Beata Paulus burned her mother’s Bible and notebook. It is the place Beata now warms her hands as the chill of night air sweeps across from the Kalahari into her backyard. It was the logical thing to do, she’d thought. If a truth threatens your family, then it must forever be hidden. Whatever the cost.
Her younger brother Solomon sits across from her. He’s slumped in a camping chair with a glass of red wine in one hand–a merlot that Beata was saving for his graduation and his mother’s radio in the other. In fact, Solomon hadn’t stopped her; he’d aided and abetted her. First, he placed the two items in the centre, then he smeared the wood with a firelighter and stacked it in a column. He has reasons for wanting them reduced to dust.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
This story needs to be told from the beginning.
Johannes Johannes was a broad and towering man; his stature alone was intimidating. As village headman, he housed the first missionary to work in Otshima and the surrounding villages. Magnus Stefansson made Johannes’ acquaintance whilst delivering last rites to injured miners staring at death’s door. The two struck up a friendship when the mine finally allowed church service in the workers’ compound on Sundays. But Magnus couldn’t bring his Bible into the protected diamond area because he refused to let the guard search it. Johannes had been gracious, lending him his copy. So, when in 1962, Johannes invited Magnus to Otshima, he agreed. There, Magnus established a parish and translated the Bible into Oshiwambo, becoming one of the first Finnish missionaries to learn Oshiwambo after arriving in Namibia.
Johannes’s teenage daughter, Lineah, was tasked with cleaning Magnus’ quarters, a task she performed with exceptional diligence because it allowed her to peruse the translated Bible’s manuscript and several other books. The Catholic primary school closest to their village had taught her the alphabet, basic numbers, and, most importantly, her teachers said, the Lord’s Prayer. She was awed at the language on the pages and wondered if the meanings were anything she could guess.
One day, Magnus caught Lineah stealing a look at the book written in Suomi, an indiscretion that he reported to Johannes.
“Why don’t you teach the child to read your language, my friend?” was Johannes’ simple reply.
“Teach her to read my language. Why?”
“My daughter craves to know things. Indulge her.” He paused and inched closer to Magnus. “Also, one day, the last person who remembers me will die. I want to be remembered beyond that. Teach her so she can tell my stories to my people and yours as well.”
“So, I have your blessing?”
“Yes, as long as you teach her properly.”
When asked why this particular book had piqued her interest, Lineah pointed to an illustration inside it. The drawing depicted men with longer hair than she was used to, noses as sharp as the swords they pointed at each other. But her fascination, she explained, was fed by the idea that the ancestors of the man who preached salvation to them once fought each other. So, in addition to learning the mastery of pottery from her mother Paulina, Lineah learnt to read and write in Suomi.
“Betty, do you think we are going to Hell?” Solomon asked his sister.
“Ah, Solo, why would you assume that?” Beata answered.
He reminded her that Magdalena shouted that they would not see Heaven for having “stolen” their mother’s Bible from her. As the eldest child Magdalena deemed it her inheritance. Now that they had burned it, Solomon grappled with guilt. Their family history had gone up in smoke.
Beata laughed. “Listen, if people like Maggy are the standard for getting into Heaven, then you and I will be fine. God is a fair God.”
Beata reminded Solomon that Magdalena had spent years throwing them under the bus. When Solomon lost their mother’s Bible–he had actually left it in church after attending confirmation classes–Magdalena withheld the fact that a friend of Solomon’s had stopped by to drop off the Bible. She watched as Beata lied for her brother and as both of them got the beating of their lives–succeeded by a scolding rooted in the ninth commandment: Thou shalt not lie. Only after her siblings were done licking their wounds did she divulge that the Bible was in her possession.
“Sheeli, why didn’t you speak up?” her mother shouted.
Magdalena folded her arms. “You didn’t ask me. You asked them!” She even muttered further disobedience under her breath.
Beata and Solomon were astonished that no repercussions followed Magdalena’s looseness of the tongue. Only a lecture: The Bible was inherited from their grandfather. It was history, a legacy––the most precious thing the family owned. They should have never let it out of their sight.
