by Levi Keidel
I Seek a Wife
As I thought about arriving at my home village, my mind was in turmoil. How would my people receive me? They all knew that I had renounced my upbringing; I had pursued a manner of living which brought shame to them. There was no way for me to erase it from their memory. The path you wear through high-grass stems won't disappear, even if you burn them, the proverb says; and if a palm nut is guilty, its tree cannot claim innocence.
In spite of all that, it was my hope that my people would reinstate me with honor, and help provide me a wife. My people had sayings which showed the generosity of their hearts: “Don't be ashamed to call for help to put out your fire, even if you started it.” They also had sayings which showed that their Justice could be severe: “You aren't worthy of eating bean leaves with your fingers; and you're preparing to eat beef?”
Suppose that my tribe accepted to restore me; what woman would accept to live with me?
A rumor had spread: my sentence was that I had to do the prison terms of two people, it said; now the white people had released me and had told me, “Go catch another person; bring that person back to us to do your second term.”
Another rumor said, “He was released because he agreed to catch people from among us and take them to the white man to eat.”
Also women would say, “He's a murderer; the ghost of that person is on him. Anytime it pleases, it can seize and kill someone in revenge.” Moreover, scars were all over my body; as long as a woman lived with me, she would look at them and recall what an evil man I had been.
Yet, what other path was left for me but to look to my tribe for help? A man cannot live without the pot that cooks his beans; and as the axe must bruise itself to split wood, so a man must torment himself for a woman. I must try.
I did not want my arrival to stir up the feelings of the whole tribe. I did not want to embarrass them. I hoped everything would be kept within the family. I would go to the house of my father's eldest brother, Kazadi. I would first reconcile myself with him, and then hope that he and his brothers would hew the path ahead of me. Perhaps this way I could finish my business quietly, and after a few days, leave again.
I walked from the train station to my village and arrived in the heat of the day. My Uncle Kazadi was seated in his yard, and saw me coming. He shouted as he rushed toward me.
“Ayiiiiiiii, Elder Spirit of love, look who has arrived! Our child Maweja! Come, everybody!” He threw his arms around me, released me, and looked at me.
“My uncle, I have a matter to talk over with you.”
“We also,” he replied, his face bright with happiness. “We have lots of matters to talk over with you. How many days have passed since we saw you!”
People were yelling to one another the full length of the village. They were running from everywhere ... uncles, their wives, cousins whose faces my mind struggled to recall, and children I did not know. They began pushing me, slapping my shoulders, and shaking my hands.
“Maweja, child of Kalala!”
“Look how he has matured!”
“Storm always drives the children home!“
“Listen, my uncle.” I said. I don't want to stir up everybody. Let us talk the matter over between the two of us.”
”“Don't talk like a stupid one! You are our guest. We don't ask a guest what is in his stomach until we have fed him. You were as a dead person. You have returned to us alive. Do you refuse for us to celebrate?”
There was no other way. Animals were slain. Food was gathered. That evening we had a feast. It appeared I was their hero. All the families of our clan were present, and also many important people from other clans of the tribe. Though I was happy my people had accepted me, my heart was not at ease.
What was all this leading me to? What were the matters they were waiting to discuss with me?
I had wanted to find myself a wife and leave. But my people had their way of doing things. Many times I had heard the elders say, “Don't berate a goat for easing itself; its manure may help grow your food.” They ate, drank, sang and danced; I watched, smiled and waited.
The next morning my uncles and our clan leaders came and sat in a circle to talk with me.
“You cannot know our joy that we are seeing your face again,” Uncle Kazadi began. “We had feared that you would never return. It is true that you at first failed. But you've been to many far-away places. You've learned many things. Now you will be even better able to fulfill our expectations.”
“What is it you are hoping for?”
They began speaking slowly at first; then their words tumbled out like a basket spilling ears of corn.
“Ever since your father died, we have found no one to take his place. As you know, he longed for the day when you would do it. We had the same hopes. Now they will be realized.”
