They sit over the fire in a conspiratorial huddle. Snippets of conversation interspaced with loud, hearty laughter waft towards them in the insaka - the round, thatched outdoor shelter used as a kitchen. Not in the same place, but close enough that they can respond swiftly should they be required by the men.
"Pass me the groundnuts," the mother says, as she stirs the pot with her wooden cooking stick.
"Shouldn't you add the vegetables first?" her daughter asks.
"When you have your own kitchen, you can decide which way to cook this meal but until then, the groundnuts first please," the mother says, smiling, in a gentle tone that her daughter knows is far too careful.
Restraining a sigh, she hands over the groundnuts, knowing that the silent huff would ring louder than any uttered complaint.
After a moment, she cannot help herself, "you say you want me to have my own kitchen but that also means you'll be here alone."
"I will not be alone. Your brother continues to live within this compound and, though you choose to ignore it, I still have a husband."
She stifles a grunt.
"You disagree with me?"
"If Sitondo can help it he will not be here much longer, and as for Father..."
"Sitondo will bring me a daughter and children, and then my home will be complete again."
The exclusion stings more than she could have anticipated and her instinct is to shield herself, to brush off the insinuation that this is no longer her home. But she cares too much, and will not let her mother's stubbornness condemn her to misfortune. The frustration unsettles her, she shifts on her stool and fidgets with the ivory bracelet on her wrist, before deciding that scaling the fish would be a better use of her pent-up energy.
Her mother begins to hum a tune that her grandmother had sung to her when she was still a child; she cannot abide silence, must fill it at all costs.
Bloody entrails gush out of the belly of the fish as she slices it; feeling around for any leftover slime she scrapes its insides clean and then begins the dreaded job of scaling it. Silver crescents cling on to her fingers, hands and even land on her face. The fish smells of the river in the morning before it awakes and begins to flow with saliva from the tongues of thirsty animals, the earthy wooden scent of canoes and the sweat of little children daring to swim where they have been forbidden. Despite this, the flies still come and she covers herself in even more scales while attempting to swat them away. Surely a meat so delicate has no right to demand this much attention even before it lands in the pot. When she has her own kitchen, she will ask the fishermen to clean their catch before delivery.
Puzzling over this stray thought, she scratches her head with sticky fingers, and then curses herself for inducing yet another long day of washing her tightly curled hair and having to coax one of her friends to plait it. Sighing, she fills a clay bowl with water, carrying it, a pot, and the fish close to the rubbish pit.
Her mother watches her sashay away and smiles inwardly; remembering her own mother saying that two women cannot be masters of the same kitchen, before informing her that an influential family had asked for her hand in marriage as reward for her father’s loyal service. Her father had been a councilor of the Mwene at the Lukena - the royal court, and her marriage to the Mwene's son would cement her family's allegiance to the throne. It was a great honor and despite the usual misgivings of a child leaving the bosom of her mother, she was proud to do her duty and quietly reveled in the wedding rituals that joined families in drink, dance and drumming. Now her daughter talks of love and choice, of the need to belong and a feeling of wellbeing.
How privileged they are, her children, who have so much proximity to power. They mix easily with dignitaries who frequent their home and have been educated at the Lukena. So worldly, risen way beyond her humble beginnings.
"Bana Mbayi, more mboté," her husband bellows from the bigger insaka on the other side of their homestead.
"You heard your father," the mother says, ignoring her daughter's smirk as she returns scale-less. She points to the big insupa on the other side of the kitchen. "Take the honey wine from there, be sure to carry it carefully, it is heavy."
The groundnuts are sticking to the bottom of the pot. All this thinking always causes much more trouble than it's worth.
Maybe Mbayi is right and she should try adding the vegetables first. She laughs, then catches herself and looks around to make sure no one has noticed. Sure, enough there is her neighbour, Bana Lipepo, on her way somewhere. Bana Lipepo is the last of her husband’s three wives and always has far too much time on her hands. Now the whole neighbourhood will know that she laughs alone while stirring her vegetables. Soon enough, they'll be saying that her pots must contain more than just food.
