The porcelain bowl

Friday February 07 2014

A white porcelain bowl with a cobalt blue underglaze stood out in the almost bare lounge. Sophia cleaned it twice a month. Illustration/John Nyagah

A white porcelain bowl with a cobalt blue underglaze stood out in the almost bare lounge. Sophia cleaned it twice a month.

Whenever she was asked about it, she smiled, looked away and changed the subject. Not Milka her best friend, or even Tande her husband knew anything about the bowl. It didn’t matter to him really.

The day he met Sophia, he knew he was going to marry her. She was tall and slender with smooth supple skin.

He had promised her hope in a faraway land. She was sceptical of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but the photo of a small two bed-roomed white cottage overlooking the vast Mazowe Hills, 50 kilometres from Harare did the trick.

When his bicycle repair business went up in flames after an election gone awry, he knew Kenya had nothing for him any more. So he left. But he was not a man in despair, he had Sophia.

Every afternoon, Sophia sat on a chair outside the cottage, filling her lungs with the crisp fresh air, rejuvenating her spirit. Her skin tingled as the light breeze whistled by, softening the glare from the sun. It was as if she were sitting on top of the world watching life go on below her.


Echoes of fights, laughter, illicit affairs in the vast cane fields, bounced back to her, and then to Tande. He was jobless so he used the information to extract favours or gifts for his silence. That is before he stumbled upon the gold mine.

For Sophia, the orchestra seat perched on the hill filled her days. This was how she spotted Milka. For two days, the woman had been prancing about going from door to door like one possessed. She seemed different, odd even. Sophia even brought out her camera and worked the zoom. Soon the polka dots on Milka’s blouse grew bigger and bigger. By the time Milka made it up the hill, Sophia was ready for her.

“I know your type,” Sophia told a surprised Milka. 

“Tell me,” Milka replied as she knelt in front of Sophia like one awaiting anointing.  

“Harare has pecked you dry. You have lost your soul, so you come here looking to find it.”

That’s how Sophia became friends with the fast-talking, sharp-tongued Milka. Tande didn’t mind.

Milka brought with her the wily ways of the city. Not wily enough to get Sophia to talk about the porcelain bowl, but wily anyway. The chickens were her idea.

But not the stroke of genius as the idea to spread a rumour that Sophia was President Barack Obama’s cousin. Mazowe valley was shaken to its core. Not in the way of an earthquake, but it brought back hope long forgotten.  

She was nothing like anyone the village had seen. In the local bar, they talked of her voice being as soft as the bushlark. Have you heard her sing? The chief asked as he sipped on the local brew. They speculated that she got phone calls from Obama himself; that she was the reason the water pump was finally fixed; that her Obama connection was how she got the white crystal bowl. No wonder their little cottage is painted white, people said.

Perhaps because Sophia remained clueless, she didn’t react. As her chicken multiplied, and more visitors came by, and people gaped at her with their mouths open, she put it down to Milka’s oddity, well and those skin-tight jeans were not a healthy way of prancing about.

“Change Milka,” but Milka wouldn’t. Besides she knew what an aloof Sophia didn’t. Sophia remained oblivious. Not even when a journalist asked her to explain Obama’s plan of bringing peace to the world. “How would I know?” she mused.

And besides, the only peace on Sophia’s mind was hers. Her tranquil existence was shattered. Too many people, tourists even, were coming up the hill and she wasn’t interested in them or their prying eyes, so she took refuge inside her cottage.

At first she had tried to organise the gifts the visitors brought and which were now filling up the lounge, but she couldn’t keep it up. Her priority remained with the bowl. Little did she know its fame was growing down the in the valley.

In the meantime, her daydreams took over. Mostly they were of Kenya. She yearned to dip her feet in the glassy lagoon in Manguo where she had swum in her youth. When she spoke of her dreams, Tande wouldn’t listen. He pretended not to hear her soft crying at night.

When the sobbing intensified, he started sleeping in the lounge. She was motionless as the four walls closed in on her. The words in her throat turned sideways, choking her, so she stopped talking. Her saliva was bitter, so she tried not to eat. Sometimes she couldn’t breathe, so she lay down awaiting her descent into darkness. 

People didn’t stop milling outside. The less they saw her, the more they wanted to see her. Tande begged her. She wouldn’t look at him, or anything else, except her bowl.

Then one day she woke up to find it gone. She turned the cottage upside down, but there was no porcelain bowl. When Tande returned, he showed her a box full of money. We are free, he kept saying over and over.

Almost immediately Sophia knew what he had done. She punched him hard on the jaw and before he could recover from the shock, she was all over him. She wouldn’t stop. Milka tried to get her off him with no success. Sophia had gone berserk and her rage brought back buried memories. In a flash, she saw the blinding headlights of the oncoming car and felt a sharp pain, which drowned out the screams from the passengers.

Her mother’s lifeless body was covered with a red cloth, with her father lying on her legs in a protective posture. Then the images were gone and all she could see was the porcelain bowl. She remembered how her mother had desired it. It was her mother’s birthday and her father had bought it for her. She didn’t get to take it home. But Sophia did. And now it was gone.

Suddenly she collapsed in a heap next to a shocked Tande. He had given her a new life but had taken what was left of the old one, the one that connected her to her parents. There was nothing left for her. She got up and walked to her bedroom for her passport. She picked the box of money and threw it at Milka and Tande as she walked out the door.