by Gwen Namainga Jones
Could anything or anyone have saved Chabota?
That question troubles me still…
When did I realize the danger? Not at that beginning. I knew only anticipation, joy. There was no intimation when I was eleven years old that the end was so near.
Chabota changed my feelings about visiting my mother at Elisha. Instead of feeling dread or obligation, I was eager to go to the compound at Elisha to see my friend Chabota.
Chabota means “beautiful” in the Ila language. Her name fit—Chabota was slight, with a beautiful face. When she smiled, her eyes lit and her cheeks creased in double dimples. Later, when I would grieve for her, I was haunted by her shining eyes, her smile, her laugh… her open friendliness. The way she accepted her fate.
That last carefree December, I felt so lucky—that Banda would drive me to Elisha and I could spend the whole day playing with Chabota. As we crossed the Kafue Flats and headed upward to the higher land, beyond the swamps, I leaned out of the window of the Jeep; I felt the breeze and it whipped my loose hair back from my face. I shut my eyes to enjoy the sensation and the heat of the sun… As we approached the compound, I opened my eyes and caught sight of Mukale waiting outside her hut, and at my mother’s side, there was the person I really wanted to see: Chabota jumped up and down in greeting.
I waved and called out to her: “Chabota! Chabota!”
Chabota clapped and spun around, cried out in delight: “Jinni wahiza, Jinni wahiza!” Jinni has come, Jinni has come!
“Muli kabotu?” Are you well? Mukale asked me, but I could see, even in my distraction, that my mother recognized that my joy, the true purpose of my visit, was to see Chabota.
After tea, Chabota taught me to weave reeds into miniature tables and chairs; at first my fingers were clumsy working the minutia of the construction, but soon I caught on and was following her lead. We made little baskets and bicycles and tiny people that resembled ourselves but fit into the palms of our hands.
We giggled as Chabota placed rose-colored chaff on my grass doll’s head.
“Now it looks like you, Jinni.”
The two of us sang songs in Ila as we played together under the shade of the msasa tree; Chabota’s high soprano chimed as sweet as bells, while I choked on the lyrics and could not maintain the rhythm the way she could. We could have played and sang songs all day, but we were interrupted. Mukale’s voice reached us from the firepit, where she was frying kapenta for lunch.
“Chabota, you are being summoned by your family. Your Mulumiangu is here to visit you, and you need to go home,” my mother told Chabota.
“Who is Mulumiangu, your relative?”
Chabota replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “No, he is my husband.”
“Chabota, what do you mean husband? You are a child.” I thought it was a joke.
Later, I learned that Chabota had been betrothed since she was eight years old. She would have to marry a man named Mandevu. The marriage was scheduled to be consummated after she had begun her menstrual cycle. Mandevu would tell people, “Wezo mwinangu.” This is my wife.
From the day of the betrothal, Mandevu had given new clothes to Chabota, and given her family a cow. This type of child support was known as bubalikile. Unbeknownst to me, Chabota had marital status even though she was just my age—eleven. The marriage was not yet official and would only be consummated when Chabota reached puberty and went through the rites of chisungu.
I looked at Chabota’s small frame; her bony shoulders poked from under her pink dress. Husband, I thought. How could this be?
There before us, the elders sat on stools under the shade of the tree, the yellow flowers of the msasa tree in full bloom. The setting was idyllic but did not match my mood. Women bustled around the men, serving them chibwantu.
“Mwinangu.” My wife. Mandevu grinned at us—I had to look away. He had no front teeth.
“Mwawuka.” Good morning. Chabota curtsied before sitting down on the ground. I joined her.
“You are getting to be a big girl, Chabota.” Her future husband looked her over, pleased. What did he mean ‘big’? Chabota would never be big physically, as she had the small frame of her mother, who looked more like a child herself.
Mandevu’s peppercorn curls were touched with gray at the temples. He had the bony legs of an old man—even his ankles looked old—sockless above his sandals.
“Look, I brought you some clothes, Chabota-ndo.” Chabota, dear. He ceremoniously proffered a bright-red cotton dress with white daisies. The women exclaimed in delight.
“Here, this is also for you.” A white sweater. Two pairs of underpants, a bar of Lifebuoy carbolic soap.
To her mother, he offered another gift. “And this box is for you, Bama Chabota.” Mandevu handed a brown cardboard box filled with groceries—cooking oil, washing powder, salt, sugar, powdered milk. Butterfly toffee sweets, a luxury.
