It was a visual treat, in a place where nothing ever happens. The vehicles collided and tipped in opposite directions; Coke bottles spilling from the back of the commercial truck, whilst the raised safari truck roof crumpled in on itself under the impact. It was all in slow motion. It was all in fast forward. She had never seen anything like it.
Maisha hated this journey. Every day it was the same: morning and evening, twenty minutes in the blazing sun, or sometimes in torrential rain that always seemed to her to be an awful waste of water, but that was Africa - always extremes, too much or too little. Feeling the water sloshing as she swayed her hips, trying to emulate her mother, she reached a hand up to the yellow plastic bucket and adjusted its position. She knew this job needed to be done, but it was still so boring.
She had got much stronger. When she was just five and had first begun trailing behind her brother, Abel, it had seemed desperately far and she had only managed to carry a few sticks, leaving the water to him.
He didn't come with her any more. He had just graduated from school. His grades were high enough to get him to secondary school and her mother was so proud. He wouldn't go of course. They could never afford to send him all that way, let alone buy the uniform and books he'd need. Besides, who would earn the money? Since her sister had married and moved out there was no income at all and they were still repaying favours from when her small brother had died. Maisha had been learning to weave but there wasn't time to take what she'd made to the market.
She'd heard about houses with running water, she reflected dully on what that must be like as she lifted the bucket off her head and stretched her neck, before nestling it back onto to the little fold of cloth positioned to cushion the bucket.
As she did so, there was a roaring crash and the ground rumbled. She jerked in surprise, sloshing precious water down her face. “Mungu” she cursed guiltily, before freezing, enthralled by the action that was suddenly unravelling in front of her. Two vehicles, one corner, and not enough space. She was in time to see them roll onto their sides and watch a tinkling mass of brightly coloured, sweet cola bottles tumble around the corner.
* * *
Charlotte and Gerry were having the time of their lives. After their beautiful wedding: the dress, the rings, the church, the huge dinner, champagne, first dance, spectacular cake, quirky cover band and billions of photographs (faces aching from the smiles), they had melted into their African-dream honeymoon and had spent the last ten days 'oohing' and pointing their cameras at stunning coastlines, rugged landscapes and hunting for the Big Five.
"I'd forgotten about this one!" grinned Gerry. He was on the iPad flicking through photos they'd taken so far and laughing at himself hanging out of the open roof of the safari vehicle to get closer to the grumpy looking buffalo which had been standing sullenly in the bush by the road.
"Yes, I think you thought you were being tough or something," she teased mildly, pulling him towards her for another kiss.
Charlotte's busy PR world was suspended momentarily and she was luxuriating in the pleasure of it all. Yes, the lead up to the wedding had been stressful; virtually everyone had squabbled with someone, she had not been able to find the favours she wanted and she had been so busy at work. The day itself had cost a small fortune of course, but she smiled in satisfaction as she revisited details of it. She considered it all very much worth it.
Turning back to the front of the safari truck, she basked in the feeling of the afternoon sun on her whilst also looking forward to a shower at the hotel to wash away the dust and refresh her before another fantastic meal under the stars.
They approached another bush-masked corner and she opened her mouth to ask their driver about the clothing she had noticed the local women wearing, but she never actually uttered the question, or remembered she had intended to ask it.
It was a baby goat that stepped out into the dirt road, though neither Charlotte nor Gerry ever knew that. The driver only swerved a little but, on a road where there was barely any traffic, they were unlucky enough to pull directly into the path of a truck full of sodas.
Charlotte remembered only the sounds. Screaming breaks; crunching metal; an endless pouring of bottles released from the protection of their crates. And she remembers the red ground, which had looked so soft from the comfort of the vehicle, coming up hard and fast to meet them as they rolled.
* * *
Her first thought had simply been to help herself to a Coca Cola. She knew how sweet that magical taste was and the thought of enjoying a whole one to herself was just too thrilling to walk away from. But as Maisha had approached the truck she had been drawn into the scene of total devastation and awkward stillness.
She crept up to the accident with trepidation, curious more than anything else. She knew she couldn't really help, she was a long way from any doctor or hospital and the concept of a phone was too alien to even occur to her (although some of the men in the village did have them).
It wasn't until she leaned forward for a closer look that she realised she had automatically placed her water bucket back on her head. She nearly spilled the whole thing before she snatched it down and placed it beside her.
The open sided safari truck lay like a wounded animal. As Maisha studied it she became aware of a perfectly smooth, white hand; a human hand reaching from the inhuman wreckage. She cocked her head and crouched at a slight distance, wondering at its beauty and forgetting that there must be a person connected to it within that scrunched up metal belly.
The chattering of Vervet monkeys in the bush behind finally roused her from her musings and she found that she was brave, and curious, enough now to creep forward a little. That was when she saw it. It just caught the sun once, a sparkle that captured her absolutely; she would never forget it.