That night during evening devotion, sensing lines of division amongst her children, their mother told them in no uncertain terms that she never wanted to hear any statements of the sort ever again.
“Pulakeneni nawa nawa, amuhe.” Their mother’s instruction was to listen and to listen well. “Blood makes you family, but love keeps you a family!”
On the radio, the presenter on Oshiwambo service’s evening update waxed lyrical about the opening goal of the World Cup over the din of vuvuzelas. Beata got up from her chair and tossed another piece of wood onto the fire.
“Solo, your weakness has always been that you are too kind, and Maggy has used that against you your whole life. It stops now.”
THE FIRST HANDBAG
When Magdalena was born, her mother took her everywhere, mainly to spite the village gossips, who for years had spread rumours that her womb was as barren as the desert. Lineah carried Magdalena around like a handbag; this was their relationship until her fifth birthday when her younger sister Beata was born. Beata stole Magdalena’s spot as the centre of their mother’s life; she spent her childhood trying to reclaim it. Only ceasing when she realised that as the eldest child, she would be first at everything–Beata, the usurper, would always live in her shadow. This equilibrium was disturbed when Solomon was born, not just another child, but a son. Sons inherited the wealth, titles, and dreams of their fathers. Solomon grew up being woefully inept at tasks their father considered basic survival skills for a man. The first time he had to slaughter a goat, his nerves failed him, and Magdalena had to step in.
“Ndiku kwathele nkelo.” She offered her brother aid by taking the knife from his trembling hands. She knew that had she said what she initially wanted to–that he was wasting time, he wouldn’t have relinquished it. She slit the animal’s throat while two of their younger cousins held it down.
Their father, Simon, had been quietly observing. Finally, he rose from his stool and strode towards them. Every step turned all the gazes towards Solomon, he felt the glares boring into him, and his mouth went dry before his father uttered a single word of the inevitable lecture.
“Owu na uuwaya uusitha honi nayi.” He sneered loudly at Solomon. Not even the last bleat from the dying goat could muffle it.
Solomon’s response was loaded at the tip of his tongue, but he thought better of it. The last time he voiced what his father termed disobedience it was beaten out of him. So he walked away.
“Perhaps he’s too young?” Magdalena suggested.
Her father shook his head. “A man is never too young or too old. He is the perfect age; he must just stop being a coward!”
“But, he is not a man. He is a boy.”
“If you keep mollycoddling him, he will remain a boy. You are not a man, and you will never be.” He spat. Magdalena’s actions had caught her father’s ire.
When her mother arrived carrying a bowl and large basins to store the meat, she too sensed the lingering rage in him. “You shouldn’t be so hard on your son.” She remarked.
Her father paused, delayed like he was stuttering, but faster than a gunslinger reloading a revolver, the next insult was already in the chamber.
“He’s someone’s son.” He stared briefly at his wife, then repeated himself before he walked away, but she didn’t respond. The incident was ingrained into Magdalena’s memory.
Solomon played the role of unwilling heir perfectly until he started high school. He was an academic marvel, collecting distinctions for spoils. Their father bragged about it, pride beaming–his son was good at one thing. This annoyed Magdalena. Solomon’s redemption presented her with another usurper, Magdalena was halfway through her business degree–her second, part of her mother’s grand plan of equipping her with degrees in business and accounting so that she would take over her father’s long-distance passenger bus transport business. She’d come home for the weekend to check up on her parents.
“So, he’s not someone’s son now?” She challenged her father.
He and Solomon had just returned from a prize-giving ceremony. Her father rubbed his son’s shiny trophy, looked at his daughter and replied.
“A son is a son!”
It was at the end of her mother’s life that Magdalena started to think of the future. Her mother’s cancer was terminal, their father had begun to diverge from his memories a few years earlier, and someone would need to fill the impending leadership vacuum. Magdalena considered herself her father’s worthiest successor. Solomon’s childhood ineptitude helped her ambitions. But, the precedent was against her. Her mother couldn’t succeed her grandfather, custom did not permit it. Such things were simply not done at the time. So, her father stepped into the shoes of the son that her grandfather never had. And her father had been the headman of Otshima village since her grandfather died under mysterious circumstances during an interrogation by military police in the late 1980s. When her father’s dementia worsened, so he had to be reminded of everything, she travelled home frequently to check on him. It was a cold morning in July. She bought him a cup of coffee and the phone. Solomon was calling home; he’d gone to study in South Africa.
