Gone With the Drought

At long last, I also came to believe that she was mad. It was natural. For my mother said that she was mad. And everybody in the village seemed to be of the same opinion. Not that the old woman ever did anything really eccentric as mad people do. She never talked much. But sometimes she would fall a victim to uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter for no apparent reason. Perhaps they said so because she stared at people hard as if she was seeing something beyond them. She had sharp glittering eyes whose ‘liveness’ stood in deep contrast to her wrinkled, emaciated body. But there was something in that woman’s eyes that somehow suggested mystery and knowledge, and right from the beginning shook my belief in her madness. What was the something and where was it? It may have been in her, or in the way she looked at people, or simply in the way she postured and carried herself. It may have been in any one of these, or in all of them at once.

I had occasion to mention this woman and my observations about her to my father. He just looked at me and then quietly said, ‘Perhaps it is sorrow. This burning sun, this merciless drought ... running into our heads making us turn white and mad!’

I didn’t then know why he said this. I still believe that he was not answering my question but rather was speaking his thoughts aloud. But he was right - I mean, right about ‘whiteness’.

For the whole country appeared white - the whiteness of death.

From ridge up to ridge the neat little shambas stood bare. The once short and beautiful hedges - the product of land consolidation and the pride of farmers in our district, were dry and powdered with dust. Even the old mugumo tree that stood just below our village, and which was never dry, lost its leaves and its greenness - the living greenness that had always scorned short-lived droughts. Many people had forecast doom. Weather-prophets and medicine men - for some still remain in our village though with diminished power - were consulted by a few people and all forecast doom.

Radio boomed. And ‘the weather forecast for the next twenty-four hours’, formerly an item of news of interest only to would-be travellers, became news of first importance to everyone. Yes. Perhaps those people at K.B.S. [Kenya Broadcasting Service] and the Met. Department were watching, using their magic instruments for telling weather. But men and women in our village watched the clouds with their eyes and waited. Every day I saw my father’s four wives and other women in the village go to the shamba. They just sat and talked, but actually they were waiting for the great hour when God would bring rain. Little children who used to play in the streets, the dusty streets of our new village, had stopped and all waited, watching, hoping.

Many people went hungry. We were lucky in our home - unlike most families - because one of my brothers worked in Nairobi and another at Limuru.

That remark by my father set me thinking more seriously about the old woman. At the end of the month, when my mother bought some yams and njahi beans at the market, I stole some and in the evening went about looking for the mud hut that belonged to the woman. I found it. It was in the very heart of the village. That was my first meeting with the woman. I have gone there many times. Yet that evening still remains the most vivid of all. I found her huddled in a dark comer while the dying embers of a few pieces of wood in die fireplace flickered slightly, setting grotesque shadows over the mud walls. I was frightened and wanted to run away. I did not. I called her ‘grandmother’ — though I don’t think she was really so old is to warrant that — and gave her the yams. She looked at them and then at me. Her eyes brightened a little. Then she lowered her face and began wailing.

I thought it was "him” come back to me,’ she sobbingly said. And then: ‘Oh, the drought has ruined me!’

I could not bear the sight and ran away quickly, wondering if my father had known it all. Perhaps she was mad.

A week later, she told me about ‘him’. Words cannot recreate the sombre atmosphere in that darkish hut as she incoherently told me all about her life-long struggle with droughts.

As I have said, we had all, for months on end, sat and watched, waiting for the rain. The night before the day when the first few drops of rain fell was marked with an unusual solitude and weariness infecting everybody. There was no noise in the streets. The woman, watching by the side of her only son, heard nothing. She just sat on a three-legged Gikuyu stool and watched the dark face of the boy as he wriggled in agony on the narrow bed near the fireplace. When the dying fire occasionally flickered, it revealed a dark face now turned white. Ghostly shadows flitted across the walls as if mocking the lone watcher by the bedside. And the boy kept on asking.

‘Do you think I’ll die, Mother?’ She did not know what to say or do. She could only hope and pray. And yet the pleading voice of the hungry boy kept on insisting, ‘Mother, I don’t want to die.’ But the mother looked on helplessly. She felt as if her strength and will had left her. And again the accusing voice: ‘Mother, give me something to eat.’ Of course he did not know, could not know, that the woman had nothing, had finished her last ounce of flour. She had already decided not to trouble her neighbours again for they had sustained her for more than two months. Perhaps they had also drained their resources. Yet the boy kept on looking reproachingly at her as if he would accuse her of being without mercy.

