Zambia sat in a rare patch of green grass, surrounded by the tall yellow straw-like plants that made up the African savanna, her homeland.
This was her place. She came here to be alone with her thoughts and escape life’s anxieties. A feeling of peacefulness washed over her every time she lay down there. She’d lose herself in the warm breeze rustling the golden stalks around, welcoming the feel of the soft grass on her callused feet.
But nothing could cure her sorrow now. A tear slid down Zambia’s dark cheek and landed in the dirt, disappearing almost immediately as the thirsty ground drank it. She was reminded of how much she wanted water, and how long she’d been waiting for some.
Zambia thought she’d lived about fourteen Dry Seasons, though she didn’t know for sure. Dry Season seemed to be getting longer and longer lately. This season had been especially arid, and water and food were scarce.
The water had sunk into the ground and the plants had shriveled up, killing or driving off all the animals. All but one that is.
Zitza had stayed. Zambia had befriended the zebra when they were both young, long before the drought and the sorrow it’d brought. Zitza was the only one who accompanied Zambia to the soft grass.
The zebra dropped her striped head down to Zambia’s, nuzzling her cheek. Zambia reached up and entwined her fingers in Zitza’s mane, closing her eyes and wishing for rain. Sometimes it seemed like Zitza had the spirit of a girl, not a zebra.
Zambia and her tribe were starving, and many had died from lack of food and water. Many were dying now, including her mother. There was nothing she could do about it. Just wish for rain, rain, rain.
She stood and hoisted herself up onto Zitza’s back, wrapping her arms around her friend’s neck. A gentle nudge with her foot signaled Zitza to start walking.
She knew where to go. They started off at a trot, breaking into a canter towards home. Running her hands over Zitza’s back, Zambia recalled what her father would say about them.
“Zambia’s as close to Zitza as Zitza’s black stripes are to the white ones,” he’d say.
A smile played briefly across her face but vanished as quickly as it’d come. Her father wasn’t like that anymore—not since the drought.
They reached the small village they lived in. It was mostly mud and thatch huts with a little altar and figurine at the center.
Zambia’s family hut was the farthest away from the others—and the closest to the Bush. When they arrived, she slid off Zitza’s back and led her to her arena, which she’d made years ago for the zebra.
“Good night, dear Zitza,” she whispered, and went inside.
Her father greeted her solemnly and said good night. Zambia knelt by her mother, who was lying down already, her eyes closed. It hurt Zambia to see her so thin and her stomach bloated with deprivation of water.
After kissing her hot forehead, Zambia retreated to the opposite side of the hut and prepared herself for sleep. She closed her eyes and dreamed of cool, clear water raining down out of the heavens.
* * *
Zambia awoke to her father gently shaking her by the shoulders.
“Wake up, Zambia!” he said, his voice hushed so as to not wake her mother. “I need you to go look for insects to eat.”
“But father,” she answered dazedly, “no one’s been able to find any.”
“Please, Zambia.” He looked into her eyes, his own filled with sorrow. She knew he needed her to leave. Was it something to do with her mother?
She nodded and got up reluctantly. Her father hugged her, to her surprise, and Zambia could see tears in his eyes. What was going on?
“Go,” he said, not unkindly, and gave her a push towards the door.
Confused, Zambia walked out, past the arena, and into the rough golden sea of tall grass. She thought about bringing Zitza, but when she looked back at her, she decided to let her rest. The zebra had been sleeping against the fence, reminding Zambia of her starving mother who was still asleep.
Looking for insects was a very hard task, seeing as there weren’t any to find. But the thought of locust cooked over an open fire, its scent traveling on the breeze, its crunchy outside giving way to her teeth, kept her going. It had been so long since she’d eaten.
Zambia finally decided to give up, for it was already midday, and she couldn’t find anything. She didn’t want to disappoint her father, but the task he’d given her was impossible.
She walked into the village at the opposite side of where her hut was. She passed many homes, a few with owners no longer living. Zambia had almost reached her home when she saw it.
A zebra skin was stretched across the ground.
Zambia’s stomach lurched. She stopped and gasped for breath. No! she thought. No!
Her father came out of their hut and saw her. He rushed towards her and held her to his chest.
“I’m sorry, Zambia!” he cried. “Zambia, child, I’m so sorry! But your mother…”
Zambia broke away from him and staggered over to the arena. Empty. She stumbled into the tall grass screaming, “Zitza! Zitza!” frantically scanning the field for black-and-white stripes. “Zitza!”
Zambia shot off at a run, still screaming, until she fell onto soft grass. She pressed her face into the ground and tore at the plants with feverish hands. When I look up she’ll be there, grazing in our special place, she thought.
Slowly she lifted her head. Nothing. She was alone. Her head dropped back onto the ground, her body shaking with sobs. No, no, no! Not gone! Not my Zitza!
Zambia stayed there until it got dark. Finally she dragged herself back to the hut. She had to pass Zitza’s hide.
She remembered how she used to count her stripes and wonder, “Zitza, are you black with white stripes or white with black stripes?”
Zambia turned away. She couldn’t bear it! How could they kill her? Her best friend? They had eaten her like jackals!
Suddenly furious, she charged into her hut. But when she entered, Zambia stopped abruptly, for sitting up, her eyes bright and her body nourished, was her mother.
Zambia rushed into her arms and held her close.
“Your Zitza saved me,” said her mother. “She saved us all.”
Zambia could see tears in her eyes and in her father’s. She could feel them running down her own cheeks as well.
Because of Zitza, her mother wouldn’t starve. In a way, Zitza would still be with Zambia, for her spirit would live on in her mother. Zambia hugged her mother again, bringing her father in too. Suddenly they heard a noise on the thatched roof.
And more and more. Zambia rushed outside to see what was going on—and got a face full of water! Wiping her eyes, she gazed up at the sky, letting the drops fall onto her hot, dusty skin. Zambia opened her dry lips to let the water slide down her parched throat, sending out a prayer of thanks to whatever god had finally had mercy on them. Thank you, thank you, THANK you!