When Hoopoes Go To Heavenby Gaile Parkin
Ten-year-old Benedict is feeling happy. His family's new home in Swaziland has the most beautiful garden in the whole entire world, teeming with insects, frogs, and his favorite cinnamon-coloured birds. Here, crouched in the cool shade of the lucky-bean tree, it's easy to forget the loneliness that comes from his siblings playing without him, easy to stop
Ten-year-old Benedict is feeling happy. His family's new home in Swaziland has the most beautiful garden in the whole entire world, teeming with insects, frogs, and his favorite cinnamon-coloured birds. Here, crouched in the cool shade of the lucky-bean tree, it's easy to forget the loneliness that comes from his siblings playing without him, easy to stop himself fretting about how to fix his Mama's failing cake-baking business. Not that Benedict generally allows sad or uncomfortable things to cloud his day. Usually, he simply finds a way to put things right. Like trying to learn the language of his strange new country, to make himself feel less of an outsider. Like persuading the people at Ubuntu Funerals to provide a decent burial for the beautiful hoopoe killed by their van. Or like being a friend to Nomsa, a girl brave enough to pick up a spider but too afraid to tell anyone why her teacher is making her stay late after school. Of course, there are many things in Africa that cannot be put right by a boy who isn't yet big. But in Benedict's wonder-filled world, even the ugliest situation has a certain magic. Warm, funny, and brimming with life, When Hoopoes Go to Heaven paints a fresh and compelling picture of life in Swaziland that will capture your imagination and restore your faith in humanity.
- Atlantic Books
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Read an Excerpt
When Hoopoes go to Heaven
By Gaile Parkin
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2012 Gaile Parkin
All rights reserved.
Things that seemed real could sometimes be just pretend, and things that seemed just pretend could sometimes be real. It was hard to keep that in your mind all the time, especially when you were still small. But it was important to try, because if you didn't you could easily get confused. You could even get an accident, like the tiny bird he held in his small hands now. It had thought it was flying through sky, but it had flown into a sheet of glass instead, a windowpane that was showing it just a picture of the sky.
The bird was completely still. Its beak was open and its wide eyes didn't blink. He examined it carefully, searching with a gentle finger for any signs of damage under the soft yellow and black of its feathers. Finding none, he slid his back slowly down the outside wall of the house until he reached the ground where he could squat steadily without tipping over. Then he cradled the bird in his left hand, freeing his right to search in the pocket of his shorts for the precious brown bottle of rescue medicine. Without taking his eyes off the bird, he shifted his knees apart and placed the small bottle between his bare feet, holding it tight there so that his hand could unscrew its top, giving the rubber teat on it a squeeze before lifting it. A quick glance at the glass dropper attached to the top reminded him that there wasn't much of the healing liquid left: he must remember to ask Auntie Rachel for some more next time he was at the other house.
Very carefully, he squeezed a drop into the little bird's open beak, watching it swallow before squeezing in another. Two drops should be enough. It was a young bird, not yet fully grown into its adult feathers, but unmistakably one of the weavers that built their nests near the dam further up the hill.
Replacing the top of the medicine bottle, he slipped it back into his pocket as he pushed himself up the wall until he was standing again. The bird blinked. Soon it would be ready to come back to itself after its sudden, painful shock.
Carrying it a little way away from the wall, he bent and placed it gently on the grass, talking to it softly as he settled down on the grass himself to keep an eye on it while he waited patiently for it to recover enough to fly back up the hill to its family. The movement of a butterfly flitting nearby caught his attention. It was one of his favourites: an African monarch, with wings somewhere between orange and brown, edged in black with bold white spots.
Monarch was another way of saying king; he knew that because there was a king here where they were living now on account of Baba's new job, and people were always saying that this king, Mswati III, was Africa's last absolute monarch. He wasn't entirely sure what an absolute monarch was, but when people said absolutely, what they meant was definitely or completely, so he guessed that there was simply no doubt about Mswati being the king.
On his family's very first day here in Swaziland, when they were still on the road in Baba's red Microbus with the trailer behind, on their way from Tanzania to their new home here near the foot of the Malagwane Hill, they had heard loud sirens screaming at them, and Baba had copied the cars in front and pulled off the tar road onto the dusty verge. First some motorbikes, then five, six, seven, eight big back shiny cars had sped past them with blue lights flashing. Later, people had told them that was the king, and if the king was ever on the road you had to get out of the way. Which pretty much showed that Mswati was absolutely the king and nobody must doubt it.
The little bird blinked again, and then again, turning its head from side to side as if to take in the garden around it.
To his own eyes, it was the most beautiful garden in the whole entire world – although, in truth, he knew that he would have found any garden at all beautiful after the bare earth of the compound in Kigali where they had lived last year on account of Baba's old job. He and his younger brothers would sometimes go from that compound to a house down the road where two Indian boys from their school lived. There was a garden there, but it was nothing like this one here on the Malagwane Hill. While his brothers had played football – or, even more boring, cricket – with Rajesh and Kamal, he had done his best to make friends with a crow that lived in that garden. There hadn't been that many other birds there, not like all the kinds here in Swaziland. But nearly every time that crow had come close, Mama-Rajesh had run out of the house to chase it away, telling him that birds had too many germs. There had also been a rat living in that garden, brown with beautiful dark eyes ringed in black just like Mama-Rajesh's. But he had never said.
