‘Tetra Hydro Cannabinol’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
My mother, Puseletso, has always shown us the importance of hard work. She wakes up before daybreak to fetch the day’s water because the spring is far from our house and she has to start the day’s weaving on time: straw hats, mats and containers woven so tightly water can’t seep out of them—a job that takes her the whole day. She does this until we are old enough to fetch the water ourselves, when our bones become strong enough to hold their own against the big mountains that separate our house from the spring. But she never lets us weave.
My mother is the best weaver in the village. Though the other women weave as well, it is a testament to her mastery that her work earns her enough to feed us and send us to school. My mother never stands by the roadside like the other women do; we do that for her. Maybe that is why the white people who drive up the mountain for their holidays buy from us instead of other people. They see children holding straw art.
I don’t dream of being a weaver like my mother, but from holding her creations in my hand, it is difficult not to. My eyes follow the quick movement of her fingers as she lays straw upon straw, under and over each other like she is pulling strings. But then at some point in her weaving, I become dizzy. It’s a miracle to me that my mother’s hands have created things so perfect and enduring they never fall apart. The white people return from the mountain still wearing the hats and drinking water from the containers.
It is sad that she is not here to see how happy the white people are when they are wearing her creations.
A strange thing happens some time during the week. We are just coming from the roadside, having sold the last of my mother’s creations, when we see people gathered around for a pitso. Normally, only the adults would attend, but today, the chief stands in the middle of the gathering with a white man in a suit next to him, so we decide to see what’s happening.
‘Mamelang! Mamelang!’ the chief says over and over again until everyone gets quiet. The white man stands in the middle of the village with a smile on his face.
‘You might have seen big trucks and men with helmets moving around here these past few months,’ the white man says. ‘That’s because we have built Lesotho’s first ever operational cannabis cultivation facility! We will be exporting cannabis for medicinal use all over the world! It may interest you to know that some time ago, Lesotho became the first African country to legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of cannabis. Soon, Lesotho will be the hub of all major cannabis exports worldwide!’
The white man clears his throat and fixes his tie. ‘This is an historic moment for us! Long gone is the era when cannabis sale is synonymous with California, the Netherlands and other proxies of Western civilization! There is a cannabis revolution happening, and it’s going to start right here in Africa!’
We clap after he is done speaking. He shakes everyone’s hand and takes a few pictures with us.
No one in the village understands a single word he says.
They have built a toilet next to my house. We have a toilet already, but the new one is made of concrete and has a door that closes tightly so you can’t feel the breeze coming in as you are doing your business. This was The Company’s idea which, we assume, is run by the same white man who spoke to us at the pitso. They are building toilets for everyone all over the village. I enjoy our new toilet, and I haven’t heard complaints from anyone about their new toilets either. The only thing that confuses me is why they would build new toilets when we have toilets of our own already. People are saying that they are The Company’s gift to us for letting them use our land. They say if we use The Company’s toilets, our shit will not contaminate the spring. The Company needs the spring to be clean.
My friends tell me The Company is growing dagga, but I find the idea so silly I laugh to myself whenever I think about it. Why would adults grow dagga? The same adults who shout at us when they see us with bottles of alcohol on New Year’s Eve? There is no way in hell dagga could be grown in the village under their very noses.
That night at dinner, my mother tells us that she will be working for The Company. My first thought is of her creations. Will she still be weaving? No. She won’t have time to weave anymore, she says; she will be working at a proper job now.
‘Ke etsa chelete e ngata ka li katiba le mekotlanyana ea ka,’ my mother says. ‘Feela ha e lekane. Se ntse le ea sekolong ka mekhahlelo, feela ka chelete ea makhooa nka le isa sekolong kaofela.’
I feel sad that we won’t be selling my mother’s creations by the roadside any more and seeing people smile from what she made. But she is right. With the money she gets from The Company, she will be able to send us to school all at once, not just in turns.
