Underwater

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“She put her hand out and touched the hard, dry floor. Water all around her, all the way up to the thatched roof. Water outside, water flowing high above the roofs of homes. Fields and trees and rocks deep at the bottom of a huge lake of water.”

Originally posted on The Kalahari Review in October 2015   (Photos © Meri Hyöky

By Leila Hall 

Thabiso’s nightmares began long before the men arrived. One night, ‘Mateboho was awoken by the sounds of his soft murmurs – faint noises that pushed their way through the darkness. She lay awake and listened. She could make out his sharp and urgent intakes of breath, noticeably different from the deep and heavy breathing of the other sleepers in the rondavel. She turned to look at him. He was rocking in his sleep, his small, bony frame shaken from time to time by sudden, involuntary jerks.

In the morning, he was wide-eyed and distant. The other children moved around noisily, getting ready for the day ahead. ‘Mateboho watched him as he sat up and wrapped himself in his blanket, seemingly unsure of what to do or where to go. The girls left for school, and the older boys took the cattle out. She told him quietly that he could stay with her today. Her husband, Pule, was already at work in his fields. She knew that he would disagree with this preferential treatment, but for now he was far away. She brought Thabiso some warm motoho, and sat down with him.

“What were you dreaming about last night?”

The child stared ahead, his expression blank, his shoulders hunched. He answered her in a small, timid voice.

“The water serpents.”

Gently, she let her hand rest on his head. She had a soft spot for this one, her youngest. He was different from her other boys, who were loud and boisterous, shouting at one another and tackling each other to the ground in lengthy play-fights. Thabiso was quiet and shy, and seemed almost frightened of other people. He tottered silently behind the others, and did nothing when they teased and taunted him. His father often grew impatient with him, frustrated at his unresponsiveness and his clumsy, impractical nature. ‘Mateboho would watch Pule erupt at Thabiso and then, later, when she was alone with the child, would draw him close and soothe him – with a song, a joke, something to eat – until he would glance up at her with a quick, hesitant smile.

At first, she dismissed Thabiso’s dream as nothing more than a childish nightmare. Stories about the water serpents were well known in the village. It was said that they lived in the deep pools of water along the riverbed, places that most people avoided if they could. The serpents were enormous, supernatural creatures, with the heads of cows and horses, and invisible strings that they used to pull people into the water. Pule would tell the children wild, long-winded stories about people who had been deceived and captured. These people had been taken underneath the water, to a dry place where the serpents had their own village. Most of these victims had never been seen again, but a lucky few had escaped and had lived to tell the tale.

On nights when thunderstorms raged outside, Pule would say that the serpents had fought amongst themselves and now, in their fury, were moving from pool to pool. So as not to be seen, they had created huge, dark clouds and a heavy mist to hide in. Their tails beat ferociously against the water, and the splashes fell down to earth as rain. ‘Mateboho would watch the expressions on the children’s faces when these stories were told. Thabiso’s face always looked the same. His mouth would hang open and he would raise his eyebrows high, his wide eyes fixated on the storyteller.

Her worries began when the nightmares would not go away. Night after night, she heard the sounds of Thabiso’s dreams – the low murmurs of fear, the shuffles in the blankets as he thrashed around. She would question him in the morning, and he would always tell her the same story. He dreamt of water serpents, of finding himself underwater and being unable to escape or to swim back up. She would try to reassure him, to tell him that he was safe and far from the reach of any serpents. He would nod quietly as she spoke, but at night the dreams would return.

She told some of the other women in the village about the nightmares. A few of them simply laughed. Many tried to guess at possible reasons for the dreams, and to suggest solutions. There was the possibility that this was witchcraft, that the child had somehow offended somebody who was now using strong medicine to send these visions. Or perhaps she, ‘Mateboho, had angered someone who was now set on harming her children. Either way, she was advised to go and see a traditional healer, who would be able to tell her where these dreams were coming from. The healer would be especially helpful in the case of dreams about water serpents. It was known that some healers went on long journeys underwater, where they met with the serpents and the ancestors, who taught them the secrets of healing. After weeks or months they would re-emerge from the water, unharmed.

