I was six years old, playing in the road, when a group of herd boys approached, singing and dancing. This was in Masitala village near the city of Kasungu, where my family lived on a farm. The herd boys worked for a nearby farmer who kept many cows. They explained how they'd been tending their herd that morning and discovered a giant sack in the road. When they opened it up, they found it filled with bubble gum. Can you imagine such a treasure? I can't tell you how much I loved bubble gum.
"Should we give some to this boy?" one asked.
I didn't move or breathe. There were dead leaves in my hair.
"Eh, why not?" said another. "Just look at him."
One of the boys reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of gumballs, one for every color, and dropped them into my hands. I stuffed them all in my mouth. As the boys left, I felt the sweet juice roll down my chin and soak my shirt.
The following day, I was playing under the mango tree when a trader on a bicycle stopped to chat with my father. He said that while on his way to the market the previous morning, he'd dropped one of his bags. By the time he'd realized what had happened and circled back, someone had taken it. The bag was filled with bubble gum, he said. Some fellow traders had told him about the herd boys passing out gum in the villages, and this made him very angry. For two days he'd been riding his bicycle throughout the district looking for the boys. He then issued a chilling threat.
"I've gone to see the sing'anga, and whoever ate that gum will soon be sorry." The sing'anga was the witch doctor.
I'd swallowed the gum long before. Now the sweet, lingering memory of it soured into poison on my tongue. I began to sweat; my heart was beating fast. Without anyone seeing, I ran into the blue gum grove behind my house, leaned against a tree, and tried to make myself clean. I spit and hocked, shoved my finger into my throat, anything to rid my body of the curse. I came up dry. A bit of saliva colored the leaves at my feet, so I covered them with dirt.
But then, as if a dark cloud had passed over the sun, I felt the great eye of the wizard watching me through the trees. I'd eaten his juju and now his darkness owned me. That night, the witches would come for me in my bed. They'd take me aboard their planes and force me to fight, leaving me for dead along the magic battlefields. And as my soul drifted alone and forsaken above the clouds, my body would be cold by morning. A fear of death swept over me like a fever.
I began crying so hard I couldn't move my legs. The tears ran hot down my face, and as they did, the smell of poison filled my nose. It was everywhere inside me. I fled the forest as fast as possible, trying to get away from the giant magic eye. I ran all the way home to where my father sat against the house, plucking a pile of maize. I wanted to throw my body under his, so he could protect me from the devil.
"It was me," I said, the tears drowning my words. "I ate the stolen gum. I don't want to die, Papa. Don't let them take me!"
My father looked at me for a second, then shook his head.
"It was you, eh?" he said, then kind of smiled.
Didn't he realize I was done for?
"Well," he said, and rose from the chair. His knees popped whenever he stood. My father was a big man. "Don't worry. I'll find this trader and explain. I'm sure we can work out something."