My father had asked to be cremated instead of buried. In his will, he detailed that his ashes were to be whisked across one of our estates in Tanzania. The last wish of a dead man is hard to say no to, even for my mother. Though she longed to visit her family back home, she had been reluctant to go back to Tanzania. We couldn’t afford it, we didn’t have any free time, or my mother’s depression was acting up. There was always an excuse. My mother stalled until she no longer could.
Three years after my father had died from cancer, we finally bought flight tickets headed to Tanzania. On a mission of course, there was no longer such a thing called enjoyment in our family once my father had died. When we arrived in Tanzania we would have to fulfill his will, deal with legal matters concerning our property in Mkaongo and Koriakuu, and other miscellaneous issues no one in my family particularly cared about.
At the airport, my sister tried to make light of the whole situation. “Do you remember Mkaongo?” Doreen said.
“A little bit.”
“You were too young when we left. But you’ll remember when we get there.”
My mother and sister had once told me Mkaongo was a fortress. That it stood high on top a hill, and had a cobblestone pathway which led to a stream and forest in our backyard. Doreen would always speak with fondness of the house, as if it were a sanctuary. Maybe it was, the world outside of Mkaongo hadn’t been kind to neither me, her or our mother.
“Flight to Pearson International airport has been cancelled,” the flight attendant said.
My mother gasped, my sister gasped, everybody that lined up by the flight gate in heaps gasped. People started rushing to customer service counters, and some were just yelling at the flight attendants.
When we got to customer service. The woman at the desk stayed on the phone for a good ten minutes before she answered us.
“Yes, I’m speaking with the airline right now,” she would say every so often.
The final judgement was made thirty minutes later. We’d wait seven hours for the next flight to Toronto, and then have to jump onto two other flights before we got to Tanzania. Our new flight was an international flight, so we had to leave the domestic side of the airport and traverse into the international section. Everything was tidy and modern in that space. The stores sold designer goods, and the food vendors had artisan chefs. In comparison, not even the carpet floors in the domestic entry appeared vacuumed.
Pearson airport was a blur. The plane ride there was more tiring and laborious than the wait. Who knew sitting down for four hours would make you want a nap. Toronto held a dreariness to it. It was a cast, a smog that permeated throughout the city and inevitably swelled within you. You could taste the depression on your tongue, and feel it lodge itself inside your nostrils. So much going on yet so little was truly alive.
When we landed in obscure eastern country, the people at the security gate left me feeling poked and prodded like cattle after their inspection. They touched my hair like it was theirs, and felt up my bra as if they owned me. Past the security gate were soldiers holding guns. They toted them around like toys, or more accurately, like purses.
At the flight gate, the flight attendant upgraded our tickets to first class. Doreen and my mother were more than ecstatic. Our backs finally wouldn’t have to feel the constant assault of stiff plastic-like seats. As soon as we had settled into cushioned seats, and had our fill of complimentary snacks we had arrived in Ethiopia. Nobody wanted to leave our refuge on the plane, but the mission was more pertinent than our comfort.
“We’re almost there,” my sister said.
“Your uncle William will be picking us up when we land in Tanzania,” my mother said.
Yes, so close to home. We would have to bear through a long line at the security gate, and then we’d finally be on our last flight to Tanzania.
Doreen sat next to me on this flight, while our mother was seated quite far in front of us.
“Has mom told you about uncle William?” she said.
“No, what about him?”
“Apparently, he married a witch,” she said. “Bibi once told me she stayed at their house one summer, and she started getting ill. No one could figure out why she was sick, until one day, she looked underneath her pillow and found a stick with her hair wrapped around it.”
“What did she do after that?”
“She left the house. And ever since then, no one in our family has spoken to uncle William.”
“He stayed with the wife?”
In my mind, the man that was my uncle stood six feet tall with a puffed-out chest. To me, he would be one of those men who’d take no shit from no one. Once we reached Tanzania and had made acquaintance with him, my uncle’s persona appeared to be quite the opposite.