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She had not yet made up her mind about whether or not to take Thabiso to the healer when the men arrived. They came to the village in a big, shiny 4×4, moving swiftly and easily across the rocks and dirt paths. They parked at the chief’s home, and were immediately surrounded by groups of giggling children, who rarely saw visitors from other places. Two of them were white men, and the other three were Basotho in smart trousers and shirts, no doubt from the lowlands. The villagers watched with a quiet curiosity, which steadily grew when the visitors came for a second, and then third visit. Questions and speculations began to fly around. What was this about? What could these visitors want in their small village, where they were so rarely disturbed by outsiders?

A pitso was called a few days later. The men and women of the village gathered eagerly, hopeful that they would be told the reason for the visits from the men. They had seen the 4×4 arriving that morning, so they were not surprised to find the strangers seated in front of them. The chief spoke only briefly, welcoming the visitors, and then invited them to share the matter that had brought them here. One of the Basotho men stood up. A silence fell among the listeners, and the more the man spoke, the more the silence seemed to grow.

He told them that the government of Lesotho had begun a new and wonderful project through which it would soon start to sell water to South Africa. This would bring a lot of money to the country, which the government would use to build and develop the nation, and in this way the project would greatly benefit all Basotho. The main work of the project was to change the flow of rivers, and to build high walls that allowed water to fill up into huge lakes that were called ‘dams’. Tunnels would be built that would carry the water all the way from these dams to Johannesburg, where the water would be used in the mines and by the people living in that city.

The man unrolled a large piece of paper that had a lot of drawings on it. One of the other men helped him to hold it up high. With his finger, the man followed the wavy black lines on the paper. These were rivers. His fingers drew a circle around the middle of the drawing. This was the valley they were in now. He then pointed to a strange, complicated shape that had been shaded grey. This was the new dam that they were going to build. Finally, he showed them a small black dot on the map. This was their village. The dot was inside the grey shape.

The villagers frowned and narrowed their eyes. Nobody spoke. The man cleared his throat. What, in fact, he was saying was that all of these villages here were going to be covered by the water of the dam. His finger moved quickly as he pointed to the many black dots that were inside the grey shape. He paused for a minute. He understood that this was a difficult and painful thing for them to hear, but he had to inform them that they, the people of this village, were going to have to be moved to new homes. The good news was that the project would build new, modern houses for them and would replace all of their fields. In the months to come, he and his colleagues would spend a lot of time in the village, so as to come to a clear understanding of the properties owned by each household, and to ensure that enough money was paid to them to cover the costs of everything that would be lost. The man paused once more, and then repeated that he understood that this was difficult and painful news. He put his hand on his chest. He and his colleagues were here to help. He hoped that they would be able to work peacefully with the people of the village.

The men and women of the village sat before him, stunned. The frowns on their faces had deepened. Some looked towards their chief, but his eyes would not meet any of theirs. After a few minutes, Pule stood up. He took his hat off and introduced himself in a deep, clear voice. He appeared calm and took his time, pronouncing each word carefully.

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I was born in this village, as was my father, and his father before him. What you may not realise, bo-ntate, is that this valley has the best soil in all of these mountains. In this village we grow maize, wheat, peas, beans, pumpkins, potatoes. This year our soil has given us so much that we have been able to feed our families and have still had food left to sell. The grasslands here keep our animals fat, and each year their numbers grow. We have never asked for help from your government. You are telling us that you are going to take our land for your project. I am telling you that this will never happen. It would be best for you to go and find another place to build your dam.

Slowly, he sat down. His words had awoken the other villagers from their silence. As he spoke, they nodded and shouted out words of agreement. Now, their voices rose together in anger and indignation. The man who had first spoken to them pressed his lips together and exchanged glances with his colleagues. He stood up and once more repeated his words. He understood that this was difficult and painful news, but unfortunately the plans to build the dam in this valley could not change. The villagers shook their heads and raised their voices. The man stood in front of them as if frozen, and looked towards the chief, appealing for help. The chief stood up and raised his hands. The people fell silent. He thanked the men for sharing the news. Truly, the matters of which they spoke were difficult, and could not be dealt with in a single meeting. He looked forward to welcoming them again, and was sure that they would all be able to work peacefully together. He declared the pitso over, and shook his head in response to the angry cries of the people of the village. He turned and walked with the men to their car.

