Jill Noel Kandel
dig your grave
The northern rim of the Kalahari Desert shifts—what was once only sand has become semiarid savanna. Kalabo Village nestles there, on the edge of that sparse grassland. What remains of the desert hides inches beneath the topsoil, like a shallow grave, like the stories in my mind. You cannot dig for long in Kalabo before you hit the sand. You cannot dig deep enough to forget. Cover your memories with the sand, the wind blows particles away. Scoop and dip and place your loved ones deep. It is not only the wind that uncovers.
Johan signed the papers on our honeymoon, in November of 1981. It took about ten seconds to seal the next six years. He would be doing agricultural work for the Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers. I told my friends, “Johan got a job in Africa! He’ll be working for the Dutch Peace Corps.”
the facts please
During the early years that I lived in Kalabo, a murder occurred near the village. I had never heard of the type of weapon—a traditional kalilozi gun made from a human limb bone—and found it both questionable and creepy. I asked around. In the SiLozi language the word kalilozi comes from the root kuloza, meaning to kill. Reportedly, the gun lay near the body, and bullets made from a mixture of finger bones and roots were also nearby.
Since the autopsy showed no wound present—this was not always the case; previously in similar murders there had been wounds—the death was reportedly caused by the bewitched smoke emitted from the gun. The evidence, deemed credible by the Kalabo District Court, created no real commotion, and the judge accepted it into court documentation. Deliberation began. The conviction of the gun owner came as no surprise. Nor did his prison sentence. The case, briefly discussed around the village, held little particular interest. Perhaps the villagers were tired of the same old story.
Between 1956 and 1958—twenty years before I moved to Zambia—there were forty-three kalilozi cases heard in Kalabo District Court. The British ruled Zambia during those years and kept meticulous records. One of the most famous cases concerned two women murdered at Shihole Mission. Seven people were eventually convicted of involvement in the murders. The court recorded the weapon as a short-barreled kalilozi gun. The homes of the seven contained further evidence: human skulls, limb bones, and human flesh.
Soccer camp 2008 revs into full motion in northern Minnesota. It is the third day of camp. I clear off a table for my nursing supplies, putting away last night’s board games, Monopoly, Blokus, and Scrabble.
The kitchen ladies have finished washing up after breakfast and are grabbing frozen foods for lunch. I hear snatches that include—twice—the word angel. What had happened during the night aside from a 2:00 am run for ice packs and Tylenol for Wes, who had torn a ligament, visited the emergency room, and returned to camp on crutches?
I soak swollen ankles in buckets of ice water, take off dirty Band-Aids, look at blisters. It is going to be a hot, windy day, and the kids are already sweating.
Lloyd walks by, making his normal camp-director rounds. Checking out the day and smiling. “We’re having angel eggs for lunch.” He beams.
I want to laugh. I inhabit a geography where angel eggs substitute for deviled. The devil—a common enough topic in chapel—mustn’t enter the kitchen to be consumed by unwary campers. Where I live, pot blessings replace potlucks. There are even subcultures within our chosen words. If someone leans toward Calvinism, the pastor might call out good providence as she exits, headed to her car. There is no luck in Christianity.
It doesn’t bother me that Lloyd uses these words. I normally applaud a reinvention of vocabulary. “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” It is his satisfaction that rubs me wrong. I watch the kitchen ladies sprinkle cayenne pepper onto the tops of luscious, golden-filled eggs and think of Lloyd, garnishing his vocabulary, trying to contain his surroundings.
contrary to popular opinion, believe what you read
Barrie Reynolds wrote Magic, Divination and Witchcraft among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia in 1957. What a fantastic read—an entire book about the belief systems of the people among whom I used to live. How strange to examine these pages. As I read it, the past comes back heavy-handedly. I slam the book shut, incredulous. My mind shifts back and forth between my current life in northern Minnesota and those years long ago in Kalabo Village. I open it again and read as a middle-aged, middle-class American: dubious, skeptical, disbelieving.
Some things have changed since the writing of the book. In 1964, the newly independent nation chose to call itself Zambia. The Barotse area was renamed the Western Province. But the village I lived in has not changed. It still bears the name Kalabo.
i remember jos
Some years in Kalabo Village, I had friends. Some years I didn’t. The Dutch doctors and veterinarians came in two-year waves, arriving with embassy contracts that allowed them each a two-hundred pound shipment. They brought furniture, food, Dutch decor, and alcohol for their stint. They left with a boat full of African souvenirs and stories enough to last a lifetime. I came with less and stayed longer, but I am not so different. I also need to tell my stories.
