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Forbidden oranges, man-made lightning

IT HAPPENED a long time ago when I was in primary school and still moving around without underwear. But I still recall that day as vividly as if it were yesterday.
We were only a week into the second-term school holiday enjoying unfettered play in my beloved village, Shimalama, in Chief Chitembo’s area in Samfya district, Luapula Province.
My ‘gang’ consisted of close to 12 children aged between 10 and 15 years from over five villages and was led by a big boy, Chota Yesu, who was about 18 years old.
Chota was a born leader: intelligent, strong, brave and witty to boot.
We had run out of games and were now grappling with boredom. The schools had closed, there was no cultivation to do because it was not rainy season nor was there any harvesting to keep us busy.
To make matters worse the water in Lake Chifunabuli was too cold for us to go swimming, and we could not go fishing either because the harsh weather had sent the fish into hiding.
We were thoroughly fed up of football, sojo, igo, bocho, mazako and ubwambe. So we debated bird-hunting but it did not sound attractive.
Then Chota came up with what we unanimously thought was a brilliant idea.
“Let’s go and steal oranges at Bana Mwita’s homestead,” he proposed, and we all jumped up with delight. Notwithstanding that Bana Mwita was my mother’s maternal cousin.
We stealthily climbed the two big trees without detection.
During such ‘operations’ the rule was to put the seeds of the oranges in the pockets and impale the peels on the tree’s deadly thorns while eating the fruits. Nothing should be allowed to drop to the ground to avoid detection.
After we had had our fill, we quietly climbed down and crawled away to safety to continue feasting on the carry-ways we had stuffed in our pockets.
But before long what had been a successful expedition turned into a nightmare.
Someone revealed that Bana Mwita had put a charm on the tree and that all those who had eaten oranges from it without her permission would be struck by a bolt of man-made lightning (akalumba) before the next day.
In Samfya’s Ng’umboland those days akalumba was the most dreaded form of witchcraft. We had seen what it had done to its victims.
Every time someone was struck by lightning it was attributed to witchcraft and someone was always blamed.
It was regarded as vengeance for some injustice.
So we received the news with terror. No one, not even adults, wanted to be struck by akalumba. One look at a tree that had been hit was enough to send one wetting their pants.
So, we needed no persuasion to confess our ‘sin’. In my case it was safer and more dignifying to confess before my grandmother. Doing that before my parents would be asking for a good spanking, and I valued my little butt.
My granny solemnly told me that if I was guilty but did not confess to the owner of the oranges I would not see the next day; that lightning would strike dead all the orange thieves before morning.
So we were forced to line up like captives and troop to Bana Mwita’s homestead to make the formal confessions. As we made our way through the village, crestfallen and trembling with terror, we looked a miserable bunch.
Other villagers, surprisingly including our own relatives, were having a field day teasing us and reminding us of what lightning bolts did to thieves, regardless of their age. It was cruel!
On arrival, we were ordered to sit on the ground as the crowd watched with a mixture of sympathy, contempt and admiration at our daring raid on the orange trees.
After we had each confessed our sin, Bana Mwita said she was going to insulate us against the wrath of God. She put some concoction in her mouth from a small pot, knelt before the first ‘convict’ and uttered some incantations to God, pleading with Him to spare our lives and assuring Him that we would never steal other people’s oranges again.
Then she spat the greenish, smelly stuff all over the boy’s body while talking intermittently.
“They are just little children, oh Mighty God, who are still learning the dangers of stealing other people’s things,” she said.
When it was my turn I almost fainted when she spat the despicable concoction all over my body. I quietly vowed to avenge the abuse in future.
When we were released we ran straight to the lake for a good bath despite the cold weather.
We were convinced that had we not confessed we would have been shredded to ribbons by lightning, and somehow felt indebted to Bana Mwita despite the humiliation she subjected us to.
The next day, as we reviewed the events of the previous day, we cursed ourselves for not being vigilant. We should have first carried out a good surveillance of the trees looking for the charm.
Had we found it we would have urinated on it to neutralise it.
We had learned this secret from the bigger boys, who swore that once one urinated on a charm, no matter how deadly it was, the urine rendered it harmless instantly.
Armed with this knowledge we had on countless occasions neutralised charms and excitedly helped ourselves to whatever it was they were meant to protect.
I promised my grandmother that I would not participate in any raids on people’s food in future, charm or no charm.
In fact, I swore that it was my friends who had tempted me into participating in the ill-fated raid on Bana Mwita’s oranges.
It was only when I was in secondary school that I discovered that the charms were actually not real. They were dummies meant to keep naughty children at bay.
Village life!

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