white deer

How the Bush was Saved

The white deer

It took some time before Zelda was given a name. If she had been told about it, it would scarcely have surprised her. On the contrary, she might even have wondered that she had received a name at all.

It was the custom of her people that the father walked alone into the bush with the newborn. There the ancestral spirits would whisper something about the child. Would it be bright, obedient, self-willed or whatever? As soon as he was certain, the father would return and announce the child’s name.

Zelda‘s progenitor never touched her. He entered the hut in the evening after the women had seen to both mother and child as usual. Shaken, he stopped at the threshold. Steppen back. Frowned, then cast another glance at the sleeping mother and child. He felt his heart contract, uttered a curse, then turned to melt into the darkness of the nearby bush.

It was the last time he saw his daughter. The following day her mother returned to her parents with the yet unnamed child on her back, carrying her possessions such as her cooking pots. Once she recovered, she journeyed to the city in search of work, leaving the girl with her parents. Her father was the village elder, so no one objected.

The little girl was three months old when a letter reached her grandparents. Her mother sent some bank notes, as she had found work in a white family’s household. She asked that the child be named Zelda. There was no need for her to explain that this was the name of her white madam.

Zelda was regularly taken by her grandmother to her fieldwork, where she would sleep peacefully as a baby under a tree. She was strictly forbidden to leave the garden, as her grandmother called her field. Nor was she allowed ever to go outside the yard with its kitchen,  sleeping and storage huts. She was an obedient child and did as she was told, though she often heard and sometimes saw other children walking past.

She was almost three when she realised that she was not like others. Her grandmother had taken her on her back and walked to a bush clinic organised by nursing sisters from a rural hospital. Zelda’s grandmother stood in line with others in front of two nurses. Surprised, Zelda watched the children, some as small as herself, who were playing with each other, once they had been weighed and examined. As soon as the nursing sister had placed her on her feet and was talking to her grandmother, Zelda toddled towards the children. Instantly they dispersed, shrieking loudly, while some women called her a nasty name and shouted at her to go away.

Weeping, Zelda ran to her grandmother: “I wanted…the children…”

Grandmother scolded: “You have nothing to do with them!”

Zelda tried to understand it. There was no mirror in any of the huts. However, some weeks after the bush clinic, grandmother took Zelda to the hospital, as the nurses had said that she was anemic. In the waiting room was a huge wall mirror. For the first time Zelda saw her own face! Startled,  she noticed that she was pale. Not dark-brown like grandmother! All other women and children were also dark-brown.

She began to see that apart from grandmother none of the women in the other gardens ever spoke to her, though they talked to all other children. I’m different, she thought. That‘s why they don‘t like me. Zelda was not to know that she suffered from something called albinism, which meant that the formation of the pigment melanin had been disrupted, so that her skin was unusually pale. Grandmother was also unaware of that, but she knew that some traditional healers wrongly believed that body parts of Albinos had magic powers and brought good luck! She loved Zelda and was greatly concerned for her safety. There were many reports from different African countries – yes, including her own! – about deadly attacks and maiming of Albinos. She did all she could to protect the child.

Grandmother had not known that other creatures and even plants suffered from the same condition. As grandfather too was worried about the girl, he actually took her with him when he went hunting on his own in the bush. She thus learned to know the animals and plant-life. Above all she loved the graceful gazelles and was always saddened, when one had been killed. When she was older, she sometimes went secretly into the bush, where she would hide and watch these wonderful creatures.

One day she could scarcely believe her eyes! She saw a small white animal walking beside a light-brown gazelle! It looked like all others – except for its colour! Thereupon Zelda went into the bush as often as possible. She watched the small white gazelle grow into a large male and thought of him as her brother.

One day the wind fanned the sparks of a cigarette end in the bush into a flame. Within seconds a thicket began to burn, from there the flames spread. That day, Zelda’s grandfather had joined others on a hunt. None of the men had ever seen the white gazelle. They were also unaware that Zelda had followed them. She had seen the white gazelle, that had grown into a splendid leader and was standing on a small hill, anxiously watched his herd. Suddenly Zelda was aware of the flames. The bush was on fire! At the same time the leader had become aware of the danger. He turned swiftly into another direction and moved fast, leading the herd to safety.

Zelda recognised the hunter’s danger, who had hidden themselves in a hollow and were unable to see the flames. She placed her hands around her mouth to shout as loudly as she could: “The white gazelle is in flight! Follow him! The bush is alight!“

Alarmed, the hunters jumped to their feet. Heard the ominous crackling. The annoyed chatter of birds taking wing above the bush! Saw that soon they would be encircled by flames! Without hesitation they followed the fleeing herd, as their warning voice had advised, with the animals sailing skilfully above the grass, bushes and stunted thorntrees.

No sooner had they escaped the fire that Zelda’s grandfather grasped a sturdy branch, followed by the others. Together they struck at the burning bush. Each of them was aware that their fields and crops, their village was endangered! Hard work. When at last they had succeeded in dampening down the last spark, they saw to their amazement that Zelda too was exhausted, she had also been fighting the fire. Of course: it had been she, who had warned them!

No one needed to tell them that Zelda had prevented the destruction of the bush. Ashamed, they watched the village elder take his granddaughter into his arms. Nor did anyone need to be told that from now on, Zelda would be accepted and protected by the entire village community. Aware that the white gazelle  – that surely the ancestral spirits had sent to the young woman – played an important part.

The white leader was never again seen by any villager. Only Zelda, since then married and mother of two dark-brown children, sometimes entered the bush to marvel at his grace.

The end