The first few days before my mother starts working for The Company, we sell the last of her creations by the roadside. That day, the mist hangs so low on the ground we can’t see that far on the left and the right side of the road. I am the first to see a silver Jeep driving up the road. I run towards it and it stops. The driver rolls down the window. A white boy is driving shirtless, and I am surprised to see that he is about my age. I can see other people in the Jeep, young like me, all white, except for the black one who sits by the left side of the window. They all introduce themselves by their names which is weird because the people who stop at the roadside never give us their names. Later, I won’t be able to remember their names, apart from black one’s—Mncedisi.
‘You live around here, bro?’ the one who is driving says.
I am the eldest and the one who can speak the best English, so I step forward.
‘We’ve heard wild things about this place, man,’ he says. ‘Apparently, you can get the best weed in the world here!’
He looks back at his friends. ‘Did you hear that? We made it! Whaow! We really made it!’
The ones who sit at the back, including Mncedisi, all start laughing and clapping.
‘Do you know where this lodge is, bro?’ the white boy says. He takes out his phone and reads the name of the lodge aloud. I point him up the road. He thanks me and I watch the Jeep disappear through the mist. A part of me wishes I could join them in the car.
A priest comes to our house to talk with my mother that night. Our mother sends us away with our dinner so that they could talk in private. When she returns to the table to talk with him, she forgets to shut the door all the way, so I am able to eavesdrop on what they are saying.
‘Ke utloile hore u lo sebetsa le matekoane,’ the priest says, interlocking his hands on top of the table.
From where I am standing, I cannot see my mother’s expression, but from the silence, I can tell that she is not happy with the priest’s words. So, The Company is growing dagga after all, and my mother will work with the dagga. I hear the sound of a chair being pulled out, and suddenly, my mother is on her feet and walking towards me. She shuts the door firmly. I do not know what she and the priest discuss for the rest of the night. But I know it’s about the dagga.
Despite the priest’s remonstrations, my mother wakes up early the next day to work for The Company. This is a strange and yet impressive thing for my mother to go against the priest like that. She has been a church woman all her life. She is not the only one in the village who gets talked about because they are working for The Company. Fathers and mothers all over the village get talked about too. But money needs to be made.
It is still dark when we go to the spring to fetch the day’s water. Today, there are more people there than usual. That’s because no one can get to the spring. There is a long, shiny fence that blocks us from getting there. It stretches on either side of the flowing water and disappears in the distance. There are pictures with The Company’s logo pasted at various spots along the fence.
‘Ho etsahalang?’ everyone complains.
We go back to our houses without the day’s water.
A government minister comes to us early the next morning with good news. Because The Company has blocked our access to the spring, the minister has built a new tap for us where we can get our water. He comes with a couple of other cars and with people carrying video cameras. The tap stands in the middle of the village with a beautiful red bow around its neck.
‘Ke kopa mamello ea lona Basotho ba khabane,’ the minister says. ‘Ho tlilo ho ba le menyetla e mengata motseng oa lona. Makhooa a tlileng ho lema matekoane mona, ba tlilo ho re tlisetsa chelete e ngata, ebile ba tlo felisa bofuma!’
After he is done speaking, everyone claps and cheers. The cameras turn to him, and he takes a big pair of scissors and cuts the ribbon on the tap. We clap some more, and someone in the crowd starts up a hymn. After that, the minister and the video cameras leave. We get water for our houses from the tap.
I miss standing by the roadside. There, my friends say the stupidest things that could make you laugh all day. So one day I go there, and who do I find but Mncedisi and his friends in the Jeep. They are parked at a dangerous spot where the mountain is steep but overlooks other mountains that are so beautiful it makes me want to cry every time I look at them. My attention is divided that day. As I talk to my friends, it feels like another me—a ghost me—is hovering beside the Jeep. I think of all the conversations they must be having there. I am grateful to whatever lucky spirit that makes the white boy notice that I keep looking at them because he suddenly calls me over.
‘Hey bro! You! Come over here, will you?’
I tell my friends that I will be back, and I leave to join Mncedisi and his friends next to the Jeep. Like the day I first met him, the white boy does not have his shirt on even though the air is chilly. I also notice that Mncedisi is smiling, and for a while, it seems that he wants to say something to me. But all he does is smile at me, and because of that I smile as well.
