1991 is crawling to an end, and gloomy clouds are weeping rain on a mob of villagers chanting, ‘Chiluba! Chiluba!’ One moment, the scene unravels like one of your dreams, with you, floating mid-air, watching the heads like a marionette does his puppets; the next, you plummet into your limbs, where the nightmare begins.
Trembling and caked in mud, you rise, shove both forefingers into your ears. Your fingers mash up their words, twisting the new president’s name into your detested nickname ––‘Chiluba!’ into ‘Chipuba!’ Changa Village’s mad boy.
Eyes half-shut, in a daze, you squirm out of the sea of sticky bodies and scamper to the village square where a cluster of amatala stand on rocks and broken branches, housing last years’ maize bumper harvest.
The screaming has waned, but a band of old men is approaching. Before they limp close enough to spot you, you scale a wall of the nearest of the amatala, crawl through the space between the burnt mud bricks and the thatched roof, and land in the sea of grains. The rain has drizzled out, but your head is roaring. To silence it, you pick one of the ears, feel the kernels, and count them, as high as the numbers in your head will go, starting with kamo––one, ending with, ikumi na pabula ––nineteen. With each number, you soak in the scents—wet dirt, drying grass, your own rank sweat. The numbers calm your racing heart and kill the buzzing in your head.
By the time you feel the silence, the old men have settled into the shade of the avocado tree where they’ll chat until nshima is ready and they disappear back into their huts for lunch. You follow their haggard voices until you’re peering through the half-arm’s length space you slinked in through. Your pupils dart around, watching their greying heads, and from their banter, you gather that as night surrendered to light, a new president was announced—the cause of the celebration you’d just stumbled out of. But the jubilation hasn’t spilt into the elders’ voices, and they now cradle their weathered faces in their palms.
‘He’s better for Zambia,’ says one.
‘Says who?’ asks another, twisting his face and pointing. ‘You? Who lets one cup of Katata turn him drunk before noon?’ He cackles, but the ugly look on his face remains.
‘Yes, me,’ replies the first, slurping on his gourd. ‘Katata or no, it’s all over the news for those with ears.’ He tugs on his own earlobes like a mother would a naughty child.
‘Because they know everything, do they? Black mouths spitting the white man’s news, eh? I tell you, they are gone, but they still rule over us from afar. Anyway, mpyana ngo, apyana na mabala.’ The successor to the leopard is heir to its spots.
Spots stabs you; your skin prickles with goosebumps as you tumble back into the corn, scratching your crawling skin.
‘Chilufya!’ A shrill voice cuts through the pile of cobs, straight into you: your mother,
stomping towards the square.
‘Mukwai,’ you answer—Yes, but your voice is dressed in the shame of your nakedness.
She swings the small, wooden door open and pulls you out. With the seeds, you tumble out, hiding your privates with your free hand. The commotion has brought more eyes to the square, that now bore through you.
‘Is this where you’ve been?’ Mayo asks.
Your voice is imprisoned in the space between your thoughts and mouth, your eyes, fixated on the skinned mulberry branch in her hand waiting to land on your back.
When she whips it upwards, shouting, ‘Answer me,’ you hold your breath.
But one of the old men interjects. ‘Uleipushe mbwa, nge ifwele.’ You are asking the gender of the dog as if it is dressed. His chuckle rattles his thin frame.
Dog. Yours, gaunt and covered in dirt-brown fur, peers behind Mayo’s chitenge, tongue wagging and flies buzzing around the perpetual sore on his left ear. He whines, annoying Mayo, who tries to shut him up with a kick. He yelps, but it’s your ribs that crack with pain.
You cradle one hand in the other and finally free your words, ‘Mayo, sorry.’
She kisses her teeth and drags you home, ignoring the children that trail you, calling your pain a demon, ‘Ingulu! Ingulu!’
She ignores them as she does the sniggering women with their sideward glances and elbow-jabbing. She trudges on with you tightly in her grip. ‘Tomorrow we’re going to see the ng’anga,’ she mutters.
