof of his virility. After him came a bounty of two girls. So happy was he that he thought the sun rose and set upon the small brood of which he was custodian. It was the picture of demure perfection.
It is when things are at their best that disaster strikes, and it never comes singly. It brings in a horde of its relatives. His wife was diagnosed with a fatal illness that was eating away at her mortal flesh, day by day. She lay in bed, weak and pale-looking. Her husband and little children hang around, not entirely certain what to do to ease her pain. This helpless feeling made her husband feel unmanly and emasculated. He could no longer bear the pain of seeing his lovely wife waste away in the wake of that horrible ailment. Every day he left for work, dogged by the very helplessness that took his soul for a ride, he came back home with another part of him hidden and hardened.
Drinking joints became his source of solace and comfort every evening after a long dragging day at work. He tried to no avail to obliterate the pain. With numbed feelings and wobbly legs, he would head home, a smug expression on his face. A foolish smile would tag at the corners of his mouth.
Every time he walked into the house, he would see the weak and dying frame of his wife and resentment would rise in him. The children were torn between the two parents; watching over their ailing mother and trying to please a drunken ever-absent father. They learned to fend for themselves, with the boy as the ‘man’ of the house standing resolutely between the world and his two little sisters. They learned to do without affection, for the ailing mother could only look at them with tears in her eyes and bitterness in her heart. Mayhaps the bitterness would be the very cause of her demise. The father was always kicking things around and cursing even in the presence of his children. He showed neither compassion to his weak wife nor tenderness to his lost children.
Surprisingly, mwalimu came back home early one evening, at that time when cows are coming home to roost and the setting orange orb of the sun is touching the horizons with its magic. Draped upon his arm was a lovely looking miss. His laugh was proud and boisterous. The swagger in his walk and spring in his step was back; that walk that made the villagers kowtow to him in respect as an accomplished man. Holding her in front of him, he clutched tightly at her small waist and waltzed into the house. This in the full view of his dying wife and bewildered children. The young missus smiled mockingly at the sick woman, lying on the bed with the stench of death all around her. The smile was full of contemptuous pity and her eyes danced with pure malice.
The mother’s releasing tears at last fell. She broke apart, something she had never really allowed herself to do. Not even in the agony of her pain or the depth of her loneliness. Not even at the negligence of her husband or compassion for her children. Or even for the life she had had and lost. It may seem that the human heart is only capable of handling so much to which point it reaches its breaking point, the point at which strength of will is no match for overwhelming circumstances. She had really been strong; holding on to the shreds of her life by sheer force of will, battling with death for the sake of her husband and children. When the reason that holds our will strong takes flight, then comes the falling apart, when life is completely knocked out of us.
She knew that it was now only a matter of time. Her spirit had at last decided to let go. She murmured to her children and they ran to her with such desperation, as if nature itself was spelling out the urgency. Shakily, she drew them close to her, breathing in the scent of innocence on their young bodies and their warmth. Reminding them again and again of her love for them, she elicited a beautiful smile that calmed their bow-strung nerves. It is the most beautiful smile you will see on a woman; a serene smile during a tumultuous time. It is like a rose flower combating the desert conditions to claim a place among the cactuses, lighting the bareness around with brilliance of colour and freshness of smell.
After an interminable time, Mwalimu and the miss walked back, holding hands and smiling like little kids who just had their hands in the cookie jar behind mummy’s back. His wife thought about what unseemly behaviour that was in a full grown man in the full view of his young children. Fortunately, the veil of innocence had not been lifted from their eyes. Theirs were still encased in that rosy-coloured patch that is so adorable of young children.
She looked from her husband to the missus and back to her husband again, batting her eyelashes in a dignified attempt to hide the tears in the throes of her pain. At least he had the decency to look down right after a flicker of shame flittered across his face, disappearing as if it had not been there in the first place only to be replaced by that sardonic smile. The hold that her eyes had on his had a sealing finality in their stare.
At that dark hour of the night, when it seems that death makes its rounds beckoning its victims, Mwalimu’s wife passed on. He awoke to her outstretched hand and cold body leaning towards him as if he had been her last thought. This was some shred of comfort to him, and then it hit him with a painful blast that she was gone. Memories of a lifetime drifted hazily through his head. There was the day he met her, and his brazen confidence that she would be his -someday. Then the day he married her, fulfilling all traditions and customs of the tribe. The best day had been when she bore him a son. Oh! The joy of fatherhood he had experienced. Theirs had been a passionate love and a good life. That is, until that fatal illness…. He really did not want to think about it. About his betrayal of the most beautiful thing he had ever shared with another human being and his negligence of her. Now, he watched her cold and lifeless form and knew that a part of him had died with her. He opened a part of his brain and locked away the sweet memories, to be savoured in this bitter-sweet journey of life.
Mwalimu did not know how to handle the children. His son was especially inquisitive. He rapped out one question after another, demanding to know the whereabouts of his mother for he wanted to be with her. He whisked them away to their grandmother’s house the day they buried his wife. This would always be the main cause of the rift between him and his children. That he robbed them off the chance to grieve their mother’s passing. He forgot that children grow up and the harsh world thrusts them into its reality by tearing away their rosy-coloured glasses. That they would understand someday all the forces that were at play and bitterness would plague their hearts.
When a dully acceptable mourning period was over, Mwalimu brought home the young missus. He gathered his children around him and introduced them to their new mother, as if their birth mother could ever be replaced by anybody, let alone the young arrogant-looking missus. She looked at them and they looked right back at her.
Her gaze locked with that of the boy, who by now was old enough to grasp the magnitude of all the undue happenings. Hostility matched hostility, and this was set to be the hallmark of their lives!