Flames of Hope: By Muma Masombwe

​Smoke entered her eyes, stinging them hard till every pocket holding her tears let go, flooding them.

She straightened her back a little and tilted her head back, fighting to keep the tears from falling down her saddened face.

“Keep going Andani,” She whispered to herself.

The smoke from the brazier continued to rise to her face. Andani swung her hand through it, brushing if off her eyes thentilted her head to the left, escaping it’s stinging grip completely. She stood up, held the long, cold metal handle of the brazier. 

It was still a little dark outside where she stood alone, neighbors not yet up, but she had to make the fritters.

She looked around her to make sure the neighborhood junkies weren’t in sight. The short hedge around the compound of two roomed flats offered both a comfort and a worry: They kept the junkies and drunkards out of the small yard, but gave a perfect cover for them to hide too. A balance that made Andani’s skin crawl. It was only the previous week when one of her neighbors was attacked by the junkies around the same time. They took her phone and transport money, so she rushed back to the safety of her home and moved to a different place the very next day.

The cool, crisp air thinly wrapped in the scent of charred twigs and plastics she used to light the charcoal gave Andani a bit of bittersweet relief from the worries that weighed her down early in the day. A fight for an honest living. Behind her, the smoke from the brazier slowly wafted out in the gentle dark of the dark.

Andani stared at the bucket of dough by the wooden stool on the small veranda before turning a little to glance at the brazier. Much of the smoke had gone, leaving behind thered hot charcoal at the center of the brazier.

She rushed inside the house, grabbed a large pan, blackened both on the inside and outside, a visible proof of endurance through constantly being thrown on the fire. Rather than sulk, it became better at what it was used for: produced the best fritters in the neighborhood.

Andani came out of the house, black pan in one hand, a container of used cooking oil in the other, the one she couldn’t afford to throw away, and a large stainless steel sieving scoop. She laid the pan on the floor and threw the scoop in it just as she placed the white two and a half liter container of the oil beside the bucket of dough. Her eyes gazed on the brazier that was ready for another shot of a day’s work: She got it, placed it on the ground near the edge of the veranda, went back inside and came out with a large stainless steel soup spoon. She pressed a tiny button on her phone: Five-thirty am.

The sun was up by the time Andani was done frying the fritters. She soaked the bucket previously occupied by the dough in water and took it back in the house. The fritters in theclean, transparent plastic bucket were still warm and ready to sell.

Andani set her seat by the roadside outside the hedge fence. She kept the tied umbrella close to her for when the scorching sun wouldtear through her skin in the coming hours, and for a little sense of security in case the junkies tried anything funny. She knew they would come as they always did, pretending to inquire how she is, and if anyone is troubling her, asking if she had any extras. One or two fritters is what she gave them. A sort of green olive. 

It pained her not to afford a place in the market. At least there she would be free from the harassment of the junkies. There is safety in large numbers of male and female marketersand the only security guard, a reserve police officer. The junkies never stepped foot there.

Just one more week till her savings wereenough to move to a different part of the city, where junkies were not a problem and afree market she could sell from was near. She sighed at the dream of having to sell withoutthe acute fear of looking over her shoulders all the time. 

“Just one more week…” She let out a soft whisper to herself. 

People, young and old, those scouting for a quick breakfast and those wanting a cheap tiny treat, even those who needed a bite of energy for their walk to work stopped to buy from her. Unlike the other fritter makers in the neighborhood, Andani’s fritters were large and tasty for their price. Many bought from her, except for her own neighbors who bypassed her with a mere good morning greeting. One a nurse, the other a teacher and the other a factory worker. They never bought her fritters, not even once.

It was twelve in the afternoon when her stomach rumbled. Like a horn that is blown to call off workers for their lunch break, Andani packed everything and went inside her house.Only three fritters remained from the full bucket. She took a quick bath and ate the fritters for her lunch before rushing off to the village banking group meeting. 

They met once every week, on Mondays, except for when need arose such as when a new member joined or one of the members needed an emergency loan.

The members of her village banking group were all women, some married, others single with no children like her, and others singlewith children. They were all committed to making their lives a little better, saving through the village banking scheme and investing in their small businesses that they operated from home, except for one that had a saloon in the market. The ones with children used their village banking savings to pay for tuition fees.

As Andani walked to the meeting, her phone rang, but she ignored it. It was one of the women from the group. She checked the time, thirteen fifty. She thought the call was a reminder for her to attend the meeting. So she just hurried instead. 

When she arrived at the house, one of the three roomed standalone apartments in a compound of similar houses, it was quiet, unlike the other times she had been there. She thought nothing of it as she made her wayinside. Their faces were drenched in despairas she greeted them. Their voices were weaved with a sadness that sent shivers down her spine. Andani shuddered in a fear she couldn’t shake off.

As she sat down, her gaze searched the faces of the women for tiny clues that would explain their sadness. All she saw in their eyes were flames of disbelief interwoven in screams of helplessness. 

Her skin crawled with sticky cold waves. 

Then it hit her that one of the women, Uja, married with five children, was not present. Her heart skipped a bit as her mind wondered in the sea of thoughts and worries, trying to make an explanation for Uja’s absence.

“Where is Uja?” Andani asked, her voice shaky and nearly cracking under her shallow breath, worried for one of her friends.

For a moment that seemed to take many sunsets, no one answered her. 

Andani found it strange and began to breath heavily, supposing Uja might have been in some sort of trouble. She found herself needing to ask the same question, “Where is…”

“She has stolen our money!” One of the women, Peleke, finally responded, her voice a perfect mix of anger and astonishment.