But at the hut, she doesn’t whip you like you expect. She crumbles into herself and cries afternoon into night. Her weeping stains the air, ringing with the mosquitoes and owls that night, haunting you even after Changa Village has turned black. You pull your dog close, and while the world slumbers, you pull out the broken mirror that you keep hidden under the unravelling reed of the mpasa mat, and examine your face. Two round pools of black stare back—below them, a droopy nose and two thin lines for a mouth, roofing a pointed chin, with a mole at the centre. Even if the hottest coal ironed the wrinkles out of Mayo’s face—you picture your mother’s plump cheeks and thick lips—she wouldn’t look like me. So, it must be true what she says: ‘Wapalafye wiso!’ You are just like your father. This last thought is your blanket as the drip, drip, drip of the rain finally drags you to slumber.
When morning dawns, you count the ways the visit to the traditional healer could go.
Kamo – Mayo leaves you with him and never returns. Who would feed my dog?
Tubili – You’re the centre of a healing ceremony, forced to paint your body and dance out the spirits that haunt you.
Tutatu – Mayo discards you into the forest. The dog!
The first and third wrestle in your mind. Mayo would never abandon me, her only son, even if it means I can finally face Batata for dying while his wife birthed me.
Neither wins because Mayo storms your hut. ‘Buka, we’re going!’
You shake the thoughts out, but instead, a question escapes, ‘Will you leave me there?’
She cocks her head to the side, and says, ‘Leave you there?’ and claps. As you await an answer, she rummages in the plastic, full of clothes by the open window, and flings a once-white T-shirt and a pair of black trousers at you. ‘Get dressed!’
You stare up at her puffy eyes and wonder, If Mayo could peer into my head, what would she find?
Maybe, a buzzing dandelion with thorns for petals, slamming against the walls of my skull. Perhaps she’d see a colony of red ants, burning through the flesh. Maybe it would wash the shame from her lined face when the village children cry, ‘Demons!’
The smile dies.
Perhaps then, she might answer them with, ‘Pain is not madness,’ instead of hanging her
head, as she did whenever the children mocked you.
‘Quickly, we have a long way to walk.’
Hesitantly, you stand.
It’s still grey when you pad out of the village, with your brown dog trailing a safe distance behind. Together, you walk past the burbling stream, beyond the rows of dead people, into the heart of the forest, where the branches droop so low that the leaves tickle the grass. You stop where the sunlight pierces through the dense green carpet; Mayo knocks thrice on the door of a hut that sits on a soggy patch of earth.
‘Kalibu,’ calls a hoarse voice from the other side. You’re welcome.
Mayo slips out of her flip-flops and motions for you to wipe your heels on the rug. On the other side of the shaggy, cloth mat is a small man sitting on a dusty chitenge wrapper. You’d expected tree-bark clothes and a necklace of animal bones from the man who’d opened wombs and broken the tightest tongue-ties. But the ng’anga is plainly dressed in black, a loose T-shirt over cotton pants, just like you. ‘Muli shani?’ Even his greeting is ordinary. How are you?
Mayo places some crumpled Kwacha notes, in a rusted bowl between the three of you, and sits.
‘You are troubled,’ says the ng’anga.
‘Hmm.’ Mayo nods.
‘This young man has not been easy to raise, eh?’ He scatters three bones on the chitenge.
‘Not at all!’ Mayo pours out, ‘He’s like two different people. Sometimes he’s normal, you know? Like you and me.’ She waves around. ‘But other times’—her voice drops here— ‘he wakes up at night and roams the village naked, the way old witches do, yet he’s, as you can see, only a child.’
The ng’anga nods at his bones. ‘Where is his father?’
‘Died. The minute Chilufya was born.’ Mayo points at you. You killed him! screams her stubby finger.
‘Yes’—the ng’anga rubs his goatee— ‘the soul of his dead father flew into your womb and planted itself in the boy.’
In your mind flashes the image in your mirror, only this time, four decades older, escaping death by flying into your body. You lurch forward with a shriek and shake––everything goes black.
In the darkness, you swim above them, random sounds pulling you back down. Chirping? Howling? Talking.
‘It’s happening!’ Mayo’s voice claws at the walls of your skull. ‘Chilufya!’
‘Stay calm, the spirit shall present itself. Your son will be fine.’
Mayo implores her god, ‘Lesa wandi, it’s happening again,’ and wails.
‘See? The demons of his father attack him,’ says the ng’anga, with bulged eyes and fisted fingers but a calm voice.