Nobody bothered him in the garden here. How excited he had been to see it!
His family had gone from Kigali in Rwanda to Bukoba in Tanzania, Mama and Baba's home town on the shores of Lake Victoria, to spend Christmas with aunties, uncles and cousins before driving all the way to Dar es Salaam, where Baba needed to check on the family's house. Other people were living in their house on account of Baba being away from his job at the university there, so the Tungarazas had stayed with friends in Dar for the short time it had taken Baba to find this house for them in Swaziland.
When they had all arrived here late in January – nearly three months ago now – the garden had been green and lush, with flowers of all colours shining in it like jewels, and birds and butterflies flitting through it like glitter. Eh, it had looked so beautiful!
The bird sitting on the grass ruffled its feathers, gave a little shiver, and stretched its wings out slowly as if to check that nothing was broken. A sudden sound from behind the hedge startled it, and in an instant it was gone.
He smiled, watching its strong, quick flight for a moment before turning his attention to the sound. Hoping to hear it again, he crawled quietly but excitedly on his hands and knees towards the hedge of yesterday, today and tomorrow bushes with their flowers of purple, lilac and white.
When the scream first came, he was lying on his stomach, his neck twisted to the side, his right cheek flat against the grass. He paid the scream little attention and continued to listen instead for the sound that had flattened him to the ground, watching the base of the hedge for the slightest movement.
At last the sound came again from a little further back: a liquid gloop-gloop-gloop, like water being poured from a bottle with a narrow neck. And then the bird with the water-bottle call hopped from behind a stem, showing him a brief flash of white breast beneath its black hood and cinnamon wings before disappearing again amongst the undergrowth.
He smiled, ignoring the second scream, thrilled to have seen the shy bird for the first time ever.
It was Mama's voice now, and he could not – would not – ignore it. Scrambling to his feet, he dusted the grass and soil from his T-shirt and shorts as he hurried towards the house.
Mama stood on the bricked veranda, her plastic icing syringe in her right hand, her left hand on her hip. He felt bad: he had interrupted her work.
'Eh! Did you not hear your sisters?'
'Sorry, Mama, I was looking for something.' He could hear the girls whimpering inside now.
'And did you find it?'
He smiled proudly. 'Yes! A special kind of bird that you never see. Never. But I saw it, Mama! It was —'
'Benedict!' His eldest sister Grace appeared in the wide opening of the sliding glass doorway that led from the house onto the large veranda. The blue plastic sieve that she carried told him all that he needed to know.
In the bathroom, their sister Faith sniffed loudly as she hopped from foot to foot, her tearful eyes fixed on the bathtub where a tadpole less than two centimetres long wriggled tiredly in the shallow water.
Good. This one was still alive.
'I need the jar,' he said to Grace, who went to fetch the special one from the kitchen, the one with the red nail-polish X on its lid and another on its side so that it could never, ever be confused with any other empty jar in the kitchen cupboard. He half-filled it from the cold tap at the basin, then bent to scoop up the tadpole in the special blue plastic sieve that could never, ever be confused with either of the larger metal sieves that Mama used for making her cakes. As he tipped the tadpole from the sieve into the jar, Faith let out a little scream, and Grace let out another as he handed her the dripping sieve.
Eh! Girls? Uh-uh, he thought, tightening the lid on the jar.
He was a little taller now than Faith, whose solid, chubby body reminded him just slightly – and only sometimes – of a baby hippopotamus, while Grace, tall and long like a young giraffe, towered over him. They were always screaming for him to come and save them from something harmless that wriggled or scuttled or slithered. But he didn't mind, really. It made him feel big and important, and he didn't know what else could make him feel important when his age put him right in the middle of five siblings, or what else could make him feel big when he had two older sisters who more or less ignored him.
It had been different before, back when he, Grace and Moses were still living with their first mama and baba in Mwanza, and even when they had first started living with Mama and Baba in Dar. Grace had spent more time with him back then, back when she was still his only big sister. But ever since the two families had joined and Faith and Daniel had also come to stay, his two big sisters only had time for each other. Neither of them really bothered with him much, except at times like this.
Rescuing gave him a special part to play in the family: if anybody ever needed rescuing, Benedict was their man. Okay, he was their boy – he was only just ten – but he felt like a man when he was rescuing them. Sometimes he imagined himself in the special uniform of a rescuer, like a fireman or a paramedic, running towards his family in slow motion like on TV, saving them from a huge natural disaster or a war or an evil, man-eating monster.
He showed the tadpole to Mama.
'Well done, shujaa wangu!' she said, calling him her hero in Swahili, the language they spoke when they were at home in Tanzania.
He beamed. Mama gave him her smile that said she was proud of him but he mustn't bring what he had any closer.
