As a child growing up in my home village in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa among the Tumbuka people, an incident changed my life forever. I was in the middle of a squabble with my little cousin that escalated into a risky duel with tiny twigs. My grandmother shouted at us to stop. We froze. She then said to me if I poked my little cousin in the eye or killed him, did I know what the Muzungu or white British colonial court messengers and police would do? They would swarm the village, slap painful metal handcuffs on me, and haul me away to jail. She said when you kill someone they will nyonga or hang you. Except nyonga has a much more ominous meaning in Tumbuka. Nyonga is when my grandmother and other women at the river were washing clothes and they would wring or twist them hard to remove the last drop of water. The thought that that’s what they would do to my neck if I accidentally murdered my little cousin scared me.
Then my grandmother said if I stole or broke the law, the same police would haul me to jail where they would feed me salt day and night as punishment. The idea of eating salt with nothing else for months and years just appalled me. From that moment onwards I decided that I would not fight, steal, kill, or break the law for fear that I would go to jail or worse be nyongad.
These thoughts were going through my mind many decades later sitting in my back yard during a North American afternoon in Bridgewater away from that little village. After weeks of relentless 95 degree heat days with oppressive humidity, this past Saturday was one of those rare near perfect summer days. I had slept well the previous night because the cooled down air had gently breezed through the shatters of our bedroom window. The sun was bright, the sky was blue with some scattered clouds and the humidity must have been down to zero. I couldn’t go to the office because the house keepers at my office were doing their annual summer August waxing of the floor. Everyone was forbidden to walk into the building until Monday. I joyfully worked in the yard all day; something that I could not have done days before because some men died of heat exhaustion risking mowing their lawn at noon in 100 degree humid temperatures in the North East.
I mowed, weed wacked, and I stared at the jungle of weeds that I was going to attack next in my vegetable garden, when it hit me. I wasn’t sweating or tired. Why was I wasting this precious day? That’s when I decided to just sit under the shade of the pine trees and really enjoy the day. There was no radio, no cell phone, no TV, no book. I heard and observed the different bright colored birds drinking and flying around my neighbor’s small drinking fountain.
Then a bunny rabbit hopped two feet into my yard maybe realizing the dogs Max and Nyika were inside the house. The rabbits and my neighbor’s three cats always play the chasing ritual with our two dogs. The rabbit just sat there wiggling its ears. Bees, butterflies, and other insects were busily buzzing around the large flowering hibiscus shrub that I had to trim three years ago. Then I saw a large bee. It rested on the clothes line next to the shrub for a split second then buzzed on the first flower. No, it was a humming bird.
In spite of all of life’s endless problems I began to appreciate how lucky I was to experience that day, that moment of utter freedom, and serenity. This is the moment and time that I am glad I am not in lifeless jail walls in a twelve by sixteen cell with a toilet in the corner.
I thought of my grandmother, my parents, and all the people dead or alive that I care for in my life. My wife came out of the porch door with huge sliced pieces of chilled large watermelons. We devoured them with juices dripping to the grass. It was tempting to blurt to my wife that I was glad I was not in jail. But then I thought better of it.