The air over the village that evening was pregnant with tension. A thick dark cloud loomed heavy above the grey colored thatch huts that dotted the steep green hillsides in kindred patches, threatening to cry rain any moment. As thunder boomed in the distant ridges hemming in the village to the west, the villagers became frantic. Young men and boys lost their patience with the stock, trying to herd them out of the rain, while the women hurried down to the river with pots and metal pails on their heads to get water to prepare the evening meal, hoping the rain wouldn’t catch them on the way back. The air was damp and charged, the orange-streaked evening sky occasionally rent by a bolt of lightning that lit up the chaos beneath in bright white light for a brief electrifying moment. Night was fast approaching.
Ombima was scared—not of the approaching storm, but of what he was about to do. He ran along a winding path that was covered in fine red dust, which wound its way through the homesteads downhill into the valley separating their village from the next one, Kigama. The two villages were typical of the surrounding villages in that part of Maragoli in Western Kenya: small and inhabited by peasant farmers and petty traders. Above the gently snaking valley, in the midst of which a stream of icy crystalline water swiftly sped over rocks and other impediments, now hung a long thin wisp of mist the color of smoke from burning bone-dry wood. It was getting thicker and denser so in the next moment it would be virtually impossible to see across to Kigama. Then, when the storm struck, it would descend upon the country and shroud it in a thick blanket of fog and driving hail, the strong winds ripping branches out of the tall eucalyptus trees like avenging demons.
But it was not this that Ombima was afraid of. Neither was he scared of being caught out there in the deluge. In these parts, storms were heavy. Stories were told of men struck by lightning and reduced to “dry meatless statues.” No one really knew of anyone who had died like this, but these stories were told to warn children, as Ombima’s grandmother had once warned him as a boy. No, he was not scared of all these imaginary fears. He was scared of what he was about to do.
All his life into grey sideburned middle age, Ombima had never really stolen from anyone. He had always worked tirelessly for what little he had. Of course there were those petty offenses, like pilfering fruit from a neighbor’s tree and things like that that everyone does as a boy and which is not seriously considered as theft. But stealing to satisfy a burning need he had never done. He had always gone out of his way to keep on his cloak of honesty, even after he got married and the hardships of looking after a family pressed.
Today Ombima was going to steal. Not money, not silver. He was going to steal food. Plain, life sustaining food, and it weighed him down with such shame he could hardly keep his head straight.
He left the path as it started to creep into the thorny bushes and made his way across the open field to his left. This field was covered in a thick carpet of coarse tough grass and shrub that the cattle turned to only during the dry season. As he went across, he was careful not to step on thorns with his bare feet. The thong of his akala sandals that he always wore around the village evenings and to Mbale on market days had come off, and there was no money to pay for its repair at the local shoe-maker’s. He still had not washed from the day’s labor for the rich man, Andimi. Grains of red earth still clung to the thin hairs on his muscled legs, which protruded out of the folded ends of his patched trousers. His skin was clammy with the sweat of the fields. Perhaps he would not manage a bath that evening because of the fast-approaching storm and darkness. That is, if he was not caught out on his mission.
At the end of this field was a fence of barbed wire marking the beginning of Andimi’s kitchen garden—a “kitchen garden” indeed! It was, in the true sense of the word, really a farm, because it was double the size of Ombima’s property. And all that just for a “patch” of kitchen vegetables and bananas! In fact it was said the open field that Ombima was now crossing belonged to Andimi as well, only that he had not developed it yet, which was why the villagers took advantage and grazed their cattle on it as if it were community land.
The barbed wire was rusty and closely stranded, over-grown with grasses and creepers. By now it was favorably dark, but still Ombima was wary. Someone could still be lurking about in the garden even at this hour, and so he had to be watchful. He had thought of an explanation should he be found. He would say he was looking for his stray calf. But at this hour, with the storm coming like this, it was unlikely anyone would be about. He could explain himself outside the fence. But inside the fenced-off garden… that would be another matter.
He peered closely into the darkness of the trees looking for movement. A chill in the raging wind made him clasp himself, and for some reason other than the impending theft, his teeth chattered.
Andimi’s wife, Madam Tabitha, was feeling rather wound up, and not because of the approaching storm. There were things on her mind. Indeed there had been since the noontime break at school. She had had a disagreement with the headmaster about an additional levy he proposed to charge parents for chickens one of the teachers had suggested they rear in the little yard behind the staff kitchen. This was purportedly to help improve the diet at lunch times, where occasionally they were to slaughter one of the birds in the place of the usual sukuma-wiki (collards) and pounded ugali (maize meal) or maize and beans. It was a fine idea to keep the birds and it would certainly do to boost the morale of the staff. But then the question was: should the parents finance it?
Madam Tabitha had been of the idea that since it was the teachers who would eat the chickens then it should be they to dip into their pockets to pay for the ten pullets that were proposed, and not the parents. But of course not everyone had agreed with her. Someone had even mumbled something that some people could afford to put up an argument for the parents because they knew they were sitting pretty back home. This had not escaped Tabitha’s ear.
Kanzika, the games master, had been on her side though, arguing that the chickens would be a burden to the parents. He had gone even further and brought up the matter of pupils being sent on errands other than schoolwork. It was clear he was referring to a recent incident where the entire Class Six had been sent out to carry bricks from the valley in Kegoye all the way to Kiritu where the headmaster was constructing rental houses. One of the parents who had chanced to be passing that way had spotted his son in the work gang and raised a storm over the matter.
Clearly Tabitha had stirred a can of worms, and as the argument progressed, it easily degenerated into a heated exchange. It was not to be a very pleasant lunch break, and by the time she got home that evening Tabitha was dying for her evening cup of tea and some peace of mind.