‘Mateboho walked home alone. She could hear many loud and angry conversations happening around her. People were indignant, in disbelief. Who did these strangers think they were? What nonsense were they speaking? And what about their chief? Should he not have been on their side?

She did not know what to do or what to think. She swept the house and the yard. She went to fetch firewood and water. She prepared the evening meal and ate with the children. When she lay down she found that sleep would not come. Pule was still outside somewhere. She began to hear the familiar sounds of Thabiso’s dreams, and wondered what it was that he was seeing. Was he underwater? She tried to imagine their home, this rondavel, full of water. She put her hand out and touched the hard, dry floor. Water all around her, all the way up to the thatched roof. Water outside, water flowing high above the roofs of homes. Fields and trees and rocks deep at the bottom of a huge lake of water. A feeling of great fear came over her. It could not be true, it could not be a thing that was real. She pushed the thoughts away.

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In the morning, Pule and a group of other men went to speak with the chief. They stayed there for many hours, and when they returned they looked angry and worried. The chief had only repeated what the man at the pitso had told them. He had insisted that this thing was out of his power. The government had already decided that this was where the dam would be built. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

For the rest of the day, the people of the village spoke of nothing else. This chief of theirs must have been bribed. Those white men and those lowlanders must have paid him a handsome sum of money to make him turn his back on his own people like this. Pule was furious. People gathered in a circle around him and listened as he declared loudly that they would take this matter to the King and the Prime Minister. They would not bow down to these big-headed foreigners. This was their home, this was the land of their ancestors, and they would refuse to move. The people standing around him nodded and raised their voices in agreement. A letter had to be written immediately and delivered to those men of power who sat in Maseru. One of the clever youngsters of the village who had just finished high school was called to come and write, and for the next few hours people crowded around her and discussed loudly how the letter should be written and all the important points that should be included in it.

The men returned to the village the following day. The villagers watched as, once more, they parked outside the chief’s home, walked into his house and closed the door behind them. People shook their heads in disgust. Hours later, they watched as the men emerged, climbed back into their car, and drove away.

Something strange then began to happen. Over the next few days, some of the people of the village were summoned to the chief’s house one by one, and when questioned about it they refused to speak. People grew suspicious, and their anger towards the chief rose. Soon they heard that another pitso had been called. After much deliberation and many drafts, the letter that was to be taken to Maseru was finally ready, but it was decided that it would be delivered after the pitso, once they had heard whatever it was that they were to be told.

The men of the project were not present at the pitso. Only the chief stood before the villagers. He greeted them, and began by saying that he was sorry for this thing that had befallen them. Unfortunately, nothing could be done to change it, so the only thing to do was to accept it. Instead of complaining, the villagers should be thinking of all the good things that this dam would bring. The construction of roads, bridges and tunnels would soon begin, and there would be plenty of jobs available. They would be able to choose where they wanted to resettle, and the project would build them new houses and pay them a lot of money. The chief looked at them sternly. Truly, there was nothing to be complaining about.

He then called on the people who had been seen going to his house in the past few days. They stood up. These men and women, the chief declared, were the newly appointed Village Committee. The men of the project wanted to work hand in hand with the villagers, and they had decided that the best way to do this was through a Committee. The Committee would relay news from the project to the villagers, and any questions or concerns were to be addressed to the Committee. The men of the project would also visit each household, and he hoped that the villagers would welcome them, show them respect, and cooperate with their questions and demands.

When he had finished speaking, the chief stood and looked at the villagers. He said nothing more. The men and women of the new Committee looked straight ahead or stared at their feet and said nothing. People turned to look at Pule, expecting that he would speak, but he remained seated and silent, his eyes locked on the chief. The pitso was closed.

Quietly but firmly, Pule declared that he would go to Maseru the next day to deliver the letter. The group agreed that this was a good thing. The heavy silence from thepitso had stayed, and a new, unsure feeling had crept up and settled amongst them. They said very little to one another as they walked home.

