Bad Company in a Good Friendship

By Matendo Samuel

The word friendship is used for true friends, but sometimes it’s used for doubtful friends before one of them becomes aware that he is alone in the relationship. One feels lucky to find a true friend, and the person who discovers that his friend is not true feels unlucky, unhappy, or even betrayed. There are people who are saved by friendship, who are still alive because of friendship, and there are people who come into this world because of friendship.

A story of friendship that took a surprising turn was that of Mweze and Chede. To everyone who knew them, Mweze and Chede seemed to be true friends. These two friends lived in a village called Kweto. Like everyone else in the village, Mweze and Chede had humble occupations. They were not people who woke up in the morning expecting to find a cup of tea and a sandwich on the table. No, they did odd jobs in order to survive. Mweze was intelligent, small in stature, brave, cheerful, and reserved, while Chede was strong, not as thoughtful as Mweze, slightly irritable, and overly talkative. They ate all of their meals together and were always in each other’s company. It seemed that they only separated at night when they went to bed. They both lived alone. Neither had a wife, but it wasn’t because of their close friendship that they had not married. They’d had other adventures before their friendship began.

Mweze was a weaver who made mats, hats, and baskets from the straw he collected on Saturdays. The work meant that he didn’t have to leave the house much or socialize much. Chede owned a flock of goat and sheep. Twice a week, he foraged for grasses and grains in the bush. Every day, after he gave his livestock their feed, he would go to his friend’s house, and this habit was repeated for so long that the villagers began to say they looked alike, and some even began to claim they were brothers.

One day, Chede went to see his friend Mweze. The village was quiet. There were only some women and children around, and the handful of men who plied their trade at home. Most of the villagers were working in the fields or had gone hunting. Chede said that he had something very important to tell Mweze. Mweze was surprised and asked if there was anything wrong. Chede said everything was fine. But Mweze knew straightaway that something was weighing on his mind. The day passed without Chede visiting his friend like he usually did. Evening came and Mweze had still not seen him again. This was unusual, and he began to worry. So he went to his friend’s house to see if anything had happened to him, but he found only the livestock, which had been left unguarded. Chede was nowhere to be found. Mweze felt uneasy. Night was falling, so he went into the village to ask if anyone had seen his friend. Nobody had. Some people suggested that he look for Chede in his own home, because that was where he was always to be found.

It was dark now and Chede was still missing. Mweze was now afraid for his friend. They were family. They would do anything for each other. Mweze decided to spend the night at his friend’s house, reasoning that he might come home later—after all, he had goats and sheep to tend. Mweze’s only valuable possession, on the other hand, was the straw that he wove. Even if all of his straw were stolen, he would manage.

Mweze spent a sleepless night there. His friend did not show up. In the morning, he went to the village chief and notified him of his friend’s disappearance. The village chief gave him a few strong men to help him search for Chede. After planning to meet later with the other men, Mweze went home to prepare. As he was leaving the house, his friend appeared out of nowhere. When Mweze saw him, he was dumbstruck. He welcomed his friend with open arms and immediately began to cry. He began to prepare his friend a hearty meal. “You must have been through a lot,” he said. But Chede said nothing about where he had been all this time.

His friend was being too silent. Mweze said to him, “My friend, you are all I have. You are my family. Your problems are my problems, your misfortune is my misfortune, and your happiness is my happiness, too. You told me before you disappeared that you had something very important to tell me. Does this have anything to do with your disappearance? Please answer me, my friend.” The meal was ready. At that moment, the men who were going to help search for Chede knocked at the door. They were astonished to see Chede, and they asked scores of questions, but still Chede did not provide any answers.

“I am alive and well,” he said. “Don’t you worry about me. You wanted to go looking for me even though you had no idea where I was. That is very kind of you, and I swear I would do the same for all of you, a thousand times over, if you ever needed help. Please tell the village chief that I am back and there is nothing to worry about. I am fit and healthy.”

The men left without questioning the two friends any further. In parting, they told Mweze and Chede that their friendship was the pride of the village. Chede accompanied them outside. Then he returned to the house and asked how his livestock was doing. Mweze told him not to worry. He neglected to reveal the lengths he had gone to watch over the animals in his absence, and he refrained from asking more questions—his friend was back and that was the most important thing. Mweze went to work on his weaving outside, while Chede rested. But Chede didn’t stay for long. He soon got up and told his friend that he wanted to go see his animals and his house. Mweze told him that they could go together if he waited a moment.

Chede said, “There’s no need for you to come with me. You are my friend and you have done too much for me already.”

“Stop talking nonsense,” Mweze said. “Take care and see you soon.” After this exchange, the whole episode seemed to be forgotten.

