In an open pit of black sand, Zangi crouches next to the hill farthest from the excavators. He gulps, and squints through the clouds of dust, scanning the mine. Gold machines glisten in the sunshine as they swallow and spit chunks of earth, while miners disappear into the ditches they leave behind.
The best hiding places are in plain sight. That’s why he ran three kilometres, even though he shouldn’t be there. The other children had scurried into the maize field or the rocky path to the Kaminguli River, where the sounds of the rustling stalks and burbling water would mask their giggles and shuffles. He had sneaked past a sleeping security guard by the crooked, rusty gate, ignoring the NO TRESPASSERS sign, and had headed straight into Kansanshi mine.
“They won’t catch me here,” he soothes himself when a shadow suddenly looms over him. Zangi spins and finds himself face to face, not with his eight-year-old peer, but a gaunt man dressed head to toe in black, blending with the dirt.
“Sir,” Zangi blurts, “it’s just play. I’ll go n-now-now.” He points his forefinger downwards for emphasis.
Why did I come? Tears brim and blur his sight, but he stops short of crying when he recalls the taunt to the game he and his friends are playing.
Ichidunu! Chilalisha! Abaiche! Tababako! They sing it each time the game starts. Hide and seek! Can make you cry! Little children! Cannot play!
“What are you playing?” asks the man.
“Chi-chidunune,” Zangi responds, stumbling over his words. “I-it’s m-my time to hide? B-but, I- I’ll go now.” He flips his index finger to the sky to swear he is telling the truth.
He makes another attempt to apologise, all the while admonishing himself.
Why couldn’t I have crawled up the baobab tree and eavesdropped on the men talking in the hembo instead? He pictures the village square, with the thick trunk in the centre, its velvet-skinned fruit pulling down on its web-like branches, casting strange shadows on the faces of the men below.
Why didn’t I hide amongst the cows in the kraal?
“Will you whip me?” Zangi whimpers, rubbing his buttocks as he braces for a lashing.
I just had to win!
“Whip you?” The man chuckles.
Hearing a statement, not a question, Zangi prickles with goosebumps and tries to escape, but the man seizes his wrist.
What smooth hands, Zangi thinks, contrasting the stranger’s with his father’s calloused fingers. His eyes search the pit for the hard hats, hoping to spot the one on his father’s head.
“Chidunune, eh?” the man repeats slowly, scratching his beard. “I used to play that one.”
“Did you win?”
The man kneels to face Zangi. “I always win,” he says, his narrow face unfolding a thin line of teeth as yellow as a chamber pot full of urine at dawn.
Zangi winces, reeling from the stench of Kataka—the local brew—on the man’s breath.
“Don’t be scared, I’ll help you win.”
Zangi wants to believe him, but his heart won’t stop thumping like a fierce rainstorm in December. He turns to point towards Kampanda Village and says, “M-my house isn’t f-far,” even though he can’t see the pointed thatched roofs of the visete—storage houses.
“Not before we win,” answers the man, tightening his grip on Zangi’s wrist.
“I’m winning, n-no one’s found me.”
I-I should shout.
No one will hear me.
As if reading Zangi’s thoughts, the man brings a finger to his lips. Shh. “Come with me,” he whispers and lurches forward, hauling Zangi with him.
“Y-you help m-me win?”
“I’ll show you a hiding place where they’ll never find you.”
Zangi drags his feet.
“Where w-we g-going?”
They’re leaving the open pit, and beneath Zangi’s bare feet, the soil is fading into the colour of raw groundnuts, and the groaning and creaking of the metal against copper of Kansanshi, is replaced by the rumble of tyres on gravel.
“I’m supposed to be taking care of my sister!” Zangi shrieks but smacks his lips as soon as the words spill out.
“Don’t you want to win?” the man demands.
Zangi nods vigorously to make up for his lie. He doesn’t have a sister; all his mother’s other children are dead.
“I thought so,” says the man, quickening his steps.
When they stop, they are hemmed in by wild loquat trees instead of red mud huts, dry grass jutting out of the parched ground instead of thatched into roofs.
