Equality Award
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Mother's Beads tries to capture the struggles of Jenny's tumultuous past that impacted her life in ways both positive and negative and yet, she still manages to look at her yesterday and it no longer can swallow her.
First 10 Pages



She looked at her, a penetrating stare, and she asked her daughter sounding disappointed. Frustration gnawed at Miriam like a hungry rat to see her daughter being accused as ‘dirty’ and lacking in hygiene, devoid of well- ordered domestication. She didn’t expect that from the missionaries, especially with their Christian teaching and a promise of peace. She closed her eyes, shook her head. “No, no. It can’t be true.” She struggled to believe what her daughter Esther, just told her. She was reminded in a bad way, how slave trading and cultural prescriptions had negatively impacted her life. But everything changed when the missionaries arrived in the area. She felt a fragment of relief, that she crossed all her fingers with hopes that by joining the church, her daughters would do something she wished she had done. This was something she could do to move her family forward. She wanted her daughters to be the women they could be. Now it seemed like the doors were once again closing, and she was moving back.

Miriam’s world had been surrounded by darkness. Born a woman in Ndala village, her path had already been traditionally cut out for her. She got married at seventeen, though she’d have loved to study and be able to work. She had found the pattern very troubling; it did not fit her fierce personality. Her life in this tiny central African village in Nyasaland, was stagnant like a pond, with little hope of ever being able to afford decent living. Even though when her husband built the mud-brick home, it seemed somehow an improvement from that old abandoned hut. For many years, the family felt safety and happiness within its walls. But she was overjoyed to have finally moved out. In some ways, the old hut, like her cultural traditions, was a painful reminder of how contentment had robbed her of what she had wanted to be.

As usual on Sundays, Miriam was getting ready for church. Unfortunately, the dress she wanted to put on had a burnt patch. She put that aside, and while still fussing about what to wear, she reached for her purple top, and tied a matching skirt with a white trim line around her waist. Thomas, her husband already dressed in his Sunday suit and wearing a hat, was waiting outside. We will be late for church, he thought, glancing at the sun lengthening its shadow. With a bible in hand, and regardless of his actual mindset, he walked to the house, stuck his head inside, and saw his wife busy wrapping the colourful duku around her head making sure the cloth covered all her silver hairline.

The question continued to bother Thomas. With an audible intake of breath, his lips curled and writhed like a snake stepped upon, he questioned his sanity in continuing to attend church. Unlike his wife, after much land had been confiscated by the missionaries and turned into tea plantations, with the natives working as labourers, Thomas and his kinfolk felt powerless. Despite occasional squabble which the missionaries had helped to curb, the village was a family. Folks knew and were loyal and protective of one another. But with the settlers enforcing their own cultural values, Thomas felt he was being torn from his long-standing heritage and culture. The village was no longer the place that he knew.

Now the land and freedom were taken away in a manner that masked greed, disguised under missionary work. He felt his chin quiver. Going to church felt at times like an empty ritual. He embraced the idea that religion was an opioid for the masses. He could not forgive the injustices of the oppressors, although he had tried. Now, he was never sure if he embraced the White man’s religion out of curiosity or faith. But he belonged to both.

“Why are you taking so long?” he questioned with some irritation in his voice. Then he noticed Miriam wasn’t wearing her new dress, adding to his agitation. “So, I just wasted my money…” he cried.

“Did you see-?” Responded Miriam now tying a necklace around her neck. The beads were two coloured, - a rich brown of the earth, the sort that spoke of soul and belonging, with white stripes. “Open your eyes! And tell me.”

“See what?” He held the dress, and noticed the burnt patch. “What happened-?”

“Is it not obvious?” Miriam said annoyed. “The iron spit out the coals, as Esther ironed,” straightening her head gear one more time.

Thomas stepped outside and walked across to the small cylindrical hut, -- the kitchen where Esther was busy preparing bean stew. His nostrils caught the aromatic flavours coming from boiling lentils, but unlike Esau, he did not let that distract him. And seeing her father approach with the dress, Esther felt her muscles begin to tighten, and like a sharp point of the blade was being pressed against the inside of her chest. She rubbed the back of her neck. Once again, she was in trouble. Just last week, she had been accused as being ‘dirty’ and not competent to administer medication to a white patient, without supervision of white nurses. It was hard to tell her parents what had happened. Her father regretted the decision to involve his family with the White man. He cursed himself for allowing both their daughters to be baptized into the faith and letting them go to Sunday School. He had thought that by adhering to Christian values, he was teaching the girls to play by the rules. Now he felt all that was for nothing.

Esther looked away from the disappointment on his face.

“For goodness’ sake!” the father cursed, “why don’t you pay attention when you’re doing something? What will I do with this now? Showing her the burnt area. “If this is how you behave, I am not surprised the head nurse treated you with contempt--” continuing to swear as he neared the exit.

