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The Smiling Mask - An African Short Story Chapter 2
The Smiling Mask – chapter 2 The message from Chemba
Sitting on the log outside her hut in the small village near the town of Chemba in Northern Mozambique, Julia Mansana began carving out the piece of wood that she had cut from the tree now lying against the mud wall of the hut. A rooster perched on the top of the stone wall that surrounded the small garden where she grew her mielies and pumpkin. The rooster eyed the hens feeding along the wall with a bored look.
The mask that Julia was beginning to carve was on the same pattern that she had used so many times before. It seemed to be popular with David Jacobs who came by once a month in his dilapidated Toyota Corona, to buy masks and other items from the locals. He stopped at Cala on his journey and so when the date for his arrival came, the 26th of the month, she would take a bus into Cala to await his arrival.
With a critical eye he would accept some and reject others as he filled his square canvas bags with curios destined for the market in Johannesburg. The standard price for a mask the size that Julia was working on, was R12 and if she managed to complete four or five a week she could earn a bit more than R200 a month. This supplemented the equally small pension she received from the Mozambique Government every month, as an unmarried mother of two small children.
In order to complete the masks, she had to work hard from early morning till late into the evening when the light began to fade. At the end of the week she carefully colored the completed masks with the dyes that she mixed from roots and barks of trees in the nearby forest and a tin of shoe polish. Here in the forest she also cut down the occasional tree that provided the basic wood for the masks.
Her tools were simple; a small hand saw, a chisel, a hammer and a strong knife that she sharpened regularly on the stone kept near the door of her hut. Her hands flew over the wood as she carefully chipped and shaved. In between her work on the masks she had to look after her children who now attended the primary school in Chamba. Meals were simple and water came from the nearby river where she fetched it every day. She dreamed of a better existence for her children and worried about their future.
It was true that the situation in Mozambique was getting better as the tourists from South Africa began to return and the minefields in the area were gradually being cleared up. It had been a hard time during the civil war but now peace seemed to be returning and things were getting better. However, here next to the mighty Zambezi River and about a hundred kilometers from the coast, not much had changed and so she looked after her family and used the skill that she had inherited from her father, to make a living.
As she completed the last mask for the month, she decided to engrave a small fish just above the eyes as a symbol of what? She wasn’t sure, but something inside her made her do it. How that small decision was going to have a lasting impact on her life. She gently touched the face of the mask and whispered a few words in the language of her people as she put it on the pile of completed masks. She smiled at the mask, and although there really was no real smile in the rather serious face on the mask she imagined for a moment that the mask smiled back at her. ( to be continued)