IN CHILDHOOD, I HAD A FRIEND called Gwanda. He would stand on one leg like a sumo in mid-stomp, then draw circles in the air with a curled foot while hissing in a witch’s voice: “I hex you, child, and your grandchildren, forever. Caw-caw-cawk-aww!”
He called this character Gogo wa Kamwendo, roughly meaning “tiny-legged grandma.” Though our class had seen his act many times, he could still leave us all in stitches. I don’t remember exactly how it began, but it had to do with mocking one of the old female teachers. Gwanda was an entertainer who received applause alongside floggings and detentions. No matter how much the teachers punished him, he always kept a smile on his face, a pleasant kind of protest.
He was my best mate then. We called ourselves the Rockers, after Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty in the World Wrestling Federation. We were a happy tag team throughout primary school, but in the first year of secondary school we were separated. Last I heard, his family had migrated to Cape Town. His father was a Xhosa who worked for the South African High Commission in Malawi, and he was offered a better job in his homeland. I don’t remember ever seeing Gwanda’s dad, but given how little his son spoke of him, I had a feeling he was a difficult man. His mother was quite the opposite, a complaisant, heavyset woman in figure-hugging dresses and high heels that strained beneath her weight. She had beady eyes and glasses so thick and wide that I couldn’t help but imagine her as a mole. She made us laugh with Gwanda stories, like how he swallowed a tambala when he was three. “The ultrasound showed something round and big sliding down,” she said one time, tracing her finger down his esophagus to his belly, then adding, as she crossed her heart: “I swear before my living God, that coin has never been found! I think Gwanda is the only boy in existence to have fully digested money.”
Her name was Matanda. She hated being called “miss” or “ma’am,” as we’d been trained to do. She would visit our school on Sunday afternoons, and I would lean on the dormitory windowsill to watch her walk side by side with Gwanda, circling the football field like diplomats in discussion. I envied their intimacy. She was like his friend and not his parent. She fussed over him and made me wish I were an only child. When she left, several boxes of tuck and comics—which were invariably shared—would be hauled out of her car boot. He never cried when saying goodbye. But she did.
As I grew up, Gwanda was always at the back of my mind. He had gotten in trouble so much that I worried about how his life would turn out. Would he finish school? Would he get married? Would he have children? I never thought I’d ever see him again.
I went to Blantyre one time to repair a broken lawnmower. This was years ago, around the middle of 2011. I remember it well because there were angry mobs denouncing the presidency of Bingu wa Mutharika in the streets. It was a terrifying time.
I parked at Shoprite to find spare parts. On a whim, I got a soft drink with hot wings at Hungry Lion. You know the parasols outside, in that little square? I was sitting there, scarfing down the chicken, when a gaunt, ragged-looking man approached me.
“Mavuto?” he said. My name sounded both like a question and an answer.
“Yes?” I said, in a mirror of confusion.
He wore a faded black suit that had crinkled like linen. His eyes, wide as an owl’s, locked on to me with no discernable emotion. Nutcase, I thought. But a nutcase who knew my name. I leaned back in my chair and asked who he was.
“It’s me, Gwanda,” he said, rubbing his heart as though I’d poked him. “We went to school together.” The accent was South African.
The Gwanda I remembered had a beautiful smile; this guy had a sullen grimace half hidden in his beard. “Saint John’s Primary School?” I said.
Twenty years can certainly mold a stranger. Reflexively I said, “Your grandchildren, forever!” in the voice he used to use. In hindsight, that was awkward and rude, considering how the man looked. His face was blank for a second, then his eyes flitted up until the memory was sifted back to him. He barely cracked a smile.
“I need your help, brother,” he said.
“Of course, man. What can I do?” I said, gesturing for him to sit down. He didn’t.
“My mother—” As soon as he said it, his hands rushed to muzzle his quivering lips. It made my stomach turn. “She—uh…she’s died. She’s dead.”
He pointed to the car park. I realized there was a Cadillac-style hearse there, right in front of us, like a longship in a sea of cars. An elderly chauffeur was stooped over the steering wheel, waiting, a lily-white casket in the back.
“Bru, we’ve run out of fuel,” Gwanda muttered. “I know how it looks. And how it sounds. But…” He averted his eyes.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said, drawing fifty thousand kwacha from my wallet. What happened to your mother? I wanted to ask. To the pleasant woman with beautiful dresses who gave us all cakes? It seemed insensitive to pry, so I said, “Is there anything else I can do?”
He shook his head.
“Where and when is the funeral, Gwanda?”
He shook his head again, much more vigorously. “Forgive me, it’s all so sudden. I don’t know what the plan is. She was from Liwonde, so we are heading there now.”