“During the years of your childhood, we saw how you had inherited the gifts of your father. The tribe wants you to be official greeter and caretaker of the guests, as was your father.”
“And on top of that honor, we want you to be chief of our clan.”
“We don't know if in your journeyings you found the wealth you desired or not. It makes no matter. You remember how your father with his wives worked hard and accumulated wealth. You are the firstborn; you are the rightful heir.”
“You will remember that your father used his wealth in a way that brought strength and honor to the whole tribe. Now that you have arrived among us, it is our hope that you will marry wives, build your compound, and progress in the path your father began.”
“Wealth for bride prices is no problem. There is room to expand your fields. There is not one thing to hinder you.”
I hunted for words to turn their thinking into another direction.
“Tribemates, I know that I am greatly indebted to you. I revere the memory of Father. When I learned the way he died, great sadness overwhelmed me. But first it is necessary that you understand the kinds of trouble which caught me. The proverb says, 'If you keep feeding the rat your mush long enough, he'll come looking for what's left on your lips.'
“I fed evil until it came back and destroyed me. It caused me to become such a useless thing that the only work which pleased me was to torment and abuse people. I was as one lost forever. No one on earth had power to help me. Only the Great Elder Spirit of our ancestors had mercy on me. I swore to Him that if He would help me, I would serve Him all of my days. He revealed Himself to me. He erased my old evil affairs. He turned my heart around. He delivered me from prison. Because of the hard work He has done for me, I am among you now.
“I came home because I wanted to see you, truly. But I did not come home to marry wives and to inherit the wealth of my father, and to enter into the chieftainship of our clan. I came home for one little matter. It is my desire that you help me find one wife. Then I expect to return to Luebo to begin the work of teaching people the words of the God of our forefathers.”
My words sank in slowly, like water on dried clay.
“Then you are turning your back onto your kingdom?”
“I have a debt to my tribe and to my clan, true. I am the firstborn also. But I have a surpassing debt to the Great Elder Spirit. It is a debt that will bind me forever. He wants me to be His herald. He has called me into the work of His kingdom. That is the inheritance I long for.
“I am no longer seeking a kingdom among people on earth. All my father's other children are not bad. Let the best one of them take Father's place among you. It no longer fits me.”
The elders muttered among themselves.
“Once he craved honor and wealth; now he is despising them both.”
“Let's not judge him hastily; even if your child burns the house down, you won't throw him into the river.”
“Let him think about it for awhile; then we'll speak to him again.”
X X X X
If my uncles wanted to help me find a wife, they did not show it by their acts. They thought that there was lots of time. So I walked around looking for one myself. But women saw the scar rings on my ankles and elbows, and shook their heads. “Our eyes have verified the truth,” they would say. “Why dispute about a pig having a snout?”
For two whole months I walked through the villages of my people hunting. No woman would have me. My heart was splitting. Would I never have my own wife and children and a home? The thought, like green mangoes, made my insides ache. Only God could arrange such a matter. And I vowed in my heart to pay any price for His help.
“Father,” I prayed one day, “You know one man can never start a family tree. In that bag of happinesses you said was waiting for me at home, isn't there a wife? Is this the way I'm to be forever? When I find a woman who accepts me, marred and scarred as I am; when I find a woman who doesn't care that the ghost of a slain man is on my body; I'll know that woman is a gift from You. To thank You, for as long as I live, she won't have to work for me; I'll work for her. I'll praise your name forever.”
One day a cousin said to me, “There is a young widow in our village; she has born no children. Her father is dead. She sits alone with her mother. She is a good worker; she knows how to make her hoe eat bushes.”
“Let's go see her,” I said.
We found her seated at her house. My friend started talking.
“Nyembe, my cousin here would like to marry you.”
Her eyes took a picture of me.
“Where has he been all this time, as old as he is, and still single?”
He mumbled as if his mouth were filled with a chicken bone. He didn't want to ruin everything. Finally he said, “He was in prison.”
