It was October. Back in the village in the land of milk, honey and dust or Guruve day after day of cloudless skies had allowed the sun to suck moisture from mother earth, baking the crust into grayish cracked cake. The sun had remained stupid, defiant and arrogantly hot.
The ancestors had connived with the stupid sun and withheld the precious liquid and the explanation from village elders was nothing less than a multifarious array of taboos, committed by the uncouth, scrupulous and scurrilous among the villagers. Anger was written all over the face of the sky as the sun threatened to burn every villager into moving biltong. It was December. The sun was relentlessly unforgiving.
The ancestors were angry. Very, very angry! Dande River had shrivelled into a ghostly serpent, leaving a few pools with water. Footpaths formed vein-like strips that converged to the remaining pools where livestock and people competed for the life-saving liquid. Nothing had become more precious than water. We were young boys and the seriousness of the issue was mainly among elders, although we felt it from the distress calls of our elders. There was no school.
The war had raged on and the primary school had been closed. The sun worsened the situation. This villager and his age-mates had just graduated from being toddlers to sub-adults. We spent most of our time trapping birds along the river. We hid under big trees trapping birds of many kinds or shooting at them with catapults. Some of the birds were too small and not worth the effort but we went after them. Essentially we spent time hunting for birds and catching grasshoppers. Once in a while we bumped into a hare and gave chase, rarely catching it.
Our dogs always somehow developed jelly feet in the last minute. Gwatura was the biggest pool on Dande River and never dried up. It had many stories including some unproven folk tales about mermaids. As the dry season went into fever pitch, almost every villager built a garden around Gwatura. There were three or four lines of vegetable gardens, one-behind the other. It became a green lung. The gardens were fenced with poles, grass and tree branches. At mid-morning every day, we gathered and left for the bush. There we went after the rubber tree, a common tree in woodland and dry rocky places in the Highveld. This tree seemed to tolerate both the serpentine-derived soils and the village boys. It was very generous.
The bark was dark brownish grey, rough corky and scaly. The small leaves were deciduous. Its small flowers, though very insignificant in numbers always appeared in October or early November. The fruits, which were not edible, were paired capsules, dark brown and woody, each splitting to produce two seeds, with reddish papery wings. We called the tree mutowa. But it was the latex it produced that we used to trap birds. The tree contained a milky latex. When prepared with fire, the latex formed a soft, rubber-like substance and we used it a bird-line to entrap small birds on places where they drank or on trees they played. It was our occupation.
This mid-morning we extracted the milky liquid and went to prepare the bird-line latex by Gwatura. Soon we started the fire and went preparing it. There is something about wind and fire, somehow there was a sudden increase in wind and the fire went out of control, its flames licking the first garden then the next and then, and then…and then… and, it was almost every garden. Smoke spewed into the air. Every boy around tried to put off the fire in vein. First we used our hands and feet. We tried the sand then went for the buckets and carried water.
It was too late. Almost instantly we ran away, each boy as fastest as possible then we regrouped in Nyarusvisvi Mountain, pondering the next move. We agreed to deny ever playing near the gardens. Deal sealed. Meanwhile on seeing the smoke, the villagers stampeded to the river.
They tried to serve the few gardens that remained standing but failed. Using tree branches and water buckets they still failed. The wind fuelled the fire. Late in the evening we went home, pretending innocence but the elders could not hear of it. We vehemently denied ever getting close to the gardens, this particular day and blamed the fire on freedom fighters seen in the area. Trouble came when we were told we were going to stand before Karitundundu, the ageless autochthon of wisdom and knowledge. Every child dreaded standing before the deadlocked oracle. One by one, we confessed and guess what, we were beaten silly. Really silly.