For a moment, all Zangi can feel is the throbbing in the cracks on his heels, but when he notices an ivory minibus, with the door gaping like a hippo, waiting for its dinner, the drumming in his chest starts again.
Zangi digs his toes into the ground. “Where are we?”
“I told you,” says the man, killing the smile dancing in the corner of his thin lips.
“B-but, M-mama will b-beat me!” He trembles.
“Quiet,” says the man through gritted teeth, pulling a crumpled handkerchief from his jacket pocket and shoving it into Zangi’s mouth.
He lifts Zangi, hurls him into the back of the minibus, and binds his wrists with a wire, shutting the sunlight out as he slides the door with a bang.
By the time the shock passes, Zangi can feel the bus has navigated its way out of the stony terrain, into the pothole-riddled Chingola-Solwezi Road.
Zangi spits the dirty cloth and starts to plead, but can’t finish the sentence—his voice has melted to porridge, like the smooth paste his mother makes every morning.
“You make trouble, he kill you!” snaps a shrill voice, stabbing the dark.
“W-who are y-you?”
“I’m Nyaka,” replies the voice, “and if we’re quiet, he’ll give us food and water at night.”
“How will we know it’s night?”
“When we stop.”
“How many nights has it been for you?”
“Three?” Nyaka falters. “Yes.”
Zangi nods into the darkness.
When the bus finally grinds to a stop, the door slides open to let in a cocktail of sounds: hawkers rapidly talking over each other—the language bounces off his ears like a grasshopper—all the words strange; music booming; and a growling Zangi can’t place.
The man carries Zangi and Nyaka onto a dusty veranda of a decrepit house where a light flickers on, hesitating twice before flooding them in its white glow.
Zangi stares at the floor at four bare feet, and two bigger pairs in black leather, covered in sand, stare back. Flying ants swarm around the bulb above them, drawing Zangi’s eyes upward, but they land on a man whose face is as white as hyena faeces. Zangi gasps and stumbles backwards.
“I brought two,” says the man who brought them.
“A ghost!” yells Zangi.
Nyaka elbows him.
“The fee,” says the dark one.
“My parents w-will look for me!” Zangi throws a fist in the air.
“Right, the fee,” responds the white one, dipping his hand into his denim.
“M-m-my m-mother w-w-won’t rest until s-she finds me!”
“I-I have homework today.”
“Good doing business with you, boss.” The man turns to leave.
“Don’t l-leave…” is as many words as Zangi can mumble before the ghost shoots him a look which shuts him up. Nyaka and Zangi trail the ghostly man into the house, while the bus sputters on.
He unties them and locks them in an empty room with a reed mat in the middle.
With the buzzing of the mosquitoes as a lullaby, Zangi and Nyaka squeeze onto the mat. Zangi dreams of his father kicking the door open and whipping him all the way home, but wakes to his grumbling stomach and the wind echoing through an empty house.
He shoves Nyaka awake.
She grunts, “Ah, you don’t greet in your village?”
“Let’s go, before the ghost wakes up.”
She raises her head and clicks her tongue.
“Are you coming or not?”
“I want to live.” She shrugs and scratches the mosquito bites on her legs until the pimples are little red dots.
Zangi nudges a window open, stumbling when it swings wide, but as soon as he tumbles out, his hairs stand up. This time, the looming shadow is short, panting, and growling, which soon turns into barking, spraying saliva across his back. Zangi scrambles up, races, and clambers halfway over the gate that had let the bus in and out, when he falls to face with the snarl of the barking dog, its sharpened teeth set to sink in.
“Simba!” barks the voice of the white man. “Out!”
The dog, black except for two spots of brown above its eyes, slinks low but continues to growl.
Zangi’s tongue, heavy in his mouth, throbs, a metallic liquid trickling down the side of his mouth like spit out the dog’s open mouth.
Zangi’s not sure if he can, but slowly he rises, in spite of his shaking legs.
“Do that again, and you die.”
Nyaka is watching from the window, her eyes as wide as Zangi’s.
