Lena paused as she stepped out of the mini-bus taxi, blinking at the glare of the midday sun. The conductor deposited her battered old suitcase in the brown dust beside her feet and the sliding door of the vehicle slammed shut. As it drove off Lena raised a thin brown hand to wipe the cloying dust from her face. She bent and lifted the suitcase onto her head, steadied herself, and then set off slowly, her slim form belying its steely inner strength as it swayed gracefully beneath the bulky suitcase.
“Tchouf, tchouf.” Powdery dust-clouds kicked up in her wake as Lena trudged forward, her thoughts on the recent troubling phone call from Sipho.
“Ma, you must come home. Things are not good here. We need you to come home.”
He wouldn’t elaborate in spite of Lena’s earnest entreaty, but the urgency in his voice had persuaded her.
Soon Lena turned onto a well-worn foot path leading down through waist high grass to a group of huts sited on the hillside. Chickens scratched and clucked in the dirt and a scraggly patch of maize, its cob-bearing heads showing the first sign of pollen tassels, painted a swathe of green behind the mud walls of the huts.
As Lena approached, a door swung open and a tall form stepped out. Brown arms wrapped around her, lifting her off the ground and knocking her suitcase into the dirt. The relief in Sipho’s voice was almost palpable,
“Ma, you came. And just in time. I was really beginning to worry. Come in, come in.”
Leaving her suitcase where it had fallen, Lena followed Sipho into the cool darkness of the hut. A threadbare blanket hung on a wire, dividing the interior in two. On a rough wooden cot in front of the makeshift curtain, more blankets enfolded a shadowy form. Lena gasped and hurried over to the cot, where she bent and reached out a tender hand to wipe Dumisani’s brow.
Dumisani. Her eldest son. The light of her heart. The one who could always make her laugh; who strode through life with confidence and joy, ever optimistic; who never allowed a challenge to defeat him. Dumisani, the strongest and handsomest of her sons.
Her heart seemed to stop as she took in the change in Dumisani. Questioning eyes turned towards Sipho, who shrugged slightly, and looked away.
“It’s the blood sickness, Ma. They sent him back from the mines when he got too weak to work, and he’s been getting worse and worse. He was ashamed and scared you would send him away. That’s why I couldn’t tell you. But the clinic sister came last Friday, and she says it won’t be long now.”
A dark heaviness descended on Lena and she struggled to breathe as she realized it wouldn’t be long before there was a new grave outside beneath the guava tree.
A faint cry interrupted her grief. Then a squeak and a snuffle. She stood up and stepped behind the curtain. In a cardboard apple box on the smoke-stained old table, swaddled in a fluffy blue blanket lay a baby.
“He’s Dumisani’s son, Ma. His mother died last month and we’ve been caring for him. His name is Themba, Ma.”
Lena’s fingers brushed his soft round cheek and a slow smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Themba. Hope. Her first grandson.
Author’s note: Themba means “hope” in isiZulu, the language spoken by the Zulu tribe in South Africa.
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