The years came and went, the storms, the droughts, the friends or lack thereof. I saw five Dutch doctors come and go. Dr. Hein delivered my first child, Melinda, who flourished under the African sun into a blonde, pigtailed delight. A year and a half later, Dr. Maarten delivered Daany, my chubby boy with a magnificent smile and a glimmer in his eye. Through it all Jos and Solie remained constant, stopping in, settling down for a cup of tea, or calling out hello as they passed by. Jos was quiet and soft-spoken, a Dutchman who had chosen Zambia for a lifetime. He lived in Africa about as long as he had lived in the Netherlands. He spoke the language, married a Zambian, bought a farm.
“Hello, Mother of Melinda,” he would call out, walking up to the front door, using my African name. He would give Melinda a pat on the head and reach out to take Daany in his arms. Jos honored me as a mother.
Visiting expatriates were too tied into their own agendas and missions to take any notice of me. They came from the United Nations, from various embassies, from the World Health Organization. They came to assist native women, to help refugees, to dig wells, and vaccinate cattle. They were busy people with the problems of the world heaped upon their shoulders. They arrived—unannounced and phantomlike—blown in on the wind of a speedboat or an airplane, businesslike and effcient.
“What do you do here?” they would ask.
“I’m a mother, a housewife. Umm. Johan works with SNV,” I would say as they turned away to find someone more significant.
But Jos and Solie came, and smiled, and talked not just to Johan but to me. We played games together, visited their farm, pieced together puzzles with their children.
When I remember Zambia, I remember Jos.
african story number one: kalabo village and fertility
A man with white skin and eyes like sky, he come to my village.
“Thomas,” he says, “I need some help. Will you work in the wheat trial plots?”
And I says, “Yes, Bwana, I will work.”
This man he gives me tool. “Like this, Thomas,” he says. “You will take out the weeds, and dig the soil.” He hire three people now to work.
This man he come to here. He smile and smile as he walk through plot of my neighbor, Sitali. “Good work,” he says. He shakes Sitali hand.
Then he walks in my plot. He does not smile to me.
He says, “Look, Thomas, look at how well Sitali works his plot. He even has a garden near to his house.”
And this makes me to look. And this is the thing that I see. Sitali, he has good land. I do not. Why did Bwana give me this bad plot of land? It is not growing anything. And Sitali, he is eating pumpkin leaves already.
I will go to see the witchdoctor, the mulaulil. I will find out why my land it is no good.
The mulaulil says, “It is Sitali. He has taken the fertility of your plot and put it into his own garden.”
Ah, all this makes sense to me. Sitali, who lives beside me, is a thief. How can a man in my own village do this bad thing?
I get up in the darkness and go silent to his garden and slash it to nothing.
In the morning the whole village sees this punishment that happen in the night.
It is too bad. Sitali, who is as a brother to me, he walk with his head down. But he will not do this thing again.
between the devil and the deep blue sea
I am walking through a small convenience store, not far from soccer camp. In the food aisle, a box stands out: Angel Hair Spaghetti. Angel hair, angel eggs. What is it with angels on my mind? I wonder if satanic worshippers are vexed when they—also needing a bathroom at a convenience store—walk by this aisle, see this box. Do they go to potlucks or potspells? Do they reinvent words and meals and eat devil-hair spaghetti to suit their spiritual bent?
Is this all that we are doing? Clothing our world, our thoughts, with the finery of words, like lace upon a cushion?
Dust and cake and fish are words that cross the barrier between light and dark. Angel dust and dust devils, angel food cake and devil’s food cake, angelfish and devilfish. There are a lot of words living in this theologically mountainous territory. How long until modern dictionaries will add angel eggs to their listings? Will reference books soon diversify like politics? Roget’s Righteous and Religious International Thesaurus. The Shorter Oxford English Evangelical Dictionary. The Chicago Manual of Christian Style. God help us. If we are not careful, we might even need to differentiate the restaurants that we frequent. We will have a McDogma breakfast followed by a Burger King of King’s lunch with supper at Thank God It’s Fundamental. We will follow this by dessert at the Dunkin’ Only Donuts, No Sprinkles Allowed, which just opened up down the street. I hear it is sinfully delicious. We can invite the neighbors. But then again, maybe not. It might be too great a temptation.
kalabo district court
During the time of colonial rule in Zambia, the British instituted a Witchcraft Ordinance. Activities subject to the law and deemed illegal included “the throwing of bones, the use of charms and any other means, process or device, adopted in the practice of witchcraft or sorcery.” This ordinance had little success, especially in Kalabo, a witchcraft center known across much of southern Africa.