"Good afternoon," she calls out cheerfully.
"Thank you and good afternoon," Bana Lipepo responds.
As she stops in front of the insaka, a chorus of raucous laughter erupts. "I see your husband is back," she says. "I heard the praise singers cheering their victory."
"Yes," she answers, warming up to her favourite subject, "they have won a famous battle."
"You mean, your husband has led them to another triumph. No need to underplay it. We are all grateful to have such a mighty warrior to keep our nation safe."
"Indeed, we are grateful," she responds coyly.
"The men have started the celebrations early."
"You know how they are."
Another round of laughter rings out.
"Well, I mustn’t distract you from your cooking," Bana Lipepo says, turning to walk away.
She smells it before she sees it. The groundnuts are completely ruined. The usually creamy, fatty flour has turned a dark brown and is clinging to the pot. Now she must start again and hope that the pot is not ruined by the ill-tempered scouring that her daughter will surely inflict on it. She sets aside the groundnuts and starts preparing ingredients for the fish, singing to prevent more mindless wondering.
"How can you stand it?" Mbayi asks when she returns, smoothing down her soft brown lechwe hide skirt as if attempting to unruffle herself after the encounter with her father and his boisterous friends.
"I hope you did not behave like this in front of our guests."
"We both know you are only concerned about one of those visitors. Don't worry, I didn't disgrace you."
"It is a good prospect and will stand this family in good stead."
Mbayi attempts to ignore her mother's looming presence.
"You should be proud that your marriage could propel your father to the throne."
"That's what I'm worried about," she mumbles.
"Speak up," her mother hisses, but Mbayi knows not to take the bait.
Busying herself with the cassava porridge, she pulls an ember from the main fire and lights her own, placing the pot on it and when it heats up, sprinkling cassava flour into the rolling water, stirring all the while to prevent lumps. The gentle, soothing rhythm of tasks calms her, transporting her to the moment of her father's fall from grace, his transition from personal hero to fallible human.
It was a few years before the first sight of horrifying blood between her legs. A time when she spent many happy days at the Lukena exploring a world that appeared vast and mysterious after the minuscule, mundane existence that was her mother's compound.
The Mwene had not long ascended to the throne, chosen by the mzimu over her brother, who is still teeming from the loss. The Mwene's brother is Mbayi's father. He was convinced that the diviners had somehow misread the wishes of the ancestors and crowned the wrong person. Today, there is an uneasy, hard-fought truce between the siblings, forged in those early years when she witnessed a tug of war that threatened to splinter the nation.
Her father had just won an important battle and sauntered into the palace triumphantly, carrying the skull of his adversary and throwing it at the Mwene's feet. Mbayi sat in a corner of the palace cowering because she was meant to be outside taking lessons with one of the councillors. She continued to cower when her aunt thundered at her father, admonishing him for dishonouring her palace with his pathetic conquests. The reed mats that lined the palace shook from the strength of her wrath, or at least that's what it felt like. In truth, the Mwene's thunder had been rumbling, she asked an unresponsive brother why he had disregarded her directives to pursue a more nuanced approach, and seek an alliance, not a war, ordering him out of her sight when his blubbering advisor attempted to appease her.
As he bent to pick up the offending skull, her Father caught sight of Mbayi, his eyes piercing through her, the humiliation complete. She shivers now remembering that deathly stare, rubbing her arms for warmth.
That evening she learnt just how cruel a man her father could be, never once able to meet Mbayi's eye, his annoyance fell, instead, on her mother.
If her parents have their way, the blubbering advisor will soon become her father-in-Law, cementing a relationship predicated on unseating the Mwene from her rightful place on the throne. Under instruction from her father, her mother has suggested that Mbayi no longer serve at the Lukena. She is in effect forbidden.
Her mother's singing infiltrates her thoughts. Her voice is not unpleasant but grates nonetheless, she drops pieces of fish into melted butter, not once flinching from the hot splutters. Her fingers remain dainty and soft, the indication of an easy life, but her eyes are beginning to be lined with wrinkles, not all of them from laughter.
