This time in a louder voice, the man from the water authority demanded again: ‘Where is your water meter?’ As though wielding a weapon, he shook in my face a metre long iron rod they use to cut off and reopen water supplies.
‘Over there,’ I pointed to a clearing beyond thick and wet grass.
‘Come and show me the exact spot,’ he commanded. His gumboots trampled the tall grass.
‘I am not going anywhere near that water meter. I will direct you from the safety of where I am standing.’
‘Safety? He glanced back with a frown. ‘What harm can a mere water meter possibly do?’
I sighed and shook my head. ‘These unusual rains have dragged out strange creatures. Next to the meter hole cover, there now lives a permanently furious black mamba.’
‘Black mamba!’ He dropped the rod, leapt up, staggered back like a drunkard and grabbed my wrist. ‘Did you say black mamba?’
‘You heard me right. Vicious thing! The other day, without any provocation it struck my dog twice in as many seconds. My poor dog yelped and howled on the ground. Within ten minutes it was stone dead.’
Hand trembling and palm sweating, the man tightened his grip like a frightened child.
‘What are you waiting for? Call the wild life authorities.’
‘I did that three weeks ago and up to now they have not turned up.’
‘Follow up. Phone them.’
‘My land line is not working.’
‘Use your cell phone.’
‘It has no money. I am saving for your water bill.’
The man swallowed saliva and slowly released my hand. ‘I will report the mamba to the relevant authorities.’ Without a single backward glance, he hurried back to the waiting van outside.
‘You forgot your rod,’ I shouted.
He waved a hand. ‘I have another one in the van.’
The van screeched away, quite forgot that the road was potholed.
This was two weeks back. I have not had another visit from the water authority man. This has given time to exchange my scarce foreign currency for the local currency. Today my water bill is settled and I walk tall, with no fear of being cut off.
Yet I have been seized by another fear. For you dear reader to understand this new and paralyzing terror, I first must explain a superstition my people have. It is called ukuzihlolozela. It means if you go about saying this and that exists or something will happen to you, behold it will. I now fear my fictitious and ferocious mamba will come to life. When I walk in the grass, I hear it hissing by my side. I jump and quickly turn round. For a few seconds, I see it disappearing into the grass. A few metres away, it springs up, its piercing big eyes level with my stomach. ‘Next time,’ it hisses, ‘I will do to you what I did to your dog.’
Even inside my house, I hear the mamba slithering on the ceiling. I try to put away the thought, but next, I imagine the serpent landing on to my neck. Like the folktale flying snake mgobho, it sinks its fangs into my neck and empties all its poison.
A silly superstition you may say, but I remember Miss Barkham our secondary school English teacher. She hailed from England and often chided us for being ruled by superstitions. ‘Not that we Europeans don’t have any superstitions,’ she once said. ‘But ours are now things of the past. We just joke about them and never take the tales seriously. Give it time, one day you will develop and catch up with us.’
One rainy day Miss Barkham sent Nomsa to go and fetch chalk from the office. She lent Nomsa her umbrella. In front of Miss Barkham, Nomsa tried to open the umbrella.
‘Not in the classroom!’ A startled Miss Barkham shouted.
‘Why not?’ Nomsa asked. ‘The door is wide enough for an open umbrella.’
‘Some people believe it is a bad omen to open an umbrella in a room,’ Miss Barkham explained. ‘It will bring all of us bad luck!’
We laughed. ‘That’s just a superstition,’ we reassured our frightened teacher.
‘I don’t believe it myself,’ she shrugged, ‘but what if there is some truth in it? Why take an unnecessary risk? There will be no opening of an umbrella in my classroom.’
Nomsa chuckled and started to open the umbrella. Miss Barkham grabbed back the umbrella and frogmarched Nomsa to the door. Outside at the veranda she opened it for her.
We nodded with understanding. The English teacher had taught us an important lesson – all superstitions are silly, except when they are yours.
My mother drilled into me the superstition of ukuzihlolozela. Yes, the belief is silly but it is mine. It has turned me a prisoner in my own house. I feel it in my bones. The black mamba is lurking somewhere in my yard, even house. I just will have to figure out how to deal with it.
Not all is lost though. My people say God does not give directly into your hands. With no effort on my part, I now own the rod for cutting off and opening our water supply.