“It’s not!” she protested.

Miriam overheard the conversation and snapped at Thomas, telling him to go easy on their daughter.

“Do you know how much I had to save to purchase the fabric?” He stormed off saying he would walk to church alone and continued mumbling a lament.

Satisfied. Miriam rushed out the door barking orders to the girls about what they needed to do before the service. Miriam was the task master. She always organised chores for the girls like an army sergeant. Still trailing a few steps behind on the narrow dusty path, she finally caught up to Thomas. “Let me carry the bible for you,” she offered, stepping aside on the grass to let a cyclist pass.

Thomas turned back to the voice of his wife. He saw her almond eyes and florid skin warmed by the heat of her body as he handed her the bible. A smile that reached his eyes spread across his face.

The Bismarcks with their two daughters lived a simple village life. Thomas did nothing but farmed the land, fixed up the things around the home. Once in a while he would smile or laugh, and when he did the world would brighten up for those precious moments. But every time he would cast his eyes on the old hut and looked at all the repairs that were needed. He felt like a failure and would sink into bitterness.

Miriam tried to explain to her husband how Esther was finding it very difficult to please Sister Dwyer, and that she often gave orders sternly. Only to be told that he knew too well about Esther’s suffering - that only made him feel more of a failure as thoughts of his interaction with the head nurse came to the fore. He had not told his wife about the meeting with Miss Dwyer. He wasn’t going to let her know how disappointed he was.


Although the day he went to meet the head nurse was sunny, it was crisp and cold when he arrived at the hospital. Standing face to face with Sister, Thomas went on to express his frustrations.

“Who is your daughter?” the head nurse asked.

“Esther Bismarck.”

“There are standards expected of nurses, and it is my responsibility to make sure nurses live by the rules. This is the problem I have with native girls. Their educational qualifications do not meet the standard required of a nurse. Making it difficult for them grasping the concepts of hygiene, and unreliable in taking care of sick patients.”

“This is not the only time Esther has taken care of the sick-, she has been doing that with her grandmother in the village. And this is not the first time you have been mean to her. Are the girls getting the right training to-?”

“This is a hospital and not some witch doctor’s shrine,” snapped the head nurse. “I am certainly not going to take lessons from a native Black man. I am in charge here. If you don’t like the way I run the place, you have one option,” she said.

“Which is-?”

“Take your daughter out of here---.”

“So, you have these girls under your thumb?” Thomas felt sorry for his daughter. It was true, the head nurse tormented people who were different. She believed she belonged to a superior class that could rule the world. He left the office dejected and feeling guilty.

Continuing on their way to church Thomas was humming his favourite hymn, “This world is not my home”- the hymn that never left his lips whenever he felt the weight of colonialism with its heavy handedness. They passed the dambo where cattle were pasturing.

“So, you don’t believe this world is your home?”

“Do you?” Swatting at the air as if to remove obstacles. “I cannot just shake off my feelings towards the White sisters, just as they do not shake off their attitude towards our girls. This nonsense of not allowing Black girls to carry out certain procedures aside from cleaning the wards: they do not have what it takes to be a nurse.”

“How do you know all this? And what does it take-?”

In a sharp tone, he pointed, “Go and ask them,” His anger stemming from his inability to help and protect his family from what he felt was a broken system.

He spoke in a matter-of-factly, and reminded his wife what frustrations can do if left unchecked, like it did back in 1915, when the Reverend John Chilembwe led an uprising. It was bloody that a few Europeans and some natives including the reverend were killed. Though that only caused Britain to radically tighten its grip on the land.

Miriam saw visible tension in her husband’s muscles, and she kept quiet.

Thomas spat out by the roadside as they walked on the dusty path weaving between cornfields and the tiny mud huts with straw thatched roofs that dotted the village. The majority were complacent in a cycle of poverty.

“I expected things to be different, especially for our children; but it seems there’s no change in sight and life is hard,” he sighed. “I keep asking myself why do I keep coming to church -? Is there a God or we are all deluding ourselves?” As the words swam round and round in his head, he struggled to see the connection between Christianity’s teachings that insisted on the equality of all people in the eyes of God and the atrocities he saw. The church’s failure to define the relationship between the missionaries and the indigenous of the land was causing him lose his zeal.


Esther arrived at the hospital in her khaki dress with a red trim apron, a few minutes after her shift started. But as she approached the office, she felt a sense of relief when she saw Mrs Greene, another nurse with her sandy hair glinting golden in the October sun, go in just before her. Sister Dwyer nodded as the two women exchanged greetings

“I’m late, am I?” Mrs Greene asked.

“No. Not at all,” they looked at each other and smiled. “How did the christening go?”