She catches Mbayi watching her and smiles. Mbayi smiles back, reaching out to flick a stray scale off her mother's shoulder. Adding vegetables and water to the pot before covering it she turned to her daughter, "you have grown up so fast," she says.
"You are also growing and need rest now, Mother."
"Are you suggesting I need another wife?" she smiles.
"No, just rest."
Her mother cups her face, "you have so much to learn. Maybe I should not have let you spend so much time at the Lukena."
"I know you do not like to hear it, but there is more than one type of learning."
"So you keep saying," Mbayi mumbles.
Her mother sighs. "Let's sit on the mat while we wait for the porridge and fish to cook."
"What about the groundnut sauce?"
"Never mind that. I can help you unplait your hair, you'll need to wash it after battling that fish."
Fearful of being held hostage she assents, and they move to the butterscotch reed mat laid out on the side of the insaka furthest away from the fires. Her misgivings are realised when her mother begins to speak as soon as her shoulders relax.
"Do you know my name?"
This is a trick question and she will not get caught out. She sits still, willing her body to enjoy the unravelling of her hair and the smooth pads of her mother's fingers massaging her scalp.
"Of course, you do not know it. And do you know why?"
'I'm sure you'll tell me now,' Mbayi thinks. Out loud, she purses her lips.
"Because ever since the day you were born, he has called me by your name."
In fact, her mother had been called by the name of her first son before her father had sacrificed him to the mzimu to gain more military prowess, but admitting that means remembering, and none of them are allowed to.
"All women are called by their children's names," Mbayi says.
"Indeed. And it is from that, that we derive our authority."
"But...men are also called by their children's names."
She can hear her mother smiling. "Only I know if that is truly his name," she says.
"Mother!" Mbayi exclaims, turning around to face her.
"Hold still," her mother says with a twinkle in her eye.
"My legacy is complete," she continues. "Your father, like every other man, must seek his own."
"A man who is unkind to his family can't be fit to run a nation," Mbayi hears herself say, and then holds her breath, waiting; the silence stretches.
Her mother unravels the last plait and stands up. "He is not unkind, simply unsettled," she says, before stirring the fish.
The cassava porridge boils over onto the fire and the hissing wakes her from her stupor.
They complete the cooking in silence; even her mother does not hum or sing.
The fish soup, now an aromatic, golden red is poured into a clay bowl, the cassava meal placed into another bowl and tossed with the lid on until it forms a smooth, white ball, the pumpkin leaves, an emerald green untainted by groundnuts, go into the smallest of the bowls. The three bowls are stacked one on top of the other with lids on, and her mother helps to place them on her head.
She takes the food to her father and his guests and when she returns, she is visibly shaken.
"Take more mboté in," her mother says without turning to look at her.
"The Mwene's messenger," Mbayi stammers.
Her mother registers the alarm and turns towards her questioningly.
"Father has gone to the palace," she whispers.
"I'm sure she just wants a report of his activities," her mother says, steadying herself by holding on to one of the wooden pillars that holds up the insaka before sitting down.
Mbayi shakes her head. "I won't just stand by and let him..."
"It will not come to that."
"He came straight here before he went to the palace. The Mwene is bound to be angry," she says, unable to keep the quiver out of her voice.
"Sibling rivalry, nothing more."
Holding her mother’s gaze, she shakes her head, "I won't just stand by," she says again. Searching her mother’s eyes and finding nothing new.
"No. If you don't leave then I will."
Mist cloaks the river as it glistens in the distance. A fisherman emerges from the haze with his catch. The cockerel scratches the dust and crows noisily, pecking at dewy shards of grass. She lifts her fingers to her face, wincing as she pieces together the events of the night. With a deep sigh, she pokes her fire alive and waits to receive the fisherman.
"Mbayi," she starts to call, but knows there will be no answer.
"Could one of your nieces help to clean the fish?" she asks him when he arrives.