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The Donkey Reward
|by Ola de Sas|
Vayeke Matuani sat in front of his hut in Ladybrand Township smoking his pipe with a dissatisfied air, and watched his wife cooking his supper on the fire.
It was getting dark and the township was at its liveliest. Fires were burning and the women were on their knees cooking porridge in big three legged pots, or roasting pieces of meat over the embers. Children played noisily, the men were returning from their work, exchanging greetings, shouting news and calling to one another.
Vayeke liked this time of day the best, but somehow today he was not in a good mood. He had stayed at home all day and he did not feel apart of township life. He did not feel at one with the men who walked back from work, who were thinking of the food and beer that waited for them; or of the girls that they would flirt with, or the piccanins (small boys) who waited to be taught soccer by them, and of many other things. For the first time in his life, Vayeke felt dissatisfied with himself and unhappy with his life.
He had worked hard up till now, he mused. He had been 'Baas (boss) boy' in the mines. He had been a policeman and had to his credit the conviction of a murderer. He had been a butcher's assistant, a truck driver and had worked for the veterinary surgeon for three whole years. Finally on the advice of a witchdoctor; who had thrown bones for him and who had prophesized a great misfortune which would cause him a big loss, if he continued to work with animals, he had left and had worked in a caf' as a waiter.
Yes, he had been in many jobs, more than any of his friends. He was clever and knew many things. Not, for instance like the Basotho boy who was now walking towards him along the street. He was bare-footed, wore a blanket over his shoulders and a pointed hat.
Vayeke watched him with a superior look. 'He must come from the interior of Basutoland (Lesotho), and he looked lost. He was probably looking for a job, but in this town he will never get one. He was too raw.'
The young man saw Vayeke watching him and came towards him.
'Dumela N'tate (Greetings Father) he said politely and squatted next to Vayeke.
'Dumela' answered Vayeke.
The young man looked around. 'It must be nice to sit like this in front of your hut and have your belly full,' he said after a while.
Vayeke nodded, 'You may have some food if you like,' he said kindly.
The young man looked at the pot greedily 'Tanki,' he said meaning thank-you.
'You may sleep here too,' said Vayeke.
The young man nodded.
'And where are you from?' Vayeke asked when the stranger had finished his food.
'Butha Buthe,' he replied 'But I go now to Kuruman to buy some donkeys. There is a good sale for them now in Basutoland. The only trouble is that the police keep a close watch at the border. But I know the way over the Caledon River where I am sure I can smuggle them through.'
Vayeke was interested, 'Donkey you said?' Then he turned to his wife, 'Notozi,' and shouted, 'go to the old Emilia and bring us sixpenny worth of beer.' He threw the money at her. She put her baby on her back and walked off.
Vayeke looked at the young man, 'And how is the life in Basutoland?' he asked.
'The stranger smiled, 'Good, very good. Foreigners brought plenty business to us. They search for diamonds and pay plenty if you bring them one. Many diamonds have been found, some big, like hen's eggs.'
Vayeke looked at him with surprise, 'You said they found diamonds, Hau (really!), plenty money in diamonds.'
The stranger nodded, 'Plenty of them in the rivers, but I like the donkeys better, it's easier to get them and sell them.'
Notozi came with beer. Vayeke handed the tin to his guest, 'Drink man.'
'You're right that you're in a business of your own,' he said to the stranger, 'because work will never make you rich, only your own business will, this goes for all people. Now, I left my last job in the caf' and I'm thinking of some business of my own. Tell me; don't they pinch diamonds from the mines owned by foreigners?'
'They do,' replied the young man, 'but the police are very sharp now, and all the men are searched, especially at the border. They watch day and night, and you know there is no pleasure of getting yourself into jail!'
Vayeke smiled, 'I know, I was a policeman, myself.' He looked at the stranger with importance and fell deep into thought.
The young man nodded and half asleep muttered, 'Donkeys, Morena (Sir) Good business.'
Vayeke could not sleep that night, and the next morning he got up early, took his two heifers from where they were grazing, leaving the milking cow to Notozi, packed his few things, saddled his mare and took his leave. Notozi, as usual, did not know where he had gone. In the meantime Vayeke went to Basutoland and rode from one place to another, through the mountains and the valleys.
On the outskirts of Maseru close to the Caledon river, was a small plot with a shack that belonged to Vuyo Keisa, the general handy man. Vuyo was a hard working man. He sold potatoes and other vegetables at the market, which he had grown from his plot, by ploughing his small fields in an old-fashioned way with donkeys. He was not able to afford a tractor or even oxen. His wife kept poultry, sold eggs and occasionally dressed chicken for the hotel, but in spite of all this they remained very poor. They had six children; the eldest one was 13 years old and was already out of school; but was now helping his father on the small holding. The youngest one, Nomvuyo (which means Joy), was only five years old and was their main worry. She was born with cleft palate and could not even speak properly. No matter how hard her parents tried, there was not enough money to send her for an operation to repair her deformity.