She had changed into a nightgown and sat with her tea on the back veranda ruminating over the events of the day. But then it was only for a while. Soon one of the workers came up to report some happening in the homestead while she had been away, on top of requesting for a “small” loan to pay the veterinarian man for servicing his new grade heifer. Madam Tabitha went inside for her woolen shawl and, passing round the poultry house, disappeared into the cool breeziness of the swaying banana trees. The garden was the only place where she could get some peace and solitude.
Ombima stood by the overgrown fence for a while, listening. And then, moving swiftly, noiselessly, flopped down on his belly and crawled like a lizard under the lowest strand of the rusty barbed wire. He flattened his thin form as close to the ground as possible so his nylon shirt would not get caught on the sharp barbs. He got up and crouched close to the fence, watching the long shadows in the swaying trees. There was an open stretch running along the fence, a path really, along which Andimi passed when inspecting the laborers’ work. The shrewd businessman unfailingly made this daily walk whenever he was at home, no matter how busy he had been, before paying them their daily pittance. Ombima stayed down, watching and listening. There was only the sound of swaying plants, no footfalls. Then he slowly rose and sprinted in a crouch across the open stretch into the engulfing darkness of the banana plantation.
He made his way through the bananas, ears pricked for the slightest sound, heart hammering in his chest in anticipation. And there before him, flourishing with all sorts of foodstuffs a hungry man could think of, was Andimi’s kitchen garden. Of course Ombima had often come here in a group to work. Then, perhaps because of being with the others, and because he had no design upon them, thinking only of the work, the wealth of the garden had not struck him as awesome. But now, all alone in the sprawling garden, it hit him. Everywhere he looked he saw thriving produce: slender banana trees bent over with fruit that was so heavy it was breaking their backs; pawpaw trees with their pumpkin-sized fruit, shiny and engorged, so ripe even the birds could not make up their minds which was the choicest.
He saw cabbages that would make a man break out in a sweat if he were given the punishment of carrying one on his head to Chavakali market. He also saw pumpkins, big and round, sitting squat in their lush green bedding like monarchs of storybook splendor. Even in the dim light of the dying day, Ombima could visualize the richness of color in the skin of every fruit he saw. And the wonders just opened up, spreading far and wide as if one person could not own all of them. It was the Garden of Eden incarnate, and he Adam, sole lord over it all.
For a while Ombima could not make up his mind just what it was he wanted among all that was spread at his feet. He wanted to pick the biggest cabbage in the patch, and at the same time he wanted to uproot some cassava, which would be more filling. He wanted to pluck the fattest of the pumpkins and at the same time he wanted to take off his shirt and spread it on the ground so he could pile on it juicy red tomatoes, like children do when they gather tsimbulumbutu berries in the bush. He wanted to take a little bit of everything.
It was the sudden falling of a pawpaw fruit shaken out of the tree by the wind that made up his mind for him. The fruit—huge and ripe—fell like a bomb and struck the ground just short of where he was, startling Ombima. He froze, ears cocked, certain that someone had heard the noise. He was poised to bolt out of there like an arrow the instant the shadows shifted to reveal a presence.
But the wind was whipping the banana trees so noisily no one could possibly have heard. His heart hammered in his chest like a drum. He dashed forth and grabbed the precious fruit off the ground, inspecting it as if it belonged to him. It was slightly squashed—doesn’t matter, a pawpaw is still a pawpaw. He was charged now. He dashed from plant to plant, plucking this, snatching that. In the heat of it, a feeling he had never experienced before spread through him. It was thrilling. It was not fear anymore. He could move. He could pick what he wanted.
Soon, there was a huge pile on the ground and when he stopped, he realized he could not carry everything in his arms. But immediately, as if he had been doing this all his life, an idea struck him. Quickly he tore off his shirt and spread it on the ground, heaping on as much as he could. He tied up the tails and sleeves into a thick knot so it formed into a little bundle that he could easily hoist over his shoulder. Then, just as he prepared to take up his load and leave, he remembered bananas. He had not taken any. And yet they were his favorite. How thoughtless one can get some times…
Ombima dropped the bundle on the ground and ran up to a tree he selected at random and hopped onto the soft stem, propelling his lean weight up the tree more like a monkey. As he wrenched the bunch out, the tree trunk suddenly snapped and the next minute he was sitting on his stinging bottom on the hard ground, the crown of the tree together with the bunch all over on his shoulders. It had happened so suddenly.
He wrestled his way out of the entanglement and grabbed at what fruit he could, eyes darting wildly left and right, certain that the next minute he would be caught. Clutching what he could to his bony chest, he grabbed for the bundle. He then dove into the darkening shadows and ran back the way he had come, bare heels tapping the loamy soil like drumsticks on an old skin.
Ombima reached the fence and, throwing himself flat on his bare belly, crawled underneath the lowest strand like some reptile, his loot firmly in his grip. As he pulled himself away his back caught on a sharp barb and it tore through his flesh. But his adrenaline was pumping and so he did not think much of this, rising, running, cutting across the open field like a ghost, clasping the bundle close to his body, the whites of his bare soles flashing in the fleeting illumination from the lightning that suddenly rent the sky.
What Ombima did not know, even as he fled, was that all this time someone had been observing him. As the first heavy raindrops fell, the shadows in the banana grove down the path just yards from where Ombima had snuck through the fence shifted and a figure disentangled itself onto the leaf-strewn path. Madam Tabitha stood wrapping her soft woolen shawl closer to herself, shivering a bit with cold. She stood for a while staring after the fleeing figure, occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning as it tore across the open field beyond. Then she turned and hurried up the path toward the house, just as the rain started a musical staccato among the swaying banana leaves.
From Forbidden Fruit. Used with permission of The Mantle. Copyright © 2017 by Stanley Gazemba.
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