Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Woman of the Ashes

A Novel

Sands of the Emperor (Volume 1)

Mia Couto; Translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Mother says: Life is made like string. We need to braid it until we can no longer distinguish its threads from our fingers.

Each morning, seven suns would rise over the plains of Inharrime. In those times, the firmament was much larger, and all the stars were contained within it, the living and the dead. Naked just as she had slept, our mother would leave the house, a sieve in her hand. She was going to choose the best of the suns. With her sieve, she would gather up the remaining six stars and bring them back to the village. She would bury them next to the anthill behind our house. That was our graveyard for heavenly creatures. One day, if we ever needed to, we would go and unearth stars. With such a bequest, we were not poor. That’s what our mother, Chikazi Makwakwa, said. Or just mame, in our native language.

Whoever visited us would be aware of the other reason for this belief. It was in the anthill that we buried the placentas of newborn babies. A mafura tree had taken root on top of it. We would tie white cloths around its trunk. It was there that we talked to our dead.

But the anthill was the opposite of a cemetery. It was a guardian of the rains, and within it dwelt our eternity.

One day, when the morning had been well sieved, a boot trampled on the sun, the sun that Mother had chosen. It was a military boot, like those worn by the Portuguese. This time, however, it was worn by an Nguni soldier. The soldier had been sent by the emperor Ngungunyane.

Emperors hunger for land, and their soldiers are mouths that devour nations. That boot shattered the sun into a thousand pieces. And the day turned to darkness. All the other days as well. The seven suns were dying under the soldiers’ boots. Our land was being gobbled up. Devoid of stars to nourish our dreams, we learned to be poor. And we lost our eternity too. Knowing that eternity is merely another name for life.

* * *

My name is Imani. The name I was given isn’t a name. In my mother tongue, Imani means “Who’s there?” You knock on a door, and from inside someone asks:


So my identity was merely a question. As if I were a shadow without a body, the endless wait for an answer.

In our village of Nkokolani, it is said that a newborn’s name comes from a whisper heard before birth. In a mother’s womb, it is not just another body being woven together. A soul, the moya, is being produced. While still in the darkness of the womb, this moya is gradually made from the voices of those who have already died. One of these ancestors asks the new being to adopt his or her name. In my case, the wind whispered Layeluane, the name of my paternal grandmother.

As tradition required, our father went to consult a medicine man. He wanted to know whether we had captured that spirit’s genuine wish. And the unexpected happened: the soothsayer refused to confirm the legitimacy of my baptism. It was necessary to consult a second medicine man, who, generously and in return for a payment of one pound sterling, assured him that everything was in order. However, because I cried ceaselessly during the first months of my life, the family came to the conclusion that I had been given the wrong name. Auntie Rosi, the family’s own soothsayer, was consulted. After she had cast her magic bones, our aunt declared, In this girl’s case, it’s not her name that’s wrong, it’s her life that needs to be put right.

My father withdrew from his duties: my mother needed to deal with me. And that is what she did, naming me “Ash.” No one knew the reason for such a name, which in fact didn’t last long. After the death of my sisters, swept away in the floods, I was given the name “Live Girl.” That’s how they referred to me, as if the fact that I had survived were the only feature that distinguished me. My parents would tell my brothers to go and see where the “Live Girl” was. It wasn’t a name. It was a way of not admitting their other daughters were dead.

The rest of the story is even more nebulous. At some stage, my dear old father reconsidered, and eventually reached a decision. I would be given a name that was not a name: Imani. At last, the order of the world had been re-established. The attribution of a name is an act of power, the first and most decisive occupation of some foreign territory. My father, who complained so bitterly of other people’s empires, reaffirmed his status as a little emperor.

I don’t know why I am spending so much time explaining all this, for I wasn’t born to be a person. I’m a race, I’m a tribe, I’m a sex, I’m everything that stops me from being myself. I’m a black woman, I belong to the VaChopi, a small tribe on the coast of Mozambique. My people dared to oppose the invading VaNguni, warriors who came from the south and installed themselves here as if they were the owners of the universe. In Nkokolani, people say that the world is much too big for one owner alone.

Our land, however, was disputed by two rival overlords: the VaNguni and the Portuguese. That was why they hated one another so much and were at war: they were so alike in their motivations. The VaNguni army was much larger and more powerful. As were their spirits, which ruled on both sides of the frontier that tore our lands in half. On one side, the Empire of Gaza, controlled by the Nguni chief, the emperor Ngungunyane. On the other side, the Lands of the Crown, ruled by a monarch that no African would ever see: Dom Carlos, king of Portugal.