“Tate, Solomon is on the phone for you.”
The old man blinked at her, puzzled. He rubbed his white beard. “Who is Solomon?”
“Onkelo yoye.” She reminded him about his last born and even showed him his picture.
The old man shook his head. “I do not have a son. How is he my son? He has yellow hair, white skin, and a straight nose. How is he my son?” Her father’s memory was, at times, selective.
“Tate, don’t say such things. He has your nose.”
The old man voiced his agitation. “Don’t tell me what to do, child! I know what I am talking about. Even your mother knows. She even wrote it in her stupid book.”
Magdalena could never concretely confirm the rumour that had fallen out of her father’s mouth because her mother penned her notebook in Soumi.
When Magdalena’s siblings decided to move their mother to Gobabis after her health deteriorated, they claimed that between them, they had more time and space to take care of her. Beata had just bought a house there, they reasoned. She was a nurse, and she and Solomon had neither spouses nor children to prioritise. Magdalena was livid but didn’t fight them. From all the times she drove her sister to work during emergency calls when they lived together, she knew that dying was an ugly business, and she didn’t want a part of witnessing it. However, she retained possession of her mother’s most prized items. This gave her time to plan how she would attain headman-ship–her birthright, a throne she rightfully deserved to sit on.
What she really craved was the benefits that came with the power to grant land rights; she and her husband had a growing network of business associates–Magdalena worshipped two things: God and capitalism. What dominated meetings and networking sessions was the need for land on which industrial activities could be conducted, not far from town and without the high rental fees of town central properties. She knew that Beata did not want to run the village. Her only real competition was Solomon, even if Solomon didn’t want it, because somehow power always finds a way to deposit itself in a man’s hands. If Solomon wasn’t a legitimate child, then his claim was invalid. All she needed was proof.
THE SECOND HANDBAG
Beata walked the last path of her mother’s journey by her side. Every day was a battle. The first battle was with Magdalena, who wasn’t caring for their mother properly. She was going through the motions instead of actually caring. The day her mother’s Leukaemia diagnosis was confirmed, Beata booked a bus ticket to Oshakati. The next morning when she got off the bus from Windhoek, she went straight to the hospital. Her mother hadn’t been bathed, and a two-day-old lunchbox had started to fossilise. She won the battle, their mother deserved reciprocation, and it was time for the chicks to forage for the hen, just as the hen had foraged for them. Beata had her mother transferred so she and Solomon could care for her. After a month in Gobabis, Lineah started to regain the weight. Hope flickered deceivingly
The second battle was with Solomon; theirs had been a running battle. When her brother was four years old, he developed a proclivity for wandering the outdoors. Beata devised a plan–she would leave a brick holding the veranda door ajar so that he could walk back into the house when he was done gallivanting. One day, Magdalena removed the brick that kept the door ajar because the chickens had kept running into the house, and Solomon got sunburned. When their mother questioned them, Beata took the blame and the beating for not watching him. Solomon went day walking at the worst time of the day for someone with albinism–midday when the sun was boiling. From then on, Beata lathered him with sunblock and made him wear a bucket hat on his gallivants.
At dinner, their mother always gave Magdalena okalila, even though they had all failed the prerequisite for getting meat–finishing the pap first. This is how they both knew she was their mother’s favourite. Solomon hated pap, Beata would share her last piece of meat with him to coax him to finish his pap, and on days when he didn’t, she finished it for him when no one was looking.
When he left for university in Cape Town to study geology, she berated him for choosing a career of a lifetime in the sun when she had spent years protecting him from it.
He replied. “It could be worse. I could’ve chosen to be a lawyer.”
She would plead with him to come home whenever he could, even using her savings to buy him plane tickets so he could come home to see his mother when she sensed that the end was inevitable.