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Pule left early, climbing onto his horse as the sun was rising. ‘Mateboho felt sick, her whole body filled with worry. She had tried to question him about whether he knew where to go or who to speak with, but he had only said that he would make sure the letter reached the right people. Again and again, he had repeated that they would not move, that they would not let these people steal their land. She had nodded.

The older children had heard the news, and questioned her anxiously. She told them that their father had gone to Maseru to speak to important men who would surely listen to what the villagers had to say. They would refuse to move, she told them. They would fight until the government changed their plans. She pleaded with them not to tell Thabiso what they knew. His nightmares had not left him. Night after night, his head was flooded with terrifying visions of an underwater world. She continued to reassure him, to tell him that the things he saw were not real. He was safe where he was, on dry land.

The men of the project began to come to the village daily. They held lengthy meetings with the chief and the Committee, and then started to go from house to house, spending many hours with each family. The villagers began to ask all sorts of questions, but it seemed that nobody had definite answers. Some had been told things by the Committee, but as soon as an issue had been made clear, it was contradicted by somebody else, who had heard something different. Land was a major concern. Everybody who had attended the first pitso remembered being told that they would be given new fields. Now they were being told that this was impossible. Some said that they would be given bags of food to replace their harvests. Others had heard that they would receive money. Exactly how much money was unclear, but people spoke of thousands and thousands of maloti – numbers that sounded absurd, unreal.

Another question was that of the graves of the village. Surely they could not leave them behind to be washed away by the water? What kind of rage would that provoke amongst the ancestors? Some said that the graves would be dug up, so that people could take the dead with them to their new homes. The project would buy new coffins, and would slaughter cows so that the dead could be buried again in the correct way. People were horrified. The dead brought back up from the ground? Could it be a good thing to disturb the rest of the ancestors in this way? Some of the old men and women of the village were worried that they could not remember exactly where it was that people from long ago had been buried. One of the men who had worked in the mines in South Africa suggested that one large grave be dug for all those whose remains could not be identified. He had seen this happen before, he said. There had been an explosion once in the mine. It had been impossible to distinguish between the body parts that were found. The many men who had died had been buried together, in a single grave.

As far as possible, ‘Mateboho avoided other people. She could not bear to listen to the endless questions and discussions. The same people who had helped to write the letter now spoke of the dam as if it were a thing that had already happened. People who had lived next door to one another all their lives were now talking of moving to different places. Rumours circulated that certain people had already been offered jobs, and that some were to receive more money than others. People became wary and resentful, and found that they no longer knew who to believe or who to trust.

She longed for Pule to come home. She could not understand why he had been gone for so many days. Perhaps he had found the right men to speak to. Perhaps he would bring good news.

One morning, she was washing blankets by the river when a neighbour came to call her. The men of the project were at her home. Her stomach tightened, but she stood up and went to see them. They asked where her husband was. She told them that he was away, but would be returning soon. One of the men took out a pen. He asked her question after question. He kept his eyes on his paper as he wrote. How many children did she have? How many fields did the family own? Had they already thought of where they were going to resettle? He spoke very slowly, as if she were a child. He then asked to see the family’s compound. She showed him the three rondavels, the peach trees, the vegetable garden, the kraals. He took out a measuring tape. The men walked into each rondavel and crouched down, running the tape along the floor and shouting out numbers to one another. We will build you a big new house with three large rooms, one of the men said to her with a smile. She stared silently back at him.

She took them to see the fields, and watched as they planted sticks into the ground and measured the distances between them. One of the men was wearing new, polished shoes. He walked only on the edges of the field, carefully avoiding the deep, loose earth. They told her the size of each field, but they used an English word that she did not know, and she could not understand how they had decided on the numbers they wrote down. One of the men explained that they would calculate how much money her family would get based on the information they had recorded. He would come back once her husband had returned to discuss the different options that were open to them.

Sleep left her completely after the visit from the men. She was unable to answer any of the questions that came to her. Where would they go? What would happen to their animals? How would they live without their fields? Money was not a thing that stayed with a person. It slipped out of your hands the moment you held it, never to be seen again.