As they walk back to the house, Zangi notices a wet patch on his shorts.
Even though the window stays open, swinging in the breeze; even though the wind brings in strange and familiar sounds alike—cocks crowing good morning and fritters sizzling in hot oil; the crackle of night fires and distant police sirens; roasting groundnuts and wailing babies; boiled maize and rotting mangoes; chirping crickets and roaring radio’s—Zangi stays inside, waiting to be found.
Every day, Zangi and Nyaka share a bath in a slimy green bucket, until they no longer hide the spaces between their legs. They share the mussels the white one feeds them, ignoring the blandness, dried bread, fizzled-out orange drinks, cold potatoes slices.
Then, just when Zangi is starting to believe the man’s words: I will show you a hiding place where they will never find you, the white man brings a woman in the house.
“Come,” she says, beckoning Zangi. She’s smiling, but her voice is the coldest July morning.
He stays rooted to the floor, rubbing his goosebumps in silence.
She places a pile of clothes and a pair of worn sneakers into his arms. “Get dressed,” she says.
I must be going home, he convinces himself as he gets dressed. The sleeves of his shirt could fit two more arms on each side, and the sneakers pinch his ankles as he lumbers around, but he gives the shoes a gap-toothed grin. His very first pair of shoes.
“Your name is Benjamin,” clips the woman. “You are nine years old.”
“You take me home now? Y-yes? I-I show Mama my shoes.”
“Your name is Benjamin,” she repeats, widening her eyes at him. “YOU ARE NINE YEARS OLD, AND I AM YOUR MOTHER.”
His mouth hangs open—voice stuck. His heart stops.
“Do you understand me?”
He nods and gapes at her for the first time.
He compares her slim fingers, ringed on the fourth finger of her left hand, with his mother’s wide, steady palms.
“My name Benjamin, I…”
“Is,” she interjects through gritted teeth.
She clasps her fingers around his wrist. “Your name IS Benjamin.”
Her skin is like raw liver—no blisters across her palm like Mama.
“Your. My. M-my name IS Benjamin.” Her eyes, through plastic-rimmed glasses, are a moonless night, nothing like Mama’s honeyed brown.
Zangi repeats the rest until she smiles. The word ‘mother’ is like a strange food on his tongue.
She drags him out of the house and into the back of a silver car.
We must be going back home, he thinks, waving at Nyaka, who is staring out through a window, wide-eyed and crying.
He latches onto that thought as the car backs up, glides over the tar, turns onto a smooth road, and zips past glossy office blocks, and the radio flicks on. “You’re listening to Phoenix FM.”
“Home,” he whispers to himself as they veer right left, past two police checkpoints, and into a lot of cars.
“What is your name?” asks the woman, smiling at him when they arrive.
She digs her long nails into his wrist.
“B-b-enjam-m-min.” His voice wobbles. “I- I’m nine years old. Y-y-you a-are m-my m-mother.”
“Good,” she says, loosening her grip and dusting off his shoulder. She leads him into a muted white building covered in tiles. NDOLA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
The best hiding places are in plain sight.
Zangi’s heart races as they stroll into the airport.
He tightens his grip around the woman’s hand and closes his eyes, imagining piles of sand instead of lines of tiles. And beyond the monotonous announcements and whir of planes, he can almost hear whistling eagles instead of people babbling into sleek Razrs. But when he opens them again, he sees blinking metallic machines instead of gleaming diggers; his eyes blur.
I won’t cry, he tells himself, remembering the words to the game he used to play.
Ichidunu! Chilalisha! Abaiche! Tababako!
About the Author: Mubanga is a lawyer by training but a storyteller at heart. Her first novel-length manuscript – The Mourning Bird – is shortlisted for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award, formerly the European Union Award. She’s a 2018/2019 Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) International Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs where she is researching the Mandela Principles on the Treatment of Prisoners. As a writer, she is passionate about social justice and practices her skill on her two sons. Her creative non-fiction has been published by The Advocates for Human Rights Minnesota where she’s conducting her Professional Affiliation in the International Justice Department.