Yesterday we had a visit from Aunty Cathy. Which meant, of course, another funeral in the family. Aunty Cathy is our organizer of funerals. I sometimes wonder how, after Aunty Cathy passes on, the rest of us will ever get buried.
Sara’s nephew Emmanuel had given his life, a couple of days earlier, trying to defend his minibus from a mob of Punching Fist thugs in Kamwala. He had staked his life to save his minibus, but had ended up losing both. Just a routine little incident which never made the evening news, but it had affected our family deeply. As a peaceful nation, so we are always shocked by the high rates of intimidation, thuggery, terrorism and murder.
Anyway, we shouldn’t complain. That was the mistake that Emmanuel had made. He had joined a demonstration. He wasn’t like the rest of us, content to defend his own two hundred square metres from inside his concrete fortifications, and ignore the screams from outside.
By now Aunty Cathy was explaining the distribution of funeral responsibilities. ‘If Sara and you could just buy the coffin,’ she explained, ‘that will be your bit. The only problem is, there’s been a terrible shortage ever since this government came into power. You may have to go as far as Kafue to find one.’
‘What about Chongwe?’ Sara suggested.
‘Don’t you read the papers?’ said Aunty Cathy. ‘That’s where the shortage is worse.’
As we were talking, we heard a banging at the gate. ‘Probably ZESCO come to cut us off,’ said Sara.
‘That won’t make much difference,’ I sneered. But when I got to the gate, and unbolted the fortifications, I found Uncle Kelvin and Aunty Mary. ‘Come in, come in,’ I said. ‘Nice to see the old landcruiser is still on the road.’
‘Indeed it is,’ replied Kelvin grimly. ‘We must thank the Lord for small mercies.’
‘Uncle Kelvin and Aunty Mary!’ exclaimed Sara. ‘So you heard about the funeral!’
‘Which funeral?’ they asked in unison.
‘Emmanuel,’ said Aunty Cathy. And so she told the story all over again.
‘Well,’ said Aunty Mary. ‘I thought our story was worse, but at least we’re still alive!’
‘Why,’ we all said. What has happened?’
‘The farm,’ said Aunty Mary, as Uncle Kelvin just sat there with his head in his hands. ‘It’s gone. Nothing left. The house has been demolished and the workers attacked and chased. Two of them had their heads blown off. They had lived on that land for fifty years. Our former home is now a war zone. We managed to escape by the skin of our teeth. Our neighbour phoned us just in time after he saw the army coming, and we managed to get out through the back road. All we’ve got left are the clothes we’re wearing and the old landcruiser. But we're the lucky ones.’
It was some twenty years ago that Uncle Kelvin retired from the Ministry of Education. He and Mary had worked all their lives to establish that little farm for their retirement. It was all that stood between them and destitution.
‘Was there no warning of this impending military holocaust?’ said Sara. ‘Or did it all come out of the blue?’
‘It all started about three months ago,’ said Aunty Mary. ‘The Ward Chairman arrived one day and said that the farm belonged to the council and we had never paid the rent. But we showed him our title deeds. A month later he came and said that he had checked at the Council and Ministry of Lands and there were no records of the land being allocated to us. He said that the title deeds must have been obtained by dubious means and that we would have to vacate.’
‘So what did you do about it?’
‘We didn’t take it seriously. We just thought that the Ward Chairman must be an idiot.’
‘A couple of weeks later our workers found some party youths with pegs and string, demarcating plots. We complained to the police, but they said that they could not interfere in party matters. So we complained to the District Party Chairman, but he got angry with us, saying the party was working hard to stop land grabbing, and we were accusing him of corruption. We complained to the DC, and he told us not to worry, we should just have a word with the District Secretary.’
‘And did you?’
‘Yes. And the District Secretary told us that the previous council meeting had already allocated our farm to the DC, who had also been given planning permission to build twenty-four houses.’
‘So then you took it seriously?’
‘We raised the matter with our area MP, but she told us not to try to politicize the problem or we would regret it.’
‘So you hired a lawyer?’
‘Yes. And he managed to get a judge to issue a court order staying the hand of the council, pending an ex parte hearing of the interested parties.’
‘So you showed the court order to the DC?’
‘It was only yesterday when I went to see him,’ said Kelvin. ‘He tore up the court order in front of me and laughed in my face, saying that the judiciary was separate from government and could not interfere. He also told me that he was aware that my parents were born in Malawi, and that my citizenship status was being reviewed. Within less than twenty-four hours, in the early hours of this morning, the army arrived with bullets and bulldozers.’
‘My God,’ said Aunty Cathy, ‘I thought this government had a policy of fighting corruption, not innocent citizens!’
‘Ha ha,’ Kelvin laughed drily, ‘that’s a good one!’
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ said Aunty Cathy seriously, ‘When Michael gets to hear about all this, he’ll take action and put everything straight.’
For a moment we sat there in silence. Then we all burst out laughing.
It’s better to die laughing.