Crunching Numbers

I had heard about him long before I actually met him.

This fearless Northern Ndebele man fighting for what is good and just for his country and her people. He boarded our small plane dressed in a suit that had seen better days and was a good few sizes too large for his tiny frame.

He shook the hands of fellow passengers all along the isle and introduced himself to everyone. All the while his, large eyes darted from one face to the next with the speed of an African gazelle. Here was a man who missed nothing despite the smudges on his spectacles.

I noticed he walked with a slight shuffle, like that of an old man beyond his actual years.

He did not wait for me to extend my hand for the greeting. He just grabbed it. “H-h-h hallo. I am Ma-Ma-Masi-Masipula and I am from Zi-Zi-Zim-Zimbabwe”.

He sounded like someone who had just spent a good few leisurely hours at the airport bar. He flopped into the seat across from mine.

We were on our way to a small kingdom that has almost nothing going for it, except majestic mountains and water.

Over the course of the next few days I developed a close bond with Mas. In a room filled with learned colleagues and African royalty we debated the future of traditional leadership. Despite the opposition of the royals, Mas defended his position with great eloquence and humor: “There is nothing traditional about African chiefs and headman – they all tasted polony”.

The next time I met Mas my assignment was rather different. I had to teach and guide him and a fellow elderly scholar through the preliminaries of statistics. Which in itself was a formidable task. What made it even formidable was that neither had used a computer before.

Somewhere in between teaching him how to use a mouse and keep his pointer on screen, and that ‘t’ in statistics has everything to do with significance and nothing with a hot beverage, I became “c-c-c-coach”.

Then one evening he received bad news from home. As an open and consistent critic of the ruling despot, Mas expected things to get rough and accepted it as part of his life. Somehow, this evening things were different.

“C-c-c-coach, let’s go t-t-t-to the ca-ca-caa- casino. I wa-wa-wa-want to see peasants loose money.”

I had to provide him with a small amount of cash as the ruling despot ensured that they had no foreign currency for travel. “J-j-j-just in case I w-w-wa-want to participate”.

With a mischievous smile he disappeared among the slot machines. I positioned myself at the upper-end of the bar for some people-watching.

Soon thereafter, about mid-way through the third beer pandemonium erupted. Bells tolled and whistles rang as if some one just got burgled. From where I sat I could see a blue light flashing on one of the machines. People started milling and three young ladies dressed in rather revealing clothing made a bee-line for the flicking light.

“C-c-c-c coach! C-c-c-coach! C-c-c-come quick!”

“B-b-b-b-bring cups!”

I found Mas where he was leaning over the machine. Hugging it. Using his body to shield and protect his riches. Coins flew from the mouth of the machine, into the little metal cup, then over onto the floor. There was money everywhere. In his pockets, on the floor – his cup was runneth over. Literally.

“They’re gonna steal my money!” There was no time to stutter. He turned his head and flicked his eyes in the direction of the three scantily dressed young ladies. He pushed his legs further back to get more distance between the spitting machine and the crowd. He looked as if he was getting ready to be frisked. Security arrived and so did extra cups. Yet, Mas trusted no one. “C-c-c-coach, pick up the money”. And so I did – on all fours, from under the machines and the tables. Until all was safely accounted for.

When I said goodbye to Mas at the airport he had with him a few boxes. Just the basics we take for granted: cooking oil, flour, mealiemeal, sugar and tea. “Our sh-sh-sh-shops are e-e-em-empty”, he shrugged and boarded his flight. He was wearing a mokorotlo – a Basoto-style grass hat – and no doubt arrived home in style.

I was privileged enough to remain his coach for only a little while longer.  Mas died unexpectedly of a stroke. He was only in his mid-fifties but a fighter for justice and liberty to his core.

Our last beer together was in Lilongwe. He’d learned to control his mouse and no longer pleaded “insanity” when asked to explain t-tests. After a long week eating only chicken – stormy weather on Lake Malawi prevented fishing, and the despot to the south prevented the meat-trucks from reaching their destinations further north – we decided to go into town in search of opinions and laughter.

In a rather upmarket nightclub I left him at the table while going to the bar to fetch our drinks. Upon returning, I found him with two scantily dressed young ladies sitting on his lap.  Peering out from behind them with darting eyes he looked at me rather anxiously. “C-c-co-coach, I think the-the-the-these ladies want us to sin!”

Mas liked sweet treats and I know he would have liked these. Kaimati from Zanzibar. I had these some years later in a small cookery in Dar-es-Salaam run by a lady from Zanzibar. Mas was no longer with us but I know he would have liked these. Invite a good friend for tea and do not bother with tests of significance. I promise you, all friends are.


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