Then, one day, Chede sold all of his sheep and goats except for one goat. He did this without telling his close friend. Then Chede went to see his friend to tell him some news. He was going on a short trip. Mweze asked him where he intended to go, begging his friend not to keep anything from him this time. Chede said it would only take a few months and told him not to worry. Mweze said he had not told him where he was going. Chede said it didn’t matter. Mweze dropped the subject, though it pained his heart to see that something was clearly troubling his friend. He wished him luck.

Chede said, “I will leave a goat in your care until I return.”

Astonished, Mweze said, “A goat?”

Chede replied, “It is all I have at the moment. Please, my friend, do this for me.”

Though he felt betrayed by his friend’s secrecy, Mweze said, “No problem.” Chede got ready to leave and they said goodbye.

Mweze was left with many unanswered questions, but he went on with his day-to-day life. More than six months passed and Mweze didn’t hear from his friend, but he wasn’t concerned, because Chede had said everything would be fine. And anyway, Chede knew where to find him, so he simply waited for his friend to appear unannounced. Mweze was by nature a forgiving person. He did everything that his friend had asked him to do: he tended the animal that had been entrusted to him, and he regularly cleaned his friend’s house.

Sure enough, Chede appeared out of the blue one day, but this time he seemed a bit different, angrier, without even a hint of happiness on his face. Mweze greeted his friend as he approached, but he didn’t dare ask him anything about his trip, since he knew Chede wouldn’t tell him anything. It was for the best, because Chede had something on his mind and he was determined to go through with it.

After resting a while, Chede asked his friend about the animal he’d left behind. Mweze replied that there was good news, because the animal was healthy, and it had even gained weight. Chede asked how many kids there were. Mweze laughed at this and said that just because it had gained weight didn’t mean that the goat had had kids. Chede said that animals normally multiply in six months. How come he still had only one goat? Mweze said he could see that his friend needed a rest. But Chede insisted it would be better if he were presented with two or three goats. If his animal had given birth to only one kid then that would be fine, but he would not accept only one animal. Mweze understood immediately that his friend wanted something other than the goats, because every time he mentioned his goat, he didn’t say “goat” or “billy goat,” but “animal.” Mweze said, “If you want me to take you to him, let’s go.” But Chede answered that it didn’t make sense to give him one animal after all these months, for it would be an animal that couldn’t reproduce. Calling his friend a thief, he left the house very angry.

He went straight to the village chief and told him that his friend had stolen one or two goats. Astonished, the chief asked: “Are you talking about Mweze? Isn’t he your best friend?” Chede said that he was, indeed, talking about Mweze. He demanded that justice be done. His friend had to pay for the stolen animals. What’s more, his friend wouldn’t even give back the animal he’d left in his care! At these words, the village chief seemed a little more convinced. He told Chede to go home and that everything would be resolved tomorrow in the presence of the wise men of the village.

The next day, the village chief summoned the wise men of the village and all of his followers. Chede was also present. Only the accused, Mweze, was missing. The chief and the men present did not understand the rift between these two inseparable friends. The assembly was ready for the trial to start. The chief sent some men to fetch Mweze and they found him at home, because he was not in the habit of leaving his house. When Mweze saw them, he understood that something was wrong. They told him that the village chief requested his presence in connection with a complaint against him. Mweze replied that he understood. They could leave, he said, and he would join them as soon as possible, as the village chief requested. Because Mweze had a reputation in the village as a well-behaved man, the men went back to the chief.

Mweze prepared himself to appear in front of the chief and the wise men of the village. When he was ready, he went to the village chief’s house, where the assembly was being held. A few meters from the house, Mweze started crying and shouting. He walked past the crowd of people who had gathered and threw himself in the mud, still crying and shouting. The village chief sent someone to ask him what the matter was—didn’t he know that all these people were waiting just for him? Mweze told the man that his son-in-law had died during labor at the hospital. The man did not seem to understand. Mweze told him to go and tell the assembly. The man repeated what Mweze had said, and everyone looked at him in astonishment. No one understood what he meant. The chief sent the same man to tell Mweze to approach. Mweze stood before the assembly, and the village chief asked him to explain what was going on.

Mweze took the floor and asked, first of all, for forgiveness for his tardiness and for crying like a child instead of greeting the assembly as an accused person should. He added that the reason for his crying was that he had just received the news of the death of his eldest daughter’s husband, who had died after delivering a baby at the hospital. There were murmurs in the crowd. People thought perhaps Mweze had said the opposite of what they had heard. The village chief stood up and asked Mweze to clarify, because the whole village knew that he had never had a child, and nor had he ever married a woman.

