“What?” Bambatha says.
“It’s Chasa –”
“Wait, what? What did Chasa do?” he asks.
“He’s poisoning the village. I think he’s using fluoride. I think he’s dumping it into the river. We have to go there now!”
Bambatha still looks confused but I yank him out of his rondavel.
“He’s there right now – we have to catch him.”
“How do you know all this?”
I want to explain about the mixture that the healer gave me, about the dream. The way the animal smiled, its teeth; how the way they shined brightly in the dark made me think of the fluoride in toothpaste. How could I not realise that fluoride was the obvious choice of poison?
I want to explain that I dreamt it but that I also knew it too. I’d observed the clues and I knew the effects of fluoride poisoning from my studies in chemistry. In small amounts, fluoride is good for you. It strengthens teeth and bones. But in large doses, when buckets and buckets of it are used, it can be toxic.
It took the healer to bring my intuition and my scientific mind and knowledge together. But I don’t even know how it worked and there’s no time to explain now.
“Just trust me. We have to go.”
Bambatha nods and we start to run. We rush through the field and reach the river. Just as in my dream, the beast is at the river. We see it from behind. It stands taller than me and its thick fur shines from its head to the ground. But then I see human arms coming out of the fur. Human hands throw fistfuls of green powder into the river. As we move closer, careful not to make a sound, we see that it is not an animal at all but a man: a man wearing the fur of an animal as a kind of armour. The head of the animal sits on top of the man’s head and even though I can’t see what kind of beast it is or who the man is, I know it must be Chasa.
“Chasa!” I shout.
He turns to face us and smiles. His eyes burn with rage but he is calm when he speaks. “You found me. I knew you would, you witch.”
“I’m not a witch but I know what you have been doing. You’ve been poisoning everyone so that they will go to the healer. You killed that woman fetching water in the river because she saw what you were doing. Why did you hurt that man?”
“He needed to be shown a lesson. He didn’t believe,” Chasa says.
“You want them to only believe in the old ways and in old threats to their lives that only you and the other initiates could fix. You know that the hospital is too far. And that no-one would realise that it is fluoride poisoning until it’s too late.”
Chasa says, “Not until it its too late. Just until you, and others like you, are gone. I am cleansing the village with this medicine. We have to hold onto our past. We are nothing without it.”
“No, you are nothing without it. If people stop believing, they will stop coming to the healer, and they will not come to you as a healer one day. You won’t have anything to do. You would have let your people starve to make money!” Bambatha shouts.
“It was worth the sacrifice. The crops would have grown back eventually and when we had sent the witch and her technology away and I had healed the people, everyone would know to fear the ancestors and listen to their warnings – sent through me!”
Bambatha lunges towards Chasa and Chasa steps away to avoid being hit. My heartbeat thumps in my ears as I watch them fight. Chasa swings his punches wildly but one hits Bambatha’s eye. Bambatha cries out in pain and clutches at the eye, distracted long enough for Chasa to run away, downstream.
I rush to Bambatha. “Are you OK?” I ask.
“Yes … yes, I’m fine. You were right. It was Chasa. He’s gone mad.”
I nod. “He believes what he’s doing will save the village but he’s wrong. The fluoride in small doses is fine but as he increased the quantity, the side effects increased. He’s poisoned himself too. I think that’s how he went mad.”
“Will we be OK? Now that we know what is happening, can we stop it?”
I nod and reply, “Yes. We can use bone charcoal to filter out the fluoride in people’s current supply. Aluminium sulphate and lime added daily to the river will cause a fluoride-rich foam to form on the riverbank. That foam can then be removed.”
“And the crops will stop dying?”
“Yes, the crops should stop dying now.”
Bambatha smiles but then he becomes serious. “This is good news but we have no time to celebrate. Chasa is still out there and he’s dangerous. We should go to the police. And then we have to tell the healer that we know what’s really been bewitching the village.”
I take his hand and say, “It can’t wait for the morning – let’s go right now.”
* * * * *
One year later
I stand with my hands on my hips, looking at the crops. They are green and lush. All the maize in the village has recovered since Chasa poisoned it last year. I told Bambatha that I needed to come back to the village to see how the crops are doing but what I secretly looked forward to most was seeing Bambatha.
After that crazy night with Chasa, we hurried together to the healer and then to the police to report what had happened. It sounded like we were making it up but with the evidence we had, the police were forced to investigate. Chasa was arrested a few days later and he confessed to everything. After helping to start the process of cleaning the river and curing the crops, I had to go back to the university. It was so difficult to say goodbye but I promised Bambatha that I would return and now, here I am.
I feel my heart squeeze as he calls my name and I turn to see him crossing the field.
“Bambatha,” I say, suddenly breathless. “It’s so good to see you.”
“I’m happy to see you too, Sisi. Are you happy to see that our hard work paid off? This year’s harvest will be a good one.”
“I am happy. It’s good to see that things worked out.”
“Not only that, but the people of village have surprised me.”
“Surprised you? How?”
“They want to learn more about the technology you brought. They want to use your science to support their traditions. They think that the ancestors helped you save them from themselves.
I think of my dreams and my years at university. I couldn’t have helped Bambatha or the village without both, so maybe they are right. It’s not as simple as one or the other. Both the old ways and the new ways have to help us save each other.
“That is a surprise! But I’ll be happy to help you teach them new methods to grow the crops and make sure that they keep growing,” I say, adding quickly, “if that’s what you want.”
Bambatha puts his hand out to me. “That’s what I want. Do you want to take a walk to the river?”
I nod and he smiles.
Tell us what you think: Can the old ways and new ways work together? The traditional and the modern?