Chanda's Wars

Chanda's Wars
Allan Stratton

With an afterword by Roméo Dallaire (Head of U.N. forces during the Rwandan genocide)

Dedicated to young people caught by war

“Sensible commanders always grab whatever weapons are easiest at hand, and no weapon is easier to get or control than children.”

Former Burundi Commander



IN MY DREAM, Mama is alive and well.


BEFORE ESTHER GOES back to bed, we peek in on…


I BIKE TO the secondary, run down the hall to…


I RIDE TOWARD home, lighter than air: a chase dream.


MOMENTS LATER, I'M shaken awake into a real-life nightmare. Esther…


IN NO TIME it's Saturday morning.


“CHANDA?” THE VOICE coming out of the phone is familiar,…


WE PACK THE evening before we leave. If we didn't,…


WHENEVER MRS. TAFA drives Mr. Tafa's truck, she goes so fast you…


THERE'S A DIM glow in the sky to the right.


AS SOON AS the party's over, I put the kids…


IT'S NIGHTTIME. AUNTIE Lizbet is worn out. This afternoon, while…


THE ROOSTERS CROW. My head is splitting.


I HANG UP in a daze. Slip the cell phone…


I GO TO bed. Granny's blessing, the love of the…


“GET AWAY FROM me, you sonovabitch!” I grab fistfuls of…


WE'RE BACK IN Tiro by midmorning. Nelson's talked all the…


THE BROTHERS SWOOP down like eagles on a mouse. Their…


NOBODY EATS MUCH at breakfast. Granny fusses with Soly's shirt…




IF I'M LUCKY, I can reach the post, find my…


I GO TO the crumbled ruin where I found Mama,…


WE PRESS OURSELVES against the ground.


SOON THE REBELS are packed and ready. As they wait…


I PUT THE cell in my pocket and shake my…




IF I'M GOING to do this, I can't make a…


I PASS THROUGH the Tiro cemetery.


I GO UP the lane to where the bad trail…


I'M ON MY back in the shade of the ridge,…


NELSON STAYS UPSET till I offer him lunch. A little…


“SO WHERE'S PAKO taking the rebels?” I ask as we…


I WAKE UP in the middle of the night shivering,…


THE BIRDS CIRCLE slowly, black specks in the distance.


THE SMOKE'S DIED down by the time we reach the…


Mandiki's trail heads into the reeds at the water. Nelson…


WE EDGE OUR way through the reeds. The muddy water's…


IN NO TIME, the hippo highway takes us far from…


I'M NOT SURE if my plan will work, but it's…


IT'S DAWN. WE'VE run all night, scared to death, no…


AFTER THE GRILLING, Nelson and I are brought back to…


THE FLATBED'S PACKED. With the highway closed the past few…


BEDTIME COMES AND goes. The children won't sleep. I tell…


AT DAWN, I collect Iris. She's curled up, deep asleep.


NEXT MORNING, AN ambulance brings Mr. Lesole home from the hospital.


EVERY DAY WE spend a little time with Mr. Lesole. His…


, Mama is alive and well.

We're on Granny Thela's cattle post outside Tiro. The bush land stretches farther than I can see. Cows graze freely in the grasses, cluster for shade beneath the broad-boughed acacia trees, and wander around thickets of scrub brush. Mama's sitting on a slab of rock in the shade of a termite mound. I'm by her feet. We're at the abandoned campsite where I found her dying six months ago.

It's a rainy-season dream, but the sky is clear. The sun is hot. Mama's cotton dress clings to her body. “What a glorious day to be alive,” she laughs. I love her laugh; deep and rich, it lifts the day like sunshine. She fans herself with a palm leaf and soaks her feet in a bucket of water drawn from the nearby stream. Orchids grow out of her hair.

In the clearing, my little brother and sister twirl each
other in circles. Soly is five, but looks about seven. He's tall for his age, a tangle of legs, my baby giraffe. Iris is six, and tough like a nut. The combs in her hair are the size of her head. The two collapse in a dizzy squeal.

“You've kept them safe,” Mama says. “I can rest easy.” She smiles, and offers me a biscuit from the pocket of her apron. I'm about to say thank you, when she sniffs the air. “We have to go.”

“But we just got here.”

“There's going to be a storm.”

She's right. Out of nowhere, clouds are rolling in.

I face the clearing. “Soly, Iris—we have to go.” But the clearing has turned into savanna. Soly and Iris have disappeared in the tall grasses.

“They're playing hide-and-seek,” I say. “I'll track them down.”

Mama doesn't reply. I glance at her rock. She's vanished too.


“Don't worry about me,” says a white stork perched on the termite mound. “Get Soly and Iris to safety.”

The sky is dark. There's a rumble in the distance.

I plunge into the grass. It's growing faster than I can
think. In a blink, it's over my head. Where am I? I check the treetops. I used to know them all, but everything's mixed up. New trees are everywhere. I'm lost.