Whenever I think of his response, it breaks my heart. Where was his father? And by “we” did he mean “me and the driver,” or “me and Mother,” or all three of them? There were no other vehicles following when they left. I suppose it was all three, which—and I can’t really explain why—depresses me.
We are heading there…
When I hugged him goodbye, he whispered, “God, why did this happen to me?” I tapped on his back soothingly, the way a mother does. When we parted, he stuffed the fifty thousand kwacha into his inner jacket pocket. His eyes were red from crying. I couldn’t bear to look at him, so I focused on his cheeks, his gaunt, chapped lips. Middle age had stolen all the luster from his face. His fragrance of cocoa butter—which we all teased him about—had been replaced with the odors of manhood: sweat and musky aftershave. For a moment I wondered if it was really the same Gwanda at all. I couldn’t picture this man balancing on one leg or putting a hex on anyone.
“Thank you, Mavuto,” he said. “I’ll pay you back.”
It felt like a dagger. Who would expect their money back? “Don’t mention it,” I said.
His dry, clay-like lips relaxed into a smile. “Let me get your contacts so I can properly thank you sometime.”
On a grease-stained napkin I wrote down my number.
Then off he went.
I was so disturbed that for a long while I just sat and stared out beyond Kamuzu Stadium into oblivion, where not even the brightest stars could banish the darkness.
To this day I have no idea how his mother passed away, or how the funeral went, or whether the money I gave him was enough. I’m not even sure whether he stayed in Malawi or returned to South Africa. He could be dead, for all I know. It’s been seven years. I’ve searched for him on social media with no luck. I wonder about why he didn’t call. Did he lose my number? Was it me? Something I said? Was he ashamed to have asked someone who had become almost a stranger for money? Or is this just how things go when we encounter a friend from the past?
The Japanese have a word, irusu, for pretending to be out when someone we don’t want to see is knocking at our door. Maybe that’s how he felt. We compartmentalize our lives, don’t we? When someone from one area unexpectedly shows up in another, it can create dissonance. Emotionally, I mean. Enough to justify avoidance.
The Rockers officially broke up when Shawn Michaels super-kicked Marty Jannetty through the window of Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s shop. It devastated the fans. How could best friends treat each like that? They were the best tag team in the world, for God’s sake. Naturally, kids at school wondered if Gwanda and I would stop calling ourselves the Rockers. We settled on Rockers for Life.
Too embarrassed to keep in touch?
Another thing Gwanda and I loved was cartoons. He wanted to become an animator. But not like Walt Disney or Chuck Jones, he would say. He just wanted to be an inbetweener, one of the guys who fill in the frames between the key poses drawn by master animators. It sounded unambitious to me, like wanting to color in what someone else has drawn. He argued that he didn’t want to be in charge or in the spotlight, because of the responsibility and the judgment that would come with failure. We were too young to express things how I’ve put them now. In any case, it was strange to hear that someone who was usually at the center longed to be in the background.
I think Gwanda was too sensitive to be at a boarding school. It was his father who wanted him there, really. His mother was too nurturing for that. His lack of ambition used to confuse me, but I’ve come to appreciate that, like many of us, he was happiest in his comfort zone, in between.
After Gwanda drove away, another strange thing happened. As I walked out of Shoprite, a guy with a guitar by the ATMs gave me a discomforting stare. He must’ve been in his early fifties. He had white dreadlocks, like a pit of albino mambas sliding over his shoulders. He seemed overdressed for a busker, and he played too eagerly to have been a professional. He pointed at me as slowly as the grim reaper and said, “This one’s for you, breddah.” As his fingers danced over the frets in a flamenco style, he crooned:
You didn’t say goodbye to me, señorita
Now you’re breaking my heart in two parts like Maria
You know I loved you much more than Suzanna
Señorita, you’re breaking my heart
It was melodic, and it was beautiful, but I felt an overwhelming urge to suppress whatever joy he was spreading. I kicked away his collection tin, sending coins tinkling around his feet. Here was a guy singing about heartbreak with a rictus grin on his face—making light of loss, it seemed to me. I was irked by his loudness, his happiness. It seemed unfair to Gwanda, who was probably riding toward Liwonde in silence, in despair, with his mother’s casket.
I ran to the car and telephoned my father. “I’ve done worse,” he laughed. Dad always knew how to calm me down. “The worst thing about death is being forgotten. She seemed like a fine woman—with flamboyant hats on sports days, right?” I could tell he was smiling. “To be remembered is good enough, son.”
The mother. The coin. The chicken. The casket. The smell. The song. The raised and twisted foot. Gwanda’s face. The heat. All of those memories, over time, have congealed into a bitter ache in my heart.
J.G. Jesman is a Malawian British author and animator. His debut novel, Chisoni (Penguin Random House South Africa), was published in May 2022. His short stories have appeared in Fairlight Books’ featured stories, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere.