The Birth of Fire

A Short Story

By Nkateko Masinga

For decades, my grandmother’s dreams had saved our family from one disaster after the other. When she dreamt of a flood, we would reinforce our buttresses and fix existing leaks. When she dreamt of crops, we knew it would be a difficult harvest. Her dreams always involved the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This time they involved fire, but not in the form of a blazing inferno wrecking our home or a wayward forest fire spreading to our crops. It was my unborn child that uGogo was seeing in her dreams: a flaming ball of fire coming out of my womb.

I did not ask too many questions the first few times she had had the dream about my baby. I asked the ladies in my prayer group to intercede for me and had left it at that. But when Gogo insisted that we name my son Mlilo (fire) to appease the ancestors, I knew it was a more serious fight than any of us could have imagined. We were battling with the spirit world.

My mother and I had argued about Gogo’s dreams.

‘Mmawe, this could mean anything. It could mean my little one will bring warmth and light to his generation. Fire doesn’t always have to be an omen. Besides, the ladies at church bayathandaza, we have no options except to keep praying.’

Mmawe’s response was to shake her head in disapproval and walk away, giving my protruding belly a gentle tap as she went.

The day I had gone into labour, my husband insisted that Gogo travel with us to the hospital. I told him that if Gogo was going with us then we would have to fetch Mmawe too. My mother taught sewing at the local community centre and kept her phone on silent mode as she worked, so my husband would have to interrupt her class.

‘Thuli, uyeza umtwana?’ Mmawe exclaimed breathlessly as she got into the car, settling in next to me in the back seat. My grandmother had sat in the passenger seat humming to herself and rocking back and forth.

My son Mlilo had finally made his way into the world at midnight. By then my husband had taken my mother and grandmother home to rest so it was just us and the nursing staff in the room. The gynaecologist and paediatrician were in the adjoining room having what looked like a very serious conversation. When the nurse handed my child to me, I knew something was not right. I had looked carefully at Mlilo and saw patches of skin discolouration on his tiny neck. Then I knew why the two specialist doctors were having a hushed-toned meeting next door.

When Dr Thuso, the paediatrician, finally walked into the room, I knew what she would say: Mlilo had leucoderma or partial albinism.

When Mmawe and Gogo came back to the hospital with my husband, they found me rocking Mlilo to sleep after a feed.

Gogo took one look at my son and said ‘Umtwana lo ushiswe umlilo wamadlozi’, This child has been touched by the fire of the ancestors.

My mother was stunned. Before we could intervene, my grandmother had taken out a matchstick and was setting the herb alight. When the smoke detector went off, sending a nurse dashing to my bedside, my grandmother had hidden the herb and feigned a look of surprise that had us all convinced.

To this day, I tell my beautiful boy the story of how his great-grandmother wanted to burn impepho in the hospital room as a peace offering to the gods who gave him special skin.