The Stone

Nnamdi Oguike

When Martha Khumalo dug up a shiny stone from a field in KwaHlathi village, she knew her life would change. She wiped a smudge of soil off the stone, hid it in her frock, and hurried home to show her husband, Mazisi, who would appraise its value. Mazisi used to work for a gold mining company in Johannesburg but was rendered unemployed after a tunnel caved in on him and disfigured him. Martha prayed that Mazisi hadn’t disappeared amongst the shebeens of KwaHlathi to tell stories of his mining years. The glorified stories earned him the sneers of old customers bored with his tales and the appreciation of new customers who invited him to their table for a drink.  

Mazisi was home wallowing in misery, recounting the money he had spent on hooch and prostitutes on Vilakazi Street. ‘If I had saved half of it, I could have bought myself an estate,’ he muttered to himself. And if he had been faithful to Martha, maybe he wouldn’t have contracted the load of diseases that had him seeing sangomas who annoyed him with countless messages from his ancestors. He had no child. He was poor. And his wife was up to no good either. One of the sangomas had told him: ‘You have been unkind to your ancestors. You will have no child and your life will be miserable until you find the stone of prosperity your ancestors have hidden from you. To help you find the stone, you must appease your ancestors with a ceremony.’ 

Mazisi had walked away in annoyance. He remembered how Martha had been the talk of KwaHlathi when, while he was frolicking in the shebeens and brothels of Soweto, she was in KwaHlathi slipping in and out of Twala’s bedroom. Twala, a stout man with a square jaw and a ragged beard, seized the property of his tenants, shamed them publicly, and announced their disgrace in pubs until the tenants ceded something of appreciable value in lieu of rent. Martha appeased Twala by spending nights in his house to service her debt. The man kept his records and left her in no doubt that the debts must be paid in full. 

When Mazisi returned from Jo’burg on forced retirement, Twala brought his record books to show all the debts his wife had accumulated. 

Mazisi was thinking about all these things when Martha ran into the house, shut the door, and took out the lump of stone from her smock. ‘Look what I found, Mazisi!’ she said. 

He didn’t bother to look up. She had always found things, useless things: clouds that looked like tikoloshes, birds that help women to conceive, newspaper cuttings with expired job vacancies, keys to unknown doors, buttons for unknown buttonholes, seeds of unknown fruits.

‘Look what I found, Mazisi,’ she said again.

‘Another useless key?’ he spat. ‘Another worthless button?’

Cha,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Just open your eyes, Mazisi.’ 

But he kept his eyes shut to stop tears from falling down his face. 

‘Take a look, Mazisi,’ she said softly, then raising her voice, ‘If it’s worthless I won’t show you anything again till I die.’ 

Startled, Mazisi opened his eyes and saw the stone in her muddied palm. Though smudged with soil, a gem was a gem. Though uncut and unpolished, it played with the morning sunlight pouring in through the window. He knew at once what it was. During his mining days in Jo’burg he had once seen his white boss unveil a stone like that, but smaller, before his white friends. He remembered the look of wonder on their faces. One said the small stone was worth a million rand. Another said it was worth more.

Mazisi shrieked and jumped from his chair, startling Martha. He clasped a hand over his mouth, recollected himself, and pulled his wife to the window. He took the stone and held it aloft; sunlight danced over it, casting glints at him. ‘Where did you find this?’ 

‘In the field,’ she said. 

Eish, don’t talk too loudly,’ he admonished. ‘What we have under our roof now will change our lives forever.’ 

Mazisi walked away from the window and sat on his tattered bed. ‘This is diamond,’ he declared. ‘I know it. A sangoma saw it. And our country is full of diamonds. The problem is the rich take most of them. But now, we the poor have got ours. We won’t tell anyone about the source of this stone yet. If the news goes out, the rich will come here and take all the stones. Trust nobody. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

Yebo,’ Martha said, nodding her head. She pondered how her life had just changed, how she could easily walk into Twala’s room, no more a tool of gratification for his lust, but a woman of means and authority. Many would know her for the stone and its worth; it would be written in books that once upon a time Martha Khumalo discovered a stone that changed KwaHlathi. The landlord would want to be in her favour, she thought – for what was her debt in comparison with the worth of her stone?

‘But now, I’ll take the stone and visit a trusted friend, just to be certain,’ Mazisi said. ‘Qwabe. He retired from the Ministry of Mining.’ 

He tucked the stone away in an iron box, pulled his towel from the sagging clothesline, and hurried out to the public bathroom. Soap in his eyes, he sang the mining song ‘Shosholoza.’ Every now and again, in between the song, he shrieked with utmost joy, ‘The sangoma saw it! The sangoma saw it!’ He apologized to his ancestors and promised to mollify them with an elaborate ceremony as soon as he became rich. He wore his best clothes – a yellow T-shirt, green trousers with white suspenders, a black cloth cap, and red shoes – and hugged his wife. 