The most common case seen in Kalabo during British rule was necrophagy. In a two-year period, there were 1,212 cases of necrophagy in the areas of Kalabo, Mongu, Senanga, and Sesheke. Kalabo District Court heard 175 of them.
A necrophager exhumed a corpse for consumption. Medicines, made from the bones of a man, often possessed great power, while compounds prepared from the bones of a baby had more. But the most exceptional medicinal potency came from the bones of a white person. The rotting flesh of a corpse was also desirable: empowerment came from eating it.
Witchdoctors specialized in their practices. Herbalists healed with plants and treated minor complaints. Curing doctors worked against sicknesses caused by witches and sorcerers. Diviners, properly called mulaulil, rooted around for causes and searched for the sources of life’s troubles. A true witch went by many names, muloi, sorcerer, bewitcher, or wizard, and held the most power. Their authority came at a price; the spirits demand complete and total obedience.
When I moved to Kalabo Village—fifty years after Reynolds’s book was first published—people still came from all over Zambia, and from surrounding countries, to consult the witchdoctors there. Kalabo was famous for them.
Back then, there was something in the air that I caught wind of, but I didn’t have any words to explain it. Drumming in the night that spoke a hidden language. A gust of chill air—on an otherwise hot day—flying past my cheek.
african story number two: mr. jos
There is one quiet and maybe he is shy man who live near Kalabo. Long ago he come from far away place. He live in Zambia so long that he marries to a Zambian woman. And she already have the two children but that is okay to him. He does not kick out children of other man. The Zambian woman she is happy with her kind man and fish farm and big garden. Always they have the food and the children they are fat. Sorry the one boy has blind eye, but this is cause of sickness long ago.
This man name is Mr. Jos. He ride his motorcycle everywhere caring for the animals. Giving the medicine. He try to stop the tsetse fly, teach fish farm, show how easy to grow and harvest the cashew nut. He always good to people, Mr. Jos. He not like most white man I know. We walk and talk and he hold my hand just like African man. He not rude. He not want to hurry.
Then one day this bad thing happen and he fall off his motorcycle on the Sipata Road. I go to tell Solie and she come running. She sit beside Mr. Jos, she put his head in her lap, her tears falling on his face. She brush and brush the flies. She sit in the sand.
Then there is big happenings. Mr. Jos must be buried. So white people in town they are hurry hurry. Call to even to the big man himself, Governor. Pick out the clothes, wash the Mr. Jos body so nicely, fix his hair and shave face. There is new pillow under his head and flowers oh so many. All this hurry for one man. But he does not hurry. He lie still.
Solie she is African woman. She not hurry. We build big fire and all the village come together. Even one white woman, Mother of Melinda, that one they call Mrs. Johan, she come too. She sit with Solie all night like she is friend. She sit by Solie and hold her hand. She look at fire. I never see white woman cry like this. She lay her head on Solie shoulder and together they watch the fire fly up into the dark sky. They looking for Mr. Jos. Where is he gone? It is such a thing.
And Solie she say over and over, “I should have been there. I could have given him some water. Maybe he was thirsty.” And then she cry some more.
But the white woman she say, “It was his heart, Solie. He died quickly.”
Then for awhile everybody quiet. And some tell a story. “Do you know, Solie, he never called me Jill. When he came by he always used my African name. He’d say, ‘Mother of Melinda, it’s so nice to see you. How are you today?’ I will miss him so much.”
And Solie she wail again, “I should have been there. The ants were already crawling into his nose. I should have been there.”
Mr. Jos he have so many friend. Hundred and hundred they come to the funeral. Many car they follow slow out to the burial. It is beautiful casket that is next to hole.
Solie she is good woman. She hire man to dig big hole and deep. Not only that she pay to have hole all cement. Bottom and sides all cement and thick. They put Mr. Jos into the cement hole, and he is covered up. On the top, when it is done, will come one more layer. Cement on the top.