The man had a perpetual scowl, almost as if the world hadn’t done him quite right. He was a short man too, and his sulking stance seemed to further deplete his height. A quiet man was what he was, the type you’d pass by on the street without sparing a second glance.
He drove us to our other uncle’s estate, the one who was my mother’s fraternal twin. All the buildings around the house looked war-torn and outdated compared to the handcrafted stone of her twin’s home. At the end of the driveway was the house and its sister house. The couple that lived in the guest house was standing in front of their home, waiting for us. As they welcomed us, they helped us carry our luggage into the house.
Some fixtures on the side of the house caught my attention. A few of them looked pristine, while the rest of them hanged on for dear life. The inside of the home was also somewhat in shambles. Certain rooms were clean, while others were cluttered and appeared poorly done. My uncle’s home was still considered a top tier house in Tanzania though. The house held three bedrooms, an office, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a maid who came every morning to do housekeeping. Most citizens in Tanzania had less than that, so there was no excuse for us to complain about our living circumstances.
There was a lot of bickering and arguing over the week while we stayed at the house. Back in Vancouver, our daily routines kept us separate from one another but the mission at hand forced closeness. We could no longer just be civil, comradery was a must. With each issue we faced such as dealing with land legal matters, distant disgruntled relatives, and the lack of toiletries equipped in the house. We began to learn about each other’s likes, dislikes, and habits. We began to feel like a family once again.
The morning we planned to release my father’s ashes, it was apparent that the local mosquitoes had taken a particular liking to my face the night before. Welts covered most of my face while my sister and mother’s skin remained as smooth as butter.
Just an hour into beginning the day, my mother and me we were already shouting with one another at the kitchen table. She had wanted to visit one of her auntie’s mama Cocholoi before we went to Mkaongo. Both my sister and me pressed her on the importance of releasing my father’s ashes first, but she held firm on her desires.
“Cathy, don’t speak to your mother that way. Have some respect,” Uncle Wlliam said, and it saddens me to this day that that was the last time we saw or spoke to each other. He had contractual work to attend to for the rest of the week, and he’d have no time in between to spend it with us.
His words had silenced everyone in the room though, they had held some sort of ancient gravitas. And without further complaint from either me or my sister, we travelled to mama Cocholoi’s home at the edge of Dodoma.
The home was a street away from Mkaongo, but unlike Mkaongo’s open plane, the house was hidden by trees and shrubbery. Though the sun was practically beaming, once inside the estate no sunlight leaked through the forestry. Mama Cocholoi had some chickens that clucked around the front yard, a dog, and some other miscellaneous animals that rested underneath bushes.
The inside of her home was shaped like a willow tree. And as mama Cocholoi sat from across my family and me, she handed us some watermelons. Doreen and my mother obliged. But homegrown melons had been foreign to me up until then, so there was much resistance from me. The watermelons had the texture of over-processed mashed potatoes, and bundles of seeds that ground against my teeth. Mama Cocholoi noticed my disgust, smacked her lips, and then tsked at me. Kind of like she was also establishing a newfound distaste.
“Mama Doreen, this world disgusts me,” she said. “There is very little beauty left in it, it saddens me.”
“God will protect us,” my mother said.
“God doesn’t live here anymore.”
We held similar sentiments about existing on this plane of reality. Mama Cocholoi lived alone in this big house. Yet, surrounded herself with photos of her children and husband and all kinds of other people. Maybe it was an attempt to mask her loneliness, perhaps the pictures served as a reminder of what she’d lost. But without even knowing a thing about the grandma, you could still tell that she was heartbroken.
The dreariness of the conversation made my mother yawn and tap her foot against the coffee table incessantly. After she finished her slice of watermelon, my mother came up with excuses as to why we had to leave. And again, we were hastily on our way.
“We’re finally going to Mkaongo,” my sister said.