But Nomvuyo was a happy child. She had her family of cats, stray dogs and her own pullets. She spent many hours talking to her animals in her own language, feeding them, explaining to the donkeys why they had to help her daddy, and to the hens why she must take their eggs away. Hardest of all was explaining why the small kittens must be taken from their mummies, and why the stray dogs that they had cannot find more shelter in the house. She could not understand it very well herself, but she repeated what her parents had told her and often promised her animals that one day her cats would have as many kittens as they liked, the dogs all their puppies, and the donkeys would only have to graze on the veldt.
She stopped at the gate and looked at the dusty road. The hot wind blew the sand into her eyes and she rubbed them hard.
There was an old donkey walking slowly along the road. She was old and thin and brayed sadly. Nomvuyo watched her and pity filled her soft heart. 'Poor thing, she must be hungry-she is so thin and tired, I wish she was mine.'
The old donkey stopped next to the gate and brayed.
Nomvuyo whispered, 'Come old one, come here, don't be afraid.'
The donkey brayed once more and groaned. Nomvuyo was worried 'You're ill, poor one, you want some water.' The child went to her slowly and caressed her. The donkey stood quiet, and Nomvuyo talked to her again, 'Come old one, I will feed you.' She tried to push her inside the gate but the donkey would not move only shivered and groaned again. Nomvuyo looked desperately around, she would never be able to pull her even with the rope she had round her neck. 'Wait,' she cried, 'I will bring you water and hay if you wait for me,' and she ran towards the house.
Nomvuyo was soon back, dragging hay and water in her little bucket. The donkey drank some of the water but would not eat as she was in pain. Nomvuyo sat next to her, patting her and whispering little words in her special language. The donkey was very ill and Nomvuyo cried because of this. Her mother called her angrily and made her go home to help her with her chores, but she was back again as soon as she could. She saw the donkey lying, very tired, and did not know what to do.
Vuyo came close to the lying donkey, 'What is this?' he kicked the donkey and Nomvuyo burst into tears.
'I found her, she is ill and I love her already,' she tried to tell her father.
Vuyo looked at her little daughter and something soft and warm appeared in his eyes. 'Alright,' he said, 'I suppose she is also a stray one, and I could do with another donkey on my farm.'
He told his son to chase the donkey to the shed, but the donkey would not budge.
The next morning, when she went with her father to feed the animals in the shed, the donkey was dead. Vuyo was very angry, 'You see what you did,' he shouted to Nomvuyo, 'and now she is dead; she might have had some bad sickness that all my animals will get and also die. I was fool to listen to a child.' He called his son and dragged the old donkey out of the shed and looked for a place to bury her.
'Bring me a knife,' Vuyo called suddenly to his son, 'we had better see inside her, I know some animal sicknesses which might have killed her.'
Nomvuyo stood behind the tree shivering with grief and fright, and saw how her father cut the donkey's belly, and began to remove the intestines, liver, heart. Then he opened the stomach.
'Tata!' Vuyo's son exclaimed suddenly, 'Look!'
The boy held two stones in his hands. The stones were dirty and smeared with blood and stomach secretions. Vuyo went to the tap and washed them clean. He held them against the sun and the stones shone and glittered in the light. Vuyo looked at them with disbelief. 'My God, are these diamonds real?'
Nomvuyo approached him shyly. 'Pretty stones, Tata, may I play with them?'
Vuyo tightly cuddled the surprised child. ' God has been good to you, thanks to these pretty stones, you will soon be like any of the other pretty girls, and I promise you, you will always have all the animals you ever wanted.'
Many miles from Vuyo's shack, rode Vayeke on his mare. He was half drunk and he cantered swaying on the saddle. He had lost his donkey and had got drunk to get over his grief.
'Hau!' he thought, 'it must have been the Tokolosi (a little devil) who stole the donkey from me.' He could not believe it had happened. His plan had worked so well. He sold his two heifers in Basutoland and with his money he went to Butha Buthe. There after long conversations and after drinking many pints of beer with different men, he managed to buy two big, uncut diamonds from them. The problem was how to smuggle them to South Africa where he could sell them and make an enormous profit. The problem had been solved after some deep thinking. Before his departure for Basutoland, he bought a veterinary instrument called a balling gun used for dosing the horses with pills, something he had learned during his work with the veterinary surgeon. He bought an old she donkey cheaply, and exactly in the same way as his employer the vet did, he pushed the stones into her throat. The donkey swallowed them and Vayeke was safe. He pulled her behind his horse by a rope, all the way to the capital Maseru, never losing her from sight, and examining carefully her droppings. But in Maseru he met some old friends and got slightly drunk. Next morning the donkey disappeared. He searched all over, the people had shown him this and that direction-he rode here and there. 'Where is my donkey?' he cried. He kicked his horse savagely and muttered: 'You damn animals; you are all alike. Never trust any animal, especially a donkey, to bring you a fortune. The witchdoctor was right.'
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