Our other neighbors had adapted themselves to the language and customs of the black invaders arriving from the south. We VaChopi are among the few who inhabit the Lands of the Crown and who allied themselves with the Portuguese against the Empire of Gaza. We are few in number, protected by our pride and surrounded by the khokholos, wooden palisades that we build around our villages. We were so hemmed in by these protective measures that we knew every stone by name. In Nkokolani we all drank from the same well, and one drop of poison would be enough to kill the whole village.

* * *

Countless times we were awoken by our mother’s cries. She would sleep and shout, wandering through the house with a sleepwalker’s gait. During these nocturnal fits of delirium, she would lead her family on a journey across marshlands and streams and through the landscapes of her imagination. She would return to our old village on the shores of the ocean, where we had been born.

In Nkokolani, we have this proverb: If you want to know a place, speak to those who aren’t there; if you want to know a person, listen to that person’s dreams. Well, this was our mother’s only dream: to return to the place where we had been happy and where we had lived in peace. Her longing was infinite. In fact, is any longing not infinite?

The digressions that occupy my mind are of a very different order. I don’t shout or wander through the house. But not a night goes by when I don’t dream of being a mother. And today I dreamed yet again that I was pregnant. The curve of my belly rivaled the arc of the moon. But this time, what happened was the opposite of a delivery: it was my child who expelled me. Maybe that is what the newly born do. They free themselves from their mothers, tear themselves away from their mothers’ lone, borderless bodies. Well, my dreamed-of baby, a creature without face or name, was ridding itself of me in violent, painful spasms. I awoke in a sweat, with terrible pains in my back and in my legs.

Then I realized: it wasn’t a dream, it was my ancestors paying me a visit. They were bringing me a message. I was fifteen years of age, and they were warning me that I was late to motherhood. All the girls of my age in Nkokolani had become pregnant. Only I seemed condemned to a barren fate. In fact, I wasn’t just a woman without a name. I was a name without a person. Without substance. As empty as my belly.

* * *

In our family, every time a child is born, we leave our windows open. It’s the opposite of what the rest of the village does. Even when the heat is at its greatest, other mothers wrap their babies in thick blankets, imprisoning them in the darkness of their rooms. In our house, we don’t do this; the doors and windows stay wide open until the newborn’s first bath. This unbridled exposure is, in fact, a form of protection: the new creature is filled with light, sounds, and shadows. And that is how it has been since time itself was born: only life can defend us from the business of living.

On that January morning in 1895, the windows we had left open made people think a child had been born. Once again, I had dreamed I was a mother, and the smell of a newborn child permeated the whole house. My attention was gradually drawn to the rhythmic sweeping of a broom. I wasn’t the only one waking up: that gentle sound was rousing the whole house. It was our mother, cleaning the yard. I went to the door and watched her, slim and elegant, in a swaying curve, as if she were dancing, and in the process turning to dust.

The Portuguese don’t understand why we take such care to sweep around the outside of our houses. As far as they are concerned, it makes sense to sweep only inside buildings. It never occurs to them to take a broom to the loose sand in the backyard. Europeans don’t understand: For us, what’s outside is still inside. The house isn’t the building. It’s the place that is blessed by the dead, inhabitants who ignore doors and walls. That is why we sweep the yard. My father, however, never accepted this explanation, which he found too complicated: We sweep the sand for a much more practical reason: we want to know who’s come and gone during the night.

On that morning, the only footprint was that of a simba, a feline creature that snoops around our chicken coops in the dead of night. Mother went to check on the hens. There were none missing. The wildcat’s lack of success reflected our own failure: if the creature had been seen, we would have promptly hunted it down. The spotted skin of the females was sought-after as a sign of prestige. No present could give more pleasure to a great chief, above all to the commanders of the enemy army, who adorned themselves in such a way that they lost their human form. That is why a uniform is worn: to rob a soldier of his humanity.

The broom firmly wiped away evidence of the nighttime intrusion; the memory of the simba was erased in a matter of seconds. After that, Mother walked off down the path to fetch water from the river. I stood watching her disappear into the forest, elegant and upright in her brightly colored cotton. My mother and I were the only women not to wear the sivanyula, a material made from the bark of trees. The clothes that covered our bodies were bought at the Portuguese store, but they made us the target of women’s envy and men’s desires.

When my mother got to the river, she clapped her hands, asking for permission to draw near—rivers are the dwelling places of spirits. Leaning forward over the riverbank, she peered along the edge to make sure there wasn’t a crocodile waiting to ambush her. Everyone in the village believes that the great reptiles have “owners” whom they alone obey. Chikazi Makwakwa collected water, facing the mouth of her pot downstream so as not to go against the current. When she was getting ready to return home, a fisherman offered her a beautiful fish, which she wrapped in a piece of cloth that was tied at her waist.