What could a woman without her man do? She had lost him during the Emergency, killed not by Mau Mau or the Colonial forces, but poisoned at a beer-drinking party. At least that is what people said, just because it had been such a sudden death. He was not there now to help her watch over the boy. To her this night in 1961 was so different from such another night in the ’40s when two of her sons died one after the other because of drought and hunger. That was during the ‘Famine of Cassava’ as it was called because people ate flour made from cassava. Then her man had been with her to bear part of the grief. Now she was alone. It seemed so unfair to her. Was it a curse in the family? She thought so, for she herself would never have been born but for the lucky fact that her mother had been saved from such another famine by missionaries. That was just before the real advent of the whitemen. Ruraya Famine (the Famine of England) was the most serious famine to have ever faced the Gikuyu people. Her grandmother and grandfather had died and only she, from their family, had been saved. Yes. All the menace of droughts came to her as she watched the accusing, pleading face of the boy. Why was it only her? Why not other women? This her only child, got very late in life.

She left the hut and went to the headman of the village. Apparently he had nothing. And he seemed not to understand her. Or to understand that droughts could actually kill. He thought her son was suffering from his old illnesses which had always attacked him. Of course she had thought of this too. Her son had always been an ailing child. But she had never taken him to the hospital. Even now she would not. No, no, not even the hospital would take him from her. She preferred doing everything for him, straining herself for the invalid. And this time she knew it was hunger that was killing him. The headman told her that the D.O. these days rationed out food - part of the Famine Relief Scheme in the drought-stricken areas. Why had she not heard of this earlier? That night she slept, but not too well for the invalid kept on asking, ‘Shall I be well?’

The queue at the D.O.’s place was long. She took her ration and began trudging home with a heavy heart She did not enter but sat outside, strength ebbing from her knees. And women and men with strange faces streamed from her hut without speaking to her. But there was no need. She knew that her son was gone and would not return.

The old woman never once looked at me as she told me all this. Now she looked up and continued, ‘I am an old woman now. The sun has set on my only child; the drought has taken him. It is the will of God.’ She looked down again and poked the dying fire.

I rose to go. She had told me the story brokenly yet in words that certainly belonged to no mad woman. And that night (it was Sunday or Saturday) I went home wondering why some people were born to suffer and endure so much misery.

I last talked to the old woman about two or three weeks ago. I cannot remember well as I have a bad memory. Now it has rained. In fact it has been raining for about a week, though just thin showers. Women are busy planting. Hope for all is mounting.

Real torrential rain began yesterday. It set in early. Such rain had not been witnessed for years. I went to the old woman’s hut with a gift, this time not of yams and beans, but of sweet potatoes. I opened the door and found her huddled up in her usual comer. The fire was out. Only a flickering yellow flame of a lighted lantern lingered on. I spoke to her. She slightly raised her head. In the waning cold light, she looked white. She opened her eyes a little. Their usual unearthly brightness was intensified a thousand times. Only there was something else in them. Not sadness. But a hovering spot of joy, or exultation, as if she had found something long-lost, long-sought. She tried to smile, but there was something unearthly, something almost diabolical and ugly in it. She let out words, weakly, speaking not directly to me, but actually declaring aloud her satisfaction, or relief.

‘I see them all now. All of them waiting for me at the gate.

And I am going....’

Then she bent down again. Almost at once the struggling lantern light went out, but not before I had seen in a corner all my gifts; the food had never been touched but had been stored there. I went out.

The rain had stopped. Along the streets, through the open doors, I could see lighted fires flickering, and hear people chattering and laughing.

At home we were all present. My father was there. My mother had already finished cooking. My brothers and sisters chattered on, about the rain and the drought that was now over. My father was quiet and thoughtful as usual. I also was quiet. I did not join in the talk, for my mind was still on the ‘mad’ woman and my untouched gifts of food. I was just wondering if she too had gone with the drought and hunger. Just then, one of my brothers mentioned the woman and made a jocular remark about her madness. I stood up and glared at him.

‘Mad indeed!’ I almost screamed. And everybody stared at me in startled fear. All of them, that is, except my father, who kept on looking at the same place.