I grew up on this hill. I’ve always known this crisp breeze and these fields of bright flowers, and I’ve always looked up to those green knolls over yonder. Always looked, and wondered what was beyond them.
I was a naughty child. I remember racing down into the maize fields with my friends, singing church songs and playing hide and seek among the carefully-laid heaps of dried maize leaves. Other days we would find our younger brothers, tending the flocks of goats, and run amok, causing the goats to scatter in fear and confusion. During the rains, I would wander up the path carved into the patches of yellow flowers and scatter their petals until the dusty track turned the color of bright sunshine.
Sometimes, though, I would pick a bouquet of pink flowers with petals like tongues and offer it to my mother.
Mamma worked hard. All day, she labored in the fields, tending to the life-giving maize. It was that crop we ate most regularly, and traded on market day for other essentials, like soya and cassava. It was my mother’s job to bring the heavy sack of maize, carefully dried in the sun, to be weighed on a scale in town for trade. It was her job, too, to carry back the new sack, carefully balanced atop her head.
Father didn’t help much. It was my older brother, Thomas, who burned the firewood into charcoal for sale on the roadside and rode the family bicycle into town to pick up sugar or oil, without which father wouldn’t have had his morning tea or his evening meal. He even built the maize shed, weaving the dried stalks of twine I’d been ordered to collect into a circular vessel for storing our picked cobs. Mamma loved Thomas best.
Father mostly sat on the red-glazed porch or under the shade of a mango tree, awaiting his meals. Sometimes, he and his friends played bao,wagering the very kernels of corn mamma worked so hard to grow. Other times they drank local beer, brewed once again by mamma, out of maize meal.
I would have loved to sit with father, to watch him play bao or to hear his tales of the good old days. But every time I approached, he chastised me about my laziness, never seeing the irony in his accusations. But father was always right, and I would rush off to fetch water from the well or to pound the cassava into a fine white powder before he could catch and beat me.
The forest on the top of the hill was my favorite place of all. My sisters and I were often sent there to pick firewood. We learnt to bundle them up and balance them on our heads, winding a piece of fabric around itself in a circular shape to soften the weight of the wood on our heads. Inside the forest, as we collected our wood, we played games – climbing trees rung with vines, weaving long, stringy plants into golden-haired wigs, and pretending we were witches that cast green moss onto everything we touched. And at the edge of the forest, I could catch a glimpse of the valley beyond the hills.
Our house was small – only one room – but it was tended with care. It always smelled of wood fire and nsima, the maize-meal powder mamma pounded into porridge every day. Our walls weren’t made of red earthen bricks like some of our neighbors, but instead, dried cow dung and clay. I often helped to remake the floor and wall, mixing the dried dung with water and smoothing it onto the craggy surface. Every night, I curled up between my sister and mamma and dreamt warmly of hilltops and the possibilities that lay beyond them.
One day, soon after I’d developed mounds on my chest and been deemed by the tribe a woman, a family came to our hut to speak with father. I was sent to fetch water, but I knew what was going on at home. When I returned, the bargaining had been completed – I’d been offered as a wife to a boy I used to play hide-and-seek with in the maize fields. His family had offered mine a cow, several goats, and sacks of soya. My father was pleased. I was not.
The wrinkles have started to show on my weathered face, and still, I haven’t gotten to see what lies beyond those hills. I’m too busy tending my maize fields and trading in the market. I’m too busy brewing tea and pounding nsima and smoothing the crags of my hut floor.
I’m too busy teaching my daughters to be like me.
Occasionally I catch Charity, my eldest, staring off at those hills. She tells me it’s Lilongwe, a city with almost one million people. With cars a-plenty, and televisions everywhere, and one-stop shopping malls. She has friends there, with whom she chats ceaselessly on her mobile phone. The friends keep asking when she, too, will move to the big city and begin her “real life”. I need to marry her off quick.
The other children cause me no less stress. The little ones spend more time sitting along the road, watching the cars go by, than playing in the fields, as we did. They wait for the white asungo to go past, and then they chase them for sweets or pens or coins. And my older boys spend their time loitering outside the town shops and bars, listening to blaring hip-hop music and smoking rolled-up tobacco leaves.
Truth be told, I don’t stare at those hills as much as I used to. They don’t look as fresh and green and full of promise as they did so many years ago. Apparently, they’ve turned the forest at the peak into some sort of government reserve, called Ntchisi. It hasn’t seemed to stop the trees from disappearing, and the hills are dotted more and more with brown every day.
No, my life is here. In these crisp-breezed, wild-flowered hills. Amid my maize and goats and cow-dung hut. With my family, my tribe, my ancestors. I was born here, and it is God’s will that I will end my tired days here too.
This story is fiction, though its setting is real. The account is centered around photos taken in the hilltop villages around Ntchisi Forest Reserve, and the information woven into the tale is based on things I know about Malawian life specifically, and African life generally.
For non-fiction stories on Malawi, click here.