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An African Friendship

Written by Carolyn MarsdenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carolyn Marsden and Phillip MatzigkeitAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Phillip Matzigkeit

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Set in the volatile Rhodesia of the 1960s, this dramatic story, narrated from alternating viewpoints, tells of an interracial friendship tested.

Like his best friend, Blessing — a Shona boy whose father is his church’s pastor — twelve-year-old Evan, a white American, lives on a Methodist mission in what is now Zimbabwe. Blessing attends the mission school for black Africans, while Evan goes to a whites-only boys’ school in town. As Martin Luther King Jr. marches a world away, local headlines announce the murder of a white farmer by African independence fighters. Evan’s school friends immediately side with the whites, the headmaster turns them into cadets in training, and soon incendiary handbills are circulating. As tensions mount both on and off the mission, Evan is forced to choose. But how can he know how farreaching his choice will be?


Purple Trumpets

Tucking his thumbs in his pockets like a cowboy, Evan swaggered toward the jacaranda tree blooming with trumpet-shaped flowers.

Cyril, who sat under the tree eating lunch, called out, "Howdy, partner. How ya doin'?"

"Lekker," Evan answered, stepping closer. "I mean, swell." He swatted a mosquito on his forearm, splatting his palm with a drop of blood.

"And what's our Yank up to today?" Cyril asked.

"Roundin' up a few moo-cows." Evan did his best to imitate a Texas drawl.
Cyril laughed, then pretended to swing a lasso toward Evan. "Got ya! Sit down, Cowboy!"

Evan stationed himself upwind of the dreadful yeasty smell of Cyril's Marmite sandwich. The new mosquito bite itched. Before opening his biscuit tin with the picture of the Scottie dog on the outside, he scratched the bite until it reddened.

Cream-colored school buildings enclosed the rectangle of lawn on three sides. The fourth side was open to the rugby and cricket fields. Eating his ham-and-cheese sandwich, Evan gazed beyond the fields to the wild bush of the savanna scrub and the forests of small msasa trees. The shrill screech of Christmas beetles filled the yellow air.

An afternoon storm was already brewing, wrapping everything in a damp blanket of heat. In the distance, lightning flashed. Clouds like bruised purple plums crowned the tops of the mountains. Would the rain arrive before lunch break ended?

Leaning down on one elbow, his sandy hair falling across his eyes, Cyril said, "My grandmum sent me a miniature sailboat from England. Maybe you can come over and help me sail it."

"That'd be fun," Evan said. "Maybe after school someday."

But a toy boat was nothing compared with the real raft that he and Blessing had found abandoned in the high grass up by the Mission pond. That discovery had occupied his thoughts since last Saturday.

Yet he wouldn't mention the raft to Cyril. It was best to keep school life and Mission life separate.

"Maybe this Saturday," pressed Cyril.

"Maybe." But Evan had already promised Saturday to Blessing. Blessing and the raft.

Johan and Graham sauntered across the grass and plopped themselves down on the carpet of fallen purple flowers. Opening their biscuit tins, they unwrapped more Marmite sandwiches and bit in with gusto.

Evan scooted away, trying not to be obvious. He wished a breeze would blow away that awful Marmite smell. He lifted a miniature purple trumpet flower from his thermos cup. "Damn! A flower fell in my milk!"He flung it -drops of milk flying -at Johan.

Johan ducked just in time. He took one last bite of his sandwich, then hurled it at Evan.

Evan cried, "Oh, no! A Marmite bomb!"

"The war is on!" Cyril declared. He held a trumpet flower to his lips, making bugle sounds.

Graham picked up another flower and trumpeted along with Cyril. And then, stretching his arms full length, he pretended to hold a real trumpet.

"Here's to our Rhodesian army," said Cyril, lifting his plaid thermos.

Johan joined in with a rat-a-tat drumroll on his sandwich box.

"Rhodies against kaffirs!" yelled Cyril. "Army, army, army!"

"Our army will show those kaffirs not to make trouble!" declared Graham.

Evan shut his biscuit tin. He hated it when the boys talked this way. On the Mission, whites and Africans lived in harmony together.

The storm clouds were rolling in, and the breeze stiffened. Jacaranda flowers fell like purple shadows.

"Without our know-how, those munts would starve. And they think they can take it all away from us," said Graham. Because of his Scottish ancestors, every inch of his skin was covered with freckles. Sometimes the boys called him Scottie or Scottie Graham.

Johan suddenly turned to Evan. "I hear your kaffirs in America are troublemakers too."

"Depends on what you call trouble," Evan replied.

"Ha!" said Johan. "It's all trouble." Johan's family came from South Africa. His hair was so blond it was almost white.

"Kaffirs want to take over the world," Graham said.

"Like the Commies," added Cyril.

Johan said, "That Commie Martin Luther Fink is getting the American kaffirs all stirred up."

"It's not Fink," Evan said. "And he's not a Commie."

Evan had watched the riots in newsreels at the movie theater in Umtali. In black and white, he'd seen the clash of Negroes and police in Birmingham, the clubs, the fire hoses, the snarling dogs. He'd seen how bravely the Reverend King was fighting for justice.

"Rain's coming," said Johan. "Run for it!"

The sky broke open, sending everyone dashing for cover.

After school Dad picked Evan up in the plum-colored station wagon, rusty from many rainy seasons. The Africans called it the car that tried to be red.

Dad wore glasses with flesh-colored rims that matched his skin. Whenever Mom was working at the Mission tuckshop, selling warm sodas and tinned meats, Dad picked Evan up.

As Dad pulled out of the circular drive, Evan ran his finger through the dust on the door's armrest, saying, "My friends say mean things about Africans."

"Ignore them. No one knows much at age twelve. Besides"- he glanced over -"you're lucky to have Blessing as a friend. None of them is so lucky."
Evan nodded.

Back in the States, Dad had been a teacher. Here on the Mission, he trained the Africans to teach. Because he spent time around students, Dad always had solutions to school problems.

Dad drove past the plastered houses and neat gardens of the suburbs, then crossed the road leading to Cyril's house. Giant tulip trees edged the road, their leaves a rich, dark green, their flowers fiery orange cups.

Someday soon, Evan would go to Cyril's to sail the little boat. Afterward, they'd take a dip in Cyril's sky-blue pool. Maybe they'd even sleep overnight in the canvas tent.

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