Lily's Gradmother

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

The old woman was a hard worker, and despite communication problems, we bacame friends.

Lily’s Grandmother

To encourage tree planting and foster an awareness about the environment in the schools we worked with, I started a small tree nursery, bustani ya miti, at the back of Big E’s house. It was half-pie sheltered from the sun by a large msisiwe tree that regularly shed its large leaves over the nursery, so we had to sweep them up every second day. People visited the msisiwe tree on a random basis to cut a square foot of bark off it in a more or less sustainable way, they were after the cambium layer under the bark, because it was an activator in the brewing process of piwa. Piwa was an alcoholic brew that was certainly unhealthy, made mainly from bananas and dirty water, with the ability to blow your head off or to rot your socks! It made the eyes of regular users glaze over and the whites have brown cloudy patches in them.

Lily was a friend of young Nai,  Big E’s daughter, and the pair, sometimes with a friend or two in tow, would visit me in the nursey, ‘to help’, which may have lasted for half an hour, but more likely ten minutes. They told the tales that children have, which, in a way, helped me understand a bit about the life and culture of rural Tanzania. There’s no question, they were delightful… and a bit of a nuisance. One day Lily told me her grandmother was coming to live with her family and that she would bring her to meet me.

I never came to know her name, she was simply Bibi, Grandmother, which doesn’t necessarily mean your grandmother, the title might be simply to respect an elderly woman. Bibi was Maasai, and she was elderly, ninety, I found out later. Slightly hunched and thin, she had a shaved head, and a gap in her teeth, the mark of Maasai feminine beauty, where a tooth or two at the front are removed in infancy to facilitate feeding or giving liquids should they become ill. Her earlobes were stretched with large holes in them, which probably started with a thorn being punched through them when she was young. She didn’t know very much Swahili, but we shook hands in the African way, we smiled at each other and nodded our heads as if each knew precisely what the other was saying.

Bibi brought a cow with her, a scrawny old cow, and Big E had given her permission to tether her in a bare piece of ground close to the nursery. The prospect didn’t thrill me one bit, and for very good reason. Tethering an old cow that’s been grazing in open countryside isn’t very humane, but that wasn’t the reason… not infrequently wandering cattle, visited the nursery, loveable as they may be, they trampled willy-nilly all over my plants! Mating marauding dogs did the same thing, so they were all unwelcome guests as far as I was concerned! Mind you, Bibi’s cow didn’t look like she had hardly the energy to stand up let alone trample over the nursery! I could have spoken to Big E, talked him out of allowing her cow there, but it was his land and their culture, so I just kept smiling.

The poor old cow was never going to thrive. Old Bibi didn’t have the energy to hand cut and carry good green fodder for her cow, instead she scrounged the trunks of banana plants. They’re not trees or palms, they’re herbs… anyway one plant produces one bunch of bananas and then it dies off, allowing suckers to emerge from the roots for the next crop, so at harvesting it’s normal to use the trunk and foliage for cattle food. But there’s not much food value in the trunk, it’s just water and cellulose, which fills their bellies but that’s about all. But that’s why I came to see Bibi regularly, banana trunks are heavy, but she’d arrive with one on her head so I’d help her ease it to the ground. And then she’d chop it up into small pieces to feed the cow.

We found ways to communicate, I came to know what Swahili she knew and she came to know what Maasai I knew and we nodded, smiled and waved our hands around, making us laugh together with Nai, Lily and others, if they were around. Sometimes Mama Titi, another neighbour… and yes, she was named for them… Mama Titi played her radio loudly and the music often drifted towards us. Now, I’m deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, daft and have as much rhythm as a rhino, nevertheless one day, the mood struck and I did a little dance for Bibi… and ninety years she may have been, but she replied with rhythm that disguised her years… and she did her best to instruct me. Nai had been watching without us knowing and called half the village to come and watch! That’s how I became known as Kofi, a popular entertainer at the time over there. After that, even without the music she would make those rhythmic moves and encourage me to join her.

 

Bibi shared the water tap with me and I had a 44 gallon drum that I kept full closer to the nursery, which she used so she didn’t have to cart water such a long way to her cow. I would happily have done the job, but no, ‘it’s women’s work’, so she lugged her 20litre bucket to her cow every day. One day after rain, my malapa, thronged sandals, were caked with mud and I was cleaning them by splashing water from the drum over them and rubbing them with my hand. Along came Bibi and without a word, took the malapa from me, produced a length of twine from within the folds of her wrap, screwed it into a ball and used it to remove every trace of mud.

‘Woman’s work.’ She said in very clear English and she flashed her sparkling white teeth!

 

 


Submitted: June 14, 2021

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