She was sitting at the far end of the large dining table, putting the finishing touches to a cake for one of the ladies who worked with Baba at the ministry. That lady's brothers and sisters lived scattered throughout all four of Swaziland's regions, and every Easter they all got together. This Easter it was the turn of Baba's colleague to have them at her house in Mbabane, here in the Hhohho region.
Mama's cake for them looked like a big, round basket woven in strips of blue and green, filled with Easter eggs in a mix of brilliant colours.
'It's beautiful, Mama! Many more orders are going to come.'
Mama was piping bright patterns on to the eggs. 'Eh! I hope so.'
'When they see it, Mama! When they taste it!'
The sigh that came out of Mama was almost as loud as the sigh of steam that Benedict could hear from Titi's iron in the kitchen. Putting down her icing syringe, Mama pulled at the neck of her T-shirt to reach for one of the tissues that she kept tucked into her underwear, then she took off her glasses and began to polish the lenses. 'When the first order came, that was what we said.' She shook her head as she spoke. 'We said people will see how beautiful my cakes are. We said people will taste how delicious they are, and the orders will come.' She put her glasses back on and picked up her syringe again. 'But that was a long time ago, Benedict. Three months! And this is only order number five.'
Putting his tadpole jar down on the table, Benedict pulled out one of the chairs and perched on the edge of it. 'It will get better, Mama. When we first came here and we were worried about making new friends, remember, Mama?'
'Uh-huh.' Mama piped some bright pink on to chocolate brown.
'You and Baba, you told us all just give it time. And we gave it time, and now we have friends. All of us, Mama, even me. If you just give it some time, your business will get customers.'
Mama stopped piping and looked up at him with a smile. Then she saw the tadpole jar on the table. 'Eh! Benedict!'
Scrambling to his feet, he scooped up the jar. 'Sorry, Mama.'
She was telling him to put his shoes on before he dealt with the tadpole when her cell-phone rang. Adjusting her glasses, she looked at the small screen.
'Oh, please let this be a customer,' she said, half to herself and half to Benedict. It was what she always said these days when she didn't recognise the number. Shooing him away with her hand, she pressed the button to answer and put the phone to her ear, saying in her most professional voice, 'Good afternoon, Angel Tungaraza speaking.'
Briefly showing the tadpole to Titi as she ironed one of his sisters' school uniforms, Benedict left the house through the kitchen door, sitting on the step to slip his bare feet into his old pair of shoes that he kept out there. As he began to push his way through the trees and bushes on his way up the slope of the hill, he held the jar containing the tadpole in one hand and crossed the fingers of the other, hoping that the person who had phoned Mama was indeed a customer. He couldn't help feeling that it was his fault that her cake business wasn't doing so well here.
Okay, it wasn't all his fault; there were other reasons, too. Number one, Swaziland wasn't like Rwanda where there had been lots of business for Mama. Here there were quite a few shops that sold cakes, and Swazis were already used to buying their cakes from there. Number two, not so many people knew about Mama's cakes because she had to make them in secret. The law said that if you were married to somebody who had come from outside Swaziland to work here, you weren't allowed to work here yourself.
Reason number three was something Benedict already knew about from school. If you came here from another country in Africa, you were called a shangaan or a kwerekwere, and those weren't nice things to be because it meant that you were going to steal jobs from Swazis. Lots of people didn't want to order a cake from a shangaan or a kwerekwere; they wanted to give their money to Swazis instead.
But it was reason number four that ate at him. The house where they were living, which Baba had found for them when he had flown here for two weeks before going back home to Tanzania to bring the family in the red Microbus with the trailer behind; this house that Benedict loved so much on account of its garden full of birds and butterflies, its forest on the slope above and its dairy cows on the slope below; this house Baba had chosen especially for him. And this house was out of the way – very close to Mbabane, the capital city where Baba worked, but on the slopes of the Malagwane Hill that led down from the capital towards the Ezulwini Valley, and off the highway on a small road that buses or taxis never needed to take. So if you didn't have your own car or bicycle, or if you were too lazy for a long walk, it wasn't easy for you to get to the house to order a cake from Mama.
Baba had told the family that he had chosen the house because it was better not to live right in Mbabane, where there was a lot of crime because people didn't have jobs. But when nobody else was listening, Baba had told Benedict that he had chosen the house especially for him.
Benedict uncrossed the fingers that were hoping for a customer for Mama, and used that hand to balance himself against the big silver water-tank for the Tungarazas' house as he stepped over the pipe that connected it to the water-tank for the other house. Then he followed another pipe where it snaked up the hill through the undergrowth, all the way up to where the trees gave way to grasses and the ground flattened out onto a plateau.
Excerpted from When Hoopoes go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin. Copyright © 2012 Gaile Parkin. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Gaile Parkin was born and raised in Zambia, and studied at universities in South Africa and England. She has lived in many different parts of Africa, including Swaziland, where When Hoopoes go to Heaven is set. She is currently a freelance consultant in the fields of education, gender, and HIV/AIDS.
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