It is difficult to follow their conversation. They talk about things I haven’t seen and places I haven’t been to. I don’t look back at my friends because I am scared Mncedisi and his friends would think I don’t want to be with them. I laugh when they laugh like I understand what they are saying.
‘Do you smoke, bro?’ the white boy says.
He smiles and pulls out a small clump of dagga.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘we still haven’t smoked the famous Lesotho weed yet. We had a dealer come up to the lodge a few days ago, but he says your government is taxing small time dealers a mad amount, so they aren’t able to sell at all?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Crazy,’ he says, ‘because weed was legalized here, right? It’s just dumb to me that they would do something like that. And there’s a company growing weed here, so I know there’s people getting that good shit.’
I watch him as he talks and takes out a small paper and a pair of scissors. He puts the clump of dagga in the paper. The way his fingers move reminds me my mother’s as she makes her creations. Like they are dancing.
Having rolled the paper into a long pipe, he takes out a lighter, lights the end of the paper and pulls. He hands it over to me.
I try to pull quickly so that they do not see that I am scared, but then I start coughing.
‘It’s okay,’ he says. ‘Go easy with it.’
I pull much slower and let the smoke fill my lungs. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had. As we stand in a circle taking turns to smoke, my mind becomes like air. All my fears about what they think about me quickly disappear. I look at Mncedisi. The dagga we are smoking makes me want to kiss him. Hard. Like people kiss each other in films. Like I’m giving a part of myself to him.
Earlier today, we didn’t get water at all for our house. The queue to the tap was so long that by the time we got there, there was no water. Although my mother is angry, she tells us to try and get water again tomorrow. Because tomorrow is the weekend, she will go with us to help get the water.
The tap has no water. The people turn and turn it, but no water comes out. People say there is water by the clinic, so we all go there in a very large group and get in another queue for the water. Though we have rushed to the clinic, by the time we get there, the queue is already very long. When we finally get to the front, we find that the water is finished. The people who work at the clinic say they cannot provide water for the whole village. Because we need to cook that night and do our laundry, which has stayed undone for two days, my mother becomes desperate. She spends the night going from house to house to see who she can get water from. Luckily, one of her friends gives her some, and that night, we manage to cook and take our baths. But our laundry remains untouched because there is not enough water to wash it.
The next day, a government car comes, and we gather around to hear what the minister is going to say about the tap. But the man who comes out of the car is not the minister. He tells us that the minister sent him to say he will sort out the issue about the tap soon. He will do that very soon.
My mother comes home from The Company tired, so I cook for the rest of us. Before going to bed early, she tells us that we have to go back to the roadside to sell her creations. Although I am filled with secret joy, I ask her why she is going to start weaving again. Will she still be working for The Company?
‘Eya,’ she says, nodding. She tells me she has to start weaving again because the money she gets from The Company is not enough to send us all to school and clothe us like she had planned. I ask her if she will have enough time to weave and still work for The Company.
‘Ha ke tsebe,’ my mother says.
She doesn’t know.
I haven’t had any water to drink for two days. It’s bad because it’s so hot these days and everything is dry. I suddenly see the white boy walking in the village. He immediately recognizes me. He sees me looking at his water bottle and stops midway through what he is saying. ‘You want some?’
I nod. He hands the water bottle over to me and I drink.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘I have “special water” back at the lodge that you’d like. You want some?’
And that’s how I find myself at the lodge. Although I have seen it many times before, I have never been inside it. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The lights in the ceiling look like birthday cakes, and the light they emit makes everything gold. The special water the white boy talked about turns out to be alcohol, clear like water, and we drink it with his friends until we start laughing. Mncedisi is there too. I am so happy just to be next to him.
‘What’s the deal with this company, man?’ the white boy says. ‘They have all that weed in there, bro, and won’t sell it to anyone?’
Mncedisi agrees with what the white boy says, nodding his head with great energy.