“Soly? Iris?”

A flash of lightning. The storm's closing in. There's a machete in my hand. I hack frantically at the grass. I hack and I hack and—I'm out of the bush, at the side of the road leading to Tiro. Soly and Iris are nearby, watching ants swarm a dung beetle.

“What took you so long?” Soly asks, with big innocent eyes.

“Don't ever run off again,” I snap.

“We didn't run off,” Iris taunts. “You lost us.”

“Enough of your lip. We have to go.”

Too late. Lightning strikes a nearby mango tree. Thunder booms. The sky falls. We're thrown to the ground. Raindrops the size of melons explode around us. We take cover in a hollow baobab tree, as children flood from the bush on either side. They stream down paths out of cattle posts. Pour onto the road, ahead and behind.

The storm lets up. But the children don't go home. They run toward Tiro.

A boy races by. “They're coming!”

Who's coming? Who? We try to run too, but we can't. The road is mud. We slip, fall, get up, slip, fall, get up. Everyone's gone. The sun goes down. We start to sink.

“Tiro,” I scream. “We have to get to Tiro.” But we can't move. We're up to our knees in mud.

Out of the night, a bush breaks to the right. A branch snaps to the left.

Soly and Iris cling to my waist. “It's them! They're here!”



“Chanda! Wake up!” Esther shakes me.

I sit bolt upright on my mat. “Esther! What—?”

“Iris and Soly. They ran and got me. They said you cried out.”

I see them cowering in the doorway. “It's all right,” I say. “I'm fine.”

“Are you possessed?” Soly asks in a little voice. “Iris says you're possessed.” Iris pokes him. “Ow.”

I glare at Iris. “Stop scaring your brother, Iris. I was just having a dream, and you know it. Now go back to bed.”

Esther shoos them to their room. Thank god for Esther. We've been best friends since forever. When her parents died, Esther's family was scattered all over. She worked the
streets for the money to get them back. One night, she got raped, her face slashed. I took her in. Now she lives with her own little brother and sister, Sammy and Magda, in two rooms off the side of our house. Mrs. Tafa, our next-door neighbor, says she's a bad influence. I don't care. She's Esther. If it weren't for her, I'd never have made it through Mama's funeral, or these past few months.

Esther returns, sits by my mat, and holds my hand. Under the light of the oil lamp, the scars from the attack cast shadows across her cheeks and chin. “It wasn't just a dream, was it?” she says. “It's the one about Tiro.”

I look away.

Esther rubs my palm and takes a deep breath. “You used to get it every couple of weeks. Now it's almost every night. Chanda—”

“Don't say it.”

“Why not? Pretending everything's fine won't it make it go away.” She grips my hand tight. “Something's wrong. You need help. Somebody older. You know I don't like Mrs. Tafa. All the same, she was your mama's best friend. You should talk to her.”

“No!” I yank my hand free. “Mrs. Tafa knows what happened to Mama. She'll try to bring in the spirit doctor.”


“Mrs. Gulubane's a fake.”

“Then talk to Mr. Selalame.”

“I can't. He's Mr. Selalame! I'd feel strange.”

Esther throws her arms in the air. “What's more important, your pride or Soly and Iris? Nightmares have a reason, Chanda. If you don't see Mr. Selalame, I'm going to Mrs. Tafa.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Don't be mad. Please,” Esther begs. “I'm your friend. And you're in trouble.”

back to bed, we peek in on Soly and Iris. They're pretending to sleep. We draw the thin curtain across their doorway.

“Get some more rest yourself,” Esther whispers as she steps into the night air. “There's another few hours till dawn.”

“Sure,” I say. I hold up the oil lamp till she's reached her place, then I bolt the door, get my satchel from beside my mat, and bring it to the table in the main room. There's no way I'm going back to sleep. I've had enough nightmares.

I pull out my binders and go over today's duties at the elementary school; the bit of money I earn as a replacement teacher keeps us going. At the beginning of the year, I babysat the kindergarten class for Mrs. Ndori, who was out with pneumonia. That's what they called it anyway. Next I
looked after the grade fives. Everyone knew their regular teacher had been putting on weight, but nobody guessed she was pregnant till her water broke in the middle of a spelling bee. People still laugh: “How do you spell ‘catastrophe'?”

Now I'm with the grade ones. Iris is in the class. She's not too thrilled about it. Neither am I.

My job came about thanks to my old English teacher, Mr. Selalame. He's helped me since my first day of high school, when I stayed late to help him unload boxes of used books from a missionary minivan. As we lined them up on his shelves, I was overcome by this need to touch their covers, feel their pages filled with words I'd never seen—a lot of them, words I didn't even know. Mr. Selalame beamed. He lent me as many as I could read, and told me how, if I worked hard, I could be a lawyer or a doctor. By last year, a scholarship seemed so real I could taste it. Then Mama passed away, and I had to drop out to raise Soly and Iris. Mr. Selalame talked to the principal at the elementary and, well, the rest is history.