The third battle was with herself. When you hear something incongruent with everything you have known your whole life, you start to question everything. Most of the beatings her mother meted out to her came with the lashing sermon: “Thou shall not lie.” But, for months, Beata had known that their mother had lied to them their whole lives. When hope still flickered, she and her siblings were tested to ascertain compatibility for a bone marrow transplant that would extend their mother’s life. The doctor who counselled them lowered their expectations.
“There is only a one per cent chance that one of you is a match.” His face was blank, devoid of emotion.
Magdalena then inquired what the point of the tests was.
The doctor had the face of someone who hadn’t seen enough patients to be the leading oncologist in the country–boy band fresh-facedness. He explained that since their mother had no siblings, the only reservoir of genetic material was her children, as unlikely a match was, every impossibility had to first be dismissed by a conclusive test before it was abandoned.
Two envelopes were delivered to Beata as she was visiting her mother, the first had results from stem cell analysis–she and her siblings were not a match with their mother, hope was dwindling. The second had paternity test results–the lie lay in her hand. She told the delivery man that he’d a mistake.
He shook his head. “Mistakes in this line of work are too costly.”
This man had the face of a man who had delivered bad news for too long – sunken eyes and a permanently furrowed brow. He called the laboratory to verify. They confirmed that two requests had been received through her medical aid. She only remembered signing one.
“That bitch.” She spat.
The only person with the audacity, skill and experience to forge her signature was Magdalena. When Beata was in her first year of nursing, Magdalena was in the third year of her business degree. Magdalena often took Beata’s student card and used it to buy lunch. Beata wasn’t surprised that her sister convinced the campus cafeteria they were the same person–they looked alike enough when they sported the same hairstyle. What shocked her was how Magdalena produced such convincing versions of her signature. When confronted, Magdalena’s reply was cavalier.
“My sister has a meal card, am I supposed to starve?”
When Beata called her mother to tell her of her sister’s misdemeanours, her mother asked, “Would you have given her the card if she asked your permission?” That’s when she knew that she had lost that particular battle.
The delivery man handed her his mobile phone, and she was connected to the head biomedical technician.
“Was there a mistake?” Beata asked.
“No, we ran the samples twice as you requested,” said the voice on the other end of the line. Now the lie was reaffirmed.
The technician explained that, as per request, the samples were separated into A and B, original and duplicate. When the A sample results returned, they pulled the B samples from storage and tested them to verify–the results were the same. The carbon copy was not from the original. The lie was confirmed.
All these battles culminated in the furore that transpired three months later, the day her mother died. A quarter of an hour had passed since Lineah Johannes had taken her last breath when her son walked in to find his sister seated next to the body. Solomon froze on the spot, hands by his side, breath growing heavier, before tears rolled down his face. Beata walked towards him and wrapped him in a comforting embrace; he broke apart, sobbing loudly as reality finally hit him. The scream that followed shook both of them. Magdalena came storming into the room, her husband running behind her. She pushed him away.
“Where are they?” She shouted hysterically. “Where are they?”
“Maggy, you need to calm down.” Beata extended her hand towards her sister’s shoulder. It was rebuffed.
Magdalena’s voice went up another decibel. “Where is my mother’s Bible?”
“Our mother’s Bible.” Solomon corrected her, finally finding his voice.
“You?” She turned on him, exploding into a rage. “You are not even my mother’s child.” She had had this suspicion since she noticed that Solomon’s name was the only one at the back of the Bible, not in her father’s handwriting. His was written in their mother’s handwriting.
“Ano ngweye oto ehama momutse?” Solomon questioned her sanity. He had had enough. “You’re still spreading lies. Ongweye Niingo ya Naanda?” The label of gossip monger that was slapped on Magdalena set her off. She charged at him, but her husband shifted his feet quickly and grabbed her, holding her back. She fought him, but his strength overpowered her.
“Not here.” Magdalena’s husband said as he pulled her away. “I have the keys. No one could’ve gotten into the car.” A crowd of nurses had gathered to witness the commotion. He alerted her to the watching eyes, she relented, and he led her away.
