Other, Sunnier Days

sunnier days

“Give me my money,” the girl says. She is identical to all the other girls with her green primary school uniform and her close cropped hair. You have probably walked past her dozens of times. On other days she may even have greeted you in the exact same way. On other days you may have even returned the greeting with a smile and shrug.

On other, sunnier days.

“What?” You stop walking and look at her. Her legs are ashy. Her feet are shoeless. A thin crust of dried snot hovers just below her nostrils. On other days you would have kept walking. On other days you would not have said anything.

On other, sunnier days.

“Give me money,” she says. Her voice is lower this time. Almost inaudible.

You have heard this before. It is one of a half dozen seemingly innocuous phrases the children shout as you pass. You have walked this route countless times. On other days you would put your head down. On other days you would tune it out.

On other, sunnier days.

She looks at you. To speak to the azungu is something to laugh about with her friends. And if the strange looking white baboon speaks back, well then it’s double the funny!

“Muli ndi mwano,” you say. The dried snot cracks slightly as a smile touches the corners of her mouth. She does not understand why you are upset. She is enjoying this.

On other, sunnier days she might get your pity. On other, sunnier days she might get your charity. But today is not one of those days.

You grab her arm. For one, brief instant she doesn’t realize what has happened. She is still having fun. Then comprehension floods her eyes. The blank, glassy vacancy is gone. Tears well up. She twists. But you do not let go. Now she understands.

“Give me my money! Give me my money!” you mock her voice. She is terrified. And now a smile touches the corners of your mouth. “You are a rude little girl child! Muli ndi mwano!”

The tears are one blink away from falling. You see in her wet, little eyes all the children who have taunted you. All the children who watch and point and laugh while you wash your clothes. All the children who knock at your door and run away. All the children who shout and harass and call your name from a hundred metres away just to see if you will turn around.

All the children you couldn’t catch.

“Muli ndi mwano! Mukumvetsa?!” she digs her shoeless heels into the dirt road. She moans. She twists. She could shout for help. But she does not. She knows that she has said something rude. Something she would never ever say to any other adult in the village. And she knows that what you are doing to her is nothing compared to the punishment her amayi would give her at home for a similar act of disrespect.

“Do you understand? Mukumvetsa?” You say the words slowly. You drag out the syllables. But she does not reply. “Mukumvetsa!?” She will not reply.

“Tell me you understand and I will let you go,” you say, more to yourself than to her. “Mukumvetsa? Eyah or iyai?” The tears have fallen. A small dot of snot moistens the dried crust above her lip. “Eyah or iyai?” Her only response is a low, guttural shriek.

You hear laughter. You look up and two teenage boys are walking by. They show no concern for the terrified girl twisting in your arm. Whether they are laughing at you, the girl or the situation you will never know. But whatever anger you felt is gone.

You release your grip.

She runs as fast as she can. Her dirty green uniform, tattered and patched, tattered and patched, slowly recedes in the distance. You look around. Aside from the two boys, no one seems to have noticed what has happened.

You walk home. Close the door and draw the bolt.

You want to be the hero. We all do. No matter who you are. No matter how humble. We all want to puff up our chest and strut while the world admires our vibrant plumage of nobility. On other days you get to achieve that goal. On other days you get to shine.

On other, sunnier days.

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