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She had lived in this village her whole life. She knew where every path led. She knew where to cross the river when it was full. She knew where to go to collect firewood and cow dung. She knew where to look for wild vegetables, for plants that were medicine, or for the different types of grasses that one may need to make a broom or to thatch a roof.

She thought of her father. For twenty years, he had worked in the mines, coming home only once or twice a year. He would sit in front of his house, look out at the mountains, and tell her that surely this was the most beautiful village in the world. I may never see this place again, he would say. The hole in the ground might swallow me. When we cross the border we become less than people. We are prepared for anything to happen to us. One day, he had come home with a leg missing. It had been crushed in an accident and had been amputated. He had hobbled around for the rest of his life, becoming increasingly skilful on his crutches. Years later, the mines had finally sent him his compensation money. At least I made it home, he would say. At least the ground did not swallow me.

Finally, one evening, Pule returned. ‘Mateboho hurried to him, anxious to hear how his trip had gone. She longed to tell him about all that had happened. Surely he would have answers for her. Surely he would calm her fears.

When she reached him she saw immediately that he had not slept or washed in many days. His eyes were bloodshot. His jaw was clenched, his lips pressed shut. He would not look at her or talk to her. She questioned him urgently, put her hand on his shoulder and again and again repeated his name, her voice rising desperately. He shook his head and walked home slowly. He lay down, pulled a blanket over his head, and went to sleep.

He lay in the same position in the morning, his chest rising and falling slowly. The children looked at her questioningly. She whispered that he was tired, and hurried them out of the house. At midday, he got up and lit a fire to heat water. He washed himself in silence. She tried once more to talk to him. He said nothing. He walked out of the door and went to his fields.

He remained silent in the days that followed. At first, many people approached him with questions. Had he been able to deliver the letter? Who had he spoken to and what had they said? He acted as if he could not hear or see them, and simply continued with whatever it was that he was doing. Eventually, people learnt to leave him alone. He has forgotten himself, they said to one another. This thing of the dam has made him go mad.

The men of the project heard that her husband was back. They came to her, asking if they could all sit together and discuss things. He won’t talk, she told them. She walked with them to the fields. Pule was bent over, digging. One of the men greeted him as he approached. Pule ignored him. The man persisted, saying that there were urgent matters that he needed to speak with him about. There were different options to be considered, and there were papers that needed to be signed. Pule stopped digging and straightened up. He looked out into the distance, past the man. He stood still for a moment as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and then picked up his spade and continued digging.

‘Mateboho grew used to nights without sleep. Her worries chased each other through her mind, like children running in circles that led nowhere. During the day, she would drag her exhausted body around, longing for rest, but at night she would lie down and remain wide awake, until it was time to stand up again and start another day.

Early one morning, Thabiso’s murmurs suddenly turned into sharp shouts of fear that came one after the other, until he woke himself up with the noise. For a few moments, he lay breathing heavily and then burst into tears. She was about to go to him when she heard Pule stand up. The door of the rondavel opened, and she watched as he walked out, carrying Thabiso in his arms. This was so unexpected, so unusual, that she got up and followed them outside.

It was only just beginning to get light. The village was still and silent. At first, she could not see where Pule had gone, but then she spotted him standing by one of the kraals. He had lifted Thabiso onto the stone wall and stood behind him, supporting him. For a while they looked at the cattle, and then Pule lifted Thabiso down and began to walk, gesturing to the child to come with him. She followed them from a distance. They walked to the fields. Pule crouched down, picked up a handful of soil and said something to Thabiso. A wave of relief came over her. It was the first time in days that she had seen Pule’s lips move. She watched as he pointed to something in the distance, talking continuously. Thabiso stood very still, listening intently, and then stumbled after his father when Pule stood up and continued walking.

They walked down to the river, where Pule stopped and continued to talk, pointing to different rocks. Afterwards, they began to climb the mountainside. She stood by the river and watched as they climbed, their figures steadily growing smaller until they disappeared. She sat down on a rock and wept. The sun was rising and the colours around her were changing. She had not understood at first, but she knew now what Pule was doing. He wanted Thabiso to take the knowledge of this place with him when they left. He wanted Thabiso to remember.

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