The trial seemed to be forgotten by all those assembled, who now primarily wanted to know what was going on with the accused. Not even the wise men of the village understood what Mweze wanted to imply. Chede, who remained calm, could not figure it out either, but he knew that his friend was very intelligent. Mweze graciously answered the chief that his friend, who was present, was the only person in the village who knew about his daughter, whom he’d had with a woman when he was nineteen. Then he explained the situation to the assembly. The village chief asked Chede if what his friend was saying was true. Chede said that he didn’t know anything about Mweze’s daughter, and furthermore, he was a liar—they had met only a few years ago and didn’t trust each other. “All I want is for him to pay for my goats,” said Chede.

At these words, some of the wise men understood that the accusations were false, but they kept silent. The village chief asked Chede if he wanted to leave the village again without telling anyone. “Yes,” he said. “I want to disappear and this time it will be for good. I will not come back to this village.”

One of the wise men stood up and asked the assembly to speak. He calmly and carefully said the following: “I see what is happening here with these two friends who are now accuser and accused. There is no elaborate scheme.” All of the men listened in silence to this wise old man, who went on to say that an ambitious man is capable of anything. The village chief asked him to explain. The wise man said that the accuser was acting out of spite and only wanted to condemn the accused before leaving, which is why he wanted the trial to be held today.

The village chief demanded silence from everyone. He asked Chede to explain what had happened. Chede said that he had left an animal with his friend before leaving on a trip and that he had come back six months later to find the same animal, which hadn’t multiplied. His friend had stolen the other animals. The village chief asked Mweze if this was true. Mweze said that he’d been given a billy goat by his friend, but on his return Chede had asked him for two or three goats, and this had baffled him. The village chief asked Chede what kind of animal he had left with his friend. Chede said it was a goat, but he couldn’t remember if it was a billy goat. The chief saw he would need to be shrewd and more than a little patient to resolve this matter. He turned to Mweze and told him to bring the goat that he claimed had been entrusted to him by his friend. A few minutes later the goat was there. The village chief asked Chede if that was his goat. Chede said he did not recognize the animal.

“If one of you is found to be lying,” the chief said, “he will be expelled from the village and never be welcome here again.”

Another wise man stood up and said that the trial should be adjourned in order to let Mweze mourn his son-in-law who had died in childbirth. The village chief acknowledged that it was not customary to put someone on trial while they were in mourning. But the assembly had no choice, because the person who had filed the complaint was about to leave. He asked if the accuser would perhaps allow the assembly to reconvene the next day, after his friend had had time to mourn. But Chede refused, saying that he wanted the trial to be held today. The village chief said that he had no compassion for his friend, who had been faithful to him and would still do anything for him.

“You are refusing to let your friend mourn his son-in-law,” he said. “Yet not so long ago your friend went searching for you. Did you at least tell him where you were going then?”

“No,” said Chede.

“And the second time you left, did you tell your friend where you were going and when you were coming back?”

“No,” said Chede.

“And who was there to greet you when you came back from your trip?” the chief asked. “So why did you give him one goat before you left when you had a whole flock?”

“I had sold them all and was left with one goat,” said Chede.

“Can you find the goats to pay Chede back?” the village chief asked Mweze.

“After I have mourned,” said Mweze.

He asked Mweze when that would be.

“There can be no mourning,” said Mweze. “A son-in-law is a man, and a man cannot give birth. This man is not a friend of mine. Everything he says is false, and he does not understand that I want to show him my friendship. He did something in anger that should not be done, and he doesn’t see that, in spite of what he did, we could still mean something to each other. I would gladly pay five goats to my friend, even if he is calling for my head on a plate, and even if there is little love left for him in my heart.”

“That is not true,” said the village chief. Then, pointing at Chede, he said, “You are banned from this village.”

Chede got down on his knees and begged his friend and the assembly for forgiveness, but the village chief’s decision was final.

“It’s too late for you, Chede,” the chief said. “We all noticed that your friend wanted to protect you from the law. The first wise man said that an ambitious man is capable of anything, but you didn’t even understand that he was talking about you. You were ambitious, and you wanted your friend to be punished. Why would you do that to someone who would give his life for you? You have one day to prepare your things and leave, because you are a hypocrite and a murderer. If you are capable of doing this to Mweze, imagine what you are capable of doing to others. The decision has been made, and if after dawn tomorrow we ever see you in this village again you will be executed on the spot. I have warned you. Your blood will not be on my hands.”

Mweze wept for his friend. The next day Chede left the village against his will. The whole story was soon forgotten, and the village lived in peace.

17 March, 2023