As we drove towards the house, the car tilted backwards in heavy protestation. My mother slammed her foot on the gas pedal, and that silenced the car rather abruptly. When we passed through the gates of the house, the cobblestone steps leading towards the front door appeared steeper than from my past recollection. Many people were walking in and out of our home, and the sound of singing could be heard from the backyard. The type of music one would hear at a religious congregation.
“Look at what they’ve done to our house,” Doreen said.
“The man renting out Mkaongo is a pastor. He runs a service inside of it,” my mother said. “I don’t think he’s done that much damage, he’s a man of God after all.”
Not much of my childhood home remained the same. Men and women rested in our bedrooms, while the pastor hosted his sabbath in what used to be our living room. This house was no longer a home, but a resting space for the disenfranchised. Doreen was quite angry at the whole situation, my anger was a bit more shallow. Even if it were inadvertently, at least we were helping people.
“Where is the owner?” Doreen said.
“He should be in the backyard with everyone else,” my mother said.
Though nothing of Doreen’s character indicated she would actually do anything about the whole tenant situation, she still left with a fury in search of the pastor. My following gait wasn’t as determined as hers, and we both ended up misplacing one another at the spiral staircase of the home.
The steps creaked as my feet shuffled up and down them. Creaks that reminded me of how things used to be, of my adolescence. As a child, when walking down these steps on Saturday mornings, my mother would be wearing her favourite chiffon dress. The one that made the colour of her cream skin almost luminescent. On these steps, my younger self would watch as my father and mother laughed together. As my father would regularly shower her with clothes and jewelry like she was some star. And at night, on these very same steps, he would beat her like an animal.
Just to the left of me, outside the mosaic window which displayed glass flowers. The mango trees in our backyard had just bloomed. During summer, my father would help us pick mangoes off of those trees. Then waited around until nighttime to shoot at the monkeys which hanged on the very same branches we’d grabbed onto for food.
His shotgun was at his hip at all times. He slept with it every night, but ended up using it only once when a man had managed to climb over our house gate. My father looked the man in his eyes when he shot him in the leg. That’s the least somebody can do when they’re about to take your life.
My mother had been staring at me in bewilderment for quite a while now. It seemed as though my eyes had finally turned blue. Unaware that I’d been weeping, my hands moved to cover my mouth. But my wails only grew louder, loud enough that the cries could be heard over the church choir. My mother looked away from me, and others who loitered around our home did the same.
A man once taught me the lesson of emotion. His eyes, his hands, and his body only knew love. He cried when he was sad, laughed when he was happy, and moaned without restraint when having sex. He was somebody who would’ve slit his wrists with me if I asked, somebody that watched over me. But such things are too good to ever last. Such things like emotions are too fleeting to ever be taken seriously.
Doreen joined us by the staircase a couple minutes later, looking rather defeated. We resumed the mission, everybody in quite a hurry to leave behind the tarnished memory of Mkaongo. My sister held our father’s ashes as she walked to the back our house, me and my mother following her from behind. As the sun began to set, the heat of it beating at our backs, we spread his ashes by the pond at the edge of Mkaongo.
“He wouldn’t have wanted it done here,” my sister said.
“It’s the best we could do,” my mother said.
Most of his ashes fell into the pond, but the rest raised in protest. Floated above the freshwater, and then was carried away by the wind. Leaves and branches trapped themselves in between the dust as it moved past the estate. Nothing was going to stop my father, not even in death. He would travel to a better place. Past the Serengeti, past the cheetahs that would try to catch up to him but fail. Rise up to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and if he still hadn’t found where he was meant to be. He would go as far as into the heavens to find that place. Somewhere where he could call home.
Bio: Catherine Mwitta is a writer who’s written for blogs like MagsBc, Diversal, and also magazines like RoyalTee Magazine and the Malahat Review. She also runs a blog in her spare time called BlackGirlReads