I was sitting in the single cushion living room sofa chair in my Uncle Tenson and Aunt NyaZghambo’s house in Northmead. It was Friday evening and we had just finished dinner of nshima with beef and rape dende, umunani or relish. My uncle and aunt had retired to their bedroom. The servant had picked up the dishes from the dining room and put them in the kitchen sink and had locked the kitchen door for the night. He walked out of the kitchen back door to go to bed in his servant’s quarters. My niece Misozi 8, and nephew Tizaso 11, were sitting on the edge of the long sofa ready for me to tell them a story. The black and white grainy TV was switched off. They were already in their pajamas. Since it was Friday the children could sleep a little late because they were not going to school in the morning.
“This is a story about we boys digging mbeba (mice) in the village in the 1950s,” I said to both children as I shifted to the edge of my chair so that I could make hand gestures more freely when I was telling the story.
“Is mbeba the same as rats?” Tizaso asked.
“I have seen rats running away at the servant’s quarters,” Misozi chimed in.
“No, No, No,” I replied. “People who don’t know always make that mistake. Mbeba live in underground holes in the wild in the gardens. Rats live in the house and are very dirty. No one eats rats.”
“Why do they hunt them?” Misozi asked.
“People in the Eastern Province eat mice with nshima,” I replied.
Both children laughed.
“Did you eat them too?” Tizaso asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s why as boys we used to hunt them. I will explain to you about mbeba first. Because you might not understand the story if you don’t know what mbeba is and how they behave. You can ask me any questions. But after I start the story, you have to stay quiet and just listen.”
Both children nodded in agreement.
“There are many types of mbeba; tondwe, kabwanda, mzumi, kapuku and tondo. Tondwe has a reddish brown back and white stomach. It makes its holes in the munda where people grow food. Kabwanda is a very small mouse that digs very deep into the ground. It has a lot of fat that people like to eat. Mzumi is a grayish mouse with large sharp teeth. It burrows endlessly long shallow holes in wet dambos and stream valleys. You could spend the rest of your life digging and you would never find it. I tried it once. I dug all day in circles and missed lunch and almost super too. “
The children laughed.
“I never caught the mouse,” I continued. “The tondo is perhaps the largest and fastest mouse. It has a long nose and makes clear paths in the bush on which it always travels to and from its hole of a house and its dining room tables in the bushes.”
“You mean they have a dining room table like ours over there,” Misozi laughed pointing to the dining room. “That’s very funny. Tell us the mice story, Uncle Mwizenge!!” Misozi said as she impatiently bounced up and down on the sofa. “I can’t wait!!”
“One sunny hot October afternoon in the village,” I began. “My friends Kajanike, Undani, Njenje and I saw blue smoke rising in the sky above the dambo valley near our village. It was luphya (someone had set the seasonal fire to the bush). We boys were about 11 years old knew the whole dambo would be clear of tall grass which would be perfect for hunting mice. I went and got my grandfather’s small hoe to dig the mice with. Kajanike brought something unusual. It looked like a cigarette some adult men sometimes smoked. But he said it was dagga, vyamba, or marijuana. He said one of the older boys had given it to him. Kajanike said the older boy had said that if we smoked dagga, we would become better mice hunters.”
“Were you afraid?” Tizaso asked anxiously.
“Yes, very afraid” I replied. “I had heard very bad things about what dangerous things can happen to you when you smoke dagga.”
“We hid behind the village nkhokwe and quickly smoked the dagga while we took turns looking out for any adults who might have been coming. Although I was afraid, I smoked it only 3 times. By the time we reached the dambo valley, we were all laughing. We walked passed a group of women who were relatives that knew us. They were drawing water from the village chisimi (open water well).”
“Mwizenge!! Anyamata (all of you boys)!” Aunt NyaBambe shouted. “You have to bring many mice home this evening! We will have the pots ready to cook the dende (relish) for dinner!!” They laughed in unison.
“You need to prove to us women of the village that you are real men!!!” another woman shouted as they all laughed joking and teasing us.
There was black suit, ashes, and smoldering twigs all over the dambo. Elders had told us that hunting for mice after a bush fire is very risky. All kinds of dangerous creatures and insects desperately escaping the inferno run into the nearest hole for safety. The hole might have hiding in it scorpions, sisinya stinging ants, spiders, iguanas, and even lizards. We were still laughing when we found this large mice hole and Udani began to dig. Njenje told me to locate the mbuli (mice small escape hole) while he went to break mphici (short sticks to club the escaping the mice with).
“Mwizenge!” cousin Kajanike said. “While Undani is kutokosa (shoving into the mice hole), you should go to the small mice escape hole. Put your hand around it and wait. When the first mouse tries to escape out, your nifty hand and fingers will be right there to swiftly grab it!! Then we will use mphici (clubs) to kill the rest of the mice”. We laughed.
“I was ready crouching down with my right hand and fingers around the small mice escape hole, when Undani shoved the stick into the other end of the hole. I saw the tip of the mouse’s nose in the hole. As soon as its head was about to emerge out of the hole, with my quick reflexes, I grabbed it. As I pulled the mouse out, to my utter shock it got longer and longer. It was a big snake. I was grabbing and was squeezing the mbobo most poisonous snake around the neck just below its mouth. It was furiously wriggling and coiling its body around my small arm.”
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” Tizaso yelled as he squeezed his eyes shut, contorting his face while vigorously shaking his head, and placing each of his hands on each shut eye.
“Amama ineeeeeeeee!!!” Misozi’s eyes bulged out as she cried out rapidly flapping her hands on her rigid wrists up and down as she bounced up down on the sofa.
By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.
Professor of Sociology