Ngiyakuthanda,’ he said. It surprised Martha because she had no memory of Mazisi saying that to her, not even in her youth. 

‘I love you too,’ Martha said. A tear swamped her right eye. 

He took the stone from the box, wrapped it in a handkerchief, kissed her forehead, and hurried out. Martha went to the window, and her mind bathed in the glory of the stone just as her body bathed in the glory of the sun.  


Martha’s mouth poured with kwaito as she bathed in the afternoon heat. She had never been this happy before, not even at her wedding, to which Mazisi had arrived late and in the wrong suit. She dried herself and smeared her old but fragrant brown powder. She remembered Twala and thought to visit him, not as a mistress in distress, but as a woman of prestige and importance. She wore her best gown, thick and grey but fraying at the armpits; she donned a wide-brimmed red hat, hung a handbag in the crook of her arm, and walked to the landlord’s house. 

Twala was gawping at a glossy magazine with nude women on the cover when Martha arrived. He crumpled the magazine and tucked it beneath his buttocks. ‘Exactly what I need at this time of the day,’ he said, grinning. ‘You look as ravishing as you were on our first night

‘Stop it, Twala, stop it!’ Martha snapped. 

He was startled. She had never called him Twala. ‘What’s the matter, Martha? Did the tikoloshe put you to this?’ In KwaHlathi many referred to Mazisi as the tikoloshe because of his disfigured looks.

‘Mazisi loves me, and that is a good thing, Twala!’

Twala smiled, wrung his hands, and licked his lips. ‘Don’t ever forget how much rent you owe me, Martha.’

‘And that is why I am here,’ she said. 

‘To pay me?’

‘To tell you, Twala, that the days of your wickedness are numbered.’ 

‘What wickedness, Martha? That I saved you from public shame only for some nights in my bedroom?’ he asked with a smile. ‘Let me bring my record books, Martha,’ he said and rose to get them. 

‘I know how much I owe you, Twala. It’s not a million rand, is it? And to think of all the nights I cried under your roof If I had known that today would come, I would never have let as much as your finger touch the hem of my clothes.’

‘I thought you enjoyed the nights. Your tikoloshe was away. Anyway, about my money – How did you get all of it? You have no real job. Did your tikoloshe win the Lotto? Or did he scam a rich man in a pub? Or has he joined a robbery gang?’

Martha gave him a ruinous sneer. ‘Twala, Mazisi, and I have more than stealing and robbing can ever bring. We have a stone. God has blessed us. We are free from you. We will move house. Or we can buy a house of our own. Or we can travel overseas. We will live the good life. But you? You will remain the dog that you have always been.’

Twala smiled despite her insults. ‘I am happy for you, Martha,’ he said. ‘But how will you pay me? With what stone will you pay me? Who has deceived you? The tikoloshe?’

‘No one deceived me, Twala. I found the stone myself.’

‘If precious stones were lying everywhere in South Africa, I wouldn’t be here chasing house rent. Where did you find yours? Without location, your claim is nonsense.’

‘In the field,’ Martha said. 

‘Impossible!’ Twala laughed. ‘Our people have worked that field for ages. No one ever found a stone of any value.’ 

‘I am leaving, Twala,’ Martha said. ‘I don’t care what you think. I’ll pay all I owe you and leave you to your filthy magazines.’

Twala said nothing. He ground his teeth and scratched his ragged beard. 


Mazisi returned home before dusk. Qwabe, the former employee in the Ministry of Mining, had said the stone showed the signs and properties of a diamond. Mazisi had entered a written contract with Qwabe to the effect that ten per cent of the value of the stone would go to Qwabe if, upon scientific tests, it was certified to be truly diamond. He didn’t tell Martha for fear that she might freak out. 

‘I know it is diamond,’ Martha said, looking up to the ceiling as if to God. ‘But where is it? Let me look at it again.’

‘I don’t have it,’ Mazisi replied.


‘I left it with Qwabe?’

‘What? Are you stupid?’ 

‘He will carry out a scientific test on it.’


‘I trust Qwabe.’

‘You said it yourself, Mazisi – trust nobody,’ Martha said, her cream-colored face reddening with rage. ‘Qwabe can disappear from the country with the diamond. You could have split the stone in two.’

‘Diamond is too hard to split, Martha. Qwabe said it’s the hardest substance in the world.’ 

‘So what shall we do if he disappears with our stone?’ 

Cha, he won’t.’

‘When do we hear from him about the tests?’

‘Two days at the most.’

‘Oh Mazisi, I can’t wait, I can’t wait,’ Martha said, shaking her head. ‘I already told Twala.’ Realizing that she shouldn’t have said that, she pressed a hand over her mouth. 

‘What did you say, Martha?’ 

Her hand stayed pressed over her mouth. Silence filled the room.

‘After what you have done with that dog, you still went to his house to spill our secret?’ Mazisi said.