“Tell me the truth now; for what reason was he in prison?”
He hunted for a soft word, and failed.
“For killing a person.”
She said, “Go talk with my elder brother.”
My heart leaped. It would be his business to arrange things. I prayed, “Oh my God, the moment you allow me to see a friendship meal of mush and chicken on the table in that man's house, I'll know the contract is sealed.“
When we arrived and told the brother what we wanted, he said, “Come back in the morning.”
I went to my room in Uncle Kazadi's house and prayed with all my strength. “Father,” I said, “tomorrow give me a wife. Why would You let me suffer like this forever, me belonging to You?”
The next day, December 9, 1953, we ate the meal and agreed on bride price. I went back to my room, got onto my knees, and said, “My Father, I pour out my thanks to You. I'll glorify You perpetually.”
I learned that a friend had gone to visit my wife-to-be during the night.
“That man has become a person of God,” he told her. “He doesn't have all those old affairs with him any longer. There's no ghost of a dead person going to accuse him anymore.”
But if Nyembe was willing to have me, her mother was not. Someone carried word to her. She raised her voice and began the yodeling call of one wailing the dead.
“Nyembe, my only girl-child, they've delivered you into the hands of a people-stealer for the white man.”
“Mother, have you ever seen that kind of business with your eyes? When it is written for me to die, I'll die, whether I'm in your hands, or in the hands of my husband.”
“But what about the ghost that is on him?“
“If that ghost ever has power to kill me, it will be because the God of our fathers has already decided that it is time for me to die.”
There was no comfort in these words for her mother.
“My child, the day you die in the hands of that man, I'll go to the one who told him about you; I'll burn his house down, and we'll die together.”
In the days that followed, we completed the marriage contract, according to tribal custom.
I told Nyembe, “I feared there was no woman on earth who would accept me. I promised God that if He brought me a wife, she would not need to serve me as the custom is; instead, I would serve her. Don't be upset that I keep such a vow. Just sit quietly and keep your peace. Because you felt in your heart to accept me as I am, God be praised.”
My clan mates did not come to talk with me again. They watched me bring firewood from the forest, my wife sitting idle at the hut. They watched us come from the field, me carrying a basket of cassava on my head, Nyembe empty-handed. They saw me bring corn from the field, husk it, shell it, and take it to the mill for grinding.
By the time we left for Luebo, they just sat and watched me pass back and forth among them. To me they were silent; but to one another they were shaking their lips. Friends my own age informed me.
“We had thought that Maweja was a man of loyal heart; a man to be counted on. We wanted to make him a man of renown. Look at him now. He's become a fool. He's stupid. He's worthless. He is renouncing chieftainship. Didn't he see with his own eyes how his father was rich because of the work of his wives? Maweja; a child of the clan of Kaseki of Tshiyamba; big enough to rout our enemies. 'The all-powerful one.'
“He is renouncing the wealth of his father! He doesn't want wives to work for him. Nyembe has a strong body; he doesn't even want her to work for him. Since people began being born on earth, has anyone ever heard of a man working for his wife? Haven't we seen him? He is harvesting the crops for her! What kind of woman is she with power to make that big man work for her? An incredible affair!
“When he was gone away from us, he despised the laws of the ancestors, and look at all the troubles that caught him. What misfortune will catch him now, his turning their laws around backwards like this? He's a rebel. One living among us who so defies tradition will only bring ills and misfortune to us all. Only a few days ago he came to us a person greatly honored; now in leaving, he brings us shame.”
I kept my peace. I knew what I had promised Christ. I kept on doing the work that was mine to do. God said I was worth something. He was counting on me. There was nothing as important to me as that.
It seemed I was so full of His grace that offenses of my family did not bother me. I kept my heart stuck to the words of the Bible which say, “Don't take your vows lightly; perform them” (Matthew 5:33); and “When you make a vow to God, don't fail to keep it; God isn't happy with fools” (Ecclesiastics 5:4).
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