‘My mother,’ I say, ‘she works—‘
The white boy looks at me closely, getting so near to me that I can smell the alcohol on his breath. ‘Your mother works there?’
‘Alright,’ he says, and starts walking around the room. ‘Alright. Alright. And your mother, do you think she can get us in? That you can get us in?’
I let my hands drop to my sides. The words he is saying are making me scared.
‘It’s just that we’ve come all this way to Lesotho—all this way to get some real Lesotho weed, you know? But we can’t find it anywhere except in that pl-l-l-ace over there. You know how it is. We can’t really leave without…you know…’
‘Yes,’ I say.
He smiles at me. ‘Yes?’
‘Yes,’ I answer.
‘Yes!’ he says, looking around at his friends, who, I think, have started to become my friends as well. ‘Okay then! Yes! Okay! We’re doing this! Yes! Yes! Yes!’
This is the plan for tonight. We will drive down to The Company with the Jeep. Earlier today, I waited for my mother to get home from work and stole her security card that will allow us to get in. Once we get there, the girls will stay behind while we hide somewhere and wait for them to puncture the Jeep tyre. They will ask the security guards to help them change it, and because the guards will stop anything they are doing to help white girls, they will help them while we take my mother’s security card and use it to get into The Company. In all that time, we will get dagga from The Company, as much as we can, and leave. It is easy.
That night as we are making the plan, I think this is the most dangerous thing I have ever done. But I am happy to be doing it with Mncedisi and the white boy. They make me feel safe. As we approach The Company with the Jeep, I see the spring. It is strange to think that this is the same spring we used to get water from. The same one healers used to get medicine from and bring those who need evil cleansed from their lives.
Mncedisi gets out of the car first and puts nails in the road so that the white boy can drive over them. And then me and the white boy get out, following Mncedisi in the dark to a small mound where we can all hide. We watch the girls from the mound. Immediately, the security guards notice the Jeep. When one of the girls starts crying, all of the security guards go to the Jeep to help with the tyre. Easy.
As the security guards’ backs are turned, me, Mncedisi and the white boy go through The Company gates. The whole time my heart is beating fast. But now we are here, and I have to be calm and show Mncedisi and the white boy that I know what I’m doing. I use my mother’s card to get into one of the greenhouses. What a night.
There are big tanks in the greenhouse. Shiny and new. And rows and rows of dagga. Its smell slaps you in the face. I know that the tanks are filled with water, humming so loudly that we have to raise our voices a bit to talk to each other. These tanks are getting water from the spring. This is why The Company fenced it in. The spring was running even before my mother was born. It should still be running when I am her age and have children of my own.
‘This is the fucking Mecca, bro!’ the white boy says.
The white boy and Mncedisi start picking up dagga from the ground, but for some reason, I cannot move. On my left side lay fields of dagga, wet with moisture from small taps that hang on top of the greenhouse. And although there are taps on my right side, the dagga there is drier. There is so much dagga here, it doesn’t make sense to me that my mother doesn’t make enough money from it to send us all to school.
So, without even thinking, I take the lighter the white boy gave me just before getting into The Company and set the dagga on my right on fire. It takes a while to burn. Mncedisi and the white boy are picking up the dagga and do not see what I have done. They do not feel the anger in my heart.
When they eventually see the dagga burning, they drop everything they have picked up.
‘Oh no, man,’ the white boy says. ‘What have you done, man?’
Then, his face starts to get red, ‘What have you done, bro? This was not part of the plan! Fuck! What’s fucking wrong with you?’
The white boy is shaking me like a doll.
Mncedisi and the white boy throw soil over the fire, but it doesn’t go out. I do not help them. And although the white boy is angry and I’m starting to get scared, and although I understand why he is angry, I also don’t understand because the fire I started isn’t that bad. Because even if the greenhouse burns to ashes, like I hope it will, The Company will still have other greenhouses to grow dagga in tomorrow. It will never end. They will grow and grow dagga and take more water from the spring. And the minister will never fix the tap in the village. That’s what makes me angry. It really does.
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