When she was already near home, something unexpected happened: a group of VaNguni soldiers burst out of the thick bush. Chikazi took a few steps back, at the same time thinking, I escaped the crocodiles only to be devoured by even more violent monsters. Ever since the war of 1889, Ngungunyane’s forces had ceased ranging over our lands. For half a dozen years, we had enjoyed peace, thinking that it would last forever. But peace is a shadow on impoverished ground: all that’s needed to make it disappear is the passage of time.

The soldiers surrounded our mother and soon realized she understood them when they spoke in Xizulu. Chikazi Makwakwa had been born in the south, so the language of her childhood was very close to that of the invaders. Mother was a mabuingela, one who walks ahead to brush the dew from the grass. That was the name the invaders gave to the people whom they used to clear their path across the savanna. My brothers and I were the products of this mixture of histories and cultures.

But now, some years after the peace had begun, the intruders returned, as menacing and arrogant as ever. Confirming all our old fears, those men surrounded my mother with the strange intoxication felt by adolescent boys simply because they are in a pack. Though her spine tingled with fear, Chikazi bore her load of water with vigor and elegance. She maintained her dignity in the face of the strangers and their threat. The soldiers felt insulted and were propelled ever more strongly by a desire to humiliate her. Suddenly, they knocked the pot from her head and whooped with glee when it hit the ground and shattered. And they laughed when they saw the woman’s slender body drenched with water. After that, the soldiers required no effort to tear at her clothes, which were now transparent and clung to her skin.

Don’t hurt me, she begged. I’m pregnant.

Pregnant? At your age?

They saw the little bump under her clothes, where she was hiding the fish she had been given. And, once again, they spat their doubt into her face: Pregnant? You? How many months?

I’m twenty years pregnant.

That’s what she felt like saying: That her children had never left her body. That she was harboring all five of her children. But she contained herself. What she did instead was feel around for the fish under her clothes. The soldiers stood watching her explore the secret parts of her body under her capulana. Unnoticed by any of them, she grabbed the spiny dorsal fin of the fish and used it to tear her wrist. She waited for the blood to flow and then opened her legs, as if she were giving birth. Gradually, she pulled the fish from under her clothes, as if it were emerging from her insides. Then she lifted the fish up in her blood-soaked arms and announced:

Here is my child! My little boy is born!

The VaNguni soldiers stepped back in horror. This was no ordinary woman. She was a noyi, a witch. And there was no more sinister offspring she could have produced. A fish, for these occupying soldiers, was a taboo creature. And as if the animal weren’t enough, its appearance was compounded at the same moment by the worst of all impurities: the blood of a woman, the filth that soiled the universe. The thick, dark stickiness ran down her legs and stained the soil around her.

When they were told about this episode, the invading hordes were disturbed. It was said that many soldiers deserted, fearing the power of the witch who gave birth to fishes.

* * *

And so it was with ripped clothes and shredded soul that my mother, Chikazi Makwakwa, arrived back home around noon. At the door, she recounted what had happened, neither weeping nor displaying any emotion. Blood dripped from her wrist as if her tale were being spelled out with every drop. My father and I listened to her, unsure how to react. As she finished her story and washed her hands, Mother muttered in a voice that was unrecognizable:

Something must be done.

My father, Katini Nsambe, frowned and argued: The best way to respond would be to remain calm and quiet. We were a nation under occupation, and it would be better if we remained unnoticed. We VaChopi had lost the land that was ours, the land of our forefathers. Before long, the invaders would be strutting through our cemetery, where we buried our placentas and our stars.

Mother reacted forcefully: It’s a mole that lives in darkness.

My father shook his head and retorted in an undertone: I like the dark. You don’t notice the world’s defects in the dark. A mole is what I always wanted to be. When it comes to how the world is, all we can do is give thanks to God that we are blind.

Stunned, Mother gave a loud sigh while she bent over the fire in order to stir the ushua. She moistened the tip of her finger, pretending she was testing the heat of the saucepan.

One day, I’ll be like a mole. I’ll be all covered in earth, my father muttered, anticipating with sorrow the news he was about to announce.

That’ll happen to us all, Mother said.

It won’t be long before I leave for the mines. I’m going to do what my father did—I’m going to leave this place and try life in South Africa. That’s what I’m going to do.

