new internationalist
issue 164 - October 1986


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Maputo and the goat

When the goat was very old, they called us to the lands to eat it. You must come, the messenger said. You must come, please. We have asked you many times, and we see you are very busy, but the goat is very old. If you do not come to eat him soon, he will die. Please come.

But it is hard for us to come, my father told the messenger. He spoke very slowly, offering tea and bread and holding sugar for the messenger. He held the bowl in both hands, as you would to an older person, to obey the rules of respect and - some said - to show, In the ancient custom, that you hid no weapon. The messenger shovelled five, six spoonfuls and a generous half more into his tea. We have time, my father said. We are not too busy to visit our friends. But the goat is not for us. Maputo is a clever boy and I am proud to be his teacher. We should not take the goat.

[image, unknown] The messenger, a straight-backed young man in his early twenties, listened carefully. His English was slow and laboured, and when my father had finished he repeated his message. You must come, he said. The goat is old, and he will die.

When the end-of-school bell rang, my father called Maputo. The boy greeted his relative, dipping his head to the older man. Beside the messenger's patched trousers, engrained with soil despite many washings at the borehole, Maputo's shorts were a crisp khaki. His palms were soft and pink and the nails were a clear pearl against glossy brown fingers.

Maputo talked with the man in his own language. Then he repeated the message, firmly. My father repeated his. We should not eat the goat. We should receive no presents. This was not our custom. Maputo explained that his grandfather had promised the goat; it was ours. This was their custom. If the goat died, the family must wipe out their shame by offering a young goat, or a kid. His grandfather had promised.

So on Saturday Maputo guided us in the Landrover off the main road and east into the bush. We jolted over the holes in the dirt track, dipping sharply into the dongas carved by streams rushing for a few hours after the annual rains. Birds started from the bush before us, wheeling into the dust cloud raised overhead. The sun blazed down and It was high above us by the time the little boys in loincloths spurted out of the bush, skipping and waving. Maputo's cousins, he explained. My sister and I climbed onto the roof rack to ride to the village with them, enjoying the hot breeze that blew from the bush.

Maputo's grandmother hurried to meet us. She was tall and strong, with wrinkled round eyes and mouth and bent only slightly beneath the baby strapped on her back. She whooped to the others. 'Come! Come!' She praised my father in words I did not completely understand, referring to him always as the Admissions Officer. 'No, no,' my father protested when I translated for him as well as I could. 'Not the Admissions Officer. A friend. Maputo is a very clever boy. He needs no help.' She grinned, enjoying his words as a gracious compliment. We sat in the rondavel's shade, brushing away flies and drinking beer and tea. Like the grandmother, my mother sat on the mud floor with her legs stretched straight in front of her. Maputo translated, and they nodded and smiled across their language barrier.

The men brought the goat Its eyes were yellowing and sad and it cried when they led it away again. 'Too old,' Maputo translated again. 'My grandmother says you should have come sooner.' The goat's crying was very loud, even from the shed behind the trees where the men dragged him. Then there was silence. Maputo's grandmother leant forward to poke sticks into the fire, making it blaze fiercely under the three-legged black pot. The water was bubbling by the time the men returned, dropping bloody bones and lumps of meat into it. After a while, the water bubbled again, topped with a grey-brown scum.

They asked my father what they should do with the rest, showing the skin and head. The goat's eyes were still yellow and sad. Maputo's sister squatted to push wood into the fire, edging back to rub her thighs which were burning around the bead fringe she wore.

The meat cooked for a long time, as the flies gathered and the sun moved round over the thatch to drive us against the rondavel's wall and further into the cool shade. The relatives gathered, making jokes and watching the steam rising from the meat and the pot that held the porridge. They made jokes to flatter us, but they spoke too fast for me to follow and Maputo translated. They called my father by his job title, and he protested when I told him so. 'No!' he said. 'I am only a teacher. Maputo is a bright boy and lam glad to teach him. He passed the exams well, all by himself.' The men laughed.

'And his brother,' one said, pointing to the shy boy crouched against the mud wall of the courtyard. 'He will go to school too?' When Maputo translated, my father looked blank. 'Come,' the man added. 'We are wealthy. We have thirteen goats.'

This story by Carol Fewster is based on an episode from her childhood in Botswana.

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