“Did you take them?” Solomon asked his sister once the crowd had dispersed.
Beata confirmed she had taken the Bible and the notebook and that she had a spare key to her sister’s car.
“You saw for yourself how she acted over a rumour. Imagine what she’ll do if she has proof.” She pulled the white sheet covering the body and pulled the Bible and the notebook from under it.
“We have to get rid of this Solo, or it will rip this whole family apart.” She was tempted to tell him the truth. She feared that evidence of their mother’s lie was in the notebook. Solomon could live through rumours, but Magdalena would never survive the truth. On the way home from the hospital, she let Solomon drive. They stopped at a service station, while her brother went inside, Beata was left to her thoughts. She had protected her siblings all her life, especially Solomon. Her mother always protected Magdalena. In her absence, someone would need to keep protecting Magdalena from herself. Finally, she made her choice, she sent him a text.
Remember the matches.
OSHILUMBU SHA LINEAH
When Solomon was born, the village tea was that Lineah Johannes had birthed oshilumbu– a white man. Words that had trailed him his whole life. When he had the option of choosing universities, he went where he knew the words wouldn’t find him.
“There are things that parents keep from their children. There are things that we will keep from our own children.” These words Beata said to Solomon to put him at ease about what they had done. But what Beata didn’t know was that Solomon had kept something from her–he already knew the truth. He wasn’t a bastard child.
A few days before their mother died, Solomon called her on the phone. He was afraid. On a previous call with Beata, she sounded worried that time was running out. He asked his mother about the rumour that had followed him his whole life.
“Meme,” his voice croaked, “I need you to tell me the truth.”
There was a brief silence on the other side of the line. His mother would tell him the truth, but he needed to make her a promise.
“You are the man of the house now. You must protect my daughters, even from themselves.”
She told him the truth and that she wanted to be buried on a Tuesday.
A few days after their mother’s funeral, Beata and Solomon began cleaning the house in Gobabis. While disposing of the ash, Beata’s dog ripped the refuse bag spilling ash all over the stoep in the backyard. Solomon went inside to get a dustpan and a broom. On his way back, something glittered in the ash.
“Betty, did you throw broken glass in with the ash?” She had not.
He walked back in and chased the dog away. Carefully, he unearthed stone after stone–clear, transparent, rounded, not angular. He rolled them into the dustpan, walked back inside, and washed them.
He called his sister, and the urgency in his voice brought Beata running.
“Where did Grandpa work before he came back to the village?”
“Oranjemund,” Beata replied.
Their grandfather was first in his village to work in the diamond mines in Oranjemund, He earned his wealth in the south, and then he returned to build a homestead so vast that visitors got lost in the corridors.
He rolled the stones onto the kitchen counter. “And, where did Dad work before he married Mom?”
Their father was recruited into the mines through their grandfather’s referral; he made way for his then-would-be son-in-law.
“Oranje–” Beata paused, she looked at the stones, “No, it can’t be.”
“Think about it–the wealth that Grandpa built, what Dad consolidated. On a mine worker’s salary? In the 60’s?”
“So they hid them in the Bible? You can’t be serious?”
“Betty, think about it. Books are an easy way to smuggle small things in and out of place, the oldest trick in the book. A Bible attracts the least suspicion.”
Beata mulled it over. Their mother’s Bible had a thick spine, and their mother’s reaction when she thought they had lost it made sense now.
“So you’re saying––” She blinked at her brother.
A grin spread across Solomon’s face. “I’m not sure, we’ll have to get them tested, but I think they are diamonds.”
Filemon Iiyambo is a writer and former newspaper columnist for the Namibian Sun and a social commentator for the New Era Newspaper. He holds BA and BA Honours degrees in English Literature from the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He currently works as an educator. His work was included in Brittle Paper’s Erotic Africa and Isele Magazine. His short story “December” was shortlisted for the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. He is a fellow of the Narrating Namibia, Narrating Africa Doek Emerging Writers Program. He is currently working on a novel and is a member of the 2022-2023 Doek collective.