It wasn’t a prediction. It was a threat. He took a pinch of tobacco from his pocket and an old cigarette paper. With surgical care, he slowly began to roll his cigarette. There wasn’t a black man in the entire village who could boast of the ability to roll his own smokes in this way. Only my father could. With kingly demeanor, he approached the fire and drew out an ember to light his cigarette. Then, standing stiffly and jutting his chin out, he blew a puff of smoke into his wife’s indifferent face. You, my dear Chikazi, insult moles, knowing that it will offend my late father.

My mother hummed an old song, a time-honored ngodo. It was a woman’s lament, a complaint that she had been born a widow. Disdained, my father withdrew noisily.

I’m leaving, he declared.

He wanted to show that he was hurt, that his wife wasn’t the only one bleeding. He slipped out of his own shadow and removed himself to the great anthill, where, though absent, he believed his family would notice him more.

Then we watched him walk around the house, and eventually set off toward the valley. The tiny glint of his cigarette gradually disappeared into the darkness, as if it were the last firefly in the world.

* * *

We sat there, my mother and I, weaving our silences together in a way that only women can. Her thin fingers scratched around in the sand as if confirming their intimacy with the ground. She spoke with the accent of the soil when she asked:

Did you bring wine from the Portuguese store?

There were still some bottles left over. Are you scared Father will hit you?

You know what he’s like: he drinks, he hits.

An unexplained mystery, how Father could reconcile within himself two such opposed souls. When he was sober, he was as gentle as an angel. When he was under the influence of alcohol, he turned into the most vicious of creatures.

It’s incredible how Father has never suspected you of lying.

Me? Lie?

Of course you lie. When he hits you and you cry out in pain, Mother. Aren’t you lying?

This illness of mine is a secret, and your father mustn’t suspect. When he hits me, he thinks my tears are real.

The malady was congenital: Chikazi Makwakwa didn’t feel pain. Her husband was puzzled by all the burn marks on her hands and arms. But he believed that her obliviousness to pain was the work of amulets she got from her sister-in-law, Rosi. Only I knew it was a birth defect.

And what about your other pain, Mother?

What other pain?

The pain in your soul.

She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. What soul? What soul did she have left after two of her daughters had died and her two sons had left home?

Was your mother beaten?

Your grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother. It’s been like that ever since women were women. You’d better get ready to be beaten as well.

A daughter doesn’t contest her elders’ certainties. I imitated her movements and held up some sand in my cupped hand, then tipped it out so that it fell to the ground in a cascade. In the tradition of our folk, this red sand was the sustenance of pregnant women. What was slipping away between my fingers was my wasted existence.

Chikazi Makwakwa interrupted my thoughts: Do you know how your grandmother died? She didn’t wait for me to answer. She was struck down by a flash of lightning. That’s how she died.

So why have you just remembered this now?

Because that’s how I want to die as well.

This was how she wanted her end to be: free of body, weightless, without a trace of her to bury. As if a painless death might erase all the pain in her life.

* * *

Every time a storm broke, our mother would rush out into the fields and stand there, her arms spread, in imitation of a withered tree. She was waiting for the fatal thunderbolt. Ash, dust, soot: that is what she yearned to become. Her desired fate was to be reduced to an invisible powder, light, so light that she would travel the world, carried on the wind. It was my grandmother’s wish that justified my original name. This is what my mother wanted me to remember.

I like “Ash,” I said. I don’t know why, but it reminds me of angels.

I gave you that name to protect you. When we are dust, nothing can hurt us.

Men might well beat me, but no one would ever hurt me. This was the intention behind that baptism of mine.

She scratched at the ground with her hands; four rivers of sand cascaded from between her fingers. I stood dumbstruck, overwhelmed by the dust emanating from her hands.

Now go and get your father. He’s jealous of us.


Of me for not giving him all my attention; of you because you were educated by the priests. You belong to a world he can never enter.

That’s what men are like, she explained. They are scared when women talk, and even more scared when women are silent. I must understand this: My father was a good man. He was just scared of not being equal to other men.

Your father was angry when he left here. Learn one thing, my girl. The worst thing a woman can say to a man is that he ought to do something.

I’ll go and get Father.

Don’t forget the wine.

Don’t worry, Mother. I’ve already hidden the bottles.

Quite the contrary, daughter. Take him a bottle!

Aren’t you scared he’ll beat you afterward?

What that stubborn old mule mustn’t do is sleep in the bush. Bring him back here, sober or drunk. After that, we’ll see what happens.

Then Mother returned to her sadness, like a domestic animal returning to its pen. She was already on her way when she spoke once more:

Ask him to take us back to live in Makomani, ask him to take us back to live by the sea. He listens to you. Ask him, Imani, for the love of God!

Copyright © 2015 by Editorial Caminho

Translation copyright © 2018 by David Brookshaw