The white people they have to ask why this is. But there is not one Zambian who have to ask. It is good Mr. Jos have a Zambian wife. She know. She strong woman and only say, “The grave will be cement.”
The kitchen staff at soccer camp boil, cool, and peel eggs. They say to each other, “It’s not ‘angel eggs.’ It’s ‘angeled eggs.’ ”
They fill the eggs with a concoction of seasoned and mashed yolks. Cayenne pepper is sprinkled on top for a splash of color. All the while they argue back and forth in theological discussion.
If I bring deviled eggs to a pot blessing, am I consigning my friends to an eternity in darkness? Or are they—the eggs, not my friends—merely scandalously delectable?
What of the double dilemma I face when both devil’s food cake and angel food cake are offered at a restaurant? Could it really make a difference which I choose?
Can it be that the words themselves have any power? If so perhaps my children should grow up in a non-devil’s-food-cake, non-deviled-egg home. Be careful what you teach your children. If the mere mention of these names carries condemnation, then what is the power of ingestion?
I sat beside Solie through a black night as the wind and fire carried our grief up into the darkened void. The night lasted forever, but it was not long. In a strange way it became one of the most comforting nights of my life. Everyone sat generously, without shame. No holding back and sniffling into Kleenex. No Valium or sweet music, just the rolling out of grief and the deep inhuman sound of wailing that came unbidden and unhindered. Somehow the very freedom to wail salved the pain. It was not hysterical or hopeless. It was not sanitized.
The following day a Requiem Mass was offered.
On March 17, 1986, in the Kalabo graveyard, Joseph Hubertus Gerardus Vliexs was buried in his own private crypt beneath the African sun that he had loved and labored in for twenty-five years of his life. He was fifty-five years old.
old bones to grind
Waiting for Johan to come home at night, I told our children fairy tales and Bible stories. Melinda and Daany listened intently.
“Make a wish, Melinda,” I said as we watched the night sky, the Southern Cross blinking at us in the dark. We sang ourselves to sleep. “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.”
Daany liked the rhyme and rhythm of Jack and the Beanstalk best. I took no notice of the words, only repeated the old rhymes by memory. Clapping and tapping, my voice as deep as a giant’s.
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
a scrabbled life
Late in the evening at soccer camp, I play board games with campers. They are up late, talkative, and restless. We pull out Scrabble and set it up. I never learned to play it very well, and the late-night hour does not improve my game. People tire of playing with me; I spend too much time trying to make up my mind, looking at the tiles I have picked up, and wishing for something else. Perhaps another vowel. The three-minute sand timer is swiftly running out, and I am still ruminating over a double-double play. I am sure it is there somewhere, if I could only find it.
At soccer camp, I play words like angel and devil, while the wind outside whispers through the pines. If I were a better player, I would try to impress people. I would lay down all my tiles, spelling out redemption and jubilee. I would lay down words I believe in. Words I understand.
But, even if I excelled at Scrabble, there would still be a host of words I couldn’t use. Half a lifetime of words that would draw puzzled looks or thumbs down if I placed them on the board. Stichting, Nederlandse, and vrijwilligers are not in the Offcial Tournament and Club Word List. Neither is mulaulil. My teammates would call out, “No foreign words allowed!”
I might try necrophagy. Since it has more than nine letters, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary would be consulted. Knowing this would make me hesitate to place it on the board. Even if I answered factually—necrophagy the noun, the act of eating corpses, necrophagous the adjective, feeding upon human flesh—I would be avoiding the real questions.
Grain by grain, the sand in the timer is falling. I don’t know what to do with these words and their muted meanings buried in my past. Solie placed her dead in a cement crypt to protect what must decay—a precious body—while I veil myself in a scramble of word choices. What should I do with the unruly facts that will not be contained, the rowdy roil of my own history? Lay the tiles out one by one. Letter by letter. Place them together side by side, as if playing Scrabble. When the game is over, there are horizontal and vertical lines. It is not a picture puzzle. There are gaps and holes and empty places on the board. Even if you win.
Jill Noel Kandel grew up in North Dakota and has lived in Zambia, Indonesia, England, and in her husband’s native Netherlands. After working abroad for ten years, she returned to the U.S. and currently lives with her husband and children in Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, Image, and Under the Sun. Ever since her oldest son married a Jill, she has been reduced to the necessity of using a middle name. The U.S. Postal Service is still trying to sort out the two of them.