The shade of the oil lamp is smeared with soot. It's hard to read. I yawn, put my binders back in my satchel, and close my eyes. I see the road to Tiro. Children without faces spill from the bush.

I jump up from the table. I won't go to sleep. No.

A gray light filters through the window slats. A rooster crows from one of the neighbors' yards. Soon it'll be sunup. Good.

Time to look after the chickens. I take the lamp and a jug and make my way to the cistern by the coop. The water level's lower than I'd like, what with my washing, cleaning, and the vegetable garden. Tomorrow's Saturday; I'll load the wheelbarrow with pails and spend the morning pumping at the standpipe.

Across the cactus hedge to my right, my neighbor, Mr. Tafa, starts his truck and heads off for work with United Construction. He likes to leave early, before Mrs. Tafa has a chance to start in on him. We wave to each other as he drives away.

I fill the jug in the cistern and set the lamp on a paving stone by the coop door. Inside, I pour water into the chickens' pan and edge my way through the gloom to the feed bag hanging from a spike on the far wall. I toss a few handfuls of seed on the ground. While the hens peck breakfast, I feel the corners of their nests. Esther's supposed to collect the eggs at night, but she always misses a couple.

Things rustle in the shadows. Flap at me out of the dark.
I imagine my dream—the things in the night—and stumble out of the coop. Hens. It's only the hens. I don't care. I grab the lamp and race to the house.

Inside, there's a commotion in the kids' room.

“What's going on?”

“Nothing,” Soly singsongs.

“Yes, nothing!” Iris insists. “We're sleeping. So stay out.”

I push aside their curtain. Iris is on her hands and knees trying to scoop up a million beads from an upturned bowl. And—oh my lord—she's undone her cornrows.


“I was trying to bead my hair.”

“You can't even braid it!”

“I can so. It was perfect, till you left with the light.”

“I told her not to,” Soly peeps. He's hiding under their sheet.

Iris punches him. “Baby.”

I grab her by the elbow, drag her to the table, and get out the tong combs. “I don't have time for this, I really don't,” I say, running my hands through her hair. It's four inches long and unbelievably dense. My hands snag everywhere.

“Ow,” Iris squeals as I tease out the tats. “Ow, you're hurting.”

“Sit still, or it'll hurt even more.” There's a mass of knotted kinks. I dig in a comb. “I promised I'd bead your hair this weekend.”

“You promised last week too,” Iris pouts. “You're a liar!”

“And you're a brat.” I yank hard.

“Ow! Ow ow ow!”

I smile: That'll teach her. After forty-odd minutes, I've worked out the worst of it. I quickly separate the hair into large sections and weave six thick braids.

“I want cornrows!” Iris squeals.

“Later.” I get up and head to the counter to make porridge.

Iris crosses her arms. “I won't go to school with my hair like this.”

“Yes you will, or I'll shave you bald.”

Esther arrives at the door with her brother and sister, Sammy and Magda.

“Breakfast's late,” I say, tossing my head toward Iris. I reach for the jar of maize meal. The lid's off. One look inside, and I seal it up tight. “Esther, can I speak to you in private?” I say calmly.

Three steps outside, I lose control. “The flour's crawling with insects. If Iris finds out, she'll blab. Then Soly
won't eat his porridge ever again, and Mrs. Tafa will go on and on about how Mama always kept a clean house and what would she be saying if she were alive to see the mess I've made of it.”

“Don't worry,” Esther soothes. “I'll sift the flour while the rest of you are at school. Or I'll make bread: We can say the bugs are raisins.”

I laugh despite myself.

“For now, stay here and pull yourself together,” Esther continues. “I'll take care of breakfast.” She winks encouragement and goes inside. I chant the alphabet to calm down—ABCDEFG, ABCDEFG-fill the watering pail at the cistern, and head to the vegetable patch.

A screen door squeaks open and bangs shut across the cactus hedge. It's Mrs. Tafa, off on her grand morning tour of the neighborhood. Her girdle won't fit anymore, so she's strolling out in her billowing yellow kaftan and matching parasol. She looks like a one-woman sunrise. It was bad enough when Mrs. Tafa had the only house on the street with electricity, running water, and a land line. She'd lord about, telling the neighbors how to stake their tomatoes, asking if their babies had ear mites, and covering her nose with her hankie to let them know they needed a bath.

These days, it's worse. Mr. Tafa brought her a cell phone from work. It's practically attached to her head. So now instead of simply yakking at the neighbors, Mrs. Tafa hollers their sins to the world. Folks run when they see her coming. That doesn't stop her: “There goes Mrs. Bande,” she'll bellow into the cell. “I'd hide my tail too, if my yard looked like a rummage sale at the dump.” Last week, she got on the local radio call-in show. “I'm at the Nylos' place on Fourth Street,” she announced. “What a smell! Jacob Nylo should stop chasing young girls and dig out his outhouse.”