Andani felt herself stop breathing for a moment. Then she gasped. “Kuna?!” She asked, nearly screaming. Her eyes fixed on Kuna who sat on a plastic stool directly opposite her, searching every inch of her eyes and face for confirmation. Deep down, she hoped Peleke’s statement was not true.

From the way Kuna sat, back launched outwards, stomach curved in, arms folded across her chest, the frown on her mouth, eyes nearly flooded with tears, Andani knew without a doubt Uja had indeed stolen from them. A tiny bit of her still hoped to hear a different answer. 

“She went with all of it, “ Kuna spoke, her voice horse and shaky.

Katesi handed Kuna’s phone to Nibwele who reluctantly handed the phone to Kansi. Kansi stared at the message on the phone a little while longer before handing it over to Andani.

Andani set her little brown leather bag on the polished concrete floor, making plenty of room on her laps for the phone. She set it there and began to read the message:

“Kuna, sorry but I really needed the money. Tell the others.” The message read.

“Hmm,” Andani shook her head, “I’ll call her.” She lifted her little bag from the floor, got hold of her phone and dialed Uja’s number. The message from the mobile operator ripped through her calm nerves, “Sorry, the mobile subscriber you have dialed is either outside of coverage area or has their phone switched off. Please try your call later.”

How? How could she steal her hopes in such a manner? How could one person be so selfish? Why didn’t they see it coming? How could they see it coming? Uja was the most kind, down to earth person among them all, or so they thought. At the time they formed the group, Uja had been the only one not volunteering for any role other than just being a member of the village banking group. When she was asked to take up a position, her responsibilities as a mother and wife came up so honestly that everyone thought she was the right person to be the group’s treasurer. The fact Uja had children and was married made everyone believeshe was the most grounded person to be the treasurer, to keep the money that represented the tireless efforts of the members. It was the fruit of their labor, marred in tears, postponed wants and countless moments of sieving priorities.

That money was theirs. Not hers.

“We should go to the police now,” Kansi suggested, gazing at each of the members, her voice clear and certain. She stood up.

They all raised their heads, glancing at one another in unspoken agreement.

It was fifteen hours when they arrived at the police station. Officers outside and those inside, clad in their khaki-brown trousers and short-sleeved shirts, polished black shoes stared at them as they made their way to the inquiry desk. The young officer taking their complaint patiently listened to their accounts of the story leading up to that very moment. Without making a promise, he assured them Uja would be found, but could not guarantee they’d get their money back. The whole twenty thousand Kwacha.

As Andani walked back home later that day, her eyes ached from the tears she kept holding back. Thoughts of her daily struggles to buy flour, yeast, sugar, cooking oil and vanilla essence for her fritters business encapsulated her mind. Her rentals! With her banking group savings gone, she could not move to a safer neighborhood for at least another three months. It also meant not being able to sell from the free market on the other side of the tar road. She sighed as despair flooded every inch of her muscles.

Two weeks had passed and there was still no news of Uja from the police. Kuna’s attempts to ask for Uja’s whereabouts on social media also yielded no fruits. Since her betrayal, no one in the banking group mentioned anything about savings. Meetings had not been held and no one made an effort to make a single deposit. The role of treasurer was still vacant.

Like every other morning, Andani woke up at four thirty in the morning, sat up on her little bed and thought about her future. She got up from the bed and retrieved a blue purse from deep down her sack of old books. She switched on the light and counted her earnings. She sighed and landed her face in both her palms, shaking her head, the ball of compressed tears nearly choking her. The stench of mold from the walls of her tiny apartment made her stomach turn.

By five forty, the smoke from the brazier was stinging her eyes. She let a flood of tears fall down her face without restraint.She hadn’t forgotten Uja’s betrayal. The smell of burning cooking oil fished her attention from her thoughts to the pan of oil in front of her. The rising smoke left a crippling pain in the walls of her nostrils, reminding her onthe losses as though a physical pain needed to materialize her emotions. She scooped one spoon of dough and tossed it in the hot oil. Much of it spilled over to the red hot brazier, erupting in a sea of huge orange flames. 

Andani instantly stood, let out a scream she kept holding inside. Her eyes gazed at the flames as her hands held on to the buttons of her brown hand-knitted sweater. In that instant, a symphony of the spilt oil, her anger, frustration and sadness were all burnt.

Her mind and heart felt a little lighter. The room of her thoughts once occupied by anger against Uja and the group was filled with a renewed hope. Her frustrations turned into a burning zeal to keep working hard and rise above her challenges.

She stepped forward as the flames vaporized. Using a thick kitchen towel, she removed the pan from the brazier with great caution and set it on the floor. She waited for the oil to cool down before removing the charred fritter, and setting the pan back on the heat.

At around eleven am that day, after selling all her fritters, Andani made a conference call to her village banking group mates: “…Iknow she stole from us. We’ll find her one day. For now, I propose we make a list of our names, our national identity card numbers beside each name then register our group as a community initiative meant to help ourselves as women. That way, we’ll be able to open a bank account.” She stopped to listen to any response. Their silent doubts were loud enough to make her deaf. A hot flash of embarrassment enveloped her entire face. 

“Let’s try it,” Kansi responded first.

“Am in.” Peleke affirmed.

Everyone approved.

As she hung up, her eyes were brightened with a renewed sense of hope and excitementfor their labor.

Later that afternoon, the members met again. The air was warm and friendly, weaved with strands of positive expectations.