Chabota’s mother clapped her hands as she accepted the box. Watching her, Mandevu’s wrinkled face seemed to shatter into a smug smile, the lines fanning out like the cracks in the china back at my house. Mandevu turned to Chabota’s father, who looked on in satisfaction.
As the adults talked, Chabota and I sucked on the toffee candy that had been in the parcel. Out of respect, Chabota did not look up, but I stared and examined her “husband.” My mouth filled with saliva; I thought I might retch.
I stared at Mandevu and then back at Chabota. How was this happening to my sweet friend? She was exactly my age. It didn’t make sense.
As soon as we left, I asked my mother, “Why doesn’t someone stop this marriage? Chabota is too young; she cannot marry that old man.”
“It is our way, Jinni. Chabota’s parents have accepted the betrothal and have been receiving his gifts for a few years now. They wouldn’t be able to change it unless they gave back everything—the clothes, the cow…”
“But it is not fair, she is my age. How is it allowed? Does the law allow this?” My voice quivered. I was too young to understand what I learned later, that Zambia was governed by a plural legal system whereby customary law and statutory law ran parallel with the traditional practices of the people. Such practices as child marriage, which would be illegal elsewhere, were still permitted as part of the Buswaka people’s way of life.
“It should be stopped,” I said. “It is not right.”
Later, when I was older, I came to understand that the rationale for child marriage was sometimes cultural but also sometimes financial. When a family was poverty stricken as in the case of Chabota’s parents, marrying off a daughter was seen as an economic solution.
All my mother said was “A Buswaka girl is a prize. She is a valuable property; that is why when a couple separates, the children must remain with the father.”
Was Mukale trying to tell me something?
My mother must have sensed my alarm.
“You are different; this would not happen to you, Jinni. Your father would not allow it.” We walked in silence back to her cooking fire.
“Help me wash the kale while I finish…” Mukale’s voice rose slightly to brighten my somber mood. “Here, use this water.”
“It’s gray. Where is the clean water?” I wanted to know—this water looked so dirty.
“No, it is clean, it is chidulu, ash water. It helps to soften the kale leaves.” Mukale explained that the women burn the leaves of the ground nut plants to ashes and let water seep through the ashes, and this liquid was the chidulu. “This is the best way to make the leaves from pumpkins, sweet potatoes, okra, and beans soft. And they taste better, too…” She offered me a cooked pumpkin leaf.
I shook my head. I had lost my appetite. Now, I could not wait for Banda to return, to take me back across the invisible border to my other life.
Raised by my father, now having spent six years at boarding school, it had not occurred to me that I would undergo the chisungu. But upon my return to Mwila for the school break, I was startled when my father relayed a message from my mother.
“Your mother, Mukale, asks if you wish to do chisungu with Chabota when you go to visit her in Elisha.”
The word sounded ominous and thrummed in my ears like a distant drumbeat. At twelve, I had already started menstruating at boarding school, and my friends had taken it upon themselves to “initiate” me as to what was happening to my body. The start of my period there was not as dramatic as for my Buswaka sisters. The Buswaka tribe practices an elaborate initiation rite called chisungu.
This chisungu would mean that Chabota would soon get married. I tried to summon up Chabota as I had last seen her—she was just a little girl, eleven years old then. It had been a year since I had been to Elisha or seen my mother. Chabota had been playing with a doll. We made pretend we were grown-ups, keeping house.
Chabota and I bore such a strong resemblance, people wondered about us—were we separated twins? Sisters? Could two friends look so much alike? We were exactly the same height, same slim build. She also had my fine features, small nose, curved lips, pointy little chin. The single difference was my skin color—I was caramel, light brown, and Chabota was very dark brown.
“Jinni, are you all right?”
I could see my father looked worried—he picked up on the dread which must have shown on my face. I smiled, with effort. I knew it would please my father if I followed the customs of Mukale and her people. He always wished me to acknowledge that I was half Buswaka. But could I go through with this rite? What did it have to do with my life?
I grew up very aware of the Buswaka tradition of chisungu; I’d attended the ceremonies of other girls in the village. I had always known that when the time came, I might be expected to go through this initiation, which showed a girl had reached maturity. Somehow, I never dealt with the reality—that I would go through the ancient series of rites.
In the Buswaka tradition, young girls were taught that when they spotted blood on their underwear, this signaled the beginning of the menstrual cycle, and they should run crying to their mothers. The girls were then immediately placed into seclusion. The mothers of the girls would summon the paternal aunts, who would stay with the girls and teach them how to look after themselves each time they had the menses.
