“Ai, Sarah! Come and fetch wood.”
“Wait just there, Mama. My son Benjamin is writing in his schoolbook. I want to see him writing.”
“Sarah, Sarah. It is a long walk, we will not wait until he is done.”
“Ooh, Mama, I am coming. Every day! Every day we must go to fetch more wood, go to fetch water, go to the goats, go to the market. My life is a chain.”
Sarah got up from beside her house and picked up the strap from the raw wood hook in the fence. She did not run – you would never see her run, or any of the women there – she took her long strides and caught up with the other women, chattering on the path. It was morning and not yet hot.
“Your husband is away long, Cindy. He will have to give you such a present when he gets back.”
“Aha! I know what I would like from my husband, oh yes. I have been waiting for him!”
The path was dusty, lined and cracked liked Mama’s forehead. She was the eldest of the women there, gaunt and straight like a Sudanese, but copper-coloured like the dirt. She strode along, her head covered with a bright scarf that flashed, her dark eyes watching the women, and flashing.
“Ai, Cindy. You do not want too big a present from that man. He has given you too many babies already.” Mama clicked between her teeth.
“I know how to have my man,” Cindy giggled, “And no more babies. I am not a girl anymore.”
They carried on, teasing, smiling, and then came to the scrubby trees. There was still a lot of wood on the ground. They fanned out, still calling out, stacking the bleached wood, knocking off remnants of bark, making their own piles. From above it might have looked like the uncurling of fingers on a hand, even, balanced.
Sarah leant over and grasped a forked limb. A lizard dashed out from beneath it, over her foot, away. “I am just like that lizard,” she said. “There is no time.”
“Why do you say there is no time?” said Mama, who was collecting small pieces beneath an acacia. “There is just enough time for all of us.”
“If I was not collecting wood I would be helping my son with his writing. I would be answering his questions. I would be taking the melons to the shop. We have all those melons and they will not stay fresh. It would be better to sell them to Mr Funassu, and then I could buy another book for my Benjamin.”
“But you have to collect wood,” said Mama, “Or you cannot cook food for him.”
“Yes,” said Sarah. “I have to collect wood.” She picked up her bundle by the strap, and raised it against her back. “I have to.”
Sarah came walking back from Mr Funassu’s shop. It was an hour there, an hour back. She did not have a clock that told her this. She knew it from the number of steps she had walked. She was taut inside, guilty for the time she had spent, anxious. And carrying a bundle that was not shaped like a book. She hurried into her house and sat down by her fireplace.
Cindy appeared at the open door. “What have you bought from Mr Funassu, Sarah? What have you found?”
Sarah looked around. “It is a cooking stove. Mr Funassu showed it to me. It does not smoke like this fire. It will not sting my eyes with the smoke. Mrs Funassu has one, and she cooks on it every day.”
The cooking stove was a round drum, about eighteen inches high, somewhat battered and plainly well-used. It had an opening in the side, an open top and a folding frame.
“How can you cook with that? It is too small for the fire!”
Sarah shook her head. “No, it is not too small. It keeps the fire close together.”
“You spent money on it, but you did not need to spend any money on having a fire. Your fireplace is already there.”
“Wait and see.”
Mama came to see later that evening. Sarah was sitting by her stove, stirring the porridge in the pan. She lifted the cup through the grain, through the water, slap, slap. The flames climbed around the sides of the pan.
“Ai, it is dark in here! You have hidden your fire in a can!”
Sarah didn’t answer. She put down the enamel cup and experimentally pushed the pieces of wood deeper into the opening. They didn’t move far. The porridge was cooking quickly. The fire normally needed feeding more than she or her son.
“How can the fire breathe in that stove?” asked Mama scornfully. “He is trapped in there.”
Sarah smiled. “The fire must do as I say now. He must not make all this smoke in my house. It makes me cough. It hurts all our eyes. He is my fire, so he will stay in the stove if I tell him to.”
Mama snorted and left.
She heard the noise as Birthday came back with the goats. They pattered and butted their way through the gate and into the yard around the little round house. She heard his familiar whistle and smiled, knowing she would see his lopsided smile very soon… in a moment!
He came through the door, his bright eyes shining. His mouth seemed to laugh whenever it opened. His missing teeth might have been knocked out by the force of so much good humour. Sarah knew she was a lucky woman with a man who smiled and meant his smile.
“Ohoho! What is this? What has my Sarah bought here? A cooking stove, they told me. Ohoho. My wise wife is thinking of her house.”
When Birthday was there, Sarah did not need to worry what the other women thought. She did not feel bad for thinking differently, or having wishes, or wanting to play with her boy.
The others could still look at her with their scornful eyes, but she had Birthday’s bright eyes and his lopsided, gappy smile.
“Here, my Birthday. Eat and be warm in your belly.” She passed him a tin plate of porridge. He ate it slowly today. Normally he ate quickly. He scooped it up and seemd to be thinking.
“I think right now Benjamin is walking along the path from school,” he said. “I think he is playing with the other boys and he is happy to be coming home.”
“He is a good son,” she said.
“Yeass. Maybe he will do well at school. Then he will be a teacher or a lawyer and tell people what is right to do and make judgements in the city. He cannot spend all his time looking after goats, like me.”
“We have to do our best.”
“Oh yeass. But you are working harder than all the other women, Sarah. You are cleaning and milking and growing and fetching water and wood.”
“Benjamin is big enough to fetch the water now.”
“So he must do his part. But our lives are full of things to do and we cannot just help him to grow up his own way. I want him to have something better, you know?”
She smiled and drew close to him. This was why they had come together. They had more in common than need and desire. They had some living spark of hope. They knew other people had things better.
“Ai, Sarah! Come and fetch wood.”
Sarah looked up from the patch she was weaving for her dress. Mama and the women were waiting on the path. But then she looked at her stack of wood. She had not used half of it. She did not need to fetch wood.
“I am not coming, Mama. You can all go.”
“You are not coming? Does your fire in a can not need wood?”
“I have enough wood.”
Mama called again. “Then I suppose you can just stay and rest, can’t you?”
“Rest? Ai, no! There is so much I want to do!” She leapt up. Now she had time…
I wrote this as an exercise after watching a TED talk about providing simple cooking stoves for rural households in Africa. Or maybe it was a National Geographic article? I don’t remember – there’s quite a lot on the internet about these initiatives.