Right now, Mrs. Tafa's on the cell to her husband, telling him what to pick up at the drugstore on his way home. I pray she doesn't see me. No such luck. “Why, there's Chanda,” she hoots at the cell. “The poor thing's watering her excuse for a garden. Those bean rows are more crooked than Mrs. Gulubane's teeth. Yoo hoo! Chanda!” I look over. She's waving at me. I wave back. “Well, I've things to do, places to go,” she brays at her husband. “Bye bye.”

Mrs. Tafa sashays into the yard, struggling to find the cell's Off button. The trouble is, the buttons are too small for her to see without the little magnifying glass she hides
in her sewing bag. She's always getting wrong numbers. I'll see her on the street, squinting and poking at the pad, then yelling at the stranger that answers: “Who the hell are you? I never phoned you! Get off my cell, or I'm calling the police!” After a dozen wrong numbers, she'll pitch it at a tree. No wonder it's covered in glue, sticky tape, and elastic bands. I'm amazed it's even working.

I keep my eyes on my watering in hopes that Mrs. Tafa will leave. Instead, she twirls her parasol and stares at me. I move slowly through the rows. She keeps staring. I pretend to check for aphids. More staring. Finally, when I can't stand it anymore, she says: “Any trouble last night?”

“No. Why?”

“Saw your light. Your light's been on quite a few nights lately.”

“Soly's afraid of the dark,” I shrug.

Silence. I examine the pale yellow leaves on the squash vine.

“You'd tell your Auntie Rose if there was a problem, wouldn't you?”

Auntie Rose. I hate it when she calls herself that. The name began when I was little. Mama and Papa had moved down from Tiro and settled us into the worker houses at
the diamond mine. Mrs. Tafa's first husband, Meeshak, was a friend on Papa's shift; they died together with my older brothers in the great cave-in. Mrs. Tafa started acting like we were family. “Calling her Auntie Rose is such a little thing,” Mama said, “and it'd mean so much to her.” So fine, I call her “Auntie Rose” for Mama's sake.

“Chanda, dear,” Mrs. Tafa says. “I asked you a question.”

“Yes, Auntie Rose. If there was a problem, I'd tell you.”

She dabs her forehead with her hankie. “I'm thinking of your mama, is all. She'd want me to know.”

I nod. We say our goodbyes. Out in the street, Mrs. Tafa makes a big show of poking her button pad. “Howdy-do, Mr. Mayor,” she blares into the cell. “What a pleasure to find you awake. I trust you're not hungover?” With that, she sails off on her tour.

The kids run out the door ready for school, Esther following with my satchel and a small bag of biscuits. I give Soly a hug. Iris glares past me, her hair wrapped in a kerchief. She grabs Magda by the hand and the two skip off, Soly and Sammy close behind kicking a stone between them.

When I started work at the elementary, I tried to walk with them, but they told me it made them embarrassed in front of their friends. To be honest, going alone is best for
me too. I get to ride my bike. Bonang's a city of eighty thousand; it's all spread out, and we're in the far west outskirts. If I have errands to run after class, having wheels is a blessing.

“I'm going to the Welcome Center this morning,” Esther says as we watch the children turn the corner. “But I'll be back to feed them lunch and supper. You'll be late, right? Talking to someone at the secondary?”

“Please, Esther. Don't make me tell Mr. Selalame my dream. I don't want him thinking I'm crazy, or that he made a mistake getting me my job. Please, please, I can't let him down.”

“Then talk to your ‘Auntie Rose.'”

I give her a hard look, grab my satchel, and jam it in my bike carrier. “Keep the stupid biscuits. I'm not hungry.”

The ride to school is the only peace I get all day. Little Ezekiel Sibanda has smuggled in a carton of shake-shake from his papa's still. First thing I know, he and a friend are drunk at the back of the class. They fight, I haul them to the front, and they puke on my desk. I spend the rest of the morning wiping up vomit. I spend lunch hour explaining to the principal how I let it happen. Then I'm in the hall with Lena Gambe sobbing on my shoulder about some
name-calling. Finally, to top my day, Iris decides to show me who's boss. She sits backward on her bench, won't turn around, and dares me to do something about it.

When the final bell rings and the students spill from the room, I collapse in my chair. I couldn't see Mr. Selalame now even if I wanted to. I'm too tired. Too, too tired. I'll wait till after the weekend.

My eyelids flicker shut. I'm on the road to Tiro. The ditches are rivers of blood. Soly and Iris are swept away.

My eyes snap open. I can't breathe. Mr. Selalame. I don't have a choice.

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