Banda, our driver, drove me to Elisha. I carried a small bag of clothing and personal items. I would be there for seven days, the longest time I had ever spent at Mukale’s homestead.
On arrival at Elisha, Mukale led me to the kuvundika seclusion hut where Chabota had been ensconced since the previous day. Inside, the hut was dark and smelled of the past. In the shadows, I reached out for my friend and hugged her. I could feel her heart beat against mine as our chests pressed together. Dread filled my heart when she whispered the news of her impending arranged marriage to old man Mandevu. I was vaguely aware of him—he seemed ancient—coal-dark skin but already a sun-withered face and grizzled gray hair.
As soon as the elders left our hut, I turned to my friend to look at her as my eyes adjusted in the shadow.
“Are you afraid?” I whispered.
She assured me that everything was all right and not to worry.
“You’re not scared? You can come and live with me and my father.” I was grasping at anything to avoid her marrying Mandevu.
“Jinni, you don’t understand. This is an honor to marry Mandevu. He’s a wealthy man and will take care of me.” She crossed her arms across her breasts; I could not help noticing her breasts had grown since I last saw her.
I sensed a distance from Chabota in her tone. She could feel my disapproval of her arranged marriage.
As night fell the dimness descended into complete darkness, the way it does in Africa, as if a blanket has been placed over the sun. I could hear the crickets in the thatched roof of our seclusion hut; the smell of woodsmoke, which usually soothed me, failed to do so this time. I sat upright, unable to sleep.
“Go to sleep, Jinni.” Chabota’s voice sounded disembodied. Silence, then a dog barked outside.
Later, through the night, I could make out the sound of voices, distant laughter.
Then silence again.
A loud hooting whooooo hooooo from the resident owl sounded. The owl usually perched on the large musikili tree near the well. Tonight, his cry was eerie…
“Chabota?” I wanted to continue talking to her.
There was no answer, instead only soft breaths as she slept.
My heart beat against my chest. I felt helpless; I wanted to cry, to put my arms around her, and comfort her even though she did not seem to be alarmed by her fate.
The previous school holiday, Maud, our maid, told me that Chabota’s mother had been married off as a child bride. This had been done to pay off a family debt, and no one in the village had found this tradition abnormal.
Worst of all, in my eyes, once married, Chabota would no longer attend school but would assume the life of a married woman.
The next day, our kuvundika (seclusion) continued. We were inducted into initiation and were now called kamwale, which meant “one who comes of age.” Although kuvundika usually took a whole month, ours had been reduced to a week.
During this time of seclusion, we were not allowed to play outdoors. We could not speak to anyone else but each other and our guardians, known as shakamwale, meaning “of the kamwale.”
Whenever we took a bath, we would sneak out in the darkness of the early-morning hours to the nearby stream before anyone in the compound woke up so as not to be seen.
On day three of the kuvundika, the older women told us how to wash our private parts, and what to do after having sex, and how to please our future husbands. We knelt before our elders as we listened.
“If you are tired and your husband wants sex, you must not refuse; you are to give him sex,” the old lady explained.
I tried to smile at Chabota, but she stared ahead. Her girlhood, and her innocence, seemed already lost. As the day wore on, Chabota became more withdrawn.
“When a man and woman lie on the bed, each has to dance, not only the man.” This made me giggle at the vision of the two people dancing on the bed. To the old lady’s annoyance, Chabota returned to me; she could not resist giggling, a breach of protocol. I was so happy she could still find humor in the situation. This broke the tension between us for a short while. We rolled on the floor and laughed at the vision of the couple “dancing” on the bed.
Throughout the days, we underwent various other lessons. Even though the old lady knew Chabota was betrothed, we were strongly advised on abstinence, which was taught in all chisungu.
We were advised against sex with male companions, as pregnancy was strictly forbidden; it diminished the value of the virgin girl, the nakalindu. The old lady explained that this would rob the parents of a potential measure of wealth when the girl merited her chiko, bride price.
It was well-known that a nakalindu virgin girl could command up to ten cattle. I wondered how many cattle the old man had paid for my beautiful friend.
Toward the end of the week, we were paid a visit by my Aunt Moomba, who taught us how to traditionally show respect to our future in-laws. Aunt Moomba poked at our narrow hips and breasts. “You need to eat your nshima so you can be a full woman with good childbearing hips,” she chided. I stared at Chabota’s narrow build, in alarm: How on earth was that little body going to carry a baby?