Martha was in tears now. ‘Cha, Mazisi, no. I went to scorn him. I didn’t go to be with him. He had always scorned you, so now that we are going to be richer than him, I went to scorn him for everything he did to us.’

‘Liar, you went to spill our secret to your lover!’

Cha, Mazisi, cha. I’m telling you nothing but the truth!’

They quarreled into the night, traded filthy insults, and swore to split the money from the diamond and go their separate ways. They slept on their mattress, their faces turned in opposite directions. 

In the morning, when they awoke, Mazisi’s disgust for Martha had nothing but doubled. Martha, for her part, felt a desire to strike Mazisi on the head with her pickaxe for his ingratitude. 

‘I found the stone!’ she spat. 

Yebo, but you ran to the filthiest dog in KwaHlathi to tell him,’ he replied.

‘I hate you, Mazisi!’ 

‘I hate you too, Martha!’

The couple left the house, Mazisi to see Qwabe and Martha to dig the field with her pickaxe. 


In the open field she found hundreds of diggers with spades and pickaxes, striking, smashing, cutting, scraping, burrowing …. It seemed like a digging festival. She was astonished at the sight. How could the old dog Twala have mustered a crowd as huge as that in so short a time? She regretted her visit to Twala. It was stupid of her, she thought now. She walked this way and that in an air of utter bewilderment, often ignoring greetings from friends and acquaintances, until she saw the shriveled figure of Twala in the distance hollering at people to dig for their destinies. 

‘Dig! Dig! Dig!’ he yelled. ‘Dig for your lives. Dig for your children. Dig for your future! Do you want to remain poor forever?’ 

He had hired dozens of diggers, whose vigour grew or flagged with his words. 

Every now and again someone shrieked and there was a wild surge of people eager to see a precious stone. Someone dug out an orange piece of rock, but it disintegrated into crystal fragments and everyone knew it wasn’t worth more than a heap of cow dung. But one of Twala’s diggers found a smaller stone than Martha’s. It caused a big stir in the terrain. The crowd roared. More diamonds could be found, it seemed. And true, more diggers dug up smaller lumps of the shiny stone to tumultuous celebration. In the crowd generosity bloomed: debts were cancelled, animosities were dropped, good pacts were made, kind promises were given, friendships were forged, and even romantic liaisons were initiated. 

As Martha wielded her pickaxe, she felt a desire to run to Twala and knock him dead with it. It angered her that, even though she had discovered the first precious stone in KwaHlathi, no one here seemed to acknowledge her contribution to the village. If they found a bucketful of precious stones, the village owed her gratitude. But the old landlord who had milked the location out of her had made sure to eclipse the source of his information. He was now touted as the man who discovered the precious stones of KwaHlathi. Martha was dazed with animosity. 

For hours she dug for precious stones. She pulled tufts of grass and she exhumed buried rocks but found nothing of significant value. She remembered the stone with Qwabe and prayed to God to preserve it. 


Qwabe had his early doubts. How could KwaHlathi, of all places, hold diamonds? But it was part of South Africa, and South Africa was a country of gold and diamonds. And Mazisi’s stone scratched glass, didn’t burn in fire, and cast alluring glints. So he believed it was diamond. He took it to an Indian friend who had dealt largely in gold and a little bit of diamond before leaving his enterprise in the hands of his children. The Indian brought the stone close to his eyes, winced, and smiled: ‘I think it is diamond.’ He wasn’t sure, but he would ask a fellow Indian who had more experience in the diamond trade. He took the stone to the dealer in gemstones, who observed it under a loupe and called its name: quartz. And quartz is of too little value, he said, too abundant in nature to be accorded great value. Second in value to feldspar, the most abundant. 

So when Mazisi came for news about the stone, Qwabe tossed it into Mazisi’s hand and said, ‘The stone is worthless.’


Qwabe nodded his head. 

Cha, Qwabe. No!’ 

‘They said it’s quartz.’


‘I had big hopes for it. It resembled a diamond.’

‘No, Qwabe.’

‘They said it’s of no real value, Mazisi. Sorry.’

Mazisi took his stone and went home. Martha was home and anxious for good news. When she saw his glum face in the doorway, she knew better. She had almost forgotten about their quarrel the night before and in the morning. She had forgotten about the agreement to split the money from the stone and go their separate ways. 

‘Look what I found,’ he said to her, dropping the stone in her hand. 


‘It’s quartz,’ he said softly. Then he roared, ‘Bloody useless quartz!’

Martha held the stone and stared at it with grief. She remembered their landlord and the visit of scorn she had paid him. She remembered her debts. She looked around the room and its roaring shabbiness. Mazisi remembered the sangomas and their pronouncements. As Martha sobbed in their shabby home, he felt a desire to visit their bone-cluttered huts and smash the sangomas’ faces with the piece of quartz. 

Martha hurled the stone against the wall and let out a cry that tore out of the window like an arrow into the heart of the village. ▪