Finally, you crash into your body, lying flat on the cold floor and squint at a hole in the grass roof where the light seeps in.
‘He can’t be sane when two spirits inhabit him.’
Mayo nods gravely, accepting the diagnosis as gratefully as she does the handful of roots and the ng’anga’s instruction to burn and give the ashes to you to sniff every night.
Throbbing on the outside this time—soles, elbows and palms, you plod back home where Mayo rubs the ashes on your bruises and sends you straight to sleep.
At sunrise, Mayo bounces into your hut, wearing a smile.
‘How do you feel?’ She beams.
You drink in her grin and tuck it where you won’t soon forget it. The same place you store all your joy: the first time you spoke, aged five and Mayo slaughtered a chicken to celebrate it. Three years later, your first and last year of school—Grade One.
Last night’s ashes are still stinging in your nostrils, from their climb into your head, where they rattled what was left. But Mayo’s smile drowns the scream forming on your tongue with a lie, ‘Bwino.’ Fine.
It’s October in 1997. Changa Village is rising. Firm-breasted girls are returning from the stream with pails of water on their heads; bleating goats are fading into the grazing grounds with the chatter of their young herders closely behind. Women are airing their mpasa’s while men take swigs of Katata. Everything is in its place but you, leaning against the avocado, patting your dying dog’s head.
As he sucks in the air, you get an idea, lift him and jerk up, heading towards the trail that leads to the ng’anga’s hut.
You fold your knuckles and tap thrice on the creaking door. Kalibu, but death meets you there when the door swings open, crawling with insects and covered in dust. A blue bird swoops in through the hole in the roof, pecks at your toes, flutters around the crumbling hut, and then flees.
Mayo’s words from this morning, ‘I can’t do this anymore, Chilufya,’ are still bouncing around in your head.
You search the room for the roots the ng’anga gave you all those years ago, but find nothing.
You slump to the ground, cradle your dog, and wait for the darkness to fall. And when it does, you don’t fight—no screams, no kicks, one smooth fall to the ground.
But their words trail you there, pull you out, draw you back into your nightmare.
‘He’s here,’ a mumble. ‘Amenshi yakonka umufolo.’ The apple doesn’t fall far from the
‘My dog.’ The voice is yours, but your lips are still. My dog!
Mayo sighs an old complaint: Wapalafye wiso.
Branches rustle, birds whistle, crickets sing, but you say nothing on the long walk back home.
‘We’re going to the clinic,’ she announces the next morning.
You tail her to the village square, where you find a crowd staring at a dusty stereo. A solemn voice is reporting that beyond the pothole-riddled road that leads to Lusaka, where all the developments promised in 1991 are found; green apples and moist bread in every kantemba, with butter that melts on its slices and no queues to buy it––there’s been a coup. A soldier has stormed the National Broadcaster and usurped the subject of the chants of ‘91.
‘Where are you taking that boy this time?’ asks one of the men.
‘Nowhere!’ Mayo snaps, taking a rock for a seat.
The radio crackles with the voice of a man: ‘The enemy is defeated. Zambians, don’t be frightened by anyone. The situation is fully under control.’ His words slice through the crowd and scatter the villagers back into their huts, save for the group of elders who remain frowning.
‘Are we a cursed nation?’
‘Akashi kalapya, no mwine kasha apilamo.’ The village burns and also, the owner of the village.
Burns clings to you, even as you and Mayo rise and march past the women grinding millet with rocks, into the wide, dusty road that leads to Umuti clinic, twenty kilometres away. There a grim-faced, bespectacled man tells her you have, ‘Migraines,’ and prescribes a tablet of Panadol, three times a day.
A new name for your pain.
‘Thank you very much,’ replies Mayo, receiving the dosage instruction and a tiny transparent plastic bag with the same hopeful grin she’d worn in the ng’anga’s hut. The walk back home is slow, each step on the parched ground sending shards of pain through your calves, up your spine, and into your head with a screeching voice: Migraines. Migraines. Migraines.
For two weeks, Mayo crushes the white tablets into a wooden spoon and waits for you to swallow them with a gulp of water. But even after the last fragments of the bitter powder have slithered down your throat, your head roars, ever Changa Village’s mad boy. Chipuba!
Poor Mayo, all she wanted was a son.
