You Only Die Once
By Fred Owens
You only die once, Mr. Mataka used to say. He was nearing eighty when I knew him. He could walk many miles in a day, to see his children, to see his daughter Winnie in Lobengula on one day or to see his son Smiley in Nketa 9 on another day. Walking and always dressed right, in a sport coat and tie over a dress shirt and pants, with black polished shoes. "I wear these dress clothes to tell you of my work as a legal clerk. I worked for 25 years as a clerk for Justice Charles Daniels. When I retired from that position, Mr. Daniels paid off my house in Luveve and so now I only pay the taxes. You see I am a free man because I get a small pension and I have my house. Everyone stays here, even my daughters Molly and Margie
"You have five daughters."
"Yes, I have five daughters. Molly is the first."
Aunt Molly was a course and beefy woman who spent most of her time in a separate bedroom built off the kitchen. Was it just me that didn't like her? I think not. She had ashen-brown skin and a surly expression. Hefty, stocky. You wish she had been just a little pretty, but that never happened -- men never noticed her and she became hardened to it. She sold boiled cow hooves at the open air beer hall. She obtained large sacks of cows hooves from a slaughter house. She boiled the hooves for hours in a large back yard kettle over a hot fire. A dreadful odor. The finished hoof was gelatinous and much appreciated as a snack by drunken men at the open-air beer hall where she kept a stall. A rough business selling boiled cows hooves to drunken men. But her daughter Maureen was the pretty one, almost as hefty, but in a nicer way, with almond eyes and a honey voice.
"But I will tell you about my children some other time," Mr. Mataka said. We sat many afternoons in the shade of a mango tree on his front porch. Aunt Margie would bring us tea. I called him Sekuru which is old man or grandfather. He called me Umkunyani which is son-in-law. "Umkunyani which means he who pays for everything," I said and we laughed. But it was true, if the son-in-law had money he would pay for everything. There were too many hungry children running about. Johnny and Prince were small boys, 8 and 10, and they often scampered in the mango tree where we drank the tea.
"So I will tell you my story. I was born in the mountains of Malawi a thousand kilometers from here, even further. Chembe village it was called and we were very poor. Even my father was poor. He was the chief of the village and he had two wives..."
"Yes, because we were Moslems. The Arabs came through here long back and stole our people for slavery and made us pray to Allah, so we still do that. There was a mosque and no church in Chembe. But even my father was poor and we had no shoes. Until one day when I was becoming a man we walked three hours to Dedza town where the highway is and the bank for money. And the Christian missionaries. I talked with the missionaries and they could see I was clever. They said you will never have money in Malawi, you must go to Rhodesia. You can find work there. My father said to go to Rhodesia and make money. So I walked there..."
"You walked to Rhodesia, over one thousand kilometers."
"Yes, it's a long way, but that's when I began to say -- you only die once. I will walk to Bulawayo and make money on the farm or in a mine. I will never give up. So I came here and worked. I married Grace and we had all these children, so now I sit here and drink my tea."
When the fish were biting in the lake, the fishermen would go out all night and catch them, small fish, but many. Then Mr. Mataka would get up at four o'clock in the morning and ride his bike one hour to the lake, to buy the fresh fish and bring it home. When he brought home the fish, he would nail one fish to a post and the neighbors would see it and come to buy them. So Mr. Mataka made small money here and there.
We enjoyed many days on his front porch. He might read the daily newspaper and he might tell the small children to be a little quiet, but they knew he didn't mean it. One day I asked him, "Will you ever return to Chembe village where you were born?" "Yes someday I will return because it is where my father and mother are buried. I will go there and visit my sister Amina. I have not seen her since I was a young man."
"If you come back to Chembe village will they still know you?"
"Yes, they will still know me. They will never forget me. It is my home. I will go there one more time and die."
"No, you cannot die, sekuru, not now, not this time. But I want to see your home. Precious says she has never been there. Can we go? I will pay for the train ticket and the bus ticket, and you won't have to walk the whole distance. After Precious and I get married we will bring you to Chembe village."
"Yes, and you will pay for the journey, unkumyani," he said and we both laughed.
"Yes, you can take us to Chembe and I will pay for the tickets, after we get married."
And so Mr. Mataka and I made this arrangement. When I went home I discussed this with Precious. She agreed that it was a good plan. But we needed to set a wedding date. I don't know why we decided on September 1, but that became our wedding day. And for our honey moon we would go to see her home in Malawi on a journey with Mr. Mataka and Aunt Marji and Aunt Winnie.
Note. I could write a lot more about Mr. Mataka and his large family. And the garden! We grew so many tomatoes. And sweet potatoes, corn, strawberries and beans. Week after week passed in working mornings, before it got hot, and idle afternoons. Often we sat on the front stairs which were tiled and cool, we sat on the stairs and just looked at the pepper tree and the slow street. Sometimes Precious would hail a young boy passing by. "Little brother, I have a small job for you and I will pay you ten cents." The boy would stop and come to the fence in a respectful way. "Here is some money, take it to the bottle store and buy three cold Cokes. And make sure they are very cold." So she would give the small boy the money and he would run to the store and come back in a few minutes with three cokes. "One Coke is for you, little brother, and here is your ten cents." So that was lazy living on Shottery Crescent, like room service at a fancy hotel only better.
Eva came to visit us. I am not sure how her visit fits into the story. Eva, my daughter, had just turned 18 and had finished her freshman year at Oberlin College -- that same summer that I spent with Precious in our rented home in Bulawayo. I missed Eva and sent her funds to buy a plane ticket. Eva, being impressively competent, bought a ticket, got a passport and hopped on the plane to Africa. I was very glad to see her and I kind of hoped that she and Precious would get along. Meaning that if my daughter and bride-to-be were at odds, then my life would become very unhappy. To make this short, Eva issued a Certificate of Tolerance for the proposed union of Precious and Frederic. Daughters have that power. Then she packed up her kit and began to explore Zimbabwe. She got lost in the mountains of Chimanimani, trekking by herself. I cannot believe that I let her do that, but she did all right. But this is part of Eva's story and maybe she will write it some day.
Back in Santa Barbara in the year 2020. The African story will likely continue for as long as we are self-isolated against the plague. That's just a guess -- that I will complete the story when the quarantine is lifted. I don't know why I am worried about how the story will end. I have lots of good character and dialog and scenery, but I'm way short of a plot and a proper plot-driven ending. This is where I can use some help.
Laurie Moon said she stills enjoys my company after one month of co-confinement.
Health is good here,