On the second finger of the protruding hand was a ring with five diamonds, the centre one a little larger than the others. Maisha was unconcerned that they were diamonds, or that this was an engagement ring, she was simply drawn to it. She had seen diamonds before, her neighbours occasionally found them in the ground. Finding them was called “mining” she whispered the foreign word out loud. But the diamonds they found were tiny chips of filthy stone, they did not thrill the way this did. There barely seemed any connection.
She moved in, stretching towards the enchanting ring. Her hand made contact with Charlotte's. It was warm. Why had she not expected that? She struggled closer, and all of a sudden Maisha found herself staring down into one swimming blue eye. The other was swollen and shut, but the eye that looked at her with cloudy pleading that would be imprinted on her memory forever.
Then, quick as a flash, her decision was made. She slipped the ring from Charlotte's hand and ran, forgetting the water bucket altogether.
* * *
"You're off to Tanzania?" Charlotte turned to the well-dressed man next to her at the table. "Gosh it was dreadful. Did you hear about what happened to Gerry and I? Honestly, we were so lucky to get out alive."
"How awful," replied the young man politely. "Well, we're not going anywhere dangerous, just a nice safari."
"Huh!" exclaimed Charlotte sarcastically. "That's what we thought. It was our honeymoon. We were in a car accident and we were robbed as we lay there. Can you imagine? I watched a little girl take my engagement ring as I was trapped in the vehicle, barely conscious."
"My goodness. Terrifying," he exclaimed, clearly intrigued, but also enjoying the self-assurance of youth that this was someone else's story.
With his full attention secured, Charlotte resumed her story. "Of course we were insured, but that's hardly the point. It was almost a full half an hour before another vehicle found us, and we were two hours from the nearest hospital. And, seriously, you should have seen the hospital. I was so relieved when the Medevac came. Especially as Gerry was in a terrible state: broken bones, concussion. I really thought we'd die there," she shuddered. "I'd never go back to Africa."
"Well, I'm not sure you can tar the whole of Africa with the same brush." The young man grinned but his body language betrayed the beginnings of discomfort as he shifted in his chair.
"You weren't there. The police never even came and getting official statements about the accident took literally weeks. I've heard this is the case in most African countries; all the police are corrupt and victims of crimes actually have to pay the police for petrol to attend the scene! That's if they even have access to a car. I mean, really - it's ridiculous..."
By now she was ranting and the young man was beginning to squirm as her voice rose in pitch, and volume.
"Perhaps you're right, I'm sure you know more than I do," he mumbled non-commitally before blurting "My glass is empty I'll just find a top up," and making quickly for the kitchen.
* * *
When her mother had finally found the ring she had been furious. Maisha would never forget the beating she received. But, realising they couldn't find the rightful owners and suspecting it may be of significant - even life-changing - value, she had taken it to an expert in the city. She had chatted in her head with God for the entire duration of the journey in the hot bus, with it's squeaking plastic covered seats and boiling bodies stuffed as close as hippos in a dry season river.
By the time she arrived she was convinced that they were meant to have the ring. It was a gift, a blessing from God and she was determined that she would make the most of it. They would build a brick house, Abel would go to school, maybe even university. They would have a future.
When she had discovered the actual value she had almost collapsed in the store. Then she had alternated between hysterical laughter and paranoia at losing the ring all the way home. There wasn't just a house and secondary school for Abel, there was school for Masiha, a house for her eldest daughter and savings as well!
As Abel and Maisha had grown up and progressed through secondary school, achieving scholarships for international schools as they reached the higher years, the opportunities unfolded and it was soon apparent that Abel would become a politician; one who had the potential to change a great deal in his area and perhaps the whole country in years to come. But for Maisha things were not as clear.
She battled for many years with her guilt and that single blue eye haunted her dreams. She often wondered if the woman had survived, or if she was being followed by the woman’s spirit which was surely waiting to pounce and destroy all that the family had built.
It was careers week at school before she really began to consider making a choice for her future. She was just beginning to believe that perhaps the spirits would allow her to fulfil her dreams. And when she started to think seriously she realized she had known the answer all along.
Her most fervent wish had been that she might have helped the woman in the truck in the first place. She had a fantasy scene that she replayed in her head frequently; she would drag the woman from the vehicle and tend her wounds at the side of the road, saving her life. “Take this,” the woman would whisper gratefully, handing Maisha the ring, “Thank you for saving my life.” Like something out of a cheesey Nollywood film. That had not been the reality. But now she could repay her misdeed.
She would become a doctor.
Melissa Kay was in PR and journalism in the UK before she trained as a teacher in order to fulfill her dream of living in Africa. As an English teacher in Kenya she began writing articles and her first novel. Now she writes full-time from Tanzania and is currently working on her second novel (the first is about to go out to literary agents!).