The avocado tree soars, its branches empty, its shade now enjoyed by playing children. You tower over Mayo who crouches closer to the grave now, frightened to leave you wifeless. She still washes your clothes in the river, makes your meals on wood chopped by the sons of neighbours, who’ve grown up strong in body and mind.
Today, the avocado tree is wrapped in white fabric which clings to the bark like a chitenge does to a woman’s hips, screaming, Sunday Service: Day of Miracles by Fire! in crooked, red letters.
‘We must go!’ Mayo exclaims when she sees it, ‘You never know.’
The rumours roaming the village are that the preacher restores sight and cures every other sickness of body and spirit, so, you walk with Mayo there—a tiny room teeming with people, sweating and swaying to the music of a choir up front. In each corner, a speaker is mounted on a brick, thundering the pastors’ voice into you.
Despite her size, Mayo shoves her way to the front, gripping you tightly until you’re both standing in the front row. The sun sears through the corrugated sheets, cooking the congregation.
From here, the pastor’s movements are magnified, all quivering words, air punches, and stomping across the stage. The crowd is enthralled, answering with, ‘Amen,’ in response to his every, ‘Hallelujah!’ He stops abruptly at the pulpit and looks into you. ‘Come ye all that are heavy laden!’ he bellows into the microphone.
You consider his call by counting the heavy-laden in the crowd.
Kamo – The hunchbacked widow.
Tubili – The headman’s third wife, carrying her son on her back, all twelve years of him, because he can’t walk.
Tutatu – Your next-door neighbour, whose swollen legs reduced him to crawling.
Mayo pulls you to the foot of the stage where you both join a line of people kneeling and waiting.
One by one, the pastor presses his slim fingers on each person’s forehead, and kamo, kamo, they fall with a thud to the polished floor. How can a man so slight do this?
Mayo’s mumbling grows louder as he approaches, a smile flirting with the corner of her mouth. So, you know what to do when the preacher presses his sweaty palm on your forehead. You close your eyes and let your body fall, even as the fire between your ears flickers on. You await a new name for your pain.
When the pastor hovers over you, Mayo erupts, ‘P-pastor, m-my son is sick, he needs prayers,’ and shoves you forward. ‘They say he’s crazy, but it is not always so,’ she continues, wringing her hands.
The choir is half singing, half humming, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
‘Sometimes he doesn’t scream at the slightest noise or mutter to himself,’ Mayo races on, ‘but other times, well…’
The pastor turns to gaze at you; his congregation is now a fervent murmur of prayers.
‘We need to change his name.’
‘His name, pastor?’ Mayo stammers.
‘These names of the world carry too many demons. That’s why he’s attacked!’
Attacked. Eight little letters form the sharp ends of thorns on the dandelion exploding in
‘Son, what is your name?’
‘C-H-I-L-U-F-Y-A.’ The letters refuse to connect.
‘His name is Chilufya. But what do you suggest, Man-of-God?’ Mayo sings the last part.
‘From now on, you shall be called Peter.’
‘Peter,’ Mayo tastes it slowly and looks at you. ‘Peter!’ she yells.
‘Yes, the leader of the twelve apostles. Hallelujah, church?’
‘Peter,’ Mayo whispers, kneading your shoulder.
‘No more shall you be attacked by demons,’ screams the preacher, grabbing you by the
You stumble back.
‘Out!’ he echoes.
Your head spins as the faces merge into one messy, brown puddle.
Through it, Mayo whispers, ‘How do you feel?’
An old question, creeping shyly through her mouth. Her breath is held as she searches your eyes. In the distance, behind her, you squint at the bushes that hem the small mounds of dirt where she will soon go. The pastor breathes down your neck.
No need to trouble Mayo now, in the evening of her life.
That thought brings the room back into focus. A man shoves a mic at you as the room waits for your answer.
About the Author
Mubanga Kalimamukwento is an award-winning Zambian author. Her first novel, The Mourning Bird, was published by jacana Media after she won the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. In 2019, she won the Kalemba Short Story Prize. The same year, she was also shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story and the SynCityNG Prizes. Mubanga’s work has appeared in various journals worldwide. She’s an alumna of the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellowship and the Young African Leaders Initiative. Demons was first published by the Red Rock Reviews 43rd issue. To view more of her work click below.