February 14, 2020

Matha Rhymes with Big City Frenzy

All three of the Mwamba children were banned from the mission due to Bernadetta’s crimes. Mulenga started cultivating vegetables to sell. Nkuka cooked and cleaned and managed their small household. Matha forlornly reread her od exercise books, trying to eke more knowledge out of the ever-fading pencil marks.

Four years later, their mother died in Bwana Mkubwa prison. Dysentery from bilharzia, the authorities claimed. Mr. Mwamba fell into a hole of grief. He had been throwing himself against the wall of his wife for so long that when she suddenly vanished, he fell right over the edge. While he took the long way out, with the help of his younger sister and a renewed religious faith-‘God is in control’, he would intone with dead eyes-his care of his children languished.

In the hazy period after her mother’s funeral, Matha slipped away to Ba Nkonloso’s home. She knew his wife and his sister were preparing to move to Lusaka, where the cadres of the African National Congress-which had been renamed the United National Independence Party, or UNIP for short-would protect them until Ba Nkoloso was released from prison in Salisbury. Waving a letter of permission she had forged in her father’s hand, Matha managed to persuade the two women that they needed her help caring for Nkoloso’s children. They travelled by car to Ndola, then took the train down to the capital, a dusty, smelly three-day journey. Matha spent most of it squeezed up against an open window, watching the country roll by under the immense unmoving sky. She was thirteen.

Matha loved Lusaka. She felt for the first time that that the rhythm of her body matched the rhythm of her surroundings. The thick press of pedestrians fit her soul like her glove. Her pulse beat in time with their feet. Her breathing rate followed the pace of the cars on those unpaved arteries with their grandiose names: Cairo Road. Great East Road. Great North Road. Double-decker buses called Giraffes trundled along them-the ticket checkers made Matha wrap an arm over her head to prove she was old enough to ride.

Excerpted from The Old Drift, a novel by the Zambian writer Namwali Serpell. Published in 2019 by Hogarth (London, New York), it was on the list of the books selected for discussion at the 21st  Lagos Book and Art Festival (November 4-10, 2019).

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