issue 244 - June 1993
Was it madness? Were some strange spirits taking control of the Conference?
Or had the delegates just had too rich a lunch? A story by Sindiwe Magona.
Of course, the incident would not appear in the report on the Conference. How could it? Not one of the delegates understood what exactly had happened. But each would remember the amazing event with much misgiving. And some would send deputies next time there was a conference instead of attending themselves. And the next time. And the next.
It was a Conference to Right the Wrongs of a World Woefully Out of Joint. They came from all corners of the globe to do their duty. Came in their slick, dark suits and their chauffeured limousines; sat with their delegations and acolytes in the Marble Hall; nodded in corridors to faces familiar from the economic shindig in Bangkok or the environmental hoopla in Addis. They gathered to represent the views of their own peoples, to consider the weighty questions before them with the requisite depth of furrow in their brows.
But then something else happened, which pulled their glazed eyes towards the pudgy representative of Outer Manedristan. Just as he was entering the third sub-section, first paragraph of his peroration, he seemed to be taken over by another voice
‘Tell us we will be widows. Tell us we will raise our children all by ourselves. Tell us this when we are little girls. And then help us grow up strong and able to be widows who bring up children all alone. Arm us for this eventuality. Otherwise, what is the use of all this knowledge you gather, if it does not prepare the girl-child for her fate?’
The voice was that of a very old woman. No doubt about that; strong though it was. Firm, loud, unwavering. But it was still the voice of an old woman; unmistakable. Chairs swivelled as delegates craned their necks this way and that, attempting to align sight and sound. But the speaker who had the floor seemed totally unaware of the stir he was causing. Unruffled, he continued with what he thought was his speech.
‘I was a girl. Big brother was sent to school. But I was a girl. Small brother was sent to school. But I was made a wife. I cannot complain. My husband was a good man. When the children came he worked and gave us money for food. But then he died. Now I was a widow. Nobody had told me what to do when I became a widow. The bank asked how could they give credit to a woman who could not write her name? And I had no answer. I beg you, tell all the little girls that they will be widows. That men die earlier than women. And send them, all of them, to school. Tell them to learn to read and write so that when they become widows the banks will trust them and give them loans. Little girls, write...your... names. Learn! Learn to write your names.’
Without the slightest pause, the speaker continued with what he had been saying before the interruption by the old woman’s voice. His droning tones resumed their diplomatic, circuitous tour around his subject: Abuse of human rights in some Third World countries.
Eyes which had met uneasily during the strange interruption now reverted to their normal glazed tour of the upper reaches of the marble pillars, the cherubs daubed on the ceiling. We must have imagined it. Or perhaps the learned speaker from Outer Manedristan had simply had a brainstorm, poor chap. At any rate normal service has been resumed now.
But only until the second hijacking of a speaker. (That is what those who dared give a name to what happened at the Conference called it: hijacking). The delegate from West Axum, a smooth-tongued former president with a smug air, was just getting into his stride when a different voice entirely started to emerge from his lips. This time, the voice had a lisp. It was hesitant and shy. A little girl’s voice. So frail. She did not sound afraid. No. Just sad.
‘Study war no more. Shut your big houses where death is manufactured. Seal the windows. Lock the doors of these terrible houses. Give the rich men who own them jobs in hospitals and bush clinics where they can see the results of their killing machines. Send them to work in the world’s graveyards where they can read the sad tombstones of men, women and children killed in their games. Perhaps then other children will not lose their parents as I have, will not lose their homes. Perhaps they will even have money to go to school and food to eat. And their days will not be swathed in fear.’
If it had not been so disturbing it would have been a source of some merriment to hear such sentiments expressed by an elder statesman whose own military budget had once been the envy and worry of his neighbours. As it was, a sort of blank hysteria descended upon the delegates: no-one dared to break the spell, to be the one to stand up and protest at this bizarre gatecrashing of the meditations of the mighty.
Simultaneous translation suffered a real blow. Each ‘intruder’ was understood by all there present without recourse to their earpieces. It was a kind of Babel. Only, much, much more. Babel never boasted so many languages as this.
The baby said not a word. How could he? So weak, his faint mewling took the little energy he had. Malnutrition does that, you know. But the mewling was enough. That sound. It went to the hearts of all assembled in the Great Hall of Delegates. And found in each some ancient vestige of human kindness. Granted, a morsel... but still. And the message was more poignant coming through the rather fleshy lips of the obese delegate from one of the richest countries in the world.
The delegates listened all right. And for years after,
in the darkest part of the night they would wake up with a start
and remember how those voices reached down deep into
their guts and twisted with their truth.
‘The secret code is broken,’ said the next intruder, rather threateningly. ‘They have heard of your meeting. The lives you supposedly represent. You get fat while they die. So they have come to deliver their own messages and remind you that they are there, that they are watching as you disport yourselves.’
Greed. War. Fear. Hatred. Hunger. Those are just some of the things the voices talked about. The village woman. The orphaned girl. The unborn, the mother, and the worker. Barefooted children walking hungry to school and the song of the hunchback scouring the countryside looking for work.
‘Close down the meeting halls and the hotels and the restaurants,’ said the last of the invaders. ‘Use the money you waste on meetings to ease the lives that grow daily desperate. Go back to the community. So that your eyes will be opened. So that your hearts inside your bodies will grow and grow. And listen to the prayers of the people. Listen to what we say we need. And don’t come and give us needs we didn’t even know were there. Can’t you see, if the belly isn’t grumbling, it can’t be hungry? Please, listen. LISTEN!’
The delegates listened all right. They had never listened to a series of speeches with such concentration before. And for years after, in the darkest part of the night they would wake up with a start and remember how those voices reached down deep into their guts and twisted with their truth. They would look with doubt on the assumption that governed their lives, that they were doing their duty by their nation, that they were passing their lives in service. But the moment would pass. They would stroll across to their windows and see the pleasant gardens on the other side of the glass, the lawns and flowerbeds stretching down to the security fence and the night guard’s hut. And they would curse themselves for their idiocy. After all, no-one else had ever mentioned what had happened. Perhaps it had been no more than a bad dream.
They would open the drawer and pull out the much-thumbed official record of the Conference. There were the unsullied pearls of the delegate from Outer Manedristan, down in black and white without any intrusion. They would sigh with relief to see that the Conference had been no different from all the other conferences and summit meetings of their eminent careers. And they would return to their beds, thanking their lucky stars as they sank into peaceful oblivion for the foresight of the organizer who had taken the precaution of closing that particular session to the members of the press.
Sindiwe Magona is a South African writer who currently lives in New York. Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, a collection of her short stories, was published in 1992 by The Women’s Press in London.
This article is from
the June 1993 issue
of New Internationalist.
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