Once Aunt Moomba left the hut, I turned to Chabota. I was shocked by the realization that she would have in-laws. It sounded so adult, so unlikely. “What do you think they will be like?”
“Stop, Jinni, let it go.”
I quickly backed off the subject; I knew any more talk about her marriage would only cause more strain.
My aunt returned to let us know the climax of our kuvundika was near. The finale is officially the chisungu.
“Goom, goom, goom, ratatat ta ratatat ta.”
The drums could be heard across the village. The message of our initiation, our kamwale, spread far and wide by the ndandala, the traditional drums. Other traditions emerged—the exuberant beer-brewing and drinking that followed. All week-long beer had brewed with yeast that made the liquid froth, ready for the final ceremony. I could pick up the sweet scent even in the hut; the aroma permeated the village.
Crowds of villagers walked from the east and the west to gather in the grounds of Elisha; they came to bear witness to our chisungu. Draped with chitenges over our heads, Chabota and I were led out of the seclusion hut to where a cow lay on the ground.
I stared down at the cow—a ribbon of blood unfurled from her throat, and her high belly was still—no breath stirred. As perfect as the great brown cow appeared, she was dead. Just killed—in our honor.
“Young ladies, you are to jump twice on the neck of the cow,” our elderly aunt, the shakamwale of our ceremony, indicated.
Through the edge of the cloth that covered my head, I could see the hooves of the motionless cow; droplets of blood were already hardened in the soft earth beside it.
Chabota jumped, making a soft thud on the earth as she landed on the other side of the cow. Then she waited for me. Could I do this? Everything in me wished to pull back, run from this dead cow, the hut, the lessons and ceremonies. I had been too long in the white man’s world.
My bare-breasted aunt prodded me from behind; her long finger pressed into the small of my back.
I no longer had time to consider… to decide.
I jumped. My second jump was followed by shouts of celebration. We were now kamwale.
After the jump, still covered, we were led to a chair and sat, while Joseph Mayaba and Chabota’s father gave us instructions on how to be good members of the community. These speeches by the male patriarchs of the family were the official declaration: we were kamwale.
When I emerged to the celebration, I glanced over at my mother. Mukale’s face was lit with pride. I never saw her smile before—not like this! She was aglow—her firstborn, a daughter, was now a woman. I shivered—what did this mean? That she expected me to marry, have children soon?
I looked around the circle of women—there were older women who still appeared bare-breasted: young women, but mature, who held infants. I almost could not look at the youngest girls, who were close to Chabota’s and my age—some already showed swelling bellies although I did notice their hips were curvier, as they must have eaten their nshima, unlike my petite friend beside me.
Throughout the afternoon, visitors paid us homage and placed gifts of money in plates at our feet. The women’s shrieks and ululations filled the air. I understood at last—their Buswaka joy.
Two girls were now women, two women who would marry, bear children.
Well into the night, the crowds celebrated by drinking and dancing.
The next day I returned home to my father. I never saw Chabota again.
It was more than three years later, in the most obscure setting, that I would see Chabota’s name again in a letter.
The paper fluttered in the lap of my plaid green-and-gray Willesden English boarding-school uniform, unsteady from my shaking knees. I looked out across the school yard and I blinked to focus and watched my friends play hopscotch; in slow motion they cavorted and giggled, chasing each other like kittens at play.
Chabota was no more.
The letter from my father had carried news that she died in childbirth; years later I would learn that her immature body had convulsed in agony as her baby had struggled to pass through her narrow birth passage.
Both Chabota, and her baby, were gone.
Gwen Namainga Jones
"This story is set in 1976 when the incidence of child marriage was more prevalent. Since then, the Marriage Act establishes a legal age of 18 for marriage and the Penal Code makes sex with a girl under 16 an offense in Zambia. However child marriage still exists in rural traditional settings around the world. This issue has disturbed me since I was a child. At its core, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality, and in order for women to be empowered we need to correct it at its root. Child marriage is very complex and requires several layers of intervention, such as poverty alleviation, education and behavioral change through cultural practice."
“Chabota” is the first published story by Gwen Namainga Jones, and it focuses on something much of her work does: The culture and challenges of her native Zambia.
Gwen Namainga Zones grew up in Zambia, attended boarding schools in central Zambia and England, and moved to the United States, where she has lived since 1999. She makes her home in San Antonio, Texas. Before immigrating to the United States, she was the co-founder of the Zimbabwe Convention Bureau.