In the far distance a plume of white smoke rose lazily into the perfect blue sky. High above the cluster of thatched baked mud brick huts a single crow flapped steadily along. On the dusty ochre coloured land Chisomo stretched, leaned on his hand plough, and wiped the sweat from his brow. His digging implement, a spade on a long handle, which he swung like a pick, was polished smooth by years of hard use. Its design hadn’t changed much since the Iron Age. He watched the crow and took in the furrows he’d dug over the past weeks in preparation for planting his maize when the rains came next month.
On the un-surfaced rock strewn track that was designated a major route in Malawi he watched a lumbering truck dragging a huge cloud of dust. Squinting against the sun he tried to see if it was the long awaited fertiliser, promised weeks ago by the government. He was behind in his digging because he’d spent two nights sleeping by the government depot waiting to buy his allocation of fertiliser that never came.
Chisomo’s oldest son, Ernest, not content to wait for the slow turn of the seasons had trapped a flock of small brown birds in a net that dawn. Roasted over the embers of their cooking fire he put four on each skewer. Now, far away on the nearest surfaced road he was selling them to rich Malawian businessmen passing in their cars.
Stooping through the low doorway of their hut Lophina, Chisomo’s wife smiled briefly as she saw him standing on the dusty brown hillside. The younger girls had returned from the straggly woodland on the barren ground with huge stacks of firewood on their heads. The youngest dropped a bale of weeds bigger than she was. As the aroma of freshly torn up weeds wafted across their open compound their cow stirred, flicked her ears and tested the air. Lophina was grateful for the cow. The government had given her a loan to buy the calf and they regularly inspected it, gave advice and inoculated it. It was now probably their most valuable possession.
More than a kilometre away the river was getting drier by the day. Lophina looked for her eldest daughter, Rhoda, carrying her own weight in water on her head.
As the sun began to set, golden behind the rugged mountains, wisps of dust along the trails told of neighbours returning from the surfaced road where they sold their vegetables to people in buses and cars. The evening haze from cooking fires gently wafted up the valley settling the community in for the night.
The girls had lit the fire by the time Rhoda poured some water into the pot for their beans. As Lophina prepared their nsima, their maize porridge staple, Chisomo returned wearily to light hearted greetings. His misgivings about Ernest’s entrepreneurial venture were completely dispelled when Ernest returned with a live chicken and some sweet potatoes. It was a wonderfully happy evening.