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How gluttonous fish monger met his waterloo

Life: What a jouney, Charles Chisala
HE WOULD ‘mysteriously’ pop up from nowhere just when we were about to sit down for our lunch or evening meal.
The fish monger would talk non-stop, switching from one topic to another without pausing.
We were at one of the fishing camps dotted along the northern shore of Lake Bangweulu on Ifunge Peninsular.
In case you are not from Samfya district, or you were born there but brought up elsewhere some of us spent more than half of our boyhood on or near Lake Bangweulu and Lake Chifunabuli.
Fishing was the main source of income those days.
As soon as the schools closed we would set off for Ifunge Peninsular, a sandy strip of land separating the two lakes, or go by road to Myengele, another strip of land between Lake Chifunabuli and Kasongole Lagoon.
I remember how my late father would shower me and my elder brother, Modest, with praises each time we landed our canoe full of different species of fish – bacilelya (breams), imbilya, insangula, bapolwe, insanga (tiger fish), lombolombo (bottle fish), imfusu or imonde, imbowa and many others.
But we didn’t take kindly to strangers appearing from nowhere unheralded and uninvited at meal times, to help themselves to the fish we had caught at such great risk.
We didn’t call the lake ‘mine matuwa’ for nothing. It was because it was just as dangerous as those underground copper mines, if not worse, on the Copperbelt.
And here was this fish monger, always timing his appearances to coincide with meal time. He would sniff the smell of carefully cooked fresh fish inside the thatch house (mumutanda) like a dog!
My father and the other elders seemed to enjoy his food-inspired story telling abilities which we, the children, found veritably repugnant.
We would be frowning and grunting with disdain as our parents laughed at the fish monger’s humour-packed stories.
What angered us even more was that he appeared on the days we had cooked the most delicious fish like imbowa and breams.
Fortunately, he was not a member of the Bena Ng’umbo tribe and, therefore, knew nothing about fishing and fish.
The Ushi people of Mansa are not fishermen but farmers, except those who live near Luapula River.
So the man was an amateur when it came to understanding the ways of the people of the water.
He was, therefore, not aware that eating fish had strict rules handed down from one generation of fishermen, and fisherboys, to another.
One of the rules was that the air pouch for big fish, which we called icitombo or umwau in our language should only be eaten at the end of the meal.
It should be ‘fished’ out of the bowl or pot and put on an open plate to cool down. This was because it sucked a lot of soup, which would remain hot inside for a long time.
The icitombo itself, I mean the air pouch, would be cold as a stone outside while the soup inside it would be hot enough to boil a sweet potato.
This particular day my father (late) had instructed us to cook cat fish (imonde or imfusu). So we had selected a big imonde and cooked it with the skill of a five-star hotel chef.
The fish monger appeared minutes before the nshima was served with the delicious helping.
There were no women, so we the boys performed all the women’s chores, including cooking.
As we sat around the meal we quietly cursed the gluttonous, loud-mouthed fish monger, who did not even have the courtesy to wait to be invited.
As soon as my father had finished saying the thanksgiving prayer the man ‘descended’ on the food like a starving dog, much to our chagrin.
For weeks we had been plotting how to ‘discourage’ him from arriving at meal time, but had not yet come up with a practical solution.
However, God answered our prayers earlier than we had expected.
As we ate no one touched the fish’s air sack, which lay in the bowl invitingly, according to the tradition. We all knew the age-old rule, except the fish monger.
I saw him eyeing the icitombo (air pouch) hungrily each time he reached out to take relish from the bowl.
Thinking that no one else was interested in the delicacy he finally picked it up and turned it around in his hand, while still babbling his unending stories, most of which I suspected to be yarns.
As he greedily pawed the piece of fish we winked at and nudged each other in anticipation of the looming ‘disaster’.
With one movement the fish monger threw the thing into his mouth.
His first bite punctured the icitombo, and it released its hot contents into his mouth.
Suddenly, he stopped talking and stiffly sat up, rolling his tongue wildly and bending his head as the soup went to work.
It scalded his tongue, the inside of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth.
But the man was reluctant to spit his prized offal, which continued releasing its deadly contents, onto the sand.
I saw tears rolling down his cheeks like water as he transferred the icitombo from one side of his mouth to another.
Unable to bear the agony anymore he spat the thing onto the ground with all his might and stood up while holding his mouth.
“Nafwa, nafwa (I am dying),” he moaned as the elders looked at each other trying to find the right words with which to console their suffering guest.
Meanwhile, we the children had stopped eating and were rolling in the sand, overwhelmed by mirth. God had done it for us!
We laughed until our sides started aching amid half-hearted rebukes from the smiling elders.
It was the last time I saw the fish monger near our fishing camp that year.