“Oh, very well. Thank you for the extra day off. It was very helpful. I managed to get things done. It was kind of you, thank you,” walking briskly along the corridor, and leaving the head nurse and Esther gazing after her.

The sister’s eyes hardened the moment Esther walked in. “Again!” she said, in a sharp voice -and glancing at her watch. “What time were you meant to be here? Unbelievable!” she snorted. Esther’s heart beat uncomfortably. She stood quite still. It was sickening

Esther forced herself to sound normal. “I…, I was helping some relatives looking for directions to -----,” she tried to explain. But the sister with a swelled head, in her long dark grey dress, shoulders squared, dismissed Esther’s explanation. Standing with both hands on her hips, Sister’s face was as stiff as her starched apron, and held Esther with a steady gaze.

Esther felt knots begin to tighten in her stomach, she looked up in surprise as the sister ordered her to get ready the dressing trolley. “Dr Robison will be here any minute.” Even with her tightly high knot hidden under her cap as if protecting her hair from catching any unwanted pathogens, Esther still felt an air of authority palpable about sister. She swallowed hard, her mouth slightly open and colour fast draining from her face. She left the office feeling flustered. She could do with something to take her mind off what had happened.

She placed the neatly wrapped sterile trays on it, towels on the top, after she’d cleaned the trolley with a cloth bathed in methylated spirit. A happy, genial, tall and broad-shouldered doctor, with a stethoscope over his shoulder, entered the office as Esther pushed the trolley to the theatre.

Jack Robinson, a medical missionary at the Mulanje Mission Hospital since 1953, placed his stethoscope on the table and hung his white coat on a hook behind the door.

Miriam wanted to persuade her daughter to withdrawal from training on account that she was mistreated. Up until now, her prospective of everything was different. She felt that big dark, heavy cloud of regret inside. It was one of the most painful, at least for her. And what made it so painful was that there was nothing that she could have done to change her life. It was something she was unlikely to be able to do much about. Probably all this is a fallacy, a far-fetched dream. The relations between the missionaries and the natives had grown so strained. They did not mix much. She now realised that even embracing the White man’s faith meant nothing. The tie wasn’t so strong as to bring the natives and the settlers closer. But the need to give her girls the best, a future different to hers, --although she got little sympathy from her husband, --restrained her. It didn’t take years before regret showed up. She felt like she had been smacked right in her heart

Thomas blamed his wife for encouraging their daughter to study nursing, even though Esther’s motivation came from her time spent with her grandmother, a traditional midwife. She saw how she helped mothers during labour and delivery and, she was intrigued. So, when she joined the mission hospital to train as a nurse it was no surprise. Since she was a young girl, Esther had dreamt of being able to move away from village life, and nursing seemed to have opened her up to more adventure. Until that moment, Miriam had believed that she had opened the window so the light could come in. Now she wasn’t sure.

“I know it’s tough, but I am not going to stand in her way. Look at me! What is there for me as a woman? When I married you, I lost my right to land. Now my brother has ownership-----“ her posture stiffened as she reiterated.

“Then you shouldn’t be complaining. Let her enjoy the adventure. And why would you want to own land as a married woman?’

“That is why I wanted our daughters to be educated, so they could have a voice,” drawing herself up to full height.

And it wasn’t the father alone that was concerned. Esther as she was studying, it meant she could not ascribe to the cultural pattern to be married by a certain age. But to see Sophie, the eldest at nineteen and still not married, Vincent, the uncle and the custodian of his clan’s traditions, felt something wasn’t right.

“I hope you will never live to regret the decision to educate the girls,” he warned his sister when it seemed unlikely if Sophie would ever embrace marriage. Colonialism had alienated the natives from their culture and traditions. And Vincent was trying to prevent this erosion sweeping away his nieces from long held traditions, and embracing foreign cultures as they mixed with different people through their education. And seeing how young girls with biracial children struggled to fend their families when they were abandoned by their white or Asian fathers who worked in the country and left, he didn’t want the same for his nieces. He wanted local men who understood the traditions to marry Thomas’ girls. No matter the winds of change blowing across the nation, Vincent was still caught in the abyss of his culture.

“I’ve always imagined my girls living a comfortable life,” reiterated the sister. “Mine has been marred by cultural barriers. And I don’t want that for my daughters. I want their lives like a river to flow.” Despite cultural changes sweeping the traditions, Miriam’s life still reflected that of her ancestors. Everything was stagnant or moved at a slower pace if it ever did. Although her two girls were different, there was one chord binding the Bismarck girls. They both wanted, influenced by their mother, to change direction in their lives. That was the motivation for Miriam wanting her daughters educated, so they could be able to interpret and change their world she was trapped in.

Darkness gathered in Vincent’s eyes. If looks could kill, Vincent would have killed his sister if she wasn’t blood. He couldn’t hide his disappointment having promised would be suitors for his nieces. Now he was at a loss.